How to teach telephoning

Summary: What to think about when planning lessons on phone calls in English, with presentation and practice classroom activities.

Even for students who don’t have often speak English on the phone it can be important to spend some time on this topic, not least because it is one of the most challenging things that you can do in a foreign language. What they can learn from telephoning practice can also be usefully compared and contrasted with teleconferences, video conferences, face to face conversations, meetings, emails, etc. 

Typical student problems with telephoning include:

  • Starting smoothly, including answering the phone, small talk and getting down to the point

  • Ending smoothly, including moving smoothly towards the end of the call, using polite or friendly language, and talking about future contact

  • Dealing with the person not being there

  • Dealing with dictation of messages (pronouncing and understanding numbers, emails addresses, punctuation, spellings of words, etc)

  • Dealing with communication problems

  • Asking people to wait

  • Confusions between similar expressions such as “This is Alex Case”/ “My name is Alex Case” and “Alex Case speaking”/ “This is Alex Case”

  • Typical language mistakes like “Thanks for your calling” X

  • Problems with the functional language involved in the call, e.g. students using language to give commands like “Please call me back” when they should be requesting with language like “Can you call me back?”

  • Problems with formality, e.g. being too rude to customers or being too formal and therefore unfriendly with people who they know (well)

  • Active listening (= not just listening in silence until the other person thinks that you have been cut off, but also not accidentally interrupting)

  • Turn taking (politely interrupting, etc)

  • Cultural differences (in the acceptability of silence, when and if you have to give your name, how much and when small talk is necessary, using the other person’s name, etc)

Students could also come across problems with the equipment like going into a tunnel or a bad Skype connection, and for higher level students practising these kinds of issues can be a good way of adding challenge even if they are rarely likely to come across exactly those situations. In the same way, some students could benefit from classroom practice of leaving answerphone messages.

When planning lessons on telephoning in English, perhaps the first thing worth thinking about is who your students might realistically have to speak to on the phone, e.g.

  • People related to their work (clients/ customers, colleagues, people in group or partner companies, managers, suppliers, technical support subcontractors, etc)

  • People working in academic institutions such as universities and language schools

  • Friends and acquaintances

  • People who they don’t know, e.g. someone whose contact details they have found or been given

  • Someone related to travel (travel agents, taxi companies, train companies, bus companies, tourist information, embassies and consulates, hotels, etc)

  • Restaurants and bars

  • Helplines

  • Automatic switchboards

Functions that students are likely to need to achieve the purpose of their calls include (just in alphabetical order):

  • Answering questions/ Giving information

  • Apologising/ Responding to complaints

  • Asking for confirmation

  • Booking/ Making reservations

  • Changing something/ Cancelling something

  • Checking the progress of something/ Chasing something up

  • Confirming

  • Enquiries (= Asking for information)

  • Following up a meeting

  • Giving directions (on how to get somewhere)

  • Introducing yourself/ Making contact with someone

  • Inviting

  • Making a decision together

  • Making an order (e.g. buying supplies, raw materials or components)

  • Making arrangements (suggesting and fixing appointments, meetings, etc)

  • Making complaints

  • Making enquiries/ Asking for information

  • Making offers (offering help etc)

  • Negotiating

  • Replying to an email

  • Requesting (= Asking for something or for help)

  • Thanking (e.g. acknowledging receipt of something)


Others that a few students might need include:

  • Answering someone else’s phone

  • Asking for advice/ suggestions/ feedback

  • Asking for contact details/ Asking to put in contact with someone

  • Asking for or demanding payment

  • Asking for permission to do something

  • Contacting someone after a long time

  • Correcting wrong information

  • Giving bad news

  • Instructions/ Commands/ Demanding action (= Telling someone to do something)

  • Keeping in touch/ Social phone calls

  • Phoning on someone else’s behalf

  • Quitting something

  • Reminding someone of a deadline

  • Renegotiating something

  • Replying to a message

  • Sales calls (e.g. cold calling, announcing new products, and announcing special offers)

  • Threatening/ Warning


Some students may also need to basically hold meetings over the phone, even if they don’t have to take part in actual group teleconferences. A few might also have a need to do job interviews over the phone.

