Wolfgang Butzkamm:


Part I: HOW TO LEARN A DIALOGUE (Age 12 upwards)

Methodological comments
Learning aim
Learning theory features
Learning prerequisites
The text
Suggested lesson plan
      A. First presentation
      B. Consolidation: Step-by-step progression through
      dialogue recognition and a series of dialogue recalls

Final comments - experiences with the approach
Worksheet: Scrambled Dialogue


We need an optimal way of effectively fostering the language talents dormant in everyone, even under the restrictive conditions of a school environment. This can be achieved using an ensemble of teaching techniques which, in combination, fully exploit the pupils' mental resources (instead of ignoring important learning aids like the mother tongue, for dogmatic ideological reasons). The first part of this set of techniques is demonstrated in the following treatment of a dialogue.

Learning aim

The pupils are to learn a dialogue by heart and then play it in roles while maintaining the natural flow of speech. This skill is a preliminary stage to the aim of being able to use the expressions contained in the dialogue freely, as under school conditions, secure reproduction is a prerequisite for free production.

All sections of the dialogue must be firmly memorised. They are not repeated mechanically, but must be rehearsed to the point that they are spoken fluidly, without getting stuck, with natural intonation and with the appropriate paralinguistics, i.e. facial expressions and body language. Once pupils can do this, they will have attained a basic confidence which will give them the feeling that they have really "mastered" a part of the language (confidence building).

Basic dialogues, each dealing with a particular grammatical theme and containing productive sentence patterns, can add up to a substantial foundation actively mastered by every pupil when they are learned by heart in the following way.

(How well-rehearsed sentences can become stock expressions which the speaker can use spontaneously for a wide range of speech intentions will be in part II of "Practice makes perfect").

Learning theory features

The lesson stages presented in this article represent a basic stock of teaching techniques which can also be useful in higher classes. They build up on each other. The techniques from this stock are selected by the teacher according to how challenging the particular dialogue is expected to be for the particular class: for easier dialogues, fewer steps will be needed.

  • They allow for holistic learning, address both left- and right-hemisphere processes and connect mind and body.
  • The mental powers of the pupils are mobilised. They project themselves into the situation and the language used. Language is internalised in a special way.
  • By sensitively staging the individual steps, teachers ensure that nobody falls behind. This reduces fear of failure and builds pupils' confidence in their own abilities (mastery learning).
  • The interplay of frontal and groupwork stages allows for internal differentiation, ensuring that faster learners do not get frustrated.
  • The variety of techniques and materials (combination of pictures, text, body language etc.) enables teachers to address a range of learner types.
  • The bilingual core techniques have been tested by experts in various countries and thus in a variety of school types: L. Alexander (USA); C.J. Dodson (Wales); E. Ericsson (Sweden); H. Hammerly (Canada); T. Ishii (Japan); T. Meijer (The Netherlands).

Learning prerequisites

The dialogue in this example serves to introduce comparative and superlative forms, and would therefore usually be used in the second year of English.

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The text


Who's the fastest in our class?
Kevin: Hmm. I don't know. Maybe Tom.


No, Pete's faster.
Kevin: Who cares anyway?
Michelle: I bet you don't even know who's the strongest.
Kevin: That's right. I don't. But I do know who's the cleverest.
Michelle: Who?
Kevin: Me.



Comparatives and superlatives with -er/est are practised without the text being grammatically overloaded with these structures.. On the contrary, Michelle and Kevin do not waste words, but get right to the point. A dialogue must above all be learnable, i.e. short and appropriate for performance. This also means that the affective colouring is a useful feature of the dialogue.

With regard to lexis, care is of significance. I don't care / who cares? etc. express a frequent and typical attitude which pupils learn to verbalise with these words. Other important functions are challenging and provoking via the exponent I bet you don't even know.

Emphatic do (Pic 4) is a case of grammatical preteaching. It presents no difficulties if explained as demonstrated below.

