Using Videos in Class: A Framework

I know, I know. We’ve all done it: pressed play on a movie so we don’t have to do a real lesson! But using videos in class can be very productive for teaching spoken language!

But students actually can get a lot out of videos and films. When students are watching a video, they’re listening and also absorbing body language and also learning about English in context, which is important for teaching pragmatics! Videos are full of visual cues that students can pick up on. Movies often have a plot or story to discuss and some kind of moral or artistic message. Finally, films are often fun and engaging, so students want to pay attention. But without a plan, a film-based lesson can turn into kids just watching a movie.

Now there are some great sites for using films in class, such as Film English. But what if you have a film you love, and you want to use it in class, but no one’s done a lesson about it yet? I’ve developed this simple flexible framework to help you create a lesson built around any kind of video or film.

A Framework for Using Videos in Class

I’ve used Mr Bean as an example here because Mr. Bean is very popular, but this method can work with really any kind of movie or film, scripted or natural, story-driven or thematic, a music video or a scene from a film. The framework lets you get the most out of the video possible. You can look the film as a piece of communication, a story, a way to raise a theme, and more!


To use a video in class effectively, you need to break the video into shorter sections. I recommend watching the video before class to get an idea of how it logically breaks down into chapters or unit. Note the times when each section begins and ends.

You’ll also need to prepare a few sets of questions. First you need questions that students can answer while watching the film. These questions should have clear and concrete answers. They should guide the student to understand the important parts of the film such as “Why did the man go into the building?”, “Who did he see in there?” Avoid questions about small details, like “What color was the man’s suit.” On the other hand, if the film maker is using color or clothing to depict a theme, it’s good to direct students’ attention to that while they are watching.

The second set of questions should be more abstract and focus on the themes of the film or larger artistic issues. Ideally, these should be questions that require an understanding of various parts of the film, and be open to debate: “What kind of person do you think the hero is?” or “Do you agree with the mother that people are always cruel to each other?”

If the film is not one that lends itself to heavy themes, or it’s a non-fiction film, you can ask questions such as “Have you ever been in that situation?” or “What do you think would happen if something was a bit different?” You can also draw students’ attention to the way people communicate in the film. You could ask thinks like “How did the man show he was angry?” or “What tells you the woman was being sarcastic?” and the process of film-making itself “Why did the camera zoom in on the book?” “How did the music match the way the boy was feeling?”

The Procedure

1. Put students in pairs or small groups.

2. Play the video bit by bit. Have students watch and try to answer questions related to that section.

For the Mr. Bean video, I’d divide it into the parts where he makes the sandwich, eats the sandwich, and perhaps making tea/the ending. So I’d give students a worksheet with three sets of questions to answer as they are watching.

As for what would be good questions: I’d ask lots of questions about what he pulls out of his coat and why, very

 concrete questions about what he does. Incidentally, this would be a good video for practicing vocabulary or verb tenses as students describe Mr. Bean’s actions.

3. Have them check their answers with another pair.

At the end of each section, stop the video and give them a chance to check their answers with another pair or group. This lets them help each other recap what happened, too. If you hear confused students, hopefully you’ll also hear other students explaining what happened to them.

4. If the whole class is completely lost, replay that section.

If 75% of the class, can’t figure it out, give them another chance or two, before stepping in to help.

5. Discuss the questions and any other questions students have to make sure they are following the video.

Before going on to the next section, give students a chance to ask any burning questions or quickly underline any key points. You might say something as simple as, “So, we’ve seen Mr. Bean make a sandwich in a very odd way. And his neighbor, well, his neighbor is pretty surprised. He probably thinks this is pretty gross.”

6. Have students predict what will happen next.

You may also want to give them any information they might need to interpret the next section.

7. For the next section of the video, repeat steps 2-6.

8. When the video is over, review the video as a whole. Discuss questions about the general theme or objective of the video.

You might do a quick summarizing activity, such as having students write a short summary or each tell one thing that happened. I sometimes do paragraph frames with key words missing and have students fill in the missing words.

Then move on to thematic questions. For Mr. Bean, questions about intercultural understanding often work well, as well as the theme of clowning. Clowns show us why we do things the way we do them, by showing what happens if you do them the wrong way. At the same time, clowns are very consistent in their own universe. You might ask students what is the normal way to make a sandwich? Why do you think Mr. Bean does it his way? Does Mr. Bean think we are strange? Can you think of different ways to do the same thing?

