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Noises in the English classroom

How to use real and pretend noises to liven up the class, make the language memorable, and teach a useful emergency communication technique

Drawing and miming are two very well known techniques in language teaching, but this article will argue that they should be part of a trio with making sound effects, a technique which has all the same things going for it and more!

Not only are drawing and miming fun, they are also effective memorisation techniques. Perhaps even more importantly, being able to use gesture and sketches is a vital communication tool when words are insufficient, e.g. due to the English level of the speaker or listener. There is one more communication technique, this time a much neglected one, that has the same three selling points – making noises to communicate your ideas. This can be invaluable when you need to explain that you want someone to phone an ambulance because your wife has been bitten by a dog, as the easiest way is to make the yapping sound of a dog, the dialling tone of a phone and the sound of a siren as you act out what happened. As with gestures, however, what sounds people make to represent things is less universal than you might think. For example, the three sounds mentioned here are all different in different countries or represented in different ways, e.g. “woof woof” for a dog in English but not in any other languages that I know. It is therefore worth spending some time on this topic and skill in class. People can also be shy about using this technique to its full effect unless they have had the chance to try it out in a safe atmosphere such as in class.

Sounds with your mouth

Asking students to use their mouths to make noises of a car motor, a man snoring and a dog can be a nice variation on the kind of vocabulary and Present Continuous practice that we often use mimes or Pictionary for. As we usually have to carefully choose vocabulary to find things that students can draw or mime, using noises as well or instead also expands the range of vocabulary we can cover in class.

Asking students to represent things by making sound effects also leads inevitably onto discussion of how we tend to represent sounds in different countries and languages, e.g. onomatopoeia. Students are always fascinated to hear how much animal noises etc vary around the world, such as “baa” for a sheep in English but “maa” in most other languages. You can then move onto more useful topics such as words for noises that humans make, such as “sigh”, “cough” and “snore”.

If you give students a range of written noises in English (e.g. “shhh” and “bang”) and verbs used for sounds (e.g. “pant” and “snort”), you can ask them to make stories using them. For example, they could take turns using the words to continue a story and cross them off the list as the words are used. Alternatively, you could give them a script or story and ask them to add sound effects of their choice to it for their group or another group to perform. To practice listening, you could give them a recording of a story with lots of verbs representing sounds in it, e.g. “He giggled and the shook his rattle up and down”. Students listen in groups as often as they like, then perform the story with actions and sound effects made with their mouths.

Real sounds in the classroom

There are also plenty of good reasons for using real sounds in the classroom. Students trying to guess what sound is being made with their eyes closed is an nice variation on mimes for Present Continuous sentences like “He is knocking on the table” and “You are kicking the bin”, and again it brings verbs and nouns into the class that might be difficult to mime or draw. A similar game can be used for prepositions of position, with students who are listening with their eyes closed trying to guess where a sound is coming from or where a hard or noisy object landed.

Real sounds from elsewhere

You can also bring recordings of real sounds into the classroom. You could record these sounds yourself, find them on a ClipArt site, or use a Casio keyboard that has sound effects on it. You could ask students to write down the sounds (e.g. “brrrm” for car engine or “brrrr” for someone shivering), match the sounds to how they are written in English, guess what is happening, or make a whole story from the sounds in that order.

This is also a good way of bringing in sounds that vary from country to country, e.g. an engaged tone on a phone, what you say to make an animal go away, or the sound that means that you can cross the road. These and other recorded noises are great for modals and other language for guessing, e.g. “It could be someone walking in clogs” or “It is probably an electric can opener”. Knowing what the sound means could also be of practical use if they travel abroad, or even just to phone someone in a foreign country.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub | November 2010
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.

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