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Discussion Starters: Teachers' Notes

January 5, 2022

Teachers' Notes

Our Discussion Starters section has 100+ readings based on interesting topics that are relevant today. Some of these topics have been suggested by our members, and we welcome your ideas too! Our goal is to include topics that teens and adults have strong opinions or feelings about. We hope that even your shy students will feel inclined to join in. We add new lessons regularly, so please keep a close eye on this section.

About This Section

Some teachers prefer to teach a materials-light class. Rather than using a textbook, they search for short or authentic materials that are related to the interests of their students. The Discussion Starters section may be useful for this type of teacher. These lessons are recommended for tutoring and online teaching as well as general conversation classes. Many of these topics will interest teens and young adults, though a mixed-age class will undoubtedly have very interesting discussions based on topics such as climate change, digital learning, or distracted driving!

You don’t have to cover all of the suggested activities in a lesson. Some teachers just play the audio file. Others just use the reading and discussion questions. 

Discussion Grouping Options

Discussions based on these lessons don’t have to be limited to pairs or small groups. Encourage your learners to share their opinions in a variety of ways.

  • in a large group discussion with the whole class
  • in small groups of their choice and in groups of your choice
  • in pairs of their choice and in pairs of your choice
  • in chat room conversations
  • with fellow students or friends
  • with video chat partners
  • on a Facebook group page
  • in a Twitter chat with a set #tag
  • on the phone with fellow students
  • via texting on mobile devices
  • with parents and other family members at the dinner table
  • in role-play situations
  • in blog posts and comment sections


A. Warm-Up Questions

Before you listen to the audio file or read the article, find out if your class is interested in this topic. How much do they already know? Talk about the 4–5 questions (provided) together as a class, or put students in small groups to discuss. Note that the digital version has a warm-up video with the same questions.

B. Vocabulary Preview

Each Discussion Starter lesson includes a pre-reading vocabulary task. The lesson also reviews these 8–12 words in a few different ways after the reading. Some teachers prefer to assign this task as a pair activity. You can decide whether or not to allow your students to use their dictionaries for this activity (if you allow this, you may want to encourage English–English dictionary use). Be sure to practice the pronunciation and spelling of the key vocabulary throughout the week. We hope you'll encourage your learners to use Vocabulary Cards to really get to know each word!


The readings are about 200–300 words in length and most are written at an intermediate level. Other lessons are low-intermediate and some are high-intermediate to advanced. We encourage you to explore many options for reading in class, including silent reading, reading aloud, shared reading, and reading with audio support. You can also assign the reading for homework, or have students record the reading and send it to you!


Even though most of the readings are aimed at a lower- to upper-intermediate level, the lessons can certainly be used for higher levels as well. Advanced students usually don’t mind reading a lower-level lesson if it leads to a great discussion or debate.


All of our Discussion Starters lessons have mp3 files (North American or UK) that you can download or stream. In addition to being available with the PDF, the audio is available in the digital version (Listen & Read and Listen & Type tasks). Note that only the US audio is available in the digital version.

A gap-fill activity is included at the end of each lesson. If you want your students to listen to different voices and accents, try sharing the UK audio (note this matches the text in the British English printable version). If you want your students to really focus on listening, you can play the recording for your learners without handing out the reading and have them work through the comprehension questions.


Each reading includes a set of comprehension questions. You can use these questions or have your students write their own questions. You can also ask the questions orally and have students take turns offering the answers. Make sure that your students give more than just one-word answers if they are writing them out. (Encourage them to use the digital version to save paper! Suggested answers are provided after they submit their answers. Teachers can see these suggested answers in the digital answer key and when checking answers.)

Vocabulary Review

Each Discussion Starter lesson includes one or more vocabulary review tasks. If you don’t want to use class time for this, you can assign individual tasks for homework and take the answers up the following class to check if your students have remembered the new words. Example vocabulary review activities include fill-in-the-blanks, matching, true/false, and synonym/antonym.

Grammar Practice & Review

Some of the Discussion Starters lessons include a mini-grammar review and practice task. The grammar target is typically used in context in the reading. Note that not all Discussion Starters lessons have grammar tasks. There may be another type of task, such as a Class Survey (print only). We encourage you to explore our related grammar lessons (and videos) from our Grammar Practice Worksheets section if your students need more practice.


We hope the discussion questions in these lessons will give your students plenty to talk about. You can set students up in small groups or have rotating pairs, or even schedule a chat about this topic with students from another class or country! These questions also make great writing prompts. 