You could even discuss the performance. Why doesn’t Mr. Bean talk? How does the actor use his face to make us laugh? What is the role of the straight man?

9. Move on to talking about how the video relates to something personal. This is a good time to do a writing or task where students apply something from the video to their lives. Students could also create their own scenes, or talk about a time they saw a clown or comedy performance.

I hope that framework works for you. I’d love to hear how it goes for your film-based lessons. Let me know in the comments.

If you’re looking for more engaging ways to teach pragmatics, check out our article on using memes!

Those Students: Deictic Expressions and Real-World Communication Skills

I’ve been doing a lot of presentations on pragmatics recently and thinking about how to teach students real-world communication skills in English. The problem is that in the classroom we often communicate at a very literal and direct level. Outside the classroom, we don’t! We leave things unsaid, assume knowledge on the part of the listener, even exaggerate or outright lie! We also use idiomatic language, fixed expressions, and deictic expressions, language that take their meaning from context.

And maybe the hardest group of deictic expression is “insider expressions” when we talk to people. These are expressions that people in a particular group will understand, even though outsiders might not. You probably have slang that only your family uses, inside jokes that refer to events only your friends experience, even technical terms that are used only at your company. These kinds of expressions are helpful to communicate more quickly. They also bond the group together because if you understand them, you’re part of the group! And of course often these expressions are jokes or refer to funny incidents. In college, we used to say “Do you like stuff?” when someone said something awkward, referring to a time a guy actually asked that question to a girl he liked!

But often in our teaching materials, dialogues are written to be very clear. When speakers discuss a topic, they introduce it fully and give all needed information. So students may be unprepared for a dialogue like this:

Two teachers having a conversation about their new class lists. One says the other will have a hard time because he has a student named Adam, who is one of THOSE students!
Have you every had one of those students?

We don’t know what “those students” means exactly. But we can tell a few things from the dialogue:

  • “Those students” are bad students-note the negative reaction of the second teacher, “Oh no!”
  • “Those students” probably aren’t too bad. The first teacher is laughing suggesting amusement, not concern.
  • The laughter also tells us that the teachers probably get along well. In these situations, that kind of amusement is often a bit teasing, and you don’t tease casual acquaintances.
  • We also know most teachers have behaviors they don’t appreciate, but it will vary from teacher to teacher and school to school! They might be students who are always late or who dominate the class discussion or who never do their homework.
  • And of course, we know that teachers often complain about students as a way of letting off steam so the use of a term “those students” may be more about bonding and laughing than about actually disparaging students!

So there’s a lot going on here beyond the words on the page. I’m sure if we heard this conversation, there’d be a lot going on with intonation, body language, and facial expressions too. And in fact, we could change one word and turn “those students” from bad to good. If the second teacher said, “Oh yeah!”, we’d know they were talking about a student who is hard-working or insightful or a quick learner or is kind and helpful! The dialogue that follows would probably be all about praising Adam and sharing all the great things he does in class!

Deictic Expressions Activities

So how do we help students learn how to deal with deictic expressions, particularly insider expressions? By exposing them to input that is not always direct and literal. Here’s one way:

  1. Take a script of a play, movie, or TV show and find a scene with a few of these expressions.
  2. Have students underline them and figure out as much as they can about the meaning.
  3. Watch the scene, if possible, and have them use body language and intonation cues to supplement their understanding.
  4. Then give them the full context and have them discuss how their understand was correct or incorrect.

Because the meaning of deictic expressions by definition relies on context, students can’t just memorize them. However, they can build their analytical skills and learn to read the context, and use other clues to make a good assumption. And that’s what we’re doing in real-world communication half the time any way!

You can also check out all our drama resources and activities for ELT, including theater games, a guide to reader’s theater, short plays, and books of drama activities! Get dramatic in the classroom in a good way!

Set Your Roleplay to Music

Looking for a way to make your roleplays more engaging and also help students explore communication tools more effectively? Try music.

We all know the power of music to set a mood. Television shows and movies exploit this all the time. You probably know the famous theme from the film Jaws: Duh-duh…duh-duh…duh-duh,duh-duh,duh-duh-duh! It builds suspense even when nothing particularly frightening is happening on screen. The music alone tells you something bad is about to happen and evokes a mood that makes the appearance of a deadly shark even more terrifying!

