Leave A Message At The Beep: 5 Simple Activities To Help Improve Your ESL Students’ Phone Skills

Leave A Message At The Beep
5 Simple Activities To Help Improve Your ESL Students’ Phone Skills

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 6,723 views |

Believe it or not, using a telephone can be one of the most challenging language skills an ESL student needs to learn.

At first, talking on the phone might seem like a challenge because the sounds come through wires and speakers. And while that does have some impact on a nonnative speaker’s ability to communicate successfully over the phone, what makes phone conversations hardest to master is not having the other person in the room. Researcher and writer Dr. Albert Mehrabian determined through his research that 55% of communication is nonverbal. That means a huge part of communication doesn’t depend on what words were said or how they were said. This communication comes though body language, and that is precisely what is missing in a phone conversation. Without this major source of information, ESL students talking on the phone have to work extra hard to successfully understand and be understood. And that is precisely why you should practice phone conversations in your classroom.

Try These 5 Activities Using the Phone for Your ESL Students

  1. 1

    Phoning with a Point

    Certain skills are particularly useful during phone conversations such as asking for clarification, putting someone on hold, ending a conversation, and giving a reason you cannot speak at that moment. Challenge your students to use one or more of these skills during a phone call roleplay. As two students talk back to back, award each person one point for every time they use the target structure you choose provided it hasn’t been used already in that conversation. If you like, set up two teams in your class and give everyone a chance to have a conversation awarding a point to the person in each pair with more successful phrases used. Then add up the points for each team and see which one came out on top.

  2. 2

    Leave a Message at the Beep

    How often do you call someone only to get their voicemail instead? It’s a fact of life in today’s world. You have to be ready before every phone call to leave a message. Have a class discussion about what information is important to include in a voicemail message and under what circumstances you might need to leave that information. For example, you would leave different and more specific information on your doctor’s voicemail than you would on your best friend’s. As your class discusses what information you might have to leave on voicemail and how you might leave that information, make a list on your board. Then ask groups of students to work together to compose the voice mail answering message someone might hear when they call the doctor’s office, a restaurant, a friend’s phone, and some other numbers they might call. Then have groups work together to roleplay a phone call. Instead of someone answering the phone, the caller will get the voice mail greeting. He or she should then leave an appropriate message. Record these roleplays and have students review them afterward, noting the strengths and weaknesses in each.

  3. 3

    Can I Take a Message?

    Not every phone call will end up with a voicemail message. Sometimes you get through to a speaker, but you still can’t talk to the person you want. That is when taking and leaving a message comes into play. Give your students some practice taking messages with this simple activity. Point out to students the three important factors in taking a message – who called, that person’s phone number, and the reason for their call. Give students a scenario – calling the doctor’s office, calling a celebrity, calling a friend at home, etc. – and have them role play the person making the call. Have another person roleplay the person answering the phone. (If you like have each pair pull a scenario from a hat or roll a die to determine which setup they must role play.) In this case, the person who answers the phone is not the person the caller is trying to reach. The person who answered then gets to practice his or her skills at taking a message. Be sure you have your students sit back to back for these conversations. Also point out that callers may need to spell their information for the person who answered.

  4. 4

    Let’s Order In

    This is a particularly fun activity to do when you are covering a unit on food. Have students roleplay ordering takeout from a restaurant. Put students in groups of three or four, and have each group work together to create a menu for their fictional restaurant. Each entry on the menu must have a food name as well as a short description of what is in each dish. Students can then write the name of each dish on an index card, print out a picture of their dish, or draw a picture of each dish. Keep a stack of these cards in the “kitchen” for each restaurant. Each group works with another group during the role play. One group will be ordering food from the second group’s restaurant. Two people roleplay the phone call, and the caller places an order for all the members of his or her group. That group must then compile the order and deliver the food to the other group by collecting the correct cards from their kitchen and then bringing the cards to the first group. The first group should check the order to make sure they got what they wanted and ordered. If there is a mistake in the order, the first group will have to call the restaurant back and straighten out the order. You can have every group order from every other group or just give each group one turn at ordering and answering. Give a prize to the group who makes the fewest mistakes when delivering their orders, or celebrate everyone’s success with a food day for the class.

  5. 5

    What Did He Say?

    Part of understanding a phone conversation is understanding what the person on the other end of the line says. This isn’t always clear, so this activity is a type of information gap which allows students to practice their inference skills. For this activity, record yourself or someone else having a conversation on the phone. The conversation can be about anything, but it’s especially useful if the conversation ties into whatever unit you are studying in class. When you make the recording, make sure it is one-sided. That is, only record yourself speaking on the phone and not the person on the other end of the line. Then play the video for your students a few times. Challenge them to guess what the person on the other end of the line said during the conversation, the times when you were quiet. After students have made an initial guess, point out clues in what you said that they could use to make an educated guess at the words of the other person. Finally, reveal what the second speaker said in the conversation and see how close your students got to what was actually said.

There’s no doubt that it’s important to practice talking on the phone when you are learning the English language.

These activities are fun and simple and will help prepare your students for telephone conversations in the real world.

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