How to teach turn taking
Summary: Teaching polite interrupting, getting back on track, etc.
Smooth, polite and appropriate turn taking is achieved with:
- Specific phrases
- Gestures and other body language
- Noises, e.g. uming and ahing while thinking so as to not lose the turn
- Speaking a certain way, e.g. using intonation to show that you have or haven’t finished and very quickly saying (just) the beginning of your sentence to interrupt
The specific turn taking phrases can be divided into ones for:
- Taking the turn (interrupting, accepting the turn when offered it, speaking first, etc)
- Keeping your turn (stopping other people interrupting, signalling that you are going to continue, taking the turn back and continuing what you were going to say, etc)
- Getting other people speaking (getting the other person to speak first, asking for more details, keeping other people speaking with conversational reactions (a part of “active listening”), changing your mind about interrupting, offering other people the chance to speak, turning down the chance to speak, ending your interruption, and signalling the end of your turn).
There is a big list of possible phrases of all of those types at the bottom of this article. A lot of those phrases tie in quite well with opinions language, e.g. using asking for opinions language to get the other person speaking, agreeing language to keep them speaking, and disagreeing language to interrupt. You could also include phrases for a person trying to control the turn taking in a group discussion, like a chair of a meeting.
There are cultural differences in turn taking, but in general a good conversation would have lots of switching over of who speaks, approximately the same amount of speaking by each person, little talking over each other, little or no silence, and smooth moves between different topics – and these are certainly things that students should be able to do in speaking exam tasks that test turn taking such as FCE and CAE speaking part three.
Presenting turn taking
One good way of presenting turn taking is showing students there is a potential problem. This can be done with recordings of bad turn taking, e.g. one person dominating the conversation, people talking over each other, or impolite interrupting. They can then brainstorm suitable tactics and phrases to not make the same mistakes and/ or listen to good examples for things they can use.
A similar way of approaching the topic is to ask them to do a communicative activity and then ask them to evaluate how well they took turns during the activity, but this is difficult to do properly. If you give them the evaluation questions beforehand, the communication probably won’t be natural. However, if you give the evaluation questions after, they probably won’t remember what they did. Probably the best solution is to get students to do it in threes, with one person not taking part but just monitoring for what the people speaking do and the language they use. They can then try again with a different person monitoring (obviously this time knowing what they are being monitored for), before brainstorming other ways to do the same thing. This also works well when you have just finished presenting another discussion skill such as giving opinions, as they will probably assume that they are being monitored for just that previous language focus.
Another possibility is to get students deliberately doing something extreme like trying to stop their partner speaking at all. This works best if the student who they are working with doesn’t know what they are doing. That person can then perhaps guess what their partner had been asked to do (e.g. what was written on that person’s roleplay card). They can then brainstorm ways of making sure those things don’t happen in real communication such as useful phrases.
A more serious way of doing something similar is to get students discussing which of some tips on turn taking are good and bad ideas, then brainstorming suitable ways of doing the things which are good ideas. For example, they could cross off the tip “Wait for silence before speaking” and brainstorm phrases like “Can I interrupt?” for the tip “Use phrases to show that you want to speak”.
The activity which I use most often at the presentation stage is getting students to divide the phrases that the teacher is saying into two categories, e.g. by racing to hold up “interrupting” and “keeping the turn” cards depending on what they hear. They can then label the sentences on the worksheet with the same categories and test each other in pairs. The same thing can be done with the pairs of categories “interrupting”/ “encouraging the person to continue” and “person speaking”/ “person listening”.
Many of the ideas above can be used in the practice section of the class instead or as well as in the presentation stage, and many of the practice ideas below can be used for presentation in a TTT or TBL approach.
Practice of turn taking
As mentioned above, Cambridge First Certificate and Cambridge Advanced have a speaking task that is specifically designed to test turn taking skills, and this is easily adaptable and useful for non-exam classes. In fact, most of the presentation and practice activities in this article work better with those tasks than with other ways of stimulating conversation such as discussion questions.
There are also activities which are a bit more difficult to set up but provide even more intensive practice. This can be done by designing activities in which one person is bound to be interrupted when their partner notices something about what they say. The most straightforward way is for the students to have texts with differences. The person listening stops their partner speaking whenever they say something that is different from their text so that they can both underline the differences, then they continue in the same way until the end of the text (perhaps switching roles during the activity). These can be two version of the same text where the teacher has changed a few things, or two versions of the same story (e.g. the same news story from different newspapers or two people’s accounts of witnessing a crime). The same thing can also be done with a wider range of texts by asking them to look for similarities rather than differences.
