Any plans for the weekend? Lovely day, isn’t it?
Small talk can be difficult or awkward even for some native speakers. And it’s doubly difficult for English learners. Our students are bound to encounter it at some point outside the classroom. In this article, we have 10 quick activities that will help you practise small talk in the classroom, and prepare your students for the “dangers” of real-world communication.
Small talk is usually associated with the business setting, but if you don’t teach any business classes, use these activities as general fluency and communication practice. They’ll work just as well.
#1 What have we got in common?
Objective: To practise getting to know other people.
Students take a few minutes to create new profiles for themselves. They think of personality, jobs, home, hobbies, etc.
They imagine they’re at a conference and have to get to know each other. They mingle and find out what they have in common with each other. When they’ve finished, they share what they found out.
You can skip the part where students create new profiles and they can just act as themselves. This stage is useful for groups who know each other very well or groups who don’t like to share their personal details.
#2 Small talk timer
Objective: To practise asking questions.
Students work in pairs. Each pair needs one small object, such as a pen. Set a timer for about 2 minutes, but don’t tell the students how much time they have.
Their task is to make small talk. The student who holds the pen starts by asking a question. As soon as they ask the question, they pass the pen to their partner who now has to answer this question and ask another question, and then pass the pen back to their partner. So they can pass the pen to the other person only after they’ve asked a question.
The objective is to NOT be holding the pen when the timer stops. Because the students don’t know how much time they have and when the alarm is going to go off, it motivates them to ask their questions as quickly as possible, and pass the pen to their partner. It’s a great activity for fluency practice.
#3 Start a conversation
Objective: To practise starting a conversation.
On the board write a few topics for small talk, for example the weather, recent news, etc.
Students work in pairs. Their task is to start a conversation on the first topic. They have to be as natural as they can. They continue the conversation for about 30 seconds. When they’ve finished, erase this topic from the board. And they do the same with the next topic.
Continue the activity until you’ve run out of topics on the board.
#4 Don’t stop
Objective: To practise keeping the conversation going.
On the board write a few topics for small talk. Set the timer for 5-7 minutes. Students work in pairs. They choose a topic from the board and start talking. Their task is to keep the conversation going until the timer stops. They can change the topic during the conversation, but it has to be natural and they can only change to the topics specified on the board.
#5 A difficult partner
Objective: To practise talking to a difficult conversation partner.
Students work in pairs. One student is playing the role of a difficult conversation partner. Before they start talking, give them some instructions, for example you talk too much about yourself, you don’t talk very much, or you seem distracted and keep checking your phone, etc. The other student’s task is to keep the conversation going for as long as they can despite the difficult partner.
#6 Boring but interesting
Objective: To practise talking about boring topics, and to practise the right intonation.
Prepare a list of topics which are not normally regarded as topics for conversation and aren’t very fascinating. For example the prices of coffee cups in a local supermarket, the quality of the grass in the estate, a new sofa in the cafe next door, etc. Students’ task is to talk about one of these topics as if it was the most fascinating topic in the world. They have to use the right intonation and tone of voice to show how interested they are. They have to keep the conversation going for as long as they can, or you can give them a time limit.
#7 I’m an expert
Objective: To practise talking about something that they’re good at.
Students think about a topic that they are good at. It could be baking, bicycle repairs, medicine, quantum physics, geography, etc. Give them some time to prepare vocabulary and phrases they could use to talk about this topic. Next, put them in pairs. Their task is to talk and find out as much as they can about their partner’s area of expertise.
When they’ve finished, they share what interesting things they found out.
#8 Company gossip
Objective: To practise reacting to unexpected or shocking news.
Before the lesson, prepare a few pieces of paper. On each one write some company gossip. For example: Maria is pregnant, Jake is leaving, Joanna had an argument with the boss, etc. If you don’t work with business students, you can make this task more general, and just use neighbourhood gossip instead.
Students work in pairs. Each one gets a piece of paper and they share their gossip starting with: Have you heard…? The other student has to react, make a comment and ask for more details.
#9 60-second talks
Objective: To practise fluency.
On small pieces of paper write different small talk topics, for example the weather, recent news, etc. Students work in pairs. They each take one piece of paper and have to talk about this topic for 60 seconds. They take it in turns, so the first person talks about their topic for 60 seconds, and then they swap.
This is a fluency practice, so don’t worry about correcting any mistakes. Just point out to the student who is listening to ask for clarification if there’s something they don’t understand.
#10 How was your weekend?
Objective: To talk about past events in an informal way.
Before the lesson, prepare a few photos in which people are doing some activities.
Give a different photo to each student in the group. The photo they got represents what they did at the weekend. Students work in pairs and make small talk about their last weekend.
You can use this activity to talk about business trips and holidays as well.
We hope these 10 quick activities will help you prepare your students for small talk in the real world!