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Teaching English Conversation to Adult Learners

Paul has spent many years teaching English as a foreign and second language. He has taught EFL in Taiwan and Thailand, and ESL in the U.S.

Adult Education


Teaching English Conversation to Adults

Since the 1970s, I have been engaged in teaching English conversation to adult EFL and ESL learners both in the United States and abroad. Students in the United States, Taiwan, and Thailand have been in my classes to improve their listening and speaking abilities. This has been an interesting, challenging, and rewarding career in seeing people make progress in using spoken English to satisfy various personal needs. Through trial and error, I have come up with useful techniques that I share with you in this article. Many of these techniques are illustrated in my most recent experience of teaching conversation to adults in Thailand.

Who are Adult EFL and ESL Learners?

My adult EFL learners in Taiwan and Thailand have been many high school and college graduates aged 21-80. Most of these adults studied English in high school and college for many years. Some have only had a few years of education. Although many could read very well, their listening and speaking skills were very deficient due to limited exposure to using spoken English. Many former students had various professional and semi-professional jobs such as teachers, engineers, accountants, business managers, import-export traders, computer programmers, and government employees.

In the U.S., my ESL learners were younger adults aged 10-40 who had recently immigrated to America. Most were high school or college graduates who needed to improve their listening and speaking skills for survival in U.S. society. Others needed to improve their conversation for school studies and getting employment.

Reasons for Learning Conversational English

EFL adult learners in Taiwan and Thailand took conversation classes for three primary reasons: one, to travel to western countries; two, to communicate with foreign businessmen and English-speaking friends; and three, to study abroad. When I taught EFL in Taiwan years ago, many of my import and export traders traveled regularly to the United States, Canada, European countries, and Hong Kong. Other students often entertained foreign businessmen in Taiwan, or they had English-speaking friends who often visited them. Still, other students wanted to practice conversation so that they could more easily pass TOEFL and IELTS speaking and listening tests for study abroad.

The author as an English teacher at Saint Joseph Bangna School in Thaiand in 2009.

The author as an English teacher at Saint Joseph Bangna School in Thaiand in 2009.

How to Teach Conversation to Adults: Lessons Learned From Teaching at a Thai Company

In 2009 and 2010, I taught adult conversation classes at a small Thai company in Bangkok. After detailing the location, time, size, composition of the class, and study materials, I will describe how I conducted a typical class. Based on this experience, I will pass judgment on what worked well for me, and also suggest deficiencies in the class which must be eliminated for future classes.

1. Location of Class

My classroom was located on the fourth floor of the Thaiscan Corporation in a small industrial park in southwestern Bangkok. Thaiscan is a small printing company that designs, prints, and markets advertising signs and posters for local businesses such as KFC and MacDonald's. The corporations' printing machines are on the second floor while office space is on the third floor. My classroom was the company's conference room which had a whiteboard and a long meeting table and chairs to accommodate 20 people.

2. Class Time

The class was held every Saturday afternoon from the hours of 4:00 to 6:00. According to the boss, the employees were too busy working to allow more time for the class. After holding the class for more than one year, it was discontinued since most students were too busy to attend.

3. Size and Composition of Class Members

On any given Saturday, 15-20 Thaiscan employees were attending the class. The class included the owner and manager of Thaiscan and 19 of his employees. The employees were both male and female and included assistant managers, accountants, graphic designers, marketing salespeople, secretaries, and messengers. Except for one Burmese, all were Thai with either a high school or college education.

4. Instructional Materials

Before the first day of class, the students wanted to use a textbook. This was difficult because there wasn't one ideal book to satisfy the wants and needs of the class. Although we briefly used a book for the first month or two of the class, I prepared my instructional materials for most of the classes.

5. Proceedings of a Typical Class

On a typical Saturday afternoon, I would usually arrive at Thaiscan from 3:30-to 3:40. After enlisting the aid of a company employee in printing handouts for the class, an employee would accompany me to the conference room where I prepared to conduct the class in the following manner:

A. State Objectives of Current Class

The first thing I did was to write in bullet form three or four objectives of the two-hour class. These objectives usually included: one, free conversation and asking questions; two, review of previous class material and checking of homework; three, introduction and practice of new lesson conversation topic; and four, summary and assignment of homework.

