by Daniel Tse

One of the most frequently expressed needs by second-language learners is improving their conversational skills in English. As conversation is a two-way street, both the speaker and the listener are active participants in it. When the listener’s participation is absent, a conversation ceases to be such and becomes a monologue. The listener, therefore, plays an active role in maintaining interaction with the speaker; this is precisely where backchannelling skills come in useful. How can teachers help their students to develop these skills in speaking? Before we explore several practical ideas, let us turn our attention to backchannelling itself.


In a normal conversation, the speaker and the listener take it in turns to talk so that they can communicate their messages with each other. Backchannelling occurs when the listener ‘sends short messages back’ during the speaker’s turn or immediately after it (Rost 2011: 92). These messages can be verbal, non-verbal (i.e. paralinguistic), or a combination of both. The following example demonstrates the listener’s backchannel, in the form of a short question, to show interest in the speaker’s talk:

Speaker: The lesson was cut short abruptly – we had to finish ten minutes early↓.
Listener: What happened↓? [looking slightly concerned]
Speaker: Well, the fire alarm went off …
(own creation)

Backchannelling can also occur in overlapping turns (==). Slade and Thornbury (2006: 126) state that this tends to be more common in highly informal conversations. It reveals how the tenor, or relationship between the participants, affects one’s backchannelling behaviour. In the following gossip between two colleagues, the listener briefly interrupts the speaker’s turn to acknowledge the shared information.

Speaker: Apparently, she’s getting a promotion after the summer↓ … ==
Listener: == So I’ve heard↓.
Speaker: Yeah↓, but I wonder why …
(own creation)

Having illustrated how the listener can make active contributions to a conversation, we can consider a wider range of purposes, or functions, of backchannelling.

Functions of backchannelling

As mentioned above, one function of backchannelling is for the listener to show interest in the speaker’s messages. This can be further divided into six distinctive functions according to Maynard’s classification (1997; 2005):

  1. Continuers, spoken with a fall-rising tone, to show the listener’s attention and encourage the speaker to continue talking. Some examples are uhhuh↑, mmhm↑, and yeahyeah↑.
  2. Showing comprehension of the speaker’s talk verbally and/or with paralinguistic signals. Some examples are yeah↓, I see↓, and head nods.
  3. Showing agreement with the speaker verbally and/or with paralinguistic signals. Some examples are yeah↓, you’re right↓, that’s so true↓, head nods, and repeating the speaker’s words with a falling tone.
  4. Showing emotional support to the speaker. Two examples are yeah↓ and that’s good↓.
  5. Expressing a range of emotions, such as exclamations and surprise, verbally and/or with paralinguistic signals. Some examples are wow↓!, great↓!, you’re kidding↓!, and laughter.
  6. Repair. An example is repeating the speaker’s exact words with a rising tone to ask for clarification.

Maynard (1997) in Cutrone (2010: 31-34); Maynard (2005) in Rost (2011: 93)

Awareness-raising tasks

Although most teenage and adult learners can backchannel in their first language, it cannot be assumed that they already have adequate knowledge of the above examples, or backchannelling devices, in English - and nor can it be assumed that backchannelling is the same in all languages, or that backchannelling practices in one language can be translated directly into English. Japanese, for example, tends to use a much higher volume of backchannelling in many contexts, while in Finnish the volume is significantly reduced (Ward 2017).

In teaching the skill of backchannelling, teachers ought first to raise awareness before looking at developing a practical appreciation.

Interpersonal conversations, whether graded or authentic, constitute a good source of lesson material for awareness-raising. While most authentic conversations contain natural instances of backchannelling, these spontaneous interactions are almost never recorded in real life for self-evident reasons. Consequently, graded conversations in coursebooks would represent an acceptable compromise in the classroom. However, the burgeoning world of the podcast is a good place to look for examples of backchannelling, as these rely on interactions between people, and are unscripted - another important consideration for teachers searching for authentic examples.

After the learners have developed an overall understanding of a conversation, teachers can use a gap-fill task to focus their attention on the target backchannelling devices. In this task, the learners listen to the same conversation with a gapped script and write the devices they hear. If no suitable task is found in a coursebook, teachers can adapt the script by replacing the target devices with gaps. Another use of the script that does not require any adaptation involves the learners’ highlighting or underlining the target devices therein.

Functional use

Following the gap-fill task, learners can match the target backchannelling devices to their respective functions. As certain devices carry multiple functions, teachers should remind their students of the importance of the context in the matching task. An example is the utterance yeah (spoken with a falling tone), which is used to show emotional support, agreement or comprehension depending on the conversational context. While there are, generally speaking, rules that govern the functions of different backchannelling devices, it might not be necessary to burden your students with a list requiring memorisation - I have often found that it is enough for the students to discuss and debate what they have heard, and for an informal list of rules to be inferred rather than enforced.


Intonation contributes to the attitudinal meaning of the backchannelling devices. For instance, Ward (2004) argues that when the continuer, yeah yeah, is uttered with a sharp falling tone, it might be construed as the listener’s impatience with the speaker’s talk. This is in stark contrast with the intended function of the continuer: encouraging the speaker to continue their turn.

