Discussion with David Kehe on Teaching Learner-Centered Conversation

Welcome, David Kehe!

I am delighted to welcome you back to our community to lead a discussion this week on a learner-centered approach to teaching conversation skills. 

We are looking forward to learning from you about supporting English learners to enhance their speaking and listening skills. Also, I know you plan to share many practical instructional tools for teaching conversation.  

Members, you are invited to tell us about your experiences teaching conversation skills. Please feel free to pose any questions you may have for David, as well.

Thank you so much for joining us, David!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller
Moderator, LINCS English Language Acquisition Community of Practice

David Kehe's Bio:

David Kehe has been teaching adult English learners and coordinating programs, doing teacher training and mentoring for over 35 years at colleges and universities in four countries including in Africa with the Peace Corps. He has co-authored nine textbooks, including the award-winning Conversation Strategies. He has an MAT from The School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont.  Currently, he is faculty emeritus at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington.

David has taught many international students but has also worked with many learners who are immigrants and refugees attending ESL classes at the community college.

(Some members may want to check out our earlier conversation with David focused on teaching grammar. You can find that 2018 discussion here.)



To get us started, David, I want to acknowledge that I have learned so much from you about the importance of teaching what you call "conversation strategies." Could you please explain what conversation strategies are and why you believe they are so important for us to teach?

Cheers, Susan

First, I want to thank you for inviting me to this discussion, Susan. I’ve been looking forward to it. Conversation strategies are techniques that speakers/listeners can use to engage with others and have meaningful interactions. I remember after doing a presentation at a conference on two strategies, rejoinders and follow-up questions, one of the attendees, an American teacher, told me, “Wow! My in-laws sure could benefit from learning to use these.” We can see good interlocutors using these all the time. And if our students learn to use them, they will open up more opportunities to participate in conversations with others. Also, they’ll be able to show the other person that they understood them and that they are interested in what they had said. In addition, they’ll have strategies that they can use to initiate conversations with someone, keep it going naturally and get deeper into it. Furthermore, they’ll have techniques that they can use to control the level of discourse. In other words, they’ll be able to let their interlocutor know if they are speaking too fast or using vocabulary or slang that is above the learner’s level.

Another way to look at conversation strategies is that they are tools that students can use to feel visible and to be heard.

In the documentary about Michelle Obama, Becoming, Michelle is asked about feeling invisible. This made me think more about how many of our immigrant and refugee students can feel invisible in classes, on campus and in society, and how we can help them.

Often in society, these students feel invisible in that nobody says “Hello” or makes eye contact with them or listens to them. In our classrooms, they are the ones who are not greeted by others, are looked past, and excluded by others who start talking to more familiar friends. These are the ones overlooked when their classmates are told to find a partner for an activity, or who sit silently seemingly unnoticed in group discussions.

In Becoming, Michele Obama says, “We can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen…. You’ve got to find the tools within yourself to feel visible, and to be heard, and to use your voice.” And we can provide our students with those tools by teaching them conversation strategies.  

Dear Group: One of the things that I have noticed when I taught Computers on a face to face basis, was that my non-English students were able to use Google translate to understand the directions and then used that as their guide when they went on to work on spreadsheets and slides. 

Having computer courses, where a majority of the students are not digital natives was a great way to have a level playing field.

Google translate can be a wonderful resource. Thanks for sharing how this tool can support English learners to enhance their digital literacy skills as well as their English, Rachel.

Cheers, Susan

Thanks for this, David. You mentioned conversation strategies such as 'rejoinders' and follow-up questions in your response. I think teachers are familiar with follow-up questions, but maybe not everyone knows what rejoinders are. Could you elaborate?

Cheers, Susan

Sure. Rejoinders are words or expressions that we say after someone has said a sentence or two to us.  For example,

A: My doctor told me that I’m in perfect heath!
B: (Rejoinder) That’s great!
A: You might want to take a coat. It’s supposed to get chilly today.
B: (Rejoinder) OK.

