How to teach conversational reactions
Summary: Teaching students how to react with sympathy, shock, interest, etc, including conversational reactions games.
Even after students can understand, ask and answer a range of different small talk questions, they often got stuck on the important next step of responding with “That’s a shame”, “I’m glad to hear that”, “Really?”, etc. This article gives tips for presenting and practising such language both to stop students sounding uninterested and to make conversations progress more smoothly. This topic ties in well with active listening, giving good and bad news, small talk, and social English more generally, which have their own articles, PDFs and e-book on this site.
What students need to know about conversational reactions
Before you present this point for the first time, students need to have come across a wide range of different conversational reactions, even if it is unconsciously, in dialogues that they read and hear. Unfortunately, these reactions are often left out of textbook listenings, movies, etc, presumably because the writers think that they use up time and space on the page without adding much to the plot. Therefore, in the days or weeks leading up to presenting this language I try to make sure there are exposed to more of this, even if it means that I have to write or rewrite dialogues to add a more natural amount of reacting with “No way!” etc.
Conversational reactions which I’d want students to at least come across include, with the most important top:
- That’s too bad.
- That’s great./ That’s great news.
- I’m sorry to hear that.
- I’m glad to hear that.
- I’m happy to hear that.
- (Oh no!) Really?
- That sounds awful./ That sounds terrible.
- That sounds great./ That sounds wonderful./ That sounds fantastic./ That sounds amazing.
- That’s a pity./ That’s a shame.
- / Sure./ Yeah (yeah) (yeah).
- What a pity./ What a shame.
- Lucky you!
- I envy you!
- That sounds stressful.
- That sounds lovely.
- Well done.
- I’m really happy for you./ I’m so happy for you.
- I don’t believe it! (Do you really mean…?)
- That’s wonderful./ That’s wonderful news.
- Are you?/ Is he?/ Is she?/ Are they?
- Did you?/ Did he?/ Did she?/ Did they?
- Do you?/ Does he?/ Does she?/ Do they?
- Were you?/ Was he?/ Was she?/ Were they?
- Good for you.
- I’m delighted to hear that.
- What a nice surprise!/ What a lovely surprise!
- What a nightmare!
- You must feel awful./ You must feel terrible.
- You must be exhausted./ You must be really disappointed.
- You don’t surprise me.
- No kidding.
- No way!
- You’re joking?
- Of course.
- Oh yeah?
- You’re kidding (,right)?
- I’m delighted for you.
- Yup (sure).
- You didn’t!/ He didn’t!/ She didn’t!/ They didn’t!
- Oh well. Better luck next time!
- Makes sense.
- I’m shocked!/ You surprise me!
- I’m relieved to hear that.
- That sounds like a nightmare.
- What a coincidence! I also…
- It’s funny you should say that, because…
- I’m so pleased for you.
- Oh! Bad luck!
- That sounds unbearable!
- You must be devastated.
- You reckon?
- What a ’mare!
- What a bummer!
- Tell me about it!
- Oh well. You win some, you lose some.
- Oh well. Look on the bright side. …
- Never mind. There are plenty more fish in the sea.
- Is that a fact?
- I’m green with envy.
- You lucky thing!
- I feel for you./ You have my sympathy.
- Good on ya (mate).
- That sounds like a right ’mare.
- Oh well. What can you do, eh? Chin up!
- Oh! Rotten luck!
Stems from above which are useable several ways and so are particularly useful to learn include:
- I’m (really/ so) …for you.
- I’m … to hear that.
- That sounds…
- That sounds like…
- That’s… (news/ for you).
- That’s a…/ What a …
- You must be/ feel…
- short questions with auxiliary verb plus subject (“Did he?”, etc)
- short negative statements with subject and auxiliary verb with “n’t” (“You didn’t!”, etc)
The functions of the phrases can be categorised as
- responding to good news
- responding to bad news
- showing surprise/ disbelief
- showing agreement/ lack of surprise
- getting the speaker to say more/ not stop
- linking to your own story/ experience
Perhaps the first thing students need to understand is the differences between reacting to good news with “Good for you”, “Congratulations”, etc and reacting to bad news with “That’s too bad”, “I’m sorry to hear that”, “That sounds terrible”, etc. After something on that, they could then try to find or think of other categories of language such as “showing surprise” later in the class or in the next lesson.
After getting students to divide phrases up into categories of conversational reactions, I’d do something to make sure that they know the most important differences between phrases that are in the same category. For example, the two phrases “That sounds great” and “I’m glad to hear that” are both responding to good news but are quite different. The former means that I’d probably enjoy the same thing (making it similar to “I envy you”, “Lucky you”, etc) while the second means that I’m happy that something good happened to you (making it more similar to “That must be a relief”, etc).
Other differences between conversational reactions that students might not be aware of include:
- “What a…!” is a stronger reaction than “That’s a…”
- “nice” is weaker than is usual when responding to good news and so could actually be a polite negative reaction, with stronger words like “lovely”, “great” and “wonderful” being unambiguously positive and so more standard after good news
- “Well done” and “Good job” are used for achievements, so aren’t suitable for having won the lottery, whereas “Congratulations” can be used for both achievements and having had good luck
- A long drawn out “Ooooookaaay” sounds doubtful, for example that I doubt the wisdom of what you did, making it like a polite “You’re kidding!”, whereas with normal intonation “Okay” is just a sign that I am still listening, like “Right” and “Sure”
- “No kidding” is agreement (because it means “You are not joking”) and so it’s the opposite of “You’re kidding”
Typical problems with conversational reactions
The biggest problems my students have with these kinds of phrases are:
- missing them out completely (leading to awful conversations like “How was your weekend?” “Terrible, my cat died” “Well, let’s get down to business, shall we?”)
