The Value of a Good Chat

I bought my edition of “Planet Eigo” when I first got to Tokyo. Inside I found some ideas that seemed clever at the time, but which I ultimately couldn’t use. Like many of the materials I received, there seemed to be a focus on games. Pages full of activity ideas shouted at me: “The classroom is dull! Teach this grammar point with a game!”

This school of thought ran into another approach: the grammar-translation method, which typically has 5 minutes to spare with all its rigorous, step-by-step explanations.

There has to be a third way. And there is: giving students a structured environment within a lesson to have a conversation.

Why? Conversation is incredibly fun. Talking is irresistible at times. So much so that people are talking all the time, everywhere. And when they aren’t talking, they’re writing (like I am doing now). How many times have your students rushed into each others arms, crying out to each other at the speed of sound in Japanese once the English class is over? Often students are dying to talk, but we don’t let them. Sometimes the English classroom becomes one of the quietest places in the school. It’s spooky that a subject based in communicating can look so much like the set for a silent movie.

I know that talking is fun for students because a teacher and I have been experimenting with communication classes. Here I was thinking I made the normal classes “fun”. But I haven’t seen so many smiles in the classroom before now.

And these kids can really talk — if you give them the structure and encouragement to. If not, back up a little bit. Review. Give a simple talking task. Provide more support structures. Experiment. Then suddenly, when you strike the right chord, the classroom will explode with chatter as if the Grand Coolie Dam itself were bursting in a mad rush of excited potential energy. You’ll hear the fragmentary sounds of English sailing through the air, floating like ether trapped for millenia as if it would never escape. Until now.

The fact is, conversation itself is as fun or even better than any of the games I’ve tried in class. And it’s better too because the students are actually practicing talking in a natural setting. They didn’t need a game to break the dull classroom. They needed a conversation class to ignite something inside them.

We are working to develop a new curriculum based on “conversation” instead of games or explanations.  We’re discovering that the 15 minute chat can do more than the 5 minute game or the 45 minute explanation ever could. And the students are smiling. All the time. It is weird. And it is wonderful.

I want to share with you how this story develops, what we learn, how to do it better. Surely there is more to come and this is just the start. In all of my 5 years of teaching this is perhaps the most exciting moment I have ever experienced. The chance of discovering something new, a better way. It is frightening and fascinating.


  1. I agree that a conversation is a much better use of time to the students than a game is. I’m interested in how you’re able to get a classroom of school kids conversing. Looking forward to future updates on this.

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