ESL Conversation Club Tips
Last Modified: 21 March 2012
- The conversation group really needs to meet at least 1x/wk (even better, 2x/wk). Repetition is the key to success. Many times, the conversation group is the only time during the week that participants have a chance to speak English.
- Conversation groups are needed in libraries, because this skill is not adequately covered in traditional ESOL classes offered by schools or literacy programs. Most traditional classes emphasize reading, writing, and grammar (PML started our group, because patrons were expressing the need to practice speaking).
- Each session might run between 1 1/2 -2 hours.
- Having the same facilitator each session lends continuity to the learning experience.
- Depending on your population, offer either day or evening sessions (or both!) We have had participants from Turkey, China, Thailand, Ukraine, and Korea, but the overwhelming majority of people are from Central and South America. It is not necessary for the facilitator to speak Spanish or any language other than English. The group is made up of people with diverse backgrounds, from farm workers with little education to those who were physicians, lawyers, accountants, engineers in their countries. Our group kind of self-morphed into a high beginner-high intermediate level group. Those at the very beginning and very advanced levels tend to seek other alternatives. (Ideally, if the group had 2 facilitators, each facilitator could handle a separate level. Or even better, offer two different levels of groups; ie., 1 session for high beginners and low intermediate and 1 session for high intermediate and advanced.)
- Our group is limited to adults (18 years and older). The child care piece is difficult and definitely limits the potential adult participation. Ideally, conversation group for adults could take place in one room (or area of a large room), and children too young to be left on their own in children's room could be involved in an activity in another part of the room. This, of course, requires additional staffing and space....We haven't found a good solution yet.
- Sessions can be very structured or more informal. For example, some libraries require registration, "mandatory" attendance, and follow a lesson plan/curriculum throughout the "semester". Topics are specific, ie., Week 1: Small Talk and Conversation, Week 2: Body Language, Week 3: Health and Nutrition. Other libraries (including PML) have a much more informal group. Registration is not required, attendance is on a drop-in basis, content is both free-flowing and structured. Of course, this can make things much more challenging for the facilitator. Because you don't know from week to week who will be attending (both the number of people and their skill levels), it makes sense to prepare several "activities" each week and be ready to be flexible. Sometimes the group speaks for an entire hour or more in a completely spontaneous way, without following an outline. Other weeks, I'm really glad to have a detailed "lesson" plan. When this is needed, here are some of the things we do:
- Icebreaker/Mingling (participants walk around the room asking pre-determined questions to others; sometimes the exercise takes the form of a survey, and individuals then report back to the entire group).
- Our group participation varies from week to week; anywhere from 2 to 14 participants. We have a core group of 6. Depending on the size of the group, we either remain in 1 large group (if 6 people or less) or break up into smaller groups (if 6 or more). I like to focus on topics of current interest such as immigration reform, racial conflicts in the schools, holiday shopping, winning the lottery. We also do role playing (job interviews, telephone conversations), and use the monthly newspaper Easy English News to read/discuss current events on a national level (U.S. elections, etc). Sometimes we cover frequently-heard idioms, and jokes are also a big hit.
- Participants are encouraged to bring in topics they wish to discuss or have questions about. In terms of correction - if the person asks for correction, I'll do so, or I will just do so in an unobtrusive way (Patron: I go to the movies last night. Facilitator: Oh, you went to the movies last night? How was it?). I do have a whiteboard which comes in handy, and I've also used a cd player on occasion (playing the U.S. National Anthem in English- this during the whole debate last year about the Spanish version of same).
- In terms of promoting the group, we have a link on our homepage, flyers and posters throughout the library, blurbs in the local English and Spanish newspapers. I've sent flyers to the local churches, Chambers of Commerce, adult education classes, all ESOL classes in the elementary, middle and high schools, English and Spanish businesses, BOCES, literacy tutors etc... Despite all of this, word of mouth remains the most effective means.