Teaching Telephone Language and Strategies

By Cathy Sunshine

Did someone’s cellphone just ring in class?

When it comes to chatting with friends (in Spanish), young Latinos are enthusiastic cellphone users, according to a recent study.  Half of Latino youth aged 16 to 25 text message their friends daily, and almost half talk daily with friends on a cellphone. Not so different from us.

But making telephone calls in English is something else again. Calling in sick to work … making a doctor’s appointment … asking the landlord to make repairs … For our students, talking on the phone in English may be even more daunting than talking to people face-to-face. The stream of words is harder to understand when you can’t see the person speaking, as the gestures and facial expressions that give cues to meaning aren’t there.

Telephone technology changes quickly. Telephone language really doesn’t.

Also, telephone etiquette is different in every culture. There’s a set of stock phrases we use to negotiate telephone conversations in English, which our students need to learn. (Hello, this is Julia. May I please speak to John? Please tell him that Julia returned his call. Etc.)

Last summer I co-taught an advanced conversation class and we spent a session practicing telephone strategies. Students enjoyed both of the following activities. The first is easier than the second, but both are probably best suited for upper-level classes—say, level 4A and up. They could be adapted for lower levels.

Activity One: Practicing Telephone Language

This exercise helps students become familiar with standard expressions used on the phone. Copy and hand out the sample telephone conversations below. The conversations reflect common situations: talking to the person you called, asking to speak to someone else, leaving a message with a live person, and leaving a message in voicemail. Students can work with partners to practice the conversations, taking turns in the different roles. Afterward, ask the class to identify useful telephone phrases, such as “May I speak to …”  and list these phrases on the board.

1. Talking to the Person You Called

Ring … ring … ring …
Ms. White: Hello?
Joe: Good morning. This is Joe Porter from Super-Duper Appliance Repair. May I speak to Ms. White?
Ms. White: Yes, this is Ms. White.
Joe: I’m calling to let you know that our repairman will be at your house this morning between ten o’clock and noon to fix your washing machine.
Ms. White: Oh, good. I’ll be here.
Joe: Thank you. We’ll see you then. Goodbye.

2. Asking to Speak to Someone Else

Ring … ring … ring …
Receptionist: Good morning. Financial Department.
Patricia: Hi, Carol. It’s Patricia. May I please speak to Mr. Lee?
Receptionist: Hi, Patricia. I’ll see if he’s in. Hold on. (Ring …ring…)
Mr. Lee: Hello, this is Bill Lee.
Patricia: Good morning, Mr. Lee. This is Patricia Duncan. I’m sorry, but I have to come in late today. My daughter is sick and I need to take her to the doctor.
Mr. Lee: Oh, no, I’m sorry to hear that. We’re really busy this morning and we need you. What time do you think you’ll be in?
Patricia: I hope to get there by noon.
Mr. Lee: Okay. Thanks for letting me know.
Patricia: Thank you, Mr. Lee. See you soon.

3. Leaving a Message with a Person

Ring … ring … ring …
Secretary: Blake Property Management.
Alex: Hello. This is Alex Jordan. I’m in Apartment 304. The heat isn’t working in my apartment.
Secretary: Mr. Ramírez takes care of heating problems, but he’s not here.
Alex: Would you please ask him to call me back as soon as possible? My number is 555-6824. Please tell him it’s urgent. It’s very cold in my apartment.
Secretary: I’ll give him the message when he comes in.
Alex: Thanks very much. Goodbye.

4. Leaving a Message in Voicemail

Ring … ring … ring …
Machine: You have reached Blake Property Management. Our office is closed. At the tone, please leave a message. Beep!
Alex: Hello, this is Alex Jordan in Apartment 304. I’m calling on Tuesday morning at ten o’clock. The heat isn’t working in my apartment. I would like someone to come and look at it as soon as possible. My number is 555-6824. Thank you very much.
Machine: Beep!

