A few discussion activities for English language students
What discussion activities work in class? Tekhnologic, winner of the British Council’s TeachingEnglish blog award, shares a few ideas in one of our top five articles of all time, illustrated by artist Jamie Johnson.
A discussion can bring out your students’ interests and motivate them; it’s a chance for them to talk about the things they really care about. Giving and justifying opinions in English can also bring students a sense of accomplishment, as they are using the language to express complex ideas.
Discussion activities encourage critical thinking, and are therefore excellent preparation for speaking tests, such as IELTS or TOEFL, which partly examine the ability to express and justify opinions in English.
Perhaps most importantly, discussion activities can be great fun for students.
Preparing for discussion classes
The first thing you need to be aware of is the language ability of your students and how much they know about the topic under discussion. This is important if you want to encourage real, free-flowing conversation. Get it wrong and students can get bored or, worse, feel intimidated and lose confidence.
When setting discussion questions, make sure the language and topic aren’t too demanding. Don’t try to begin a discussion about global economic theory with elementary-level students.
You need to grade the language of the questions to suit the level of your students, and check they understand any complex vocabulary or grammar in advance.
Find out what topics interest your students and get them to research the topic before the lesson.
Be careful with topics that may lead to embarrassment or offense. It’s probably a good idea to steer clear of politics, religion and sex.
How much preparation you need to do before class depends on the kind of discussion taking place, and the needs of the students. An unplugged approach, which lets students direct the lesson content, might suit a more confident group of learners.
Some learners prefer a more structured discussion, in which case you may need to work out a plan for who will be talking, for how long, etc. By structuring the discussion and rotating roles, all students get to speak. This can help prevent some students dominating the discussion and others getting left out.
Where to find discussion topics
Discussion activities often begin with questions. A good place to start is iteslj.org, which has a large selection of topics, each with a long list of questions.
Tefltunes.com provides songs that can be used to introduce a discussion topic and to look at it through the song’s lyrics. If you prefer your discussion topics to be current affairs, check out Breaking News English for the latest articles.
Rewordify takes a text and simplifies the language so that it is easier to read or understand. Intermediate students may like this site because it can help them increase their vocabulary and improve their reading comprehension.
Alternatively, you can encourage the students to think of their own topics. You could even get them to work in groups to create questions for other groups to discuss.
Activities that help students organise their ideas
Some activities are based on helping students organise their ideas. Producing mind maps in class can act as prompts to keep the discussion going, and help students expand on the topic and order their ideas.
Clines are useful ways for learners to order information on a scale. For example, you might have ‘agree strongly’ at one end and ‘disagree strongly’ at the other. There is an activity called ‘Favourites’ in Five-Minute Activities that uses a cline in this way. You have five choices: A, B, C, D, E. Each choice represents a sentence or an opinion. The students ask their partner which they agree with the most, which they like least, and order their choices on a cline for comparison.
If students need help structuring their ideas, try dividing the teaching board into quarters. Svetlana Kandybovich wrote an article about encouraging better speaking by making a graphical representation of the discussion. The central topic was written in a circle in the middle of the board, and then the board was divided into quarters. Each quarter could then represent a different point and the reasons behind it.
Activities that help students with their language
Comparing pictures is a great activity and it can generate a lot of discussion and emergent language (i.e., the language that the students produce as they are talking). The activity is simple. Take two connected images and put them side by side. One example I have used before is the city versus the countryside.
Picture activities are ideal for practising the language of comparison but can throw up other language and themes which can be surprising. A conversation comparing the city and the countryside can easily branch off into a discussion about the environment or quality of life.
The reason pictures work so well for this activity is that they provide a visual cue for the questions. ELTpics is a large collection of images that fall under the Creative Commons copyright licence and is a fantastic source for any teacher.
Blocking activities are great for practising modals (should, could, must, etc.) and for giving advice. I first came across this type of activity in Drama and Improvisation by Ken Wilson. The idea is for students to write down a statement or several statements on a piece of paper, for example ‘I want to hang out with my friends’. They then mingle and read their statement(s) to a partner. Their partner blocks the statement with a negative and gives a reason why. I usually encourage students to cross their arms to form an X and to shout their negative (You can’t!). That usually results in a few laughs. The students now have enough information for a ‘problem’ that they need to find a solution to. This is where the discussion element comes in and students can practice modals.
This kind of activity is very useful for talking about possibilities (could), giving advice (should) or talking about personal obligations (have to, must) – language that is very useful when it comes to discussing current affairs and serious issues.
Activities that help students with fluency
Fluency activities are ideal for building confidence and encouraging students to speak more in class.
Tic-tac-toe (or noughts and crosses) is an old classroom favourite, and it can be used to break down discussion topics into smaller questions that students have to answer to claim a square. However, these smaller questions are really prompts that students can use to keep a discussion going. Check my blog post on tic-tac-toe for more details about setting this up.
A similar activity is an adaptation of the Ladder Game. Students answer questions to climb the rungs of a ladder, but the time limit increases with each rung. This kind of activity encourages students to beat their personal best. Gradually, students learn to talk for longer and longer.
There is another activity that builds students’ confidence by increasing time increments. It’s called Cross the River. The general idea of the activity is that students have to cross a river by using stepping stones.
This article is one of our top five most-read of all time.
The author of Tekhnologic has been teaching English since 2011 and has been working in Japan since 2012. In 2014, Tekhnologic started their blog to share ways of using PowerPoint and MS Office in the classroom. Since then, Tekhnologic has received over 1,000,000 views, with more than 278,000 templates and materials downloads.
Jamie Johnson is an artist and illustrator based in Glasgow, Scotland. He works in painting, collage, drawing and various digital media techniques. Jamie has exhibited his work in galleries around the UK, Europe and North America, most recently as a solo show at Chopping Block Gallery in London. He continues to work with a wide variety of clients as an illustrator and designer, alongside a personal interest in community-based projects.