The Internet TESL Journal

Discussions in the EFL Classroom: Some Problems and How to Solve Them

James Venema
Nagoya Women’s University (Nagoya, Japan)


If you sometimes feel that teaching discussion in an EFL class is an uphill battle, you are not alone. There are many ways in which student discussions can break down, and teachers have probably all, at one time or another, encountered most of them. However discussion is, and will remain, a very popular and important classroom activity for students. In our own English program, I have worked with teachers to find where and why the discussions break down, and what the teacher can do to improve student participation. A number of common problems are outlined below along with links to activities that can help address them. There are many kinds of discussions (brainstorming, exchanging opinions, and problem-solving, to name a few) but for sake of brevity, this paper focuses on discussion as involving the exchange of opinions.


Possible Solutions

a. Students need to be able to deal with ambiguity and also need to learn that they can communicate quite effectively with imperfect English. Select a student volunteer and elicit as much information about their weekend using single word questions and exaggerated gestures. After doing so emphasize that this kind of 'broken English' plays a real part in everyday conversations and can be an effective way to bridge language gaps. Given the choice between silences and broken English the latter is always the better option. Divide the students into pairs and have them interview each other on a topic of their choice. The questioner should limit him/herself to questions of one or two words and/or gestures.

b. The start of a discussion is often quite crucial and students stand to benefit from instruction and practice in getting off to strong starts that establish clearly the direction of the discussion. Typically a strong start would clearly establish the topic and direction of the discussion as well as make it easy for participants to join in. On the topic of smoking students could start with: "The discussion question today is whether we should ban smoking on campus. In your opinion do you think this would be a good idea?" After students have come up with their own answers, have them practice starting short discussions of only a couple of minutes in groups of three or four. Each member of the group should be given one chance to lead the discussion.

c. Introduce a discussion topic as a proposition in a way that allows for 'for and against' opinions such as, "Smoking should be banned on campus." Organize students into groups, select a secretary, and have them brainstorm and write down for and against reasons. Stress that the students' own opinions, as well as correct grammar or spelling, are unimportant at this stage. After ten minutes, have groups pass on their paper to the next group and have that group add any ideas of their own that are not currently written on the paper. Continue this until each paper has been cycled through each group and returned to the original students. Elicit the opinions from groups, correct the English (this is an excellent chance to introduce relevant words and expressions), and transcribe them on the board. Explain to students that they now have a pretty good idea of not only what opinions they or their partners might give, but pretty much all the potential' ideas are on the board it would be useful to rehearse them in a number of ways:
d. Transcribe the opinions elicited in F and write them on the board (or have students read them from their own notes) and go over the idea of expanding on one’s responses as in the following possibilities:

I think it would be a good idea to ban smoking on campus because second hand smoke is a real problem. I don’t want to breathe in other people’s smoke.
Agreement + 1: Yeah, second smoke is really bad for your health and I always breathe it when I walk past people smoking outside in the courtyard.
Disagreement +1: But smoking is already limited on campus. If you don't want to breathe in smoke just stay away from the smoking areas.
Clarification +1: So you think that second hand smoke is bad. Would it be OK if smokers could only smoke in special smoking rooms?

Have students think of some kind of extended response to each opinion previously elicited individually or in pairs and/or small groups with the same opinion. Finally, put students in pairs and have one student read opinions at random for their partner to respond to. As a closer, have students respond individually to opinions you read. To encourage students to prepare for the discussion, tell them they will be tested on what they covered today. Ask students to select a number of opinions to which they will prepare and memorize responses. On the next class, have students turn over those opinions to a partner who reads them at random to test how effectively and fluently their partner can respond.