As well as the functional language for starting and ending, dictating etc and the body of the call, it can also be worth introducing some useful vocabulary related to telephoning, especially:

  • Phrasal verbs/ multiword verbs (“hang on”, “hold on”, “put you through”, “pick up”, “cut off”, “phone back”, etc)

  • British and American English differences (“connect you”/ “put you through”, “How may I help you?”/ “How can I help you?”, “cell(phone)”/ “mobile (phone”), “busy”/ “engaged”, etc)

  • Vocabulary for describing problems (“background noise”, “breaking up”, etc)


There is also a fair bit of grammar involved in telephoning, particularly:

  • A range of tenses, including different future tenses such as Present Continuous for future arrangements and will for spontaneous decisions/ offers

  • Modal verbs and similar forms such as “Could you…?” and “I’d like”, for requests, offers, etc

  • Prepositions (“He’s ON another line”, etc)

  • Determiners (“She’s not answering HER phone”, etc)


Introducing telephoning language

One way of introducing language for telephoning in English is to link it to another language point that you are just finishing. For example, if students just studied future tenses or modal verbs, they can put those forms into gapped telephoning phrases as practice of that previous point, then use that as a way into the new topic of telephoning. Similarly, if they have just covered a functional language point such as giving instructions or making arrangements, they can practice it with at least some telephoning roleplays, then move onto telephoning more generally.

Another smooth way of moving into telephoning is to ask students to roleplay a situation imagining they are communicating face to face or by email, then to do the same thing pretending that they are on the phone. They can then listen and/ or read a model dialogue of the telephone version, comparing it to their own version of the conversation then analysing the same dialogue for generally useful telephoning language.

There are plenty of other things that students can do with model dialogues before actually being introduced to telephoning language. Textbooks often have general comprehension questions such as listening for what the caller wanted to achieve and if they managed to do so or not. A more challenging and fun task that textbooks also sometimes include is trying to spot good and bad examples of phone calls. Students then go on to analyse what is good or bad about those attempts, underlining or listening for good phrases that they can use in their own calls.

An even more active way to start to look at model telephone dialogues is for students to be given them in “jigsaw” form on cut-up bits of paper, putting them together in order before looking for useful phrases that they could use when communicating in the same situation(s). For a comparatively simple initial jigsaw telephone calls task, I tend to give students between four and seven dialogues involving the same two people with each dialogue on one piece of paper, e.g. five attempts to get through to someone with only the last one being successful. To get students speaking from the very first stage of the lesson and add some interesting challenge to the task, you can put students into groups of two to five and give each of them one or more of the bits of paper, asking them to work together to put them in order without showing them to each other.

Another way of making a jigsaw texts activity more of a challenge is splitting each conversation into parts, e.g. making ten pieces of paper by splitting five dialogues into halves, or having one dialogue cut into much smaller parts, perhaps even line by line. For the ultimate challenge, you can have two dialogues cut up into small pieces, asking students to split the phrases into ones likely to be in each of the two dialogues, then to put each of them in order. To make that more possible, you should make sure that the two conversations have different levels of formality and different functions/ purposes, so that they end up with, say, one formal request call and one informal inviting conversation.

Another way to start the topic of telephoning is to give students lots of support and then take it away step by step until they can do it on their own. One way of doing this is to give them a whole dialogue to just read out, then ask them to change more and more details in it each time that they repeat it. For example, they can start with just changing some of the details of the conversation to their own names etc and end up with the whole phone call going in a totally different direction.

A more controlled way of taking away support step by step is by asking students to cover more and more lines at the bottom of the dialogue each time that they repeat it (going different ways to how the model answer progresses when they get to that part which is covered if they like). As their memory should get better each time they repeat the dialogue, you can ask them to just cover the bottom line after the first time, cover two more lines the next time, then three more lines, etc, continuing in that exponential way until the whole dialogue is covered. I then like to test them on their memory in another way, e.g. asking them to write those or similar phrases in categories like “Giving your name” and “Polite language at the end of a call”.

If students already do a lot of telephoning at work in English, you can get them to describe those phone calls in detail (who they are speaking to, purpose of the call, formality, if they know the person or not, who is calling who, etc) and then roleplay them with their partner. As well as being the perfect opportunity to give very focused feedback to students and to help elicit exactly the most useful language for their actual lives, if you get them to write down each other’s needs as they talk about telephoning in English you can take that information in as a kind of needs analysis form to help you plan future lessons. To make this easier, I tend to give out a form with two different spaces for them to fill in as they talk about telephone calls they typically receive and make, starting with the easier topic of calls in their own language each time to make discussion smoother and so making four boxes. When they have finished roleplaying those typical phone calls, I usually get them to brainstorm a typical telephone beginning and ending onto the board, something that works quite well as a presentation task in general.


