For many learners using the telephone in English is a particularly nerve-wracking experience. As well as all the standard "telephone phrases" learners need strategies for getting a failing interaction to work. Here are some ideas for confidence-building in class.

  1. Hollywood calls

    These are one-sided calls such as you see in films (when you know that the actor engaged in a dramatic dialogue is really talking to an empty phone). Hand out role cards to students (e.g. "Someone calls your software company asking for help with his anti-virus program but it's not actually your firm's product!") Give learners about 10 minutes to write, then perform their Hollywood call (complete with pauses!). It provides good practice in telephone language without the pressure. Decide which is funniest, most dramatic, most convincing etc. Replay them and the class must work out the other half of the dialogue.

  2. Stop messages

    One of the most useful things for a learner to know are 'stop messages' - ways to interrupt the flow, to ask the speaker on the other end of the line to pause or slow down (because it's too fast and comprehension is minimal). You could teach some polite ones (e.g. "Sorry. Just a minute." Or “Hang on. That’s rather fast for me.”) as well as some funnier ones (e.g. "Whooah!" or "Hold your horses. I can't keep up"). Practise interrupting each other.

  3. Walk the talk

    Many teachers arrange students' seats back to back for telephone practice (to replicate the lack of eye contact) though students often seem to dislike it! An unusual alternative is to get learners to use telephone phrases in a face-to-face meeting. First tell the class to imagine that when they make a call they actually travel down the line to the other end! Get your class to stand up, hand out a list of telephone phrases and then ask them to walk around, mingle, meet people, get 'put through', get wrong numbers etc. but using only 'telephone language' throughout. This practice is a little odd, but the change from standard format may be funny and liberating and reduce some of the usual stress.

  4. Echo

    This useful technique is a great way to slow a fast speaker down and check comprehension. The listener interrupts at the end of every sentence (or stretch) and repeats the message back to the speaker (possibly including exact words) with or without introductory sentence heads such as "So, you're saying... ". Practise this in class using pair work (everything the speaker says is echoed by the listener).

  5. Unexpected answerphones

    Getting an answering machine rather a human seems to shock everyone! Prepare a pack of cards where the majority say 'live' but with a few having an answerphone sentence (e.g. “Sorry I’m not in. Please leave a message.”). Whenever you practise telephone conversations, the student role-playing the receiver picks a random card. If it says 'live', the exercise proceeds normally. If it has an answerphone line, they read that instead, 'beep' and start timing one minute for the speaker to leave their message.