English Teacher Article Sharing personal experiences in EFL classes

Summary: Going beyond students chatting about themselves.

By: |Audience: Teachers|Category: Teaching English


It is almost impossible to avoid sharing personal experiences in EFL classes, even if it’s just asking “How was your weekend?” or using the “Have you ever…?” questions in the textbook. Less common is having “Sharing personal experiences” as a whole focus of one or more classes, maybe along with accompanying functional language like “In my limited experience,…” and “One day…” This article gives a list of such phrases that you might want to present and practise, then some ideas for classroom activities that can be used for this point. This language point and the activities here are also a good way into getting students to support their opinions (e.g. in presentations and IELTS Writing Task Two) and extended speaking (anecdotes, IELTS Speaking Part Two, etc).

Language for talking about personal experiences can be divided into phrases to talk about general/ repeated experiences like “I have (generally) found that…” and ones for one-off experiences like “A couple of days ago…” There are also some that can be used in both situations such as “When I was three,...”. Students might also want to talk about repeated experiences in the past which stopped such as “I used to… all the time” or pick out one particular occasion from repeated experiences with “The first/ last time I…” etc. As with those examples, sharing experiences phrases tend to have time clauses that go with their tenses such as “On the whole…” and “While…” There are also phrases that tend to be used to end talking about experiences like “Oh well, you live and learn”.

You may also want to include phrases to talk about a lack of experience, questions to ask about experiences, and phrases to talk about other people’s experiences.

Phrases for talking about general experiences

(Generally/ In general/ On the whole), I have found that…

I (only) have (very) limited experience of this, but…/ I don’t have much experience of this (at all), but…

I …. a couple of times/ a few times/ quite a lot/ a lot/ all the time and…

I have only experienced this once or twice/ a couple of times/ a few times, but…

I haven’t had any bad/ good experiences with this. On the contrary,…

In general/ Generally, I find/ I have found…

In my (limited/ very limited/ substantial/ personal) experience,…

Like/ Unlike most people, I have found that…

My general experience of this is…

This has only happened to me twice/ a couple of times, but…

Phrases for talking about single experiences in the past

Phrases with time expressions etc

(I don’t remember this, but my parents told me that) when I was a baby/ toddler…

(I usually… but) one day…

(Just) a couple of days/ weeks/ months/ years ago…

(Just) a few days/ weeks/ months/ years ago…

(Just) the other day,…

As I was …ing,…/ I was… ing when (out of the blue/ out of nowhere)…

I don’t remember exactly when, but…

I must have been about… years old when…

I once…

I was affected by this when…

I will never forget the time when….

I’d just started…, when…

It was/ seemed to be just an ordinary day, but…

Something (similar) happened to me when…

When this happened to me…/ During one of the times this happened to me…

While I was…, (suddenly)…

Other phrases for talking about single experiences in the past

A memorable/ shocking/ typical/ bad/ terrible/ frightening/ sobering/ disappointing/ great/ life-changing/ good experience (that/ which) I had is…

An experience (I had) which I will always remember/ really influenced me/ is relevant to this (debate)/ is related to this (discussion)/ changed my life/ affected my attitudes/ this reminds me of/ comes to mind/ springs to mind/ I had related to this/ stands out is…

An experience which I wish I’d never had is…

An unforgettable/ amazing experience (that/ which) I had is…

I had a memorable/ shocking/ typical/ bad/ terrible/ frightening/ sobering/ disappointing/ great/ life-changing/ good experience of this.

I hope you never experience what I did, which was…

I might have told you this story before, but…

I was a passerby when…/ I was walking past when…

I witnessed…

Something like that happened to me.

This has only happened to me once, but…

This is not like me, but…

Phrases for talking about one or more selected from repeated experiences

I’ve only had good/ bad experiences. For example,…

My first/ last experience of this was…

The first/ last time I experienced this/ this happened to me was…

Phrases for talking about past repeated experiences which stopped

When I was (much) younger,…

Phrases to end talking about experiences

… (or) that’s my experience, anyway.

… though your/ other people’s experiences may be different.

I hope that I never experience that again/ you don’t have to go through the same thing/ the other guy was okay/ he has forgiven me/ I have learnt my lesson/ he gets what he deserves/ it will never happen again.

I still can’t believe it.

It was a once in a lifetime experience/ thing.

It’s difficult to believe it really happened.

Questions about experiences

Do you have experience of…?

Has… (ever) happened to you?

Have you ever…?

Have you experienced…?

I’m guessing you’ve (never)…

When you were…, did you…?

Phrases to talking about other people’s experiences

… claims…

A friend of a friend…

According to a friend of mine/ what someone told me/…

Apparently,…

Famously,…

I don’t have any personal experience of this, but…

I heard that…

I know a good story about…

I wasn’t there at the time, but…

Someone told me that…

This didn’t actually happen to me, but…

This hasn’t happened to me personally, but…

Phrases with more than one function above

I have personal experience of this. (In fact)…

I’d like to share my experience of…

I’ve got a good story about…

My (own) experience of this is…

When I was in kindergarten/ primary school/ secondary school/ college/ my first job…

Misc

I haven’t experienced this personally/ recently/ in the last few years/ since…, but…

I don’t have recent experience of this, but…

Since I first experienced this,…

Typical student problems include using “ever” in positive statements (“I have ever been robbed”), using complex and unnatural expressions to avoid Present Perfect (“I experienced being robbed last year”), confusing the countable and uncountable versions of “experience”, and trying to make passive forms of “happen”.

