Teaching Practical Skills: Using the Phone in English

Phone skills are a necessity. Let’s face it. Even when one makes a phone call in his or her native language, there are plenty of reasons why misunderstandings and awkward moments can occur: a poor connection, a speaker who rambles, lack of etiquette… Dealing with these problems in a foreign language only adds to the stress. As their teachers, we can prepare students for a variety of phone conversations and, in general, build their confidence to communicate over the phone. To this end, here are some suggestions:

  • If you’re in an English-speaking country, you can listen to automated phone systems in the classroom. Borrow a phone and use one of the school’s lines or use your own cell phone. Just be sure the speaker is loud and clear. Choose the kinds of places that students may have to call on their own: a doctor’s office, a theater, an airline company, a municipal office, etc. Before the lesson, you’ll have to listen to the recording(s) on your own to become familiar with the organization and content of the menu. Prepare questions in advance such as: “Listen to this recording for a doctor’s office and tell me what extension we need to talk to a nurse.” – or – “Okay. So we’ve just heard all the theater information. Did you hear what time the ticket office is open on the weekend?” Give the students the phone numbers you used during the lesson and encourage them to listen on their own one more time.
  • Another way students can gain free, authentic practice on the phone in an English-speaking country is not to hang up on telemarketers. Back in the traditional school setting, I used to encourage my students to stay on the line when they received such calls. I told them to listen to the pitch and ask questions for clarification and details. I gave them useful expressions like: “I’m sorry. I’m still not clear how your service works.” I stressed the importance of not giving out any personal information, and I recommended that when they got tired of the exercise they could end the conversation politely yet firmly: “Well, thank you. I appreciate the information, but right now I’m not interested. Good-bye.”
  • Even if you’re not in an English-speaking country, you can still help your students become more comfortable speaking on the phone in English. One assignment we had in my second year of Japanese at Haverford College was to speak to another classmate on a weekly basis over the phone. I think this is effective practice while learning any foreign language. There was a minimum number of minutes we had to chat. We also had to report to the teacher in writing what the topic(s) of conversation were. Partners don’t have to be best friends. The idea is to practice phone etiquette and generate real conversation in the target language. From start to finish the call must be in English. The more frequently this assignment is done, the less awkward students will feel communicating in the target language over the phone.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Lucy says:

    Many of my one-on-one private English lessons consist of a weekly 20 minute phone call to my students. Not only does this give us the opportunity to catch up on more difficult material, it’s also the place where we practice work-related scenarios and role-plays. Both their listening skills and functional vocabulary are enhanced. My students often tell me how practical and useful these phone lessons are because they are able to simulate real situations that they face during their workday. Thanks for the interesting post.

  2. Pingback: Don’t Hang Up!

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