On Choosing a Conversation Class in a Language School

[The notes on this page are about a general English "conversation" class, not an "IELTS test preparation" class. Many language schools that have general conversation classes do not have IELTS test preparation classes, and the "training schools" that have IELTS test preparation classes sometimes don't have general conversation classes.]

If you are thinking of attending a conversation class in a language school, you first need to know a few things about language schools and conversation classes. The quality of language schools varies from school to school and, even more importantly, from teacher to teacher. Just because a teacher is a native English speaker who speaks English very well, has a good personality (and looks good in a business suit) does not automatically mean that this person is a good teacher and that you will improve very much by attending his or her class.

Foreigners who teach English in China (and in most other non-English speaking countries) don't need to be trained or qualified as language teachers 每 by law, all they need is a degree in any discipline (it could be accountancy or engineering) and they need to come from an English-speaking country. That's all. (Foreign teachers who teach English classes in universities need to have a degree in an English-related subject or in education (i.e., high school or primary school teaching) but they don't need to be qualified or experienced in Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language.)

Some foreign teachers in some language schools think that the way to teach conversational English is to chat to the students, to tell stories and play word games (which are used to teach beginners, especially kids, basic vocabulary). The students spend most of their time sitting there, smiling and laughing and listening to the entertaining teacher ..... but doing very little speaking themselves, except for the one or two students who are confident enough to chat with the teacher and perhaps dominate the class.

If you have enough money to go to a language school for a few hours a week over several weeks or months, this is what I suggest:

  1. Others' Opinions

Try to "shop around" before you choose which school and which class to attend. Ask people for recommendations on the best schools. (But be careful of people who just say a certain school is "famous". You need to get opinions from people who have actually attended a school.)

  1. A Foreign Teacher is Best For Conversation Classes

If you really want to learn genuine conversational English, a foreign teacher is, of course, much superior to a local Chinese teacher, even if the local Chinese teacher is at about Band 8 IELTS standard. Local Chinese teachers might be best for teaching you reading, listening, grammar and perhaps writing, but not everyday conversational English. (Of course, an ethnic Chinese person or other non-white person who grew up in an English-speaking country is really a native English speaker.)

Perhaps I should clarify this point. In my opinion, if the students are at Band 5.0 speaking level or below, a Chinese teacher who himself or herself is a strong Band 7.0 level could guide the students in practicing basic English conversation, especially if the teacher used an excellent book + recordings of native English speakers. But once the students move up to Band 6.0 level and above, they would not benefit very much from that same Chinese teacher 每 they would really need a native English speaker to provide the most natural model of everyday conversational English.

[Similarly, a Band 7.0 Chinese teacher could teach IELTS Speaking test preparation classes to students at Band 5.0 and below but once the students reach Band 6.0 or above, they will need either a Chinese IELTS teacher who is Band 8.0 or above level in speaking, or a native English speaking IELTS Speaking test teacher.]

On the other hand, if the only conversation teacher you can find in your city is a local Chinese person, that might be better than nothing. Just try to assess, or find out if this person really is at Band 7.0 IELTS level, as a minimum. A teacher who is only at 6.5 level himself, is not going to help you improve very much unless you are Band 4.0 or less. Nevertheless, the opportunity to practice speaking English and to find people to be your language partner in a class with a Chinese teacher like that might be a good enough reason to attend that class, even if you don't learn much from the teacher's own English (i.e., you learn more from the book and the recordings than from the teacher).

  1. Small Classes

The conversation class you attend should have less than 20 students. If the class is too big, the teacher will have very little opportunity to give you any personal attention.

  1. Students at the Same Level

The students in the class should all be at approximately the same level. If there are big differences between the levels of the students, then the school is more interested in making money than in providing a service to really help people improve their spoken English.

You should check to see whether the school assesses your level before suggesting a class for you to attend. The level of the English in the class that the school is suggesting should be suitable for you 每 not so easy for you that it becomes boring but, at the same time, not too difficult.

However, all this is assuming that the school is big enough to have different classes at different levels. If you live in a place that only has a couple of small language schools, then your only choice might be to accept a class with different levels of students (because that is the only class available) or not to attend a conversation class at all. If you are slightly above the middle level of the different levels in the class, then this is probably the level at which the class will be taught. But you should understand that there might be times in this class when, for you, time will be wasted when the teacher adapts the lesson for the lower levels of students. You would still benefit from the class but it wouldn't be as much as you could benefit in a single-level class at your level.

