Principal: Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul. 

Billy Madison: Okay, a simple no would’ve done just fine.


The other day I came across an article describing quite an interesting language awareness initiative promoted by a school in London. They’ve banned their students from using ten informal phrases – including innit, cos, aint, bare, like, extra, you woz and we woz – in all classrooms and corridors. As part of the initiative, students are also not allowed to begin sentences with basically and ending sentences with yeah (how come starting every second sentence with “so” is still “legal” there?). Read more about this initiative here.

I doubt such restrictions might help develop students’ abilities to express themselves appropriately in formal situations, yet the intention of making sure that the language students are using is not restricting them is certainly worthwhile.

No ‘innit’ cos it ain’t in the coursebook.

EFL students have been somewhat restricted and made to keep to standards of written English when speaking for years. As a result, whenever it comes to informal conversations, they often speak ‘like a textbook’. Recently, though, we have begun to focus on the specific features of spoken language trying to incorporate them in classroom conversations. You can read more about research findings here, watch this video on spoken grammar and learn and practise some strategies for speaking natural English here. I’d also highly recommend the British Council’s session There are rules, and there are rules: What should we teach about how language works?  that gives an alternative view of learning about language and teaching the enjoyment of language.

The omission of words (elliptical structures) is probably one of the most obvious ways in which spoken English follows different grammatical rules from written English. The nature of spoken interaction allows us to easily retrieve the meaning from the situation. However, this may require a relatively good understanding of language and practice to omit extraneous words.

In this post, I’ll describe a few activities based on short dialogues arranged to convey the greatest possible amount of meaning with the least use of words (‘espresso dialogues‘).

Activity 1.

Show the following dialogue to your students:

– Good?

– No.

– Black?

– Yeah.

– Sure?

– Yes.

– Okay.

Get students to think where this conversation could take place. Ask them to turn it into a longer, more elaborate dialogue.

You can also use One Word Responses from the Carol Burnett Show (or a part of it depending on the age of your students) as an example.

Pair up your students and ask them to make up similar one-word dialogues. This template providing random choices in respect of locations, actions and time could be rather handy (Thank you, Tekhnologic!).

Students then read out or perform their dialogues for the class. You can also offer some additional circumstances: a busy street – talk louder; you don’t want to be heard by other people – whisper, etc. Say it with delight, anger, sarcasm, etc.

Activity 2.

Choose a dialogue from the coursebook you’re using (if any) and ask students to shorten it. To make it more competitive, award one point for each word omitted. This activity may serve as a springboard for discussion which words can be omitted without influencing the meaning of the sentence.

You can also focus on particular functions, e.g. making requests or suggestions, or practise the omission of auxiliary verbs or subjects using grammar exercises given in the coursebook.

Activity 3.

Show the following video to your students (stop it at 0:50 and ask your students to guess what will happen next).

Ask your students to write two ‘identical’ conversations with a partner: a long version and a short version.  Get the students to record their dialogues with their smartphones. Discuss which version would be a better voice-over for the video.

Activity 4. 

Ask your students to make up a 7-to-1 dialogue where the first line starts with seven words and the last line has one word only.

7 _____  _____  _____  _____  _____  _____  _____

6 _____  _____  _____  _____  _____  _____

5 _____  _____  _____  _____  _____

4 _____  _____  _____  _____

3 _____  _____  _____

2 _____  _____

1 _____

[A big thank you for the idea to Hania Kryszewska, Oxford Summer Academy]

If you’re looking for other activities to practise some other features of spoken English, you may find useful my posts on interjections (see WOW ME) or showing interest (see FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT).

Thank you for stopping by and happy teaching!

Image credit:  Marquette LaForest, flickr.com, Creative Commons