Monday, November 30, 2015

Teaching Small Talk

My multilevel class of a dozen or so Chinese and two Iraqis--all over the age of 60--has embarked upon the task of learning how to chat up strangers.

We began the unit by defining small talk and brainstorming together why we do it, when / where we do it, and HOW.

They correctly guessed that we use this superficial blather to break the ice, fill silence (with which we in this culture are not always terribly comfortable), and offer a bit of chatter to pass the time at the bus stop, train station, in line somewhere, in our apartment building or office building elevator, and so on.

We spent a couple of days learning these conversation starters, but in order not to be overwhelmed, decided to select no more than FIVE conversation starters, making sure we had at least one for a party, one that could be used to comment on any sort of weather, and one to use while strolling at the riverfront this summer when we encounter people with pets or babies in strollers. We noted that many of these could be used in multiple situations by substituting the word RAIN for SNOW, and so forth.

The next couple of classes were spent mastering TAG QUESTIONS, since they are so often incorporated in small talk. (Nice day, isn't it?)  Our reference text for this was Azar's blue book.

It wasn't difficult for me to find some nice colour photographs on Google images for us to use as practice prompts. I found a woman walking her Golden Retriever, a well-dressed man standing alone at a cocktail party, a man with a stroller at the park, someone with an umbrella waiting on a train platform, a fellow shovelling the snow from his driveway, a woman waiting for a bus, and a young lady basking in the sun at a park. These I distributed to groups of 3-4 so they could practice starting conversations in each imagined encounter.

Another grammar point I tied into this unit is that of situational ellipsis

"Do you think Canadians always use full sentences and full questions when engaging in small talk?" The learners let me know that they are completely aware that native speakers often communicate in one- and two-word phrases, but they don't know how to do it themselves.

This was a great time for us to delve into Scott Thornbury's little dialogue called "The Train to Oxford." The students had little trouble adding the punctuation and needed only a bit of help with intonation. (Up for Y/N questions such as "Married?" and down for wh- questions, such as "When?")

They took turns performing this role play for the class, then we spent about 20 minutes of paper and pencil time trying to reconstruct the elided elements. It was fun comparing the various versions of re-built grammar. Some turned "Oxford!" into "Oh, we've arrived at Oxford Station!" while others preferred, "This is the Oxford stop." It's all good.

For their next task, I chose to put together a dialogue between two strangers engaged in small talk at the park using artificially complete sentences and questions. If you would like a copy of this, just visit my website - Free Resources - Grammar and scroll down to Ellipsis (grammar points are arranged alphabetically).  Their job is to strip it down as far as they think possible while remaining natural or NS plausible.

After taking up the worksheet, we went back again to the photo prompts. These seniors really like to take things slowly and revisit the same material in various ways. In order to change things up a bit, this time we moved the tables and chairs out of our way and stood in two rows of seven.  I gave each A a photo prompt. We stood face-to-face, seven As and seven Bs. I explained that Bs had to initiate the conversation with this stranger, and that after about a minute, I would signal Bs to move up the row on person, with the last B coming around to talk to the first A. We did this until each B had visited every A. Tomorrow we'll repeat that, switching roles. Also to add a bit of variety, I threw two new photos into the mix: a woman with a child in a clinic waiting room and an older person with arms full of grocery bags.

I hope you can use these ideas with your group. Let me know if you do. :)


  1. Thanks I found this really useful.

    1. Thank you for letting me know. Bloggers LOVE comments! :)

    2. I agree with Daisy! Thanks a lot.


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