Presenting key phrases


Let’s take a very familiar situation. You have a coursebook page dealing with one of the communication skills (eg Telephoning, Social English, Meetings) and somewhere on the page there is a ‘language box’ containing key phrases, grouped according to function.

The writers will probably start with a warmer for the content and then have an exercise such as tick the phrases from the box you hear in a listening, or fill in the gaps from a phrase while listening. Then, to complete the activity, there’s a role-play at the bottom of the page where the students can use the new phrases, referring to the language box if they want to.

Just one problem. They almost never use the new phrases. What they do is use the phrases they already know, and these will be close to direct translations from their L1. Why? Because they need time and practice to go from initial noticing of a new phrase to spontaneous production in speech. To get from A to B requires weeks/months/years, and some additional practice and further noticing in-between. Of course there are a few good language learners who can indeed produce a new phrase during a role play even though their minds are absorbed in the content of the activity, but they are a tiny minority.

But all is not lost. Students can be helped to produce the phrases more quickly, and more accurately, by activities such as those below. They are all appropriate for the first contact between student and phrase – the presentation/awareness phase. I have made a separate post in the ‘Revision; Feedback’ section of the site with activities more appropriate for later practice and recycling.

If you don’t do something along these lines, then in all probability the phrases in the language box will just vanish from the student’s minds like early morning mist, never to leave a trace of their evanescent presence. And this is particularly true for those that are furthest from a direct translation of L1.

Activity 1


Very simple but very effective.

First model the phrase by saying it yourself a couple of times.

Then do choral repetition T-Group, T-Group, with you conducting the repetition with a sweep of your hand round the room.

Do this for all the phrases in the list, and do it 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.

Activity 2

Students write a 10-line mini dialogue, using as many of the phrases as possible

Before you move on to the activity that the phrases are intended for, first ask the students to work in pairs to write a 10-line mini-dialogue that uses as many of the phrases as possible.

You’ll need to brainstorm a context first with the class: What is the background to this dialogue? What are the names of the people speaking? What are they talking about? Then they work in pairs to write their dialogues, and at the end read them out.

The whole thing is meant to be quick and fun, and just gives a chance for students to process the phrases first (writing, speaking, listening to others) before the coursebook role-play begins.

Activity 3

As above, with a flow-chart to guide

Sketch a quick ‘dialogue building’ flow-chart on the board first, using the function names from the coursebook. Just improvise the flowchart – it’s usually easy to do as the order that the functions appear in the ‘useful language’ phrase box will be more or less the same as they appear in discourse. Here’s an example for ‘Discussions’:

Once you’ve written it on the board, emphasize that students should use this as a guide, and it is fine if they add lines, adapt it etc.

In older-style books such flow-charts (‘dialogue building’) were often given for controlled speaking practice. But that never worked in my lessons. I found that it took too long – in speech – for the students to process the name of the function, find the heading with the same name in the language box, choose a phrase from those given, speak it, and then complete the rest of the phrase with their own ideas. The activity usually collapsed. So now I use the same kind of flow charts as a writing exercise in pairs, with speaking involved as well because St. A collaborates with St. B re content. Then when the dialogue is prepared in written form, A and B can speak it aloud in front of the class. It’s fun to listen to other people’s dialogues – and hearing the phrases several times with attention helps to fix them in memory as well.

One Comment


Activity 3; why it works for me:

“It’s about communication, not perfection.”

Over the years I’ve found myself repeating this statement to everyone including myself. I dread when other’s expect it of me and I sure can’t expect it from my Ss. Would I even recognize it if I heard it?

Keeping this in mind, I try to complement the skill-set, learner type and personality Ss already bring to the table with functional language. I want them to appreciate why functional language belongs in THEIR PERSONAL toolbox, not some perfect toolbox.

For example:

One really interesting group consists of 4 Ss with a normal mixture of learning styles but different professions. Then behold, Patrick who is a classic read-write. It’s not uncommon for him to quote from Cambridge Grammar of English during a lesson. Yes it’s a bit weird at times but hey, he’s great when I’m trying to elicit.

So giving each the chance to craft and RP(real play) their own functional dialogs based on the crisp framework, as mentioned in Activity 3, keeps things realistic; even for Patrick.

Otherwise RP = robot play.

Thanks Paul!


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