Building fluency through timed conversations and follow-up questions

John W. Roberts, Aichi University

Quick guide

  • Keywords: Timed conversations, follow-up questions, silence
  • Learner English level: False-beginner and up
  • Learner maturity: High school to adult
  • Preparation time: 10 minutes
  • Activity time: Up to 60 minutes
  • Materials: Conversation sheet, conversation topic, watch/clock/timer 

In the Japanese EFL classroom, particularly high school and university, false beginner conversation classes often focus on relearning grammar already covered during secondary education in preparation for entrance exams. These courses tend to focus on task-based learning where grammar is reintroduced and students practice the grammar by “interviewing” their classmates. The risk to this grammar-drilling “interview task” is that students begin to parrot the grammar, stray from actively listening to their partner(s), and lose social interconnectedness with peers. To increase social and grammatical mindfulness, a content-based approach in the form of timed conversations stressing follow-up questions and minimalizing silence helps students not only utilize the reviewed grammar but also seek out additional grammar in order to learn more about their partner(s). Also, this format allows students to exercise more natural body language and emotions in relation to the context of the conversations, which may otherwise be lost in a task-based approach.  


Step 1: Create a conversation sheet, focusing on the different steps of conversation (See Appendix).  


Step 1: Take time to review the steps in class. My particular emphasis is on informal conversational English, though one could use or combine formal English as well. Be sure to stress the importance of follow-up questions in Worksheet Steps 2, 3, and 4. 

Step 2: Allow students to practice the individual steps in pairs so as to get used to the expressions and the overall function of the steps. 

Step 3: Provide time for practice conversations. This activity works well in the first few weeks of class. This practice makes a good additional icebreaker, and I use Introductions as the main topic (see Step 3 of Appendix) for these practice runs with students’ new group members or surrounding classmates for two or three 2-minute conversations. Reiterate the goal of minimizing silence by asking follow-up questions to partners.  

Step 4: Have students stand up and mingle with classmates from other groups. Increase the time to 3 minutes. Set a new topic such as sports, hometown, restaurants, etc.  

Step 5: Surprise test. After the first round of 3-minute conversations, pick a random pair and quiz one of the partners in front of everyone. Ask him or her to report what s/he learned about their partner. After the student’s report, ask him or her additional questions (usually 3 or 4) in relation to the partner. Most students will have had difficulty with the follow-up questions because they are not sure how or what to ask. This quiz demonstrates to all how to ask deeper follow-up questions, and encourages the next round of partners to be more active in their listening and follow-up questions. 

Step 6: Repeat Steps 4 and 5 as needed. Continue to stress the importance of follow-up questions. As you go through a few rounds of conversations, encourage the class to refrain from Japanese and silence as you come across it.   


For this lesson, I usually build the class up to a 5-minute conversation as their final challenge for the day. This format is the basis for all future conversations in the class and eventually they will engage in 10-minute conversations. As you increase time, increasing conversation group sizes to between three and five students can be beneficial. Students are able to socialize with more people at once, which can create a livelier, less stressful conversation for the individual student.


Such an approach as this increases camaraderie in the classroom, provides an environment for active socialization in the second language, and promotes other communication skills such as active listening and appropriate body language and gestures to the conversation context. By timing the conversations, students become goal-oriented as they try to keep the conversation moving and refrain from going off on tangents in Japanese, thus thinking deeper and more abstractly on the conversation topic in English.


The appendix is available below.