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B. Free Conversation and Asking Questions

I usually spent the first 10-15 minutes of class letting the students ask questions or talk about any topic they chose. In the beginning, I had to review questioning techniques and practice with the students how to ask questions.

C. Reviewing Previous Class Material and Checking Homework

I would ask students to summarize in a few seconds what they learned the week before. Next, I would have the students read and correct the assigned homework exercises which usually included written sentences and dialogues created by the students.

D. Introduction to Conversation Topic

After homework was checked, I would introduce the day's conversation topic. The topic would be something useful for eating, shopping, or telephone calls used both in and outside of the office. If the topic was on telephone calls, I would first activate the students' previous knowledge by questioning why and how students use their phones.

E. Group Practice of Short Dialogue

After activation of previous knowledge, I would hand each student a page that had, for example, short telephone dialogues of usually no more than three exchanges between the speakers. After having the class as a group repeat the conversation after me, I would question the students' comprehension, and also answer questions about anything they didn't understand. Next, I would take one part of the dialogue, and the class would take the other part in reading through the conversation with appropriate body language.

F. Paired Practice

The next step would be dividing the class into pairs and having each group practice reading through the dialogue. By doing this, I could individually check pronunciation and intonation problems as well as comprehension.

G. Memorization of Dialogue and Free Conversation

After all paired practice was finished, I would ask for volunteers to get in front of the class with a prop of a phone to recite the memorized dialogue. Next, I would illustrate through substitution drills how students can move to variations of memorized dialogues and more free conversation.

H. Summary and Homework Assignment

The final 10 minutes of each class would be spent summarizing the day's lesson and assigning homework for the next week's class. A homework assignment would be for the students to create a short telephone dialogue by applying substitution drills.

On a few special occasions, the Thaiscan owner would arrange out-of-class activities for me and the class. These activities included dining once at an outdoor seafood restaurant, and a night at a Thai supper club on the occasion of my birthday. During these special extra-curricular activities, students were more relaxed and more willing to engage in free conversation.

How to Teach English as a Second Language to Adults

How to Teach Conversation to Adults: Preliminary Concerns

Before teaching a conversation class to adults, it is necessary to find out certain things about your students. These include the following:

1. Determine Students' Wants

The first thing a wise teacher must do is to determine why students want to improve their English conversation. Is it for survival in living in a western country like the U.S. or Canada? Is it for communicating with foreigners within their native country? Finally, are students taking conversation classes in preparation for studying or working abroad?

2. Find Out Students' Backgrounds

If the teacher is to devise a suitable instructional plan, he or she must understand the students' educational and work backgrounds. This will enable the teacher to select or produce suitable teaching and learning materials.

3. Determine Students' Linguistic Needs

Determining students' linguistic needs is very important for ensuring success in improving conversation skills. This can be done by giving all new students in the class a listening and speaking diagnostic test to evaluate pronunciation, intonation, vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and other listening and speaking skills.

Evaluation of Thaiscan Conversation Class

Although the Thaiscan class ended earlier than I thought and wanted, overall, it would have to be considered a success. The class had both its good and bad points which I state here.

Good Points

1. Increased Student Self-Confidence When Speaking

At the beginning of the class, most students were hesitant and afraid to speak in class. At the end of the class, most of the students said they had more confidence in speaking. This was reflected in the increased amount of free conversation and questions asked by the students.

2. A Student-Centered Classroom

By the time the class concluded, our classroom became more student-centered than teacher-centered. My job as a teacher became more of a coach-like mentor and observer.

3. Students Could Satisfy More Needs Using English

Within the one and a half years I taught the Thaiscan class, the students changed in using English more as a second language than as a foreign language. This was especially evident when the students used English out of the classroom to satisfy their needs with me and other foreigners.

Bad Points

1. Class Sessions Were Too Long

Throughout the length of the course, I quickly discovered that two hours is too long of a time for a conversation class. Classes not exceeding 90 minutes with a 5-10 minute break would be ideal.

2. Class Members Were of Mixed-Ability

The class members would have made better individual progress if everyone in the class was the same speaking ability.

