How to teach Social English

Summary: Teaching tips and classroom activities for the language needed to meet people, socialise, and smoothly start and finish conversations.

The expression “Social English” is most often used for the parts of an ESP course where students learn to speak about topics other than their area of business, but the same kinds of language and therefore teaching ideas and materials are often just as useful for students who have no pressing reasons for studying English. Almost any kind of functional language could be considered to be “social English”, but specific lessons and courses on Social English should probably include:

  • Starting and ending conversations
  • Meeting people for the first time and again
  • Introducing people
  • Giving and receiving things (coats, hot drinks, gifts, business cards, etc)
  • Making small talk
  • Talking about food and drink
  • Talking about your country, town and local area (recommending things to see and do, giving directions, explaining cultural differences, etc)
  • Making arrangements/ Making and responding to invitations

There are individual articles on meeting people, making small talk, etc on this site, so this article concentrates on how to structure a Social English course and activities that can be used to practise all kinds of Social English language. There are over 300 pages of relevant photocopiable materials, including some based on the ideas in this article, in the e-book Teaching Social English: Interactive Classroom Activities.


Typical student problems with Social English

The main problem with Social English is often simply students not having spent enough time on it, with previous teachers and/ or self-study materials having spent too much time on newspaper articles about finance and Present Perfect Continuous exercises and too little time on the more important points of starting, continuing and ending conversations, making chitchat, etc.

Other typical student problems with social English include:

  • Not knowing typical phrases (typical small talk questions, typical invitations phrases, etc)
  • Not knowing different levels of formality (and so sounding too casual or too unfriendly for the situation)
  • Not knowing how to respond (particularly not knowing how to politely turn down invitations and how to respond to good and bad news)


What students need to know about Social English

As well as the useful phrases at various levels of formality mentioned above, students are likely to need to know how to communicate in particular situations and with particular people. For people studying Social English as part of a Business English or ESP course, this is likely to include people such as:

  • Customers/ Clients
  • Suppliers/ Vendors
  • (Ex-)colleagues
  • Other business partners such as investors
  • Other people in the same industry, e.g. other people attending the same conference/ trade fair/ trade show

 Other people your students might need Social English to communicate with include:

  • Fellow travellers, guests, diners and drinkers
  • Host families
  • Flatmates
  • Foreign visitors to their town
  • Taxi drivers
  • (Ex-)classmates

Typical situations for using Social English include:

  • (Their own or other people’s) workplaces
  • Airports
  • Planes, buses and trains
  • Taxis
  • Conferences/ Trade fairs/ Trade shows (at booths, with fellow attendees in presentations, etc)
  • Parties/ Networking events (cocktail parties, Xmas parties, dinner parties, office parties, BBQs, etc)
  • The lift and/ or elevator hall
  • Restaurants, cafeterias and bars
  • Workshops/ Courses (MBAs, etc)


How to present and practise Social English language

Social English needs analysis and instant personalised roleplays

There are the huge number of possible social situations that students could roleplay. It’s therefore usually best to find out as soon as possible who they are likely to need to speak to in this way. This can be combined with GTKY and needs analysis by asking students to interview each other in the first lesson using interview forms that you give them with spaces to make notes about their partner’s job, studies, hobbies, etc, along with past, present and future uses of English. Students have often been brainwashed by textbooks into thinking that using English is only about “serious” stuff like presentations and reports, so it can be useful to give them a list of other functions and situations such as “small talk” and “meeting people in the lift” to add to their discussions and, if relevant, to their partner’s form. They then choose one particular situation that they have just described such as “talking with foreign colleagues at a barbecue” and roleplay that conversation, with their partner pretending to be the other person or people. After feedback on how well they communicated in that real-life situation, the forms can also be used to discuss which of those topics that they asked each other about in the first stage (hobbies, etc) would be good for chatting about in social situations, and then perhaps what small talk questions they could ask about those things.


Social English with the teacher

Almost all of the ideas in this article rely on roleplays to make useful practice for students’ real Social English situations in the future. However, in many classes there is someone who really doesn’t know much about students’ hometown, places to eat in the local area, what exactly they do in their job, etc – the teacher. In such situations, the teacher naturally asking students questions like “Is there anywhere good to have lunch round here?”, “What kind of food does it serve?” and “Is it spicy?” should be good real-life practice for future Social English situations. This can be exploited further by then asking students to try to remember what questions the teacher asked, giving them help like question stems or key words if they can’t remember the questions. You can then elicit good answers to those questions and/ or extend from there into a roleplay where they invite you to such places.  The same thing can also be done with other parts of Social English like small talk questions and answers.


Social English simplest responses games

Particularly in the first class when you don’t know what situations students are likely to find most useful to practise, it can be useful to do a big review of Social English language. The most useful language can then be reviewed and expanded in individual lessons on invitations, etc, perhaps with another review at the end of the course. You might be able to make texts that have enough suitable language in for activities like the jigsaw texts idea below, but generally I prefer to make a list of the most useful phrases and give students something easy to do such as listening and holding up a card, before they move onto examining the language in more detail. 

