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