Scott Thornbury gives us some great tips and ideas for building dialogue in speaking activities.


The best classroom activities are those that not only require minimal materials but can also be adapted to a range of circumstances and levels. Most importantly, however, they are also very productive. For example, the Find someone who...format is an activity type that scores highly in achieving maximal output through minimal means.

What other generic activity types score equally highly – especially with regard to developing speaking proficiency? Traditionally, freer speaking is often practised by means of dialogues, role plays and discussions. In this section we will look at the way dialogues can be constructed out of virtually nothing.

Dialogue building

The following was the first technique that I learnt to adapt to any level and any lesson, and it stood me in good stead both as a novice teacher and as a Director of Studies. This is because it is an ideal 'stand-by' lesson, i.e. one you can do without preparation when substituting for an absent colleague. The basic format goes like this:

1. Establish the situation using drawings of (usually two) stick figures on the board. Ask questions to elicit the situation based on visual clues in the picture, such as: Where are they? Who are they? Do they know each other?  etc. As an example, a picture of someone standing behind a desk with a key rack behind them, addressing someone on the other side of the desk who has a large suitcase, is all you need to establish a 'hotel reception' situation. Speech bubbles complete the scenario.

Having established a context and a purpose for the exchange, e.g. 'the man wants a room for the night', start to elicit the conversation, line-by-line. Depending on the level of the students – as well as the predictability of the dialogue – you can pre-script this in advance, so that you have a clear idea of the dialogue you want to build. Alternatively, you can simply construct it as you go along, on the basis of what the students come up with. A hotel reception dialogue is one which – in most cultural contexts – follows a fairly predetermined script, and therefore should not require a lot of 'scripting' on the part of the teacher. A dialogue between two friends meeting by chance in the street, on the other hand, may require some pre-scripting, since there are so many possible conversational outcomes once the initial greetings have been dealt with. I find it best to have some rough idea of how I want the dialogue to go, but, in general, I am prepared to adapt the script according to what the students themselves suggest.

2. Elicit the first line of the dialogue. In the hotel reception scenario, it might be the receptionist saying: Good morning. Can I help you?  Drill each line of dialogue both chorally and individually, correcting where necessary and insisting on natural-sounding rhythm and intonation. It helps if students are familiar with the question Where’s the stress?  (In this case, it’s on the word help). It is important for drilling purposes that the 'lines' of the dialogue are short – not more than about eight to ten words. Anything longer may need to be segmented, preferably into tone groups.

3. Elicit the subsequent lines of the dialogue. If necessary, give some kind of pictoral clue reminding the class of what needs to be said, if this has already been established in the first stage. 

4. Now, put the lines together. (This is why the technique is called 'dialogue building'). For example, take the role of the receptionist yourself, select a student to take the role of the guest, and together perform the first two lines of the dialogue.

5. Repeat this with one or two more students, then reverse the direction of the exchange, for example delegating a student to be the receptionist while you take the guest’s role.

6. Now it’s time to hand it over to the students. While the rest of the class listen, two students (preferably sitting on opposite sides of the classroom, in order to ensure audibility to all) enact the two-line exchange. This is called open pairs. Then two more, and so on.

7. When you think the class is ready, ask them all to practise the exchange with their neighbour. This is called closed pairs. Monitor and correct. The complete sequence can be represented like this:

1. teacher – student.
2. student – teacher.
3. student – student (open pairs)
4. student – student (closed pairs)

An alternative to the open pairs is to divide the class into two halves, and each half choruses its part of the exchange: this works best with young learners.

Of course, the whole process need not be so elaborate, especially if only two lines are in play. But, as the dialogue grows, this basic format will ensure that even quite lengthy exchanges are memorized and practised successfully.

8. Continue building the dialogue, line by line. The hotel reception dialogue might continue like this, for example:

Good morning. Can I help you?

Yes, I’d like a room for the night.

A single or a double?

I’d like a single room with a bath.

9. Using the interaction model outlined in stage 7 above, practise the dialogue cumulatively at each stage when there is an even number of lines (i.e. four, six, eight, etc). It may help students to remember the content and sequence of the exchanges if you provide some kind of word or picture prompt on the board, in descending order. A sketch of a single and a double bed, for example, will remind them that the receptionist’s next line is: A single or a double?  A sketch of a window through which the horizon and a ship is visible will help both to elicit and remember the guest’s line: I’d like a room with a view of the sea.

10.  When the dialogue has been constructed and practised, ask one or two pairs of students to perform it in front of the class. Knowing that this is a standard part of the dialogue-building sequence may encourage students to take the pairs practice stage more seriously.

11.  Finally, elicit the dialogue back from the students and write it on to the board, so that learners have a copy to take away.


Disappearing dialogue
Write a six–eight line dialogue on the board and ask learners to read it aloud then practise it in pairs. Next, gradually erase words and whole lines from the dialogue. Learners continue practising, each time having to remember more and more of the disappearing dialogue until there is nothing left on the board at all.

Write one participant’s half of a dialogue on the board, e.g. the overheard part of a telephone conversation. Working together, learners have to reconstruct the original conversation. They then practise and perform it.

Once the original dialogue has been learnt and practised, ask learners to adapt it by changing some of the key information but still retaining the basic outline. For example, in the case of the hotel dialogue, ask them to change the number of nights, the type of room, the facilities that the hotel offers, etc.

Once the original dialogue has been learnt and practised, ask one of the learners to come to the front of the class and perform the dialogue with you. But instead of following the memorized script, respond to the learner unexpectedly. For example, where in the original the receptionist answered the guest’s request, I’d like a single room with a bath, by saying, Certainly, you could say: I’m afraid we don’t have any single rooms with a bath. The student then has to improvise an appropriate response, and, if unable to, the rest of the class can be asked to suggest one. Students can then be asked to improvise in pairs.

Students’ own dialogues
After stage 1 (establish the situation), ask learners – working in pairs or small groups – to write their own dialogue based on the situation. Monitor this task, providing suggestions and correcting errors. Students then practise their dialogues until they are ready to perform them to the class.

Vocabulary review
As in the previous variation, students collaboratively write and perform their own dialogues, but they have to include a certain number of words or expressions that they have been previously taught, e.g. six words from a list of twelve that are connected with the theme of crime/sport/politics, etc.