Turn-taking is a type of conversational strategy when people take turns, asking questions or reacting to what another person is saying. It is a very important life skill that can be taught and practiced in English lessons. What is more, a lot of exam tasks at higher levels — PET, FCE, CAE — require candidates to demonstrate their turn-taking skills. It is mainly necessary for communicative speaking tasks where they have to reach a compromise or discuss a question together. In our today’s article, we will talk about some ways and activities for teaching turn-taking.
Show the problem
At times, students do not realize that a problem exists. They are listening to each other, waiting silently and patiently for a teacher to tell them that it is their turn now. They do not react in any way — maybe, some nodding. To start with, explain why things don’t work like that. Discuss some examples of real-life conversations. Would they be happy to share the news with a silent friend? Or to tell something to a teacher that keeps staring and nodding unemotionally? How difficult would it be to agree on a PET task like this if your partner is just giving monologues?
Examples of bad turn-taking can also work out well. Here is a dialogue where one person is dominating the conversation, or you can show a video with a bad example of a conversation and then a good example. This will help students see the problem and, probably, start thinking of solutions.
Teach taking the turn
Sometimes it is necessary to interrupt. For example, your speaking partner might be talking for too long, but you need to show your speaking skills.
Teach students some polite phrases to signal they want to interrupt the other person, without speaking over them:
Oh, that reminds me of something…
So, what you’re saying is…
Before you go on…can I say something here?
I hate to interrupt but…
Sorry to interrupt but…
Sorry, can we come back to that later? We were supposed to be discussing…
At higher levels, you can invite students to make up such phrases themselves. They can work in groups and think of interrupting phrases for different situations: when you want to clarify something, when you want to disagree, when another speaker is talking for too long, or when you want to get back to the topic or task.
Practice predicting. Another way of managing to say something if your speaking partner has been overly talkative is trying to finish their sentence and — continue. For example:
A: In my city, the traffic is…
B: Awful, I know, as I’m also from Moscow! Something should be done about that, for example…
Practice keeping the turn
Some people, especially shyer ones, find it difficult to hold the floor. You can often witness that in teenage classes. So, keeping the turn looks more like a psychological barrier. Here are some ways of making it easier for your learners before an exam:
Teach them to speak up. Raising your voice just a little can be a good indicator of your desire to speak for longer.
…or speed up. Talking faster might help you signal that you haven’t finished yet.
Practise pre-structuring. If someone starts their part with ‘I’d mention two main reasons. First, …’, it is harder to interrupt before the second reason is announced.
Resist interruption by spotting it. A polite ‘Sorry, just a moment, please’ or ‘If I might just finish’ can be of great help.
Students can practice in pairs where one has to express their opinion on one of the exam questions and the other has to interrupt, no matter what. The first should talk non-stop and use all possible devices to hold the floor. The teacher’s responsibility is to keep things polite and act as a referee when necessary.
Try giving the turn
Asking questions — what can be more natural? Unfortunately, not all learners find it easy. Sometimes they just finish their thought and do not ask any questions. How to help?
Introduce a set of questions that will sound natural and appropriate for the students’ level and needs. Apart from ‘What do you think?’ and ‘Do you agree?’, there might be others like ‘What’s your take on that?’ or ‘Don’t you think it’s a good idea?’.
Make it physical. Put students into pairs or groups, set a task, and give one of the students a toy or some other thing that is easy to hold and pass. Tell them that each time, after expressing their opinion, they must ask their partner a question and pass the toy. Of course, first, it will look and sound completely unnatural, but with time they will learn to ask questions with ease and grace.
Teach learners to summarize their ideas and to signal the end of them. It can be done with the help of something like ‘Well, that’s what I think’ or ‘I’m sorry if I’ve gone on about it ’.
To practice all the strategies together, you can give each student a role before they start doing a speaking task.
Provide some thinking time for them to look through their vocabulary notebooks and to collect phrases that might come in handy.
Backchannelling is signaling that you are listening. This is a skill that is mainly used during turns, not between them. Some examples might be ‘Oh really?’, ‘No way!’, ‘Oh!’ ‘Dear me!’ and more. This is a great skill to develop because it shows people that you are following their ideas. One way of practicing that is the following:
Introduce students to the task. For example, give them some questions from CAE Speaking Part 4 and ask them to discuss in pairs or groups.
Also, give each student 4-5 cards with backchannelling words and phrases:
Tell students that, while talking, they have to use all the words on their cards appropriately and naturally. The first who has no cards left wins. Such backchannelling practice can definitely affect turn-taking skill development too — at least learners will start listening to each other more attentively.
All in all, turn-taking is a skill that must be taught and practiced. Another thing to consider is cultural differences: at Cambridge exams, candidates are expected to know and follow certain rules of conversation which might be unfamiliar for people with different backgrounds. The sooner you give your students a chance to practice those, the better their speaking skills will eventually become.
What do you think about teaching turn-taking?
Which book would you recommend to someone who is just starting their career in teaching?
Speaking activities are, obviously, essential for English language speaking classes. A lot of students join classes particularly to develop their communicative competence, become more fluent, versatile, adaptable, and confident communicators in English. However, designing speaking activities might be time-consuming and nerve-wracking for any teacher. We have prepared a memo with superb ready-made speaking tasks that will make your student talking. Download it here.