A discussion can bring out your students’ interests and motivate them; it’s a chance for them to talk about the things they really care about. Giving and justifying opinions in English can also bring students a sense of accomplishment, as they are using the language to express complex ideas.
Discussion activities encourage critical thinking, and are therefore excellent preparation for speaking tests, such as IELTS or TOEFL, which partly examine the ability to express and justify opinions in English.
Perhaps most importantly, discussion activities can be great fun for students.
Preparing for discussion classes
The first thing you need to be aware of is the language ability of your students and how much they know about the topic under discussion. This is important if you want to encourage real, free-flowing conversation. Get it wrong and students can get bored or, worse, feel intimidated and lose confidence.
When setting discussion questions, make sure the language and topic aren't too demanding. Don't try to begin a discussion about global economic theory with elementary-level students.
You need to grade the language of the questions to suit the level of your students, and check they understand any complex vocabulary or grammar in advance.
Find out what topics interest your students and get them to research the topic before the lesson.
Be careful with topics that may lead to embarrassment or offense. It's probably a good idea to steer clear of politics, religion and sex.
How much preparation you need to do before class depends on the kind of discussion taking place, and the needs of the students. An unplugged approach, which lets students direct the lesson content, might suit a more confident group of learners.
Some learners prefer a more structured discussion, in which case you may need to work out a plan for who will be talking, for how long, etc. By structuring the discussion and rotating roles, all students get to speak. This can help prevent some students dominating the discussion and others getting left out.
Where to find discussion topics
Discussion activities often begin with questions. A good place to start is iteslj.org, which has a large selection of topics, each with a long list of questions.
Tefltunes.com provides songs that can be used to introduce a discussion topic and to look at it through the song’s lyrics. If you prefer your discussion topics to be current affairs, check out Breaking News English for the latest articles.
Rewordify takes a text and simplifies the language so that it is easier to read or understand. Intermediate students may like this site because it can help them increase their vocabulary and improve their reading comprehension.
Alternatively, you can encourage the students to think of their own topics. You could even get them to work in groups to create questions for other groups to discuss.
Activities that help students organise their ideas
Some activities are based on helping students organise their ideas. Producing mind maps in class can act as prompts to keep the discussion going, and help students expand on the topic and order their ideas.
Clines are useful ways for learners to order information on a scale. For example, you might have 'agree strongly' at one end and 'disagree strongly' at the other. There is an activity called ‘Favourites’ in Five-Minute Activities that uses a cline in this way. You have five choices: A, B, C, D, E. Each choice represents a sentence or an opinion. The students ask their partner which they agree with the most, which they like least, and order their choices on a cline for comparison.