Please speak at the beep: a listening and speaking homework activity

Annette Kaye, Rikkyo (St. Margaret's) Junior High School


  • Key Words: Listening, Speaking
  • Learner English Level: Beginner*
  • Learner Maturity Level: Jr. High*
  • *but can be adapted for more advanced or older students.
  • Preparation Time: 15­20 minutes
  • Activity Time: 20­25 minutes class time, 2­5 minutes homework, 5 minutes follow up next lesson

It can be difficult to devise and monitor homework activities in which students have to use listening and speaking skills. The following activity involves students using these skills in a realistic situation where their efforts are recorded on tape. It also shows students that, whatever their degree of fluency, they can use English to communicate successfully in controlled circumstances.



This idea grew out of a classroom activity in Listen First (Adelson-Goldstein, 1991) that I use with first-year junior high school students. In Unit 4, students listen to telephone messages on tape and complete a message form in their book. They then do a pair activity in which they take turns to give and take additional messages. The key points of information that they have to communicate are the caller's name and number, where the caller is, and what time they called. Anyone wishing to use this homework idea should give students similar preparatory activities.

Perfection is not necessary for communication

After the students have practiced giving and taking messages, I tell them that for homework, they have to call me at home and leave a message on my answerphone. There is always a great "Eeehhh" of disbelief from the students at this point! They tell me that they can't do it because they don't speak English. I believe that the conviction many Japanese students seem to have, that they can't say anything unless they are sure what they say is perfect, is one of their biggest barriers to oral communication. This is a good opportunity to show students that they don't have to be able to understand absolutely every word they hear, or to speak in perfect English, to be able to communicate. To illustrate this, I tell the story of how I order pizza by phone. The students know that I don't speak perfect Japanese. I tell them that although I don't understand everything that the person at the pizzeria is saying, I know what key words to listen for, and what to say in reply. What is more, I've never had a wrong order arrive. Similarly, when the students call me, they won't need to be able to understand the whole recorded message, they just have to "speak at the beep."

Preparing to call

We then review the key points of information in the messages that the students practiced, and I ask them to write down similar information about themselves. This is the information that they will leave as a message on my answerphone, although the time and location will be different when they call. The basic message pattern is, therefore, "Hello, this is (name). It's (time) and I'm at (location). My telephone number is (number). 'Bye," although I tell them they can add more if they wish. I then give them a little more practice time, which by now they are clamoring for. I also promise them that no one will answer the phone in person, which they find very reassuring.

After the lesson, some students go immediately to the public phones in school and send their messages, so I make sure my answerphone cassette is rewound before I go to school. Most students phone from home, though I've even had some of them phoning from a station on their way home. If your answerphone is situated where calls will wake you up, it's a good idea to stipulate the earliest and latest times that you can be called, as some students do their homework at amazing times!


Before listening to the messages, I photocopy the class list and rule columns next to the names for time, location, number, and miscellaneous, which I fill in as I listen to the students' messages. In the miscellaneous column, I jot down anything that distinguishes the message, for example, background noises, unusual time or location, good intonation, additional message content, etc. I report this information back to the students in the next lesson; I don't read out everything, but I show them the list so that they can see that I was able to understand their messages and take down what they said. I tell them that this is proof they can communicate successfully in English.

It's quite a scary thing to speak on the telephone in a language you've only been learning for a few weeks. Some students call, panic and hang up; some students get the giggles on their first attempt; nevertheless, they all try again later and eventually succeed. They have used English outside the classroom, and they know that they were understood. From the looks on their faces, most students find this a surprising and enjoyable experience.



Adelson-Goldstein, J. (1991). Listen First . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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