On the other hand, if you were near the bottom level of this multi-level class, you would make much less progress because much of the contents in the lessons would be too hard for you and the experience might even cause you to lose confidence in your ability to learn more English.

  1. Interesting and Suitable Classroom Materials

The materials that the class uses, such as textbooks and other materials should be interesting and suitable.

You should look at the materials (probably a textbook) that the class uses and notice if the textbook:

  1. was written by a native English speaker;

  2. really contains a lot of examples of dialogues, not just lists of sentences or expressions that people can speak;

  3. contains mostly examples of spoken English, not just English in the form of short stories or articles (see note);

  4. includes or is accompanied by Chinese translations of new vocabulary (if you do the class in China);

  5. is accompanied by a good-quality audio recording and;

  6. seems interesting to you and suitable for your aims and needs in learning spoken English.

Of course, all the students should have recordings (such as cassette tapes or CD's) of the dialogues in the textbook 每 if the students only have a book but no recordings, it is a very bad sign for a conversation class. It also goes without saying that the recordings should be of native English speakers speaking quite naturally (not just obviously reading a script) but it it acceptable if the speech in these recordings is a little (just a little) slower than natural speech.

Is the textbook, including the vocabulary lists, only in English? For a conversation class in China, I don't think this is the ideal situation. This is because the students will need to spend many hours flipping through the dictionary, either before the lesson or during the lesson and this is time that would be better spent in speaking English. It is true that some of the best quality conversation-teaching materials come from overseas but it is too easy for a school or teacher to simply go to a bookshop and choose one of these textbooks for use in China. If such materials are used, the teacher or the school should go to the trouble of translating the vocabulary lists.

Nowadays, there are more and more examples of teaching materials that combine the attribute of being written by overseas experts with the attribute of having Chinese translations, for example, overseas materials that are re-published in China. Not only that, more and more high-quality teaching materials are being produced by native English speakers in China, materials that include Chinese translations.

You will find that some conversation classes don't use a book of model dialogues but use, for example, a magazine article as the topic of conversation. This kind of class is really a class for practicing discussion rather than teaching students how to hold a simple conversation and this kind of class is suitable for students who are already at or above Band 7.0 (or 6.5) IELTS speaking standard. It is not necessary to have models of dialogues for this level but the students still should be given some examples of the language of discussion, such as, "I agree with that idea in principle, but I think there would be a few problems in putting that into practice. For example, ..."

However, most of you reading this page are at the Band 4.5 to 6.0 level and you are not yet ready for a conversation class that is 100% composed of this sort of free discussion. A conversation class for students at your level should include some simpler examples of an article for discussion but that should not be the only or the main way your lessons are taught. You mostly need materials that enable you and encourage you to practice speaking grammatically correct sentences in dialogue and to practice the correct usage of new, rather basic vocabulary.

[If the class is just a "general English" class i.e., a class for improving your listening and reading skills, in addition to your speaking skills, then the textbook does not need to be primarily composed of conversations or dialogues. But here I am describing a class called an "English Conversation" or "Oral Communication" class, specifically to help you improve your spoken English.]

  1. Attend a Trial Lesson

A good school should allow you to attend one trial class (lesson) at no cost (or perhaps you will have to pay a small fee). If the school does not allow you to, "test the product before you buy it", then you should be suspicious. The higher the cost of the tuition, the more you should be able to do this.

  1. The Quality of the Teacher and the Trial Lesson

When you attend a trial class, you are really checking out the teacher, not so much the school, because even in good schools the quality of teachers might vary.

7.1 Is the Lesson Well-Planned?

You should try to judge if the teacher is prepared for the class, i.e., has planned the class. If the lesson seems to move too slowly, then the teacher probably had not planned the class well. And if the lesson seems to move too fast, so fast that you can't absorb anything, then you are either in a class where the level is too high for you or the teacher is blindly rushing through the textbook without caring about how much the students are learning. That is not a well-planned class, either.

Basically, the more you feel confused about what you are doing in the class and why you are doing it, the more likely the lesson was not well-planned. You should feel that there is some logical progression from one part of the lesson to the next.

7.2 Does the Lesson Include More than Simply a Topic and Vocabulary?

The basis of most lessons in a conversation class should be a topic and the vocabulary to go with that topic. However, even in a class that is called a "conversation class", every lesson should have at least one main language point for you to learn and practice in addition to the vocabulary, such as a certain verb tense or some expressions that would fit into the "language functions" pages on this website or even some aspect of pronunciation. In a well-planned lesson, these "language point" aims of the lesson should be clear to you.

