Wednesday, August 19, 2009

10 Conversation Starters for the ESL Classroom

by Guest Author Karen Schweitzer

Getting adult ESL students to engage in conversation is a great way to promote classroom learning. The following article offers a list of 10 conversation starters to get things rolling in the ESL classroom.

1. What is your favorite thing to cook at home? Ask each student to name their favorite dish to cook at home. Encourage them to list the different ingredients and the different steps involved in making the dish. You can also ask students to use various words and phrases to describe how the finished meal tastes.

2. I've never… Ask one student to name something they have never done. For example: I've never been to New York. Afterwards, anyone who has been to New York or knows someone else who has traveled to this destination must tell a story about the experience.

3. If you could be any animal in the world, what animal would you be? Ask every student to state what type of animal they would be if they could choose. Then ask them to explain their choice to the class.

4. Where are you from? Ask one student to state the name of the city or town they live in. Encourage everyone else to ask the student one question about this city or town. For example: Where is the best restaurant? What is your town known for? How many people live in your city? If everyone in the class lives in the same area, you can change the question to: Where did you live when you were ten years old?

5. What is your favorite movie? Ask one student to name their favorite movie. Allow each student in the class to ask one question about the movie. For example: How long is the movie? Have you watched this movie more than once? Where were you when you first watched the movie?

6. Name three things in your bedroom. Ask each student to name three things that can be found at home in their bedroom. You can make this conversation game more difficult by not allowing students to repeat any of the three things mentioned by a previous student.

7. What was the last item you purchased? Ask each student to name the last item they purchased from a store. Then, ask the other students to ask questions about the item. For example: Where did you buy it? How much did it cost? Was it on sale?

8. Pretend you are only allowed to use one of the following items during the next year: a computer, a car, or a flushable toilet. Ask each student to choose which one of the three items they would keep for the next year if they had to make a choice. Then, ask them what made them choose that item.

9. What is your dream job? Ask one student to tell the class what their ideal job would be and why. Then, ask the rest of the class to name jobs that are similar to the original student's dream job.

10. Describe your first job. Ask each student in the class to describe the first job they received payment for. Encourage them to share as many details as possible about the type of work they did and the people they worked with.

Guest post from education writer Karen Schweitzer. Karen is the Guide to Business School. She also writes about online colleges for



Eric said...

Excellent questions. I often ask questions on my attendance sheets in ESL classes that later become conversation topics in class. Why the preview? Students sometimes need time to collect their thoughts to provide more engaging, detailed responses.

Here are some of my favorite questions:
How do you relax?
How do you make difficult decisions?
What is your favorite possession?
What is your American Dream?
What makes a good job?
What are you grateful for?
If you were an animal, what animal would you be?

Dave said...

I like the idea of everyone asking one person about the place they live. If you have enough students, it forces them to think of more creative questions about each other's city.

Cool idea!

Cindy said...

People don't realize how difficult it is to learn another language, until they actually try. Practice makes perfect and these questions are a great start. Thanks!

ESL Teacher said...

Dear Karen,
For beginning and low intermediate students, conversation in English can be difficult. And my Asian students are hesitant to talk about themselves. I made up a group of fill-in-the-blank cards, one on each card. I included lines like, "Most people don't know that I....." "If I were president of my country, I would....." :I wish Americans would...." "I'm glad I don't have ...." and those type of statements about food, fears, likes, music, etc. Then the students sit in a circle, go around, and each one reads their card and fills in the blank. Then they switch cards and do it again. At first, they are usually reluctant. But after the third or fourth round, they loosen up and really begin to enjoy themselves. It's a precursor to conversation!

Name: Debra Garcia, M.A. said...

Thanks, ESL Teacher. Great conversation starters!

Grover said...

Or you could turn the wole approach upside down and have the students come up with topics. This is an interesting resource as it addresses that very concern. Catalyst: A Conversation Taskbook for English Language Learners has an automatic topic generating routine built-in and the topics always resonate with students because it's student-centred: all about them. The main point about Catalyst is not that topic creation and topic substance are automatic or appealing however. Rather generated conversation is used as a means to the acquisition of a whole variety of essential communication tactics. Catalysthas review built around principles of "space repetition" and has instructor-, peer- and self- assessment protocols integrated as well. With all that going on there's not a lot of prep to do. Teachers can focus on facilitating the lesson, not the lesson plan.

Catalystis the first ever interactive, "multi-touch" ESL textbook and has just been published for iPad. You can find out more by visiting or you can just download the free sample on iTunes here: This is clearly what Apple had in mind when they released iBooks Authour in January 2012.

Catalyst is also available in traditional paper.

Marie Noelle said...

I especially love the "I've never..." starter because it is so open ended. This is a great blog. I am a new ESL instructor and I am beginning to explore blogs and other online resources. Any recommendations? Thanks for your time and your lovely blog.

Name: Debra Garcia, M.A. said...

Hi Marie,

Thanks for stopping by and posting. Please visit my website at Along with the info you'll find on my site, you'll also find a page called Resources for Teaching Adults ESL.

Best of luck to you in your new career,