To identify the appropriate tone, or pitch movement, for the target backchannelling devices, learners can mark it with upward or downward arrows as they listen to these devices being spoken in a conversation. Alternatively, teachers can use a multiple-choice listening task with the four pitch movements as response options: falling, rising, fall-rising or rise-falling.


In order to backchannel effectively in a conversation in English, learners need to know when it is appropriate for them to do so. To this end, teachers can create a listening task with several awareness-raising questions. The aim of these questions is to help the learners to notice the speaker’s falling tone or slower speed of delivery prior to an instance of backchannelling. Learners can also make a note of the frequency of such instances. This would in turn enable them to identify the suitable points of a conversation where they can backchannel without interrupting the speaker inadvertently.

Practice activities

Beyond the awareness-raising tasks, teachers can employ the following practice activities in the classroom so that learners can transfer their knowledge from receptive to productive.

Drilling and humming

Repetition drills can be used for controlled pronunciation practice or as a form of error correction. Rather than drill the backchannelling devices immediately, teachers can consider asking their students to hum the pitch movements. This removes the distraction of words from intonation. Once the students have internalised the appropriate pitch movements, they can place the words back in the backchannelling devices. In my experience, some teenage and adult learners may feel intrigued (or even disconcerted!) by the teacher’s request for them to hum. Despite their initial hesitation, these learners will eventually join in after hearing a model several times. This drilling technique, moreover, is shown to be effective with those who regard themselves as having ‘less musical’ ears.

Guided conversation

This controlled practice began life as my experiment with a pair of Business English learners at Intermediate level (B1) in 2021. In this guided conversation, pairs of learners assume the roles of speaker and listener. The speaker is given a short anecdote to read aloud to the listener, who first develops an overall understanding by listening to it. When the speaker repeats the anecdote, the listener still remains silent and identifies any suitable points where he or she can backchannel. Finally, both the speaker and the listener participate in the guided conversation. Teachers should monitor the listener’s backchannelling for any inappropriate intonation, possible mismatch between a device in use and its intended function, or interruptions of the speaker’s turn. After a round of conversation, the learners swap roles and practise the same skills with a different anecdote.

After the successful trial of this practice activity, it has become one of my go-to ideas for teaching backchannelling skills. The activity is found to be equally effective with teenage and adult General English learners. Nevertheless, teachers should ensure that the language in any anecdote is graded to their students’ level of comprehension and production. For weaker learners, errors of pronunciation may distort meaning for the listener; this might subsequently affect the listener’s choice of the backchannelling devices for their intended functions. Here, close supervision by the teacher is essential.


Learners in group classes can practise backchannelling with different partners in a mingling activity. To prepare this activity, teachers can encourage their students to write a personalised anecdote, scaffolding with a model where necessary. After that, the students tell their individual anecdotes to different listeners, who practise backchannelling, in multiple rounds of conversations. In my experience, more shy learners may feel awkward at the beginning of the mingling activity; however, their confidence and level of spoken fluency will gradually increase over successive attempts.


It is worth noting that empirical research on backchannelling norms has largely focused on first-language speakers of the North American English (NAE) variety. As learners practise backchannelling in the classroom, they should be made aware of other factors affecting its real-world applications, notwithstanding cultural expectations and differences in personality. By developing learners’ backchannelling skills in speaking, teachers can help them to become more confident conversation participants and thus build stronger social relationships.


Cutrone, P. ‘The backchannel norms of native English speakers: A target for Japanese L2 English learners’ in Giannoni, D.S. and O’Brien, L.J., ed. Language Studies Working Papers, Vol. 2. Reading: University of Reading (2010). 28-37.

Maynard, S.K. ‘Analyzing interactional management in native/non-native English conversation: A case of listener response’ in International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, Vol. 35/1. Berlin: De Gruyter (1997). 37-60.

Ward, N. ‘Pragmatic functions of prosodic features in non-lexical utterances’ in Bel, B. and Marlien, I., ed. Speech Prosody 2004 International Conference. Nara, Japan: International Speech Communication Association (2004). 325-328

Rost, M. Teaching and Researching: Listening, 2nd ed. Harlow: Pearson (2011).

Maynard, S.K. Expressive Japanese: a reference guide to sharing emotion and empathy. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press (2005).

Slade, D. and Thornbury, S. Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2006).

Ward, N. Backchannel Facts. (2017, accessed on 23 February 2024)

Author Biography

Daniel Tse went into ELT in 2019 and started teaching at IH Milan and San Donato, Italy in the same year. He works with Young Learners, teens, and adults across the full range of CEFR levels. An early-career teacher, he is currently on his journey through the DELTA. He mainly teaches Cambridge/IELTS Exam Preparation and Business English, as well as an increasing number of English ‘top-up’ courses in Italian secondary schools. In addition to teaching, he has run teacher development workshops for IH Milan and Macmillan/Mondadori Education in Italy. He has also spoken at local conferences in Milan and Barcelona.