Formal and informal language games

Summary: Fun intensive practice for both polite and friendly language

Getting the level of formality or friendliness right is the ultimate challenge in every language. This is tricky even for very advanced students, but might also need to be brought up with lower-level students who are already offending foreign customers or not getting on with their host family because they seem standoffish. Formality is therefore a perfect topic for the intensive practice and chance to repeat without getting bored that games can bring. The games below can be used for formal and informal language for emailing, telephoning, presentations, meetings, and almost any function (requests, enquiries, dealing with complaints, etc).


Formal and informal jigsaw texts

There are three ways to use cut up texts to present or practise formality. One is to cut up one formal text and one informal text and mix them up, with students dividing the two kinds of language up and then putting the conversations, phone calls, emails, etc into order. This can be made more challenging by making the two texts basically the same except for formality, but for most classes you’ll probably want to make it easier by including other differences between the texts. Distinctions between the two texts include having a formal text where the people are meeting for the first time and a more casual/ friendly one where they are meeting again, different topics and/ or functions in each (e.g. requesting in one and complaining in the other), or one conversation being by phone and the other being face to face.

With emailing, it is also useful to make a jigsaw text from one exchange which gets more and more informal with time, like a faster version of what really happens over weeks and months are you continue to email someone. For example, you could have ten emails that start with a formal complaint and an apologetic formal reply, but finish with a very short email accepting their final offer of a solution. Students can use the level of formality changing, each reply having to match the previous email and/ or the “story” of the whole exchange to put the emails into order, then underline formal language and circle informal language to check and start looking at the words and phrases that are used.

Students can also simply match phrases with the same function but different levels of formality. For example, I have a set of cards with matching formal, medium-formality and informal phrases for presentations, including ones for introductions, Q&A sessions, etc. I get students to match up the (super) formal and informal versions, check their answers with a worksheet with the middle column missing, brainstorm medium-formality versions into the blank boxes, match up the rest of the cards with what they just brainstormed, then ask about any differences between their phrases and what is on the medium-formality cards.


Formal and informal language dice games

The six numbers on a dice are great for deciding the level of formality of the exchange which students have to roleplay (e.g. “1 = super formal, 2 = fairly formal, 3 = slightly formal/ standard business level, 4 = slightly informal/ friendly/ casual, 5 = fairly informal, 6 = super informal”). This could also be done with students rolling the dice secretly and using that level of formality, then their partner guessing what number they got from listening to the language that they used. A more amusing (if unrealistic) version is for both students to secretly roll the dice and use that level of formality in their conversation together, even if that means that they are using very different levels.

Instead of directly stating the level of formality, the numbers on the dice could also go with situations which tend to have a particular level of formality (“1 = meet a potential new client for the first time, 2 = meet an old school friend”, etc).


Formal and informal language card games

The different levels of formality and situations with particular levels of formality that are chosen by a dice above can also be chosen via cards. The cards can either be taken one by one randomly from a pack on the table, or can be dealt out and chosen by students from their hands.

Cards can also be used during roleplays, for example with a version of the key words games described below.


Formal and informal language key words games

There are certain words which tend to be associated with polite/ formal situations (“possibly”, “apologise”, “pleasure”, etc) or informal/ friendly situations (“how”, “wonderful”, “drink”, etc). These can be given to students on cards, in which case they can be dealt out and discarded as students use them (properly) in roleplay conversations. Key words can also just be put on a worksheet for students to use and tick off, perhaps using different coloured pens to show who ticked off each on a shared worksheet.


Formal and informal language lists

As well as the key words explained above, a list could have lots of different situations for students to roleplay, perhaps including a mix of situations which demand one level of formality (meeting the queen, etc) and ones which they can choose the level of formality for but then have to try to be consistent (meeting your in-laws, etc). Students can choose one number at random and roleplay that, or choose ones which are most like their present or future use of English outside class.


Formal and informal coin games

As long as you are only practising two levels of formality, e.g. one level for new and newish clients and another level for colleagues, the two sides of a coin are perfect. To make sure that the formality matches the situation, you could ask students to flip the coin first and then decide on what suitable situation to roleplay. Alternatively, it is more amusing but less realistic if they choose a situation before they flip the coin, meaning they may have to roleplay in the wrong level of formality if that is what the coin says.


