Learning to teach second language pragmatics

Shona Whyte
Aisha Siddiqa
TESOL France, Paris, 19 November 2016.


With the growing global networking and cross-cultural communication, interest in the teaching and learning of second languages has also increased. However, the bulk of research in interlanguage pragmatics (ILP) has revealed that foreign language learners, despite their grammatical and lexical proficiency, frequently fail to approximate target-like pragmatic norms (Bouton, 1994; Bardovi-Harlig, 2001; Bardovi-Harlig & Mahan-Taylor, 2003). Awareness of pragmatic norms is crucial as its absence can lead to cross cultural miscommunication (Beebe & Takahashi, 1989a).

ILP research also shows that learner’s pragmalinguistic knowledge develops relatively slowly (Schauer, 2004; 2009; Barron 2002). But evidence suggests that it is amenable to instruction (Rose, 2005; Cohen & Ishihara, 2013). Both instruction (e.g., see Bardovi-Harlig & Mahan-Taylor, 2003 for review) and feedback to learners (Belz & Kinginger, 2003) can accelerate this process. Yet in spite of the need for pragmatics instruction and the existence of pedagogical models, ILP is rarely a major component of teacher training programmes (Vellenga 2011, Vasquez & Sharpless, 2009).

The present study, as part of a larger project on ILP development in French secondary schools, seeks to address some of these gaps in literature by focusing on teacher training for teaching pragmatics to English as foreign language (EFL) learners. As part of their teacher education programme at a French university, fifteen pre-service teachers participated in the study as part of a classroom research course. The course focused on

a) multiple research methods and data analysis techniques and various pragmatic aspects including

b) ILP awareness-raising via authentic materials including TV series/films and corpus data, and

c) the design and implementation of activities to teach both pragmalinguistic and sociopragmatic dimensions of request strategies to EFL learners (aged 11 to 18).

The participants worked in groups and prepared six lessons. The data for our study include

  • lesson plans and teaching resources for the student-teachers’ lessons
  • video-recordings of three classroom activities
  • learner focus-group discussions and video-stimulated recall interviews with teachers and tutors
  • audio-recorded class presentations of the participant teachers
  • a pre-study oral production task to assess the participant teachers’ knowledge about requests strategies.

A preliminary analysis of the data reveals that the novice teachers, despite some initial difficulty, used authentic materials quite effectively to engage pupils in discussion and reflection on request behaviour. The tutors appreciated the focus of the activities on pragmatics and confirmed that pragmatics is rarely a focus in curriculum despite its importance. However, the learners’ responses varied across classrooms and teachers.

The presentation gives main findings regarding student-teacher classroom implementation of lessons on English requests, with implications and recommendations for French EFL instructional contexts.


interlanguage pragmatics, EFL, secondary schools, France, language teacher education.

Requests: a speech act

A request is a directive speech act whose illocutionary purpose is to get the hearer to do something in circumstances in which it is not obvious that he/she will perform the action in the normal course of events (Searle 1969). By initiating a request, the speaker believes that the hearer is able to perform an action.

The structure of a request may consist of two parts: the head act (the actual request) and modifications to the request (external or internal).

The perspective of requests can be emphasized, either projecting toward the speaker (Can I borrow your notes?) or the hearer (Can you loan me your notes?). Since we must take into account many factors when we make requests (e.g., age, social distance, gender, and level of imposition), speakers often employ different strategies (linguistic and non-linguistic) to minimize the effects of our request on the other person

Request strategies are divided into three types according to the level of inference (on the part of the hearer) needed to understand the utterance as a request. The three types of requests include:

  1. direct requests
  2. conventionally-indirect strategies (CI)
  3. non-conventionally indirect (NCI) strategies (hints)

Direct and conventionally-indirect requests comprise a continuum of different strategies. Read more …

(See also Blum-Kulka et al 1989)



Key readings

Bardovi-Harlig, K., & Mahan-Taylor, R. (2003). Teaching Pragmatics. USA: Office of English Language Programs of the U.S. Department of State. Retrieved from http://www.usconsulate.org.hk/pas/kids/pragmatics.htm

Bardovi-Harlig, K., Mossman, S., & Vellenga, H. E. (2015a). The effect of instruction on pragmatic routines in academic discussion. Language Teaching Research (Online), 1–27. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362168814541739

Bardovi-Harlig, K., Mossman, S., & Vellenga, H. E. (2015b). Developing Corpus-Based Materials to Teach Pragmatic Routines. TESOL Journal, 6(3), 499–526.