In a simplest responses game, students listen to the teacher reading out some phrases and hold up one of two cards they are holding depending on what they think about what was said. The easiest of these is for students to hold up a “Host” card if they hear phrases like “How was your flight?” and “Can I take your coat?” and hold up the “Guest” card if they hear “Thank you for your hospitality” and “It’s a pleasure to be here in…” Other possibilities include “First time” and “Again” cards for two kinds of meeting people phrases and “Starting” and “Ending” cards for beginnings and endings of conversations. A more involved version is holding up “The same” cards when they hear “How’s it going?” and “How are things?” and the “Different” card when they hear “Would you like anything to drink?” and “Would you like to come out for a drink?”


Social English guess the situation

Students listen to some phrases and guess where the conversation is taking place, e.g. in a restaurant or at an airport, from a list of possible places if needed. After labelling the same sections on a worksheet with “On a train” and “At a bus stop” etc, students test each other in the same way. After that, see how many phrases they can remember for each situation.

The same thing can also be done as Social English Guess the Person, guessing people you are speaking to instead of places you are speaking.


Social English cultural differences and useful phrases

Students read some descriptions of Social English tips and phrases in the UK, US, etc like “In the UK, conversations starters with strangers tend to be quite indirect – ‘Is this seat free?/ Is this the right stop for the bus to…’” and “If you say no to an invitation, your reason should be very detailed, in fact a detailed lie is better than the simple truth – ‘I would have loved to but my mother is visiting for two days right then’”. They write the name of any country that they know the same thing to be true for next to each description, leaving it blank if they don’t know anywhere similar. When they have finished, they try to remember or think of suitable phrases to achieve each thing that they just read about on a version of the worksheet with the same descriptions but without the example phrases (“In the UK, conversations starters with strangers tend to be quite indirect – ‘_________________’”, etc).


Social English jigsaw activities

Social English jigsaw texts

Students try to put together conversations which have been cut up by thinking about what happens at the beginning, middle and end of the conversation, which things each speaker is likely to say, and/ or which responses are likely to follow each line. If there are two mixed dialogues to split and then put in order, they can also use hints like differences in formality and phrases which are only used in particular situations.


Social English responses jigsaws

As well as whole jigsaw texts, you can also have just phrases and responses for students to match. As most phrases have more than one typical response, I tend to do this with one phrase and three or four responses to match up, e.g. “Is this seat free?” with “I’m afraid not. I think this one is, though”, “Of course. Please help yourself” and “I think so.


Social English longer phrases card game

The third possibility for a Social English jigsaw is to split the individual phrases, e.g. “Please sit anywhere” + “you like”. I particularly like to do this with phrases which have optional parts in the middle. After trying put together “Thanks for your” + “hospitality”, students then try to put cards like “great/ wonderful” in the middle.


Social English roleplays

Perhaps straight after getting them to roleplay situations which they are most likely to need in their real life, it can be useful to get students to stretch themselves more. This can be done by getting them to roleplay other situations, communicate with other people, try to use particular functions and phrases, try to use particular communication tactics, etc. This is often preferable to just more and more practice of their own few real-life situations, as it will provide more variety and more intensive practice of useful language for their future uses of English. What roleplays they take part in can be decided by a dice, coin, pack of cards, or list on a worksheet, either letting them decide which they want to do or asking them to choose at random, e.g. by closing their eyes and putting their finger down. In addition, the situations could be written in the squares of a board game that they have to move around.


Social English roleplays board games

This is perhaps my favourite of the different ways of setting up Social English roleplays, especially if I can put (some of) the squares into a realistic order for my students’ future use of English. For example, you could make a board game that goes from “You meet him/ her at his/ her hotel” to “You see them off at the departure gate” via “You introduce them to your colleagues”, “You suggest places to have lunch”, etc. You can also add more general things like “Chat about travel and tourism” in the middle of the board game.

Students can move around such a board by rolling a dice, or perhaps by flipping a coin (heads = two squares, tails = one square). However, I prefer to get them to listen carefully to each other and give their partners scores depending on how well they communicated. For instance, they can rank their partner’s performance from 1 for just about okay to 6 points for excellent. Alternatively, they can get points for meeting criteria like “Started and ended the conversation smoothly” and “Avoided silence”, with one point for each of the criteria which they meet.


Social English roleplays card games

Students can take cards before the roleplay to decide who they are, where they are, if they are meeting for the first time, what problems they have to deal with during the roleplay (“There is lots of noise and it is difficult to hear each other”, etc), or what they have to try and achieve during the roleplay (“No silence”, etc).

They could also use cards during the roleplay, e.g. ones which have functions on like “Apologise” or ones which have key words on like “please” and “look forward to”. Cards can also decide if they respond positively or negatively in the same way as the coin game below.


Social English roleplays coin games

Before starting a roleplay, a flip of coin can decide who the guest is and who the host is, the level of formality, if they have had previous contact or if they are complete strangers, etc. Even better, the coin can be flipped during the roleplay to decide if responses should be positive (“I’d love to”, “It was wonderful, thanks for asking”, “Great. Our new product is selling like hot cakes”, etc) or negative (“I would have loved to, but I’m afraid it’s my daughter’s eighteenth”, “Not so great. I had to fix the roof and it took about 17 hours”, etc).


Social English step up the pressure roleplays

Students work their way through some roleplays that have been arranged from incredibly easy (“Meet a colleague who you know well in the lift and get out on the next floor”) and get more and more difficult (“Meet an important client at the airport for the first time and take them to their hotel in a taxi, chatting the whole way”, etc). 

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Written by Alex Case for

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