How to teach shopping language

Summary: Teaching suggestions and classroom activities for shopping phrases and language for shop staff.

It can sometimes be difficult to keep up motivation, both students’ and my own, when we know that most of them can go through a whole year without speaking English outside class. To make this worse, many of my students only venture abroad in tour groups full of staff and fellow travellers who speak their own language. For those students, perhaps their most common real life use of English is while shopping abroad. Shops that they are most likely to actually speak English in include clothes and accessories shops, souvenir shops, newsagents and department stores. For some students and some destinations, electronics shops, toy shops, liquor shops and jewellery shops might also be likely. It might also be worth preparing them to go into a pharmacy, with its importance making up for how rarely they might actually do that. 

Other shops that they might enter when on holiday like convenience stores and supermarkets often entail little speaking from the customer, but might still be worth a class or two to practise useful vocabulary such as food and drink words. Other shopping situations that bring up lots of useful vocabulary include stationery shops (good for classroom vocabulary), pet shops (for animals), and DIY shops (especially for people with engineering and construction industry jobs). 

Other kinds of language that are easy to present with shopping activities and are useful more generally include:

  • Requests
  • Offers
  • Numbers
  • Starting and ending conversations
  • Checking/ Clarifying
  • Asking people to wait
  • Compound nouns (“changing + rooms” etc)
  • Multiword verbs (phrasal verbs and similar combinations like “try it on”)
  • Other collocations (compound adjectives, etc)
  • False friends and other common mistakes (in names of clothes, etc)
  • Countable and uncountable nouns
  • Nouns which are always plural (“clothes”, “scissors”, “trousers”, etc)
  • Other vocabulary (names of shops, etc)


What students need to know to be able to shop in English

What students most need from a class on shopping is being able to understand questions that they might be asked by the shop assistants such as “Can I help you?”, “What colour would you like?” and “Is there anything else (I can help you with)?” They may also need to understand questions specific to particular shops such as “Can I see your boarding pass?” in duty free. 

The next stage is obviously knowing how to respond to the questions that they might be asked. To start with, they need to be able to recognise Yes/ No questions and be able to respond both ways (“Yes, please. I’m looking for a present for my nephews” or “No, that’s okay, thanks. I’m just looking”). Then they need to be able to do the same with Wh- questions.

For both understanding questions and knowing how to respond, they might need specific vocabulary such as:

  • The names of the objects that they want to buy
  • The names of parts of the things that they want to buy, such as “sleeves” and “pleats”
  • Names of things and people in the shop, such as “shop manager”, “cash register” and “changing rooms”
  • Verbs and phrasal verbs such as “try it on” and “take it back”
  • Adjectives such as colours
  • British and American variations (“cash register”/ “till”, etc)

Activities for presenting and practising all these language points are given below.


Shopping language classroom activities

Shopping language simplest responses game

As the name of this game suggests, this is the easiest possible introduction to language of shop staff and customers. The teacher gives each student a “customer” card and a “staff” card, and the students race to hold up the correct card to indicate who is speaking when the teacher reads out phrases like “Can I help you?” (staff), “No, that’s okay, thanks. I’m just browsing” (customer), “Can I try it on?” (customer) and “Would you like to try it on?” (staff). They label the same phrases on a worksheet with C for “customer” or S for “staff”, then test each other with the same holding up cards game. You can then move onto students completing partial phrases, responding to the phrases, building a dialogue from one of the phrases, etc.

You can also use the simplest responses game for more focused presentation of particular functional language connected to shopping. For example, you could give students “Request” and “Offer” cards to hold up when they hear “Can you take it up for me?”, “Can I take that for you?” and “Shall I get you a bigger pair?”


Shopping language responses matching

Make and cut up a worksheet that has between six and ten questions that people ask in a shop and three responses for each question, e.g. “Would you like to try it on?” with “No, that’s okay, thanks. I’ll just take it”, “Yes, please. Are those the changing rooms over there?” and “Yes, that would be good. I’d like to have a look at some more things first, though” with seven more questions and twenty one more responses. Make sure that each response card only goes with one of the questions. 

Give students just the question cards and ask them to brainstorm their own ideas of possible responses. Then give them the responses cards to match up to the questions. If they get stuck or think that they have finished while other groups are still busy, tell them that there should be exactly three for each. When they have checked their answers, they can test each other on their ability to respond as quickly as possible to the questions, and then to respond in as many different ways as they can. You can also use the same cards during a roleplay dialogue like the Shopping Phrases Speaking Card Game below.  


