40 telephoning activities
Summary: Many fun interactive classroom activities for presentation, practice and freer production of telephoning language, including games dealing with typical difficulties with making calls in English.
Telephoning is one of the most difficult things that a student might have to do in English, with perhaps only the related skill of teleconferences being more challenging. Unfortunately, I think I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a textbook that didn’t need more telephoning added to it. Luckily, due to the large number of predictable exchanges involved in telephoning, if it is practised in the right way it is eminently teachable. This article gives 40 possibilities for useful classroom practice, simply organised by how often I would personally use these activities in my own classes. That obviously means that activities near the top are those that I would usually recommend most. However, because classes are very different from each other and there are no activities here that I wouldn’t recommend, there should also be useful activities further down the page. Photocopiable versions of many of these activities are available for free online, often on this site.
Personalised telephoning practice
If students already do a lot of telephoning at work in English, you can get them to describe those phone calls in detail (who they are speaking to, purpose of the call, level of formality, if they know the person or not, who is calling who, etc) and then ask them to roleplay those situations with their partner. This makes for the perfect opportunity to give very focused feedback to students and to help elicit exactly the most useful language for their actual lives. In addition, if you get them to write down each other’s needs as they talk about telephoning in English, you can take in what they have written to use to help you plan future lessons, like a kind of needs analysis form.
To make personalised telephoning practice easier, I tend to give out a form with spaces for them to write in as they talk to each other about telephone calls they typically receive and make, starting with the easier topic of calls in their own language to make discussion smoother. When they have finished the roleplays, I tend to move onto brainstorming typical beginnings and endings of telephone calls onto the board, something that works quite well as a presentation task in general.
Guess the dialogue line by line
Students read or listen to a telephone dialogue one line at a time and try to guess what line is coming next each time. The dialogue that they read or listen to should be one which is full of typical responses such as “Would you like to leave a message?”/ “Yes, please. Can you tell him that…?”, “Is there anything else (I can help you with today)?”/ “No, that’s all thanks”, and “Thanks for calling”/ “Thanks for your help. Bye”. After getting to the end of the dialogue, to test their memory of those phrases students can do other activities mentioned elsewhere in this article such as covering part of the dialogue before reading it out or putting cut-up “jigsaw” versions of the same dialogue(s) back into order.
Telephone dialogues disappearing text games
A good way of making telephoning manageable while also making sure that students are eventually able to do it without too much help is to give them a whole dialogue and take it away bit by bit.
The simplest disappearing text activity is to give students a whole dialogue, perhaps the transcript of one that you have just done a listening task with, and ask them to cover it from the bottom as they read it out, covering more and more as the activity goes on. Each time they cover more, they should read the whole thing from the top, also continuing once they get to the covered bit. Continuing in their own way is totally acceptable, and indeed probably preferable to pausing while they struggle to remember the original dialogue. This continues with them repeating the dialogue until almost the whole conversation is covered, perhaps even just reading out the first line and then having to make up the rest of the dialogue. To make covering almost the whole dialogue possible in a reasonable amount of time, you might want to ask students to cover it by two or three more lines each time, or even better to ratchet up the number of lines covered, e.g. one line, then three more , then five more, then seven more, etc.
A more preparation-intensive but fun disappearing text task is for students to cover it word by word. Write out a short typical telephoning dialogue and put it into a table in a word processor program with one word per square, e.g. a conversation starting “Good” “morning” “ABC” “Limited” “How” “can” “I” “help” “you?” About forty or fifty words is probably about right for one round of this game, so for longer dialogues just write out part of it, e.g. only the beginning, or split it into two or more tables to play different rounds with. Make another table the same size but with the boxes filled with Xs, and cut up one of these versions for each group of two to four students. Don’t cut up the actual dialogue. Students take turns putting those XXX pieces of paper on top of the dialogue worksheet. After covering one word, they challenge the next person to read out the entire dialogue, including the hidden word. That person then covers one more word and challenges the next person to read everything including those two missing words. The game continues until the whole text is covered or they completely forget the covered bits, with students reading out the whole thing each time. If you give them a similar blank table, they can then make similar dialogues for another group to play the same memory game with.
In the last activity the text doesn’t exactly disappear, but the effect is basically the same. Give students a whole dialogue to just read out, then ask them to change more and more details in it each time that they repeat it. For example, they can start with just changing some of the details of the conversation to their own names etc and end up with the whole phone call going in a totally different direction.
