How to Easily Start an English Conversation Club in 4 Steps
English Conversation Clubs are fun, informal and helpful. If you’re a native English speaker with no experience teaching, you can organize one, just follow the steps below. If you’re a Language School director looking to offer a new service to your clients to help them maintain their investment in employee training, then this is your guide.
Why are English conversation clubs so popular?
- Because speaking is the most difficult language skill to master and requires a lot of practice time. It’s more difficult than reading or writing or even listening.
- You generally need a partner to practice speaking. Sure learners can talk to themselves or they can memorize dialogues and repeat them out loud, but it doesn’t include the spontaneity of a conversation.
- It’s social. Typical members of conversation clubs are university students looking to practice English for travel. Or older people looking to meet like-minded souls who’ve lived abroad or who’ve traveled extensively like they have. Or employees who work in companies where English isn’t often spoken.
- It’s a good way for English learners to maintain their hard earned level. Lessons are an investment of time and money, nobody wants to loose those skills.
Start a club in your community or at work
I recently started a group at the community center where I take art lessons. Here’s how I organized it almost effortlessly. The first session was a success and the smiles on people’s faces and their gratitude were heart warming.
- I volunteered my services to provide the topic (no need to charge for the club).
- My art teacher knew who would be interested and invited them (no publicity needed).
- There was a room available in the community center (no need to find a meeting place).
You, on the other hand, will need to find participants with some kind of publicity (Facebook, Twitter, the company chat room) and a meeting place, but that could be in a corner of a nearby coffee shop, or designated table in a university or company cafeteria. Put up a small poster on the door for publicity. You know how to get the word out in a modern way.
Organization: 1) Pair-up people
To maximize speaking time, divide the members up into pairs: Partner A and Partner B or at the most, small tables of four people. I like to form random pairs so members have the opportunity to speak with a different person each time.
I wouldn’t try to have a big group discussion. That leaves too many people out of the discussion as there are always extroverts who naturally dominate and introverts who observe. Paired up, the introvert has a 50/50 chance to speak.
I count the number of people present and cut up that many little squares of paper. I begin by numbering each square of paper like this: 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 3A, 3B etc. Then I put all the squares of paper into a zip-lock baggie and everyone draws their number and then looks for their matching partner. “Who’s got ‘1B?”
TIP: I typed up these little numbered cards in a table in Word then printed it and plasticized it. I cut them up and put them in a zip-lock, ready to use again.
2) Choosing a topic of conversation
There is a website that I’ve used for years called www.esl-discussion.com. (ESL means English as a second language). There are hundreds of handouts that you can download and print for free as PDF files or Word documents.
The subjects are listed alphabetically. Choose a subject that interests you. Click on it and read through the questions. If you like it, down load it as a Word file and then you could rewrite some of the questions to match your club members’ interests or language level if needed.
These questions are written with an intermediate level in mind. Some of the vocabulary or more complex question forms could be confusing to lower levels. Just rewrite any difficult questions more simply if you need to. I have never had to do this, however, since most people coming to a conversation club are usually an intermediate level.
I’ve had good luck with these subjects: sleep, climate change, advertising, identity theft, business, freedom, leadership, diet, coffee and personality, to name just a few.
Tip: Download and print several different subjects, and put them in a file (or slip them into the zip-lock bag with your pre-numbered cards) so you’ll be ready in advance.
Each handout is divided into two parts: Partner A and Partner B. So you’ll cut the handout in half and pass it out to the pairs. It has a list of 10 or so questions you can ask your partner with different questions for each partner.
Here are some examples of conversation starter questions from the handout ‘Adventure’. esl-discussions.com
- Are you an adventurous person?
- Is life a good adventure?
- Does there have to be an element of danger in an adventure?
- Do you think animals like adventures?
- What’s the biggest adventure you’ve had in your life?
- What adventures would you like to go on in the future?
- Which of these things would you like on an adventure: danger, romance, speed, travel, discovery, prizes?
- Where would you like to go for an adventure – a jungle, a desert, a small island or a city?
- Are men or women more adventurous?
Now, wouldn’t these questions make for an interesting conversation?
3) The meeting place
I use a room that seats around 12 people and I like to have a white board for jotting down new vocabulary. Or you could type up a short list ahead of time with expected new words for the topic and pass that out with the handout questions.
It’s going to be noisy and animated as the conversations get going and laughter builds. I’m an American, fun places are always noisy. The fact that you’ve paired up everybody, there won’t be any need to shout across a big table so they should be able to hear their partner.
4) Ending the Event
When you start to see that people have finished asking all the questions on the list (after about 45 min. or an hour) you can politely interrupt and announce a ‘round table’. Think of a good general question about the topic, or choose a question from the hand out, and go around the room asking each person their opinion. Everybody loves this, because they can see the many different opinions and viewpoints present in such a small group.
Be sure to thank everyone for coming, announce the next club date and location and ask attendees to invite a friend for next time. .
Ideas for Experienced English Teachers
Use a conversation topic as a Warm-up. I think this idea of ‘paired conversation’ with prepared questions could be used for all levels as a warm up.
- For lower levels, rewrite the questions from esl-dicussions.com using simple verb tenses and provide a short list of translated vocabulary for the subject.
- After the conversation (or interview if you prefer) is finished, ask each student to introduce her partner and summarize her partner’s opinion. ‘She likes…. She prefers….’ Good practice for pronouncing the ‘s’ in third person singular present simple. It’s also a great way for students in a group to get to know each other better.
Instead of a typical pair-work exercise for checking into a hotel, for example, where one student plays the role of the receptionist and the other the hotel guest, why not write questions to elicit opinions on the targeted subject and the two students could have an unguided conversation using the same vocabulary and expressions?
Questions such as ‘Do you prefer a queen-size bed or king-size? ‘What kind of hotel do you prefer: a luxury 4-star hotel or family owned Bed and breakfast?’ ‘Do you like resorts like Club Med where there are lots of activities?’ Followed by a summary of their partner’s opinion.
Suggest to your students to join a Conversation Club
Tell students that they can just do an internet search by typing ‘English conversation club’ and the name of your city. Encourage them to find some way to maintain their current level.
I just searched online for clubs in Buenos Aires and found 10 associations offering free English/Spanish conversation clubs joining up expats and locals. How great is that?
Or look on the website Meetup.com/name of your city.
Or try searching online for a local website where young single people form small groups to go out together. You’ll probably find queries about individuals looking for English speakers to practice with.
Ideas for Language School Directors
Sell the idea of a Conversation Club to your existing clients as a way of protecting their investment in training by maintain the levels of their employees. It could be held after-hours or during the lunch hour. It would be low cost for your clients (easily up to 20 employees at a time for one teacher) and for your language school as well since you could send in a less experienced teacher.
If you wanted to promote goodwill, you could volunteer the teacher and let Human Resources organize and run the club. I don’t think there is a need to worry that the club might replace courses, it would be just a fun way of maintaining the levels students had achieved during courses. Win/win.
What other ideas do you have for finding conversation club topics or for organizing a club?