Nick Bilbrough’s Six things to do with dialogues


Right, after the extremely active last post it’s back down to practical business here at Six Things. I’ve long wanted to do a six activity ideas using dialogues, ever since I read this book in fact. I had the chance to meet the author Nick Bilbrough at a conference last year, and he’s such a pleasant guy he agreed to do the post for me. Better really, as he is an expert on this. So here we are with Nick’s fiercely practical six things to do with a dialogue. Enjoy!

With good reason, dialogues have been used in language teaching for a very long time. What they offer is the chance for learners to freeze a few moments of speech and process it in greater depth than they may be able to when spoken language is only listened to. Here are six ways of working with dialogues in a language class.

Find and interpret them

With the internet we are now able to access masses of different kinds of dialogues (film scripts, plays, transcripts of authentic interaction etc). The extract below is from a site devoted to overheard snippets of people’s conversations.

Analyst: Look, you said you broke two bones in your e-mail, but you actually just broke your arm.
Boss: Yes, I broke my bone… now I have two bones!
Analyst: No! You have two pieces of one bone now. Bones are treated as a whole. You’re trying to get extra sympathy. If I break a pen in half, how many pens do I have?
Boss: Two!
Analyst: How are you my boss?

How about giving learners the homework task of trying to find the most interesting/funniest/silliest snippet they can on a site like this, and then bringing it to the next class for interpretation and discussion?

Reconstruct them

Even more noticing may happen if we get learners to reconstruct the dialogues that they encounter. Here’s a short dialogue where all the words have been jumbled up.





Small groups of learners get a set of these words on individual bits of card and have to create a dialogue by putting them into the right order. When they’ve done this they can test each other by turning over some of the words and asking the others in their group to remember what they are.

Chant them

An interesting and memorable way for students to perform a dialogue is for them to chant it. Here’s a dialogue which lends itself well to this technique. Half the class chant the lines on the left, and the others reply with the other half.

Where’ve you been?                           I’ve been to the zoo

What did you do there?                      I saw a kangaroo

Where’ve you been                             I’ve been to the shops?

What did you do there?                      I bought some lamb chops

Where’ve you been?                           I‘ve been to the station

What did you do there?                      I got some information

Where’ve you been?                           I’ve been to six schools

What did you do there?                      I broke all the rules

Memorise them

Chanting often leads to the class naturally learning the dialogue by heart. As long as the learners understand the dialogue, and it is not too long, we may also want to be more proactive about getting them to do this with the other dialogues that they encounter. It’s a great way of building up a repertoire of spoken chunks and expressions. Many of the techniques used by actors, like linking the lines to movements and emotions, and using a prompt who supplies a key word as a memory trigger, will help with this.

Create them

When learners write dialogues in pairs it’s a useful chance for them to refine their spoken language without the pressure of actually having to speak, and they can get support from their partners, dictionaries or the teacher more easily. They can write a dialogue to go with a picture, or to activate a particular area of language, or, with new text to speech technology like , they can even create their own films.

Engage in them

Of all the things I’ve done to try to learn different languages, my favourite, and the one I think I learn the most from, is having a conversation with someone who speaks that language better than I do. When I lived in Santiago, Chile, I got home one day and found a bucket of water in the lift. I turned to Luis, who worked on the door, and the following short dialogue took place.

Me: Hay algo en el ascensor

Luis: Ah si. Un balde?

Me: Si

Luis: Esta bien

As I went up in the lift I knew that I’d just learnt the word for bucket. This kind of learning happens a lot when speakers at different levels of ability talk to each other. As a teacher I try to provide plenty of opportunities for it in my classes.


Nick Bilbrough is the author of the Cambridge Handbook for teachers Dialogue Activities. I liked it so much I wrote a review in dialogue form for a magazine about it. You can read that review here.

Published in: on October 29, 2009 at 9:25 am  Comments (4)  
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