The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Free Discussion Class

Question:

Submitted by Mahmoud Ali Ahmadi Pour, Kian Language Academy, Iran

  1. What are the characteristics of a good free discussion class?
  2. Is there a specific design for a free discussion class?
  3. What techniques can be applied to the free discussion class so that it helps improve the students English proficiency both in accuracy and fluency?

Dr. Richards responds:

Discussion skills may be important for students using English in school and academic settings, as well as for those using English for business communications. However ‘discussions’ have often been a substitute for a serious approach to the teaching of spoken English. An example of this is seen in the ‘so-called conversation’ classes that are often a feature of English programmes at both secondary and tertiary level in many countries. These are typically unfocused sessions organized around the topics of the day drawn from the media and other sources. While the goal is to find engaging content that will generate discussion such activities have little impact on the development of students’ oral skills. Poorly planned discussion activities allow stronger students to dominate, are unfocused and do not provide for systematic feedback. If discussion skills are to be taken seriously as an important component of a spoken English course, rather than as a filler-activity, their nature and features need to be addressed systematically.

A discussion is an interaction focusing on exchanging ideas about a topic and presenting points of view and opinions. Of course, people often ‘discuss’ topics in casual conversation, such as the weather or recent experiences, but discussions of that kind are often merely ‘chit-chat’ – a form of politeness and social interaction. They do not usually lead to ‘real’ discussions where more serious topics of interest and importance are talked about for an extended period of time, in order to arrive at a consensus about something, solve a problem or explore different sides of an issue. It is discussions of this kind that are the focus here, particularly those that take place in an educational or professional setting.

Skills involved in taking part in discussions include:

  • Giving opinions.
  • Presenting a point of view.
  • Supporting a point of view.
  • Taking a turn.
  • Sustaining a turn.
  • Listening to others’ opinions.
  • Agreeing and disagreeing with opinions.
  • Summarizing a position.

Approaches to teaching discussion skills centre on addressing the following issues

  • Choosing topics: Topics may be chosen by students or assigned by the teacher. Both options offer different possibilities for student involvement.
  • Forming groups: Small groups of four to five allow for more active participation, and care is needed to establish groups of compatible participants. For some tasks, roles may be assigned (e.g. group leader, note-taker, observer).
  • Preparing for discussions: Before groups are assigned a task, it may be necessary to review background knowledge, assign information-gathering tasks (e.g. watching a video) and teach some of the specific ways students can present a viewpoint, interrupt, disagree politely, etc.
  • Giving guidelines: The parameters for the discussion should be clear so that students are clear how long the discussion will last, what the expected outcomes
  • Evaluating discussions: Both the teacher and the students can be involved in reflection on discussions. The teacher may want to focus on the amount and quality of input from participants and give suggestions for improvement. Some review of language used may be useful at this point. Students may comment on their own performance and difficulties they experienced and give suggestions for future discussions.