Some teachers don't use materials that have any language points as aims, except for new vocabulary. The style of their conversation classes is to have a topic such as "Eating in a Restaurant" with a list of new vocabulary and expressions, a set of questions for discussion or some situations for role-playing. A class like that is good for learning new vocabulary and practicing the use of the new words and such a conversation class is certainly better than nothing. But the most professionally taught conversation lesson will also focus on some new grammar points or language functions that can be included in the discussion or role-playing. The lesson should not be totally based on vocabulary. As well as including some new grammar or language functions in the lesson, these language points should be incorporated into the communicative speaking activities the students do. In other words, you should notice if you really do learn and practice using some new language points, in addition to new vocabulary.

Although an ideal conversation class should not be totally topic and vocabulary based but instead should include some grammar or other language points, the teacher also should not spend so much time on grammar points that the lesson seems to be a grammar lesson instead of a conversation class.

A good conversation teacher does not need to be a grammar expert. Certainly, the teacher needs to have good knowledge of grammar and the ability to explain it but I am describing an ideal conversation class here, not a grammar class. In fact, there are times when a Chinese English teacher knows the grammar "rules" or the linguistic terms necessary to explain grammar better than a very good, qualified foreign conversation teacher. The foreign teacher might, at times, only be able to say, "I can't explain why but that's the way we say it." In this situation, the knowledgeable Chinese teacher might be the more suitable teacher for a grammar class. But a skilled foreign conversation teacher who is a little (just a little) weak on grammatical knowledge would still be, by far, the better teacher for the conversation class because of his or her superior knowledge of vocabulary, pronunciation and stylistics (the suitable level of formality to use).

7.3 Does the Teacher Over-Correct the Students?

Does the teacher sometimes correct the students when they make mistakes? That's good but this is a conversational class, not a grammar class so if the teacher tries to correct almost every mistake the students make, it reveals that the teacher is not very well-trained or experienced. The students need to feel confident that they can attempt to communicate in English without every mistake they make being pointed out.

7.4 Does the Teacher Try to Speak to All the Students Equally?

You should notice if the teacher tries to speak to several different students, including the shy ones, not just the more confident ones. The teacher should not allow any one or two more confident students to dominate the class and the teacher should make sure the shy students do speak.

7.5 Does the Lesson Include True Communicative Activities?

You should notice if the speaking activities that the teacher gets the students to do actually involve the activity of communicating with another person. Communicating includes exchanging new information that the other person did not know previously. Simply repeating memorized "model dialogues" is not a good enough speaking activity 每 it can be included in the practice phase of the lesson but it is not a true communicative activity.

7.6 Are There More Pair-Work Activities than Group Activities?

You should notice if the speaking activities the teacher gets the students to do are pair-work activities or group activities. Group activities are good in certain circumstances but, once again, shy students will speak very little and the more confident students will dominate. The activities the teacher gives the class must be activities that ensure that every student practices speaking.

7.7 How Much Time Did You Spend Speaking in the Trial Lesson?

Most importantly, during the class you should notice how much actual English speaking you do. If the teacher really knows how to teach conversational English, somewhere between 40% and 70% of the class time should be time when you are speaking, either mimicking the teacher, speaking in "language drills" with the teacher, answering the teacher's questions or speaking in communicative activities with another student (or, other students). If you only spend 10% or 20% of the time in a speaking class actually speaking then there is something wrong.

Don't expect to be able to speak a lot to the teacher during class time because, even in a class of only ten students, the teacher cannot speak individually to every student as much as the students might want. After all, when you are talking to the teacher, the other students are not talking to the teacher.

7.8 Does the Teacher Speak Too Much?

This is really part of item 7.7, above.

Of course, a conversation teacher needs to speak quite a lot in a lesson in order to explain things, to give models of pronunciation, to engage the class as a block or to engage a few students individually in examples of spoken interaction (e.g., questions) and to give instructions. But there is a point when a class can become "teacher-centred" rather than "student-centred" if the teacher speaks too much. Naturally, the class should be student-centred. For example, explanations and extra information about new vocabulary and grammar should not be too long and detailed.

Not only that, some teachers waste time talking about things that are not closely connected to the subject matter of the lesson. However, such chatting or speaking is not 100% a waste of time. A good teacher should have a friendly feeling towards the students and, it is natural that when a teacher feels friendly he or she will, at times, want to tell a little story or speak personally to the class. The students need to feel that the teacher is a person, not a "teaching machine" and they also need to feel that this person is a friendly and approachable person. But if the teacher speaks a great deal more than the students speak, (for example, by telling long stories or frequently telling short stories or frequently giving his/her opinions about things), then this teacher probably is not trained or experienced in teaching conversation classes; or has not prepared the lesson very well.