e. The power of visualization is well documented in sports and silent rehearsing can also be an effective way for students to improve their language skills. One key advantage of silent rehearsing is that students can do it anywhere, anytime, where they have the ability to focus and concentrate. In preparation for a discussion ask students to do the following:
One way to monitor the above homework assignment is to ask them to make note of three things they had difficult saying during a silent rehearsal. Like conversations and discussions, true silent rehearsals are seldom carried out without a few obvious glitches. Silent rehearsal can also be an effective way to facilitate learning after a discussion. After students have completed a discussion in small groups give them five minutes for silent rehearsal. Ask them to:
To encourage students to focus, ask them close their eyes while they are doing the silent rehearsals. After the five minutes are done ask them to take note of the improvements they would like to make and ask the teacher at least one question (given time) regarding language they would like to use in future discussions.

f. One way to facilitate the passion that can energize a discussion is by introducing conflict role-plays or dialogues, with students playing roles with irreconcilable goals and assumptions. Such dialogues can be found in many issues-oriented textbooks, or the teacher can provide students with roles and a situation (i.e. a mother and teenage daughter arguing about getting a cell phone). Be sure to emphasize the conflicting goals and opinions, have them practice in pairs, and then ask them to perform for the whole class. After each performance, model parts of the conversation still lacking 'passion' and, given time, ask students to repeat the performance.

g. To get students to speak up divide them into two lines, one against each wall at opposite sides of the room. Assign one half of the students something to read (the opinions from C would work well here) and have their partner opposite them repeat exactly what they say. Insist that they need to get the repetition exactly right before moving on. If you really want to get them going, add some noisy background music.  Variations of this activity can be used in discussions as well (moving student apart some distance and/or adding background music.)

h. To encourage real communication and effective active listening, as well as some focus on form, it might be useful to incorporate peer observations at some point in classes. Select one person at random in each discussion group to be the observer. Have that students take notes regarding each participant on two categories: as speaker and listener. The observer should take notes on specific behaviors of participants such as:
i. To encourage students to focus on what other people in their groups say it is often useful to select a student at random to report on what they discussed and the different opinions individual members shared. Tell students ahead of time that you will select a student at random in each group to summarize what their group discusses. After doing so, mix up the groups and repeat. Where students are having difficulty summarizing what was said, the teacher can join one discussion and model summarizing what was discussed.

j. It is sometimes helpful to help students visualize the interplay between contributing opinions and responding to opinions. Take some poker chips, or tokens of some kind, to class. Give around five chips for each member of a discussion group and pile the chips on a desk or table in the middle of a group. Tell students they can grab one chip off the table and pull it in front of them for each new opinion they contribute to the discussion. In addition students can pull away chips from any individual’s pile by responding to any opinions that student had expressed. The idea is to end up with more chips than any other person at the table. (Note: It is really important to keep this fast-paced and light-hearted. One way to do this is model it, being sure to ham it up a bit. Another idea is to provide some kind of reward to the person with the most chips at the end of each discussion such as a chocolate from a box the teacher brings to class.)

k. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of community-building in encouraging students to open up and contribute to conversations and discussions. For this reason, games and activities that simply focus on building class atmosphere can be a crucial part of the class. Each teacher will probably have their own repertoire of activities but it is important to continue to incorporate fresh, intrinsically interesting, ideas to help build community in the classroom. Your coworkers would probably be the best source of new ideas. In addition, there are a number of teacher books devoted to activities to help build community in the classroom (see references).

l. There are few things that can inhibit discussion as much as choosing topics that students find irrelevant, and I have seen too many teachers struggle with topics the students found uninteresting. This problem can be simply avoided by allowing student input into topics. Where teachers are constrained by textbook topics why not allow student input in the selection of units or the phrasing of a discussion question from any given unit?


It would be difficult to include an exhaustive list of potential problems and possible solutions. I suspect most teachers would be able to add their own ideas to the list. In the end I suspect students would benefit from an analytic approach this encourages. It is not enough to note that students are having difficulty doing discussions. Teachers need to note where exactly and why the discussions are breaking down, and need to take steps to help address student's weaknesses. In language learning as well as life, it is in our weaknesses and mistakes that we are also presented with our greatest learning opportunities.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XII, No. 12, December 2006