They serve several purposes: They show that …

• we are listening and that we understood (“I see”),
• we are interested (“Oh, yeah?),
• we are surprised (“Really!),
• we are happy (“Wonderful!”),
• we feel sympathy (“That’s too bad.”)


Victoria, thanks for considering how to implement the practice of rejoinders.  I like your idea of keeping it simple and natural.  An idea you spurred, although it's more "formal" is to set up a party/meet and greet scenario in class where students can practice giving a compliment or small talk opener (weather, cultural event reference, etc.) that would set up a rejoinder response from their partner.  (Ex. A:  It sure has been cold lately.  B:  For sure!  And it's going to be colder this weekend.   Or A:  I like your sweater!  B:  Really?  Wow!  I thought this was an ugly sweater party!)  

Dear Group: This is a fantastic way of getting everyone back in the swing of things after the holidays. Just little things such as weather, what they might have done, or what foods were served during the holiday season is a simple way to re-introduce the skills without having it seem like a task.


 Learner-centered strategies... I have used so many of David Kehe's Pro Lingua resources since becoming an ELL instructor, and am always amazed at the wonderful and practical ways he encourages.  For me the challenges in this discussion topic are: 1)  I myself am a shy person, and find it hard to initiate discussions even in the friendliest of climates; 2) I find online interaction to be a huge challenge in teaching beginner conversation strategies.  Can David point us to any particularly useful techniques to engage low-level learners -- and employ break-out rooms in the process -- since the pandemic has forced so many of us instructors to remain online?

Breakout rooms are problematic for my ESL class because I never know who will show up. The challenge for me has been defining cultural boundaries. How can you tell if a student sends you the appropriate or inappropriate "I love you" message in a chat? I'm aware that this expression is used freely or sparingly depending on a student's culture. What is the best way to decide how the student intends the message, or should a teacher go with the flow? 

Hi Victoria, You are posing a challenging question. I agree that it is difficult for a teacher to fully understand issues that can be deeply culturally bound. The level of English a learner knows complicates this, too, of course. I think it is important to establish clear boundaries between ourselves as teachers and the students we serve. Not knowing the level of the student you are talking about here, I wonder if communicating such cultural norms about boundaries would be possible in this case or not. 

Cheers, Susan

Hi Victoria, Given this hypothetical, I would almost certainly ignore the comment. I might want to check with someone who speaks the pre-beginning learner's language to get some insight into aspects of the culture. If the student persisted and it seemed necessary, perhaps, I could ask someone who shares the language to speak to the learner about typical cultural norms in the US regarding students and teachers. 

Cheers, Susan

Susan, you make some important comments in response to Victoria's question.  I would also add that our lesson/activity objective can also help with this challenge.  For example, if the goal is fluency, I as a teacher would be less involved in correction or addressing cultural elements.  However, if we are focusing on accuracy or appropriateness, I might be more apt to weigh in.  But I thinnk having a safe and trusting classroom community is important when discussing cultural differences.

Hi -- I agree with Dave C., that chiming in where accuracy or appropriateness is at stake is more important; however, I have heard of approaches where teachers use a whole series of emoticons in instruction.  This seems unnecessary unless proven relevance to students' lives.  Since I mentioned break-out room challenges at the beginning, it reminds me to be judicious in pairing people where emoticons and other responses might be unmonitored.  David K. aptly reminds me how we might strategize teaching rejoinders (including the visual) in response to being interested/happy/sad/surprised, etc.

Hello, Susan, David. and Colleagues,

I am putting together a mastery learning for speaking course (PD) for my colleagues I'll be facilitating this coming February.  I appreciate the timing and topic!  

I'll put my ideas together to share questions and comments.

Thanks for this!


I know that conversations occur orally and written, conversations are complex sometimes other times very simple.  Some conversations are on-topic and others are open discussion.  Shy people can conversate too, it just takes more effort than an extrovert usually.  Usually, an ice breaker is needed to get a conversation started, along with an introduction.  Sometimes just asking a question can be that opener to start a great conversation.  Speaking is not an easy thing but can be learned and improved, especially when practiced with someone more experienced.  For someone shy it takes courage to talk for the first time and to develop the skills to hold conversations with people.  Social phobias and fear of public speaking are issues for beginners.  Conversation skills are not easy to develop and I am glad that they are being taught, they are very useful in expression and communication in all areas of life, along with starting, maintaining, and expanding relationships in your life.

