'Can I just interrupt for a moment?' / 'I'm sorry, I didn't catch that'.
These are key phrases for communication skills. BE is full of them. They need revision if students are to remember and use them.
I’ll look into it right now and get back to you.
Let me read that back.
I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.
Can you be a little more specific?
Let’s move on to the next slide.
The horizontal axis shows … and the vertical axis shows …
All the above are key phrases used in business communication. Our coursebooks
have lists of them, organized by function. So:
• The first two might appear in a unit on Telephoning, and their function names
might be ‘Dealing with a problem’ and ‘Checking the details of a message’.
• The second two might appear in a unit on Meetings, and their function names
might be ‘Asking for repetition’ and ‘Asking for more information’.
• The third two might appear in a unit on Presentations, and their function
names might be ‘Changing to a new slide’ and ‘Referring to a chart’.
This is the heart of Business English.
The phrases, with their function names, are displayed on the coursebook page in
a ‘language box’. There is a short heads-down exercise to practice the phrases.
But … when it comes to the role-play that follows at the bottom of the page, the
students don’t use the phrases. Instead, they use other phrases they already
know that are close to direct translations from their L1.
We know why. Because:
a) Students need time and practice to go from initial noticing of a new phrase to
spontaneous production in speech. A student’s brain has to physically alter (grow
synapses and connections, whatever) so that new language is first retained
passively and then used automatically.
b) While speaking, a student’s brain is busy: thinking about the content of the
task, planning what to say, saying it, listening to others. Students don’t have much
attention left for thinking about new phrases presented to them just now.
But all is not lost.
Students can be helped to produce the key phrases more quickly, and more
accurately, by activities such as those in this slideshow. They are all ways to revise
and recycle key phrases. They give one more turn in memory. They make later
noticing of the same language in the real world more likely. They bring acquisition
one step closer.
If you don’t do something along these lines, then in all probability the phrases in
the coursebook language box will just vanish from the student’s minds like early
morning mist. And this is particularly true for those that are furthest from a direct
translation of L1.
One proviso: yes, we have all met excellent language learners who really can
produce vocabulary after only one exposure. But they are a small minority.
Activity 1: drilling
Very simple but very effective.
1. First model the phrase by saying it yourself a couple of times.
2. Then say ‘Listen and Repeat’. Do choral repetition T-Group, T-Group, with you
conducting the repetition with a sweep of your hand round the room.
3. Do this before the students see the phrases (i.e. books still closed or handouts
not yet given). Drilling is an activity for listening and inward focus on
pronunciation, not reading aloud.
Note: you need whole phrases, not ones that end in ‘dot dot dot’. So you need Can you put
me through to technical support, please? and not Can you put me through to …? If you
have a ‘dot dot dot’ in your list of phrases you’ll have to make up a simple end to the
Activity 2: write a dialogue
Students reconstruct a RP in written form, using some of the new language.
1. Students do the task that follows the presentation of the phrases as normal
(usually a role-play at the bottom of the page).
2. After the RP, what they actually said becomes a context for a written
consolidation. Working in the same pairs, the students reconstruct their
dialogue, or at least a summary of it, in writing. The details don’t matter – it’s
not a memory exercise – but they should try to use some of the phrases
presented in the coursebook at the top of the page.
3. At the end the pairs read aloud their dialogues.
Note: the whole thing is meant to be fun, and the written dialogue gives you a
chance to work on other aspects of language, not just the key phrases.
Activity 3: word deletion
1. Write up on the board some numbered key phrases (perhaps from the last
lesson). For example, some phrases for beginning and ending a telephone call,
or writing an email, or developing an argument in a meeting.
2. Point to the first phrase. Say it yourself first as a model then conduct choral
repetition with your hand (a quick sweep round the room).
3. Now wipe out a word or two, leaving a blank space on the board but with
most of the phrase still showing. This time you can’t model first because you’ll
say the missing words, so just use the quick sweep action around the room to
conduct a choral chant. The students say the whole phrase.
4. Continue wiping out words, one or two at a time, followed by choral chanting.
Soon all the words will be gone and there will be a completely blank space on
the board. But the students will still be able to chant the phrase.
4. Move on to the second phrase on the board. Repeat as above, progressively
deleting words. Continue until the students have successfully chanted this
phrase while looking at the completely blank space on the board.
5. Now go back and point at where the first phrase was written. Give yet another
sweep of your hand. The fact that students can still chant phrase #1 even
though the space is blank should provoke laughter.
6. Continue like this. After each new phrase is completely deleted, go back and
randomly revise all the phrases so far. At the end all you have left is the
numbers down the left hand side and all the phrases wiped out. As you point
randomly to the spaces and the students chant the phrases you will get a lot
Activity 4: elicit to the board
Do the coursebook exercises that introduce the key phrases as normal. But then,
the next time you do a role-play that requires the phrases, have the students try
to remember the phrases they saw in the book.
1. The students have their books closed. You have yours open to refer to.
Say: Who can remember a telephoning phrase for ‘Asking for repetition’? They
try to remember – eg a phrase such as ‘I’m sorry I didn’t catch that’. You write
up any phrases they suggest. Reformulate mistakes as you go. If the students
come up with other phrases, not from the original list, that’s fine.
