Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

Conversation Circles…or “I spoke in the TL for 45 Minutes?!”


convo2If I told a student that I expected 45-50 minutes of sustained discussion in the target language they’d laugh and say no way. But I watched it today in my Grade 12 class – as students used the pretext of answering questions about a story they read to work in their “conversation circle”. This small discussion group activity produces some of the most relaxed and engaged interaction in my WL classroom. Not only that but students offer up a personal debrief afterwards – that I use to add to their oral communication marks.

Practice the “Art” of Conversation –  Relaxed interaction is no accident. We practice the “art” of the conversation a lot in class. As my students know – it’s not the first question that you ask that is key – but rather the second and third follow-up question. Class often starts with an “ask” your partner based on some current area of study but students are expected at a minimum to use basic “who, what, when, where, why?” queries to learn more.  All students have a ‘conversation’ sheet that they can refer to with suggestions for how to ask questions. When we debrief I often get asked for more “key phrases” and we add that to the sheet as we go along.convo3

Select a Common “Piece” to Discuss – The pretext for the circle is always to discuss or review something. It can be the answers to questions about a story, as it was today, or even a review of some element of homework/classwork. The key is that there are questions/answers that can be used to get the talking started. I will give them the questions for the discussion and they have already had the opportunity to make notes on possible answers. (The key for me is “notes” and not full sentence answers). At the time of the “circle” they are given a new sheet with the questions on it and, in the lower grades, extension questions for the group. For example “What did Tarou get for his birthday” and the extended “What do you want/did you get for your birthday?” My Grade 12’s  now naturally extend the task questions without my including them.

Students Know What They Are Aiming For – We look at the post-activity rubric before the activity. I ask my students to see what the “goal” is and to select just one area – one descriptor – as their ‘personal challenge’ for the time. If there is nothing on the rubric that the student sees as applicable then they can write in their challenge. One of my students, who speaks Japanese at home, wrote “I don’t want rubricto dominate my group’s conversation”.

Set Out the Initial Groups But… I usually set the initial groups, looking for a mix of students in each – and sometimes for a group that may be supportive of a more hesitant speaker. Students are expected to sit in a circle and to work on good eye contact when they are speaking.  They know that this activity is not to be raced through. After about 30 minutes I often ask them to find a completely new group and to ‘just chat’ – using the extension questions only.

Written Debrief Before Rubric – Students are asked to really think how things went, so I don’t let them race to the rubric at the end of the activity. Rather they go the reverse side and I ask them to answer one or two key questions. Today it was “what went well?” and “what was a particular challenge?”. Then once the personal reflective piece is done the rubric can be completed. Students understand that I expect them to carefully consider all sentences on the rubric and that they are not just to circle an entire “section”. They must justify what they pick.

My goal in the conversation circle is simple: using the TL to communicate beyond standard sentences to more meaningful conversation. The level of noise in the room is my key that this is working….more to come.



  1. I recently started reading your blog and I love what I see here. I was wondering if you would be willing to post one of your lesson plans that leads up to/incorporates the conversation circle (starting with what kind of reading and then the types of questions you ask to get the students started). I teach Spanish (though I do speak a bit of Japanese… it’s been a while) and my students do very well while we’re actually working in the text, but as soon as we’re done, they go right back to English. I’d love to learn from a teacher who has a strategy to keep them in the TL as much as possible, especially since speaking is probably my students’ weakest area.


  2. Hi there – thanks for your comment and question. It made me realize that there is not really ‘a’ lesson leading up to the conversation circle. What they do have is their ‘phrase sheet’ and, as I mention in the post, lots of opportunity at the start of every class to ask questions and practice their ‘follow-up’ questions. They do this starting in Grade 9, and I am relentless in using this kind of situation/format in every level. So they might enter the class and see onscreen (in English) “Ask your partner what they do after school. Why? Where? How often? Who with?etc”. They know to take out their conversation sheet and askAs for the reading – it’s a story from a textbook that we use just for stories/dialogues (as Japanese requires adaptation to read due to kanji etc) or one from a graded reader. Their homework is given in English – I’ve included a link to one – and they use this to practice with. On the day of the oral they get a new copy of questions (in japanese this time) with ‘extended’ questions added. For example we read a dialogue with a sumo wrestler and one of the questions is ‘why is he interested in the sport that he is?’ – underneath that is ‘what sports/activities interest you? why?’ If you contact me via email I’d be happy to send you what I have.

  3. LOVE this idea, and it’s timely too! I am trying to push more and more of the interpersonal piece of language this year, and was thinking that I needed to put together a reflective/self-assessment piece for students. This is a great starting point for that document. I’ve credited you with its genesis, and will share the final edition after adapting it if you are interested.

    Also, Amy has a post that has been helpful to me here:

  4. Hello!
    I saw this blog post reposted on your twitter during this past #langchat. I saw your photo and made a PDF version of your rubric with some edits. I was wondering if I you created that rubric, and if so, could I post the PDF version to my website so people can print it off without having to remake it from a photo?


  5. 今日は! I have just done an update to the original post with a link to the rubric. You are welcome to use it (with attribution of course).

  6. Many thanks for the info Bethanie! It is a ‘long-standing’ push for me to have students talk and interact without me hovering to ensure they are! And in the TL! Amy’s post is an inspiration for me as well!

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