Key words for telephoning games
The main problem with telephoning is also its main selling point as something to teach – the main task for students is simply to memorise the most typical phrases and then use them at the right time. Along with actual memory games like the ones mentioned elsewhere in this article, I find the most effective way of aiding retention is to get students to remember the phrases by key word like “back” and “message”.
The simplest way of using key words is just to always give students dialogues or phrases to work with in which the key words are underlined or are given in bold. In my experience, this can help at least a little with memorising the phrases even if you don’t go on to do anything else with the key words.
As mentioned elsewhere in this article, another simple way of using key words is to help with brainstorming, by giving key words for each category of phrases (“Asking people to wait” etc) after having asked them to come up with their own ideas. This works best if students have also seen the key words in context earlier on, as just mentioned above.
A more game-like use of key words is for students to deal out a pack of cards with one key word on each one and then try to say phrases including those words during one or more roleplay phone calls. If they manage to do so correctly, they can discard the card with the word on that they used (even if it isn’t the phrase they studied or even a specifically telephoning phrase). The person with fewest cards left in their hand at the end of the game is the winner. This works best if the other key words activities explained here are done before and/ or after this game.
Key words can also be changed into a guessing game. Collect phrases which all have the same key word such as “Can I read that ____________?” and “Yes, please. Can you ask him to call me _______________?” for “back”. Read out phrases from one section until someone in the class guesses the missing word from all of them, then continue the same activity with at least six or seven similar sections, e.g. for other key words like “hold” and “busy”. They can move onto filling in the same gapped sentences on a worksheet with key words, then test each other in the same way as in the first game. You can also give them just the key words and see how many suitable phrases they can come up with for each word.
Step by step telephoning roleplays/ More and more difficult roleplays
Students tend to need lots and lots of practice of the basic starting, ending and checking/ clarifying telephoning phrases, but this can of course get very tedious. Perhaps the best way of dealing with this is to give students roleplays that start out with very basic ones (e.g. “Phone someone who you know and have a quick conversation”), go onto add a little bit of complication (e.g. “Phone someone you don’t know and have a short conversation”), combine those complications (e.g. “Phone someone who you don’t know and have a longer conversation”), and ratchet up the interest and complication little by little until you reach tricky situations like “You need to speak to someone about something very important but you have no idea who you should speak to”.
You can use this activity as a kind of TTT (Test Teach Test) approach to telephoning by giving them this task before presenting the target phone language, stopping them whenever they reach their limit of what they can cope with reasonably well. After doing some more controlled presentation and practice of the phrases they need, they can try all the same roleplays again, and reflect on how much they improved.
Super-intensive single-function telephoning practice
Tell students to do one or more thing as much as possible during roleplay phone calls, e.g. to ask for clarification/ clear up communication problems as many times as they can manage in their conversations (even if they in fact really understand everything). They get one point for each time they do that thing with a phrase that no one else has used in that round of the game. This also works for intensive practice of putting people on hold/ asking people to wait, giving reasons why they can’t speak to someone (with a different reason each time), and perhaps with phrases for smoothly finishing calls and starting calls (e.g. lines before they finally get to the reason for calling).
Telephoning politeness competition game
Many problems with telephoning come down to saying things that aren’t really polite enough for the situation such as “Wait. I’ll find a pencil and some paper”, “I can’t understand you” and “Speak more slowly”. This is not helped by the fact that many books teach possibly impolite phrases like “Speak up” and “Hold on”, often without mentioning the formality issues that students might have with using them in real life.
A nice way of making correcting these kinds of politeness problems fun is to put together a whole collection of impolite phrases. Students work in small groups. One student chooses one of the rude phrases and everyone takes turns competing to make it more and more formal/ polite, usually also meaning making the phrase longer and longer. Whenever they can’t make the sentence any more polite, they discuss which of those phrases is actually probably most useful in real life telephoning, and then do the same again for other rude phrases from the worksheet. They can then rank some options given on a worksheet by formality, and again discuss which of those phrases are probably worth learning and using in their own telephoning.
Telephoning sentence expansion game
This is like an easier version of the politeness game above. Students are given very short telephoning phrases (including some ridiculously short ones like “Name?”) and must make turns expanding them without changing their meaning. If anyone says something that doesn’t make sense, has an error that you’ve worked on in class, changes the meaning or is shorter than what the last person said, the previous person to speak gets a point. They then do the same thing with other phrases from the list.
