Speaking real, conversational English is one of the most sought after skills for EFL/ESL learners. They need it for work, travel, and enjoyment of the language. But for many students, it’s hard to find good quality speaking classes which allow them to have focused time with an expert.

That’s where private EFL/ESL conversation lesson shine. Either with individuals or small groups, having some time to develop fluency in spoken English makes a huge difference to their overall ability with the language.

In fact, if you’re a private EFL/ESL teacher who gives classes to mostly adults and older teenagers, I’d bet a good chunk of your lessons are conversation-based.

So how do you do it? Can you just sit and chat to students, like you would a friend? No. There’s a lot more to it than that. Fortunately, you’re in the right place to find out, as this article will run you through everything you need to know to give the best EFL/ESL conversation classes.

I’ve been giving private conversation lessons since 2016. Over the years, I’ve had countless wonderful sessions, and a few stinkers. I’ve learned from all of them. My experiences have led me to develop these seven steps.

If you’re about to start your first private class with a new student (or group), I highly recommend you first read my article Acing Your First Private EFL/ESL Class: 9 Steps to Success. There, you’ll learn how to set expectations, targets, and begin building a positive atmosphere. Then you can come back here to learn more.

This is one part of a big series of guides about how to be the best private EFL/ESL teacher.

So let’s get stuck in!

  1. Set targets with your student(s)
  2. Create a supportive and risk-free atmosphere
  3. Give considerate feedback and corrections
  4. Consider your assessment strategy
  5. Manage conversation balance and group dynamics
  6. Choose awesome topics
  7. Try role play and speaking games

1. Set targets with your student(s)

The first thing you should do with a new class is a needs analysis.

If you don’t know what this is, or you’re unsure exactly how to do it, read my in-depth guide Needs Analysis for Private EFL/ESL Lessons.

In short, a needs analysis is a process which tells you your students’ ability, preferences, aims and confidence.

Part of it is discussing what your students want to achieve by having classes with you. This is when they tell you they want to practice conversation. And if you’ve done your needs analysis well, you should have a good idea of their level of fluency and what topics they find interesting.

You must also find out the level of structure they want. Are they looking for a free-form conversation class in which you spend the whole time chatting, or do they want a more focused approach?

Photo by Skitterphoto: https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-dart-pink-attach-on-yellow-green-and-red-dart-board-15812/

Focused classes have an emphasis on a particular topic of vocabulary or a certain grammar point. For example, you could hone in on the second conditional and vocab about spending money by talking about hypothetical situations, like “what would you do if you won the lottery?”

Do your students want you to prepare a list of questions on a topic each week? Or will they bring their own ideas? Some students just want to meet up and chat about what they’ve done that week. Others like to go with the flow and see where the conversation takes them.

With focused classes, you can set clear targets for each session. With less structured lessons, targets are not so specific, and at the extreme level, they may be as broad as “gain confidence and fluency”.

I have a lot of students who want the latter. They much prefer chatting about whatever comes to mind and avoid the formality of following a sequence of questions.

If you’re unsure, or students don’t express a preference, err on the side of over-structuring. It’s better for your students to deliberately move the conversation away from your prepared discussion topics than for the class to end up in an awkward situation struggling for things to talk about. In later lessons, you can adapt.

However, even with students who like to chat about whatever springs to mind, have a backup plan. Prepare a topic for when you run out of things to say. If you don’t use it, no worries. Keep it in reserve for next time.

2. Create a supportive and risk-free atmosphere

This concept applies to lessons of all subjects and situations. However, it’s especially important in conversation classes, as confidence is often the key barrier to success.

At the end of the day, we’re emotional creatures. Whether we like it or not, our minds and bodies actively avoid situations in which there’s potential for failure and embarrassment. When speaking a foreign language, we expose ourselves to that kind of risk.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I teach a lot of kids aged 10-12. At that age, they’re effusive and bold. They’ve learned enough English to put sentences together and they love showing off their abilities.

However, when puberty hits, and they start thinking about how others perceive them, things change dramatically. There’s a reluctance now. Mistakes might be punished by social disapproval. It’s easier to stay quiet.

This often carries on into adulthood. Adults may not have so much fear of looking silly in front of their friends, but there’s still the worry of seeming incompetent. Speaking English has an aspect of performance, and that’s something many struggle with.

The single most important aspect of quality EFL/ESL conversation classes is creating a safe, supportive atmosphere. It’s way more important than grammar, vocabulary, or what topic you talk about.

If your students don’t feel comfortable talking in your class, they won’t progress.

