Broken telephone stories: Creating amusing tales in the classroom

Elizabeth J. Lange, Tokai University; Jong Oe Park, Rikkyo University


Quick guide

  • Key words:Laughter, effective communication skills
  • Learner English level:Intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity level:From young adults
  • Preparation time:About 15 minutes
  • Activity time:90 minutes
  • Materials:One different story/passage for each student



We are often amused to discover how messages can change when passed verbally from person to person. One such example is a story from during the First World War when communication systems were poor. According to the story, a British colonel requested that the following message be passed down the line of soldiers fighting in the trenches: "Send reinforcements, we're going to advance!" But, after it had passed from soldier to soldier and finally reached its destination, the message was something completely different: "Send three and four pence, we're going to a dance!" This reminds us of the popular Broken Telephone game which involves a message being passed down a line from person to person, usually ending up completely different from the original message. The following activity is a game based on this phenomenon. However, it is more elaborate and multi-dimensional, because it requires all the students to participate all of the time, telling their own story, speaking and listening to different partners and then relaying what they have heard from their current partner to the next one. The main purpose is to let students practice English through story-telling/listening, laughing together and having fun.



For homework, give each student one different story (or article/passage). Tell them to remember the key ideas and some details for the next class so that they can tell the story in two or three minutes without referring to the original.



Step 1:Begin the class by giving the students about 5 minutes to refer to their stories again to refresh their memories of the content and then ask them to put them away.

Step 2:With the students seated in pairs, ask them to tell their story to their partner without referring to the original. Encourage them to seek clarification while listening and even to repeat back what they heard for confirmation. Before moving onto the next step, students can rotate partners several times to gain confidence telling their story. Allow them to have a short sneak look at their original stories between rotations.

Step 3:Now, ask them to tell the story they just heard to their next partner (i.e., not their own story). Have students change partners 3 to 4 times, each time telling the previous partner’s story to their new partner.

Step 4: Ask the class to sit in such a manner that they can all see each other. Then, choose a student at random and ask that student to stand up and tell the class the last story s/he heard. Then, ask the student who first told this story to stand up and tell the original version. Also, ask the class, while listening, to note the differences between the two versions. Repeat this last-story-first-story retelling process as long as time permits. There will be laughter in the classroom as they see how the original has been changed.

Step 5:Elicit comments from the class about what went wrong with the final version of the stories told.

Step 6: Give a copy of all the original stories to each student, asking them to read them in their free time to discover the true stories.



What started off as a serious activity ends up inspiring laughter in the classroom as students see how the meaning of messages can change when passed from person to person. As it becomes obvious to students where they have made mistakes, it is an incentive for them to be more careful next time, thus encouraging them to want to repeat the activity in future classes to see how much they can try to improve their communication skills.