Formal and informal language pairwork matching

Split phrases with the same function but different levels of formality between a Student A worksheet and a Student B worksheet, mixing the order of the phrases up on one of the worksheets. Without showing their sheets to each other, pairs of students must match and write their partner’s version of “Sincerely yours”/ “Best”, “If you require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me”/ “Any more questions, just drop me a line”, etc. After they have matched them up, test them on the same language another way such as just giving them the Student A sheet to brainstorm phrases with the other level of formality for without the help of the Student B sheet.

The same thing might also work for matching formal phrases with formal replies (“How do you do?” on Student A’s worksheet and “How do you do” on Student B’s) and informal phrases with casual responses (“How’s it going?” “Awful, I…”, etc).


Formality mistakes activities

Students trying to spot something which doesn’t match the formality of the situation is good practice for staying consistent in their own use of formal and informal language. The simplest activity is just to have lists of language with one which doesn’t fit and should be moved elsewhere. I often mix this up with other mistakes, e.g. each section having one phrase with the wrong level of formality, one with completely the wrong function and one with a grammar mistake that needs correcting. For example, in a list of formal email closing lines you could include “Thank you for your email” (wrong function), “See you” (wrong formality) and “I look forward to hear from you” X (wrong grammar).

Spotting and correcting formality mistakes could also be done as pairwork, with each student trying to spot something that doesn’t match the partial model conversation on their worksheet, seeing if that can be swapped with what their partner has spotted to make both of their dialogues better, then reading out the whole dialogues to check (without showing their worksheets to each other).

Spotting inconsistent formality can also be turned into a kind of race. Students listen to an email exchange, phone call, etc and race to raise their hand as soon as they hear something which doesn’t match. This could also work with words and phrases which don’t match lists of formal language or informal language.


Politeness competition games

Make a worksheet with incredibly casual or even rude things versions of things that you want to teach like “Oy!” (for “Excuse me”) and “You” (for “Yes, what is your question, please?”) Students pick one of the phrases which are too casual and take turns making it more and more formal/ polite for as long as they can, probably getting longer and longer and going to ridiculous levels of formality like “Excuse me, sorry to bother you, dear sir” They stop when they can’t get any more formal, discuss which level of formality was probably best for their own real English communication, and then do the same again with another super casual phrase. They could then rank different versions of each phrase by formality (“1. Help me, 2. Can you help me? 3 Could you help me?, etc), match each rude phrase to a more suitable version, and/ or work together to write more suitable versions of each.


Formal and informal phrases dominoes

Both formal and informal sentences often include fixed phrases such as “Could you possibly inform me...?” and “drop me a line”. Students could put halves of these together as a kind of jigsaw, but I prefer to make it look more like dominoes, with each domino having either the end of a formal phrase and the start of an informal phrase or the end of an informal phrase and the start of a formal one. Students can try to match up collocations, work out which half of each domino is formal, etc to put all the cards in a big circle. They could then play a game of dominoes with the same cards.


Formal and informal language simplest responses game

Students are given one card saying “Formal” and the other saying “Informal” and race to raise one of those two cards depending on what they think about the formality of the phrase, sentence, dialogue etc that they hear. After labelling the same things on a worksheet with “F” for formal and “I” for informal, they could brainstorm medium-formality versions of the same things.


Informal or wrong?

Another simplest responses game is for students to be given cards that say “Informal” and “Wrong” to raise when they hear “How’s it going?” and “How going?”, etc.


Formal and informal language reversi

Make cards with formal language on one side and an informal equivalent on the other, e.g. “What can I do for you?” on one side and “How may I be of assistance?” on the other. Students lay the cards across the table, either side up. They take turns trying to guess what is on the other side of the cards, leaving the cards turned over if they guessed correctly so the transformations can be tried in the opposite direction later. As there are many possible alternative versions, it’s best for each card to also have a key word which must be used in the other version, e.g. “What can I do for you? ASSISTANCE” on one side and “How may I be of assistance? WHAT” on the other. This makes them like key word sentence transformations in Cambridge exams. There are many different possible rules for the game, but I usually get students to try to do as many cards as they can in a row without making a mistake, then let their partner try to do the same, with the student with the longest stretch without a mistake during the game (e.g. when they managed seven cards in a row) being the winner. 

Enjoyed this article?

Please help us spread the word: