Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Literacy Resources for Adult ESL and ABE Educators: Conversation Guides

Tips & suggestions, online resources, and physical materials for Adult ESL and ABE educators.

ESL Conversation

ESL Conversation groups and classes give learners the opportunity to communicate with native English speakers in authentic and meaningful ways. Getting outside of traditional classroom settings with more formulaic learning is an important step in reaching their language learning goals.

Included on this page are some example lessons and recommended books to help guide you in creating successful lessons of your own. As a facilitator be sure to create a stress-free and judgement-free environment so your learners feel comfortable and confident enough to express themselves.

ESL Conversation Facilitator Survey

As a conversation group facilitator, what is your biggest concern?

ESL Conversation Facilitator Survey
Student engagement: 9 votes (33.33%)
Variations in student ability: 9 votes (33.33%)
Correcting pronuciation: 9 votes (33.33%)
Total Votes: 27

Examples of Conversation Topics and Lessons

Warm up: Write the follow words on the board.



Preference (prefer)

Ask students to talk to a partner about these words, and share some things they like and dislike. What are some things they prefer to do in their free time? Go around the room and have every student give one example of something they love to do in their free time. 

NOTE: If you feel comfortable discussing grammar, you can review the basics of would + subject + rather + base verb and prefer + gerund/infinitive.



Distribute the strips of paper to students in groups of 2 or 3. The students take turns drawing a piece of paper, reading the question, and giving their answer (remind high level students they must justify their answer and explain why). After they answer with their opinion, the rest of the group can say if they agree or disagree. 

(Before class, you'll need to print these and cut them into strips; you can also just display them on the board.)

If you have time left at the end, you can have each group share some of the most interesting things they learned about their partners. 


  • Would you rather live in a place where it is always hot or always cold?
  • Would you rather play for the Red Sox (or Patriots!) or be a famous actor/actress? 
  • Would you rather be able to speak any language easily or communicate with animals?
  • Would you rather be poor with lots of good friends or rich with no friends?
  • Would you rather be completely alone for 5 years or constantly be surrounded by people and never be alone for 5 years?
  • Would you rather live without the internet or without heating/air conditioning?
  • Would you rather live near the mountains or the ocean?


 Warm up: Put students in pairs or small groups, and have them work on the task together.


 Think of as many personality adjectives as you can. One person in your group should write all the words down. 

Extra: (if you want to display this on the screen or look at it ahead of time if you don't have a computer)

After 10 minutes, have each group send one representative to the board to write at least 2 of the words they came up with. Ask students if any word is unfamiliar, and define as necessary.\

Tell students the topic will be "first impressions," and that throughout the group session they should remember these adjectives to describe people and use them if possible.


Small group discussion questions

1. What is a first impression?

2. Do you think first impressions are accurate? 

3. What is a time your first impression of someone was wrong or right? 

4. What should you do to make a good impression on someone in your country?

5. What is the rudest thing you could do when first meeting an older person in your country?


After giving the group ample time to discuss in small groups/pairs, come together and share some answers.


Now for visuals! If you have a computer, you can do this on the projector, and just google image the terms. If you don't, then you can find pictures you like before class and print them to display one at a time. 

However you do it, the way this activity can go is you display one picture at a time. In pairs or groups of 3, students must talk about what their first impressions are of that person, and why. 

Ideas for search terms to show pictures: 

Business woman


Punk musician

preppy student




This topic has many possible directions to go depending on student interest, from biology to mythology. Below is one suggested lesson centered around the topic.


Warm up: Show the 1781 painting "The Nightmare" (on the screen or a printed copy). Ask students to write down or discuss with their neighbor what they think is happening in the picture. 


Eliciting and activating prior knowledge: Students discuss in pairs or small groups.

What idioms/vocabulary words do you know related to dreams/sleep?

What do you think is the role of dreams? (Are they more physical or psychological?)

What's the strangest dream you've ever had? The scariest? 


Do you think dreams come true? Can they tell us anything? 



Idioms to share with students before or after the speaking; you can have them use these in speaking 

A dream come true – something that has been desired for a long time that has happened as hoped for.

Example: “My new job at the library is a dream come true: the people are lovely, and the work is interesting.”



A pipe dream – an idea that could never happen because it is impossible.

Example:  "Mark’s pipe dream is to become the president of the World Bank.”



To be in a dream world – to have ideas or hopes which are not practical or likely to be successful.

Example: “Stop living in a dream world! If you want to graduate college you’ll have to study harder.”