Telephoning tips and useful phrases
Students discuss which of the tips on good telephoning in English that they have been given on a worksheet are true, e.g. that “Listen actively, using a variety of words to show that you are really listening and understand what is being said” is true and “Be very careful not to interrupt, always waiting a couple of seconds to make sure the other person has definitely finished” is bad advice for English communication. They then brainstorm useful phrases for doing the things that they should do that are on that list, e.g. “Right”, “Sure” and “Got it” for the active listening tip. This can also be very useful for lists of tips for specific kinds of phone calls, e.g. sales calls, dealing with complaints, and dealing with enquiries. Because native English speakers also often need tips on how to do those things well, there are quite a lot of tips on doing those things online that you can simplify, adding some false tips to make your worksheet.
Real answerphone messages
To do this activity you need at least two rooms and two devices for recording students’ voices, e.g. two digital voice recorders, mp3 players that have microphones, or smartphones. Split the class into groups. Put one group in each classroom with one recording device each and ask them to record their “There’s no one here right now”-style message. They then swap rooms, listen to the other group’s “Please leave a message” recording, then leave a message on that group’s answerphone. They then listen to their message on their own answerphone and leave a reply to it. This is more realistic if they go back to the other person’s answerphone to leave that message, but there is less moving around between rooms and what is replying to what is less confusing if they leave a reply straight after the message that they are replying to on the same device.
This works best if you set them a particular task to do, e.g. making as many new arrangements as possible in ten or fifteen minutes.
You can use the finished recordings as a source when planning future lessons, for example by looking for possible sources of misunderstanding in them.
Telephoning meeting criteria board game
Students move around a board roleplaying the telephoning situation described in each square that they are on. When they finish each turn, their partners decide how many of the criteria written in the middle of the board their speaking matched, e.g. if their speaking was polite enough, friendly enough, started smoothly, ended smoothly, and included phrases studied during the course. They can then move forward the number of squares of criteria that they met, e.g. two squares if they started smoothly and ended smoothly but didn’t meet any other of that the criteria that are given. The person who is furthest round the board when the teacher stops the game is the winner.
Jigsaw telephoning texts jigsaw activities
Students work together to put telephone model dialogues that have been cut up and mixed up into the right order. There are several ways of organising this. Rather than cutting up each dialogue, I tend to just give students between four and seven dialogues involving the same two people with each dialogue on one piece of paper. For example, one activity that I often use has five dialogues on one piece of paper each, each of which is an attempt to get through to the same person, with only the last one being successful. With lower level students, I just give pairs of students all the dialogues to put together on the table in front of them in the right order, from the first conversation to the last one.
To get more confident students speaking from the very first stage of the lesson, you can also get students doing the ordering activity orally. Put students into groups of two to five people and give each person in the group one or more of the bits of paper, asking them to work together to put them in order without showing them to each other.
Another way of making a jigsaw texts activity more of a challenge is splitting each conversation into parts, e.g. making ten pieces of paper by splitting five dialogues into halves, or having one dialogue cut into much smaller parts, perhaps even with one line per piece of paper. For even more of a challenge, you can have two different dialogues cut up into pieces and mixed up together. Students split the lines into ones from the two different dialogues, then put each dialogue into order. To make that more possible, you should probably make sure that the two conversations have different levels of formality and different functions/ purposes, so that they end up with, say, one formal request call and one informal inviting conversation.
The ultimate challenge (in terms of planning, cutting up and playing) is making a pyramid of possible responses from a single starting line, something that matches the possibilities of a real phone call. Make a table in a Word document in a stepped pyramid shape, with one box at the top, two boxes of the same size under that, etc. Fill each box with something that could be a response to the one or (usually) two boxes above it, e.g. “Good morning. ABC Limited. Alex speaking. How can I help you?” in the first box at the top, then “Good morning. Can I speak to Mr Jones, please?” and “Hi. Can you put me through to James Jones, please?” in the second line below it. As with these examples, for this to work all but the bottom line or two will need to be phrases which have basically the same meaning/ function.
Cut up the finished pyramid into cards with one line in each. Students try to arrange the cut up table into a pyramid shape. After checking their answers, they can then roleplay the same kind of conversations in pairs, perhaps covering more and more of the pyramid each time they do so. They could then try to fill a blank pyramid with other similar dialogues, e.g. a reverse pyramid covering language at the end of a call.
Continue from the telephoning phrases
This is a nice way of combining input and freer practice all in one stage. Give students some useful phrases such as “Can I check that back?” and “Please hold. I’ll just check if he’s available.” Students choose a phrase then continue from that phrase to the very end of the conversation, repeating that whole process for each phrase they choose. You can allow students to choose which of the phrases they start from each time, or get them to choose at random from a pack of cards, by rolling a dice, by calling out a number or letter of the alphabet at random, etc.