Soundtrack to Life

Close Up of Woman Drinking from Red Polka Dot Tea Mug and Looking at Camera
Photo by @ ibreakstock/Depositphotos

Or think of a man and woman drinking tea or coffee at a café. The man fumbles around awkwardly, makes some dumb jokes about his clumsiness, and ends up making a huge mess. She stares at him inscrutably. But the swelling piano and violin music sets a romantic mood. You are sure her look is affectionate! Her next words will be consoling or maybe an unexpected compliment.

Now imagine the soundtrack was Yakety Sax, made famous by Benny Hill. Suddenly this is a slapstick comedy scene. The man drops his wallet, picks it up only to trip over his own feet! Her stare shows how pathetic he is. She will probably sigh next. Or whack him over the head and storm out.

Maybe the music is ominous: slow long cello notes. Perhaps the woman is a serial killer and she’s decided this loser is too sad to live. She will invite him to come home with her. He will be surprised, but accept before she changes her mind!

So music has a lot of power. It can set a mood. It can evoke a context (in a movie, this would be the genre but in real-life the genre might better be seen as the context ). It can also indicate the characters’ intentions. And all these elements have an effect on the language we use. Our body language, tone, choice of topic, and even the words and grammar we choose to express ourselves with, are determined in part by our intentions, mood, and the context. A family attending a birthday party today will speak and act very differently during a family emergency.

You can exploit this in the classroom through a very simple activity:

Activity: Set your roleplay to music

Find a short, simple roleplay. Your textbook probably has a few. Look for the sample dialogues about buying a ticket, checking into a hotel, or buying something at a store. Alternatively, it could be a common place situation, like two people arguing over who does a chore or friends making plans.


Kinesthetic Grammar Activities: Getting Grammar on the Move!

We’re thrilled to be publishing a book on Kinesthetic Grammar Activities from Alice Savage and Colin Ward. Kinesthetic grammar is a great way to practice language dynamically. The benefits are many:

  • Vary the pace of the classroom
  • Help teach nonverbal language and gesture in communication
  • Activate embodied mind and improve the memorability of target grammar
  • Build classroom community!

I’ve included an excerpt from Alice and Colin’s wonderful blog post. I highly recommend checking out the full post, which includes some example activities. Then come back here and check out the book, 60 Kinesthetic Activities!

We often talk about “grammar on the move.”  The reality is that grammar instruction itself can also be moving.   When students are asked to get out of their seats or point to something or walk around the room, they are engaged.  There is laughter and fun.  It feels like a game.   Sometimes chaos ensues, which can be great, and learning always takes place.

Kinesthetic Grammar is the idea that language can be practiced and better remembered when tied to physical movement.  A movement of the hand might indicate a change in tense. A stomping of the foot could imply a “run-on.”  The physical activity serves as a cognitive hook, something to help students remember what it is they’re learning.  Sometimes the movement even mimics the meaning of the grammar.

Below are a few examples of ways to use kinesthetic techniques to teach grammar, all of which can be modified to fit your own needs. Think about how they could be for your own instruction, and let your imagination run wild!

Read more about Kinesthetic Grammar and check out some free activities on Alice and Colin’s blog post: Kinesthetic Grammar Activities. and check out all our drama activities and resources.

Storytelling for EFL Students

Storytelling is an important skill for EFL students to learn. In fact, being able to tell a story is a helpful human skill as we are constantly constructing narratives to explain what we are doing, to persuade others, to ask for help, to offer advice.

Many EFL students have trouble improvising fluently though. It’s hard to tell a story, remember the right words, get your grammar correct, and speak comprehensibly all in a foreign language. So students need a lot of practice telling a story and doing so fluently, without much hesitation.

So we’re giving away one of Cristian’s favorite lesson plans, one that improves fluency by taking some of the control away from the storyteller.

Improv Storytelling is a highly original activity for EFL students, one that also works with ESL/ESOL classes as well.It helps students practice telling an original story on the spot, without fear of making a mistake. There are some creative ways to come up with new ideas buried in this activity, so it also makes a nice warm-up to having students write. Or you may want to refer to it yourself when you have writer’s block.

Click the link below to check out the lesson. And if you do use it in class, please consider leaving a comment here and letting us know how it went.