David, You've already mentioned a couple of specific conversation strategies. Would you say that certain conversation strategies are more important than others?  In other words, when time is limited, what conversation strategies do you think are most important to prioritize when teaching listening and speaking skills? 

Cheers, Susan

There are two strategies that we can see good conversationalists use in almost every conversation, and a third one that is vital for language learners:

1) They use rejoinder frequently after someone said a sentence or two. These are expressions that show...
• they are listening and that they understood (“I see”),
• they are interested (“Oh, yeah?),
• they are surprised (“Really!),
• they are happy (“That’s great!”),
• they feel sympathy (“That’s too bad.”)

Rejoinders are especially helpful for ELL students. They are a form of active listening. If I tell you, “My dog ran away last night,” and you don’t say anything, I won’t know if you hadn’t heard me, or I might think that you weren’t interested. Or if you say, “That’ great!”, then I’ll know that you heard me, but you probably didn’t understand, so I’ll need rephrase what I had said or say it slower. But if you say, “Oh, no!”, I’ll know that you understood what I had said and were interested. For more details and handout exercises, see: Conversation magic: Two most important conversation techniques (Part 1)

2) The second important strategy is asking follow-up questions. These are questions we ask about an answer that someone gave to a question. We use these to show that we are interested and to maintain and extend a conversation. For more details and handout exercises, see: Conversation magic: Two most important techniques. (Part 2).  

Here is what is amazing about follow-up questions. Researchers have found that people who use follow-up questions are more likeable. (For more about the research, see Want Your Students to Seem More Likeable? Research Says: Teach Them Follow-up Questions )To encourage students to use them, I’ve written a one-page article based on that research. For homework, they read the article and then in class they use my questions about the content and about their personal experiences to discuss it in groups of three.  Here is a link to this which you can download and use with your students. Stimulating Small-Group Discussion Activity 4: People Will Like You More If You Ask Follow-up Questions

3) This third strategy is also very important. In fact, most students won’t improve their conversation skills unless they are willing to use it: asking for clarifications. Basically, it’s saying, “I’m sorry… I didn’t understand that.”  or “What did you say?” or “Could you repeat that?”  For many language learners, it seems so hard to say these phrases. For some, it can be embarrassing to appear less proficient than others (e.g., classmates). Some don’t have confidence that they’ll understand even if their interlocutor repeats slower or rephrases what said. Others don’t want to take up the other person’s time having to explain or simplify what they had just said. However, without this strategy, they will be missing opportunities to have meaningful engagements with others by letting others know when they need to adjust what they are saying. For a complete unit for teaching clarification questions, see: ESL Students Won’t Progress In Conversation Skills Without This Technique.

Those are the big three strategies that will help students engage in any conversation. Other ones can be used to enable them to have more chances to interact with others and to make the quality of interactions more rewarding and enjoyable. Some examples are:

• Starting and ending a conversation naturally. See Starting and Ending a Conversation (Includes a Group Mixer Activity)

• Responding with details. See Conversation Activity: Getting Students to Say More Than the Minimum

• Engaging in small talk. See Expanding Students’ Conversation Opportunities with Small-Talk Techniques (Includes a Group Mixer Activity)

• What to say when you don’t know what to say. Conversation Technique: Don’t Kill the Conversation. What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say.

All of these strategies can be a lot of fun for the teacher to teach and for students to learn because they tend to have a lot of credibility in the students’ eyes. They can see how useful they are, and they can apply them immediately. The exercises in the links above are designed to make it easy and natural for all the students, even the shyest, to participate. And, we often hear a lot of friendly laughing during the exercises.


I work for a literacy council that runs conversation groups with 3-6 English language learners in each. Some of the facilitators have complained about having one learner dominate the conversation. What are some strategies a facilitator can use to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to speak?

