Are you really listening? Focused conversation training

Louis Butto, Hyogo Prefectural University


Quick guide

  • Key words:Focused, concentration, attentive
  • Learner English level:Upper beginner and up
  • Learner maturity:High school and up
  • Preparation time:15 minutes
  • Activity time:15 minutes
  • Materials:Formulaic expressions, questions on a theme, CD player, English music CD

This activity is designed to really promote concentrated listening and speaking. It has been quite successful by engaging students in meaningful and enjoyable conversation. Students are often amused by this novel activity. It can be used once in every class, with slight modifications. The students will gradually understand the purpose and engage actively. It really helps focus on listening without relying on any visual-contextual clues. It also helps students negotiate meaning. This is an extension of the common telephone simulation activity where students sit back to back without looking at each other while communicating.


Step 1:Prepare a formulaic expressions handout for all students. It should include expressions that ask for clarification (see Appendix for an example).

Step 2:Depending on your objective, pick a theme (such as traveling or holidays) and create 25 or more questions that are suitable for your students. Make copies for all.

Step 3:Make sure it will be possible for your students to sit back to back in class.

Step 4:Bring a CD player and good English background music.


Step 1:Explain the purpose of the activity and pass out the handouts

Step 2:Go over the formulaic expressions handout thoroughly, practicing in a variety of ways beforehand until it becomes somewhat automatic.

Step 3:Have students briefly go over the theme questions individually. So that partners will not know which question is coming next, instruct students to choose questions randomly. If they are lower-level students, you may want to have them choose questions beforehand.

Step 4:Have each pair decide who asks whom first.

Step 5:With students sitting back to back, have each person ask five or more questions to their partner as time allows. Partners could also alternate questions. Remind them clearly that they should use the formulaic expressions when they don’t understand or can’t make themselves understood.

Step 6:On a separate paper, have students write down the responses to their questions for you to collect afterwards. This makes the activity more focused.

Step 7:In real life, it is often difficult to hear what someone is saying, so provide some background noise. Of course, everyone talking at once creates a noisy atmosphere, but how about adding some background music and gradually turning it up? In this way, students will have to ask for more clarification and speak more clearly.

Step 8:To make it even more challenging, start pulling their seats farther and farther apart (still sitting back to back) to force them to speak even louder. If some grumpy students complain about the noise or with difficulties in communicating, encourage them to enjoy the activity and remind them that it is training.


  • Do this activity in groups, where one student asks a question and the others must all answer differently in turn while writing down previous answers to avoid repetition.
  • For higher-level students, have them come up with their own questions on a certain theme, either ahead of time, or spontaneously, where the listener must write down the questions and the questioner must write down the responses.
  • Instead of sitting back-to-back, use blindfolds. However, this has the disadvantage that germs can be spread if someone is sick, so students will need their own blindfolds to use again and again.


Usually the shouting that develops causes quite a ruckus, but most students enjoy it. With just a little ingenuity, this can be applied to a plethora of purposes–intonation practice, grammar structures, functional expressions, as well as fluency practice. Moreover, this activity can be used as a pair assessment at the end of a term.

Appendix: Sample formulaic expressions handout

Available below