Telephoning errors pairwork
After problems with politeness and confusions between similar expressions, the next biggest group of issues with telephoning tend to be actual errors like “Thank you for your calling” and “Can I help you?” (rather than “How can I help you?”). Given that students are practising an oral English skill, it is usually best to deal with these kinds of typical mistakes with some kind of a speaking activity. My favourite is to prepare Student A and Student B versions of a single dialogue or list of phrases, with different errors added to each version and the correct version of each of those in the other. Students read out phrases from their worksheets without showing them to each other, working together to try to identify what the differences are between the worksheets and then which version is correct and which is wrong in each case. They should then correct wherever their own worksheet is wrong. For example, for question 1 if Student A’s worksheet says “No, that’s all, thanks” and Student B’s worksheets, “No, that all, thanks”, Student B should change their worksheet to match Student A’s version.
After they have attempted to correct all the errors on both worksheets just through speaking, they can then look at each other’s worksheets to start checking, before going through them all as a class or with an answer key.
As well as grammar mistakes, this activity can include problems with using the wrong kind of functional language (e.g. demanding instead of asking), rude language, the wrong word, etc. If all the errors can be spotted from general language knowledge (rather than knowledge of specific telephoning phrases), you can do this activity as a way into telephoning phrases for the first time, particularly if you can make at least some of the errors things that you have studied in previous classes such as determiners or present tenses.
Telephoning cultural differences and useful phrases
This is a slight variation on Telephoning Tips and Useful Phrases. Students discuss which of the statements about telephoning that they are given are true in their culture, e.g. if “Business phone calls usually have little or no small talk, even if you have had lots of contact with that person before” is accurate or not when describing communications in their country. After running through all the statements in that way, students go through the same list one more time discussing if the same things are true in typical British and American phone calls. Perhaps after discussing those two stages as a class, they can then brainstorm useful phrases for doing the things which typical English phone calls usually include.
Telephoning functions card game
This game is similar to the Key Words Card Game mentioned elsewhere in this article, but with names of functions on the cards rather than key words. Give each group of two or three students a pack of cards with the names of things that they will often need to do during telephone calls such as “Checking/ Clarifying”, “Request” and “Talking about messages”. Students will need about ten to fifteen cards each, so you can double up on some important cards if you like. Ask them to deal out all the cards. Students should do things written on their cards with a phrase that hasn’t been said yet while they roleplay phone calls, in which case they can discard that card. The winner is the first person to discard all their cards or the person with fewest cards left in their hand when the teacher stops the game.
Telephoning phrases brainstorming
Usually after having exposed them to some examples with at least one of the more controlled activities in this article, sooner or later I usually get my classes to try to brainstorm useful phrases into categories like “Asking people to wait” and “Checking if the call is finished”. As well as making sure that they have come across useful phrases for at least some of those functions before, there are ways of making the brainstorming more manageable that you give them when they get stuck or need more ideas. These include:
Giving them key words for each phrase
Giving suggested answers but with some mistakes for them to spot (phrases put with the wrong function, too rude phrases, grammar mistakes, etc)
Gapped suggested answers
Mixed suggested answers
A model dialogue or two with example answers
With the last two, to help them start to memorise the phrases, I tend to ask them to put their pens down, look at the examples for useful phrases, turn that worksheet over, and then continue the brainstorming.
After brainstorming, I tend to use the functions card game mentioned elsewhere in this article, or perhaps the similar key words card game if they saw key words at the helping them with their answers stage.
Telephoning responses brainstorming and matching
Collect telephoning phrases which have at least three different possible responses each, e.g. “I’m phoning about…”, “I’m calling to…” and “I just wanted to check…” for “So, how can I help you today?” Put the original phrase and the three responses into a table with four columns, with the responses in the three right-hand columns and what they are responding to in the left-hand column. Cut up copies of the worksheets to make two packs of cards, one with the responses and a smaller one with the original phrases (or you can just leave the left-column as a strip-like column of cards to save some cutting up).
Give out just the original phrases and ask students to think of as many different responses as they can for each one. Then give out the packs of cards with the responses and ask them to match them up to the original phrases. If they get stuck or are waiting for other groups to finish, tell them that there should be three responses for each. When they’ve checked their answers as a class, they can then try to remember the left-hand prompt phrases for each set of responses or test each other in other ways such as racing to respond in the right way to the phrases or continuing dialogues from the prompt phrases until the very end of the phone call.