You hit on a fairly common situation, Laurie. Fortunately, there is a user-friendly, non-threatening solution. On Day 4 (Dec. 9th) of this discussion, I’ll be describing a technique that I’ve found to be very effective everywhere that I’ve taught, and I’ll refer to your question in my post.

For now, I’ll just mention that 95% of the time, it seems a matter of awareness, which is part of the solution. A while ago, I had a situation similar to yours. I noticed that one young man tended to dominate when he was with one partner or in small groups or when talking to the whole class of eight. He was a very polite and considerate person, but I came to understand that in his culture silence during a conversation can be unsettling. And in that class, there were several Asian students who tended to hesitate before making comments or replying to a question. For a couple of them, they needed a few seconds to formulate what to say and how to say it. But a couple of Asian students who had good speaking skills still had a bit of silence before responding. I learned that they did this as a kind of respect to the questioner to show that they were seriously thinking about the question. So the young man thought he was helping everyone by filling the silence. On my Dec. 9th posting, I’ll explain how I was able to resolve this.



I had once had a student who fit the description you provided. I always had a timer for conversations. Told students how long to talk. Then, set the timer and - off we went!

Conversely, for reserved students, I demonstrate my desire to hear from each student by inviting them to share a personal experience. Sample question, "What do you do for fun?" Then I say, "Let's take turns. I'll go first!" If any student does not want to participate, I just say something like, "Not today? Ok. " Hahah. They get to see my sad puppy face :)

David, you've shared so much useful information with us thus far. Thank you! Earlier in our discussion, there was a question about teaching beginners. Day 3 is devoted to this topic. I look forward to hearing your insights related to teaching conversation strategies to lower-level learners.

Cheers, Susan

Sure, Susan. As soon as students have the ability to use basic vocabulary in and to apply simple grammar to speaking situations, we can begin to show them how they can be natural participants in conversations. For lower-level students, a good place to start with are two strategies they can use to be active listeners during a conversation: using rejoinders and asking follow-up questions. After they are able to use those during interactions, we can show them strategies for starting a conversation with others.

The first rejoinders that I introduce are ones to show that we understand what someone said (e.g., I see / That’s nice / OK / I got it) and ones to indicate that we didn’t understand (e.g., I’m sorry. What did you say? / I’m sorry. I didn’t understand).

Before practicing these, it’s helpful to do a brief awareness exercise to let students see why these strategies are important. Here is an example: In pairs, students read two brief dialogs between Mari and Anna and then decide whether Mari was more active in the first or second one.  Here is the exercise that you are welcome to use with your students:

Awareness Exercise Dialogue

After we’ve introduced a strategy through an awareness exercise, we can follow a two-step process to help them internalize it.

Step 1: Understand how to use it through brief input exercises of listening.

Step 2: Practice using it through a variety of pair and whole class exercises.

I’ll give examples of exercises for each of these two steps for four strategies.

Sample Strategy 1) Use rejoinders to show we understand what someone said or to indicate we didn’t understand.

Step 1 Understand how to use understanding rejoinders and not understanding rejoinders.  In this, students listen and fill in the blanks with the rejoinders that were said in a dialog about an application form. Here is the link: Understand how to use understanding and not understanding rejoinders.

Step 2 Practice using understanding rejoinders and not understanding rejoinders--Class Schedule. In this information-gap exercise, students are put in pairs, Student A and Student B, and each is given a paper with different information about a class schedule. (They cannot see each other’s paper.) Each time their partners tell them information to fill in their charts, they respond with a rejoinder. Here is the link: Practice using understanding and not understanding rejoinders--class schedule. . If you click on the link to see the sample, please notice Exercise 4. I’ll explain more about it at the end of this posting.*

Also, to see the complete activity which you can download to use with your students, see Another Conversation Activity: Listen to Partner and Ask Questions to Complete Information-Gap Chart

(Please note: for reasons of space, I’m not including in this posting the short pre-exercises that show students how to carry out the activity. Please let me know if you’d like more information about those.) ­

Sample Strategy 2) Use rejoinders to show we are happy about what someone said.

