If you’ve ever spent an hour cutting up strips of paper for some dinky five-minute EFL/ESL classroom activity (and found the strips ripped, crumpled, un-reusable confetti at lesson’s end) you’ll know one of the yardsticks for measuring the worth of a classroom activity is the return-on-investment of your time. By this logic, the best activities are no-prep activities you can extend to run all day. Here’s one such activity I picked up from a speaker at a one-day IH Milan conference a few years back, and it’s remained of my favorites. It’s called a Bus Stop Conversation.
What’s so great about it? As you’ll see, the Bus Stop Conversation
- involves no prep and set-up time is as little as 30 seconds
- is adaptable to fit any point in the lesson
- works with any age group (kids, adults) or context (General English, EAP, Business English)
- gives students choice of input
- can be used for developing speaking skills
- can also be used for recycling and repetition of lexis
Set it up
Board a stick figure of a guy. Elicit a name for the guy, e.g. Marco. Board a girl. Elicit a name for the girl, e.g. Maria. Draw a bus stop sign. What are they doing? Waiting for a bus. Now say, What are they talking about? Board two or three conversation topics in a speech bubble. You’ll find the topics tend to vary with the age of the group but there are few surprises: boys/girls, husbands/wives, a party, the weekend, school, work, etc. Now, pair off the students. You’re Maria, you’re Marco. Have a conversation about these topics. Give them a time limit.
Round it off
Depending on your time or intention you can go through the usual cycle of monitor-feedback-task repetition. You can use the feedback period to focus on speaking skills like how to keep a conversation going, turn-taking, etc.
Use it as a warmer
What’s great about this activity is its versatility: you can use it at virtually any point in the lesson. For high school kids, try it as a warmer (as I first learned it at the IH conference). Why? When the high school kids I teach arrive in after-school classes they’re invariably chatty and excited. They want to catch up with their classmates, recap the day, tell a friend about some text message they got a second before walking in the door, complain about a test or teacher or gossip about somebody’s latest crush. In other words they’re talking about all sorts of things, just not necessarily whatever you’ve got planned and not necessarily in English.
Encourage students to pick these same things for Marco and Maria to talk about in English and you’ll provide a natural bridge from the world outside the classroom to that within. And what’s more you’ll be encouraging them to talk about the things they actually want to talk about, giving them a reason to speak.
Use it to practice or recycle lexis
You can also employ the simple framework of the Bus Stop Conversation (or Coffee Machine Conversation, or Water Cooler Conversation, whatever) with any age group or context for practicing lexis from from that or a previous day. Before you set up the activity, have students take out their notes, find 5 items of lexis (i.e. words, phrases, expressions, sentence frames) they want to remember and practice, and have them write these expressions on a piece of paper or separate small slips of paper. Then set up the activity. After you’ve named the participants and told them what to do, add one final instruction: While talking, you must use all 5 of your expressions. After you use the expression, turn the piece of paper face down (or cross out the expressions).
Of course, some instantly regret their choice of lexical items (it’s not always easy to work less common words like heighten into small talk about the weather), but part of the fun (for student and teacher) is going into verbal contortions to find a context for your chosen lexical items. And the very lack of appropriateness in a specific conversation is meat for the reflection that follows.
When they’ve finished their conversation, ask the pairs to go back and re-visit what they said. Can they remember how they used each expression? Did it make sense? Was it a bit forced? Which expressions were difficult to fit into the conversation? What kind of conversation would they fit better in? Students are usually both insightful and honest about what worked and what didn’t. In my experience as both a language teacher and learner I’ve seen that learners sometimes fixate on more obscure, less-useful lexis, and this review is also a great way for students to hone their own ability to filter out more common lexis (and therefore more useful) from less.
Adapt the activity to specialized lexis
If some less-common lexis is useful for a specific student or specific to context/topic you’ve talked about in class, you can still make it fit. Simply steer the students toward picking topic-relevant conversations by the choice of location. So rather than an anonymous bus stop you can have the bus stop in front of the science lab or standing in line at a soccer stadium. Or a bar in a holiday resort. Or a water-cooler in a prison. You get the idea.
Like many such activities the Bus Stop Conversation only gets better with practice. It’s a quick, easy, no-prep activity that can be exploited in a number of ways. And best of all is that you won’t waste a minute cutting up slips of paper.