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Teaching English Conversation: Using Dialogue to Develop Fluency

As a teacher, how do you handle dialogues when you encounter them in ESL textbooks? Do you brush past them thinking, no one talks like that?

Do you think they’re irrelevant to learning? Are your learners just reading them like a text from a book?

Or do you use them as effective tools that can provide opportunities to use English in realistic ways?

Today’s blog will show you how you can view dialogues differently then use them to help English language learners develop greater fluency.

Incorporating dialogues into the ESL classroom

First Things First

Dialogues represent conversations between two or more persons. They example possible exchanges between interlocutors in various contexts.

They come in a variety of lengths from short excerpts to full conversations from beginning to end.

As such, they can be used to show new vocabulary in use, teach target grammar usage, provide structured interactions, and conversation practice.

Finally, they can be used to develop learner fluency by showing them what can be said and at what point.

This then provides them with a framework to use to install their own ideas.

How do you approach a dialogue when you see it? As asked previously, do you brush past them, ignore them, go through the motions? Or do you take the time to really use them for the benefit of your learners?

When you decide to incorporate dialogues into your lessons, you’re giving your students another dimension with which to practice using the target language.

Instead of sitting in rows at desks/tables getting their heads filled with information, dialogues give learners opportunities to use the language.

So rather than learning about the language, they’re given structured opportunities to practice it. Using dialogues, therefore, is practical and beneficial.

The question then becomes, how to approach them—to read them or speak them?

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Don’t Just Read Dialogues, Speak Them

Some teachers see dialogues and think, why? Others see dialogues and think, why not?

All right, I did modify and borrow that from a famous 1968 Robert Kennedy speech (who borrowed it from George Bernard Shaw), but it seemed fitting here.

Anyway, instead of brushing past dialogues, do something constructive with them. Yes, you can read them together with class members. Or, you can say them.

I usually ask learners to imagine they’re actually having the conversation.

By doing that, it places them in an imaginary situation where they have an opportunity to use the language realistically.

Then, when I model the dialogues, I make it mine. In other words, we keep the structure, dispense with some of the stiffness, and use language we might ordinarily use.

What to Do with It

Okay, you can now appreciate dialogues a little better and are ready to go.

But once you have a dialogue before you, what do you do with it?

I prefer two steps when handling a dialogue: Warm-up then real deal.

Read: How To Encourage A Great Discussion In An English Conversation Class


Your first run through should be from both ends and using the words as written. In other words, one person should be A and the other B, then vice versa.

If it’s a private tutoring lesson, the partner will have to be you. This gives the learners a chance to test drive the dialogue from both directions before making it real for them.

For example, an original dialogue might read:

(Two people talking about where they’re from)

1. So, James, do you live around here?     A. No, I’m just visiting a friend.

2. Where are you from?    B. I’m from Stockton, California, in the U.S.A.

3. Stockton? I’m not sure I’ve heard of it.     C. It’s a mid-sized city about 50 miles/80 km south of Sacramento, the capitol.

4. Oh, I see. Is it a nice place?     D. It’s a little boring. There aren’t too many things to do there.

5. Where do you go to have fun?     E. I go to Sacramento, or sometimes San Francisco.

That’s pretty clear, right? Maybe your lesson target was using English to talk about hometowns or something of that nature.

Now, your learners can see how people might talk when having a conversation about where they’re from.

But you might also agree that it’s fixed and doesn’t reflect everyone’s experience. I mean, not everyone is named James, is from Stockton, California, is living in a mid-sized city, etc.

But it did give class members an idea of how to express their own information. It provided a pattern to follow so they could move on to the next round, real deal.

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Interesting ESL lessons using dialogue

Real Deal

Now, ask learners to change the variables (times, dates, feelings, interests, etc.) to reflect their real experiences, preferences, thinking, etc.

Using the same pattern from the dialogue above, we can have learners insert their own information.

You can do this by giving them a few minutes to write the information (if they’re lower-level learners), or if they’re higher-level learners, you can just begin the dialogue. 

1. So, ____, do you live around here?     A. __________.

2. Where are you from?    B. I’m from ________, in the _____.

3. ____? __________.     C. It’s a _____ city about __ miles/__ km _____, _____.

4. Oh, I see. Is it a ____ place?     D. It’s __________. There __________ there.

5. Where do you go to ________?     E. I ________, or sometimes ________.

Okay, this was actually four steps because both steps require both sides of the dialogues be used. But to keep things simple, we can just say two steps.

Nevertheless, you have the idea now.

Create Your Own

Dialogues don’t just come as fixtures in textbooks. You can create your own as a way to complement your lessons.

If you don’t like the way dialogues treat real speech, make your own dialogue that you believe reflects a real exchange between people.

On the other hand, to create an even more interesting lesson, have students create their own dialogues based on what they think the language would be in certain situations.

Then, you can go back over it/them as a class and make (i.e., lexical, syntactic, semantic) changes.

Or, you can take one that’s in a textbook and, as mentioned previously, make changes to it. I like to say, own the dialogue.

Changing dialogues is actually a pretty fun way to get learners familiar with real language in use.

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You Have the Power

Dialogues can be powerful tools in your ESL teaching arsenal. Used in the right way, learners are provided structured glimpses into realistic language.

And if you think dialogue is silly, adapt it to your needs or create your own. But don’t neglect the usefulness of dialogues.

Have you used dialogues in fun, interesting, and practical ways?

Feel free to share your thoughts with us here. You can also tell us what you’d like to read more about in our next blogs.

Happy teaching!

Recommended Reading:

Planned Conversation Strategy To Develop ESL Learner Fluency

Lower Levels: Teaching Speaking Skills With Roundtable Role-Play Discussions

Teaching English Conversation: Using Dialogue To Develop Fluency




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