7.9 Does the Teacher Use Too Much Chinese in Class?

Of course, this mainly applies to Chinese English teachers but there are a few foreign teachers in China who speak Chinese quite well.

Since this is a conversation class and not a class to teach you test-taking strategies or something like that, the teacher should use a minimum of Chinese in class. In fact, some language schools at different places in the world actually ban the use of the students' mother tongue in English classes, especially speaking classes.

However, since the overall aim of the class is to maximize the time the students spend speaking English, occasionally it might be more useful for the teacher to explain something quickly in Chinese rather than spend a long time explaining it in English. There are also other times when it might be more suitable to use Chinese. For example, when I need to name a verb tense, I sometimes use the Chinese name rather than the English name because such English as, "the present perfect passive tense" is not necessary for students to learn since it is English that is not known to the average native English speaker in Sydney, London or New York!

There is a small number of foreigners teaching English in China who speak Chinese very well. Sometimes a language school encourages these teachers to use a lot of Chinese in class as a "public relations stunt", a way to make the students feel "more comfortable and less threatened in class". You should beware of such a sales gimmick 每 that is not what you pay to go to a language school for, and it is usually a sign that the school is not very high standard. The only time when this would be necessary is when the foreigner is teaching English to beginners.

If a school uses a native English speaker to promote the school by speaking very good Chinese at some sales promotion event for the school, this is neither a good sign nor a bad sign. I am here writing about the actual teachers who teach the conversation classes and how much Chinese they use in class.

Other foreign teachers know some Chinese and sometimes use Chinese in class when it would be better to use English. They do this either because they are (perhaps momentarily) more interested in practicing their Chinese than teaching English or because they want to 'show off' (闖讀) their knowledge. (I have been guilty of this myself in the past.) Sometimes the teacher momentarily forgets that his or her job is not simply to communicate with the students but to encourage the students to communicate in English. This is a sign that the teacher could be (should be) more professional in his or her attitude.

In general, if you feel the teacher uses Chinese in class much more than necessary, then you should consider how much this might affect the amount of English you will learn in that class.

7.10 Does the Teacher Stand at the Front of the Classroom all the Time?

Naturally, the teacher usually stands at the front of the classroom while he or she is addressing the class as a whole. But if the teacher stays at the front of the classroom while the students are doing their practice exercises with a partner or in small groups, that is a bad sign. When the students are doing such practice, a good teacher should circulate around the classroom, listening to the students, giving some of them individual help and getting some feedback on how well all the students are progressing.

  1. The Seating in the Classroom

A good-quality conversation class should have chairs that can be moved so that students can easily form small circles and engage in small group discussions when they want to. If the conversation class is held in a situation where the seating makes it difficult or impossible to form small groups for discussion, then it is a sign that the school has little idea about how to run a conversation class 每 they probably think a conversation class should be like a lecture, where the students mostly listen to the teacher and take notes.

Of course, in China and in other "developing countries", the school might not have enough money to provide classrooms that are ideal for conversation classes or, because of the large number of classes, maybe some classes have to be held in rooms that resemble a lecture theatre. But in private language schools in the big cities of China, providing suitable seating for conversation classes should be no problem.

  1. Poor English Used by the School

In my experience in different countries in Asia, I have seen some obvious and glaring English mistakes written on the name sign for some English schools or at least examples of poor English in these signs. Similarly, in radio or newspaper advertisements for English schools, or on signs that are on the walls inside these schools, I have seen and heard examples of completely incorrect or poor English. Avoid any school like that.

  1. The Manager of the School

The following is a rather minor point but it is often an indication of the quality of a language school. If you have the opportunity to speak the manager of the school and you discover that this person speaks very little English, it is often a sign that the school is not a very high quality school. After all, how can a person who knows little English make good decisions about running a language school, such as who to hire as teachers, what materials to use and what methods to use, and how can such a person understand the needs of language learners if he or she has never personally had the experience of learning English (beyond the compulsory English in high school)?

  1. Overall Conclusion for Conversation Classes

Don't think that simply attending a class that is called a "conversation class" will automatically result in big improvements to your speaking ability. The more the school and the class has the ideal features that I listed above, the greater the chances that you will really improve by attending that class. And even if you attend a good conversation class, you should still do some of the self-study activities that I suggested.

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