Multiple telephoning roleplays
There are many useful and fun telephoning roleplays, but the dynamic of endless pairwork telephoning practice can still get a little dull. The simplest solution is to let students “phone” anyone in the class, for example by asking them to write their own true diaries for the next seven days and then phone each other to make as many new arrangements as they can in the next ten minutes. This is more fun if students stay sitting down and must shout if they want to “phone” people who are sitting further away from their desk. However, if this will cause too much chaos you can allow them to get up and move near each other as a kind of mingling activity.
Apart from making arrangements, this game should work with negotiating supplies from different suppliers, especially if all the students/ teams are both selling something that everyone else needs and buying something that everyone else supplies (i.e. each team supplies all but the product that they are trying to sell, meaning with five groups each one sells four products).
Telephoning simplest responses games
Make a collection of telephoning phrases that you have divided into two or more categories, e.g. sentences that are used near the beginning of a conversation and ones that come near the end. Give each student cards to represent two of those categories, e.g. an “Ending” card and a “Beginning” card or a “Getting through” and a “Not getting through” card each. Read out phrases from the worksheet and ask students to raise the cards depending on which category they think the phrases that you read out fit into. If you are reading out more than two categories of sentences (e.g. formal, informal and medium-formality ones), they should keep both those cards down if what they hear doesn’t fit either category or raise both if the phrase fits both.
Students then label the same phrases on a worksheet with the same categories (e.g. writing B for beginning and E for ending), perhaps with the phrases grouped together in twos or threes on the worksheet to make the task manageable even if they can’t guess the meaning of each sentence. After checking their answers, they can then test each other in small groups with the same card raising game as before. You will probably also want to test their memory of the phrases in other ways such as getting them to brainstorm phrases into categories like “First answering the phone” and “Giving and asking for names”.
You can use this game to tie in with non-telephoning lessons by having the categories “Face to face”/ “Phone” or “Phone”/ “Email”. You can also tie it in with The Same or Different elsewhere in this article by those being the two categories, or they could perhaps be “Correct” and “Incorrect” to tie in with some kind of error correction.
Strict timing activities
This activity can lead to more fun but also has the important purpose of making sure students spend the right amount of time on things like small talk and smooth ending, while also keeping the whole class on track. Set an amount of time that students should spend on a roleplay call and/ or parts of it like the bit before getting down to business, and ask students to stick strictly to that time limit. You can help them to keep to the limit by shouting out things like “Start ending the call!” during the practice, or you can ask them to control their time themselves. For the ultimate challenge, you can ask them to try to control their own time without looking at the time on their watches etc, and give them feedback afterwards on how well they did so.
You can also do this as a ratcheting up difficulty activity similar to Step by Step Roleplays by asking them to extend their calls or make them shorter and shorter each time that they roleplay them.
Telephoning prepositions and determiners pairwork
Collect useful telephoning phrases which have tricky little words in like “It’s a really bad line, shall we hang UP and try again?” and “I’m afraid he’s out of the office. Would you like HIS mobile number?” Arrange the phrases into groups by preposition or determiner, e.g. a section with “a/ an” phrases and a section for phrases that have the preposition “on”. Split the sections into Student A and Student B worksheets, e.g. with the “in” section on Student A’s worksheet and the “any” section on Student B’s worksheet, or with different “the” sections split between Student A’s and Student B’s. Each section will need to have at least three example phrases, e.g. four sentences all with “to” in them.
After you give out the worksheets, one student in each pair chooses one of their sections and reads out examples with that preposition or determiner missing, e.g. “I’m really sorry, I have someone BEEP another line” or “Can you tell him that I can’t meet BLANK Monday now?”. They continue with other phrases with the same word missing until their partner guesses the single word that is missing from all those examples. Their partner can only guess once per hint, so no shouting out “A, an, the, any, some, his,…” until they get the right answer! If they run out of examples before their partner correctly guesses the missing word, they can make up their own examples (including non-telephoning ones if they can’t think of more relevant examples) and/ or give other hints such as first letter or meaning of the preposition, carrying on until their partner finally guesses correctly. After their partner gets the right missing word, they may then want to read out all the example sentences again so their partner can hear the right versions and so start to memorise them.
I tend to ask students to swap worksheets halfway through the activity and then test each other on the phrases that they just saw, probably starting with the most difficult sections and most difficult examples this time, as it should be easier than in the first part of the activity. You can then test their memory of the phrases in other ways, e.g. getting them to work together to brainstorm the phrases that they can remember into categories like “Asking people to wait” and “Reasons for calling”.
