Tips for TEFL discussion classes

Tips for TEFL discussion classes

Years ago I made the error of walking into a class of teens learning English and asking;

"Are circuses cruel? Discuss."

Eyes glazed over and silence ensued. Despite frantic prompts from me to try and get a discussion going, nothing could bring this lesson back from the dead. I had made the big mistake of thinking that I could introduce a topic and they would just get on with it.

I only made this mistake once.

Ever since, I have structured my discussion-based classes as carefully as any other EFL lesson.  I guess I learned 2 things from my mistake:

a)  That you need to break discussion lessons down into manageable chunks. Why? So that your language learners have the time to formulate their thoughts and opinions in English.

b)  That I should start the discussions within pairs or small groups first. In this way my students have some time and space to formulate their thoughts and ideas, before it opens up to the whole class.

These 2 things have probably been key to many successful discussions classes since on a wide range of topics!

If you think that the above ideas might be helpful for your lessons, then please read on for three additional tips on getting the most out of your discussion classes.

Tip 1 - Make an impact from the beginning

Consider the difference in impact in the following. Do you walk in to class and say:

"Today we’re going to talk about circuses...."

or, instead, start juggling with fruit in front of your class and have them guess the theme of your discussion? 

Option 2 is bound to be more stimulating and fun. You can use video, a short reading, song, almost anything to launch the discussion topic and help stimulate ideas and enthusiasm.

Tip 2 - Structure your discussion material

Start out simply. Get the most out of your material by making sure that:

  • your class has the language and vocabulary they need for the discussion
  • you give them questions to answer rather than saying ‘let’s talk about...’ 
  • let students think about the answers to your questions on their own/in pairs first to help them formulate their responses in English and then put them in larger groups to compare answers.

Tip 3 - Use open and closed questions

Try to make sure you have a good mix of  open questions and think about how you use them. Closed questions are usually answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and so do not easily lend themselves to further discussion. If you do ask a closed question, try to follow up with an open question immediately afterwards, which will allow the learner to express themselves and their ideas in more detail. Open questions will get students to express their own opinions and will help to stimulate your discussion.

More examples of communication and discussion lessons

Discussion lessons are great for taking some of the pressure off the teacher and for allowing learners to develop their confidence, speaking in a group.

For a simple lesson plan on the theme of  meetings and greetings, click on the DOWNLOAD FILE PDF link at the bottom of this article so you can see how a discussion lesson can easily be structured. We’ve used a template plan from a Global English TESOL training course.

If you want some excellent ideas for material for discussion groups, look no further than the Internet TESOL Journal. This is a great TEFL resource with fantastic topics and questions for your classes. I suggest you try it out here

Finally, why not watch this communication game (below) that we recorded in one of our own lessons? It is designed for Intermediate levels (B1) and above.  

How do you get your class speaking and discussing? Share your tips with us by posting below. We would love to hear them!

Or join in the conversation with us on Facebook. It’s the place to be for all things TESOL.


Anjleen Kanwar

great ideas!

I have done one of your online courses, and learnt a lot about teaching esl. I am thankful to Mr Bradridge for marking the modules with great precision that helped me to view teaching esl from broader perspective.

I have recently started teaching esl students, and I try to use all the teaching methods that I have learnt in the global english course.

Here is one of my tips; Before discussion I write the important vocabulary related to the topic on the board, and then writing the topic also, I
ask the students in pairs to think If they could make few sentencs to discuss the topic using the given words. Most of the time its helpful.

Louisa Walsh

Thanks, Anjleen for your helpful tip. I can see how this would work to focus minds and get students meaningfully working with the vocabulary they will go on to use in the discussion. I am sure this active pre-teaching will give students great confidence.

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