The Online Conversation Leader Handbook
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Welcome to the online version of the Conversation Leader Handbook. I originally wrote this with the help of Linda Bustillos at the English Language Institute at the University of Florida. I was a conversation leader at the time, and I saw the need to train the new conversation leaders to the program. The ELI hired university students part time to be conversation leaders, and I discovered through a year of observation that the ESL students would quickly lose interest in the conversation group if a new conversation leader did not have a good strong start with a new conversation group. Conversation groups were not for graded; therefore, if the group wasn't interesting or if the conversation leader seemed unprepared, the students would not come and participate in this great program. This meant that a valuable part of the program was being squandered. Furthermore, I noticed that when the program director or I had the time to train the incoming conversation leaders they would have a higher student attendance rate in their conversation groups. In an effort to improve attendance and the activities program as a whole, Linda and I decided to write this handbook and give a small training seminar to all incoming conversation leaders. I presented this seminar at The Sunshine State TESOL Conference in April 1995.
Its been a year now since that presentation, and I have made a number of improvements on the original handbook. This online version is written with the North American intensive English program in mind. If you are not in the USA, you can probably find some of this handbook of use for the training of conversation leaders. Also, adaptations can also be made for community education volunteers and other ESL programs of that kind. I have tried to keep this handbook as informal as possible since being a conversation leader is an informal job. If you have any questions or comments you want to send me, please feel free to send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Being a conversation leader is a job that will change your life and make a huge difference in the lives of the students in your group. The job of a conversation leader encompasses many things. The most important part of the conversation leader job is to make friends. This makes your job as a conversation leader different than that of a teacher because teachers have to maintain a certain distance as they must assign grades and enforce the rules of attendance.
The conversation leader's prime objective is to make friends with all of the students in the group. These students need to feel comfortable about approaching you with the variety of problems that arise because they are learning a new language and coping with a new culture. For them, you are the main representative of American campus culture, and you must be prepared to help your students find the same success and enjoyment that you get from university life.
First impressions are very important. This handbook is designed to help you plan your conversation groups to be interesting, fun, and useful to the students. The main idea is to care about your students and to be prepared. If the students see that you are unprepared or apathetic, you will lose them. Attendance is usually not required in conversation group. Students attend because they want to interact with native-speaking students and learn some of the less formal aspects of the English language as well as learn how to get by in America. They also attend because they are looking for friendship with you. This handbook is designed to be a quick reference for students and teachers who want to be successful conversation leaders of English. So, read the handbook and give it some thought.
Working with ESL students is one of life's most rewarding experiences, but it can have its difficult moments too. These trying times come about for several reasons. Being prepared for them as a conversation leader doesn't require much more than relying on your common sense and knowing how to identify difficulties before they become problems.
If you work in a program where many of the students are young, just plain youth may be the cause for a student not being able to adjust to the language and culture. The only cure for this is, of course, age and experience. You have to be careful not to let them cling to you. If they are 16+ years old, remind them that the homesickness will subside eventually. Be their friend, and try to get their minds off their missed kin at home and onto learning English and American culture, which is why they are here.
Serious problems are a fact of life everywhere. Some examples of serious problems can be medical problems, landlord problems, legal problems, immigration problems, or something as bad as suicidal tendencies. People are people. Being able to spot serious difficulties isn't hard. They will manifest themselves in the student's demeanor, or the student will just tell you. Often you will be the first person in this country to which the ESL student will bring a real problem. All serious problems ought to be referred to a specialist. If the student brings a serious problem to you, then that student's parents, friends, and neighbors probably can't help, or the student feels that you are the only one that s/he can trust. If you are a student / work-study / conversation leader, you probably lack the experience, the qualifications, and the salary that it takes to properly deal with these issues. Tell the student that s/he can trust you, and then explain that there are people in your ESL program or institution who can help the student more efficiently than you can. The program that I worked in had a person who was the institute's counselor/immigration officer, and all serious problems were referred to her.
In most cases, cultural adjustment is the cause for an ESL student's problems. Most ESL programs staff experienced personnel whom you can tap for advice. More experienced conversation leaders and the program's administration no doubt have some valuable experiences to draw on, and they are a great source of information. Remember that ESL students are immersed in an unfamiliar environment, and this can shake a person's values apart. Research has found that adjustment to cultural immersion follows a set of stages. Being familiar with the stages of cultural adjustment can also help in your job as a conversation leader.
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