Teaching Students to Interact, Not Just Talk  

InTuition Languages Teaching Ideas and Methodology (Applicable to all levels) 2 Comments


Very often in EFL there are two major type of talk; the teacher’s (usually in the form of a question, or a request to practise a structure) and the L2’s (usually a straight answer to the question posed by the teacher or a drill-type operation which sees the L2 inserting his own information into the gaps provided.  While this is a form of verbal exchange, is it interaction?

Interaction involves both social and personal input, and, forms the basis of the vast majority of everyday talking done by native speakers. Interaction involves the emotions; creativity; agreement; disagreement; people waiting patiently to get in a word; sighing, nodding, gesticulating and so on. Interaction is not waiting to be asked a question. Interaction is not giving a short, one-sentence answer to this question. In some ways, what goes on in a worst-case EFL conversation class is a series of monologues.


Most teachers will recall a class where they were constantly contributing, egging on and prodding the student into participating.  Many students do not, for some reason, feel free to comment on what the teacher has said.  Instead they look towards the teacher for guidance and perhaps, permission to talk


How to Interact


We as teachers cannot “teach” students to talk.  They already do so in their native language.  However, for some reason, (perhaps the new situation, the unfamiliarity, the sense of linguistic incompetence, ridicule, etc…), students seem to “forget” how to interact in the target language.

We may need to remind the student, therefore, what interaction involves.

Interaction happens when:

  • Students comment immediately on what another person has just said.
  • Students disagree with or challenge another person’s statement
  • Students don’t have to be invited (by the teacher) to speak.
  • Student’s speak when there is a short silence indicating the end of someone else’s turn.
  • Student’s interrupt the other speaker, diplomatically, to insert an opinion or question etc.
  • Students use the personal pronouns “I” and “You”.
  • Student’s use paralinguistics, such as exclamations, gestures, body language and so on.
  • Students are as relaxed as possible.

Practical Session of Interaction

INTERACTION: A little word game.

Activity A

Write these two headings on separate pieces of paper:

  1. Words and phrases that cannot be used for answers
  2. Words that should be used in conversation class

Next, the headings should be explained to the L2s. The students and the teacher think up as many words as they can which could prove useful for prolonging (or closing) a conversation in general.

Some examples for 1:



I agree entirely.

I don’t know.


I am not sure.

You’re right.

You said what I wanted to say.

I have no opinion on that.

Some examples for 2:

No, because …

I don’t agree, because …

I know and furthermore …

Why? Who? When? How? Which? What?

That is a terrible thing to say!

It makes me angry when …

I hate it when …

You are wrong, because …

Oh, I am not so sure about that, because I …

When a student comes to the end of a short sentence and tries to end their contribution -DON’T LET THEM!


Activity B


Try out the “new-found” (remembered) expressions on the following topic “The advantages to being a woman”, or a similarly contentious topic. Remember, however, that 2nd language learners cannot learn to ‘interact’ in one hour.


Feed your student some of the advantages:

Women live longer

Women can have babies

Women perform better in languages


You will have to ask a few questions, because most students are polite people and will only speak when spoken to.  However, after this warm-up be ruthless with your student, demanding a decent contribution from him/her in order to comply with the terms of interaction.  When a student contributes in the form of monosyllables or short, neutral assertions, [pull them up and ask them to expand.  There is nothing complex about the technique, the teacher simply has to be alert to attempts at evading compromise; the conversation class implies a willingness to cooperate verbally on the part of the student.  If they are there, it is to interact.


The idea is to reinforce the technique in successive classes, until the student eventually gets used to intervening at will, disagreeing, commenting, using body-language and so on the teacher must let nothing slip by, that is no student should be allowed to “pass! On a question or any other talk directed at him.  If a student is even only mildly involved in an exchange, the teacher should let him know that he will be expected to contribute soon to the current exchange.


The teacher will probably have to remind students of the concept of interaction on a regular basis-people being people-but I still think the exercise has its advantages. And it does not have to take the form of a hunting expedition, where the lazy student is shown up in front of the assembled L2s. When an L2 tries to slip in a short, phrase-like contribution which tends to close a conversation, simply give him a gentle metaphorical rap on the knuckles. The latter, as well as being pedagogical, can actually create a humorous atmosphere.

One additional way to introduce the technique is to get the students to think about how they speak to their friends and to compare the conclusions with what does on the  a typical efL class.

This technique does not seek to replace any existing ideas on the teaching of communicative-English.  It merely wishes to be considered as an additional tool.  If a person is accustomed to interacting for almost 16 hours a day in their native language, then surely we as teachers must try to get him to carry on interacting in conversation class, albeit it with less fluency.  Anyway, the personal and social elements of life do not need 100% accurate dialogue. So while we the teachers cannot show students how to exercise their vocal cords, we CAN remind them to use normal, conversational tactics such as challenging, interrupting, querying other speakers and so on.  It makes for a dynamic class, and the students do appreciate a teacher who makes them work – which here means “interact”.

Adapted from: The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IV, No. 7, July 1998
https://iteslj.org/   Gerard Counihan


Taken from Gerard Counihan

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Comments 2

  1. This is all extremely useful . Like a lot of good teaching advice, it’s pretty obvious when you think about it …. but it’s easy not to think about it. It’s obviously especially useful for more advanced students. I do worry, though, about elementary/lower intermediate/intermediate students who often make a huge number of basic grammar mistakes. I do feel the need to do more drill-type grammatical activities with them, to try and iron out mistakes, or practise a correct structure that they don’t use much. I hope it’s OK to do a mix.

    Talking of which, I find that the speaking activities in the Intuition resources bank often give very little support to less advanced students in the way of example sentences, useful vocabulary etc. Of course, I can supply that, but it seems a waste of an A4 resource sheet to have nice colour photos, a couple of rather general instructions, and nothing more. For advances students, that’s not so much of a problem.

  2. Hi Frances. There’s certainly a place for drill-type exercises with the lower-level students – as you say, each student requires their own ‘mix’ of approaches depending on what, and how, they’ve been (mis?)taught in the past. Glad you found the post useful!

    We review our materials in the autumn so will have a look at what we have in this area for the lower level students.

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