Step 1 Understand how to use happy rejoinders.  In this, they hear someone make a statement, and then they choose either an understanding rejoinder or a happy rejoinder as a response. Here is the link: Understand how to use happy rejoinders.

Another example of Step 1 Understand how to use happy rejoinders: controlled conversation.  I use controlled conversations like this one as a Step 1 for every strategy. Students are in pairs and cannot see each other’s paper. Student A reads the first sentence of a dialog and Student B has two choices for the second sentence. After B read the proper one, A has two choices for the third sentence, etc.

In this link, I have put Student A's and Student B's pages side-by-side to make it easier for you to understand the exercise, but with student, they would only see their page. Here is the link: Understand how to use happy rejoinders: Controlled conversation.  If you click on the link to see the sample, please notice Steps 3 and 4. I’ll explain more about them at the end of this posting.* (For more controlled conversations, see Conversation Activity: Stimulating Students to Listen and Respond to Each Other

Step 2 Practice using happy rejoinders. In this activity, students are put in pairs, Student A and Student B, and each is given a paper with sentences that are different from their partners. (They cannot see each other’s paper.) After hearing their partner’s sentence, they choose either an understanding or a happy rejoinder as a response. In the culminating exercise, after hearing a sentence, they must choose from all the possible rejoinders as a response. Here is the link: Practice using happy rejoinders.

Sample Strategy 3) Use follow-up questions to show that we understand and are interested, and to extend the conversation.

Step 1 Understand how to use follow-up questions.  In this, in pairs, students read a series of two-sentence dialogs. Student A reads the opening sentence, and Student B has two choices for a follow-up question, only one of which is correct. Here is the link: Understand how to use follow-up questions

Step 2 Practice using follow-up questions.  Perhaps you have used the whole-class activity “Find someone who …” in which students are given a chart with a list of questions, circulate among their classmates and try to fill in their charts. We can have them practice strategies by having students use rejoinders after someone answers their questions and then ask follow-up questions. Here is the link: Practice using follow-up questions.

To download the complete form that you can use with your students, see Whole Class Conversation Mixer Activity: Good for Students’ Skills, Brains and More

Sample Strategy 4) Use techniques to start a conversation.

In the link below, you’ll find a complete unit that teaches students techniques that they can use to start a conversation with anyone. The techniques are: mention the weather; give a compliment; ask a question; say a positive comment; make an observation; say something about the weekend.

 The unit includes two Step 1 activities in which they learn how to use the techniques and two Step 2 activities in which they practice starting and carrying on a conversation. You’ll notice that during the practice activities, they will incorporate other strategies, such as using rejoinders and follow-ups. I gave this link in the discussion on Day 2, but I’ll give it here again: Starting and ending a conversation (includes mixer activity)

*Note about last exercises in the pair activities.

When doing pair exercises, it’s inevitable that some pairs will finish before others. Here are some ways that have worked well for keeping the “early-finishers” productively active.

When students finish a pair activity in which they were in a Student A / Student B situation and had different pages, I give them three options:

Option a) They can change papers so that A becomes B and B becomes A. Then they repeat the activity. (I’ve noticed that most student tend to choose this option.)
Option b) They can talk about anything they want in English. (Often, I give them some conversation questions or suggested topics like, last weekend, web sites, movies, family.)
Option c) Sit quietly until others have finished. (Rarely do students choose this, but sometimes it’s the perfect option for a tired student.)

I often write these options on the board or include them at the end of the Student A / B handouts, as I did in the sample activities in the links above.

Wow, David!  You have offered SO much helpful information and many strategies!  Thank you!  And Susan, your "How would you respond ("rejoinder") to these initiating sentences?" activity is wonderful!  I also like to use the names of students in the class, so it's even more engaging for students.  They are always on the lookout to see if they are "on the board" :)  (Of course I only do this in non-threatening ways.)



Thank you for these valuable examples and practice exercises, David. I love how you emphasize starting simple with practicing happy rejoinders. Although I had had great success integrating conversation strategies into my instruction with intermediate and advanced learners, I initially wasn't sure how to approach this with beginners.