Here are some rules for creating the right atmosphere:

  • NEVER mock or laugh at a student for making a mistake. Other students in the class must follow this rule too.
  • NEVER get angry or punish a student for mistakes.
  • Focus on positives, giving encouraging nods and supportive comments.
  • Give students time and space to think. Don’t rush them.
  • Don’t grade their performance.
  • Pay attention to students at all times.
  • Use your body language and tone to show you’re interested in what they’re saying and that their learning is important to you.
  • Give them agency in the conversation. Don’t talk over them or interrupt.

Without this kind of atmosphere, students won’t enjoy your classes. They’ll retreat. You may find pretty quickly that their attendance drops. But if you associate their experience of speaking English with positive emotions, they’ll quickly gain trust and confidence and in no time they’ll be chatting freely.

3. Give considerate feedback and corrections

One way of really knocking a student’s confidence is to correct them on every minor error they make.

In conversation, people mess up. Even native speakers do it, so you can’t expect your students to use perfect grammar and precise pronunciation every time.

Photo by Alexander Suhorucov from Pexels

Don’t bombard them with corrections. Giving appropriate feedback is a vital skill for successful conversation classes. But don’t worry, it’s not that difficult. Just follow these steps.

  1. Pay attention to your students. This seems obvious, but don’t skip it. If you listen to them carefully, you can separate the real issues they have and mistakes which were just occasional slips.
  2. Focus on the most fundamental mistakes. Take the sentence “She had forget his bag.” There are two errors here: 1. Forget -> forgotten, 2. His -> her. The first mistake is not using the correct past participle in the past perfect. Advanced stuff. The second is a basic gender pronoun mistake. I would focus on the gender pronoun because it’s a more fundamental part of grammar.
  3. Aim to correct no more than one mistake per utterance. The word utterance refers to a stretch of speech, like a sentence. When we talk, we don’t use sentences in the same way as written language. Things are a bit looser. The point is, only correct once per stretch of extended speech.
  4. Use gestures for common types of mistakes. A mistake my students frequently make is forgetting to use the past tense form of a word. “I go to the cinema yesterday”. In this case, instead of interrupting them with a correction, point over your shoulder with your thumb to indicate past. If the order of words in a sentence is wrong, use your fingers to indicate they should swap the words around. They’ll soon learn what you mean.
  5. Indicate there’s a mistake without saying it directly. Use a gesture for this, too. Raising your eyebrows or putting up a finger tells the student there’s something wrong with what they just said. You should do this for simple mistakes that they can easily correct themselves. When they see something’s wrong, they can usually go back and fix it immediately.
  6. Let students figure it out themselves. Sometimes, students get stuck on a phrase and struggle to get there. Let them suffer a bit. The effort they put in will help them develop. If you instantly provide them with the correct answer, they won’t learn. And what happens when you’re not there to help them?
  7. Avoid the phrase “repeat after me”. This is a really common way of correcting that I absolutely hate. Forcing someone to repeat the correct sentence makes them uncomfortable. It’s alright when you’re learning something the first time because it builds neural pathways, but in the middle of a conversation, it halts the flow and is patronising, especially with adults.
  8. Give positive feedback. The forgotten flip side to corrections. Remember to tell your students when they get something right. It can be as simple as an encouraging nod or a thumbs up. And at the end of a long conversation, some words of praise go a long way.

Click here to buy 480 ESL Conversation Prompts and never run out of engaging topics!

You definitely need to take a “soft touch” approach to start with. Going in hard with a new student is risky – you can alienate them from the off, and it’s hard to get them back onside.

As you get to know your students better, you can try out a few minutes of harder correction and see how they respond. If they struggle to keep going or shrink into themselves, ease off. If they roll with it and come out stronger, keep it up.

And I’ll say it again. Praise their successes. Focus more on what they’re doing correctly than what they’re failing at.

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4. Consider your assessment strategy

Assessment in a conversation class is tricky. And however you do it, I recommend keeping it soft and qualitative. By that I mean don’t give numerical or alphabetical grades.

What assessment is at its core is figuring out what a student is good at and what they’re not so good at. That’s it. Where have they improved, and what do they need to work on?

My method of assessment is passive and continuous. It involves taking brief notes on specific things throughout a conversation.

Let’s say the class is focused on the present perfect. While a student is talking, I’ll pay attention to whether they’re using the tense accurately. If there are lots of mistakes, what aspects do they consistently struggle with?

Is it conjugating have/has? Or is it the past participle? Maybe they’re using the present perfect when they should use the past simple instead.

All this relates to the lesson target I established in step 1. However, for classes which don’t have such clear cut targets, assessment can get messy very quickly.