And take a peek at the book with 24 other fantastic activities, Instant ESL Lesson Plans.
Cover of Instant EFL Lesson Plans book by Cristian Spiteri

Public Speaking in English is Scary. Drama Can Help

Four women sitting in a circle and clapping as a fifth woman stands and shares some achievement

front cover of The Drama Book by Alice SavagePoor Emilio! He seemed like such a confident student, but when he had to give a talk in front of the class, he ran to the bathroom and was sick. Emilio’s case might be extreme, but according to the psychologist, Michelle Lynsky, public speaking is one of the most terrifying experiences of modern life, and that’s for people performing in their first language.

To feel confident, speakers need to feel the audience is on their side. For this to happen, they need believe that a) they have something interesting to say, b) that the audience will understand it, and c) that they’ll enjoy the experience. Yet, it’s hard for the speaker to achieve that goal when staring out into a sea of blank faces.

Here’s where drama can help. The following activities from the brand-new The Drama Book can help students learn strategies for Public Speaking in English that build skills and confidence, whether they are presenting for a class, preparing for a high stakes job interview or meeting a friend’s parents for the first time.

A. Heart to Heart

Research suggests that when people reveal something personal about themselves, they feel closer to others, a major element of building the trust and community necessary for a public performance. In this activity, students all share a fear and then use that fear as the basis for a roleplay improvisation.

Aim: Build community and practice improvisation

Preparation: A question about the students’ personal experiences or opinions

Time: 10 minutes or more depending on class size


  1. Have students stand in a circle. Start the activity with a bean bag. Give them a minute to think about something they are afraid of. Then tell them something you are afraid of and toss the beanbag randomly to a new speaker and invite them to share their fear. Then they toss the beanbag to the next speaker and so on until everyone has shared.
  2. Next or on subsequent days, repeat with other questions such as the following.
    • Who is your hero?
    • What are you grateful for?
    • What is your biggest pet peeve? (A pet peeve is something that other people do that annoys you such as twirling their hair, tapping their leg, or interrupting.)
    • What do you wish people understood about you?
    • How can this group support you?

3. Take notes, or have students quickly write down their answers and hand them in. Later, use the information for improvisation games later. Here’s are two examples.

Loreta is afraid of snakes.

Improv: Benjamina, Xing and Raul are camping, and they are looking for wood to build a fire. Secretly tell Xing and Raul that they see a snake in tent, but they don’t want Benjamina to find out. What do they do?

Carolina is uncomfortable saying no.

Improv: Walter and Kaiko want Carolina to recommend them to her boss. Secretly tell Carolina that she is quite sure they will be nothing but trouble, so her goal is to convince them not to apply.

B. Best Dressed Guests

It can be difficult to transfer pronunciation practiced in drills to real world interactions. This consonant cluster activity helps students move from a focus on forming specific sounds to using prosody and stress to signal emotion and intention. By layering on meaning incrementally, it can give students a strategy not only for preparing speeches but also for practicing pitches to bosses or other authority figures.

Aim: To embed specific consonant cluster practice into communicative experiences.

Preparation: Prepare a sentence or set of sentences that contain the consonant cluster(s) that you want to work on.

Time: 10 minutes per round.


  1. Write the sentence on the board. Discuss the sounds you want work on and practice with a drill. The following is an example with /st/ and /ts/ and / θ / and / ð/

         Steve and Beth were the best dressed guests at Christian’s gathering.

2. Say the sentence with two types of intonation. A: Say it with certainty. B: Say it as though you are doubtful. Have students guess whether your meaning is A or B. Practice the two types of intonation until students feel confident.

3. Have students work in pairs. One says the sentence with a specific intonation, the other guesses A: certainty or B: Doubt.

4. Add a line to create a two-part dialog. This time say A with confidence, and then B with either agreement or doubt, and have students guess again.

          A: Steve and Beth were the best dressed guests at Christian’s gathering.

          B: Best dressed. (agree)

          B: Best dressed? (Doubtful)

4. Switch partners and have pairs practice again with partners giving each other feedback on whether they understand agreement or disagreement.


Collect other sounds that will be useful for students to learn and repeat the process with new dialogs. Or have students write their own dialogs with the words containing consonant clusters. You can also have them elaborate by continuing the dialog.

/sc/ / ð/

A: I almost screamed when I saw that scary monster on my screen.

B: You screamed./?


A: An expert editor corrects texts.

B: Corrects texts./?