Note: I personally don’t think it’s necessary to write up the function names on
the board. Your question to the students named the function, and I think that
2. Continue until you’ve revised all the functional areas from the original list.
Try eliciting with a situation rather than a function name.
‘Can you give me a phrase for disagreeing?’
‘It is a large meeting and the people don’t know each other very well. Someone
says the project will need a budget of €1 million. You think it will need much more
- €2 million. What do you say?’
Activity 5: reorder words
This is an improvised classroom version of a workbook favourite. It’s zero
preparation, but I suggest you get to the room a few minutes early and write up
the phrases on the board before the students come in.
1. Write up all the phrases on the board, with jumbled word order.
2. The students work in pairs to write them with the correct word order.
3. Finish with some spoken consolidation. Here’s an activity that does this:
• Working individually, students look down at the first phrase on their paper,
try to remember it silently, then close their eyes and look up. They speak
the phrase aloud, privately and in a low voice, with their eyes still closed.
Ask them to ‘read’ the phrase in their mind’s eye.
• They move on one by one to the other phrases.
Activity 6: exploit the audio script
At the back of most books there is a script of the coursebook audio.
It’s a great resource, and very underused by teachers.
• After listening and doing the book exercises, simply ask students to look at the
script and underline all the useful phrases. That’s a simple noticing exercise.
They can compare with a partner and see if they got the same phrases.
• Photocopy the script, get out your corrector fluid, and blank out key words.
Photocopy again (try not to leave white fluid on the glass plate – we’ve all been
there). Can the students guess the missing words? Play the audio to check.
Activity 7: Hot Seat & Hangman
There are two classic games that work well with key phrases.
One student sits at the front of the class, in the Hot Seat, their back to the board
so they can’t see it. All the other students are facing the board. You write up a key
phrase – one the students have already seen. The group has to make the student
in the Hot Seat say the exact words on the board. They can give clues, synonyms,
explanations but cannot actually say the words. You will have to join in
occasionally as a clue-giver when things get stuck.
You know this. Dashes for letters. Students guess a right letter, write it in all
through. They guess a wrong letter, one more line on the hangman.
Next up are five activities using phrase cards.
You need to first prepare sets of cards with one phrase per card.
• Make a grid in Word or Powerpoint
• Type in the phrases from the coursebook, supplemented by any
other phrases of your own
• Print out several copies to make several sets
• Cut along the lines to make the cards
In my staffroom you see many teachers emptying out envelopes
with their well-used phrase cards held together with paper clips.
Activity 8: phrase cards I
Role-Play: each student with a set of phrases
1. Start with any RP (eg Meetings/Telephoning/Negotiating). Distribute a set of
cards to each student before the RP, and ask the students to lay them out,
face-up. Before doing the RP, the students can quickly ‘self-drill’ to bring the
phrases into awareness. I.e. they read each card in turn and quietly say the
phrase to themselves a few times.
2. Now set up and run the role-play in the normal way, but at the start say to the
students that you’d like them to use some of the phrases during the activity, at
appropriate moments. They turn over the card face-down once they’ve
spoken the phrase.
Activity 9: phrase cards II
Role-Play: one pile of phrase cards in the middle of the table
1. Put a set of phrase cards in a pile in the middle of the table. Just before the RP
begins, students draw three cards randomly.
2. The students have to speak those particular three phrases at an appropriate
moment in the RP. Once spoken, they put the card back into the pile in a
random position and draw another so that they always have three in front of
Activity 10: phrase cards III
Translation Game (monolingual classes)
1. Prepare cards with a key phrase on one side, and its translation in the L1
(mother tongue) on the back.
2. Put the students into groups of three and give each group a set of cards. To
begin they can take as long as they want looking at both sides of the cards,
memorizing whatever they are able to.
3. Now start the game. Turn all the cards L1 side up. Student A points at a card
and tries to say its English equivalent. They turn the card over, and if it is
exactly correct they take it and win a point. If incorrect, they leave the card
showing – English side up – and it is out of the game until the next round.
4. Continue round the group until all the cards are taken.
Activity 11: phrase cards IV
Match phrases that have the same function
1. Prepare cards as usual, but make sure that there are always pairs of cards so
that there are two different cards for each function. For example, two
phrases for agreeing, two for disagreeing, two for interrupting. etc.
2. Put the students into groups of three and give each group a set of cards. The
aim of the game is to find the two phrases that have the same function.
3. The game starts with all the cards blank side up. Student A turns over two
cards, hoping to find two phrases that ‘match’. If they do, they keep the cards
and win a point. If they don’t, they replace the cards blank side up. Continue
round the group until all the cards are taken.
Note: I write the functions (agreeing, disagreeing, etc) on the board first, as
otherwise the concept of ‘matching functions’ is too abstract.
Activity 12: phrase cards V
Students write their own phrase cards
Why should you always write the cards? The students can write their own. Ask
them to copy the phrases from the coursebook onto slips of paper.
This gives you zero preparation and is quite a nice ‘noticing’ activity for the
students: the act of writing the phrases helps them remember.
Thanks for reading.
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