(The dialogue was written by Stefan Eschbach; the pictures painted by Norbert Lütz)

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Suggested lesson plan

A) First Presentation

Provided below is a sort of "libretto" for the lesson containing suggested formulations for the target-language introduction and for the execution of the individual stages. Teachers can use the text as a "script" for the lesson, skipping over the didactic commentaries.

Teacher hands out dialogues: Take one sheet and pass the rest on, will you, please? - Has everybody got a copy? If there are any spare ones, could you hand them back to me?

Today we are going to study a dialogue which is called Superlatives. In German we use the same word; of course we pronounce it the German way. So what do we say in German? - If you don't know what that means, just wait, you'll learn it later. - "Superlatives"! (Teacher gives signals for repetition drills, both choral and individual).

Make sure only to use hand signs to indicate the individual pupils during a round of individual drilling, i.e. do not call out names. When the model sentence is immediately followed by the pupil's repetition, the listen-repeat rhythm of the drill is not interrupted by irrelevant language and is thus more successful. A small variation in technique with a great effect.

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Picture 1

Look at picture no. 1.
As you can see, Michelle is talking to Kevin. You can also see what they are talking about. They are talking about a race. The boys have got their running shorts and gymshoes on. Is it the beginning or the end of the race, what do you think? - I think it's the end or the finish, because you can see the finishing line there. Who do you think will win the race, the boy on the right, the boy in the middle, or the boy on the left?

Now let's see what Michelle says. She says
"Who's the fastest in our class?"
Wer ist denn wohl der Schnellste in unserer Klasse?
Who's the fastest in our class?
(Teacher signals the pupils to repeat)

In the first cycle of repetition drilling an utterance or a partial utterance is modelled twice, with the native-language equivalent, possibly with translation variants, inserted in between. The German should be acoustically differentiated to characterise it as an insert. Translation is, of course, only necessary if there is insecurity with regard to meaning. For this reason, no translation is offered of the next utterance in the dialogue, "I don't know". The use of the typical German particles "denn wohl" in the translation is intentional. In English, such a nuance is achieved through intonation or a questioning look. The pupils will soon realise that there is seldom a one-to-one equivalence between the two languages.

And Kevin answers:
"Hmm. I don't know." (Repeat)
P: Hmm. I don't know.
T: But you must shrug your shoulders like I do!
Hmm. I don't know. (Repeat)

A comment on the Mitlesverfahren (simultaneous listening and reading) applied here: The pupils have the text in front of them. If they do not listen properly but read from the page instead, their pronunciation will, of course, be influenced by the written words. This must and indeed can be avoided. The pupils need only to be made aware that this practice leads to mistakes. (This initial information can be given in the mother tongue.) "Your task is to listen so that, when you repeat, you still have the sound in your ears. At the most you should only be glancing quickly at the text, and if you don't want to, you don't even have to do that. The main thing is to listen carefully and keep your eyes on me! You may also look at the text in between, when another pupil is repeating a line."

And then Kevin says:"Maybe Tom."
Tom vielleicht.
Maybe Tom. (Repeat)

You know the word may. I don't mean the month of May, with a capital letter. And you know be. So: maybe. Word for word mag sein, or simply vielleicht.

(Board: may
  the month of May
  may be --> maybe)

Each new language item must be networked with already known language as much as possible and in as many different ways as possible. The known item "may" is meaningfully associated with "maybe", the words consolidate each other: the principle of association.

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Picture 2

And now let's have a look at picture 2.
We can see Kevin with both his hands buried in his pockets - in seinen Taschen vergraben - buried in his pockets, and Michelle has her hands behind her back. Do you know her hairstyle? Do you know another girl with such a hairstyle? Pippi Longstocking and Michelle have got pig-tails. That's not a pony-tail - ein Pony- oder Pferdeschwänzchen - that's something else. For this kind of "Zöpfchen" the English say pig-tails. You are laughing? So you know what pig-tails means - word for word - in German. - Funny, isn't it?

