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Алексей Конобеев

Discussion starters

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One of the problems I've often encountered is that students are reluctant to talk. Most often they explain this reluctancy by saying that they "do not know what to say". However, this situation happens much less often if you use discussions in the classroom.

Of course, to be able to take part in any discussion, students need to understand what a good discussion is, what ground rules there are, and the teacher should know what discussiona er based on and how they can be organised on any level of teaching, beginning from elementary and all the way up to proficiency.


So what is a good discussion? When will it happen? The most general answer would be that a discussion is good when the participants have got something to say (i.e. they either have information or opinions to share), when they want to hear something back, when they are able to give arguments in support of their opinion and when they take turns politely and use all sorts of logical connectors/discourse markers in their speech. All this means that students need to have information, need to be able to find relevant information and choose the important bits and need to have at least some strategies of polite communication.

This may sound like a very complex matter, but in fact it can be done rather easily on different levels.

Any discussion is built on one of the two bases (or a mixture of both): 1. information gap, 2. opinion gap.

Information gap happens when each student has only a part of the information that the group needs to understand the general picture. There can be many jigsaw information activities for different levels. For elementary students who have only just learned to tell the time we can give a diary of some person, where one student will have the times for some activities and the activities without times, while the other students (this works best as pair work) will have the activities for which the other students has got the times and the times for which the other student has the activities. By asking each other questions (like "what does she do at 7? Who visits her at 8? where does she go at 9? what time does she have lunch?) the students are to fill in the gaps in their papers. This is, of course, only a simulation of a proper discussion, but it helps us as teachers to practise tense forms, active vocabulary, turn-taking and asking questions politely. As soon as you do a follow-up activity when students need to agree on what the should do on Monday, with teh times given, this could turn into a more personal discussion on a level that is accessible for the students.

On a higher level we could make the students sort out and put into the correct order the stages of a process, for example "How to make an omelette" (you have a similar exercise in one of the "Enjoy English" textbooks): you take the stages (warm a frying pan, grease it with butter, break the eggs, beat the eggs with milk, add salt, pour the mixture into the frying pan, turn the omlette over, serve the omlette): you write every stage down on a separate piece of paper, insert words like "first", "lastly", "next", "then", "don't forget to..." and ask the students to order the stages, working in small groups. If this is a competition, then the work will be done very enthusiastically, while we concentrate on sequence markers. The only problem would be making students keep to speaking English, but for this you could choose a 'stick", as someone suggested here on the forum.

On an even higher level each student could have a piece of information about some complex thing, for example, art. You could choose a picture, one of the students has some information about the artis, another - about the trends of the epoch, another one - about the even or the person depicted, yet another one - about the historical setting/background etc, and the task is to work as one group and explain the meaning and the importance of the picture. The students will have to select relevant information (and there is bound to be a lot of disagreement about what is relevant here), organise it and only then put together an explanation. But here we see how information gap merges with differences in opinions, so we come close to opinion gap-based discussions.

Opinion gap discussiona re easy to organise and difficult to control. The main premise is that students are always willing to tell their opinion about something, even if it only goes along the lines of "Testing is rubbish". However, to turn such "opinion voicing" into a proper discussion, you need to firmly establish and lay down some ground rules. First of all, if students say something, they must support it with arguments. Secondly, they must be polite to each other. Thirdly, and this is a rule for the teacher rather than for students, there outcome of a discussion should be an understanding that opinions can differ and that there are no right or wrong opinions, apart from probably the most extreme ones.

It's important to note that since we are talking about opinions, such discussions can be focused on rather sensitive matters. The topics of such discussions have to formulated very categorically, e.g. "Itis better to live in a village than in a city" 9some students would agree, some would disagree, and they will have something to say), or "Toys are only for girls, boys don't play toys", or "Capital punishment must be re-introduced in Russia". However, due to the categoric nature of such topics, it's quite likely that you will have to be on a lookout for offensive remarks as some people may find offensive what is only a trifle for others. In other words, it is important to find a balance between the nature of the statement (if it is not interesting for students, there will be no discussion) and between how sensitive and potentially offensive it is. For example, with some more advanced students I could use such a statement as "Women should not work, they should stay at home and take care of their family. If they work, this is bad", but only if I am sure that the girls would not be offended and that everyone understands that this is only someone's opinion and not something we need to agree with. In this case the ensuing answers will range from "No way" to "There is something to it, BUT..." and we can turn it into an educational experience. If there is any chance that some students would not understand such a statement and get offended by it, I would just use a quotation that could arouse students' interests. I am putting some quotation in my today's blog entry here: http://www.englishteachers.ru/forum/index....mp;showentry=28

Anyway, I use discussions quite often and feel that they both provide an excellent opportunity to practice language per se and to practise language and critical thinking skills in the classroom.

