Teaching Turn Taking

This article, based on material used in our Delta courses, focuses on turn-taking and asks...

a) Why learners may have problems with turn-taking

b) How you teach turn-taking in order to overcome those problems

a) Problems faced by learners 

1. Cultural differences in turn-taking (TT) signals: TT is rule-governed and interlocutors will signal through body language and intonation as well as verbal formulae when they intend to relinquish a turn, wish to take a turn etc. As TT conventions are culture-specific, they may not be recognised or used by interlocutors from another culture.   For example, considerably more overlap (the second speaker starting while the first is still talking) is acceptable in Brazil than amongst English speakers, where overlap tends to be minimal and only occurs after the listener has recognised that a turn is about to be relinquished by eg noting drawl on the final syllable or a verbal formula such as “you know?” or “..or something”. A Brazilian speaker might therefore appear rude to an English native speaker. At the other extreme, considerably longer silence is acceptable between turns in Finnish than in English, and this may lead to a sense of annoyance or unease on the part of the English speaker.

2. Power distance vs personal familiarity: Status may determine who is “permitted” to speak, when and whether they may agree, disagree, introduce ideas etc and to what extent they will be listened to. Status may be hierarchical, or due to age, gender, technical expertise etc.  For example, in Japan older members of a group will not be interrupted by younger members.  In other contexts – eg British or American – the level of personal familiarity with the other speakers plays a greater part. Even in Italy, which is not a particularly high power distance culture, I have found that in company courses where mixed hierarchical levels were included in the group, other participants tended to defer to “the boss” and be less likely to agree, disagree or self-select for turns.

3. If the classroom is largely T-centred, most of the interaction will follow a repeated  T. initiation /S. response /T. feedback sequence (IRF – Sinclair and Coulthard). Learners in this type of classroom will never have the opportunity to practise moves such as initiating /negotiating topic, or (if the T. constantly nominates) self–selecting for a turn. This will be particularly so in a high power distance culture where Ls may be reluctant to interrupt the T. with questions. 

4.  Personality: Shy learners may be hesitant to participate, particularly if it means they have to interrupt a speaker. This may be especially true if there is a much more dominant learner in the group who tends to “hog the floor”.  An extreme example of this was I learner with Asperger syndrome who I once taught in a B1 class. Once he started talking he would continue at length, with no intention of relinquishing the turn, and oblivious to the fact that others were being excluded, and that they were showing signs of impatience and lack of interest in what he was saying.

5. Challenges of the communicative situation: Learners are not always able to formulate their responses under “real time conditions, and therefore fail to take a turn when they do in fact have something to say.   Many of my learners have told me that, particularly when using English outside the classroom, by the time they have formulated their utterance the discussion has moved on to a different sub-topic.

6. Formulaic language: Learners may not know the type of formulaic phrases that are used at various stages of the turn-taking procedure. As well as the turn-yielding signals listed above, these would include filled pauses (erm… that is…) used to indicate the speaker wants to hold the floor; expressions such as  Sorry – could I just say something? Used to interrupt a speaker politely; expressions used to bring other speakers into the conversation: And you? /What do you think Maria?; fillers like Well, erm etc used to give thinking time at the beginning of a turn.

b) How the problems can be overcome

7. Video examples: As turn-taking behaviour is generally non-conscious, video can be used to raise awareness:  to present learners with turn-taking models, to allow them to compare different cultural conventions when taking, holding or relinquishing turns. This could help deal with problems 1 and 2.

a) Ls in a monolingual class studying to speak to native speakers could watch two videos of a similar situation in English and in their own language - eg a TV chat show, or a discussion specifically filmed between two English speakers (eg the teachers) and the same topic discussed by two of the students. Using a checklist with questions relevant to their own culture (eg Did the speakers ever talk at the same time? / Was there ever silence in the conversation?) they can be led to “notice” the differences. Body language can be made more obvious by playing the recording without sound.

b) In a multilingual group, learners can watch the video of the native speakers, using a more general checklist and then in groups discuss how the answers might be different in a conversation with speakers of their own culture. This ensures that they have the chance to explain that any differences are not intended to be “rude”, but are expected behaviour. It will help the group to understand differences to be expected not only if they are speaking to native speakers, but also between themselves in group work. 

8. Reading /Listening comprehension work with the topic of cross-cultural differences in turn-taking. This is useful in EIL situations, where it may not be possible to obtain videos of speakers from the cultures that your learners may have to interact with. The texts can be used for “ordinary” comprehension and language focus work, but can also lead to a discussion of differences they have already noted when using English outside the classroom, and have possibly been misunderstood. (Problems 1 and 2)  

9. Video or audio recordings can also be used to focus on the phrases used at various stages of the turn taking process, resolving problem 6.  After comprehension work on the content of the text, learners can be given a gapped transcript with these phrases omitted but an indication of their function – eg Bring Maria into the conversation / signal that you want to interrupt. Activities that can be used include eg :

a) learners listen to identify the phrases

b) learners predict what might be said and then listen to see which phrase was actually used

c) learners are given a selection of phrases, predict which ones would fit at which point, and then listen to see which was used.

10. Activities can also be used or adapted from eg Business English coursebooks, which tend to focus on some of the formulaic language necessary for turn-taking (problem 6), particularly that needed to hand over a turn, or interrupt a speaker. 

11.  PW/GW activities are essential to resolve problem 3. The T. needs to “get out of the way” to ensure that the interaction is seen as occurring between peers. If there are “high status” participants in the group (problem 2) these can (numbers permitting) be grouped together rather than with the “lower status” participants.

12. Allocation of specific roles in discussions can resolve the problem of personality (problem 4). For instance a dominant learner can be given the role of “chair” and told that they must not give their own opinion, but must find out the opinions of all the other group members which they will be asked to summarise in the follow-up. They may ask for clarification but not say if they agree or disagree. Other members are free to interrupt, agree and disagree as they wish. This “forces” the dominant learner to listen to what all the members of the group have to say, and also to bring in the “shyer” learners who may not self-select. 

13. See the Reading references below.  Several of these problems could also be helped by  “talking stick” technique suggested by Jenny Wilde,  Alex Case’s “cards” activity (both specifically to resolve problem 4) and the idea proposed by both writers of filming the learners and then letting them self/peer evaluate using a checklist. This would help resolve problems 1 and 2, though only after consciousness-raising activities like those mentioned in points 7 to 10 had been used.


Further reading

For general information on turn-taking, see:

You'll find the teaching ideas referred to in point 13 here:

And if any of the information above was new to you, check it out here :

  • Brazilian speakers – turn taking
  • Cultural differences in overlap and silence when taking turns
  • Asperger syndrome : Notice particularly the paragraph “…someone with Asperger syndrome might initiate conversations with others by extensively relating facts related to a particular topic of interest. He or she may resist discussing anything else and have difficulty allowing others to speak. Often, they don’t notice that others are no longer listening or are uncomfortable with the topic. They may lack the ability to “see things” from the other person’s perspective.”