3. Expecting Too Much and Too Soon

At times during the class, I was expecting the students to make too much progress and to make that progress too quickly. It would have been better if the class had proceeded slower on some occasions.

4. Students Not Having Enough Time Off Work to Attend Class

Some students would have made more progress in the class if they had been able to attend all the classes.

Adult English conversation classes are especially important for EFL learners. If a teacher adopts an audio-lingual teaching method and makes his classroom student-centered, EFL learners can quickly become ESL learners and use English more to satisfy their needs.

Teaching English Conversation to Adult Learners

  • Assessing Listening and Speaking Proficiency
    Assessing listening and speaking proficiency ratings of ESL students must be improved. The U.S. Government's Interagency Language Roundtable language skill level ratings are worth using today.
  • Helping ESL and EFL Students Ask Information Questions
    If ESL teachers want students to improve their language skills, it is necessary to give them the needed tools for asking questions. This hub gives tips on helping ESL students ask good questions.
  • Dictation Exercises for ESL and EFL Students
    Dictation exercises for ESL students can be worthwhile in measuring proficiency in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. This hub analyzes the results of a dictation exercise for EFL students.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Paul Richard Kuehn


Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on January 02, 2019:

Do you want to learn online or do you want to attend a school?

Busie on January 01, 2019:

I want to learn English

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on February 08, 2018:

I am pleased that you found my post useful.

Raj Spoken English class In Bhilai-Durg-Raipur from Bhilai Nagar on February 08, 2018:

Nice and useful post


Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on September 15, 2016:

I am very happy that you found my ESL and EFL teaching tips useful. I plan to share more of my experiences at a later date.

wiserworld on September 15, 2016:

Great tips for teaching ESL. Thanks for sharing this.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on August 26, 2014:

&Mones Self Thank you very much for your great appreciative comments. I am so happy that you find this hub useful and that it will help improve your way of teaching.

Mones Self on July 31, 2014:

Paul: This hub is such a very good and helpful one. I'm going to teach both grammar and conversation to the young ones and adult (private tutoring) this will really help to improve my way of teaching.


Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on October 10, 2013:


Thank you very much for commenting on this hub. I appreciate you sharing your experiences in teaching English to adults in Saudi Arabia. In the 70s I taught English mostly to adults while living in Taiwan. It was a very interesting and rewarding experience.

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on October 10, 2013:

Paul: All ESL teachers should read this hub. You make so many excellent points. I taught English to Arab women in Saudi Arabia in the early 90s. Their motivation was built right in. Learning some of their customs was essential to making reasonable expectations by me and by them.

I found I could break up the monotony of a long class by inserting a session on the meanings behind American sayings (It's raining cats and dogs.) or the vocabulary you'd need to take your child to an ER or an amusement park.

In lieu of homework, I'd encourage these ladies to watch CNN or the BBC (if available) to hear English spoken properly and with neutral accents.

Great hub! SHARING

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on September 23, 2013:


I'm happy you found this hub interesting. Thanks for voting this article up and sharing it!

moonlake from America on September 23, 2013:

Interesting hub. Voted up and it's well worth sharing. Tweet and tumbler.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on May 12, 2013:


Thank you very much for relating your experiences in auditing a linguistics course. Formal and informal English are indeed very different. Since the late 50s and 60s, the government has adopted an informal audiolingual approach in teaching the military and government workers. I saw how it worked when I took Chinese Mandarin at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey and had a course abroad in Taiwan with the State Department. Thank you for your comments on this hub and for sharing it.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on May 12, 2013:


I have never successfully learned another language but the subject is interesting. Back when Minneapolis had "educational TV, rather than PBS I audited a course in Lingistics. The instructor told of teaching WWII POWs English. Every day the prisoners were directed to write a little memo about what they did during the day. He said they would usually start out saying "I arose this morning" and end it with "I retire at night."

His response was that in the United States people "got up in the morning" and "went to bed" at night.

Doesn't sound too impressive but I think it tells a lot about formal and informal English, at least American English.

In my day they mostly taught formal English and frowned on the informal.

Voted up, interesting, and shared.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on April 27, 2013:


Thank you very much for reading and commenting on this hub. I really appreciate your suggestion for changing the title of this hub. Perhaps readers will find it easier to find this article.

