Conversation Topics for Kids with Limited English Proficiency

Teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) to children of any nationality under the age of twelve poses two major obstacles. First, they normally don’t have a large enough vocabulary with which to express their thoughts. Second, their young age limits their frame of reference, narrowing down your range in subject matter. Keeping it simple is the key to eliciting conversation from your students.

Food, Family, Flora, and Fauna

Even if your students don’t have the necessary knowledge to produce meaningful conversation, they probably know the names for many foods. I’ve found that most of my students know apple, banana, carrot, pizza, hamburger, rice, and noodles. Many American restaurant chains are well-known around the world, including Burger King, KFC, and Starbucks.

I’ve observed that my young students often know the words mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa. Usually, they can also tell me very small details about their family members, such as age. I was surprised that many knew their parents’ birthdates when I asked them. Another way to engage conversation is to ask them what their family members like to do. They can’t always verbalize what their parents’ favorite activities are, but they can usually draw a picture for me or act out what they are trying to express.

Kids actively learning EFL will often know common words to describe their environments. Tree, flower, park, farm, pig, cow, dog, and cat are just a few of the words your students will know. They also know, at the very least, their primary colors.

TPR, Props, & Realia

The normal standards of EFL teaching apply here. Exaggerated motions of eating, making facial expressions of like and dislike, and writing out sentences on a whiteboard are effective ways of getting low-level proficiency students to communicate. Everyone is in some degree a visual learner, and writing out the sentences for them not only aids in memorization, but it also gives them the confidence to speak.

I keep a basket of frequently used realia by my desk, such as stuffed animals and fake food. I also keep a few small whiteboards next to my keyboard. If I had to choose which tool was the most effective, it would be the whiteboard. Typing sentences in a chat box is passable, but not as effective as writing out the words for them on a whiteboard. Writing out their scripts is more time consuming, but in the end, it has a bigger impact.

Introducing Conversational Skills

Students with extremely limited proficiency in English may only be able to answer polar questions–meaning, a strict “yes” or “no” question. Don’t worry too much about their inability to answer in full sentences–they are learning as you are talking. It is difficult to keep “Teacher Talk Time” (or TTT) to a minimum when a student does not have the necessary knowledge to communicate in English.

While it may seem your students aren’t able to communicate, they can use the two dozen words they know to form a substantial number of sentences. In the beginning, a lower-level conversation might start like this:

Teacher: Do you like apples?

Student: Yes.

Teacher: What color is an apple?

Student: Red.

As you become more acquainted with the student, he or she will move on to answering, “Yes, I am. No, I am not. Yes, I do. No, I do not.” Then, you can slowly introduce verbs. I like to focus on to be, to go, to have, to do, to eat and to like.

It’s important to check their listening comprehension. I might ask a student, “Do you eat shoes?” If they understand me, they will normally break out into gales of laughter. I will spot-check comprehension in this manner several times to ensure they aren’t just getting lucky with their one-word answers!

Lastly, expect to have these conversations repeatedly, lesson after lesson. Don’t think that you are boring them. Low-level learners need to review over and over again. Additionally, giving them material they are familiar with boosts their confidence. As a result, easy conversations warm them up for absorption of new material, and will aid in freer practice with target language.