And how do you use discussions, if at all?

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Let's share questions, tests and stories that can be used as good discussion starters.

Here are a few:


1. An article to start discussion about goals in life:

"I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of guy. I like to hit the open road, go where the wind takes me, and approach every day as an opportunity to strike out on a new adventure. I live life with the attitude that whatever happens happens, and as long as I’ve got air in my lungs, a spring in my step, and someone else’s money in my bank account, I’m good to go.


I guess you could say I’m just a free-wheeling, happy-go-lucky person who’s completely financially reliant on others.


I do what I want, when I want, and depend 100% on friends, family, and acquaintances for my meals and shelter. I don’t like to make plans, you know? That’s just not in my DNA. I’m the kind of guy who’s always up for a cross-country road trip on someone else’s dime. I’m totally cool with letting go, with not knowing where the day will take me. All I know is that I’ll be imposing on acquaintances for sometimes weeks at a time because they’ll feel too uncomfortable to kick me out, and then I won’t be able to leave when they want me to because the check from my sister hasn’t cleared. And that’s enough for me. I’m cool with that. It means I don’t need to rely on anyone but myself and an entire network of people who would rather support me than engage in an awkward conversation about the direction of my life.


Some people say you have to settle down, but I just don’t see it that way. ‬ ‪I like to wake up when I feel like it and go. Just make sure that my parents have put money in my account, take some leftovers from Jeff’s fridge, use his toiletries, and go.‬


I have no credit.


Some of my friends are these uptight 9-to-5-ers whom I routinely leech off. They don’t get it. While they’re busy chasing that brass ring, wasting their lives at the office so they can have that perfect house, I’m at their house, enjoying their cable, relaxing, and taking whatever life, and my friends, give me.


My friend Greg is a great example. He has..." Read more: http://www.theonion.com/articles/im-just-a-free-spirit-who-is-entirely-financially,33905/?ref=auto


2. Here are 20 fun activities you can use whenever you have a few minutes. These would make terrific writing prompts. They could also spark some interesting discussions. You can get 150 of these activities in card format right here.

How would life be different if there were no electricity? List three different ways.

Explain a flower to someone who has never seen or heard of one before.

Write a story about the zoo without using the names of any animals.

Pretend that you get to make one rule that everyone in the world must follow. What rule do you make? Why?

What kind of soup would you eat for dessert? Write a recipe for dessert soup.

You can have any three things that you want. In return you must give away three things that are about the same size as the things you get. What do you get and what do you give away?

What are some ways you could celebrate "Backwards Day?"

Are you more like a square or a circle? Why?

How would the game of soccer be different if the ball was shaped like a cube?

What are three ways the world would be different if people did not need to sleep? What would you do with the extra time?

What would happen if all the bowling balls and bowling pins in the world suddenly became alive?

Which do you think is more important: motorized vehicles like cars and airplanes or computers? Why?

If you could choose one thing that costs money and make it free for everyone forever, what thing would you choose? Why?

If you could live in a tree house, would you? What are three advantages and three disadvantages to living in a tree house?

If people could not see colors, how would traffic lights work? Design a traffic system that does not rely on colors.

What are the ten most important jobs in the world? Do you want to do any of these jobs when you are an adult?

Pretend that parents have to take a test before they can have children. Write six questions that would be on the parenting test.

If you could invent a new subject that would be taught to all children in school, what would the subject be? Why do you think children need to learn about your subject\?

If you could talk to trees, what do you think they might say? Create a conversation between you and a tree.

Are you more like a river, a lake, an ocean, or a waterfall? Why?



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