Having spent countless hours in the ESL classroom as a teacher, I have learned the importance of modeling for students, especially for those at the beginner level. So, what exactly is “modeling”? Yes, it is most commonly known as the work of a fashion model, but, in the ESL classroom, it is known as a demonstration conducted by the teacher that the students are supposed to follow and perform later on–or, in colloquial English, “showing students the ropes.”
There are two types of dialogue I often teach in English conversation classes: freestyle conversation and role play dialogues. Although the two are essentially the same in terms of how modeling is executed in class, I will go over freestyle conversation here.
But before we get into the modeling aspect of this activity, let us go over a technique I made up that I like to call the “Dictate-Compare-Read-Write” technique. To help you remember, try this fun mnemonic: “Do Class Really Well!” In all seriousness, though, the technique has proven to be quite useful for me over the years, and it is one that I have used in almost every English conversation class of mine since I first put it to use.
So, this is how to “Do Class Really Well!”
Step 1: The teacher dictates, slowly and one at a time, their list of pre-prepared discussion questions to the students. If the topic is, say, food and cuisine, an example question would be, “What is the most popular dish in your country?” The students write down the questions while the teacher is dictating.
Step 2: After all the questions have been written down, the students compare each other’s sentences, checking for spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. (For 1:1 classes, this step can be skipped altogether. However, for group classes, I strongly recommend that this step is followed, as this increases student engagement and, thus, retainment of their knowledge. To even further increase their engagement, the teacher should discourage the use of dictionaries and electronic translators, at least during this part.)
Step 3: After a few minutes, the instructor asks the students to read the questions aloud, again slowly and one by one. While the students are dictating the questions back, the teacher writes them correctly on the board (or, if they are teaching an online class, types them into the video call chat room for the students to see).
The teacher gives the students a minute or two to correct their own sentences before going over the meaning of vocabulary words and phrases in the sentences with the class.
Here is an example list of questions for a beginner-to-intermediate level speaking class session on food and cuisine. The instructor encourages them to answer these aloud in complete sentences to practice.
- What is the most popular dish in your country?
- How often do you eat it?
- What is your favorite food?
- Have you ever eaten any strange foods?
- Which foods do you think are unhealthy?
Notice the variety of vocabulary and question types. After the teacher has gone over key vocabulary and language concepts (e.g. adverbs of frequency), they write down appropriate answer structures beside the questions. (This part may be unnecessary for upper-intermediate and advanced students. Assess your students’ prior knowledge and abilities first.) For example:
- What is the most popular dish in your country? (The most popular dish in my country is…)
- How often do you eat it? (I eat it every day/once a week/once a month/etc.)
- What is your favorite food? (My favorite food is…)
- Have you ever eaten any strange foods? (Yes, I have. I’ve eaten…/ No, I haven’t.)
- Which foods do you think are unhealthy? (I think that…are unhealthy because…)
Now the modeling part begins!
The students ask the teacher the questions, and the teacher answers accordingly and with the appropriate structures. For efficiency’s sake, the teacher can call on specific students to ask the questions (e.g. “Sally, please ask me number one.” *Sally asks, and the teacher answers* “Anthony, please ask me number two.” *Anthony asks, and the teacher answers*, and so on).
The instructor gives simple, clear, and easy-to-understand answers, allowing the students to follow their example without exactly copying their answers. This is where structure and flexibility go hand in hand; the students follow specific answer structures with clear examples while still providing their own original answers.
When the instructor has called time on this pair or small group discussion activity, the class can hold a plenary discussion using the above questions. This is an ideal opportunity for the teacher to check for understanding and ensure the students’ mastery of the language topics.