C. Mini-Monologues

Actors make deliberate decisions about stress emphasis to communicate emotional messages and so much language learners if they do not want to sound wooden or even insincere. Whereas the general rule of thumb states that content words such as nouns and verbs get stressed, it is also true that we often need to stress small seemingly unimportant words to get meaning across, such as in contrastive stress. An extra benefit of this activity is that the performance of even a short-prepared monologue can help students become comfortable putting emotional resonance into their delivery.

*Note: To stress to a word, is not to necessarily say it louder but to lengthen the vowel sound.

Aim: To provide strategies for incorporating prosody into a public performance.

Preparation: Select one or more mini-monologues that have emotional messages. Make copies or prepare to display on a board or screen.

Time: varies according to class size


  1. Create a recording of a monologue to play for students or read it aloud with emotional resonance and stress. Elicit the topic by asking, “What’s it about? Who is talking?” Next, discuss the mood of the speaker and any language choices that might reveal this emotion by asking, “How does the speaker feel?” and “What does the speaker want?”

Below are three very short monologues that reflect the functions of complaining, declining an invitation, and expressing concern. Each contains opportunities for                both emotional messaging and stress emphasis. You can choose one or do all three.

  • The cat has fleas, so someone has to take her to the vet. It can’t be me! I’m busy. I’m already late for work. And it’s not my cat anyway. You’re the one that wanted a cat!
  • I would love to come. . . really I would. It’s just that I have this thing I gotta do. If I could get out of it, I would, but I made a promise to a friend and I can’t let him down. (pause) Can I come another time?
  • A car accident? Are you okay? (pause). Well that’s a relief!  Where are you? I’ll come and get you. Just give the address. (pause) The address! You don’t know where you are?  How am I going to find you? Are you sure you’re okay?

2. Give students copies or display the monologues. Review the speaker’s emotion/intention. Then discuss and mark thought groups and stress. (Every thought group has at least one stressed word.)

3. Have individual students choose one of the mini-monologues to work with or assign one. Give them ten minutes to memorize the monologue and plan the following elements:

  • use stress emphasis and pauses
  • express an emotion such as frustration, concern, or regret
  • include gesture and expressions

4. Have student perform in groups and/or for the class. Give feedback on the various elements. Consider having them do a second monologue on their own as homework. They could even write it themselves.

This is a repost from Alice Savage’s blog: Public Speaking is Scary. Drama Can Help.

Looking for more?

Browse all our free resources for doing drama in the classroom at Plays and Drama Resources for Students. And be sure to check out Alice’s wonderful books full of dynamic activities to teach speaking skills through drama!

How to Put on a Play in Class

The benefits of drama in the English classroom are surprising. Students learn and practice a variety of acting skills, using their bodies and voices to make meaning. When they put on a play, what to say is given to them so they can focus on how to say it. Speaking with emotion and attitude are skills we don’t always find in our coursebooks. And when students act a role, it’s a sort of safe space where they can make mistakes. Plays are also usually written in natural language so they are a wealth of idioms and conversational expressions. They are also a wonderful resource for pragmatics, showing how we use different rhetorical strategies in different situations. In fact, acting in a play can be a sort of rehearsal for real-life interactions, as students test out various strategies and gauge the reactions. And of course, they do so within the target culture, which can be different from their own. For example in every country, A direct criticism is received differently in different situations. Students need that kind of cultural knowledge.

And putting on a play in English class is the ultimate group project as students work together to organize rehearsals and give feedback to each other, decide on blocking and staging, or even collect props and costumes. Some students even report using the organizational skills they learned putting on a play to do other class projects.

But it isn’t easy putting on a play, so I wanted to share some advice from Alice Savage, author of the Short Plays for English Learners series and the Integrated Skills Through Drama series. The information here is adapted from the Production Notes that accompany every play in the Short Plays for English Learners series.