One thing I have done when working with a lower-level class is refer to "rejoinders" as "listening words and phrases"-- How can I know you are listening and understand? In my instruction, I strive to infuse our practice activities with examples that personally connect to the learners in the class. For example, I'll ask learners to respond to statements about my life as well statements from the lives of the learners in class. These examples very much build on those shared by David.

For instance, what "rejoinder" or "listening word or phrase" could you use to let a conversation partner know that you are listening and understand?

  1. Susan’s cat is sick.
  2. Ahmed studied English in New York City.
  3. Helen is getting married next month.
  4. Zahra and her husband celebrated their anniversary on the weekend.
  5. Maria is from Colombia.
  6. Susan has lived in 10 different states.
  7. It snowed in Guatemala today.
  8. Emile just got a new job.
  9. Michelle and Junior visited family on the weekend.
  10. President Biden is coming to visit our school.

Comments are welcome! I'm looking forward to this ongoing robust discussion!

Cheers, Susan

Personalizing the statements as you do, Susan, really takes the activity to a new and stimulating level. In the sentence, “Helen is getting married next month,” if we don’t know who Helen is, we would probably just say, “That’s nice.” But if Helen is one of our classmates, depending on our relationship with her, we could respond with, “You’re kidding!” or “That’s great!” or even “I’m sorry to hear that. I was hoping to have a date with her.” It opens up the possibility of a naturally extended conversation and follow-up questions about Helen and her future.

Another option: If the teacher is unable to write original personalized statement each term, another way to do it is to have each student fill in the blanks before reading them to their partners. (We let them know that the statements do not have to be true.) For example,

1. Our teacher told me _______________________________
2. Our classmate, ___________(write a name), is _______________________
3. In my country, _____________ (write the name) _____________________
4. I heard on the news that ______________________________

After having practiced using rejoinders, another way to personalize more practice is to have the students get with one or two partners and write some sentences together. Then the partners split up and read and respond to a different classmate. (It’s helpful to have them show these sentences to the teacher before they use them to make sure they are clear and appropriate.)


In the interest of reciprocity, I'll offer a couple resources that I have found or created/used to support discussion and speaking development.

Yes, I think personalizing statements can improve student engagement because they "see" themselves in their work.

I also noticed that my students engage more when I incorporate humor. We had a topic on "Housing". I said I lived with my three cats and a dog in my car. They sounded shocked, but it was a fun way for me to learn their reactions.

David, I've already taken away so many fantastic ideas for teaching speaking and listening skills. Thank you!

Here's the final question I have for you. What are some ways teachers can offer useful feedback to students on their speaking skills during their conversations? 

I'm looking forward to your ideas, David, as well as everyone else's.

Cheers, Susan


Another interesting question, Susan! Giving feedback to students about their performance in conversation class can be very helpful on many levels. Many students aren’t sure what the teacher’s expectations are concerning how they should be carrying out exercises, especially during pair- and group-work. Feedback can provide a sense of relief for them by letting them know that they are on the right track or that there are some adjustments they should make which will help them improve more.

Some students are unaware of how they are coming across in conversations with others. For example, in a previous posting (Dec. 7th) ,  Laurie Weeks mentioned a challenge some of her colleagues have had with students who dominate conversations. I have found that often these students had no idea that what they were doing could be problematic.

Concerning feedback in conversation class, we need to decide what we want to include in it. Some feedback can actually be counter-productive.  For example, if students know that the feedback will include observations about their grammar or pronunciation during conversations, it could cause them to monitor everything they say, make them hesitant to speak, and make their speech choppy. (E.g., “My favolite … favorite vacation is …was …was …when I went …went to Hawaii.  I was sixteen year old … sixteen yearS old.”) This is an example of focusing on accuracy rather than fluency.

To help students focus on their fluency skills rather than worry about accuracy, we can simply encourage effort and participation in conversation activities, especially at the lower-levels. Here is a sampleFeedback form short version

I try to give these for the first time after the second or third class. After a few more classes, I give them another one. It’s amazing how often almost everyone has only “strong points.” The key is to provide this feedback or variations of it throughout the term.

