The benefits of discussions in the ESL classroom

Teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL) know the sense of achievement when a class discussion really flows. It’s wonderful to see — and hear — your students interact through English in a natural way.

Let’s look a little closer at the reasons why class discussions are so beneficial to English learners, before exploring how Kialo Edu can help you hold great discussions with your students!

Why have discussions with ESL students

Discussions can take many forms, from five minutes of speaking in pairs to asynchronous conversations conducted online. All of these activities share some common benefits for language learners.

1. Students produce language in context

A central goal of language learning is effective communication, and discussions practice this precisely. In discussions, students produce language in an authentic context, one in which they seek to both understand and be understood by others.

This is the case in both oral as well as online discussions, and holds true whether students are debating something more lighthearted like the existence of aliens or more contextually serious like the responsibility of individuals for climate change.

2. Increase student confidence

Confidence is key to building fluency, and being able to share their ideas on a topic is a huge boost for learners of a second language. If you choose topics that students find interesting — and provide the appropriate support — students will feel a real sense of accomplishment when they can actively contribute to the conversation.

3. Focus on specific target vocabulary

Discussions are great for practicing the target vocabulary in a lesson. When you’re teaching vocabulary around a particular topic, holding a discussion is a great way to have students encounter, respond to, and use the words in context — which all boost retention of meaning!

Class discussions are particularly suited for teaching certain language structures. Discussions lend themselves to teaching phrases used to express opinion, agreement and disagreement, and modal verbs such as “should” or “could.”

You can provide sentence frames for these key structures, and have students practice using expressions such as “that’s a good point” or “I’ve never thought of it like that.” After honing their discursive language on familiar topics, students can tackle more advanced themes.

4. Foster critical thinking

Discussing, deliberating, and debating all strengthen students’ ability to think critically. A 21st-century approach to education emphasizes this across all subjects. English learners who are adept at parsing information, linking ideas, and finding solutions are better equipped to tackle the difficulties they face in getting to grips with the language.

For ESL students aiming to take a standardized test such as IELTS or TOEFL, developing these analytical skills is even more important. Mastering these skills means students will be better able to demonstrate that they can comprehend complex arguments and draw reasoned conclusions from a text.

In the case of English-Language Learner students in immersive English environments, studies have shown that academic discussions focused on reasoning and problem-solving are invaluable for helping them to achieve fluency.

How to use Kialo Edu discussions with your ESL class

As a rule, all Kialo Edu discussions take place online, and students participate by writing claims to support their arguments. These are particularly useful when you want ESL students to focus on written accuracy. But Kialo Edu can also be paired with in-class, oral discussions or other class activities. Here are a few tips on how to integrate Kialo Edu into your ESL classes.

1. Use the discussion Background Info to provide context

No matter how you’re using Kialo Edu with students, here is some universal advice: Make good use of the Background Info! You can add relevant sentence frames, word lists, or external links so that students always have them at hand. And if you’re using a Kialo Topic Template as the basis of the discussion, simply edit the Background Info at any time in the Discussion Settings.

2. Use a Kialo Edu discussion to prepare for an oral discussion

To have fruitful oral discussions, it’s always a good idea to give students adequate time to get their thoughts in order first. This is doubly true of language learners! Rather than simply having them brainstorm on a piece of paper, you can use a Kialo Edu discussion as a preparatory activity.

Once you have the thesis and some starter prompts to get things moving, clone the discussion as many times as you need (for each individual student, or group). You can use the Tasks feature to assign a minimum number of claims for them to write. If you set this as a pre-class activity, you can check through and collate some of the points yourself to use as conversation prompts if the in-class speaking activity isn’t flowing.

3. Use a Kialo Edu discussion to follow up an in-class speaking activity

Kialo Edu discussions can also be used as a great follow-up to an in-class speaking activity. Have students reproduce the points made in class by writing them as claims, and thinking how they connect together. This could work as an after-class, individual activity, or you could pair students up to do this together as a form of collaborative summarizing.

Alternatively, if students are reading a text or watching a video that presents different sides of a debate, have them present the content in the form of a Kialo Edu discussion. This is more engaging than a written summary, and lends itself better to collaboration, requiring students to deliberate to decide which points go where in the discussion tree.

4. Use the Kialo Topics library as a resource bank

We know from experience it’s not always easy to come up with engaging debate topics: We’re working on them every day! The fruit of that labor is our growing collection of ready-to-go Topic Templates. These can also serve as the basis for oral discussions or essay ideas — use them however you see fit.

All of our Topic Templates are browsable by subject category and age. And while the age refers to both the content and reading level of a native English speaker, it’s also a good indication of suitability for your ESL classes. In cases where the content is perfect but the language is too advanced, you can always edit the Background Info to grade the language!

We hope you’ve gained some useful tips on how to use Kialo Edu discussions with your ESL classes. As ever, we would love to hear if you have any more ideas! You can get in touch at, or send us a message on our Twitter or Facebook pages.

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