Uh…Oh…Um…: How to Teach Students to Hesitate the Right Way

Uh…Oh…Um…: How to Teach Students to Hesitate the Right Way

Native speakers know just the right words to say whenever they want to say them, right?

Wrong! It’s not just second language speakers that hesitate in their speech, trying to figure out just what they want to say when they want to say it. If all of our brains worked as fast as our mouths do, there would be no need for hesitation devices in any language. The truth of the matter is that every language has them. Whether it’s “shema” in Chinese, “es que” in Spanish, “ano” in Japanese, or “um” in English, every speaker will use hesitation devices when they need just a little more time to figure out what they want to say. Some teachers fall into the trap thinking that if their students just get more comfortable at speaking, have practice with it every day every hour, they won’t need any hesitation devices. The truth of the matter is, if ESL teachers show their students how to hesitate the right way early in their ESL studies, later when they are fluent or near fluent speakers, their hesitations will sound right as if a native speaker were making them. Well…enough talking about hesitating. Here are some exercises you can do with your students to help them hesitate the right way.

Try These 5 Incredible Ideas to Teach Students to Hesitate the Right Way

  1. 1

    Do You Hear What I Hear?

    You’ll need a little help from a native speaker to prep for this activity (or you can find some good material with the right movie clip). Ask a friend if you can record him or her answering a question. Then set the recorder to go and ask a tough question they will have trouble answering, perhaps on a controversial issue, and tell your friend they have to speak about it for two full minutes. What you will likely end up with is an answer to the question laced with many hesitation devices your friend probably doesn’t even realize he or she used. Create a transcript of your friend’s answer including all the ums, ohs, and well you knows. Then remove all of them to create a fill in the blank exercise for your students. Play the recording in class and see if your students can hear all the hesitation devises your friend used while answering the question.

  2. 2

    More Than One Way…

    Work with your class to make a list of sounds and phrases they have heard speakers use when they aren’t quite ready to speak. If you like, sort the list into sounds (um, uh, oh), words (like, well), and phrases (let me see, if you think about it, it’s like this, the thing is). Then challenge your class to add other phrases or words to the list that they can use to stall for time. If you like, give your students a chance to share the sounds and words they use in their own languages to pause for time. Post your lists in your classroom and add to them whenever a student shares a new hesitation device she heard from an English speaker.

  3. 3

    Stumping into Silence

    Nobody likes giving bad news, but in real life it happens all the time. The good news is that bad news situations are great for practicing hesitation devices. Put your students into two teams. These teams will compete to stump the other by shocking their role play partner into silence or by asking questions they cannot answer. For each round of the game, give the students a location and the roles to play, for example a doctor’s office and the doctor and patient. Then have each group discuss among themselves how they can get the other person in the role play to not have a response in the conversation. Have each group elect one person to play the part in the role play. The two players come to the front of the class and try to stump each other into silence. If one person is able to get the other to pause more than five seconds without speaking or using a hesitation device appropriately, that team earns a point. Play the best out of five or until you run out of time for the activity.

  4. 4

    Channel Surfing

    Which students in your class are remote control hogs? You may never know because in this activity the teacher is the one with the remote. Break your students into groups of three or four, and assign each group a different type of television show (soap opera, reality show, home shopping channel, sports announcers, etc.). When you point to each group, they will have to act and speak as if they are the actors in their program on the channel. Let your students know that if they have dead air (no one is speaking), you will change the channel. They can keep you tuned in, however, by using appropriate hesitation devices. Don’t give students time to prepare what they will say, and make sure each group gets at least one chance to speak during the activity. Give the “teacher’s choice award” to the group which kept you most interested during your channel surfing.

  5. 5

    It’s Only a Minute

    How well can your students think on the spot? You just may find out with this exercise aimed at practicing hesitation devices in English. Put several strange or obscure topics on slips of paper and put them in a hat. Then explain the rules of the activity to your students. Each person will draw a topic from the hat and then will have to speak for one minute on that topic without stopping. If a person pauses for more than five seconds, he is disqualified from the competition. Students can, however, use any hesitation devices (appropriate in English!) to fill the time while they think. Give each person at least one chance in front of the class to discuss whatever topic they happen to draw from the hat. At the end of the activity, have your class vote on who made the most interesting speech on their topic.

Normally hesitating is what we ESL teachers try to avoid in the classroom, but there are times when your students will perform better if they just hesitate in the correct manner. By spending a little time on this early in their studies, your students will have a tool they can use for the rest of their English speaking lives.

Do you teach your students to hesitate?

What are your favorite activities for getting the ums in?

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