Research or Critical Thinking

Some Discussion Starters lessons feature a research option. Others include a critical thinking task or group activity. You can decide whether these optional tasks are appropriate for your students and if you have enough time to include them.

Speaking Task

The digital version of our Discussion Starters lessons includes a speaking task called Personal Response. Students have up to two minutes to comment on a quote or question related to the topic. The lesson image is also usually provided for inspiration. For a lite version of this lesson, you can easily just do the warm-up questions with a follow-up speaking task as a homework activity. If you want to create a rubric for the speaking task, you can personalize this Speaking Task Assessment Form.

Answer Key

The teacher version of the printable lesson has an answer key, which may also include some extra usage notes or teaching ideas. We recommend that you print the teacher version with the answer key. You may not need to photocopy the answer key for all of your students unless they request it. Alternatively, you can print out a few answer keys and have students share them around. Looking for the answer key in the digital version? Find answers to applicable task types by clicking the apple icon next to the digital task title in the Task List menu. Note that the printable answer key is not meant to be used with this digital version.

digital answer key

Printable Vs. Digital 

The printable and digital version of our Discussion Starters lessons have most of the same content, though the task names and order may be slightly different. The digital versions currently go with the US printable versions (with American spelling and usage).

While it is possible to use a hybrid approach for this section, it's important to preview both versions (print and digital) since they do not match exactly. You will encounter a few small differences and therefore it is not advised to have some students using the printable while the teacher or other students use the printable version. Also, some digital activities are not available in our printable versions. Similarly some group tasks (e.g., Class Survey) from our printable lessons are not currently offered in the digital versions.

Look at the following information to see a few key differences between the printable and digital versions. Why do they differ? Unfortunately, our digital task suite does not allow for an exact transferral to and from our paper-based materials. However, as new digital tasks types are built by our developers, we're able to mirror the printable and digital lessons more closely!

1. Warm-Up

In the digital version, you will find a warm-up video instead of just warm-up questions. The video is a small teaser of the content and contains a few interesting facts. The warm-up questions from the printable lesson are also provided in this digital task. Some teachers like to assign this digital task for homework before doing the lesson in class to get their students thinking about the topic.

warm-up video

2. Vocabulary Preview 

The pre-reading vocabulary task is generally identical in the printable and digital version; however, matching tasks are split into two tasks (A and B) in the digital version to reduce scrolling. If a pre-reading vocabulary task is not a matching task in the printable lesson, the task may vary in the digital version.

3. Discussion Questions

The final question set is usually identical, but sometimes one of the questions has been removed from the digital version and used in the speaking task instead. Encourage your class to come up with a few more related questions of their own.

4. Listening Vs. Listen & Type (Gap-Fill)

Though this is the same task type in both the printable and digital versions, the blanked-out words may differ slightly. Since the digital task type only accepts exact answers, we sometimes use different blanks in the digital version. For example, if a word has spelling variations, hyphens, or capitalization that could affect scoring when typed incorrectly, we try to avoid using it in the digital version.  

Teaching 1:1

Do you teach one student at a time? The Discussion Starters section is one of our most popular lesson sections for tutors! Tutors love this section because of the relevant, topical content and ready-made question sets that help students gain confidence in speaking.

If your teen to adult learners want to practice talking about real-world issues, this section will give you exactly what you need. You can assign plenty of tasks digitally (or even email the PDF and MP3 if you prefer) for pre-class and post-class homework, including reading and vocabulary review tasks. During your time together, you can focus more on speaking and pronunciation using the prompts provided. If you assign the reading (or listening) before class, ask your student to jot down any vocabulary or sentence structures they want to go over in class.

Encourage (or even challenge) your students to use the key vocabulary during your discussion time. Ask students to tell you a word from the reading that means (definition from vocabulary preview task). Can they spell it? Do they know what part of speech this word is in the reading? You can also go over any errors from the digital homework together. 

Leave a Comment

Do you use the Discussion Starters section? Please leave a comment below and share your teaching methods with our teaching community. How do you expand on the lesson tasks? What task order do you use? Do you prefer the printable or digital version? What is your favorite topic or category? How do you use this section in your 1:1 classes? Let's discuss!

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Comments (2)

Verren T.(Teacher)

Discussion Starters have been my go-to teaching lesson material for my students so that they can improve their speaking skills. I love that each topic provides general questions, vocabulary preview and sometimes a grammar note. I believe that my money was exquisitely well spent.

Reply to Comment

Tara Benwell(Author)

We're so happy to hear that you enjoy using our Discussion Starters lessons for speaking practice. Please let us know if you have any suggestions for topics!

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