Your turn: Formulaic functions

Joshua Cohen, Setsunan University


Quick guide

  • Key words: Functions, formulaic expressions, talking cards, speaking tasks, game
  • Learner English level: Low intermediate to advanced
  • Learner maturity level: High school and above
  • Preparation time: 60 minutes
  • Activity time: 25-35 minutes weekly
  • Materials: Prepared phrase cards, laminator (optional)


A formulaic expression is a speaking tool used in everyday language to convey a notion that cannot be condensed into a single word. For example, “I know what you mean, but it seems to me that X...” or “What’s your opinion about Y...?” A lot of what we say when agreeing, disagreeing, or asking for an opinion is formulaic. The following activity, based on suggestions from David Beglar, uses cards to give students practice with functional formulaic expressions. It can be done at any point during a lesson, but works best after a reading or listening passage. Practicing multiple times enables students to use the same phrases and expressions repetitively, a practice that heightens learning and accuracy (Bygate, 2001). Formulaic expressions practice exposes learners to commonly used language and improves their chances to obtain more native-like fluency.


Compile a large set of cards (at least five per student) with language functions derived from your course’s objectives (Appendixes 1-5). Different colored paper for each phrase will help students choose quickly and enable you to keep them straight. Laminating the cards ensures their longevity and is worth the extra effort.


Step 1: Give each student one of each function. Students work comfortably with four to six cards.

Step 2: Divide students into groups and initiate a discussion or debate. Contemporary social issues like graffiti, tattoos, or cell phone manners are excellent topics to start with, as students will probably have an opinion on these subjects already. Alternatively, a pre-task activity, such as a brainstorming session or reading (Appendix 6, Online reading sources), activates schemas and provides students with sufficient input to do the speaking task.

Step 3: Encourage students to continue their discussions using the expression cards to assist them. Have them place the cards in the middle of the table after using them. The first student to use all of their cards wins, although conversations should continue as long as time or interest allows.

Step 4: Monitor students’ progress by walking around and assisting them. You may wish to make notes on the language you hear for future practice.

Step 5: Repeat steps 1-4 weekly if possible. This helps students internalize the structures and assists them in using the functions in appropriate situations. Once students become proficient with the expressions, several variations can be added.


There are several ways this activity can be altered:

  • Students who lay down all their cards may reply or respond only, but may not initiate new lines of inquiry.
  • Students who lay down all their cards may take additional cards if they want to continue speaking.
  • Have your students participate in choosing expressions. For example, instead of focusing on teacher-selected language functions, students can pick out two or three phrases or expressions from a past reading, video, or conversation and make up several cards of their own.
  • Set up a point system. Students who use all their cards are awarded a certain number of points. This shifts the focus of the activity slightly, but may be useful in encouraging slow or reluctant students to participate more fully.  


Although formulaic expressions are frequently presented in course books, their use in subsequent tasks and discussions is often neglected by students. The repeated use of this activity gives students focused practice with multiword formulaic expressions, while allowing for speaking autonomy. This activity can be made to fit comfortably into any number of lesson plans and works best after students become accustomed to doing it.


Bygate, M. (2001). Effects of task repetition on the structure and control of oral language. In M. Bygate, P. Skehan, & M. Swain (Eds.), Task-based learning: Language teaching, learning, and assessment (pp. 23-48). London: Longman.


The appendixes mentioned in this article are available below.