Shopping dialogues jigsaw texts

Make at least one complete conversation between a sales assistant and a shopper with each line of the dialogue on one card, e.g. “Good morning, madam. Can I help you?” on the first card then “Yes, please. I’m looking for some traditional souvenirs for my family back in Germany” on the second card. Shuffle up the cards and give out one pack per group of two to four students for them to put in order. If you have a strong class and plan the activity very carefully, you can also give them a mixed up pack of cards from two different dialogues, e.g. one in a post office and one in a chemist’s, and ask the students to divide the phrases up and put the two dialogues in order. 

When students have checked if they have the dialogues in the correct order, they can test each other on responses to cards picked at random and/ or try to include one or more cards in a roleplay dialogue, like the Shopping Phrases Speaking Card Game below. They can also remove the cards one by one to play a version of the Shopping Disappearing Text Game below.

Especially if you want to concentrate on collocations, you can also do all Shopping Dialogue Jigsaw Texts activities with a dialogue which is split halfway through phrases, e.g. “Good” + “morning. May I help you?/ Yes, please, I’m looking” + “for a summer hat for Ascot./ Of” on the first three cards.


Shopping language jigsaw games

If you don’t want to make a whole dialogue for jigsaw activities as suggested above, split phrases above like “looking + for” can be just made into dominoes cards with the end of one phrase on the left-hand side of a card and beginning of the next phrase on the right. For example, the first three domino cards could be “… else?/ Can I try it…”, “…on?/ It’s a bit too…” “…small. Do you have anything larger?/ Can I pay….”, with no connection between the phrases on the two sides of each card. This can also be done with just a couple of key words on each half of the dominoes cards, e.g. “else/ try”, “on/ too” and “small/ pay”. I usually make cards which just have one possible match for each (unlike real dominoes and some TEFL versions where several different matches are possible). I then ask groups of students to work together to put all the cards in a big circle. However, you can also play a real game of dominoes (with winners and losers) with the cards if you like. 


Shopping language disappearing text game

As with other situations like telephoning, the beginning and ending of shopping conversations are tricky if you are not prepared but predictable and so fairly easy to prepare for. To help memorise such predictable interactions, you can give students a model dialogue and ask them to repeat it again and again as more and more help is taken away from them. Help can be removed word by word or line by line. For example, you can put the last fifty or so words of a shopping conversation starting with “Is there anything else?” into a table with one word per box, i.e. with “Is” in the first cell of the table, “there” in the second cell, etc. Give one copy of the table to each group of two or three students, along with pieces of blank paper which are exactly the same size as the boxes in the table. One student reads out the whole dialogue, then covers one of the words with a piece of blank paper. The next person reads out the whole dialogue including the covered word, then covers another. This continues until the whole dialogue can be said from memory or students give up. 

For students who already know the language quite well, you can also put one line of dialogue into each box and cover it line by line.


More challenging shopping roleplays

Even simple shopping dialogues can be challenging when students first start this topic, but they tend to become boring long before students have gained full mastery of the necessary phrases. This activity aims to step up the difficulty in manageable stages while making students happily accept the necessary repetition. 

Make a list of at least ten shopping roleplays that start with very simple situations (e.g. “When the shop assistant asks if you need help, politely say no”) but then get more and more interesting and challenging, until they reach particularly stimulating situations like “You change your mind about your purchase at the last minute” or “You don’t like any of the first five suggestions”. Ratcheting up the difficulty in this way has enough of a fun aspect that students are usually quite happy to work their way through those situations in order, but you can also make it more of a game by asking students to grade each other and letting them skip one or more stages if their last performance was good enough (which also speeds the game up and makes them listen to each other more carefully).

If all that will take up more time than the topic demands for your students, you can just go straight to some tricky but fun situations like “The first four things that you ask for aren’t available” and “You realise at the end of the conversation that you didn’t bring anything to pay with”. Problems can be made up by students, taken from a pack of roleplay cards or chosen by rolling a dice (see below).


