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Teaching Ideas

January 31, 2003

The Talk-box: A Five Minute EFL Activity to Promote Genuine L2 Conversations

Johannes C. Razenberg

TESOL teacher

I often hear that 'the simple things in life work best'. Testament to this is the "talk-box" (a box filled with conversation starters), which, despite its simplicity, has brought about numerous genuine five minute L2 conversations in my classes in Japan. This teaching resource came about in 2001 when I needed a resource which would allow me to observe a student's conversational and 'interactional' (Ur 1996, pp.129-131) skills, increase the volume of conversation in quite heterogeneous classes, and allow students to utilize class time to communicate using the L2, as this was the only time opportunity, for most, to ever use English.

Even to date students laugh, joke, teach each other new words and phrases, use conversational skills related to the culture of the English language (Ur 1996; Emmitt & Pollock 1997; Macquarie University c.2002a), and converse in more volume (Ur, 1996) than I used to believe possible in EFL classes in Japan. After much observation, critical reflection and refinement of the talk-box, I do believe that it's a resource worth sharing.


  • Beginner to advanced

Number of Students

  • Partner or small group work

Suggested Time

  • 5 minutes

Learning Objectives
The talk-box:

  • Will give EFL students the opportunity to produce genuine conversations that are rich in expressions, gestures, language functions, lexical areas, volume, and conversational and interactional skills.
  • Will allow students to converse in a safe and supportive partner work or small group environment about topics which provide an element of attainable challenge.
  • Will allow teachers and students to revise lexical areas taught in the classroom.
  • Will allow students to communicate beyond the use of isolate sentences and phrases.
  • Will allow students to communicate in meaningful and motivating social contexts.
  • Will let students discover for themselves what they can do with what they have learnt.
  • Will allow a teacher to step back and observe how much and how well learning has occurred.


  • Inexpensive
  • Requires little preparation time
  • Great five minute reserve activity
  • Allows for revision, feedback, observation
  • Provides insights into the language requirements of each individual
  • Removes authority (the teacher), thus allowing conversation to occur without hesitation
  • Allows for peer teaching
  • Students can relate to the topics and thus can successfully use the L2 to communicate (Macquarie University 2002b).
  • Lets students genuinely converse in the L2- the highest considered skill of truly owning a foreign language (Ur 1996, p. 120).


  • Colorful or plain box
  • colorful or plain palm cards
  • marker pens.


  • First, the teacher should write down the topics in the form of one-word-headings (e.g. holidays) which will be covered in class on the palm cards and put them in the box when students have the language needed to safely attempt the task (Leather 2000) so that they may experience a sense of progression and attainment (Maltby, Gage & Berliner 1995; Emmitt & Pollock 1996; Ur 1996) from being able to communicate.

    In addition, get students, as the opportunities present themselves, to transfer class topics which they find interesting onto palm cards and place them in the talk-box at the end of each class. This lessens the preparation time and allows for the resource to be more challenging in accordance to the learning which is taking place. It also helps with student motivation and gives them ownership over the language task (Maltby, Gage & Berliner 1995).
  • To use the resource, put students in pairs or small groups and ask them to select a piece of paper from the box, and talk about it for five minutes or more. I have found that five minutes is long enough or most lower level students to feel a sense of achievement whereas talkative and higher level students often like to talk much longer.

Important Notes

  • Don't let the students know that you are monitoring them because it destroys the task, period.
  • It may take sometime to get the idea across that this is not a QA activity nor one where two people talk and everyone listens. To ensure this doesn't happen, I strongly suggest showing a model conversation, being sure to most importantly demonstrate interactional skills (e.g. interrupting, contributing) and communication skills (e.g. paraphrasing, active listening) associated with English speaking cultures.
  • Once students grasp the task, they often display true conversation, that is they will shift from the topic, revisit it, use incomplete sentences, and so on. This activity is for them so let them go with the flow--just observe what happens.


  • Diagnostic observation to decide how well learning has occurred, and what language features and lexical areas need to be revised, expanded, or introduced in future lessons.

In short, a box full of words starts students talking; it's simple and effective. I believe that the talk-box will promote genuine L2 conversations in your classroom too.

Emmitt, M. & Pollock, J. 1997, Language and Learning: An Introduction for Teaching, '2nd ed.', Oxford University Press, Australia.
Leather, S. 2000, 'Safety and challenge', The ETJ Journal, Vol 1., No. 1, pp.1-3.
Macquarie University c.2002a, Sociocultural Aspects of Language Learning and Teaching, LING954 Course Book, by the National Centre of English Language Teaching and Research, Sydney.
Macquarie University c.2002b, Linguistics and language teaching, LING951 Course Book, by the National Centre of English Language Teaching and Research, Sydney.
Maltby, F., Gage, N.L. & Berliner, D.C. 1995, Educational Psychology: An Australian and New Zealand Perspective, John Wiley & Sons, Brisbane.
Ur, P. 1996, A Course in Language Teaching: Practice of Theory (Cambridge Teacher Training and Development) , Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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