You can use this activity as a way into covering telephoning for the first time if you do something on prepositions and/ or determiners first. You can also do the exact same activity for prepositions in meetings phrases, emailing phrases etc, then move onto the telephoning version described here.
Telephoning chain writing (Telephoning consequences)
Consequences is a common TEFL game for writing stories that is based on a children’s drawing game of the same name. In this version, students take turns adding to a phone dialogue and then read the finished conversations to see how logical or amusing they are, perhaps sharing their conclusions with the whole class.
The easiest way to arrange this chain writing game is to give each student one blank piece of paper to write one speaking turn on, then rotate those pieces of paper clockwise round the class for students to add further speaking turns to one by one. This continues until the conversations reach a fixed number of turns (e.g. 12) and/ or are complete. The dialogues are then passed one more time, and the person who receives each dialogue comments on how much sense it makes and if it is a good model of telephoning.
As with the original Consequences drawing game, this game is much more fun if students fold the paper so that very little (e.g. just half a sentence) of the earlier writing can be seen when the next person writes the continuation. Another possibility is for absolutely everything that has been written so far to be covered by folding the paper but each section having a sentence stem such as “I’m phoning to __________________” and “I’m sorry, he _____________________” already written there, so that the next person has at least some idea of what to write. After finishing the game, you can then see how much they can remember of those sentence stems.
Telephoning vocabulary roleplays
As well as being good free speaking practice, roleplays can be used as a way of introducing useful telephoning vocab like “mobile phone”, “bad line”, “cut off”, and “answer machine”. Put together a worksheet with some interesting situations using those expressions such as “You are cut off halfway through a call” and “There is lots of background noise their end”. After doing at least three or four of those roleplays of their own choice, allow them to ask questions about the vocabulary. You can then test them on their understanding and memory of the vocabulary with an activity such as a gapfill task, preferably with the example sentences also being useful telephoning phrases like “I’m afraid he’s out of the office, but you should be able to get him on his _____mobile_____”.
Telephoning dice games
There are several ways to use dice to practise telephoning. The easiest is to set up six kinds of call that are useful for your students and six complications that could happen during phoning, e.g. making arrangements plus five more for the former and the other person speaking really quickly for the latter and five others. The person whose turn it is rolls the dice twice and roleplays the situation and complication matching those numbers with another person in their group. If you want students to play the game for points, you can also use dice to decide on the scoring. For example, after the roleplay you can allow students between one and four more rolls of the dice for performances that their partners judge as “okay”, “good”, “very good” or “perfect”. The highest number that comes up on the dice during those throws is their score (so not adding all the numbers together, as that would be likely to make someone shoot into an unassailable lead).
A nice variation on this game is allowing the students to come up with their own ideas for complications for each number on the dice. For example, one student throws a six and so must roleplay phoning a hotel. Before they roll the dice again, their partners decide that “One equals not understanding the other person very well. Two equals them needing to phone you back later.” etc. If they can’t come up with six relevant difficulties, the other numbers on the dice are “No problem”. The person whose turn it is then rolls the dice again and roleplays the situation with that complication (or no complication if they are lucky!)
It is also possible to use the dice to roleplay 36 situations if you can come up with that many which are useful for your students. Divide the situations into six groups labelled 1 to 6, and then label the six situations in each group with numbers 1 to 6 too (or perhaps the equivalent roman numerals I to VI). The initial throw can be larger more general groups of things like “travel situations”, “work situations”, “telephoning functions” and “complications”, or just random collections of roleplays. The first roll of the dice decides which of the six groups that person’s roleplay will come from, then the second roll decides which particular situation in that group they should roleplay. If you haven’t already used most possible complications in the list of 36 things, for the ultimate challenge this could possibly be combined with the students deciding on up to six complications for another roll of the dice described in the last game above.
Telephoning coin games
An easy way of using a coin to make telephoning more fun is for students to choose roleplay situations and then flip for whether they have to deal with it themselves (tails) or if they can pass the situation and/ or most difficult role onto someone else (heads).
For some functions such as requests, progress checks and making arrangements, another possibility is for the person replying to flip a coin to decide if each of their answers will be positive or negative. This can also be done during the speaking, with each request etc being met with a flip of the coin and the response that the coin demands, perhaps continuing speaking and flipping the coin until they finally get to a positive reply (or give up). Positive and negative can be matched to heads and tails, or can depend on the other person guessing heads or tails correctly or not.