Classroom practice activities for telephoning

All the activities mentioned above for presentation of the language can also obviously be used as practice activities. An article will follow with similar descriptions of 40 or so other possible interactive classroom practice activities, so in this section of this article I will just attempt to give a review of the kinds of activities which are possible. The three major categories of activities are:

  1. Activities to help students learn and memorise useful language for telephoning

  2. Freer communicative practice of telephoning such as roleplays

  3. Activities to help students understand and avoid typical problems with telephoning language such as errors and differences between phrases

That order is also the same one as I would usually use in a class or course on telephoning, going back to previous stages for more practice if necessary.


Almost any controlled practice activity can be used to help learn and memorise telephoning language, e.g.

  • Matching, e.g. halves of phrases, phrases and replies (including maybe two or more replies for each), phrases with the same meaning, phrases with the same meaning but different levels of formality, or halves of conversations

  • Filling gaps, e.g. missing prepositions, determiners, or key words for telephoning (“hold” etc)

  • Responding as quickly as possible to typical telephoning phrases

  • Trying to remember a whole conversation as they cover it word by word with the blank bits of paper that they have been given

  • Analysing which of two or more categories some telephoning language fits in, e.g. if it is near the beginning or near the end of a conversation

  • Trying to guess the continuation of a conversation, perhaps line by line

  • Rude versions of telephoning phrases which they should make more polite, competing to get more and more formal until they can’t go any further

  • Really short telephoning phrases to make longer, again maybe competing to get more and more so until they give up

  • Brainstorming suitable phrases by function, position in a dialogue, key word, etc

  • Trying to read along to a dialogue at exactly the same speed as the CD (= shadow reading)

  • Trying to remember phrases with the same meanings (e.g. formal and informal versions of the same thing), perhaps set up as the game Othello/ Reversi or with the phrases in a column on the table being a “ladder” that students must climb by remembering the other side of all the cards


As telephoning is an oral skill, as much as possible it is best to turn all the above into speaking activities, e.g. splitting the telephoning phrases halves between Student A and Student B worksheets and getting them to match them without showing their worksheets to each other. More details on how to make all the activities above more communicative will follow in the separate article on practice activities.


There are also activities which are kind of midway between controlled and free, for example:

  • writing conversations line by line and passing them around rather than speaking (e.g. Consequences)

  • trying to use words or phrases on cards they have been given as they speak

  • continuing a whole conversation from a useful telephoning phrase

  • trying to get particular responses from their partner during a conversation

  • working their way through roleplay situations that have been written with useful telephoning language like “hang up”, later being tested on that vocabulary with, say, gapped versions of the sentences describing the roleplays


For freer practice, the most useful thing you can do with telephoning roleplays is obviously to make sure students act out situations which are realistic for them, as explained above in the section on presenting the language. It can also be useful to add more unusual situations which will stretch them and help them to use phrases for dealing with communication problems, dictating, etc. You can arrange these roleplays by difficulty and get students to work their way through them until they reach the limit of their ability to cope in something I call “Step by Step Roleplays”. Another interesting way of making speaking more challenging is going beyond roleplays in pairs, e.g. letting students “telephone” anyone in class by shouting to them across the classroom. You can also get them to record answerphone messages for each other on Dictaphones etc, but note that this is quite different from normal telephoning language.

To add more fun to picking roleplays, students can choose which roleplays they or their partners will have to do by:

  • Choosing situations for each other

  • Picking random numbers from a list of roleplays

  • Picking cards from a pack

  • Rolling a dice

  • Flipping a coin several times (to decide formal/ informal, someone you know/ someone you don’t know, etc with every flip of the coin)

  • Closing their eyes and putting their finger down on a list

You can also let students come up with the options which will be chosen from that way.

Other things they can decide before speaking, perhaps also with dice etc, include how many small talk topics they should include, how many topics the call will have, how long they should spend on the whole call, or whole long they should spend of particular parts of it (ending etc). Alternatively, they can just try to move between those stages (changing small talk topic, getting down to business, etc) as quickly but smoothly as possible when the teacher shouts something out or makes a gesture such as holding up their hand.


To deal with typical errors or confusions, students can:

  • try to find errors in phrases or whole conversations

  • try to spot which of each pair of phrases with one difference has an error in it

  • judge whether two phrases have the same or different meanings.

Again, it is best if this is changed into a spoken task by, for example, putting the phrases with one difference on Student A and Student B worksheets that they don’t show each other.

Another way of dealing with typical confusions is a TOEIC-style task where they listen for the one correct response from three options after each telephoning phrase, after which they could then go onto making up similar challenges for each other. You can also get them to discuss which statements on telephoning (“Wait in silence until the other person has finished” etc) are good ideas or culturally appropriate, perhaps then brainstorming phrases for ones which are okay.

Copyright © 2015

Written by Alex Case for

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