Emailing in English is a very important skill for most students, as there are many more people who read and send loads of emails in L2 than there are people who spend most of the day in English language meetings. The language of emailing is also much more fixed than it is when negotiating or meeting foreign guests, and this makes lots of controlled practice of emailing language both necessary and worthwhile. Unlike speaking, your students’ mistakes will also stay on other people’s hard disks to be stored, forwarded, laughed at, or even unconsciously copied by other non-native speakers. There can also be problems of paragraphing, formality, cultural differences, vocabulary (e.g. BCC), collocations and punctuation.
With that brief introduction and the ideas below, I hope I can convince that a whole nother article on emailing games is worth your time and mine.
Students moving around, however little, can provide a nice change in an emailing class. It can also help to wake everyone up, and perhaps suit those for whom sitting down is the most difficult bit of studying. The simplest, if least active, way is to give students cut up emails to shuffle into the correct order. This could be a sequence of emails and replies, or a single email cut into segments consisting of single sentences, lines or paragraphs. To provide more of a challenge, you could give the students two or more emails that have been mixed up, and get them to both sort them out and arrange them into order by looking at content and language clues. For example, if you give them one cut up formal letter of complaint and one cut up informal email making arrangements it will include language like “I would be very grateful if you could resolve this problem at your earliest convenience” and “Sorry, meeting my girlfriend then. Wednesday?” They can therefore use both the level of formality and the type of email to divide the slips of paper into two groups, and then put each set of slips of paper into order to make two logical emails.
This sorting into order game can be made more physical by putting the separate bits of the email all around the room, e.g. by sticking them to the walls. This will force the students to walk round and round the room as they try to figure out the order of the segments. Note that in this case the task will need to be a fairly easy one, as they won’t be able to put the finished version together on their tables to check their answers.
Another task that involves a lot of walking around and can be easily adapted for emailing is a running dictation. This involves the person from each pair who is seated writing down what their standing partner is dictating. The text that they are dictating is on a page far away in the classroom or even outside in the hall, and the task is achieved by remembering as much as you can each time you read it and moving back and forth between your partner and the text – hence the name “running dictation”, although walking quickly is more common! This game works best if the person listening and writing has to do something more than just write the words down, e.g. work out which of the gaps in the emails each phrase that is dictated goes into or decide which sentence stem that they hear should go in at the beginning of each sentence that they have on their worksheet.
Another fun thing about running dictations is the challenge to complete it quickly. You can also use that fun aspect of speed while they are sitting comfortably in their chairs. The simplest way is to give them an email or sequence of emails and ask them to search for one thing as quickly as possible. I most often do this by asking them to search for one error (of formality, grammar, spelling, punctuation, or use of fixed phrases) in each email. You could also ask them to search for a time when both people are free to meet, or for the point at which a misunderstanding happened.
Emailing add errors
With errors, you can also ask students to add them themselves. Another team then looks at the email and tries to find the mistakes that have been added. This works best if each team has a different email to add errors to and they do so on computers, but with the spellchecker function off or printing out their finished pieces so that the errors aren’t marked automatically. You can also be more specific about how you want them to add the errors, e.g. adding extra words, taking out words, changing the spelling, changing parts of speech, only adding a certain number of errors, or adding one error to each line or sentence. In each case, they will have to make sure that each change does actually produce an error, rather than something that is different but also correct.
There are other fun sit down activities which are based on the original idea of dictation, most of which include working in pairs (unlike traditional dictation). One version is to give the same email to Student A and Student B, but with different errors put into different places in the two versions. Students read out their version to their partner until they find a difference, then discuss which version is correct and change the one with the mistake. By the end of the activity, their emails should be the same, and hopefully error-free. For example, Student A has “Thank you for your letter last week and sorry for my delay in write back” and Student B has “Thank for your letter in last week and sorry for my delay in writing back” and they must work together until both of theirs read “Thank you for your letter last week and sorry for my delay in writing back”.
Pairwork dictation tasks can also be used to liven up boring exercises on useful phrases for emailing. For example, if you want to do a split sentences exercise, give the two halves of the exercise to the two students and ask them to match them up by reading them out, without showing them to their partner. For example, Student A has “With reference…” and “We regret to inform…” and six to ten other sentence stems, and Student B has “…you that this item is temporarily out of stock” and “…to your email yesterday” and other matching endings. The same thing can be done with one student having gapped sentences and the other the missing words, and in fact almost any kind of basic workbook-style exercise.
Emailing card games
Perhaps the simplest game to adapt for emailing language is dominoes, with each domino having the end of one typical emailing phrase or collocation on the left hand side and the beginning of a different one on the right, e.g. “… not hesitate to contact me/ Yours…”. You will need a set of 20 to 30 dominoes.
You could design the set of dominoes so that they make a whole email when they are put together, but it is easier just to have a collection of the most useful phrases for your students. Students can work in groups of three or four and work together to make a whole circle from them and/ or play a real game of dominoes. For dominoes, students take seven cards each at the beginning of the game and play until one of them has used up all their cards, with extra cards being taken from the pack (if there are any left) if they can’t match any of the dominoes that they have in their hand.