How to Put on a Play

  1. Read the play first. Make sure students understand the vocabulary as well as the story, relationships, and why the characters do what they do.
  2. Do table work. As a class, discuss the play. What themes arise in the play? How does it end and why? Which characters change and how do they change? How do the characters feel in the different scenes talking to each other? Discuss the pragmatics of the scene and the play.
  3. Think about logistics. Will you need to divide the class into multiple casts? Or will each group do a different play?
  4. Feel free to adapt. Do your students want to adapt the play at all to reflect some of their cultural values (for example, Saudi students sometimes rewrite plays slightly to ensure that the genders do not mix inappropriately for them). Or maybe students want to write a prequel or sequel!
  5. Assign roles. Consider the talents and personalities of your students.
  6. Make notes. Make sure students note their lines on the scripts and even jot in the margin ideas about how their character is feeling, ways they want to move, or other important information to help them act effectively.
  7. Schedule lots of rehearsal: Students should have lots of time to memorize their lines and also to get comfortable with each other. Students should be practicing both in class and on their own, alone and with other students. Be sure that you are giving feedback and that students are giving feedback to each other as well. Include not only feedback about errors, but also ways they could portray the scene more effectively: Is your character very angry here or just annoyed? When you raise your voice, you sound pretty angry!
  8. Mark thought groups, word and sentence stress, and intonation
  9. Practice speaking fluently so that it sounds like the actors are responding naturally
  10. Decide how you will perform the play: reader’s theater, a full performance, a scripts-in-hand performance, a video, or something else.

Looking for plays for students? 

Check out the pages for our Short Plays for English Learners series and Integrated Skills Through Drama series which are full of free resources as well as scripts.

Even more resources to do drama in the classroom

Browse all our free resources for doing drama in the classroom at Plays and Drama Resources for Students. 

Conversational Moves

So many speaking materials focus on micro-language: application of a grammatical form, pronunciation of a syllable, maybe memorization of a useful phrase. But students do not get much scaffolding for a macro-approach that integrates larger elements of language such as longer turns, or whole sections of a conversation with a particular purpose or theme.

Richard Swales talked about analyzing written work in terms of rhetorical moves, or places where we start new sections with a new objective. We can apply the same analysis to conversations, showing students different ways we perform conversational moves such as, starting a conversation, engaging in small talk, changing the subject, giving a vague answer, signalling disagreement, ending a conversation and so on. We can point them to the rich variety of ways we make these moves and how our voice, body language, word choice, and even grammar change depending on who we are talking to.

This goes beyond memorizing set phrases to really analyzing the pragmatics of a conversation and helping students become fluent enough to generate their own spontaneous words and phrases. This makes fluency work relevant, maybe more relevant than even memorizing grammar and vocabulary,

So what do these moves look like? And how can we teach them in the classroom?

Conversational Moves Activity

Alice Savage came up with this activity while at a social event. She became aware of the moves she and her conversational partner were having and noted down some excerpts. Take a minute to read the excerpts and:

    1. Guess what social event this took place at.
    2. What order did these excerpts occur in (Note that these are only short pieces of a longer conversation. You cannot piece together the whole conversation from these bits. Nor are they consecutive-other words and turns occurred in between)

    A. So, which side of the family are you on?

    B. That’s really interesting. I didn’t know that about Sam.

    C. Well, I’d better get back to my family. It’s been nice talking to you.

    D. I can’t stop eating this cheese. It’s really good, isn’t it?

    E. By the way, I’m Alice. I went to school with Emily.

The Answers Annotated (Don’t Peek Until You’re Done)

  1. This conversation took place at a wedding.
    Note excerpt A. “Which side of the family are you on?” We generally ask this question at events with lots of people from your family, such as a wedding or family reunion or a funeral. Excerpt E. also indicates that there is an important person that everybody knows.
  2. There’s no way to know for sure the exact order. It’s more important to have students analyze the language and look for clues as to what the speaker is trying to do with words. However, the correct order is: D, A, E, B, C.

Note that excerpt D is a very common way to start a conversation at a social event. However rarely will you see a textbook that recommends discussing hors d’oeuvres as a way to strike up a conversation, or warns students that someone asking about cheese is really saying, “I’d like to talk to you.” Students need a sense of what kinds of topics people start small talk with and how to respond positively or negatively, but politely.

Excerpt E is the logical beginning to a conversation and many textbooks model dialogues that begin this way. In fact, we often share our names a little later, when talking with a stranger and this can be a sign that we are enjoying talking to this person and want to continue the conversation.

There are certain topics that we expect to talk about at various social events. They are considered safe topics that the other people will be prepared to talk about. They are good topics to bring up when you don’t know what else to talk about. For example, at a teacher’s convention, “What grade do you teach?” or “What class do you teach?” are safe questions to ask. At a wedding, “What side of the family are you on?” or “Are you with the bride or the groom?” are pretty safe topics along with, “How do you know Emily?” And they may bring out more interesting things to talk about.