A more complex game is asking them to interrupt whenever they think they have noticed something false in their partner’s story, with one point for each timely interruption. Their partner gets points if they interrupt in the wrong place and if more than ten seconds after a falsehood goes by without being interrupted.
Tasks where students work together can also be tweaked to include more interrupting. For example, if you ask them to do a matching task together quicker than the other groups, they should naturally interrupt their partner whenever they have enough information about one thing.
Many of the other good practice games involve students placing down cards when they interrupt, stop interruption, etc. The easiest way of doing that is to deal out a pack of cards with the different turn taking skills written on them, e.g. “make other people speak” and “politely interrupt”. These are dealt out, and students place them down as they think they have successfully done that thing during the discussion (with their partners being able to dispute that if they like). The person with fewest cards left in their hand at the end of the game wins. To get more complexity and variety of language, students can be told to use (at least slightly) different phrases each time they lay down a card. Alternatively, they can be given cards with different phrases or words that they should use during the discussion to be able to place them down, with their partner being able to challenge them for incorrect or impolite use of “stop”, “finish”, etc.
You can also do similar things to the game above with a third person monitoring. For example, that third person can judge whether each card has been used correctly and so can stay discarded, just giving them back to the people who discarded them if they don’t think so. The person monitoring can also be the one given the cards, placing them in front of the people who says that thing, meaning that in this case the person with most cards at the end of the game wins. This can be done with the people speaking being allowed to see the cards that the person monitoring has, or with the cards being kept secretly in that person’s hand.
Monitoring can also be done in a more straightforward way, e.g. one person writing down all the phrases and tactics that people use or trying to judge the percentage of speaking time between the two people, similar to what is suggested for the presentation stage above.
One person (the teacher, one student, or one student per group) can also signal when students should interrupt, invite their partner to speak etc, with that person trying to do so as quickly and naturally as possible after they are nominated. This can be done by holding up cards with those tactics written on them or (more amusingly) with hand gestures or sounds being the prompts. The latter idea can also lead onto specific examination of gestures such as a chopping motion for trying to interrupt.
The big list of turn taking language
1. Taking the turn
(I’m afraid) I can’t let you go on without (saying)…
Before I forget,…
Before you continue, (can I just say)…
Before you go on,…
Before you move on,…
Can I/ Could I (just) say something (here)?
Can I/ Could I come in (here/ there)?
Can I/ Could I interrupt you (for a minute/ moment/ second)?
Can I/ Could I just?
Can I/ Could I stop you there?
Excuse me/ Sorry for interrupting, but…
Excuse the interruption, but…
I don’t like to interrupt, but…
I don’t mean to interrupt, but…
I hate to interrupt (you) (in full flow), but…
I have something to say (on this point).
I know it’s rude to interrupt, but…
I wouldn’t usually interrupt, but…
I’d like to make a point here (if I can/ could/ may/ might).
I’ll interrupt you there.
I’ll let you finish in a minute, but…
I’ll stop you there.
I’m afraid I have to stop you there.
If I can/ could/ may/ might (just) interrupt you (for just a minute/ moment/ second), I’d like to…
If I may/ might…
If it’s okay to interrupt,…
If you don’t mind me interrupting,…
If you think that sounds boring/ exciting/ frightening,…
If you will allow me (to say something/ to speak for a second),…
Is this a good time to…?
Just wait until you hear…
May I interrupt?
Me too! In fact,…
Perhaps I could…
Sorry for butting in, but…
Sorry for not letting you finish, but…
Sorry to butt in, but…
Sorry to interrupt, but…
Sorry to stop you in full flow, but…
Sorry, can I just…?
That reminds me of…
The same (kind of) thing happened to me the other day.
This may/ might be a good point to…
This may/ might be the right time to say/ ask…
Would this be a good time to…?
Accepting the turn when offered it
Thanks. (I won’t take long).
What I wanted to say was…
What was I going to say? Oh yes,…
Although you probably know more about this than me,…
Can I go ahead?
Can I speak first?
I can see you want to say something about this, but…
Before you get started,…
I’d like to start the discussion by…
Shall I get us started?
Shall I start the discussion?
2. Keeping your turn
Stopping other people interrupting/ Refusing interruption
(I have) just one more point (to make).
(I’m/ I’ve) nearly finished.
(Just) one more thing (before you interrupt).
Before you have your say,…
Before you interrupt,…
Before you reply,…
Can I/ Could I just finish (my sentence/ this point/ what I was saying)?
