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The Game of Telephone

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Tech skills: Using a cell phone to make and receive calls

Remember playing the game of telephone when you were little? One child would start off with a crystal clear message or story and whisper it to the kid beside him. But by the time the message got passed down the line, the basic idea got morphed in ways that were hilarious.

I have used that same game as a speaking and listening activity with my adult ESOL classes with great success. Well… not success actually, but it was great fun. It helped relax most students, while getting them to focus on listening for key words and capturing main ideas. And it was good opportunity for those who were reticent to speak in front of the whole class.

So the question here is, as always, can technology add value to this activity?  Try replacing whispering into ears with whispering into phones. Here are some suggestions with variations.

Lesson ideas:

  1. Explain the game to the class. Mention that passing on accurate information to a group isn’t easy even for native speakers. Depending on the class level, you might even have a warm up discussion on miscommunication and how rumors start.
  2. Form groups of 4-6 students.
  3. Have students count off so that they will each have a number and know the order in which they will communicate to each other.
  4. Devise a plan in which they share cell phone numbers. (e.g, Each group creates a numbered list of names, each member adding their phone number beside their name. Then whoever is initiating the call is handed the list.)
  5. Create scenarios that are as realistic as possible. Write each message or story down so that you can give (or whisper) it to the first person on the list in each group. Start with simple messages and then make them increasingly complex. (e.g., There will be no class tonight because of snow. Please call the next person on the list and tell them that the next class will not be this Thursday but on next Tuesday.) Depending on the level of difficulty of the message, you may need to decide that that the caller only repeats the message once or not at all.
  6. After the last students receive the call have them tell the group what they heard.
  7. Ask the group to examine any errors and talk about how they think the problem occurred. This is actually a good conversation starter.
  8. As a closer, have the class process the activity and reflect on tips for ensuring better communication.

Variations: 

  1. Have students create their own messages and give them to other groups to try.
  2. The first group that finishes and gets the gist of the message wins a prize.
  3. Add in a writing component, where every other caller (even numbered) writes down the message and passes it on to the next person.
  4. No one speaks directly to another. Each caller leaves a message for another. (This has increased possibility for use as a homework assignment.)
  5. One caller calls three people. They write down the message and report back and compare notes.
  6. Consider the effect of background noise. If you’re in a noisy environment you could compare it to the effect of making calls from a bus or other noisy places. You could even increase the background noise to simulate this if the activity is too easy.

Share your experience using this activity or any suggested variations you have.

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