Strangers on a Train Speaking Activity

Strangers on a Train – intermediate and above, high school and university

This is an activity I do at the beginning of the semester, usually as an ice breaker or to practice small talk skills. The premise is simple: students must pretend they are strangers sitting in a train having some small talk for about 5 minutes, similar to what may happen in close quarters on an actual train. However, there is one quite interesting caveat: each student has a specific word they must use secretly during the conversation. At the end of the conversation, group members must guess each other’s secret word. The caveat becomes more interesting when you see the kinds of words I actually use:

  • 200 push ups
  • UFO
  • global warming
  • runny nose
  • 48
  • stapler
  • congratulations
  • Santa Claus

The game is really fun and students usually request doing it several more times. It is quite a challenge to slip these words into a natural conversation, even for native speakers, so it gives students great practice in listening and finding ways to interject with the words and deftly change the subject so that they can use their words. I highly recommend trying this activity!

Here’s the set-up:

  1. If students haven’t already learned about small talk, you might want to combine this with a small talk activity or explain that, when in close quarters with strangers, we tend to find silence uncomfortable and prefer to have small talk or informal chit chat.
  2. Explain to students that they are going to ride a train with three other strangers.
    1. They must make conversation with these other people for about five minutes.
    2. They must also strive to include each person and not break into pairs.
  3. Break the students into groups of 4 (or three for odd numbers).
  4. Now, explain that each student will get a secret word. Stress SECRET.
    1. Their goal is to use this word once during the conversation.
    2. However, their usage should not be obvious. Stress that it should be NOT OBVIOUS, i.e. it should be NATURAL.
    3. To get you started, you can download my words lists here and here.
  5. At the end of the five minutes, their partners will try to guess what their word was.
  6. To set the atmosphere, consider lightly playing some music in the background. Or, if you want to be really cool/lame, try some train sounds.

One thought on “Strangers on a Train Speaking Activity

  1. William Morley says:

    Thanks for this – I don’t have group classes at the moment, but when I do in the future I’ll definitely try this – sounds like a great way to set a fun mood and indicate a creative and less rigid approach to students at the start of a course. Cheers, William

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