Conversation shapes

Have you ever watched in despair as students have a ‘conversation’ which is actually just two monologues? Or tried in vain to interact with a student who only gives one-word answers, however encouraging you are?

I know when I’m B1 or below, it’s difficult for me to pull my weight in a conversation and I need a lot of support from whoever I’m talking to. In the classroom we can provide this support in a variety of ways. We can supply sentence stems that students can complete, we can show them the first two or three turns of a conversation, or we can provide them with a whole range of questions or other functional language which might be useful in the conversation they are having.

These are all interventions we can make before or during students speak in class. But what about after the conversation? How can you help students to reflect on the success of that conversation? Here’s one idea I haven’t tried yet but it would like to: show students the conversation shapes below and ask them these questions:

  • Which shape is like a conversation you might have in your own language?
  • How would you feel in each of these conversations if you were a person A or person B? How actively would you participate in the conversation in each example?
  • Which shape is like the conversation you just had? Do you think you were person A or person B?
  • How successful do you think it was as a conversation?
  • What could you change in the conversation you just had to make it more like shape 3? What help do you need from the teacher to do this?

Blue long thin rectangles on the left are A, orange rectangles on the right are B, arrange to show alternate turn-taking with A talking a lot, and B saying almost nothing Blue long thin rectangles on the left are A, orange rectangles on the right are B, arrange to show alternate turn-taking with both A and B producing a single long monologue Blue long thin rectangles on the left are A, orange rectangles on the right are B, arrange to show alternate turn-taking with A and B taking turns of varying lengths, sometimes overlapping

You can download a PowerPoint of all of the images at Conversation shapes if you want to adapt them for your own lessons, though please retain the credit.

I think this activity is an example of metacognition, which is the act of monitoring and making changes to learning strategies you use. The reflection helps learners to become aware of the processes they use when they are having a conversation, and what they can do to have more successful conversations in the future. Here’s a beginner’s guide to metacognition from Cambridge.

What other strategies do you use to help learners have more successful conversations?

12 thoughts on “Conversation shapes

  1. This is really helpful, thanks Sandy. I always try to provide sentence starters and interactional language on the board (well, on Google Docs now) but I’ve never thought about having the learners reflect upon their conversation afterwards. These are really visual and seem like they’d help the learners to visualise their conversation. I teach B2/C1 at the moment and I’m not sure how relevant they would be, but there are still a few learners who let conversations die very quickly, so it may be helpful for them. I look forward to trying it!


    1. I’ve done scribbled versions of them on the board before and they’ve kind of worked, but I’ve never had the questions with it, so be really interested to hear if it works or not. That was mostly with B1/B2 students, who were particularly prone to the conversation 2 shape of consecutive monologues. Good luck!


  2. This is great, thanks Sandy.
    I’ve found myself trying to explain this a lot recently (lots of B1/B2 speaking assessments this time of year). I think it’s one of those important but under taught areas that makes a massive difference in speaking performance.


  3. I really think everyone, inckuding students, could do with some awareness of pragmatics. A lot of times in conversational English, we’re doing a lot of signalling that can be hard to pick up on even for fluent speakers. Among other things, short answers like “Oh?” “Yeah?” “Oh ok” can be ways of signalling disinterest in a topic and mean it’s time to change the topic.
    I often watch little kids ask questions like, “Do you play Pokémon?” The other kid says, “Not really, no” which is another disinterest signal. But the first kid takes it as an invitation to monologue.
    And of course sometimes people tell a story and want to be asked in more detail about it, but don’t want to monologue. Yet the other person decides to tell their own similiar story, often a one-upping. (I’m guilty of this!)


  4. This sounds really interesting and like a good way to reflect. I’m wondering if anyone knows of some audio conversations that might illustrate these different shapes? I’m thinking it would be really helpful to hear the different styles to really understand the differences… any thoughts on a bank of audio conversations that might exemplify these shapes?


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