Getting more complex language from your students Part Two

The follow up to this article, also published in English Teaching Professional.

Given the likelihood that your students often communicate with people who have a lower level of English than they do, there is much to be said for even intermediate-level students  getting some practice in simplifying their language in order to accommodate the people they are speaking to. However, even in the “English as a Lingua Franca” world in which we live, I still think our main emphasis should be on persuading our students to move quickly on from language they know well to something more ambitious. This is especially so when they are in the perfect place to try something new – in our classrooms. For one thing, even students who usually communicate with other non-native speakers often say that interacting with native speakers is their main challenge, and trying to use the kinds of tricky language that native speakers do is the best way of remembering it and making sure you really understand it. The same is also true for understanding authentic material such as newspaper articles and radio programmes produced by and for native speakers, which still make up a majority of the English-language materials that a student is likely to come across.

More sophisticated language is also vital for exams like Cambridge English Advanced and the higher grades in IELTS, as more complex language is a good way of making up the marks that students will inevitably lose by making errors. Acquiring a set of impressively advanced-sounding phrases is a lot easier than it is to stop making even “basic” errors like third person S.  Studying more advanced language is also a lot more motivating than trying to eliminate all mistakes with more basic words and phrases. In fact, I’d say that a philosophy of always moving upwards and onwards is perhaps the best way of retaining motivation to learn English.

As freer communication in the classroom will usually involve the opposite skill of simplifying language to match the person who is listening, if you want your students to concentrate on boosting the level of language that they use, you’ll need some more controlled speaking games. This article has examples of board games and a card game, then a description of the more general technique of students monitoring each other for more ambitious language use.

Use the functions card game

Prepare packs of cards with the names of several functions on the cards. For example, to practise turn-taking, you could use cards with one of these functions on each one:

  • Interrupting
  • Refusing interruption
  • Taking the turn back / Getting back on track
  • Offering others the chance to speak
  • Keeping others speaking
  • Signalling the end of your turn
  • Turning down the chance to speak
  • Ending your interruption

The full set of cards would contain three or four cards with each function.

The students are put into small groups and all the cards are dealt out. The students look at their own cards, but don’t show them to the other players. During a speaking activity that you assign, such as a roleplay teleconference, the students must successfully do the thing that is written on one of their cards, using a phrase that no one else has said during the game, in order to be able to discard that card. The person with the fewest cards left in their hand when the game finishes is the winner. The students can then work together to brainstorm suitable phrases for each function (both those that they used during the game and any other suitable phrases that they can think of).

This game can also be used for many other kinds of language, for example cards saying “opening greeting”, “friendly language”, “opening line”, “explaining reasons”, “closing line” and “closing greeting” for emailing (roleplaying by saying what they would write in response to each other).  

Here are three photocopiable versions of this game:

Turn taking functions card game

Sharing personal experiences functions card game

FCE Speaking Part One functions card games

Use the functions board game

I have recently found that this game works even better with a board to move round than it does with cards to discard . Each student talks about a topic written in the square that their counter lands on, perhaps in response to a question on the topic from someone else in their group. While they are speaking, they try to use phrases which haven’t been said so far and which has the functions written in the middle of the board game. The other students act as monitors, listening out for new phrases which fulfil those functions and putting a tick if they hear one, awarding one point for each when the person stops speaking. That person can then move that many squares forward on the board. The person who is furthest round the board when the teacher stops the game wins. The students can then brainstorm good high-level phrases for those functions, including things they didn’t say during the game.

There is a version of this game for the Cambridge First Certificate speaking exam here:

FCE Speaking Part One functional language board game

Match the criteria board game

This is an extension of the idea of monitoring for functional language use. As well as monitoring each other for appropriate and original language as in the game above, students can listen out for their partners matching other criteria for successful communication such as:

  • successfully doing the thing that they are asked to
  • giving a good impression
  • being polite
  • being friendly
  • starting well
  • ending well
  • using language that has been studied during the course
  • avoiding silence (speaking fluently, filling silence, etc)

This can easily be turned into a board game similar to that above by the other students in the group monitoring for which of those things are true while one person does the challenge in the box that their counter is on, such as a roleplay. They tick any of the criteria that they think are true as they are listening, then the person whose turn it is can move the number of squares of the number of ticks that they got.

There are three photocopiable versions of this game here:

Dealing with foreign guests meeting criteria board game

IELTS Speaking Part One meeting criteria board game

Different kinds of business communication meeting criteria board game

There will also be a negotiating language one coming soon.

If the situations in the squares on the board are roleplays, it is best if the students work in groups of at least three people, with the people who aren’t speaking working as the monitor, ticking the criteria and giving points.

Other group monitor activities

The idea of having a monitor in each group can also be used during the card games described in this and my last article. The simplest variation is for one person who is not taking part in the game giving cards back to people if they try to discard them without successfully doing the thing written on them or if they use phrases that others have used before them.

A bigger change is for the monitor to hold all the cards (rather than dealing them out to people), giving them to people as they successfully do the thing written on them or using the words written on them (as usual with language that hasn’t been used by anyone else during the game). In this case, the person with most cards at the end of the game wins.

Having monitors can also be very useful even without a game element to the activity. For example, one person can sit out each speaking activity such as roleplays that you are using, monitoring for a list of criteria that they have been given such as “smoothly starting and ending the conversation”, “speaking about half each” or “politely interrupting”. After the speaking is finished, the monitor gives feedback and suggestions on how they could do the things that weren’t so strong better next time, with the people who took part in the communicative activity adding their own ideas if they like. They can then perhaps try the same activity again. If you want to add more of a game element to that, the monitor can also declare a winner of each exchange based on the criteria that they have been given, with the “prize” perhaps being able to sit out the next round and take the monitor role.

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