Beyond (someone's) wildest dreams –  when something happens that is far more than you could have hoped for or imagined.

Example: “My childhood trip to Disneyland was beyond my wildest dreams-- it was perfect.”



Broken dreams – wishes or desires that cannot come true.

Example: “In the movie, the poor girl’s life was full of broken dreams”



"Dream on!" or "In your dreams!" – Expressions you say to someone who has just told you about something they want, if you do not believe it will ever happen.

Example: “You want to win the lottery? Dream on!”



Wouldn’t dream of doing – would not even consider doing something. Grammar note: You must keep the verb after "of" in the gerund (ing) form.

Example: “I wouldn’t dream of traveling without insurance, it’s too risky”



Listening: TED Ed has a great video on the topic "Why do we dream?"


Prediction: Go around the group and each student share one thing (or word association) about what they think the talk will be about.


Comprehension: Under the "Think" tab to the right of the talk, there are comprehension questions you can go over together with the class.




After listening, click on the "dicuss" tab to the right of the video for questions to discuss in pairs of small groups.


"Exit ticket":

Before they leave, each student tells you either a) the most interesting thing they learned today or b) one thing they still want to know more about.








This lesson is better for high level students, so if you had a conversation group of Intermediate or above.

Warm up: Questions to discuss with partner/group

1) Imagine you have 500 dollars in front of you.  If you can wait and not spend the money for one year, then you can have double the amount (1000). What would you do? 

2) Are you tempted by soft drinks, cigarettes, or sugary food? What is most tempting to you? How do you resist your biggest temptation? 

3) What is more your life philosophy: getting/doing what you want right away (impulsive), or waiting for the future (being safe)? Why do you think this is your preference? 

4) Do you think the ability to resist gratification (strong willpower) is necessary for success?

5) What is more motivating: the promise of a reward or the threat of punishment? 

6) How might learning English relate to all this? 


Vocabulary to learn before the listening: 

hold off (on)

replete with 

wolf down 



Listening: Watch the video and ask students to listen for main idea, not necessarily every word, given the difficulty level.

Comprehension: Discussion

1) How would you summarize the marshmallow test?

2) What was the most interesting part of the video to you?

3) Do you think if you fail this test you will not be successful? 




Using pictures is a great way to have stand-alone lessons or transition into deeper conversations. Creative CommonsNational Geographic and NY Times "What's Going on in this Picture" have a plethora of pictures to bring in and share.

Below are some example questions (corresponding to the picture on the right) that you can ask your learners:  

  1. What do you see in this picture?
  2. How does this picture make you feel or what does it make you think about?
  3. Is this acceptable?  
  4. What was your childhood like?
  5. What experiences do you remember the most from your childhood?


"Child in slum in Kampala (Uganda) next to open sewage" by I. Jurga is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Gifts and Good Deeds

  1. Is gift giving important in your country?  When do people normally give each other gifts (birthdays, parties, holidays, and a host or hostess gift)?  What kinds of gifts do people normally give each other?  Are there some gifts that people avoid giving each other?  For example, in China people don’t give clocks as a gift because the Chinese word for clock is very similar to the word for death.  Are there some gifts that are better to give on certain occasions?
  2. What is the greatest gift you have ever received?
    • Questions 2-5 are great opportunities to:
      • Talk about comparative and superlative adjectives
      • Discuss the present perfect tense.
  3. What is the greatest gift you have ever given someone?
  4. Describe something special someone has done for you.
  5. Describe something special you have done for someone else.

Most Important Things in Life

            What are the most important things in life?  Make a list and then put them in the order of importance. Discuss each thing and the reason for including it.


  • Love
  • Family
  • Friendship
  • Religion
  • Happiness
  • Food
  • Job
  • Health
  • English
  • Money
  • Ambition
  • Etc.


Burning Home

            If your house or apartment were burning and you could only take with you what would you carry what would you take?  Often times students will say their computer because it has everything, but try to have them think about other kinds of objects that may be important to them.  For example, family heirlooms, old pictures (before digital cameras), special gifts, etc.  You can also ask people to bring in these items to share with the group or class.

Discover a moving TED talk and ways to use it to stimulate conversation in your group. To view this Ted Talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, click here.

If you're looking to mix things up and find a change from the same patterns in your groups, incorporating music in the group is a great way to start! This guide has a list of possible activities and ideas for using songs in conversation groups.

ESL Conversation Topic Book Suggestions