A more complex way of using a coin to practise telephoning is setting up a group of paired possibilities for roleplay situations such as “The person is there”/ “The person isn’t there” and “You know who you need to speak to”/ “You are not sure who you need to speak to”. Tell students how many times they must flip the coin before each roleplay, and therefore how many of things from those pairs will be included in the situation that they roleplay. Three is usually a good number, or rolling a dice to decide the number of things that will be decided is a fun variation. The other people in the group choose that number of pairs and the person whose turn it is tries to guess heads or tails correctly to be able to choose the easier option each time. When they have done that the right number of times, they roleplay, for example, “You are not sure who you need to speak to. The person isn’t there. Leave a message” (for three flips of the coin).
Telephoning phrases the same or different
Many of the biggest problems with telephoning language are confusions between similar-sounding but not identical language like “Can I take a message?”/ “Can I leave a message?” and “hang up”/ “hang on”. Clearing these kinds of confusions up can be combined with useful synonyms like “put someone through”/ “connect someone” in this activity. Prepare a worksheet on which each line has things which all have the same meaning or all have different meanings, with examples like “Please hold”/ “Please hold the line” on one line and “Please hold”/ “Hold on” on another. You can start using this worksheet with a variation on the Simplest Responses Game mentioned elsewhere in this article, this time with students listening and raising “The same” or “Different” cards depending on what they think about the meanings of the two or more phrases that they hear each time. They can then label lines on copies of the worksheet that you were reading from with S for the same and D for different, before checking their answers and then testing each other in the way. After that, you can test their memory in other ways such as getting them to match up expressions with the same meanings from a mixed-up list.
You can also deal with confusions and synonyms in telephoning in a more communicative way by splitting the similar and different pairs of words and expressions into Student A and Student B worksheets, e.g. putting “cellphone” and “Can you hold the line?” on the former and “mobile phone” and “Can you hold on?” on the latter. Students read out just that part in bold on their worksheets to each other (without showing their worksheets to each other), and try to decide if they have the same or different meanings. They can then read some language around those key phrases that you have put there for context such as “He’s out of the office but you can reach him on his ___________” and “He’s on the way to your office now. Would you like his __________ number? ”to help check their answers.
Right and wrong telephone responses
Doing TOEIC-style listening practice of telephoning responses is surprisingly useful and interesting, especially if you add some of the ridiculous responses that sometimes make it into the real exam like “How are you? A: Good, thanks. B: Nice to meet you, too. C: No, I’m not.” After students do the task and check their answers, you can get them to brainstorm similar correct responses to the prompt phrases, or to brainstorm phrases and responses into categories like “Leaving a message” and “Getting down to business”.
Telephoning plus roleplays
Students roleplay situations pretending they are on the telephone, but also the same situations pretending they are face to face or emailing each other. There are several ways of organising this, such as letting students choose each time how they want to communicate; students roleplaying one situation in more than one way to see which is easier; or students deciding randomly with a coin, dice, etc
Big telephoning roleplay challenges
The good thing about telephoning is that there is no lack of useful and/ or fun roleplays on the topic that students can do, but this sheer number can also be a problem. The most useful but least fun way of dealing with a large number of possible roleplays is for students to choose situations which they really want to practise, perhaps from a big list. For more fun they can also choose at random, by choosing from a pack of cards, closing their eyes and putting their finger down on a list, or choosing numbers at random (“Situation seventy six” etc) and then doing that roleplay from a numbered list on the board or a worksheet.
The ultimate challenge is for students to choose situations for each other to roleplay, particularly if you suggest that they might want to choose difficult ones as revenge for the roleplay that their partner chose for them to do! You can also add jeopardy to this choice by getting them to choose a situation and then their partner flipping a coin to decide who will roleplay that situation and/ or who will take each role (caller and receiver).
Checking telephoning vocabulary
This activity combines the two useful aspects of checking/ clarifying language and vocabulary that we often need to talk about telephoning. Students test each other on the meaning, spelling, synonyms, third letter etc of “hold on”, “handset”, “answer phone”, “engaged”, etc, using questions that they might need to use in their real phone calls like “Can you explain… another way?”
Telephoning responses race
Obviously the ultimate test of being ready to deal with English phone calls is being able to respond quickly and appropriately to what the other person says. There are several ways of bringing this into class such as the teacher reading out phrases like “Is there anything else?” and giving points for the quickest correct answer, or the same activity in groups of three or four students.