I can see that you want to interrupt, but…
I can see that you want to say something (about this), but…
I haven’t (quite) finished (my point) (yet).
I haven’t (quite) finished what I was saying.
I haven’t got to my main point (yet), which is…
I just want to make one more point/ say one more thing before you have your say.
I know what you’re going to say.
I know you’re dying to jump in, but…
I won’t take long.
If I can/ could just finish (what I was saying/ what I wanted to say/ this one point),…
If you’d allow me to finish…
Please (just) let me finish.
Please allow me to finish.
That is the next point I want to get to, once I’ve finished…
You probably want to say…, but…
Signalling that you are going to continue
And that was just the beginning of the story.
And that’s not all.
And then it got even worse.
And what’s more,…
But you haven’t heard the half of it.
Not only that, but…
You might think that is all there is to say on the matter, but…
Taking the turn back/ Continuing what you were going to say/ Getting back on track
(Mmm. Good point.) Anyhow/ Anyway/ Anyhoo,…
As I was saying (before I was interrupted),…
Can I/ Could I get back to you later on that?
Can we get back to the point on the agenda?
Carrying on from where I/ we left off,…
Getting back on track,…
Getting back to the point at hand,…
I’ll come/ I’ll be coming on to that (point/ question) later.
If I can return to the original topic,…
Perhaps we can talk about that later (but…)
Shall I carry on?
To get back on topic,…
To get back to the point at hand/ to what I was saying,…
We seem to be getting off the point.
What was I saying?/ Where was I?/ Where were we? Oh yes,…
3. Getting other people speaking
Getting the other person to speak first
(No, please). After you.
Age before beauty
I’d like to hear your opinion before I comment.
I’m not sure what I want to say yet, so…
I'll let you go first.
Please go ahead.
You know more about this than me, so…
You must have an opinion on this, so…
Offering other people the chance to speak
(Now) I’d be (very) interested to hear your views (on…)/ what you think (about…)
…, but I’d be interested in hearing your take on it.
…, but I’m sure you have another point of view.
Am I right?
Any (initial) thoughts on…?
But that’s enough from me.
Can you give me your thoughts on…?
Do you agree?
Do you have an opinion on…?
Do you have any (particular) thoughts/ views on…?
Do you have any opinions on/ about…?
Do you think…?
Do you/ Did you want to add anything?
Does anyone want to say anything before we move on?
Don't you think (so)?
How about you?
(Now) I'd like to hear what you think (about…)/ your views (on…).
From your point of view,…?
How do you feel about…?
I imagine you will have strong opinions on…
I know this is not your specialist subject, but…
I know you haven’t had much time to think about this, but…
Or am I just talking nonsense?
Please tell me your opinion on…
What are your (first) thoughts on…?
What are your feelings about…?
What are your views on…?
What do you reckon?
What do you think (about…)?
What reaction do you have to…?
What’s your experience (of this)?
What’s your opinion (on this)?
What’s your position on…?
What’s your take on…?
What’s your view on…?
Would you agree (that…)?
You haven’t said anything yet.
You must have a view on this too.
Asking for more details
How did you get out of that?
What are you going to do about it?
Keeping other people speaking with interested noises etc
(I’m) sorry to hear that.
Congratulations!/ Well done!
Glad to hear it!
How wonderful/ exciting/ depressing/ embarrassing/ ironic!
I don’t believe it!
I know./ I know (just) what you mean.
No!?/ No way!
Oh my goodness!
That sounds great/ awful/ horrible.
That was close!
That’s a pity!/ That’s a shame!
Well I never!/ Well I never did!
What a pity!/ What a shame!
You lucky thing!/ You poor thing!
Signalling the end of your turn
And so on.
I could go on.
I think I’ve made my point.
Sorry for waffling on.
That’s all I wanted to say.
Which just about covers it.
(I think) you get the idea.
Turning down the chance to speak
I can’t add anything to that.
I don’t have any view on this at all.
I think you’ve covered everything.
I’m still just digesting what you said.
I’m still thinking about what I want to say.
Changing your mind about interrupting
I was going to interrupt, but…
I’ll let you finish.
No no, you go on.
No, it’s okay. I’ve forgotten what I was going to say.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.
Sorry, I thought you’d finished.
That’s okay, you’ve already answered my question.
Ending your interruption
Sorry, please carry on./ Sorry, please go on.
Sorry, you were going to say?
Sorry, you were saying?
Sorry, you were saying…
Sorry. What were you saying?