Little Box of Beginner Questions – Part 1 – How to make a and use conversation box for your ESL class

Create a Beginner speaking box for lower-level ESL students

Every week or so, I have some variation of the following conversation with a different teacher:

Other Teacher: Which level are you teaching?
Me: Beginners.
Other teacher: That’s hard! You need so much patience.
Me: Yeah, that’s true.
Other teacher: I prefer teaching the higher levels because I like having conversations in class. You can’t really do that with beginners.
Me: Um…Well, that part’s not so true.

I love teaching the lower levels! I think it’s a misconception that beginner language learners can’t have good conversations. I mean, obviously, absolute beginners won’t be discussing politics on day one, but after a few weeks, my motivated adult students can say a lot more than, “Hello, my name is…”

I have a Brazilian student, for example, who often talks about violence in his hometown and starts conversations with classmates about safety in their countries. Another student from Japan is fascinated by trash cans in America and loves to talk about littering, recycling, and garbage removal around the world. These aren’t light topics, and of course the students make grammatical mistakes and need assistance with vocabulary, but with lots of body language and giggling, they can usually get their points across. I really think that once they get settled into the class and get comfortable in their environment, beginners like to talk as much as anyone else. 

So if you’ve been assigned to teach a beginner class, and you’re feeling kinda jittery: Don’t worry! Your babies will be chatting about all kinds of important things soon. Beginners don’t stay beginners forever, and when they start talking, you can really see the effects of your teaching.

The Little Box of Questions

The little box is my go-to tool for prompting students of all levels to talk. I fill it with assorted questions on a variety of random topics and give students time to chat. You can use it in whole-class activities, or split students into smaller groups  and give them time to talk spontaneously in small groups.

How to Use Your Little Box:

You never know when a box full of random questions will come in handy. Here are a few suggestions for how and when to use it:

  • Monday morning ice-breaker or Friday afternoon cool-down: Start and end the week with a little chit-chat.
  • The “Speak for ____ seconds” strategy (I posted about that here: Prep-Free Speaking Activities)
  • Small group fluency practice – Students take turns selecting and either answering or asking questions to their groups. (You might need more than one box to make this work smoothly in larger classes).
  • Random class survey – Students choose one question, ask it to as many students in the class as possible, and write down what they learned.
  • Random journaling prompt – Students choose a random question and write a journal entry about it.
  • Practice for the speaking section of the TOEFL (This one isn’t for your beginners, obviously, but it’s a good adaptation for Intermediate and Advanced students).
  • A one-to-one tutoring activity – Try it out when you have an individual student, and you want to step away from the book.
  • Allow small groups to use it independently when they finish an assignment early.

Can you think of any other ways to use a box? I’d love to hear ideas from other teachers. Please leave your comments and questions in the box below.

In my next post, I’m going to be sharing my list of beginner-friendly questions to fill your box with, so check back soon!

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