Well, Michelle says:
"No, Pete's faster"
Nee. Pete ist schneller.
No, Pete's faster. (Repeat)

And Kevin says:
"Who cares anyway?"
Ist mir doch egal. Von mir aus.
Who cares anyway? (Repeat)

You don't know the word care, but you know the word careful. What does it mean? - Right, "careful" also means vorsichtig. But think of the meaning sorgsam, sorgfältig. "Who cares anyway" is literally: Wer sorgt sich schon darum? But we would rather say: Wen kümmert das schon?

Again, the principle of association. But here, the semantic bridge from "careful" to "who cares" must still be built, i.e. the pupils must be helped to perceive the connection between "careful" and "care". Words like "vorsichtig" and "ist mir egal" do not at first seem to have much in common. But at least the pupils recognise the logic behind the association, which helps retention. Otherwise both words would remain unconnected vocabulary.

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Picture 3

And now on to picture 3.
You see the boy who shows off his muscles - seine Muskeln? Look at his arm muscles and fists. Now you make a fist and show your arm muscles. Okay, let me feel them.
(Pupils demonstrate, the teacher feels the biceps)
Good, yes! This muscle here has got a name. What's its name in German? - In English we use the same word: biceps / / (Write it on the board). This boy looks like a body-builder. Maybe he does a lot of body-building.

Once more the principle of association and at the same time use of the new item "maybe" in a different context.

Michelle says:
"I bet you don't even know who's the strongest."
Ich wette, du weißt nicht mal, wer der stärkste ist.
I bet you don't even know who's the strongest.
who's the strongest (Repeat)
you don't even know who's the strongest (Repeat)
I bet you don't even know who's the strongest (Repeat)

If the utterance is long, it will first have to be broken down for choral drilling. Here, backchaining is used to build up the whole sentence starting from the end. The ultimate objective is to get the pupils to repeat the whole sentence in one go at a normal speed of speech.

Correction of individual sounds or of the sound group should only be made once a meaningful segment of the utterance, a sense group or tone group with its own rhythm and melody, has been repeated. (Remember Dodson's distinction between fluent sentence imitation and individual practice on sounds).

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Picture 4

And now look at the last picture.
Kevin sees himself on a podium - what would that be in German: podium? - Podium or rather: (Sieger) Treppchen. And he's got a candle on his head. And the candle is burning. That means he's clever. He's the cleverest.

And he says: "That's right. I don't."
Richtig. Weiß ich nicht.
That's right. I don't. (Repeat)
"But I do know who's the cleverest."
Aber ich weiß ganz bestimmt, wer der Klügste ist.
But I do know who's the cleverest.
But I do know (Repeat)
who's the cleverest (Repeat)
But I do know who's the cleverest (Repeat)

You see the word "do" is underlined. That means we've got to stress it. The word carries the stress here. In German we do this quite differently; we don't say Aber ich tu wissen. We can express emphasis by saying: "ich weiß ganz bestimmt" instead of only "ich weiß".

If you are using it for the first time, the metalanguage item "stress" should be written up on the board. The simultaneous introduction of the words "to emphasise" and "emphasis" could be defended on the grounds that there is the German cognate "Emphase", although the majority of pupils will not be familiar with this word. The aim here is to gradually establish English as the classroom language.

Who? - Me! (Repeat)
While modelling for the choral drill, the teacher points to himself or herself, and makes sure that the pupils do this as well when they say the word "me": "Point at yourself when you say that."

And Michelle says: "Idiot". Listen. In German the stress is on the last syllable: Idiót. But in English it's different: ídiot. Now let's practise: Idiót (deutsch) - ídiot (English)

While modelling the two pronunciations, the teacher contrasts the stress patterns through body movements, optimally with the hand. Clapping hands or stamping feet with different intensity can also illustrate the contrast of stress pattern, but if done while speaking can also obscure the sounds. Whatever technique is used, the aim is the same. Instead of ignoring the problem of German stress patterns, which does not help because they still come through, here the problem is grabbed by the horns and exercised away.

