The Art of Small Talk


This lesson idea is a continuation of the blog post on the same topic. It is meant for ESL teachers or English learners who need some ideas on how to improve their ability to engage in small talk. The lesson idea is suitable for Intermediate students and higher. This can be a great lesson idea for new classes as way of getting to know your classmates. If you need more ideas to encourage communication practice in your class there is also the reporting verbs lesson idea(student friendly, speaking focused), the negotiating lesson, the food revolution lesson(modals) and also the advice lesson on cultural norms. Check these out for more ideas. Finally you can watch the video episode to small talk lesson at the end of this post.

Lesson idea

Start by asking students what they think small talk is and what it’s for. (Pair work or whole class). Put the ideas on the board. Here are some to help, you can give these to students after they’ve discussed their own ideas and get their reactions:

  1. I don’t particularly like talking to strangers.
  2. It’s awkward trying to show interest, I have to pretend most of the time.
  3. It feels fake, the person is not really interested in getting to know me, they just want something from me.
  4. The conversation is artificial, mostly about weather and generally complaining, I can’t stand it.
  5. Why waste my time talking about nonsense, I’ll never see that person again anyway.


Follow it up with topics for small talk and put those on the board. Think of these as brainstorming opportunities in the class. Once that is done ask the students to discuss in pairs:

  • Which topics they typically bring up when they themselves engage in small talk,
  • How they feel about doing it
  • How often it occurs

Get feedback.

At this point or while doing the brainstorming of topics you can add any that they missed(you’ll find these in the blog post) as well as the questions you can ask to keep the conversation going.

Tips and Topics

Ask students to name some topics that are best ‘avoided’. They should come up with Politics, News from TV, personal finances, religion, personal questions and traffic. Explain that some of these topics are a breeding ground for complaining and that is NOT what you should be engaging in when making small talk.

In your opinion, which of these items of advice for a successful conversation are useful and which are not?

  1. Listen carefully
  2. Give only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers
  3. Interrupt a lot
  4. Be polite
  5. Ask questions
  6. Stay silent
  7. Keep eye contact
  8. Be friendly

Get feedback from students and ask follow-up questions on why the good advice is “GOOD”. It’s worth pointing out to your students here that when networking or attending a business conference they should ask themselves ‘What is the aim?’.

Are they there to learn or to inform?

If it’s the first, then they should practice asking LOTS of questions, in particular, OPEN questions in order to avoid getting ‘yes or no’ answers. If it’s the second choice than that means they will  be talking most of the time and that requires being friendly, polite and maintaining good body language (keep eye contact, hand gestures etc.)

Speaking practice

Now get students to practice some of the small talk topics in pairs and use some of the tips discussed. Ask the to try and keep the conversation going as much as they can. Get them to report back on how it went or any difficulties they had.

Switch the pairs and ask them to do it again on different topics than they discussed before. Emphasize practicing the good conversation tips given. Did they learn anything new about their partner?

Was this lesson idea useful? You can find more by checking out the whole collection here? Need more tips? Check out the YouTube channel with over 200 episodes on teaching and learning English.

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