For intermediate and advanced levels, we want to focus on their use of conversational strategies. Some examples of them are:
Speaking with details
• Eliciting confirmation (Do you understand? / Got it?)
• Asking questions
• Giving understanding responses (e.g., I see / Right!)
• Asking for clarifications (e.g., He went where?)
• Confirmation questions (e.g., Did you understand what I said? / Got it?)
• Volunteering to answer
• Interrupting politely

(For more details about what to include and not include when giving feedback, see Don’t Give Grades For These In Conversation Class. Do This Instead.  The title mentions grades, but it can apply to even those situations in which no grade is given.)

For intermediate and advanced levels, I often use feedback forms like this that include, more specifically, rejoinders and follow-up questions. Feedback form long version

As you can imagine, these are very non-threatening to students. (I’ve had smiling students ask me, “Are we going to get one of those slips of paper again today?)  And, when necessary, the teacher can easily personalize them in the “Other Comments”. For example, when I had a student who tended to dominate conversations, I wrote something like this, “You are making a good effort, but I think that your partners are making you do too much of the work in your groups. The other students might get lazy. They need to practice speaking more. Please try to be silent occasionally so that they will speak more.”

And, although we don’t want students to think that we are evaluating their pronunciation and grammar, if we notice that a student’s grammar or pronunciation is interfering with their ability to communicate clearly, we could include a comment like these:

Sometimes you didn’t pronounce words completely. For example, you said, “After I wen  to the cla  , I study in my roo  .” (After I went to the class, I studied in my room.) Talk to me after class, and we can make a plan to help you.


A few times it was difficult to understand you because you didn’t use a verb. For example, “I not a cell phone.”  Do you mean, “I do not have a cell phone.” or “I do not need a cell phone” ??

I should mention that it’s not necessary to write extra comments on every student’s form in order to be effective, just for special situations. In other words, this process can be very user-friendly and time-efficient for the teacher. However, as I mentioned above, it's important to give this type of feedback periodically throughout the term.

Giving this kind of feedback has been a vital part of my teaching everywhere that I’ve taught, from my first ESL class for the Peace Corps in Africa, in a language school and colleges in Japan, in a school in Greece, and in immigrant and refugee programs and academic ESL programs in the U.S.

I’ve been able to give these individualized forms to students in classes from eight students to ones with over 35 students. Basically, how I do it is, while students are working in pairs or small groups, I circulate on the periphery of the room with a roster and make simple notes or codes basically about how active students are in asking questions, answering with some details, and if they are merely monologing, or are passive. For more details on how to provide feedback to classes with a large number of students, see For Large-Class Conversation Instructors, You Can “See” if Students are Using Techniques

Here is a link to a video in which I describe this process: The ESL Teacher's Role During Student-Centered Conversation Activities

For more about the effectiveness of this process, see Most Important Tool for Classroom Management (First Case) 

and Most Important Tool for Classroom Management (Case two and Caveat) 

I’ll be interested to hear from others on how they’ve provided feedback to their students in conversation classes.


Hey, Susan,

Great question about feedback and assessment. 

I went to a really great CATESOL conference workshop by a wonderful presenter whose name escapes me right now, but had my mind enlarged by her practice.  She shared different discussion categories and examples (rejoinders, interruptions, adding on/building on others, agreeing, disagreeing politely, etc.) with students who practiced them.  As part of their summative assessment, she created small groups of students who she'd observe and video record (for follow-up review).  Groups would be given a topic and students would be graded on their use of the different discussion gambits taught/practiced in class.  She and students would use a checklist similar to the one I shared above as they had their conversation.  Sure, it's a little contrived and not exactly natural, but wow--did students learn discussion gambits (strategies)!  

Hello David and all, This has been such a wonderful discussion full of so many practical tips and suggestions. Thank you to everyone who participated and especially to David Kehe. David, you are a treasure! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and expertise with all of us here on LINCS!

Members, we can certainly continue discussing this essential topic here.

Cheers, Susan

Thank you, again, Susan for inviting me. It’s been a great pleasure to interact with all of you. I’ll continue to check back in case anyone has a comment or question that I might be able to follow up on.