The words the teacher uses here to explain the situation and the pictures are not part of the target lexis of the lesson and are not intended for active learning. Nevertheless, from time to time they can be collected and recorded in a notebook. A teacher who has his students perform dialogues will probably often use words for body language like "point at" and "shrug one's shoulders" anyway. But even words like "finishing line", "pony-tail", "pig-tails", "body-building", "podium", "muscles" etc. are easy for German learners to remember. If short of time, the teacher can also rationalise the degree to which the scene is elaborated. And pupils like being immersed in a veritable bath of language through the pictures, while at the same time enjoying a break between rounds of challenging repetition practice.

This initial treatment of the text is the most difficult phase, because three different things must be achieved: contextual embedding - the teacher basically uses the pictures to tell a story; semanticisation; and phoneticisation. The teachers can help the pupils most by speaking the text with a maximum of animation, in intonation as well as in facial expressions and gestures. The teacher must really get into the dramatic spirit of the dialogue, since, in the end, this is what is being demanded of the pupils.

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Before the pupils can perform/roleplay the text, they have to go through it again several times, but each time in a different way to ensure that there is no boredom. Not all of the steps may be necessary. Teachers can choose as required. However, the re-translation stage (Step 6), and the stages of rehearsing and performing in groups should never be skipped. In the first four steps that follow, the pupils can relax, as they do not have to repeat the sentences themselves. The exercises progress from receptive recognition (Steps 1-4) via variously elicited recall of the sentences (Steps 5-9) to individual and groupwork stages during which the teacher withdraws from the dominant position he or she occupied in the earlier stages (Steps 10-12).

Step 1

Turn your sheets over. Your text is covered now. Now you just relax and listen, while I read out the text again. I want you to be really quiet now.

The teacher should try to draw a clear dividing line between this stage and the previous, hectic activity of the first step. Absolute quiet! This moment of peace can be extended by the teacher remaining silent for a while before and after reading out the text. It also helps to ask the pupils to close their eyes during this step of the lesson.

Step 2

I'll describe a picture to you. I'll say what it looks like, and you'll just give me the picture number. Try to see the picture with your inner eye.

  • There's a boy who has done a lot of body building.
  • There's a boy who's got his hands buried in his pockets.
  • I can see a candle burning.
  • There are three boys in a race and it's a close finish.
  • There's a boy on a podium and he's quite happy.
  • I can see a little girl with pig-tails.


The quiet phase from Step 1 can be extended by asking the pupils to keep their eyes closed and to visualise the respective picture, simply thinking of its number instead of naming it. The teacher can then, after a while, say the number of the picture himself or herself.

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Step 3

Leave your text covered. Don't look at it. I am going to read sentences from the text, and you will tell me who says the sentence, Kevin or Michelle. And you can also tell me which picture goes with the sentence.

T: Idiot.
P: Michelle, picture 4.

Step 4

This time I am going to read out sentences from the dialogue. Sometimes I change the sentences a bit. So if it's the same sentence, you call out "right", and if the sentence is changed, you call out "wrong".

T: Maybe Tom.
P: Right
T: Who's the cleverest in our class?
P: Wrong.

Step 5

Now I am going to give you the picture number and the speaker, and you say the sentence. You may look at the text if you want to. But if it's easy for you, keep the text covered.


Fold your text down the middle. Now place it so that you can see the pictures only. Pictures up, text down!

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Step 6

Now I am going to give you the German sentences, and you say the English sentences.

To make sure that the pupils do not translate but instead recall the whole sentence more or less from memory, they are at first allowed to look at the text. But then the re-translation stage should be repeated once more without recourse to the text. The teacher presents the sentences in a random order.

Step 7

I am going to give you just one word from a sentence, and you say the complete sentence.

T: Pete
P: No, Pete's faster.
T: Anyway.
P: Who cares anyway?

Alternatively, the teacher can also choose a German word as the trigger. The pupils then say the English sentence.

Step 8

I am going to say a sentence silently, and you try to guess the sentence by looking at my lips, face, hands etc.

"Lip reading" is a lot of fun and especially effective when the pupils do not get the right sentence first time but also say other sentences.

