7 Fool-Proof Tips to Keep the ESL Conversation Going

By: Tutor Nikki

Ah, the art of keeping the ESL conversation flowing smoothly.

Whether you’re new to Cambly or a seasoned veteran, all of us tutors have been there. 

The dreaded *blank* during a class, the student who is uninterested in small talk, or the student who seems to have completed every lesson in the Cambly library. 

It can be hard to know how to keep the conversation going and give the student the lesson they deserve. 

Let’s play around with some ESL conversation scenarios, shall we?

Maybe you have had a few free-trial students who just want to ask you questions about where you live and what you like, and it’s challenging to get them talking about themselves. Yikes!

Or, you’ve had the same regular student for two years now, and you’re finding it hard to come with unique, exciting content. Equally, yikes!

Better yet, the brand new student who reserves a one hour lesson with you, and you’ve never even met them before! You check their student profile and notice that they’ve had 10,000, 20,000, or even 50,000 logged talking minutes. What do you say to a student who has probably met thousands of tutors and had countless chats?

In these situations, you probably think to yourself, “how in the world am I going to teach this student effectively and keep the conversation going?”

So, what now?

Well, it’s quite easy, really. 

We, as Cambly tutors, know pretty much what every student wants at the core of the lesson – to speak English. 

Cambly is an incredibly unique language learning platform because of its focus on conversational English. 

And when you think about it, that’s why our students chose Cambly for their English learning over any other platform: to speak.  

So, let’s get them talking, practicing, and having fun on our platform!

Here’s 7 Tips to Keep ESL The Conversation Going:

Take it from me, I’ve been a tutor with Cambly since 2015, and these tips work every time.

Tip #1. Play on their interests

A student will always speak more when they’re talking about something they are genuinely interested in. 

For example, if you ask your student about what they did over the weekend, you can pick up on their weekend activities and chat about them. 

For instance, “I went skiing” indicates someone who enjoys physical activity or the outdoors. 

Maybe they said, “I had to study for an exam.” Ah, so that student is taking classes. 

It’s easy to pick out possible interests that your student may have by listening intently. 

From there, you can expand on their interests and form an entire conversation around that.

Tip #2. Ask open-ended questions

To keep the ESL conversation going, get in the habit of asking open-ended qustions.

An open-ended question is a question that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” and ultimately forces the student to add more detail to their answer! 

Let me give you an example. 

Instead of asking, “Do you have a family?” rephrase this as a statement that forces more detail, such as, “tell me about your family or friends.” 

Getting in the habit of asking open-ended questions will always steer your lesson in the right direction and get them talking!

Tip #3. Know how to handle moments of silence

I think every tutor and student alike dread the possibility of awkward silences during a lesson. 

The longer the period of silence, the more anxious your student becomes, and we don’t want that. We want our students to feel comfortable and at ease in their classes. 

I mean, who wants to just sit there not knowing where to take the conversation next!? No one. 

If you experience a moment of silence, reach for a quick question or offer a suggestion or correction. 

Perhaps a suggestion might start a new line of conversation. “I notice that you struggle with the past tense in your verbs. Has this been an ongoing issue for you?” Or “You liked when I mentioned that old idiom. Do you know any others yet?”

Pro tip: Have an “ESL conversation topics” document or fun article open in your next tab to serve as an SOS for a moment of awkward silence.

Tip #4. Look for things you have in common

There’s a special moment of bonding when you find a common interest with your student. 

Let’s use the example of tv shows to put this in context. 

If your student mentions watching a television series that you have heard about but not yet watched, ask them to critique it. 

It will give them plenty of talking time (so you don’t hog the conversation), and if you enjoy watching a series, you can reciprocate with a show that maybe they haven’t seen.

Tip #5. Once talking, keep them talking!

Keep the ESL conversation going by encouraging them to keep talking!

Listen carefully to what they are saying so you can ask for more details or ask for further details about something they mentioned. Even if you know the answer, ask them how they do something. 

This allows them to expand on a previous thought and hopefully learn some new vocabulary!

It will keep them talking and show that you’re listening attentively to them.

Besides, it’s good for us to rest our voice from time to time.

Tip #6. Practice makes perfect

You’re probably thinking, “duh, Nikki, that’s the oldest rule in the book.”

However, the more students you speak to over the coming days, months, years, the more you will see connections and standard requests. 

You’ll start getting familiar with how to handle different personalities and customize lessons for each student. 

Someone who sits at home with a good book is shyer than the person who went out clubbing all weekend. You will see those things naturally after you’ve had time to study with your students.

Tip #7. Chill out!

We all get nervous now and then; it’s human, it happens! Especially if you’ve never met the student before. 

In moments of nervousness or anxiousness in a lesson, take a deep breath, relax, and remember that they are human too! 

Plus, chances are the student is way more nervous than you are. It’s nerve-wracking learning a new language and speaking to a native. If you notice that your student is anxious, reassure them that they are doing perfectly fine and that you’re there for them!

Keeping the ESL conversation going is a work of art

We will have those times when we don’t know how to continue a conversation; it’s inevitable. 

However, being prepared and knowing the steps to keep the conversation flowing makes all the difference. 

Knowing what to do makes you feel more confident in your teaching abilities, and the student can always sense your confidence, making them more comfortable with you (and more likely to keep reserving your lessons!) 

I hope these tips help you to keep the conversation going in your Cambly classes. Let me know in the comments below if you would add any more tips to this list!

About the Writer
Nikki is a patient, kind, friendly, and knowledgeable tutor who has been with Cambly for 6 years. A Boston native, she now lives in the deserts of the American Southwest with her children and menagerie of household pets. Her strengths are grammar, idioms, slang and test prep, for she is a published author and a teacher who works equally with children and adults. Nikki loves chatting about anything from politics to the latest kids’ movies or outer space to the depths of the ocean. Nothing brings her more joy than learning about other country’s history, culture, and landscapes.

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