Activity Two: Telephone Role Plays

This exercise allows students to practice taking care of personal business by telephone. Copy and hand out the scenarios below. First, read and discuss each situation as a class to make sure everyone understands them. Clarify any unfamiliar vocabulary, such as call in sick, coming down with flu, come in late, make an appointment.

Have students work with partners, and give each pair one of the scenarios. Number 2 has three roles, in case you have an odd number of students.  Each pair then has 10 minutes or so to develop a conversation based on their scenario. Afterward, partners can stage their conversations for the class (using real cellphones as props is a nice touch). After each conversation, encourage class discussion of how the caller handled the call.

1. Calling in Sick
Monica takes care of two children while their mother is at work. She is usually very reliable. But this morning, she wakes up feeling sick. She thinks she is coming down with the flu. She calls Elena, the children’s mother. When Elena answers the phone, Monica says that she cannot come in today because she is sick.

2. Calling to Say You Will Be Late
Natasha works in an embassy. She is supposed to come to work at 9 a.m. But this morning, her nanny called in sick. Now Natasha has to drive her children to another babysitter’s house, so she will be late to work. She calls the embassy and the receptionist answers. Natasha asks to speak to Viktor, her supervisor. The receptionist transfers the call to Viktor’s office. Natasha explains to Viktor that she has to come in late, around noon.

3. Calling a Landlord or Property Management Company
Edward lives in an apartment building. The building is managed by a company. When something is broken, it’s the company’s responsibility to make repairs. A pipe under the sink in Edward’s apartment is leaking and water is dripping on the floor. He calls the company and a secretary answers. Edward explains the problem and says that it’s urgent. The secretary says that a plumber will come to his apartment to fix the pipe that afternoon at four o’clock.

4. Calling to Make a Doctor’s Appointment
Joseph has been coughing for a week. He has a fever, too. He calls a health clinic and gets a recorded message. The recording says, “To make, change, or cancel an appointment, press 1.” He presses 1 and the clinic’s receptionist answers. He makes an appointment to see the doctor the next day.

5. Calling a Child’s School
Lisa’s son is unhappy in school. He says the other boys in his class pick on him and call him names. Lisa wants to talk to her son’s teacher about the problem. She calls the school and a receptionist answers. Lisa asks to speak to the teacher, Ms. Butler. The receptionist says Ms. Butler is in class and can’t come to the phone. Lisa leaves a message with her name, her child’s name, and her telephone number. She asks the receptionist to have the teacher call her back as soon as possible.

6. Calling the City to Request Services
William’s air conditioner is broken, so he buys a new one. Now he needs to get rid of the old one. It is too big for the regular trash. He calls the DC Citywide Call Center at 311 and an operator answers. William says he wants to request a “bulk trash pickup.” The operator asks him what needs to be picked up, and he says an air conditioner. The operator tells him that the truck will come next Thursday, August 5. She says William should put the air conditioner in the alley behind his house the night before.

7. Calling for Repairs
Cecilia’s washing machine isn’t working. It doesn’t fill with water. She calls Super-Duper Appliance Repair. A recorded message says, “This is Super-Duper Appliance Repair. Our office is now closed. Please leave a message. Beep!” Cecilia leaves a message on the answering machine. She gives her name and telephone number, and she explains the problem with her washing machine. She asks for someone to call her back as soon as possible.

8. Calling 911 in an Emergency
Teresa’s mother is 70 years old. She lives with Teresa and her husband in their house. One night, Teresa’s mother slips and falls. They think her leg might be broken. Teresa calls 911 and an operator answers. Teresa explains what happened. The operator asks for her address and says the ambulance will come in 15 minutes.

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One Response to Teaching Telephone Language and Strategies

  1. Allison says:

    This is a great lesson. I suggest making the students sit so that they aren’t facing each other. This way, they really have to focus on the words and not look for facial expressions or read lips.

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