Step 9

Now you may say any sentence from the dialogue that comes to your mind.

The pupils can, of course, also say a sentence which another pupil has already mentioned. This is also an opportunity for the teacher to check whether particular sentences are still so difficult that no pupils, or only the best ones, are prepared to try to say them. In such cases, the teacher must model the respective sentences again. This checking is essential, as in the next step the pupils will be working independently and will not be constantly monitored by the teacher.

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Step 10

Everyone work for himself / herself! Go through the text and say the sentences to yourself, half-loud. Try to visualise the scene as you say the lines. Try to memorise the lines.

Variants of the silent working stage:

Read a sentence, then look up from the text, and say the whole sentence to yourself.

Read the dialogue in different ways:

  • as if to yourself
  • silently/mentally/in your mind. Your lips may be moving, but no sounds are to be heard
  • as if bored / shocked
  • as if you were happy
  • secretively, in a whisper
  • in one breath, without pauses, as fast as possible
  • while rubbing your chin

During the silent working stage, pupils should learn to appreciate the value of silence and concentration. Talk to the pupils about the power of imagination. "Visualising means watching the scene play before your inner eye. Just keep quiet and try it out!"

In this stage, the pupils can also leave their seats already and practise the text standing or moving around. They can wander through the classroom while rehearsing the dialogue.

Naturally, novel and unusual work forms should first be explained and demonstrated to the pupils. This is also true for the famous read-and-look-up technique (read - look up or look away from the text - say; from eye - to brain - to mouth), even if it seems self-explanatory. Later, these techniques will become routine.

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Step 11

Let's split up and work in groups. You can move about freely in the classroom. Speak out loud, and use gestures.


Now practise the dialogue in twos, threes... You may sit at your desks, but turn your chairs so that you face your partners. Never speak with your eyes on the book, because you are not talking to the book, but to your partner.

The teacher moves from one group to the other and provides assistance. Good groups who finish much faster than the others can be asked to swap roles: "Now change over parts."

Fast learners can get together in a group and work on the additional task of modifying the text while the teacher is still rehearsing the original dialogue with the other students.

Here are some ideas for changing the text:

  • Instead of Michelle and Kevin, have two girls talking about another girl.
  • Two cowboys are arguing about who's the fastest/slowest gun in the West.
  • Two body-builders are arguing about who has the most beautiful body.
  • Start the dialogue like this: "Who's the strictest teacher in the school?"
  • Or: "Who's the biggest bully in class 6b?"
  • Or: "Who's the funniest in our class?"

In the following step the fast group can act out their modified texts while the rest perform the original.

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Step 12

Who's going to come in front of the class to perform the play/act out the dialogue? Any volunteers?


I once had a particularly gifted pupil who volunteered to act all the different parts by himself...

The basic rule is that no one should ever be forced to stand up in front of the class. This could easily be a psychological form of torture for the one pupil or the other: Never force anyone to do something they clearly feel unhappy about. So, pupils can refuse to volunteer here, but not in unmonitored acting-out of the text at their desks or in the corner of the room. However, once one of the groups performs the dialogue successfully, the rest will usually want to have a go as well. This has been my experience with all age groups. Low-performance pupils can be allowed to keep the text in their hands during performance and to use the read-and-look-up technique, i.e. they can look at the text in between to reassure themselves, then look up and away from the text and say and play their line. The precise reproduction of the original dialogue provides them with solid ground under their feet, which they will certainly need when it comes to the stage of free language production.

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Step 13: Suggestions about writing

If teachers want their pupils to write, the following techniques for written consolidation of the text are recommended:


The student reads out a line, then covers the line, repeats the line mentally and writes it down from memory.

This is, in fact, a written variant of the read-and-look-up technique. When it is presented for the first time, the individual stages should be written up on the board: read - look away - write - compare - (correct). I repeat, pupils and teachers must both become familiar with such working techniques. So the initial step is to practise them patiently with the whole class.

keyword dictation:

The teacher reads out one or two keywords from a line, and the students write down the complete line. Alternatively, the teacher writes down a word on the blackboard at the place where it occurs in the line. The pupils copy the word and reconstruct the text around the word.