Yes, you can focus on grammar mistakes. But if you write down every error that appears, you’ll spend half the class scribbling down notes and end up with a massive list, which is hard to make sense of.

Generally, in those types of classes, I assess fluency and confidence. That’s what the student wants to work on, so that should be the focus of my attention. But how do I do this?

Once again, pay attention. Listen for moments when they speak fluently and moments when they get stuck. What’s holding them back? Maybe they’re missing a few key transitional phrases or connectors to sequence their thoughts. Or perhaps they have real trouble with pronouncing certain words.

Whatever it is, I’ll make a note of it, either during or after the lesson.

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The final question with assessment is: what do you do with the information? What’s the purpose of assessment?

It’s certainly not to give your student a grade. While people are used to this kind of feedback, and some may seek it, that’s not why we assess.

Instead, you should use what you’ve learned to tailor future classes. Find areas of weakness and plan sessions which aim to improve them. Find strengths and build upon them even more. It’s all an ongoing process of adapting, sculpting, and progressing.

5. Manage conversation balance & group dynamics

Balance of participation in conversation classes is something you need to keep an eye on. In some cases, students are mature enough to speak and listen in equal part. Others require action from you.

Classes with an individual student

It’s a lot easier to manage the dynamic of an individual class because you control 50% of the people involved. As a result, you can change how much you speak in order to create balance.

In an ideal world, the teacher will speak about 20-30% of the time while the student will speak for 70-80%. Note this is how much time each is talking for, NOT how many words they say.

Overall, a good conversation has a 50-50 contribution. But what you say will take less time because you are fluent. Your student will take longer to say the same amount of information. If you split the time evenly, you’d actually be saying a lot more than them.

Image by user1505195587 from Pixabay

Some students are very chatty. They may see you as someone they can talk at and you’ll just listen and give feedback. That’s fine, to an extent. But remember they’re practicing conversation, not how to deliver a monologue. Make sure to interact and give your own contributions at times.

On the other side of the coin, there are students who won’t speak much at all. With these, you need to give them time and patience. If you follow the guidance in step 2, they’ll grow more and more comfortable speaking with you.

Ask them interesting questions (but not too many that they feel overwhelmed). Chat about things they’re passionate about. When they grab hold of something and start talking freely, ease off on the corrections to give them a positive experience of speaking at length without fear.

Classes with groups

Group convesations can be tricky to manage. Even more so when you have a mixture of different abilities and levels of confidence.

Ideally, you should only have conversation groups with students of a similar ability. When there are big differences, it’s frustrating for everyone. But even if they all have the same level of English, there are differences in personality to take into account.

This is where establishing expectations is important. It’s something you should do right at the start.

I actually have a whole article on establishing expectations in private EFL/ESL classes. Read it here: How to Set Rules & Expectations in Private EFL/ESL Classes.

With a conversation class, you should include a few extra aspects to that first conversation where you lay out the “rules”. Make sure students understand that they’re all equal members of the group. They should support each other and be ready to listen to their classmates just as much as they speak.

And during the class, when someone is talking too much, guide the conversation to other students. And don’t be afraid to stop them if they won’t let anyone else speak. Refer back to the expectations and explain that it’s time for others to contribute.

On the other hand, avoid pressuring those less confident members. They may prefer to speak a little less than others and being in the spotlight for too long could be stressful. Don’t make them feel terrified.

Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

Of course, by creating a positive, supporting atmosphere, you help them overcome these worries. But at the end of the day, some people just have a quieter personality while others are so excitable they struggle to control themselves.

If students aren’t contributing in exactly equal measures, don’t panic. As long as each has their chance to speak and progress, you’re doing fine.

6. Choose awesome topics

This section is for those classes in which you prepare a different topic each week to discuss.

You may be asking, what should the topics be?

Well, judging from the amount of websites which have long lists of conversation ideas for EFL/ESL, this is a question a lot of teachers struggle with. But before you rush off and grab one of those lists, think about what you’ve learned so far.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

You’ve done a needs analysis (if you haven’t, check out my article Needs Analysis for Private EFL/ESL Lessons). You know some of the things that interest your students. Even better, you’ve found things you have in common.

That’s a great start. With that information, you could probably plan the first three or four topics.

Beyond that, you have more resources at your disposal. The first is very simple. Ask your student(s) what they’d like to talk about. Surely that’s better than choosing one at random off a big list!

Brainstorm some ideas with them. If they aren’t forthcoming, print off one of those lists and show it to your student. Get them to pick the top 10 things they’d like to discuss.