Excerpt B is clearly in reaction to a story about a mutual acquaintance. Again, telling interesting stories about people you both know is an expected and usually amusing topic of conversation at a social event. Note that there are topics that are taboo. You wouldn’t tell a story about the time Sam got drunk and crashed his car through his house to something you didn’t know well, for example. There’s a fine line between a surprising fact and an embarrassing one.

Finally, C is a great example of a pre-closer. It’s a way of signalling you need to end a conversation. Students need to be able to employ these pre-closers and also recognize them. It would be impolite to continue a conversation after someone said, “It’s been nice talking to you.”


To continue this lesson,  you could now present larger chunks of a conversation and have students look at how they fit together as a whole. How does the conversation become more intimate and personal? When do the speakers chose to change the subject or continue the same topic? Students can also flesh out the excerpts into a longer conversation themselves.

Students could then write an outline of the conversational moves and then create a new dialogue in a new setting. In this way, they can see how our choice of words and phrases depends on the context, setting, and relationships.

Bring Conversational Moves into the Classroom

You can easily recreate this activity yourself. You are welcome to borrow this example. Or create your own cut-up conversation  with any conversation you participate in or overhear, write your own dialogue, or take extracts from a play or piece of fiction. In some cases, the context may not be clear. Or the conversation may fit into many different contexts. In that case, ask students to guess the purpose of the conversation and/or the relationship between speakers. Is one person trying to persuade the other to do something? Are two co-workers discussing a mistake and trying to avoid blame?

When you get to the excerpts, have students discuss the purpose of each one. Why did the speaker chose those particular words? What other ways could the speaker have achieved the same goal?

Finally, you can apply this technique to academic skills. Students can analyze rhetorical moves in a speech or a debate. Where is the speaker deploying an example? Where are they presenting a counter-argument? How do they cite support? What techniques do they use to make their rhetoric persuasive or beautiful?

Looking for more?

Browse all our free resources for doing drama in the classroom at Plays and Drama Resources for Students.

Using Video to Teach Natural Conversation

Video is a powerful resource to teach natural conversation to students. Students can benefit from listening to conversations between fluent speakers. In particular, natural, fluent speech provides models of pronunciation and intonation, and how we use our voices to express emotion and emphasize important words. Rhetorical markers such as “uh” can be pronounced a variety of ways depending on whether we are pausing to think, indicating we disagree, interrupting someone else, or showing disapproval. So audio can do a lot of things a written script can’t.

Nonverbal Communication in Natural Conversation

A pie chart showing that according to Albert Mehrabian, personal communication is 7% words, 38% voice and tone, and 55% body language. This may not be accurate but highlights that nonverbal communication is indeed a key factor.

However, videos of conversations provide all the benefits of audio and more. In real life, when we are talking to someone, we are also reading their facial expressions, body language, and gesture. These non-verbal cues are a vital part of communication, showing how we feel and what we think about what we are saying. If you are speaking to someone who is shifting their weight from foot to foot, it might be a clue that they are annoyed or don’t have time to talk to you right now. When we want to sound authoritative or powerful, we stand straighter and we may cross our arms on our chests or put our hands on our hips.

You may have heard of Professor Albert Mehrabian’s 7-8-35 rule of personal communication, which highlighted that body language plays a key role in communicating effectively. This “rule” has been misinterpreted to mean that our message comes only 7% from our words, 38% from our intonation, and 55% from our body language. In fact, Mehrabian was pointing to the fact that when our body language is out of sync with our words and/or intonation, people tend to believe the body language more. That’s why it is so vital to help students learn how to read and also use body language, particularly as body language is often culturally determined.

What is more, in an authentic conversation, we sometimes respond non-verbally. We may shake our heads no, or nod yes. We may silently roll our eyes to indicate someone has said something silly. If we are discussing a rumor, we may raise our eyebrows and nod slightly to say, “That’s unbelievable.” In fact, when someone is speaking to us, we are constantly reacting to them and they are watching our reactions and tailoring their speech to those reactions. Videos are a powerful way to show students this and give them models to practice.

Context Matters

Finally, in real-life we know where we are and we can see the people we are talking to. And in videos we can see the people and their settings. However, audio passages or written scripts may include awkward and unnatural dialogue to establish things that the listener cannot see, such as, “Welcome to my pizza restaurant!” In real life, we point. We say, “What’s that?” We hand people at stores a credit card without saying, “Here is my credit card. I am giving it to you because I want to pay for these items now.” We give directions by saying, “The library? It’s right over there. You can see the roof from here. If you go that way, you’ll see the entrance.”

