Small talk is something many EFL students have problems with. Often they’re shy when speaking English so their minds go blank when they meet a native English speaker and are expected to speak. Small talk however can be taught and, every time I have a new class of adult EFL students, I always teach a class on small talk. Teaching small talk doesn’t have to be boring – you can make it fun and here’s how.
Expected Learning Outcome – Students will be able to hold a short conversation and understand what subjects are appropriate to talk about for small talk.
Materials and Resources – Whiteboard markers, whiteboard
For many EFL students, if they meet a Westerner, they don’t even know how to start a conversation. For many Westerners, we strike up conversations in places like elevators and lines at the bank. For other cultures, that’s not always appropriate so, when the students are expected to do this with Westerners, they don’t know how.
Write 5 headings on the white board – ‘Small talk about the weather’, ‘Small talk about current events’, ‘Small talk at a social event’, ‘Small talk in the office’ and ‘Small talk standing in line’. Then ask the students to brainstorm what conversation starters they think might be appropriate to use in each situation. Most of them will give you opening lines that are either not polite (EFL students don’t always understand what language makes something polite in English) or not appropriate. When they do, use what they’ve given you to come up with conversation starters that are appropriate. At the end of the brainstorming session, you should have a list of conversation starters such as:
Small Talk about the Weather: Hot enough for you? Beautiful day, isn’t it? It looks like it’s going to rain. It couldn’t possibly be a nicer day, could it?
Small Talk about Current Events: Did you hear about what happened in China? What do you think about the economic crisis? Have you seen the news today? How about those Cubs? (sports-style topics)
Small Talk at a Social Event: This is a nice restaurant, huh? That dress you’re wearing is beautiful, do you mind if I ask where you bought it? (should only be said by women to women, and not by a man to a woman as it could be interpreted as sleazy), Are you having fun? How do you know the host?
Small Talk in the Office: How’s it going? Had a busy week? Looking forward to the weekend? What do you think of the new accounting/computer system? Working hard?
Small Talk Standing in Line – It looks like we’re going to be here for a while, doesn’t it? I always choose the wrong line? You’ve got your hands full (if someone has a lot of kids with him/her or is carrying a lot of groceries). Was it this busy the last time you came here?
Step Two: Ask for a volunteer from the class (usually two or three more pro-active students will raise their hands) and then run a quick small talk dialogue in front of the class, with you being the person who starts the conversation and the student being the person who answers. You should be able to have a conversation of at least four to six exchanges with most intermediate and upper level EFL or ESL students.
Step Three: Put students into pairs, and give them 10 minutes to create a quick small talk conversation using some of the conversation starters they’ve come up with. Tell them there have to be at least 8 exchanges (ie: each student has to say at least 4 things). After 10 minutes, ask each pair to come up in front of the class and perform their conversation. Correct any mistakes they make and ask other students if they would improve on anything each pair says.
Step Four: If you assign homework, ask each student to try to find a situation with a native English speaker during the next week where they have a short small talk conversation and then report back to the class the following week on what happened.
Evaluation/Assessment: 1. participation in class, 2. students’ understanding of vocabulary and material in class, 3. behavior and attention in class, 4. how they work in pairs.
This is a good conversation lesson plan for ESL students and EFL students. You can make it easier or more difficult for different levels, and they’ll enjoy creating conversations. Many of my students also enjoy the homework assignment where they actually have to go out and find native English speakers to talk to!