Social English Throw The Ball! (yes, that’s right, with business people)


I did my initial teacher training (CELTA) in Lisbon in 1991 and the students who we practised on were General English late teens/young adults. Oh how I longed to get away from that forced high-energy jollity and teach serious professional people with interesting lives and jobs. And the one activity that summed up all that I disliked about that kind of teaching was throwing a ball around the room for various ‘fun’ activities.

Then, last summer, a teacher trainee (Hi Malek) suggested exactly this as the best zero-preparation, non-materials Social English activity he knew. He taught pre-experience, but was sure it would work in-work as well. We demo-ed it in the TT session and it was absolutely brilliant. The reason is this: a huge part of Social English is just two-line A/B dialogues, and the nature of throwing a ball is that A throws to B, who becomes the new A and so on. It’s perfect for spontaneously generated two-line dialogues that generate lexis for later feedback.

I have subsequently tried it with a small group of serious, in-work, middle-aged Germans – the typical student profile in the language school where I work. Okay, I didn’t ask them to stand up, but they did throw something randomly to each other (a crumpled up piece of paper that looked vaguely like a ball). They really enjoyed it, and I noticed that their attention levels during the activity were very high – they listened closely to A’s opening line in case the ball was thrown to them, and really worked hard to produce an accurate and interesting and appropriate reply (they were ‘on show’ language-wise to the class and me).

Trust me. As long as you yourself are confident and don’t apologize for the activity beforehand, your students will love it, no matter how businessy they are.


1  Write on the board ‘Social English two-line dialogues’ to let them know what’s going to happen and establish the face validity of what you are going to do.

2 Take a piece of paper and crumple it up into a ball in front of the students. This will get their interest. Then, with no further explanation, look a student straight in the eye and say in a friendly way (perhaps with slightly exaggerated energy) ‘Hi! How are you! It’s great to see you again!’ Then throw the ball of paper to them.

3 They will of course reply, and everyone will laugh. Don’t respond content-wise or language-wise, just say: ‘Now you greet someone’. They say a first line and throw the ball randomly to another student. Just indicate with your body language if they don’t get what to do.

4 Let the activity go on for just a few more turns, then go up to the board and write up all the A/B dialogues. Don’t do this from your own memory: ask the students to remember what they themselves said, and they can all join in with this. They might self-correct as they go, and before you write up a final version on the board you can certainly elicit improvements and alternatives from them as well as feeding in your own language suggestions.

5 Build up a set of good, appropriate, A/B dialogues on the board.

6 Now say the first one again yourself and throw the ball of paper again – this time to a different student. They reply – probably with the corrected/developed phrase on the board, but maybe more spontaneously. That’s fine. Indicate for them to continue with the second opening line on the board and then throw the paper again. And they continue until all the mini-dialogues on the board have been practised.

7 Leave time for them to make notes.


Each ’round’ of this activity needs to be kept within the same topic. The one above was ‘Greetings’. You can return to exactly the same activity in another lesson with a new topic. Here are some obvious ones:

  • At the airport: welcoming a visitor
  • At a meeting: small talk before ‘getting down to business’
  • At a conference: introducing yourself to a stranger
  • At a conference: networking over canapés
  • At the hotel: guest to receptionist on arrival
  • At the hotel: guest to hotel staff during the stay
  • At the restaurant: looking at the menu
  • At the restaurant: filling in time between ordering and waiting for the food (you are all still not very relaxed)
  • At the restaurant: chatting about (CHOOSE ONE) travel/free time/home/city/country/jobs/sport/current affairs during the meal (you are now more relaxed)
  • At the restaurant: leaving and saying goodbye

The activity might be an end in itself – perhaps just quickly reviewing Social English phrases at the start of every lesson before getting on to something else – or can be a nice warmer for a coursebook unit on topics like those above.