Student-Centered Conversations

Trevor Sargent, Tottori University


  • Key Words: Speaking, Student-centered learning
  • Learner English Level: Intermediate to Advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: Junior high school to adult
  • Preparation Time: About an hour
  • Activity Time: One 90-minute class

What started out as a one-shot experiment with a fluency exercise soon grew into the basis for a false beginner's conversation class sans textbook. The students were second year EFL students at a women's junior college, and we met for the typical 90 minutes, once a week for about 15 weeks per semester. They were also taking many other English courses focusing on other skills. In this class I took the approach that apart from some guidance and correction, my role was not so much to teach them language as to manage their practicing of conversations in English with what they already "knew." Essentially, students provided the content, while the teacher guided and adapted much of the language that was actually used between students. At the end of the course, most students expressed how much they enjoyed the class and encouraged me to use the same format with next year's class.

Preparation (For one ninety minute class)

Solicit a suitable topic from the students the week before it will be used in class, and prepare a questionnaire of between 15 and 20 items that approach the topic in a variety of ways, using different question styles. For example, if the topic is "Music," items can be:

  1. Do you like music? (yes/no question)
    a. yes b. no
  2. How much do you like music? (multiple choicequestion)
    a. very much b. quite a lot
  3. c. a little d. not much at all
  4. My favorite kind of music is (multiple choice with to option)
    a. hard rock b. rock c. pop d. classical e. _______________
  5. What is the name of a musician you are now listening to the most? _________________________________
    (Short information questions)


Introduce the topic for the day and then do some kind of warm-up activity about the topic to get them thinking about it, and to activate their passive knowledge of related English vocabulary. For example, ask every student to say the first word they think of when they hear the topic; or ask them to talk together in twos or threes for one minute and try to find three things they have in common regarding the topic, or three things that are different for each member of the group. Then elicit and write these words on the board for the benefit of the whole class. Many of these words find their way into the lesson.


Give each student a copy of the questionnaire to answer in writing on their own, and circulate to help with any difficulties. It can be sometimes helpful to trouble-shoot the questionnaire with the whole class for vocabulary, etc. before they start.


1. When they have finished, have them work in groups (between 4 and 6 groups) and choose one question they would most like to ask others. Sometimes this requires restructuring a statement into a question. Elicit the 4 to 6 items and put them on the board (making necessary modifications and explaining why). Have the students cover their questionnaires and then practice asking the items you have on the board. One simple way of doing this is to progressively replace words with blanks as the class produces the question in groups or pairs, or individually, leaving just enough information on the board to identify the question. (____ is ___ favorite ___ __ m_____? for "What is your favorite kind of music?"

2. Have students work in pairs and interview each other using these questions. Have them write down in note form their partner's answers. Next, they change partners and report the information to their new partner. This can be arranged by erasing the former question outlines and writing on the board, "I just spoke to _______ and he/she said _______" Students are required to convert their notes and the previous questions into reported English. (This may take a while for students to grasp and do, depending on their ability and previous experience.)


Working in pairs or small groups, have students write down some new question about the topic that wasn't on the questionnaire, and that they would like to ask each other. The teacher should circulate and assist or offer guidance in developing these questions. Finally the teacher elicits the questions and writes them on the board. Next, the students form new groups of 3 to 5 members. The size of each group should equal the number of questions. The groups should arrange their seating so that one student is facing the board and all others are facing away from the board. The student facing the board asks the first question on the board and then in turn the others give their answers. Students with their backs to the board may not turn around and look, but only listen to the student in front of them. If they don't understand, they should ask for repetition/clarification etc. until they do understand. The student who asked the question is last to offer the group his or her own answer and then exchanges seats with the next student who asks the next question in the same manner and so on until all questions have been asked and answered.


This basic format can be embellished in any number of ways. For example the teacher can survey the class on some of the questionnaire items. The teacher can offer his or her own ideas and have students work in pairs or groups to quiz the teacher about this. The interviews can be made into fluency exercises where they must interview different students, for progressively shorter periods of time. Pairs and groups can interview other pairs/groups and report the results.

Different topics lend themselves to different treatments too. When talking about life after graduation, students can work with the distinction between "will" and "going to." When talking about experiences such as holiday travel, polls can be taken and reported by students themselves while working with the appropriate present perfect forms, and distinguishing it from the simple past. Basically, any of the notions and functions that traditional texts deal with can be treated in the same way, but based on topics and items that students have chosen.

For an Entire Course

If this is to be adopted for an entire course, topics can be democratically generated, selected, and assigned. Pairs and groups can develop their own questionnaires based on the original model, which can be peer reviewed and corrected before the teacher finally checks and copies them for class. Here the teacher need not only make corrections, but can also make changes to the style and degree of complexity to make it more appropriate to the particular class. The steps above can be made progressively more streamlined to foster fluency and provide more time for less structured activities as students become more familiar with the approach and experience freer conversations.