Image by Manfred Steger from Pixabay

Once you’ve done the first 5-10 classes, you’ll know what works. At that point, you can expand on topics you discussed before and go into more detail or change perspective.

You may learn that they didn’t really enjoy the class about the environment, and they kept bringing up a safari holiday they went on. There you go, a whole new topic.

Tailoring your classes this way give so much value. Students know you’re paying attention to their needs, and they gain more confidence when talking about things they like.

Click here to buy 480 ESL Conversation Prompts and never run out of engaging topics!

7. Try role play and speaking games

Some conversation classes go by like a breeze. They’re easy. No issues in getting students talking, and every class progresses fluency and confidence.

But this doesn’t always happen. It can get difficult with younger students who aren’t capable of extended conversation even in their own language, those with a lower level, or students who struggle to open up.

The temptation is to pivot to a focus on grammar, vocabulary or reading. But I see that as giving up.

After all, your job is to improve their confidence and fluency – that’s what you established from the start. If you abandon that, you’re not fulfilling those expectations.

So what do you do? Try new things. Switch the class up so there’s less of a focus on extended discussion and questioning.

A fantastic way to do this is with role-play scenarios. Role play is the improvised enactment of a scenario. That means it’s unscripted. Students take on a role and talk with each other to resolve a problem, agree on a course of action, or just have a bit of fun.

It helps less confident students by giving them a little more structure and adds some energy to the class.

For more on why I love role plays so much, read Why All EFL/ESL Teachers Should Use Role Play Activities.
Also, I have guides for how to run role-play scenarios in classes with adults/teens and children. Check them out here:
Teaching EFL/ESL to Teenagers & Adults With Role Play
How to Teach Children EFL/ESL With Role Play: Best tips

You can also try out games which encourage speaking. I have whole lists of games for different levels, but here are some I’ve picked out which are best for speaking.

BEGINNERS: Monster Factory (from my list of 9 EFL/ESL Speaking Games & Activities Perfect for Beginners). It’s a fun drawing game which has students make simple sentences.
INTERMEDIATES: Blindfold directions (from my list of 9 EFL/ESL Games and Activities for Intermediate Learners). This is great fun for students of all ages. It practices giving clear, precise instructions.
ADVANCED: Escape Rooms (from my list of 9 EFL/ESL Games and Activities for Advanced Learners). Needs a fair amount of preparation, but the results are excellent.

Social deduction board games are another great option. Examples include Spyfall, Coup and Detective Club.

My personal game of coup which has been used in dozens of classes

If you want to take your classes to the next level, you can combine role plays and games to make what I believe is the single most enjoyable and effective way of learning spoken English (amongst other things).

Table top role-playing games (aka TTRPGs). The most famous one is Dungeons & Dragons, but there are plenty of simpler game systems which are easy to get into.

Basically, your students have characters, you put them in a situation, and they say what their character does. They can have deep conversations with imaginary people, solve tricky puzzles, explore amazing locations (gaining lots of vocabulary) and fight deadly monsters.

And don’t think it’s just for kids. It’s becoming one of the biggest hobbies worldwide, thanks to YouTube channels like Critical Role.

If you want students engaged in conversation and invested in improving their English, with the right class, TTRPGs are simply incredible.


All conversation classes are different. That’s because all people are different. You can’t follow the same lesson plan for all your individuals or groups and expect to get great results.

The joy of teaching conversational English is adapting it to your students’ needs and wishes. It’s a creative process. And when you get it right, you can have a huge impact on their learning and confidence.

Remember, this is just one part of your English teaching journey. And I have you covered all the way. Below you’ll see links to a whole load of other articles aimed at helping you be an awesome EFL/ESL teacher.

Click here to buy 480 ESL Conversation Prompts and never run out of engaging topics!

Follow the links below to learn how to be the best private EFL/ESL tutor possible.
Ultimate Guide to Giving Great EFL/ESL Private Classes
Needs Analysis for Private EFL/ESL Lessons: 12 step guide
Principles of Designing Amazing Private EFL/ESL Lessons
Acing Your First Private EFL/ESL Class: 9 Steps to Success
Lesson Plans for First Private EFL/ESL Lesson (+ tips)
How to Set Rules & Expectations in Private EFL/ESL Classes
What to Do if Private EFL/ESL Students Won’t Participate
Getting EFL/ESL Exam Preparation Right: Tips for success
Give Amazing Private EFL/ESL Classes to Kids: 9 steps
7 Steps for Incredible Private EFL/ESL Conversation Classes
Teaching EFL/ESL Grammar: A guide for private tutors
5 Tips for Setting Homework in Private EFL/ESL Classes

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