Roleplays to present useful vocabulary

Roleplays are a good chance to introduce or practice tricky vocabulary such as names of clothes, parts of a shop and false friends. The simplest way is to just give a worksheet with the words included in the roleplay situations, e.g. a list of clothes that they must buy or problem roleplays with important vocab in the descriptions like “You can’t find the changing rooms”. The same thing can also be done with tricky numbers and countable and uncountable nouns. In each case, after they do the roleplays and you take questions, you should test them on the vocabulary that they just saw, e.g. by asking them to put the right words back into gaps on the same roleplay cards.


Guess the shop games

Students listen to words, phrases and/ or parts of dialogues and race to guess which place they are connected to, maybe from a list of possible places that you have put on the board or a worksheet. For example, if they hear “In Japan I’m a 25.5. I don’t know what that is in American sizes” and “Do you have anything with higher heels?” they race to shout out “Shoe shop!” They label the same hints on a worksheet with “clothes shop”, “newsagent”, etc, then test each other in the same way, perhaps moving onto doing the same with their own ideas for phrases in those or other places.


Good and bad shopping responses

Students listen to a staff or customer phrase and two or more different responses, including some unsuitable ones like “No, please leave me alone”. As in TOEIC Listening, this can be set up with just one correct phrase that they need to listen out for, e.g. “Can I try it on?” “Yes, sure. Why not?”/ “Of course. I’ll take you to the changing rooms”/ “Yes, I can”. However, students get more useful language out of it if there are two or more correct phrases and just one mistake, e.g. “Can I help you with anything else today?” “Actually, there is just one more thing. I’m looking for…”/ “No, that’s all, thanks. I’ll just take these two.”/ “No, you can’t help me with anything else today”. 

Students cross off the same wrong phrases on a worksheet and then test each other, starting with the same listening for wrong phrases and then moving onto answering as quickly as possible, etc.


More and more shopping phrases game

In pairs, students decide which of them will be the shop assistant and who is the shopper. Each person chooses a suitable phrase from a list or pack of cards with typical shopping phrases like “How is it?” and “Can I pay by credit card?”, then tries to use their phrase while they roleplay a whole conversation. When they have finished that first roleplay, they change roles, choose two suitable phrases each (that haven’t been used yet), and try to use them both during the next roleplay. They continue changing roles, picking more and more cards, and trying to use them all during shopping dialogues until all the cards are finished or the teacher stops the game.


Shopping key words card game

This is similar to the More and More Shopping Phrases game above, but instead of whole phrases students try to use key words for shopping like “else”, “change” and “help” (or key words for specific kinds of shop like “take it up” and “local delicacy”) during their dialogues. Before and/ or after that, they can brainstorm suitable phrases for each key word. 


Shopping functions card game

This is similar to the Shopping Key Words Card Game above, but students are given cards saying “request”, “greeting”, “offer”, “polite negative answer”, “positive answer”, “apology”, “asking someone to wait”, “checking/ clarifying”, etc and try to use phrases with those functions during the roleplay. Before and/ or after the roleplay, they can brainstorm suitable phrases for each function.


Shopping dice game

Students roll a dice to decide what situation they should roleplay. Things you can assign to each number include:

  • One number for each kind of shop (throwing a one = roleplay a conversation in a deli, etc)
  • One number for each product that they have to ask for (rolling a two = buying a hat, etc)
  • One number for each problem they have to deal with (rolling a two = something is out of stock etc).


The six options can be written on a worksheet or the board, or students can make up the options themselves, perhaps for another group to use in the next stage. Alternatively, the number on the dice could be an actual number related to the shopping situation, for example:

  • The number of things that they want to buy
  • The number of things they have to consider before they finally decide what to wear
  • The number of questions the shopper or shop assistant will ask before a decision is made.


Shopping coin games

During a shopping roleplay, every time a Yes/ No question is asked the other person flips a coin to decide if their answer will be “Yes” (= heads) or “No” (= tails). This can be done with the shopper flipping a coin to decide if they need anything else etc and/ or the shop assistant flipping a coin to decide if something is in stock etc. If students are not likely to know suitable questions and/ or answers, this can be played after the Simplest Responses Game and/ or Good and Bad Responses above.

A coin can also be used to choose the situations for roleplays similar to the use of a dice above, e.g. being able to choose from the easy situations in the left-hand side of the table if they call heads or tails correctly or having to do one of the trickier phrases on the right-hand side if they guess wrongly (saying “Tails” when it is “heads”, or vice versa). 

Copyright © 2016

Written by Alex Case for

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