My Advanced level students are very good about talking about ‘topics’ like the environment or health but sometimes struggle to strike up conversation with native speakers in a natural way. I decided to teach them about small talk, but couldn’t find a handy lesson anywhere so made my own.
Before the students came into class I pushed all the tables back and put some party music on. As they walked through the door I asked them to put their bags on the tables and write their names on the board (we had some new students joining the class). I then gave them a card from a tin my friend gave me for my birthday (Thanks Kim!):
and said “Talk”. [This combatted my common problem of confusing the students with complicated instructions...even after working on it during Delta!] The cards had questions like “What’s your favourite holiday destination?” “What do you normally do at the weekend?”
Once all of the students had arrived and they’d chatted for about five minutes I switched off the music and the light, which stopped the conversations quickly. I switched the light on again and asked them how comfortable they felt speaking to people they didn’t really know in their own language and in English. Understandably, they said it was more difficult in English.
I elicited the term ‘small talk’ and asked them to discuss the first four questions on the sheet below. For every activity during the lesson they had to work with someone they hadn’t spoken to previously during the lesson. I left the tables at the side of the room throughout, so students perched on desks and moved around a lot.
(You can download it by clicking ‘slideshare’ and logging in – it’s free to create an account, and you can link via facebook if you want to.)
Students then completed the second task (You’re now going to read about…) by looking at five short texts stuck around the room. They are on the first two pages of this document. I adapted them from the Wikipedia entry about small talk.
As they finished reading, the students compared the things which they found interesting or surprising, and talked about whether small talk operates in the same way or a different way in their culture, for example, whether the same topics are considered taboo.
The students stood in a straight line across the classroom. I stood about 1.5m from each student in turn and asked them to move towards me until they were at a comfortable distance away from me for a conversation. We talked a bit about personal space and how, for the Brazilian students especially, this could often be quite different in different cultures. We also talked about how normal it is to touch other people when you’re talking to them, and how this differs when you know them or not. One of the Brazilian students was surprised that an English person wouldn’t normally touch the other person, for example on the arm, while speaking to them.
I divided the class into A, B and C groups and gave them each one section from the next three pages of the second document above, which were adapted from Wikihow. They read their section, helped each other with vocabulary and tried to summarise the ideas. They then regrouped so that the new groups had representatives from A, B and C. The students shared the tips they had read about and talked about whether they are useful or not.
Talking about the tips
Students then thought of two or three opening gambits and wrote them in the last section of the first worksheet. Taking those, they made small talk for the last 25 minutes of the 2-hour lesson at what I told them was probably the most boring IH Newcastle party ever! That meant they needed to liven it up by meeting as many people as possible, and making sure they ended at least one conversation during the time limit – it’s often hard to know how to escape from a conversation. I also told them it was their responsibility to make sure everyone had someone to talk to – nobody could be left out at the party. I didn’t correct them or collect errors. The aim was fluency and making sure that the students would be as comfortable as possible for the other 18 hours we would spend together during the rest of the week.
Their homework was to make small talk with a random native speaker at some point during the week, then tell me about it. They had to make an effort to do this – it couldn’t just be an extension of a transactional conversation. One of the students ended up having a very interesting hour-long conversation with an old man who happened to be Jehovah’s Witness, something which my student had never heard of before (and therefore had no cultural baggage about!).
Overall, the lesson seemed to go well, and for the rest of the week whenever students had finished a task early I could ask them to make small talk. Making small talk successfully can be a difficult skill to master, but it’s an important one, and one which I don’t think we examine enough in the classroom. It’s important for students to be able to start and end conversations themselves, as we tend to control any small talk that happens in the room. I’m looking forward to hearing about the small talk experiences of the rest of my class!