It's such an intrinsic part of any ESL program (or at least should be!), and yet raises all sorts of challenges in making it happen.
Many programs have a casual conversation requirement that is formally assessed in some way. Are the learners aware of it? Have they been given some basic tools and guidelines to help them understand not only how they will be assessed, but according to what criteria and with what development goals in mind?
Looking at the Australian ESL Framework, for example, for Certificate III ESL (Access) there is a unit titled Engage in casual conversation and straightforward spoken transactions. Four elements are included in the unit, one of which (Element 2) is Participate in Casual Conversation. The specific performance criteria for that element is documented as being:
2.1: Initiate conversations using appropriate expressions and conventions
2.2: Contribute comments, opinions or information on a range of topics
2.3: Give detailed responses
2.4: Use a range of conversational strategies
2.5: Clarify misunderstandings and ambiguous points where necessary
2.6: Close conversations using customary steps
In that list, I've highlighted what I think are the most helpful/salient terms to assist in remembering the criteria and making sure they are catered to, facilitated and tracked during classroom lessons.
To get this across to the learners, I think it's a good idea to, well - have an ongoing conversation about it, starting with some well documented information at the start of the course. For example, we could make the following available to a group of learners enrolled in Certificate III ESL:
Here's the downloadable version:
Basically, what we're doing here is showing the learners the official element and performance criteria, providing some explanations about what each PC item involves and some tips and language that can help guide them. It doesn't cover the whole notion of casual conversation by any means, but I think it is a useful starting point and if it is to be used for assessment then we have a genuine responsibility to let the learners know about it!
Of course, each of the performance criteria items can be practised in a variety of ways, but generally speaking I've found a nice clear explanation of what we're looking for (and why/how) is often effective by itself in encouraging learners to get more involved in casual conversation sections of classes. If a handout like this is stuck inside their books or featured on the first page of their folders it can be a really effective reminder for learners to see before or at the start of (or even during) any given lesson.
We can go a little further than that and use the flip side of that handout in a variety of ways:
Using this sheet, at the end of lessons learners can be asked (as a whole group or in small groups or on their own) to reflect on what has happened over the course of the lesson and what sorts of things they and/or their classmates have done and said that could address the criteria for casual conversation. I like this beyond just the self-review angle; it makes for excellent self-assessment material that can be added to other evaluation documents to triangulate our evidence of competence.
Letting them know what we're looking/hoping for in the way of casual conversation is one thing, of course; making it actually happen and assessing it effectively and responsibly is another. I look forward to returning to these follow up issues in future English Oz posts!