On the Phone: Role Play with Business English Focus

Closeup portrait of a beautiful young businesswoman wearing glasses
Role playing telephone conversations helps Business English ESL students develop this essential skill

OK, so we rely a lot these days on texting and emailing to get in touch, but telephoning definitely still has its place as a necessary mode of communication, and it’s one that can cause quite a bit of anxiety and stress for students who speak English as a second language.  It can be so much more difficult to understand over the phone, when visual cues are not present to aid comprehension.

Here is a role play activity to help ESL students work on this essential skill.  This activity is most suited for pre-intermediate and intermediate level students, but could also be modified for elementary level learners.  Also, I’d like to note that this activity has a business/ professional English focus, but you could come up with more general English scenarios to role play if that would work better for your students.

I like to begin this lesson with a whole-class conversation about the challenges of speaking on the phone in English (or in a second language) either in a business context or in a personal/general one. Students often have interesting and funny experiences that they are happy to share about when they’ve had to make telephone calls, and I also share some of my own experiences with needing to speak a second language over the phone.  This conversation is generally pretty light and funny, and gets everyone warmed up for the more difficult task of the role play.

From there, we read through and discuss some tips and strategies for having a successful phone conversation, and go over some of the common language that may be used on the phone. If useful, I may help the students construct a chart with useful phoning language (something like this, but maybe not quite this detailed… here is a page with a dialogue and key phrases which also may be useful). We may reflect back and think about whether we’ve tried to use any of the strategies and any of the key language during phone calls in the past, and talk about whether they helped or not.

After these steps, I feel that students are ready for the role plays!  Students get in pairs and put their seats back to back.  I may point out the importance of being seated back to back during this activity – so that the students can’t see one another (no visual cues to aid comprehension), and hearing will be a little bit harder – kind of how it is when you are on the phone.  I go around the classroom and hand each pair Student A and Student B role cards for their phone conversation.  Each group gets a different set of role cards, and I ask the students to please not write on them. Note: If there’s an odd number of students in the class, I jump in and participate as one of the phoning partners.

Sitting back to back eliminates visual cues, and makes it more like actually talking on the phone

Give students a few minutes to read over their phoning task and complete the first role play.  If they finish earlier than the other groups, they can try it again to see if it goes more smoothly the second time around (usually in the conversation prior to starting these role plays, it comes up that we usually improve in phoning with practice – after making a call, we reflect on what we should or could have said, and that helps us get more comfortable and better at it when we experience the same kind of phone call again!).  After about 5 minutes or so with the first role play, ask students to leave the role cards at their station and go to a different station to do the role play that is there – I usually ask students not to travel with their partner, but to go to different stations so that they have practice speaking with different students (and so that more students will have practice speaking with me as well!).

After everyone has had a chance to visit 3-4 stations and complete the role plays there, we may have several pairs “perform” a dialogue for the class.

As a follow up activity, I like to ask students to brainstorm when else they may need to use English in the future over the phone.  Here are some ideas that may come up: ordering take out food, ordering a taxi, calling customer service about an order, talking to a child’s teacher or principal, calling a child’s friend’s parent to arrange a play date, calling a doctor or dentist to make an appointment or ask a question.  You could have students follow up by acting out some of these situations for further practice and reinforcement either at this lesson or another future lesson when revisiting this skill.

Practice makes perfect!

Please feel free to use this activity in your ESL classroom, and share your experiences in the comments section below! 

My Kitchen: ESL Information Gap Fill


This is a great activity for elementary level ESL students to do in pairs to practice several things: food vocabulary, the verb “to be” in present tense (singular and plural – closed questions, affirmative and negative answers), quantifiers some and any, and also  prepositions of place.

To start, students are shown 8 different types of foods.  I like to bring in a grocery bag full of 8 items and pull them out one by one to identify them as a group (keep in mind that some should be plural form, and some singular form, some uncountable just for variety – ie a jar of honey/ honey, a box of cereal / cereal, bananas, grapes, cheese/a block of cheese, a carton of milk/ milk, tomatoes, an onion, an orange etc…).

Next, students are given this sheet containing 2 kitchen pictures.  If needed, you could go over some of the kitchen vocabulary – fridge, freezer, counter, table, cabinets, stove, oven etc.

Students work on their own for a couple of minutes and (without looking at their partner’s paper) place each of the 8 food items somewhere into their kitchen (the top picture).  For example, “a carton of milk” could be written down in the fridge and “an onion” could be written in on the counter.

Once this task is complete, students then pair up and while hiding their picture from their partner, take turns asking each other yes/no questions – Is there any cheese on your counter? No, there isn’t. Are there any bananas on your table? Yes, there are. Students fill in the bottom kitchen picture according to what they learn from their partner.

Once students have filled in their papers completely, they can hold their sheets side by side to check that all information matches up.  Perhaps after students have completed this exercise, the whole group could come back together and have a brief discussion about what kinds of food are REALLY in their kitchens at home.

Please feel free to use this activity in your ESL classroom, and share your experiences in the comments section below! 


My Daily Routine: Brief Note-taking Exercise Prepares ESL Students for Conversation


Here is a simple little activity to help get students talking to one another about their daily routine.  It is best suited for elementary level classrooms, but could also be used in intermediate level classrooms. It’s a great beginning of the year activity when students are just starting to get to know one another.

In case you need to pre-teach some key vocabulary, here is a great image with various daily routine activities to pop up onto the IWB, or you can have students brainstorm these types of activities and getting a running list going on the board.

This activity starts off with an individual writing exercise to get students warmed up and prepared to talk about their daily routine.  Each student is given a copy of this handout (or asked to draw something similar on a piece of paper).   On it is a circle representing a full day broken down into 24 hour slices.  Students are then asked to take a few minutes to jot down notes about what they typically do in a normal day.  Students can start on the circle with waking up in the morning, and continue around the circle noting the various activities that they do. If they typically sleep for 6 hours, they would mark 6 of the slices as “sleep.”  If they exercise for 1 hour in the morning, they note that. Encourage students to only jot down notes (words and phrases).  They may write in times if you choose to incorporate that skill into this exercise.

After filling in the visual organizer, students can pair up or speak in small groups about their day.  , When they are speaking with one another, they can flesh out what is on the visual aid in front of them in their dialogue.  Encourage students to have a conversation about these things — asking and answering questions about their daily routine.

For example,

A: I usually exercise before I get ready for work. Do you exercise in the morning too?

B: No, I don’t have time in the morning because I start work at 7 a.m., but I go to the gym after work three times a week. What kind of exercise do you do?

After students have had a chance to converse in small groups for 5-10 minutes or so, I usually like to wrap up this exercise with a whole-class discussion where students talk about some of the interesting things they have learned about one another, or activities they have in common with their classmates.

Please feel free to use this activity in your ESL classroom, and share your experiences in the comments section below!