- getting stuck on the meanings of individual words and so not being able to smoothly use or even believe the meaning of phrases like “That’s a shame” and “That’s a pity” (understandably, as they have nothing to do with shame and pity)
- using ones which are too strong or too weak (“That sounds terrible” after “I missed the bus”, etc)
- mixing up similar but not identical ones like those mentioned above
- bad intonation making students sound uninterested, sarcastic or even disbelieving, especially with the expression “Really?”
- using direct translations from their own language such as “Is that so?”
- repeating the same conversational reactions
How to present conversational reactions
As mentioned above, I’d probably start the presentation stage by getting students to classify expressions as responding to good news and responding to bad news. This should be easy to do by looking at context such as what statement prompted that reaction and the intonation of the reaction. For example, if there is a dialogue which contains a mix of good and bad news (amongst other things), they could listen first of all for if the dialogue contains mainly good news or mainly bad news. They then listen again and write the good and bad news in two columns, listen again to match the news and the conversational reactions, then classify those reaction phrases. They should then be able to cope with finding a couple of other categories of reactions such as “getting the speaker to say more” and “linking to your own story/ experience” from the same dialogue.
Another good initial listening activity is to listen to good and bad model conversations and decide which one is better and why. Good conversations should include correct use of conversational reactions to show interest, get the other person to speak more, show sympathy, etc, with the bad conversations having no conversational reactions, the wrong conversational reactions, bad intonation, etc. Perhaps after listening again for what the specific problem is in each bad conversation, they then listen again to the good versions for the phrases used and the function of each phrase. The good and bad conversational reactions activity below could be used instead of or right after this.
How to practise conversational reactions
Good and bad conversational reactions
Students listen to two or more different versions of short exchanges and shout out or write down which is best. This should start with easy things like choosing the one reacting to good news phrase after someone gives good news, with all the wrong ones being more suitable for reacting to bad news. It can then move onto subtler differences such as the choosing the right strength of reaction and choosing the right intonation.
In order to present more useful phrases, you can also do the opposite activity of students listening out for and shouting out or writing down the one bad one.
Conversational reactions simplest responses games
This is another way of using the idea of good and bad conversational reactions. Give students cards saying “Suitable” and “Not suitable” or “Good reaction” and “Bad reaction”. When students listen to short dialogues, they raise one of the two cards depending on what they think about the reactions.
Conversational reactions jigsaws
Conversational reactions jigsaw dialogue
Conversational reactions are a particularly good point to use a jigsaw text with, as you can put the splits in the conversation between the things said and the reaction (“Not too good. I’ve lost my car./ You’re kidding! Lost? What do you mean, lost?”, etc), and/ or halfway through the reacting phrases (“That’s too/ bad”, etc). After students put the cut-up text in the right order, you can see how well they can remember good reactions to the same statements and/ or get them to roleplay the same kind of conversations.
Conversational reactions multiple matching
A much simpler jigsaw to set up is one with just things someone says and different reactions for each, e.g. a four-column table with the original statements in the left column and one possible reaction in each in the other three columns. It’s tricky to make sure that each response only goes with one statement, but it’s possible if the reactions have matching reference words to the statements (“Jane’s coming to our party after all” “Is she?” “She isn’t!” “I’m glad to hear that. She should get out more”, etc), matching vocabulary, etc. This activity can also include reactions which are useful but are not quite conversational reactions like “Atchoo” “Bless you” “Gesundheit” “Bless you. Hay fever?”.
After students try to match the responses to the statements with no help, tell them how many should match to each, e.g. that each should have three possible responses. After they check their answers, they can try to think of suitable responses with no help and/ or use the responses cards for the Answer Me game below.
Conversational reactions answer me
This is by far my favourite activity for this language point. Students choose a card with or write down a conversational reaction like “I don’t believe it!” or “Congratulations”, then try to get that reaction from their partner with statements like “I’m actually a spy” and “I’ve got a promotion”.
Conversational reactions predictions
This is like the game above but with one more step. One person asks a question like “How was your weekend?”, the other person responds and then secretly writes down the reaction that they expect to get to that reply, e.g. saying “Awful. My car was stolen” and writing down “That’s terrible”. The other person reacts (after a pause to allow the other person to write down their prediction), then they compare the predicted reaction and the actual reaction.
Conversational reactions transformations/ Conversational reactions transformations reversi
Students convert reactions phrases into similar, opposite, stronger, weaker, longer and differently worded versions following instructions like “That’s a shame – BAD” and “That sounds wonderful – OPPOSITE”. This can be turned into the game Reversi if you make the transformations work both ways and put them on opposite sides of a card, e.g. “That sounds awful – SAME MEANING, DIFFERENT LAST WORD” on one side of the card and “That sounds terrible – SAME MEANING, DIFFERENT LAST WORD” on the other side of the card. Students take turns trying to do as many of these transformations as they can in a row, leaving the cards the other way up if they are successful. The winner is the first person to do all the transformations without making any mistakes, or the person with the longest unbroken run of guesses.