Teaching telephoning skills (advanced/business)

Starting a new academic year is always a good time to look back on what were language teaching successes and failures. A definite failure last term was to bring mobile phones to class and ask my students to phone companies in the UK to ask for information about their products… on Bank Holiday!

Of course the idea to have students practise making a phone call in English by having them really do it is great, and fortunately in my other group it went quite well.  The idea first came to me last academic year when all teachers got a mobile phone to replace the permanent phones on our desks. Suddenly there were plenty of mobile phones, so why not borrow some phones and have my students practise telephoning for real instead of doing these fake role plays where I always tried to stimulate students to avoid making eye-contact, sitting back-to-back, to make it somewhat realistic?

The students were at the same time enthusiastic and scared when they saw me come in with cell phones. It is amazing to see that some find making a phone call really nerve-wrecking and look for excuses not to make a phone call on the spot: ‘Can I go to another room?’ ‘Can I do it next week?’ etc. Fortunately the preparation for the call helps them a great deal, plus my explanation of making a mock phone call to a company you are not really interested in for practice (or tell them you have a bad connection).

This is how my lesson works: I give each student (or group of students) a product that I have bought in the UK: Marmite, Polo mints, bicarbonate of soda, bag of haggis-flavoured (!) crisps, Branston pickle, Coleman’s mustard, etc. Students are then asked to come up with (critical) questions to ask, which they can do together in order to come up with at least three questions each (group). Since my students study Food Technology they can come up with questions about ingredients, consumer information, production process, but also marketing and sales. Next, the students need to think about what exactly they are going to say and in what order. I provide them with some useful phrases and general suggestions. For instance, they are not allowed to state that they are making a mock phone call for English class. I would really like them to present themselves as students doing a project on a particular food product or as conscientious consumers. TV programmes such as Watchdog (in the Netherlands: Keuringsdienst van Waarde) serve as an example to the students. If you have more time than me, you could show them a short fragment as an introduction to this lesson.

Only when the students know exactly what they would like to ask and what else they are going to say in a particular order, they can use a phone and actually make the phone call. The best part of the lesson is after the students have made the phone call. They report on the usually short conversation and what they learned about the product or the company. I always try to eavesdrop and give back some of the ‘interesting’ things that I overheard. I use an evaluation form with questions about politeness, expected outcome vs real outcome, use of follow-up questions, etc. Once students have made the actual call, they are excited about sharing their experiences. One student got so enthusiastic about the product I had brought he wanted to apply for a practical placement at this company. Unfortunately his teacher had picked to wrong day to call, remember: Bank Holiday!

Some tips if you would like to try out this approach on practising telephoning in the classroom:

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  • Make sure you have enough products and mobile phones (students can also work in groups, making a call in turns). Instead of real products you could also bring advertisements from magazines, possibly to attune to the specific needs of your students more.
  • Make sure the time of your class corresponds with regular office times in the UK ;-). Instead you could have students phone another English speaking country in the correct time zone for office hours, which is how I eventually saved my lesson on Bank Holiday.
  • Find the correct telephone numbers for each product and make sure you have more numbers, if possible. If you do this activity with more than one group, they had better use another number; if your students work in groups, they could each use another number for the same product (and questions).
  • Prepare the students for customer service operators, who commonly ask them to send in their questions by email or call back later.  Stimulate them to make sure they get in touch with a person who can really answer their questions now.
  • Make a hand-out with the procedure, useful phrases, tips, contact details and space to make notes
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