Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

The “New and Improved” Conversation Circles Activity


convo1One of the more popular posts on Language Sensei involved my use of “Conversation Circles” in class. Essentially the premise involves a small group of students interacting to answer questions regarding a reading that we have done in class. The original exercise is good, and has been effective, but as is usually the case in teaching, I have refined what I do. I have made 3 major changes to this activity…

A “New” Rubric – I continue to refine and hone my rubric for this activity – trying to encourage a depth of conversation beyond what students would normally do. This is a self-evaluated activity – and my students are used to responding to “how did that go?” in class. My new version of the rubric has added a section for the “Everyone” questions that I now include (see below). We preview the rubric before the activity and I ask them to select 2 things prior to the activity – something that they already feel comfortable with and one thing that they want to ‘challenge’ themselves in doing when they start. I ask them to share this with their partner, as saying it out loud increases the sense of personal ownership in how they participate in the activity.

Adding “Group Reflective Questions” – The original activity involved students answering pre-set questions about a reading in the target language. The typical comprehension questions we might ask are there and in the group they ask/answer these questions in the Target Language. (Note – they get a chance to prepare notes for answers and practice with their partner before getting into groups) But the NEW change is to ask a group-focused reflective question after the story question. An example is “Where is Peter from and why is he in Japan?” with the new question “Everyone – where are you from and how long have you been in Canada?”.  Another one is “Which manga is Peter a fan of?” and the new question “What manga do you think are popular at this school – and why?”.  Students are expected to use their arsenal of ‘follow-up questions‘ to further interaction with their group.

An Expectation of “Depth” –  With 8 or 9 story questions, and the new ‘group’ ones, I tell students that this activity is to take at least 45 minutes to do. I want them to push for a deeper conversation – especially on the group questions. They are not to race through the questions but are expected to work hard to dig for details.  They are asked to begin with a group (they determine who is in it sometimes, sometimes I set it out). Typically I let them work for about 25 minutes with this group. Then I ask them to find a new group – and to only work on the ‘Everyone’ questions on their sheet. I will admit that one group was so gung-ho on the everyone questions that they were only on Q3 (out of 8) after 25 minutes – no complaints from me!

Small changes with an increasingly big payoff….more changes in the future for sure!




  1. Hi Colleen. I love this activity and can see that it would give students a sense of accomplishment to have stayed in the target language for 45 minutes or more. Do you use this activity with novice level students as well and, if so, do you have any additional guidelines/hints to assist this group?

  2. Typically with low novices I do the Q&A with them as a group. They are asked to respond 6 times…and I would stress differentiating answers via adverbs etc. Eg. It is hot, it is very hot, it is really hot, it’s not cold. I run it (teacher directed) then when they move into Novice High and Int Low they are somewhat ready to do this on their own!

  3. I really like this and would like to understand more. Could you expand more on what you mean by “they are asked to respond 6 times”? Do you mean the whole group or each individual?

  4. Hi Chris – when I am directing it they must try to give 6 answers (over about 9 questions) each. I call on them to answer when their hand is up. They know that I will not call ‘the first hand’ but that I will prioritize so that everyone gets 6 if they want to! I will call on anyone with a hand up until there are no more hands up (or it goes on too long on that 1 question) I don’t generally allow a student to have 2 replies to a question. They learn to differentiate their answers using adverbs (‘very’, ‘really really’ etc), they learn to use a ‘negative’ to give the same meaning. And let’s face it – I want them all to get 6 so I give lots of clues as to how they can make their answer ‘unique’. We do this in Yr2 and then in Yr3 I move on to convo circles….

  5. For Mme. Gojsic who asked how I structure the activities during the circle or do I just hand out questions?
    Actually I just hand out questions on a sheet (original & new ‘everyone’ Q’s). They do the rest. As I outlined in the post I do ‘switch up’ their tables 2/3 of the way through. That’s it. However, this comes after lots of practice at working independently of me in the TL (reinforced by the ‘how did that go?’ rubric etc), lots and lots of interaction and reinforcement of ‘how’ to communicate (they also sit in tables of 4 so it promotes that) and lots of direct talk from me about what I expect them to be doing.
    Hope this answers your question..if not let me know!

  6. That did help! Thank you! Your blog post was timely as I had a teacher who wanted to start something similar. She referred to it as literacy circles…but I thought it was more so a conversation circle. Her focus is on a particular story (one that recounts the story of a child who continuously encounters some sort of hurdle or unfortunate event) and the question was what types of activities could the students do besides asking and answering questions (in a 76 minutes period, she worried that the students would get bored). I suggested “playing with” the reading material – use the text as the context for any shared tasks in the group. Students could start with read alouds – with a focus on reading strategies used. They could then move to questions about the text and questions that lead to students making connections to the text. Lastly, I suggested a shared writing activity…students express a point of view in the role of the character. The circle becomes a support system for each of the tasks and all work is completed in the TL.

    Mme Gojsic

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