My English telephone

In this activity, students make their own 'English' telephones and try them out.

Sally Trowbridge

The class discusses how to make the phone and what materials are needed. The teacher elicits the necessary language to make and use the phones.


  • Disposable plastic cups, two per student
  • Nylon string, about two metres per student
  • Small square pieces of paper / stickers, 20 per student
  • Scissors
  • Pens / pencils

Make your own telephone as an example. Instructions:

  • Write the numbers for the telephone keys 0-9 on the stickers or small pieces of paper.
  • Stick the numbers in lines of three on the side of a cup.
  • Make a small hole in the base of the cup using a pen or scissors. (Teacher can do this for students if appropriate.)
  • Repeat the previous steps with a second cup.
  • Thread a 2-metre length of string through the hole in the first cup and tie a double knot at the end inside the cup.
  • Thread the free end of the string through the hole in the second cup and tie a double knot on the inside.
  • Students A and B stand apart, until the string is taut. A puts the open end of the cup phone to their ear and B talks into their cup phone. Take turns to listen and speak.

The following works well with a low-intermediate primary class, but you can adapt as appropriate for the level and age of your students.

  • Show students a phone you made earlier. Ask for telephone numbers then pretend to call students pressing sticker buttons. Chat on the phone with various students and let them try the phone in pairs to show how it works.
  • Elicit a dialogue, line by line onto the board. For example (practises telephone language and making plans but you can adapt according to your students' needs):
    A Hello. Can I speak to Maria please?
    B It's Maria here.
    A Hi! It's Jane. Do you want to go to the cinema at the weekend?
    B Yes, I'd love to. What about Saturday night?
  • Various students practise the dialogue in open pairs. In closed pairs all students practise the dialogue and then swap roles. Encourage students to repeat the dialogue without looking at the board if they can. Early finishers can extend the dialogue.
  • Explain that the students are going to make a phone and elicit or feed-in how it's done. Elicit the necessary vocabulary onto the board:
    • string, tie a knot, plastic cup, stickers
    • Can I have the scissors please?
    • etc.
  • While students make their phones, monitor and help. With a large class, use responsible early finishers as helpers.
  • In pairs students use one phone to practise and extend the dialogue.
  • Use the phones in future classes as a fun way to practise new language. This can be very controlled, e.g., to practise question forms in the past simple (Did you see the new film at the weekend?) or question tags (The teacher gave us some homework, didn't she?) or less controlled conversations on topics to practise new vocabulary.

This has been a repeated success with my students. Despite the low-tech aspect of the telephones they love the fact that you can actually hear through the phone. Playing with the phone motivates students to make one.

While making the telephones students need constant reminders to speak English and use the language on the board. They often want to play with their phones and make up conversations. If you call it 'My English telephone', this encourages students to use English. Once you have made your telephone and used it in class, preparation will be minimal next time around.

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