Dialogue Procedure in Beginners’ Classes

Today a friend/colleague asked me if we could go over her lesson plan before her observed class. As we did, I realised I use different techniques for teaching dialogues than she does and thought they might be worth sharing.

Also, following the hoo-ha of my two latest posts, I’m writing a humble, practical text to cure myself of the ensuing ego trip.


In October, I started teaching a class of complete (not false) beginners. All Czechs, people over 50 years of age. We agreed we would not be using a course book and instead, I decided to build some very solid basics using just little language. So we went quite slowly, but I made sure the new language (everything was new) stuck. It was a very successful strategy in this particular group. We did plenty of spelling/numbers/dates dictations so now my students can understand these and spell better than some intermediate learners. A lot of the work was on receptive skills.

We also did lots of basic dialogues, using these. I really like the dialogues. They are very simple yet not unnatural like most of the coursebook ones – or those that I would come up with if I had to.

Basic Procedure:

The procedure revolves around a lot of exposure. I read the dialogues many more times than just twice.

First read the dialogue yourselves. Say: “Listen!” Read the dialogue once, twice, three times, even more. You can see, as you do this, that students are taking notes on pronunciation and so.

Play the recording of the dialogue at slow speed. Play the dialogue at normal (faster) speed.

Use L1. Yes, it is allowed these days. Yes, L1 does not bite. Because what you want is that your students understand the dialogue without wasting much of the lesson time. I say: “I speak English, you speak Czech.” My students and I share the same language. If they didn’t, but it was a monolingual class, I would still do the same and listen if they all say the same thing (easy with Russian, less so with Vietnamese). I never teach multinational classes, so please don’t ask me what I would do in such a case. Read sentence by sentence, students give you a quick translation. Notice, the teacher isn’t speaking L1. Clarify whatever is needed. This doesn’t take much time.

Practice pronunciation. First, students repeat after you in chorus. Practice different chunks in chorus. Then call on individual students. Ask individual students to read the dialogue (I only have eight students in the class). At this point, my friend asked whether the others weren’t going to be bored. I don’t think so. The whole procedure is pretty intense, so they can have a little break (there is a lot to take in if you are a beginner – I know this from my Chinese class). They listen to others, which means more exposure. But obviously, I wouldn’t do it with a class of 30 students.

Read the dialogue in T-S pairs. Then open pairs (studend-student, everybody listens). Correct any mistakes, missing articles, mistakes in pronunciation, stress, etc.

At this point, I can either dictate the dialogue, with the students writing it down and checking it themselves against the text, or I can move on to closed pairs (students-student all at the same time). This depends on how things are going and on the teacher’s judgment of the situation. In the closed pairs, the teacher can individually invite the students to look at only half of the dialogue (student A can see it only; then swap), memorize it, etc.

Finally, students are ready to practice a different dialogue using the same pattern and their own realia. Teacher monitors. Check as whole class.

This dialogues get reviewed at the start of the next lesson.


What to Consider:

Some course books seem to mix up dialogue practice with listening practice. My view is that listening to a dialogue twice and filling in the gaps does not provide sufficient receptive practice.

Often, not enough time is spent practicing the actual dialogue in the book/study material. Very often the teachers go straight to free production. “So now we’ve heard the dialogue, let’s get into pairs and one of you is the waiter, the other is the customer, and go and order your meal using the menu on page 35.”

What will inevitably happen if you do this (yes, I have made the same mistake many times before) is your student will come up with totally supposedly “funny” dialogues that make no sense. They will be too long, the customer might order, say, chocolate goulash, or whatever nonsense. The reason this happens, I think, is twofold. Firstly, the students have the power to use the language and want to have a bit of fun (which is fine, but they should have been given better instructions). Second, they don’t have the power to use the new language. They haven’t been given it yet. They need to practice first.

If the teacher wants to somehow limit the amount of fluff in the free dialogue, she should set limits – a limit of time, number of items, etc., in other words make it very clear what they want to hear and what the students are expected to do.

Other Dialogue Ideas:

Disappearing dialogues – from one of Mr Scott Thornbury’s books, forgive me for not including the citation, but the idea is generally popular. I have mine written on whiteboard and gradually erase. If I’m not lazy, I pre-write them in powerpoint slides.

Jumbled dialogues – a fantastic no-prep activity by Paul Walsh that actually works.

Thank you for reading and please share in the comments any other dialogue ideas!


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