Fostering conversation skills remotely

Hello colleagues, Some of you have, no doubt, started your summer session. Others of you are likely planning for the fall. Is your summer class remote? What about your plans for the fall? 

For those of us who are or who plan to continue with virtual classes, I would love to discuss ideas for fostering conversation skills in our remote classrooms. What are some effective ways to structure conversation in a virtual environment? What specific communication strategies should be focus?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Take care, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Langauge Acquisition CoP


Hello colleagues, I receive TESOL's blog in my email regularly, and today the blog by A.C. Kemp describes "3 Online Whiteborad Speaking Games" that some of you might want to explore. The author explains the technology needed to play the games and how to prepare step-by-step. 

The games include:

  • Moving Pictures for beginners
  • What's the Difference? for intermediate level learners
  • Picture This! for advanced learners

Check out the blog and let us know what you see as the potential benefits of these interactive games for fostering conversation skills.

Take care, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

Hi all-- Sorry to jump in in the middle of this thread, but I haven't been on for a long time, and today as I was browsing my e-mail I saw the invitation from COABE to the webinar on helping students "learn" to remember.   Having studied and taught for three decades about reasons why adult English learners have difficulty in our classes, I couldn't help but want to remind teachers of why remembering is often a difficult for these learners. 

First--remembering things about something you have never heard of is very,very difficult.  A mental map of a topic helps locate the new information-- mental velcro, one teacher called. it.   It pays to check with learners about their background knowledge of a topic before launching into a lesson on it. I just had a discussion with  some other teachers about how hard it is for some adult immigrants to grasp much of the citizenship test-- because they have almost no understanding of the very concept of government!  

This lack of information can exist for several reasons:  The student is very low-educated --or has NO education-- and the concepts and even vocabulary of the concepts are completely foreign to them.   When a person says they have little or no education, imagine trying to teach government concepts to a 5 year old who hasn't yet had much content instruction.....

Second, though reasonably well-educated, the student may not have ever encountered the topic at hand.  I think of a Salvadoran man who told me despairingly that he had only had 5 years of education and had never encountered the topic of volcanoes in Hawaii-- which was the topic of one of the lessons in his ESOL class....he had no words for it even in should go without saying that curriculums of other countries can differ enormously from what students are taught in US schools.  So this is a more-or-less expected and normal gap, not to be blamed on the learner.  

Third, even if reasonably well-educated, adult language learners OFTEN find it difficult to understand new sounds and new words in English--and their brains may work hard at coming up with something using the sounds that it has, but that something is not what was said.   It is helpful to spend plenty of time in building up students' skills in hearing and pronouncing the new words they will encounter in the lesson.  Another language issue that arises is when the learner's brain hears a word that is unknown.  Usually, the brain literally gets stuck on that new word, trying to make sense of it while the rest of the lesson, sentence, question, goes on unattended to.   All the more reason to do a thorough previewing of the topic//lesson, etc.  

And finally, also related to adult language learning, it is a GIVEN not always recalled in our teaching, that usually in language learning the brain remembers what is relevant and necessary.  The rest is just sounds.   I remember a study I saw in doing my research on adult language learning that the older the student, the less "extraneous" information is actually attended to in listening-- and we hear it in speaking:  " I no understand",   "bus not come" --  that study noted that the brain attends to core language concepts:  subject-verb-object-- no matter what the language.   And as for information, for those who have traveled in countries where you did not know the language, the phrases from the phrase book you remember are "where is the bathroom?", "how much?"  "Where is the hotel?" "I want water," right???   This is why we in the field who have been chiming in on how to make language learning more successful have stressed the necessity of RELEVANT, PERSONAL lessons and language being paramount in adult ESOL.   One of the best studies I ever found that examined why adult English learners dropped out of their program came from Minnesota.  Researchers interviewed many who had left their English program and learned that RELEVANCE of the topic was the key to student's engagement.  While cooking is a frequent ESOL topic, with us telling ourselves it is useful to learn the food and names of actions and equipment,  the students interviewed said they saw no need for such a lesson.  ONLY if they work in someone else's kitchen-- a family or a restaurant, is that vocabulary really needed.  

Two more stories:  I once coached a group of teachers in Brit. Columbia about teaching non-literate adult English learners.  One teacher contacted me after our group session to say she had been working with an adult non-literate middle aged lady from Afghanistan for months, trying to get her to learn the alphabet (don't believe the myth of "When you read, you begin with A,B,C..."). Day in and week out, this lady remembered NOTHING from lesson to lesson.  Then, the teacher, finally getting the "make it PERSONALLY RELEVANT" message, had the lady learn the letters of her NAME--only.   Presto!   Instant retention.  From there, they went on to her last name, her husband's name, her children's names, etc.-- all things she could understand and WANTED to be able to remember....  the alphabet by itself is an abstract and arbitrary list.  It is needed in its entirety later in education, but non-educated students need to be able to spell their name and others' names on demand, not recite the alphabet.  

And, when I was working with a class of adult immigrants on whom I was trying out my games for practicing English learning,  I spent a lot of time finding out what their jobs were, etc.  One man said he was a "bar back" at a restaurant/bar.   I created a set of games for him using the vocabulary people were shouting at him all during his shifts:  silverware, glasses, plates, napkins, settings, table cloth, etc.   I WISH now that I had a video of his face when the dots connected and he realized that he was learning what he HEARD everyday, but had heard only indistinctly.  He stood up in the class, his face glowing, and said, "MEES Robin, this is my WORK!!  I never know these words!!! People say (xx) "get some silverware" and I no know it!!  Now I KNOW IT!!"  A terrifically gratifying moment for a teacher....:))

SO... be very careful to have examined these reasons if you have a learner or learners who appear not to be able to remember things.  It was because many connected the dots without knowing the students that many students were-- and still are-- labeled "learning disabled"--which is what got me a career in refuting that claim!!!

Cheers to all,  Robin 

Robin H. Lovrien, Ph.D, MSpEd: LD

Independent Consultant in Adult ESOL


PS-- please contact me off list if you would like references to the studies or more information on my games.  I also have a Blog: Robin's Adult ESOL Blog at  with LOTS of goodies on it.