For many years in the early years of my CI journey, I skipped over what was called PQA. I didn't really understand it and as an introvert, it kind of scared me, so I just didn't do it.

About five years into teaching with comprehensible input, I read Ben Slavic's book "PQA in a Wink" and I finally understood what PQA was all about and I transitioned from starting the year off with TPR to starting off the year with PQA. It became an integral part of what I did in my classroom.

Fast forward a few years and I realized that PQA was really just a conversation that you have with your students in the target language and that made a paradigm shift for me. So I no longer call what I do PQA, but rather conversations and they are still an integral part of what I do in my classroom.

What are Conversations?

Conversations are the first step in the Immediate Immersion Way.

They are a way to get to know your students and build solid student relationships through the target language.

Conversations are a set of questions to get students talking in the language, but what's more important than the initial question is the follow-up questions.

Similar to small talk you might have with a colleague at the copy machine or at lunch, conversations are real interactions with students that focus on going deeper with the initial question to really get to know the student and build a foundational relationship with them.

The key to this is the follow-up questions. Just asking a simple question and moving on to the next student is nothing more than personal questions, but the beauty in conversations is the follow-up questions. What questions would you ask if you were casually talking to this person in light of what they're talking about?

These follow-up questions allow you to go deeper, engage more with the student, and provide more input and opportunities for the student to use the language they know.

How to do Conversations.

The first thing teachers always ask is what do you talk about?

That's the beauty of conversations. You can talk about absolutely anything and as long as it's in the target language and it's comprehensible to your students, they are acquiring language!

Some basic examples:

  • Weekend Talk - where you talk about what students did over the weekend
  • Calendar Talk - where you talk about events on the calendar including weather
  • Current Events - where you talk about important happenings in your city, country, the world, or your school
  • Random Topics - random, crazy topics on just about anything— check out our Crazy Convo Starters for over 70 different random questions to ask your students.

Actually, those are just the beginning. You really can talk just about anything: a new t-shirt a student is wearing, a pair of new kicks, a school sporting event, a school dance, the latest episode of Survivor, or any other popular show. Think small talk and what might be interesting to your students.

Conversations always start with a question.

Choose a student to ask a question. If it's the beginning of the year, I try to choose the toughest student in the room, the student that I need to get on my side quickly before they become a behavior issue. If I can get them on my side early on, I can potentially move this student from being an issue to being an asset. At any other time of the year, I just choose a student at random.

Depending on what the topic is for the day, I ask the student the initial question to get the conversation rolling, but as I've said before, the key is the follow-up questions. So in your mind, you should always be thinking about what question could I ask next.

Many teachers get stumped at this point because they're trying to be creative or to work in a specific vocabulary word or grammar rule, but it really doesn't have to be that difficult. Just ask the first question that comes to mind as a follow-up. Remember this is just small talk, the same talk you'd make if you were meeting this person at a party.

If you asked the student what they did over the weekend and they responded they went to the movies, the next logical question would be what did they see, and then if they liked it, and then who did they go with or what day did they see it.

If you were doing calendar talk and today is the student's birthday, follow-up questions could be about if they're having a party, when is it, what presents did they get or do they want to get, etc.

As you can see it doesn't have to be complicated or something really insightful. They just have to keep the conversation going. But never ever just stop at asking the initial question.

In between questions with your student, you'll want to include the rest of your class in the conversation.

You do this by asking the class about what they've just heard as if they didn't just hear it.

"Class, did you hear that? Sally went and saw 'The Avengers' movie. Class, did Sally like the move? When did she see the movie? Did she go alone? Who did she go with? Did she have popcorn or candy?"

You get the idea. By doing this in between the questions, you are involving the rest of the class so they don't get bored, you're providing more input for all students, and you're checking that the students are understanding— if they're not, they won't be able to answer the questions, and you're actively engaging everyone in the class.

You'll continue asking follow-up questions to both the student and the class until the conversation lags. When you feel the conversation slowing down, simply just move on to a new student and start the process over again.

I generally spend the first couple of weeks doing conversations daily at the start of the year so that I can really get to know my students and start to build those essential student relationships that will be the foundation of my class the entire year.

After that initial few weeks, I dedicate at least one full class period a week to having conversations with my students. It's that important to me and my students.

Pro Tips

Here are a few pro tips to help you be more successful with conversations.

First of all, go slowly. It's never a race and acquisition is slow. You don't have to get through every student in one class period, but you DO have to be fully invested in each conversation you have with your students during class.

Second, show genuine interest in what each student has to say. Students know when you're faking it and there's no quicker way to lose students than to fake interest.

Third, don't use conversations to teach an agenda. The only agenda with conversations is to get to know your students and build relationships. Don't come in with a set of vocabulary or grammar you want to practice. Don't come in trying to teach a message. Just enjoy your students and have small talk. There will be plenty of time to teach vocabulary and grammar in other aspects of your lesson.

And last, but certainly not least, look for humor in what students say and jump on it. Humor is the savior of any class. It can turn a bad day into an okay one or even a great one, so we need to seek it out whenever possible. So when you find it, stick with it for maximum engagement. It's certainly okay to step out of the "reality" box with humor as long as the student is going along with it. The key to humor though is not to force it.

Why Conversations are so powerful.

Conversations are so powerful because they practice, real, everyday speech that is so difficult to attain any other way in the classroom.

These aren't rote, memorized dialogues from the textbook. They aren't artificial contexts in order to teach vocabulary.

These are real, everyday conversations about everyday topics that students just cannot prepare for, and because of this, they are prepared to have similar conversations in the real world outside of class.

They're not afraid to strike up a conversation with a stranger nor are they worried that the situation they are in they are not prepared for because they didn't memorize some artificial dialogue.

In this way, we are teaching language and not context and that means what they acquire can be used in multiple contexts.

Assessment possibility?

Another great thing about conversations is their assessment possibility.

I tell my students that any conversation we have is a potential quiz and can be used as a speaking quiz grade. This way they know to always do their best.

I make student flashcards (similar to popsicle sticks but on small cards) to randomly choose students for various activities. The backs of these flashcards are blank and when I call on a student to have a conversation, I use my conversation rubric to assess the student and note the grade on the back of the card.

No, I don't pull out the rubric in front of the student. They already have a copy of the conversation rubric and we've talked about conversation expectations in advance, but I know the rubric and will note their score down on the card.

At the end of each grading period, I will look at the cards and give an overall conversation quiz grade based on the grades I've written. This way, their grade is not based on only one interaction, but is a overall indicator of their conversational proficiency.

Generally, in the notes of the grade, I will note the individual grades the student earned that made up that overall grade.

This is a great way to get an interpersonal speaking grade from your students without putting them on the spot at your desk.

So there you have it. That is what conversations are and how I do them in my class and how I use them.

Do any of you use conversations? What do you talk about? Have you ever thought about using them as assessments? Let me know in the comments.

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