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15 fun ways of practising telephoning

By Alex Case
Telephoning is one of the most difficult things you can do in a foreign language, but for many people who don’t live in English speaking countries it can also be the method by which they are most likely to speak English. Luckily, it is quite easy to make telephoning interactive and fun in the classroom. […]

Telephoning is one of the most difficult things you can do in a foreign language, but for many people who don’t live in English speaking countries it can also be the method by which they are most likely to speak English. Luckily, it is quite easy to make telephoning interactive and fun in the classroom. 15 ideas on how to do this are given below. Click on any one you are interested in to see more details.

1. Guess the next line
Play the tape of or read out a telephone conversation one line at a time. After each line, the students have to guess what the person will say next and what kind of language they will use. Read out or play the next line for them to check and continue in the same way until the end of the conversation. You can give points depending on how close they get to what is said each time. This game works with any telephone conversation, but one with a surprise element like being phoned by someone famous, giving 10 different reasons why the caller can’t speak to anyone in your office, realising at the end of the call that you dialled the wrong number etc. adds to the interest.

2. Really leave answerphone messages
If you have any way of recording student voices (e.g. two or more MP3 players, cassettes with inbuilt mic, or computers and microphones), you can get students to record their personal answerphone messages and then go around leaving messages on each other’s answer machines. To cut down on the number of recorders needed, you can have 2 or 3 students taking turns in one team. This game works best if you give them a clear reason for phoning, e.g. trying to make an arrangement to do something. This is always a popular activity, and maybe the easiest way of persuading students that it is a good idea to record their own voice.

3. The “not getting through” telephoning challenge roleplay
In pairs, one student is the caller who is trying to get through to someone (an imaginary third person) and the other student is a receptionist (and any other roles they want to use) who gives them a different reason each time why they can’t. The receptionist gets one point for each time they manage to finish the phonecall without putting the caller through to the right person. Switch roles and repeat.

4. The “getting through all over the place” telephoning challenge roleplay
In this variation on the “Not Getting Through” Telephoning Challenge Roleplay, the person taking the call gets one point for each time they transfer the caller to anyone apart from the person their partner originally asked to speak to.

5. The “even less native speaker” telephoning challenge roleplay
This is another way of adding challenge and interest to telephoning practice by adding a problem element. Student A pretends their English is worse than it really is so that their partner has to repeat everything over and over. You could give points for the length of the phonecall, or for the number of different ways they manage to say “I’m sorry, can you repeat that please?” A variation on this is just to ask them to check back every piece of information and get every one wrong as many times as they can.

6. The “Can I just check again who is calling?” telephoning challenge roleplay
The person receiving the phone call must not believe the identity of the caller and ask lots of personal questions about their mother’s maiden name etc to confirm it. You can give points for asking any personal question that their partner really doesn’t know the answer to, e.g. “What is your mother’s work fax number?” This works best if you set a realistic scene, like wanting to transfer a large amount of money from your bank account or phoning MI5 wanting to speak to James Bond. You could also present some indirect questions language like “Do you mind if I ask…?”

7. The “two drivers” telephoning challenge roleplay
Each student tries to guide the telephone conversation towards a different topic. You can give points to the students who do so most subtly and/ or to the students who had the topic they spent most time speaking about.

8. The “on and off” telephoning challenge roleplay
One student tries to make the telephone conversation as short as possible and the other tries to make it impossible to say goodbye.

9. The “many calls” shouting telephone calls roleplay
Give students several things to achieve through telephone calls and tell them they must “phone” a different person in the class each time when trying to achieve it, without standing up. This usually means that the game gets louder and louder as they are forced to speak to people further and further away from their desk. The first person to achieve all their tasks is the winner. If the person who receives their call wants to help them out or not is up to them. If not, they have to phone someone else and try the same task again.

10. Telephoning options maze
With each telephone conversation the students roleplay, give them two or more options, e.g. leaving a message or being put on hold. Tell them the consequences of their actions (which you should preferably write down before they decide, to make the game fair), and then get them to make another telephone conversation suitable for that situation. Then give them another choice (e.g. accept their apology or demand a refund), etc. This works best if there is a clear end to the game that tells them if they have been successful (e.g. “Your boss is very happy with the result”) or a failure (”The company refuses to do any more business with you and you get the sack”). Although it is possible to improvise the options and quickly scribble the consequences down or ask students to set each other the options, it is usually best to prepare this before class. It can also be typed up as a reading and speaking task.

11. Match the telephone roleplays pairwork game
Students have several mixed up Student A and Student B roleplay cards, e.g. Student A has “You think your electricity bill is wrong” and “You want to change an appointment” and Student B has “You are a doctor’s surgery” and “You are a lawyer”. Student A picks one of the roleplay cards and starts the conversation. Student B picks one that could match and replies according to that roleplay card. If at any time they decide that the cards don’t match they should finish the conversation with something like “I’m sorry, I must have dialled a wrong number” or “I’m afraid I can’t help you. Shall I give you the number of the local doctor’s surgery?” and try again.

12. Match the telephone roleplays pellmanism
In this variation on the Match the Telephone Roleplays Pairwork Game, students take Student A and Student B roleplay cards that are face down on the table and try to play their respective roles until they successfully finish the call or realise that the roleplay cards don’t match, apologise and finish the call. This works best with two or three teams of two players each in each group.

13. Shadow reading
In this fun drilling and controlled practice game, students try to copy a textbook telephone conversation while the tape is playing, trying to exactly match the timing and rhythm of the speakers on the tape. After listening carefully once for exactly how the speakers speak and copying with the tape a couple of times, the class or teams can try one more time with the teacher turning down the volume in the middle of the recording and then back up near the end to check if the students are still in time with the speakers on the tape.

14. Disappearing telephone call game
In this simple and fun memory game the whole class, one team or one student read out the telephone conversation on the whiteboard (preferably written up before the class or while the students are busy with something else). The teacher then rubs out one word and they read the whole thing again, including the missing word. Continue until the whole conversation has disappeared and students are saying it completely from memory. As variations, students can select the next word to be deleted, or two teams can take the Student A and Student B parts and nominate words only from the other team’s part to be erased.

15. Pairwork disappearing telephone call
In this variation on the Disappearing Telephone Call Game, pairs or groups of students are given a photocopy with a grid and a telephone conversation written out on it, with one word of the conversation in each box, e.g. Hello/ John/ speaking/ How/ can/ I/ help/ you?/ They take turns reading out the whole conversation and placing scrap pieces of paper over one of the boxes to hide the word in it, until the whole conversation is covered and the students are speaking entirely from memory.

Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET February 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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