Presenting the language of personal experiences

A simple and fun way of presenting this language is to give each student two cards which represent a way of dividing up some or all of the phrases above into two categories, e.g. a “Your own experience” card and an “Other people’s experiences” card. Students race to hold up the right card depending on whether they hear “I have personal experience of this,…” or “A friend of a friend (told me…)” etc. You can include phrases which could fit in both categories like “I’ve got a good story about…” as trick questions, or you could just ignore those kinds of phrases. The same game can also be played with cards saying “General experience” and “Just one experience”.

A more structured and involved presentation stage is giving students common patterns from above and getting them to brainstorm at least two options into the gaps that you give. For example, if you give them the gapped phrase “I have experienced this _______________ and…”, they can brainstorm phrases like “(just) once/ once or twice/ a couple of times/ a few times/ quite a few times/ many times/ recently/ in the last couple of weeks”. If you give them at least three or four such gapped sentences, before checking their answers you could give them phrases which they should try to fit into at least one gap.

Something similar can also be done by giving them key words like “happen” and “experience” that they should include in brainstormed sentences (in the place of the gapped sentences above), leading to phrases like “Something similar happened to me” and “In my general experience,…”. Before checking their answers, they could be given example sentences with one of the key words missing. Other suitable key words that could lead to several brainstormed sentences include “couple”, “few”, “general”, “never”, “once”, “time” and “when”. They can also use the same key words on cards for a speaking game in which they have to use different phrases from any used before with the word on their card to be able to discard it.

Another obvious way of presenting phrases for sharing personal experiences is to do one of the communicative activities below and then brainstorm language that they could have used, in kind of TTT (Test Teach Test) approach. For example, you could give them a list of ways they should support their arguments in a debate on transport in this city (statistics, logical arguments, examples, personal experiences, etc), brainstorm at least two phrases for each kind of support after they finish the debate, then develop the sharing personal experiences point further in the rest of the lesson.

You can include this language point in the very first lesson of a course by getting them to share experiences of learning and using English (perhaps making notes about each other on a needs analysis form), then presenting language that they could have used during that stage.

Practising the language of personal experiences

The most common problem with activities where students are asked to share their experiences is students not coming up with anything to say, or at least not coming up with anything that they can explain in English. The easiest solution is for students to also use their imaginations, for example with Bluff games. Examples include students sharing whole true or false experiences, sharing their own experiences or someone else’s experiences passed as off their own, and adding false details to real experiences. Perhaps after asking questions, their partners have to spot the things which are not real personal experiences.

A more involved version of Bluff is more directly based on the original card game. One student chooses a topic and shares a true or made up experience on that topic, then their partner does the same thing. They continue taking turns on the same topic until one of them runs out ideas or someone challenges their partner on the truth of the experience that they just shared. If you want to score points, they get one if their partner runs out of ideas, if they correctly challenge someone, or if they are incorrectly challenged.

Another way students can use their imaginations is with roleplays, e.g. sharing experiences while imagining they are a real famous person until their partner guesses who they are. However, activities where they also speak about their own experiences like the Bluff games described above are generally more useful, as there is always a chance that students will have the chance to share the same experiences outside the classroom later.

To force students to use more of a range of the language given in the lists above, they can be given cards that they should use during speaking activities, as explained for key words above. These can also be whole phrases, or just names of kinds of phrases such as “One off experience” and “General experience”. If you want to score, the student who uses the most cards before the end of the game wins.

Students can also challenge each other to use particular key words, phrases or functions, maybe as part of a bluffing game. For example, one student chooses the phrase “I have only experienced this once or twice but…” for their partner to use and then tries to work out if the resulting story is true or false. This can also be done with students giving each other more specific sentences to talk about, e.g. “The first time I ever tried Mexican food,…”

As mentioned in the introduction, the most common use of sharing personal experiences in classroom speaking and homework writing tasks is to support your opinions, e.g. in Cambridge FCE Speaking Part Four and CPE essays. You can therefore prompt use of this language by setting up discussion of a point in which they are likely to be able to use their personal experiences as support, e.g. transport in this city or reforming education.

Probably the most common way of sharing personal experiences outside the classroom is the typical pub conversation of sharing something related to what your partner just said with phrases like “That reminds me of the time when I…”. This can often form chains of related anecdotes that drifts far away from the original topic. This is quite difficult to set up in class (especially without alcohol), but it can be done. One way is to give students phrases like “Something similar happened to me when…” that they should use when their partner has stopped speaking, working together to continue the chain of anecdotes with as many links as they can. When they finish, they should share the last anecdote with the class so that the class can guess what the original topic might have been. Alternatively, they could just count the number of links in the chain, with the group with the greatest number winning the game.

This activity can also be combined with interrupting. Students should interrupt their partner whenever a related anecdote comes into their head, with their partner being able to reject the interruption if the anecdote is totally off topic or interrupt back again if they can think of another linking personal experience. The winner is the person who has spoken more than their partner(s) when the teacher stops the game.

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Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com