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Here’s an idea I first saw demonstrated one afternoon while I was working a summer in a private language school and the teachers had gathered together to share an activity that they really liked using or thought worked well.

Here’s how it could work (and how I’m going to try it out this week with my students practising for speaking exams):

Step 1

Ask the students to imagine that they met someone they haven’t seen in a long long time (this could be imagining that they meet their fellow EFL/ESOL classmates X years in the future). Would they say hello? What kind of topics would they talk about? Gather some suggestions of these, maybe write them up on the whiteboard, maybe not.

Step 2

Put students into pairs and now ask them to imagine they are actually in this situation and give them some thinking time.

Step 3

Ask the students to stand up and have the conversation they would have (exclamations of surprise, asking after each other’s health and family, etc.) with their partner, BUT (and here’s the catch) they cannot use English or any other words. They can only use numbers.

For example, saying ‘Hi, how are you?’ would be something like this:

number question

Hi, how *are* you?

No words, the meaning has to be conveyed by changing the intonation of the number sequences (You might want to make this explicit, or you might want to test the students to see how they perform before feeding back). The student responding to the above conversation turn should then start their own on the subsequent number, so something like ‘5, 6 7 8 9!’ (‘Hellooo, fancy seeing you here!’). When the pair get to number 21, they should move around, find another partner and begin the exchange again.

Step 4

Once everyone has gone through about 4 exchanges, conduct an open feedback session. Was it easy to do? How did you keep the conversation going? What other clues did you have to go on to get the meaning? (e.g. body language, ‘how it sounds’). Ask the students if they think that how we say stuff is at least as important as what we say.

Step 5

Ask students in their original pairs to script a dialogue, a sort of composite of the numbered exchanges they had while changing partners. Students can then perform this, with and without the scripts for support, and you can vote on the best intonation and sentence stress.

Follow up

The students can then watch this short film, ‘Skwerl’, which is performed in fake English, and decide what has happened and try to script some of the dialogue.

Skwerl is a short film by Karl Eccleston and Brian Fairbairn, shot for Kino Sydney ¢47