Better use of Dialogues

The following was originally printed in KOTESOL’s “The English Connection” in 2010 and was part of the “Training Notes” column that I co-wrote with Manpal Sahota. 

Michael: Hello Manpal. How are you today?
Manpal: I am fine thank you and you? Did you have lunch?
Michael: Yes, I had pizza for lunch today.
Manpal: Do you like pizza?
Michael: Yes, I do.  But I don’t like dialogues.

Dialogues. Often inane. Typically stilted. Generally boring. Occasionally confusing. Rarely inspiring. They exist in nearly every textbook.  A common question from teachers is how to handle them. With this in mind, it seemed appropriate to devote our second training notes column to this topic.

While dialogues can certainly be problematic there are also some benefits for teachers and students. First of all, dialogues are often helpful for providing a context for the use of language. They can also be a source of important grammar and vocabulary, providing valuable language input for the students. Dialogues can also be confidence boosters because students don’t have to worry about producing language all on their own from the start. A final strong point of dialogues is that they are familiar. Language learners have come to expect dialogues in their classes. This probably means that dialogues are here to stay so it might be best if we, as teachers, try to find strategies to exploit dialogues to the fullest.  We believe that, as teachers, we only need to “own” a few routines to help us spice up our inevitable time with dialogues.

With lower level students dialogues can be helpful in showing them how to use the target vocabulary and language structures that you planned for your lesson. However, simply getting all students to practice reading dialogues with their partner(s) at their desks is where some teachers misuse dialogues. After introducing the core dialogue for the lesson and allowing students to practice reading it out aloud with each other is it important to jump into an activity where students have a chance to play, use, and absorb the language.

One thing that might seem like a small point that we believe is very important is to make sure that students make eye contact with each other while performing dialogues. Michael is always pushing the “look up and say” technique. He has been known to make a dramatic example to show that simply looking at the book and monotonously reading the words on it is not acceptable in his classes when practicing with dialogues. Michael has noticed that his efforts to push students to actually look at each other when working with dialogues pays off when they make eye contact without prodding after a few experiences with dialogues.

One very simple, but effective activity that we like to use with dialogues is to get the target dialogue on the board and progressively erase parts of the dialogue as the students internalize the dialogue. A good strategy is to erase key words first and then erase big chunks until there is almost nothing and then finally nothing left. This can be a fun and effective way to draw students’ attention to target language. Also, practicing a dialog from the bottom up can be just the change needed to spice things up.

The next step involves engaging students with activities that allows them to use and digest the language in the dialogue. Michael recently observed an activity where a teacher cut the dialogue into strips of paper and used a different colored paper for each of the two speakers. The students were asked to predict the order of the conversation before hearing a tape of the conversation. The extra chance of working intently with the language of the dialogue before having to perform it seemed to help the students feel comfortable with the dialogue.

Another activity that Manpal has seen work well with a large class (30+ students) is ‘Speed Row Dialogues.’ With this activity you divide the class into 2 or 3 large groups and when the teacher says “Go!” the first student in each group practices the dialogue with the second student beside them. Once they finish the second student then turns to the next student and practices the dialogue with the next student, and this continues down the rows until all the students get a chance to practice the dialogue. Some students may not say every word perfectly but the goal of this activity is not accuracy. Rather, this activity is designed to allow students to have fun with the dialogue and give them an opportunity to take in the language.

A resource book that Michael has found very helpful for exploiting dialogues is Dialogue Activities: Exploring Spoken Interaction in the Language Class, by Nick Bilbrough. Part of the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers series, this book explores different ways to use dialogues in ELT classrooms. The book is divided into sections like understanding, analyzing, reproducing and reconstructing, memorizing, rehearsing and performing, co-constructing, creating and personalizing, communicating. Each of these sections provides a variety of activities that can be adapted and used.

Once students have been presented with a simple dialogue and have been given various opportunities to digest the language through engaging activities it’s time to move from dialogue practice to language production. Ultimately, every dialogue-based language class should include language production. Now that students are comfortable with the core dialogue provide them with some vocabulary expansion and let them create their own dialogues. Lower level students can do simple word substitutions into the core dialogue structure while higher level students can expand the dialogue to include prior knowledge related to the lesson topic.

When students present their own dialogues there are a few things to keep in mind. First, it is not necessary for students to memorize their dialogues. If some students are struggling to recall what they want to say allow them to use their scripts as a reference. Also, encourage your students to adlib and go off script, provided the improvised language is relevant to the overall dialogue. This is where higher level students can exploit their prior knowledge and make the dialogue more engaging for them. Teachers should also consider the fun that can be had by performing dialogues with different moods, characters, afflictions, personalities, etc. There is a lot ofvalue in changing a dialog to reflect what it might look like if the speakers/situations are changed.

With large classes you may find students becoming restless and talking amongst themselves while other pairs/groups are presenting their dialogues. Students are quite predictable and if they have no task to complete then naturally they will become impatient and you will start to have class management issues. An excellent strategy to deal with this problem is to include an active listening component to the dialogue presentations. You can ask comprehension check questions after each dialogue presentation or even give students a worksheet with 3-5 simple questions that they must answer after each dialogue presentation. This keeps the whole class involved and forces students to listen and pay attention to each pair/group.

We hope the above suggestions will help you make dialogues more engaging for your students.  Let’s face it, dialogues are familiar and expected, and while we are basically stuck with them there are a lot of benefits to using dialogues. They can provide a clear situation, provide a sort of entry way into grammar/vocabulary, and can help build confidence. If we keep the benefits in mind and do our best to exploit dialogues it will be beneficial for students and less painful for us.


  1. Pingback: Better use of Dialogues | English Teacher's Dig...
  2. Pingback: A look back at 2013 on this blog | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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