Board: ..... ..... anyway?
P: Who cares anyway?

Fill in the gaps:

The teacher writes some dialogue sentences on the board or overhead projector but leaves gaps which he fills in with the German equivalent of the word left out. Students write down the original English word.

Who's the (Schnellste) in our class? (see worksheet)

In the case of the dialogue here, this procedure is relatively unproductive, i.e. the technique does not work with all sentences and is best used with sentences which a relatively similar in structure in German and English. This is also a suitably easy task for weaker pupils.

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Step 14

Scrambled dialogue (see worksheet)


Copy the text from your hand-out. Then put your hand-out away and work with your copy only. As you memorise the lines, cross out or paint over the words/lines you think you'll remember, that is, one word/line after the other. At the very end there will be only a couple of words left - or no word at all!

Special homework for a group of excellent speakers:
Who can prepare an audio-cassette of the dialogue? Could you even bring in special sound-effects, if possible? This is a cassette for all those who were ill or absent for some reason.

Homework for a specially gifted child:

Who can prepare a particularly beautiful text, hand-written, of course, coloured and signed by the artist? We are going to hang it up on the wall for everybody to see.

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Final comments - experiences with the approach

A secondary school teacher confided to me: "I presented a dialogue exactly the way you showed me. The pupils really enjoyed it, but I was completely exhausted after the lesson." And it is true: the use of voice, facial expressions, gestures and especially suggestive modelling of the dialogue requires energy, at least whenever the teacher has to coax pupils who have not yet found out how easily an English sentence can roll from your tongue. Remember, the aim is mastery learning, i.e. all pupils are to master this text, even in secondary schools. And this is possible, if the teacher makes the full investment required. In the long run, it is hardly possible to maintain such a level of investment, but then it is also not really necessary. For intensive memorisation stages are followed by other phases in which the pupils work more independently and the teacher can withdraw from the centre. Once a teacher has applied this intensive treatment to a dozen dialogues or so, all concerned, both pupils and teacher, will find everything much easier. Nothing succeeds like success.

A grammar-school teacher might say: "My pupils will have learned a little dialogue like this in no time. No problem." But is this really true for all the pupils in the grammar-school class? The teacher here could just do the main steps, and then work through other steps with a smaller group of weaker learners while the rest of the class is already rehearsing the dialogue in groups, with the additional task of making their own changes and extensions to the original text.

It is true that there is a world of difference between some, particularly good grammar-school classes and normal secondary-school classes. The correctness of a lesson scheme with respect to learning psychology is tested much more intensely by a secondary-school class than by those classes where many methodological inconsistencies are balanced out by higher motivation, talent, application, help outside school, etc.

Take the use of the mother tongue for the communication of meaning. Used as in the example above - combined with consistent foreign-language classroom management - it is more effective than any other form of semanticisation. This has been scientifically proved, and is most evident in the case of weaker learners. There are, for example, - fortunately! - still pupils who are so motivated that they will study a new reading text on their own in advance with the help of the vocabulary section of the schoolbook. It is patently evident that with such pupils methodological effects and the teacher factor are of much less account.

Performance of the dialogue represents, of course, only the achievement of an intermediate aim. Before the expressions in the text can be used freely, they must first be separated from the text. The best way to do this is explained in the second part of "Practice makes perfect".

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Worksheet: Scrambled Dialogue

1. The sentences are in the wrong order. Put them in the right order and rewrite the dialogue.

Maybe Tom.
Who cares anyway?
No, Pete's faster.
Hm. I don't know.
Who's the fastest in our class?
But I do know who's the cleverest.
I bet you don't even know who's the strongest.
That's right. I don't.

2. Rewrite the following sentences, replacing all the German words with the original English words:

I (wette) you don't even know who's the (Stärkste).
Who's the (Schnellste) in our class?
(Vielleicht) Tom.

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