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How To Teach Teleconferencing In English

A practical guide to helping students cope with this most challenging and most modern of skills.

Teleconferencing is one of the most difficult things to do in another language, and nowadays many people have more teleconferences in English than face-to-face meetings. Unfortunately, materials for telephoning and meetings in English generally ignore this fact, with a page or two on the topic at most. This article aims to help you prepare such lessons without the need for published materials. Most of the ideas should also be easily adaptable for video conferences.

What Students Need To Know To Teleconference In English

A teleconference is a bit like a cross between a meeting and a telephone call, and it can help to have several lessons on one or both of those topics before launching into the trickier topic of teleconferencing. Language that exists in at least one of those two but is more important in teleconferencing includes:

  • Clarifying
  • Sorting out technical problems with the equipment
  • Referring to documents
  • Asking people to wait
  • Introducing the people who are taking part
  • Keeping everyone on topic
  • Making sure everyone has a chance to speak
  • Keeping to the agenda and timings
  • Turn-taking, e.g. interrupting
  • Deciding on breaks
  • Asking people to speak in particular ways (more slowly, more loudly etc)
  • Regularly summarizing what you have discussed and agreed
  • Signalling what you will talk about
  • Chatting while people arrive
  • Explaining silences (e.g. while looking for something)
  • Taking time out to have conversations between just one side
  • Talking about differences in time zone/the time of day

Language specific to teleconferencing includes:

  • Checking who is speaking/has just spoken
  • Telling the other side when people leave and come in
  • Sending documents during the teleconference
  • Chatting with people as they set up and pack up the equipment

They might also need some vocabulary, e.g. “bullet points”, “voice quality” and “echo”.

Classroom Activities

Although there are few materials with useful language for this skill, there are plenty of tips for native speakers on how to go about setting up and taking part in a teleconference. These tips can be used to make a classroom activity by choosing ones that have specific phrases associated with them such as “Introduce everyone at the beginning of the meeting.” Students choose a top ten from the tips and then brainstorm suitable phrases to do those things, e.g. “I’ll introduce each person at this end and ask them to say their names.”

Especially if you have done some work on telephoning and/or face-to-face meetings before, you can use the contrasts with one of them to introduce or practise teleconferencing language. One way is to give students cards with “Face-to-face” written on one and “Teleconference” written on the other. They should lift up the “Face-to-face” card if the phrase can’t be used in teleconferences (e.g. “This person on my right is Alex”) and the “Teleconference” card if it can’t be used in face-to-face meetings (e.g. “I’ll just adjust the microphone”). You can also have them raising both cards if the phrase can be used in both situations (e.g. “Sorry for interrupting, but…”) and/or leaving both cards down if it can’t be used in either (e.g. video conferencing phrases like “I can’t see the people at the sides of the room”).

You could also do something similar by giving them the script from a face-to-face meeting that includes phrases that couldn’t be used in a teleconference, asking them to find and rewrite the bits that need to be changed.

Two other ways of presenting or practising  this language are:

  • giving them impolite teleconferencing sentences that need to be made more polite (e.g. “Move your microphone!”)
  • giving them the dialogue from part of a teleconference that they should put in order

When it comes to practising a whole teleconference, the best way is obviously with the actual equipment and the class split into two, preferably with students in rooms fairly close to each other so the teacher can run in and out helping them. If you can record it for later feedback and/or analysis by the teacher, that would be even better.

Even more than telephoning, it is very difficult to create realistic practice without the actual equipment. For example, it is possible to practise telephoning with two people back to back but this hardly makes sense with four to twelve people speaking for at least twenty minutes! The other thing is that, as with the real thing, the middle of the teleconference might vary little from any meeting, or even most classroom discussions. This takes away the practice of the specific functional language for this skill and often makes the students completely forget that they are practising teleconferencing.

You can add more intensive practice by splitting the teleconference up into little sections like “Make sure the other side can hear you.” They should then practise these stages one at a time. You can also add more challenging stages like “The first two attempts to sort out the problem don’t work.” By setting this up as some kind of board game, you can make sure it still adds up to practice of a whole teleconference.

You can also do something similar but with more natural flow by asking them to roleplay a teleconference all the way through after giving them cards containing things they should make sure they do such as “Go off topic” or “Chat with the people on the other end while your colleagues pop out for some reason.” They can discard these cards as they successfully do these things. If you want to make it competitive, you can tell them that the person or team with fewest cards at the end of the teleconference wins. They can then discuss what they could say for each of the cards they didn’t use. You can also do something similar with actual words or phrases they must use during the teleconference.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub | November 2011
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.

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