Make a pack of cards with phrases which mean the same thing on both sides, e.g. formal ones like “How many I help you?” on one side and informal ones like “What can I do for you?” on the other, or British English like “engaged” on one side and American ones like “busy” on the other. Students work in pairs or small groups, with each group laying out a pack of cards in a column in front of them on the table. It doesn’t matter which card is where in the column or which side of the card is up when they start the game. The column represents a ladder that they must climb by successfully guessing or remembering what is on the other side of each card. Each time they make a mistake they slip down the bottom of the ladder, meaning each person always starts right at the bottom and must be able to do the whole thing in one go. The cards are turned over and left turned over each time someone tries one of the cards, so by the end of the game the students should be able to transform the phrases in both directions.
Telephoning shadow reading
This activity is simply the well-known and useful pronunciation activity of getting students to read, listen and speak at the same time, e.g. trying to exactly match the natural speed and rhythm of phrases like “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name” and “Sorry, who should I say is calling?” To make it more fun, you can have students read, listen to and read out a whole conversation, with people on the left and right in each pair or the two halves of the classroom taking the two parts (caller and receiver). When students are more or less keeping up with the recording, you can do the activity one more time and turn the volume slowly down to zero, turning it back up again before the end of the recording to see how well the students have kept up.
Longer telephoning phrases games
This is one way of making matching beginnings and endings of typical telephoning phrases more stimulating than a typical self-study activity would be. Prepare around 12 or 15 phrases that can be split into three parts, with the middle bit being an optional extra, e.g. something that makes the phrase more polite like “Can you say that”+ “just” + “one more time?” Make those phrases into a pack of cards, with the optional middle bits being separate and perhaps marked as different from the other cards by their size, using bold or italic script, etc. Students work together to match the beginnings and endings of the basic phrases, then try to add the middle bits to check and expand on their answers. After checking their answers, they can then test each other on the phrases in pairs in other ways such as reading out one or two sections of the phrases for their partners to complete.
Matching halves of phone phrases pairwork
Split useful phrases for telephoning into halves such as “Can you say that” + “again a little more slowly?” and divide those halves between Student A and Student B worksheets. Students work in pairs to try to put together full phrases without showing their worksheets to each other, instead reading out their phrases to match them, writing in the missing bit on their worksheet each time. This activity is also useful practice of typical checking/ clarifying phrases like “Can you repeat the last part?” and “Did you say… (or…)?”, as they will almost certainly need to say those kind of things to successfully finish the task. It may be possible for students to do this activity before presenting telephoning language as long as the phrases can be matched up using general knowledge of grammar, what makes sense, etc.
Telephoning phrases card game
This is like a much easier version of the key words card game and functions card game mentioned elsewhere in this article. Make a pack of cards with one useful phrase for all kinds of phone calls like “Can you say that again?” and “Just a moment” on each card. Students deal out the cards and try to use those phrases during roleplay phone calls. They place their cards face up on the table as they say those things. If their partner accepts that they used the phrases in the right way, the card can stay there on the table. The person with fewest cards left in their hand at the end of the game or the first person to get all their cards down on the table is the winner.
Telephoning Answer me!
Make a pack of cards with responses which it is possible to prompt the other person to use while telephoning such as “Can you say that again a little more loudly?” (prompted by speaking quietly) and “Can I leave a message?” (prompted by saying someone isn’t there). Pairs of students deal out a pack of cards, then look at their own cards without showing them to their partner. As they roleplay phone calls, they can discard a card if their partner says exactly what it says on one of the ones that they hold in their hand. The person with the fewest cards left at the end of the game wins. To make the exact responses that are actually on the cards more likely to come up during the speaking, all students have to try and not repeat any phrases already used during the roleplays. Instead, they have to make at least small changes every time they want to say the same thing, e.g. “Can I read that back?” the first time and “Can I check that back?” the second time – something that is a good tactic for English communication more generally too.
Telephoning phrases matching
Students try to match up words, phrases and/ or sentences that mean the same thing, preferably doing so just by speaking and listening. The easiest way of doing this is to put 10 to 20 phrases which mean the same like “Please hold” and “Can you hold the line?” on Student A and Student B worksheets, then to mix up the order on one of the two worksheets. You then ask students to match them up without showing their worksheets to each other.
Telephoning roleplays comparatives competition
Students compete to be more polite, quieter, more long-winded, ruder, brusquer, louder, quicker, more difficult to understand, etc than each other while they roleplay telephone conversations. If you are using this activity in order to link to comparative adjectives, you can then test them on their memory of those forms that they just saw or heard in the instructions for the game. Alternatively, this can lead on well to talking about cultural differences.
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