Acting! Brilliant!

Now, some people draw a line between authentic conversations and scripted dialogues that are acted out. How can acting be natural and authentic? I certainly agree that there is a lot of benefit of listening to real, unscripted conversations. I think videotaping yourself speaking with another teacher or fluent English speaker can be an amazing resource of everything mentioned above. But, we shouldn’t forget that it is literally an actor’s job to study and employ body language, gesture, and movement (as well as voice and intonation) in order to communicate effectively. If actors feel inauthentic sometimes, it is because they are perhaps exaggerating these communication tools. And yet, that makes it all the easier to draw students’ attention to those very tools.

Here’s a great example of a conversation from Fortune that would have a completely different meaning if students couldn’t see the participants. In this clip, private investigator Jimmy Fortune is taking his client Daniel to a safe house. Jenny is Daniel’s wife, who has been kidnapped.

Here’s the script:

Daniel: Where are we?
Jimmy: Somewhere that I know you’ll be safe.
Daniel: How long do you expect me to stay here?
Jimmy: Until I find Jenny.
Daniel: I can help you.
Jimmy: The best way for you to help is to stay out of sight….Take a shower….Stay out of trouble.

From the words alone, you can gather that Daniel doesn’t want to go into hiding. However, when you watch the clip (or have students watch it) notice the body language. Both men are stiff. Jimmy barely makes eye contact with Daniel. It’s clear that Jimmy doesn’t particularly like Daniel. His comments about staying out of sight, and staying out of trouble have a new resonance. We suspect Daniel has a tendency to make trouble and is not as helpful as he may think he is.

It is helpful for students to be able to read this kind of body language. When is someone being polite with them and when is someone displaying unfriendliness? Perhaps they have overstepped a line without realizing it and the person is trying to subtly show them that. Or perhaps the students want to signal that they do not want to be friendly with a fellow student or work colleague. This video is a good place to start in teaching how to be standoffish (although I don’t think we’d want students to copy Jimmy’s gestures exactly).

If you’re looking for more ways to use videos to teach natural conversation, check out the rest of the Fortune series. It’s very well-thought out course, 30 classroom hours, built around a 6-episode video drama about Jimmy Fortune’s search for Jenny. Students enjoy it and it helps them understand similar TV dramas they may be watching at home anyway. You can check out a free sample by signing up for our mailing list below. You’ll also get free teaching tips like this post sent straight to your email, along with product updates, discounts, and sales.

Want to learn more? Check out all our video learning resources.

How to do a Play with ESL Students

Producing a play in class can be an amazing learning experience. Drama is more than just a way to cover a book or a fun treat! Plays are a powerful too for teaching speaking skills, particularly natural, authentic English conversation. And producing a play is a great group project, a fantastic example of project-based learning. However, doing a play can be a challenge. So our author, Alice Savage has provided her extensive and valuable experience in how to do a play with ESL students!

She produced her own original play, Rising Water, with her community college students. You may need to find plays of different levels and topics to take into account your students’ age and level. But the basic process of producing a play in class is the same! And the payoffs are just as rich!

Why do a play in the ESL classroom?

Thunder claps, lightning strikes, and rain begins to fall as two high school students approach the bus stop. Magnus is a model child with good grades, Ajax is a bit of a misfit But as an ordinary autumn rain turns into a natural disaster, the issue what kind of people we’ll really need in the future is called into question in a new way.

In the production of this exciting play, the audience responds viscerally to the action and the performances of the students. When a play goes well, something miraculous happens. The actors’ classmates, teachers and friends are following the plot. They understand the pronunciation, and they empathize with the characters. These ESL actors have brought a story to life, and they have done it in English. Plays are not only powerful stories and speaking practice: they are great group work opportunities.

To being the group together, however, they had to do some work. In this elective, an integrated skills through theater class, students took on the ultimate group project, a play. In this post, we will share Alice’s process and her advice for how to do a play with ESL students. It’s not as difficult as you might think!

In theater, it is essential to create a safe space for practicing different voices, gestures and emotions, so we spent the first part of each class playing theater games. These role-playing, improvisation and guessing games helped students find different registers in English and physically locate the voice of someone who is worried, distracted, upset, happy, or sarcastic.