Practice Ideas for Hesitation Devices

Classified hesitation devices, how to practise them, and why it’s worth doing.

I’m sure your students are the same as mine. When they can’t think of a word, or need to stall for time, they use a hesitation device from their own language. My Spanish-speaking students would say pues, es que, cómo decirlo and my Japanese students always say things like eto, ano or nantoiukana.

I’m equally sure you teach some useful English hesitation devices and provide opportunities to practise them. The thing is, well, em, actually, I was working on these the other day with my upper-intermediate/advanced class (CEFR B2-C1) and took another look at them. I came up with a couple of fresh ideas that you might find useful for your classes.

This time round, I tried to classify the phrases a bit. My classification is probably a bit rough and I’m sure you will have different ways of categorising them, and many of them probably fit in several categories. Nevertheless, I have often taught these by just providing a short list of common examples and hoping for the best. Then you notice that students are using them inappropriately and it’s hard to pin down exactly what’s wrong, especially because you don’t want to discourage them because at least they’ve stopped using hesitation devices from their own language, right? You know the dilemma I’m talking about. So, with this somewhat higher level than my usual classes, I wanted to aim at something slightly more specific. Here’s the classified list I came up with:


  • em…
  • er…
  • mm…

Filler phrases

  • …you know…
  • …I mean…
  • …you see…
  • Well,
  • The thing is…
  • It’s like this, you see…

Stalling for time

  • Let’s see (now)…
  • Now let me think…
  • Now, just a minute…
  • Hang on…

Stalling for time when answering a question

  • That’s a good question…
  • That’s an interesting question…
  • Gosh, that’s a hard one…
  • I’ll have to think about that…

When you can’t find the exact word to describe something

  • …sort of…
  • …like…
  • …kind of…

Introducing ideas that bring contrast, surprise or something unwelcome

  • Actually,…
  • As a matter of fact,…
  • To be honest/frank,…
  • In fact, …
  • The fact is…

Searching for a way to express something

  • How shall I put it?
  • What’s the word I’m looking for?
  • How do you say that?
  • How can I explain this?
  • What is that word?

Showing you are reluctant to speak for fear of the effect

  • What’s the best way to put this?
  • How shall I put this?
  • What I’m trying to say is…
  • Let’s put it this way…
  • Where should I start?

Framing words

These words open a kind of frame in the conversation which the speaker controls, at least for a short time. They are quite strong words that make it a little more difficult for other people to interrupt.

  • Now…
  • Right (then)…
  • OK…

Practice Activity 1: Awareness Raising

One difficulty I always had with this language point was providing a good model. I would try to speak for one minute on a topic, using the hesitation devices. It goes without saying that it was never as funny as Clement Freud or Paul Merton on BBC Radio 4’s Just A Minute, and I never felt it rang quite true. Then I remembered a scene from the film Notting Hill where Julia Roberts visits Hugh Grant in his shop after having behaved very badly twice. The scene ends with that amazing line “And don’t forget. I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her”. The whole scene is packed with beautifully natural examples of hesitation devices. So, I use a little gap-fill exercise to get students to notice these phrases and ask them to practise the timing, stress and intonation. I suspect that good actors slip these devices in, perhaps even unscripted, so break out your DVD collection and have another look at films that would be appropriate to use in your particular situation.

Now I feel they have a better chance of trying out these phrases for themselves.

Practice Activitity 2: Just A Minute

Yes, I know this is not a new idea, but perhaps you haven’t tried it yet. I also want to give a couple of tips that might help you avoid minutes of complete silence. Here are the rules:

Students must speak for one minute without pausing for more than X seconds – I might try 5 seconds for somewhat higher level classes – or using fillers from the students’ own language like eto, ano etc. Obviously, these rules are much more relaxed than the rules for the famous Radio 4 game: speak for one minute “without repetition, hesitation or deviation”. Students may, of course, use English hesitation devices, unlike the panelists on Just A Minute. Again unlike the original programme, students can have a little preparation time if you feel they need it.

You will need to give your students easy topics – obscure or awkward topics will just lead to a minute of silence:

  • Last weekend
  • My favourite place for sightseeing
  • My favourite place for a date
  • My family
  • My job
  • My company
  • My hometown
  • My hobbies and interests

Practice Activity 3: Making Excuses and Breaking Bad News

WARNING/DISCLAIMER: With this last idea I’m trusting to your well-honed sensitivity to the cultural norms of your students. You will also need to draw on your knowledge of what are age-appropriate topics for your junior learners. Don’t just give these examples willy-nilly to your students. You’ll need to adjust them to suit your local situation.

Give your students role cards that provide them with a situation where they have good reason to hesitate. Encourage them to invent wildly and embellish outrageously.

For adults in a liberal country, where the class has a good sense of humour and anything goes:

  • You come home late after being with your secret lover. Your wife/husband is angry with you for being late. Explain what you’ve been doing without giving away your secret.
  • You want to borrow your dad’s/mum’s/friend’s car to take your secret boy/girlfriend on a weekend trip. Try to borrow the car and explain the reason without giving away your secret.
  • Turn down a request for a date from a colleague that you don’t like but have to work closely with.

Simple classroom-related situations:

  • Explain to your teacher that you haven’t done your homework (for the third time).
  • Explain to your teacher why you’re late.

Between friends:

  • You borrowed a book from your friend that is very precious to them. Your dog took a bite out of most of chapter 1. You can’t afford to buy a new one. Explain what happened.
  • You borrowed your friend’s very good, fairly new bike. There is now a scratch on the paintwork. You don’t know how it got there.

In the workplace:

  • You are going to a party with a group of colleagues but the political situation in your office is complicated and there is one person you don’t want to come. Explain to that person why they have to work late at the office without telling them about the party.
  • You arrive at a meeting with an important customer and discover that you have not brought any of the files or materials you need to give your presentation or discuss the contract. Explain the situation to your customer.

Between flatmates:

  • Tell your flatmate how their favourite mug got broken.
  • Your flatmate is looking forward to their favourite programme. You adjusted the TV and now it can’t receive the channel your flatmate wants to watch. You don’t know how to repair it.

Final Thoughts

Notice how more advanced students who already use some of these hesitation devices sound more natural than lower-level students, even when they sometimes make the same mistakes. Getting into the habit of using these phrases can make a big difference to your students’ fluency and improve the overall impression they give when speaking English. It’s well worth the effort spending a bit of extra time helping them to use them more often and more appropriately.

Written by David Mann for July 2013
David Mann has 30 years’ experience in TEFL, both as a teacher (General, ESP and EAP) and a Director of Studies in Spain, Britain and Japan. He has been an ESP and EAP instructor for Nippon Steel & Sumikin Intercom, Inc in Japan for the last 15 years, working with scientists, engineers and business people from major companies and top universities in Japan. He has also delivered successful IT courses on database and web application design through the auspices of the Japanese Association of Overseas Training Scholarships (AOTS) in Yokohama to IT professionals from all over Asia.


  • V Martens says:

    Do you have the fill in the gap assignment perhaps? Quite curious how it looks!

  • Alfredo Sanchez says:

    Thanks for sharing, not only helpful for students but also for teachers..!! Awesome!


    This is really helpful, really, interesting, enjoying, improved fluency. I enjoyed my skills. I had also improved my English academic skills, my knowledge gets increased.

  • Rabina ? says:

    This was very helpful . Thank you .

  • Balboné Benjamin says:

    Very useful and interesting,came in handy when preparing my dissertation on communication strategies instruction and the development of oral proficiency!!!

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