Two other popular TEFL card games are Pelmanism and Snap, and not only can they be played with emailing language, both games can be played with just one set of cards. Create a set of cards that can be divided into two to six different groups. Examples include formal/ informal, starting emails/ ending emails/ middle of emails, requests/ offers, needs “a” in the gap/ needs “the”/ needs “any”/ needs “an”, and needs “at” in the gap/ needs “on”/ needs “in”/ needs “by”. Ask the students to work together to split the pack of cards into those groups, then to shuffle up the cards and spread them face down over the table. The aim of the Pelmanism game is to find two cards that belong in the same group, e.g. “I look forward _____ hearing from you” and “Please forward this ___________ your boss” are a set as they both need the preposition “to”. If the two cards that someone picks don’t match, they are put back in the same places face down. This game is also known as “pairs” or “the memory game”.
A more lively game that can be played after or instead of pelmanism is Snap. The whole pack is dealt out, but students can’t look at their own cards. Instead, they take turns quickly turning them over and putting them into two packs on the table. If the two cards at the top of those packs match at any time, e.g. the two cards that you can see face up on the table are “Dear Sir or Madam” and “Yours faithfully” (both formal), then the people playing race to shout out “Snap!” first, in which case they can take all the cards on the table and add them to their pack. If anyone shouts “Snap” when the cards don’t match, they have to give two of their own cards to each player in the game as a punishment. The person with the most cards at the end of the game is the winner.
Disappearing and appearing
A nice memory game for emailing is to write a very short email or part of an email on the board and delete it word by word. Ask one student to read out the whole thing and choose one word to delete from the text. The next student should then read out the whole thing including the missing word, and nominate the next word to disappear. This continues until the whole text has been wiped off, so that students are saying the whole thing from memory. They can also play the same game in pairs by giving them the text written in a Word document table, with one word per box. Instead of deleting the words, they cover them with little pieces of paper until the whole text is hidden. If you give them a blank table, they can also write their own text for another team to play the same game with. In any version of the game, you could ask them to cover or delete each example of the word that they choose (e.g. all the examples of “is” at one go), or just one. With the version on the board, it is also possible for them to delete the text letter by letter (e.g. every E in the text if they pick that letter), in a kind of reverse Hangman.
You can also play games where the text appears letter by letter or word by word. One is Hangman, but with a common emailing collocation, phrase or sentence rather than just a word. With a longer piece of text, they could say words that they think might be in it somewhere (e.g. “a”, “thank” or “dear”) rather than just letters. It is also possible (and perhaps more useful) to play both versions of hangman from beginning to end. If you are doing it letter by letter, the person who starts tries to guess the first letter and when the teacher writes it up they can check if they were correct or not. The next person then tries to guess the next letter, etc. The good thing about this game is that students don’t get stuck or spend a lot of time shouting out random letters, as often happens in Hangman. The same thing can be done word by word, e.g. the first student correctly guessing that the first word is “I”, the second student guessing “look” but “would” being written up, the third student correctly guessing that the next word is “like”, etc.
There is another popular word game where words appear one by one which can be adapted for emailing language, the one in which students aim to continue a sentence without bringing it to a close. The students take turns adding one word on the end, and if at any time they think it is impossible to continue, the sentence they can challenge the last student to speak. If that person can in fact continue the sentence, they get a point. If they can’t, the challenger gets a point. For example, if the students have come up with the words “I” “look” “forward” “to” “hearing” “from” “you” “soon” and the next person thinks that it can’t be continued and so challenges the previous person, that person can get a point by adding something like “and having a long a productive business relationship”.
Although most of the ideas in these two articles have been games, it can just as interesting and useful to discuss the topic of emailing. One discussion-based speaking task I often do is to ask students to decide on a company email policy. I put some useful emailing language into this by giving them possible policies with emailing vocab in for them to discuss, e.g. the useful expression CC in “You should CC your direct boss into all emails that you send” (not a good idea!) You can add more useful language by setting the original task in an email from their boss asking them to work on this policy. Alternatively, you could give them an example of an email that does everything wrong for them to use as source of ideas for things that they should stop their employees doing.
In all discussions, you should make sure that there is no one correct answer, because otherwise they might feel that they are wasting their time talking about something for 15 minutes when you could have given them the answer in 30 seconds.
These ideas are neither as fun as games nor as lively as a discussion, but have their own quiet intellectual challenge that lots of students seem to like. Challenges that will keep them busy and be useful include shortening an email as much as possible without changing the formality or meaning, adding as many words from a list as possible the email without changing the meaning, changing to a completely different kind of email while changing as few words as possible, changing as many words as possible without changing the meaning, and swapping words between two emails.
I hope that I have given you enough ideas in these two articles to be able to spend exactly as much class time on emailing as your students need. In my next article I will look at how to combine emailing practice with useful language for that other vital skill of international communication – telephoning. I will then look at some games and other activities that are specifically designed to help with that most stressful kind of speaking in a foreign language.
An edited version of this was first published in Modern English Teacher. Exclusively republished here with permission of the author (me!) and publisher. Part One is here and many of the games explained here are available as worksheets here.