How To Teach Dealing With Enquiries

By Alex Case

Even books that give quite a lot of information on functional language like requests and advice tend to have little or nothing on the common situation of dealing with enquiries, perhaps because they assume it is just asking and answering basic questions. This article shows what students really need to know to do this well, and gives some practical teaching suggestions. Most of the ideas will also be useful for BULATS Speaking Part Three.

What students need to know about dealing with enquiries

The first thing students will need to be able to do is understand the questions, starting with comprehension of polite/indirect question forms like “Could you tell me…?” and “I’d like some information about…” These are also well worth some speaking practice, as they will probably need to ask questions back to the enquirer when asking for background information, checking what questions mean, etc. Similarly, they might also be distracted by language the enquirer uses to structure the conversation such as “The next thing I wanted to ask was…” and “Just one last question”.

They will also need to be able to recognise typical questions, including several ways of asking the same thing, e.g. “What is the price?”, “How much does it cost?” and “What do I have to pay?” Common topics for enquiries include:

  • Cost/Payment/Refunds
  • Times/Dates
  • Paperwork/Documents
  • Contact details
  • Location and directions
  • Rules/Small print/Policies
  • Availability
  • Limits
  • Weight/Size/Dimensions
  • Delivery

If they don’t understand the question, they will need phrases to ask for repetition and further explanation such as “Can you write it down for me?” and “Can you say just the last word again?” If they understand it but can’t answer, they will need to ask the enquirer to wait, or tell the enquirer how they can find the information elsewhere. Alternatively, they might need to explain that the information isn’t available at all, and it might also be worth teaching some typical reasons such as technical problems.

Other functional language they might need includes:

  • Greetings
  • Starting and ending the conversation
  • Checking if the enquirer has understood
  • Checking if they have answered the question properly
  • Giving bad news
  • Giving good news
  • Correcting wrong information
  • Responding to thanks
  • Insisting
  • Pointing at, showing and handing over things (e.g. a brochure)
  • Talking about future action

They also need to know from the person’s response to their answer whether the person has understood and is happy with the answer, e.g. that “I see” usually means they are reluctantly accepting something.

Students may also well need to know how to deal with enquiries on the phone and/or by email.

Classroom activities

Obviously, the main thing students should do is practise answering enquiries. You can help by giving them a list of possible things to ask each other about like the one above, or by brainstorming a list of possible topics first. In a mixed group, they can then tell their partner which questions they want to practise. A similar way of making the questions more relevant is for each person to ask their partner questions that they often get asked themselves, not worrying about how wrong the answers are at this stage. They then switch roles and ask the same questions back, for the real answers this time. You can also find useful topics by searching for online FAQs in their industry.

If some of the students are unlikely to be asked questions in their present jobs, you could also give them a list of different situations in which they might make enquiries such as “in a travel agent’s” and “at the station”. This can be made into a game by asking them to ask and/or answer typical questions in one of the situations until their partner or another group guesses which one they have chosen.

You can add more interest and more of a range of language to their practice by giving them roleplay cards with situations like “You don’t have any of the information they need” and “Confirm what they mean at least twice before you answer any of their questions.” You can also do something similar by giving them each four or five cards with these kinds of things written on them and asking them to use as many as they can during longer roleplay conversations, with the person with fewest cards left at the end being the winner.

You can combine input and practice by giving them a cut-up dialogue to put in order. One with three or four questions is usually about the right length, so you’ll need to make it possible to guess which question goes where in the conversation by the answers being linked to the next question or by adding expressions like “My second question is…” If you give them a format of the conversation that explains the function of each line (“Staff: Greet the customer and offer help/Enquirer: Give the general topic of all your question/etc”), this can also be used to help to put the text in order and then used again later for practice with less support.

You can give them even more input by creating a list of phrases that can be divided into at least two categories, e.g. “Starting the conversation/Ending the conversation”, “Answering the question/Not answering the question (yet)” and “Email/Phone/Face-to-face”. Students listen to the phrases and hold up a card representing which one they think it is, before looking at the list and labelling the sentences with those categories.

You can also combine tips on dealing with enquiries with useful phrases. Students do something with the tips you give them such as cross off ones they disagree with or rank them, and then try to brainstorm phrases to do each of the good things. The tips you include should obviously be chosen so that they each have at least one phrase associated with them, e.g. “Does that answer your question?” for “Always make sure you check if they are satisfied with what you said” and “I am sorry to hear that” for the tip “Sound sympathetic”.

It is also possible to link dealing with enquiries to getting-to-know-you activities, e.g. in a first lesson with a new class. Students ask each other indirect questions such as “I was wondering if I could ask your name” and then analyse the language they used afterwards.

You can also link this topic to politeness by asking them to correct rather rude versions of the functions given at the beginning of this article, e.g. “Wait” and “Got it?”

Written by Alex Case for November 2011
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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