Diane Lockridge from Atlanta, GA on April 27, 2013:

I think the title would be better as "How to Teach Conversational English to Adult Learners".

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on April 27, 2013:


I'm extremely happy you found this hub both interesting and useful. Special thanks for you votes and sharing this hub.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on April 27, 2013:

Suzie HQ,

Thank you for your favorable comments on this hub. I'm very happy you like my article and find it useful. Good luck in your English teaching in southern Italy! I especially appreciate you sharing this hub.

livingsta from United Kingdom on April 26, 2013:

A very interesting and useful hub Paul. I can understand how challenging it can be. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Voted up and sharing!

Suzanne Ridgeway from Dublin, Ireland on April 26, 2013:

Hi Paul,

What an excellent teaching example and such interesting content. I am moving to Italy and very keen to teach English there (southern Italy) as it is not widely spoken and I know there is a demand for this with businesses and schools. Banks are an ideal example as more foreigners live here and it makes good business sense for banks to be able to converse in English. Many foreigners there do not have fluent or any level of Italian (big mistake) so it is an area I feel is ripe for a bilingual person to work in. I love your detailed approach and how you take everything into account to tailor make the course and develop students. Congrats on a thoroughly useful article for all thinking of teaching English. Voted up, useful, interesting & shared.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on March 09, 2013:


Thank you very much for stopping by and your very nice comments. I really appreciate them and your votes.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on March 09, 2013:


I'm so happy that you liked my hub and found it helpful. Thank you for your votes and sharing this hub.

Mary Craig from New York on March 08, 2013:

Its obvious you are doing a great job. Understanding your students, and student centered learning is a great way to approach the difficulties of English. We take it for granted but it can be a hard language to learn.

Voted up and interesting.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on March 08, 2013:

Excellent hub, Paul. You have outlined a great routine that could be useful to both teachers and students. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and learned quite a bit.

Voted up, useful and shared here, pinned and tweeted.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on March 03, 2013:


Thank you very much for stopping by and commenting on my hub. I really appreciate your praise and good words.

Sharilee Swaity from Canada on March 03, 2013:

Paul, this is a very good guideline for teaching English Conversation classes. I have had some experience in this area, and your points are excellent. I like your point about providing three points of objectives for every class. That is something I could have added to my classes. Also, it is interesting that two houtis two long, and it is good to know that 90 minutes is ideal. When I was tutoring one on one, I found the same thing, that 90 minutes was just about right. Great job, Paul! As always, a high quality article.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on February 23, 2013:


Thanks for reading this article. I appreciate your very nice comments, and I'm happy you find this article beneficial.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on February 23, 2013:


Thanks for stopping by. I really appreciate your great comments. Thanks for the votes and especially the sharing.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on February 23, 2013:


Thanks for reading and your comments. Teaching EFL and ESL is indeed hard to do, but it is so interesting and rewarding.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on February 23, 2013:


Thanks for reading this hub and I appreciate your comments. Direct immersion, as in your case, is the best way to learn English. Just like jumping in the deep water when beginning to swim, it can be frightening at first, but it certainly is the fastest way to learn.

torrilynn on February 23, 2013:

paul kuehn, really nice article that you have here and the photos that you have included in your hub. i feel that this is important to those that do travel and do not know how to speak or read English. very beneficial to people trying to learn. thanks and voted up.

Donna Hilbrandt from Upstate New York on February 23, 2013:

This is a fantastic article. You not only give good techniques for teacher a conversation class, but your advice could be applied to any subject area. Knowing our students' wants and needs is so important. Having a student centered classroom should be a goal for every teacher. Also, your experience of doing the best you can with the circumstances you are given is important too. Educators often have to work in less than ideal conditions. We need to learn to adapt and attempt to get the job done. Voted up and sharing.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 23, 2013:

Bravo for the job you do. I have always thought this would be hard to do. English is such a difficult language with so many variations, some of which are not logical.

kidscrafts from Ottawa, Canada on February 23, 2013:

Great article! My way of learning English was to move from Belgium (French part) to Canada (English part) and just plunge. It was not easy... but I can talk, read and write know. I know also that I am still learming a lot, especially with hubpages :-)

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