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Discussion-Based ESL Lessons

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Discussion-Based ESL Lessons

It can be quite difficult to teach discussion-based lessons. Not only must the teacher carefully consider the material for the lesson, but must also think about language to teach, talk time, and activities. What if students aren't interested in the material, for example? Or the material is too difficult? Or the students have a contradictory opinion to what is deemed correct?

What follows is some advice for discussion-based lessons to maximize meaning-focused output with your students.

When selecting material, consider...

1: Is the material interesting and relevant to the students?
You should always first consider the students, rather than simply select material that either proves interesting to you or material that you want to discuss. For example, you may be interested in the US Presidential election, but the students may not be. What's more, it's not your responsibility to tell the students they should be interested because it is an important and current topic. Focus on material that introduces and allows the practice of language that can be reused elsewhere, such as vocabulary, phrases, discourse markers, the structuring of ideas, etc.

2: Is the language needed to discuss the material accessible to the students? Do the students need pre-existing knowledge on the topic?
You should also consider what language will be needed to successfully talk about the topic. If students are not of a sufficient enough level to talk about the material, then both the teacher and the students will feel frustrated. Again, to refer back to the US election, if students don't have the right vocabulary or background knowledge to talk about the topic, the level of conversation will tend to be simple and shallow. Students will not be able to improve accuracy or fluency skills.

3: Is the material controversial?
Although there may be instances where a controversial topic is appropriate for a lesson, generally consider that the students in each class often represent a wide range of backgrounds, interests, and beliefs. If you select controversial material to discuss, you risk angering, frustrating, or alienating some of the students. However, the purpose of a lesson is to practice English and not have one's beliefs attacked or marginalized. Students should feel positive about the learning experience, and this means the whole learning experience. In other words, they walk into a class feeling positive, and they also walk out of the class with the same positive feeling.

When teaching discussed-based lessons, consider...

1: Are you trying to change or influence the opinion's of the students?
The main purpose of a lesson is for students to practice their accuracy and fluency skills. Whether they hold contrary opinions to you or societal norms should matter, and the lesson should not force students to justify their opinions because you disagree. Even advanced-level students cannot argue as fluently as a native speaker of English. If your objective is to get students to hold their ground in a discussion with a native speaker, then there are alternative and more effective means to do so.

2: Are you participating in the discussion?
Any class should have students speaking 70%-80% of the time. As a teacher, you should not need to interject your opinion, no matter how strongly you feel about the topic. Your opinion doesn't help the students focus on grammar, vocabulary, structure, or fluency. Even in a private lesson, where you will need to speak more, the point of any task with your participation should be as a means to improve grammar, vocabulary, structure, or fluency. In short, your opinion has little relevancy for students to achieve improved language skills.

3: Are the students getting frustrated, angry, or otherwise upset?
As mentioned earlier, the students represent a diverse range of backgrounds, interests, and life experiences. If you have a multi-national class, then cultural differences are added to the mix of differences. If the topic or discussion is visibly upsetting some students, then you should change the topic or refocus the conversation. No student wants to feel attacked or marginalized in what should be a supportive and collaborative learning environment.


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