Online resources

Request lessons: americanenglish.state.gov

Elicitation resources for requests (Cartoon oral production task)

Teaching Pragmatics

Editors: Kathleen Bardovi-Harlig Rebecca Mahan-Taylor
Teaching Pragmatics is a collection of 30 lessons that can help English learners use socially appropriate language in a variety of informal and formal situations


  1. Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (MICASE)
  2. US corpus available on the Lexical Tutor website
  3. Santa Barbara Corpus of Spoken American English

Further reading

Bardovi-Harlig, K. (2001). Evaluating the empirical evidence: Grounds for instruction in pragmatics? In K. R. Rose & G. Kasper (Eds.), Pragmatics in language teaching (pp. 33–60). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bardovi-Harlig, K., & Mahan-Taylor, R. (Eds.). (2003). Teaching pragmatics. Washington, DC: United States Department of State. Retrieved from http://americanenglish.state.gov/resources/teaching-pragmatics

Barron, A. (2003). Acquisition in Interlanguage Pragmatics: Learning how to do things with words in a study abroad context (Vol. Volume 108). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins Publishing.

Barron, A., & Warga, M. (2007). Acquisitional pragmatics: Focus on foreign language learners. Intercultural Pragmatics, 4(2), 113–127.

Beebe, L., & Takahashi, S. (1989a). Do you have a bag? : Social status and patterned  variation in second language acquisition. In S. Gass, C. Madden, D. Preston, & L. Selinker, Variation in second language acquisition: Discourse and pragmatics (pp. 103–125). Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters.

Belz, J., & Kinginger, C. (2003). Discourse options and the development of pragmatic competence by classroom learners of German: The case of address forms. Language Learning, 53, 591–647.

Blum-Kulka, S., House, J., & Kasper, G. (1989). Cross-cultural pragmatics: Requests and apologies. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Blum-Kulka, S., & Olshtain, E. (1986). Too many words: Length of utterance and pragmatic failure. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 8, 47–61.

Bouton, L. F. (1994). Can NNS skill in interpreting implicatures in American English be improved through explicit instruction? A pilot study. In L. F. Bouton & Y. Kachru (Eds.), Pragmatics and language learning, (Vol 5, pp. 88-109). University of Illinois, Urbana- Champaign: Division of English as an International Language.

Cohen, A. D., & Ishihara, N. (2013). Pragmatics. In B. Tomlinson (Ed.), Applied Linguistics and Materials Development (pp. 113–126). London, UK: Bloomsburry Academic.

Faerch, C., & Kasper, G. (1989). Internal and External Modification in Interlanguage Request Realization. In S. Blum-Kulka, J. House, & G. Kasper (Eds.), Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: Requests and Apologies (Vol. XXXI, pp. 221–247). United States of America: Albex Publishing Corporation.

Félix-Brasdefer, C. Speech acts: requests. Discourse pragmatics. http://www.indiana.edu/~discprag/spch_requests.html

Kasper, G. (1989). Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: Requests and Apologies. (S. Blum-Kulka & J. House, Eds.) (Vol. XXXI). United States of America: Albex Publishing Corporation.

Kasper, G., & Dahl, M. (1991). Research Methods in Interlanguage Pragmatics. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 13, 215–247.

Kasper, G., & Rose, K. R. (2001). Pragmatics in language teaching. In K. R. Rose & G. Kasper (Eds.), Pragmatics in language teaching (pp. 1–10). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kasper, G., & Schmidt, R. (1996). Developmental issues in interlanguage pragmatics. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 18, 149–169.

Rose, K. R. (2005). On the effects of instruction in second language pragmatics. System, 33(3), 385–399. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2005.06.003

Scarcella, R. (1979). On speaking politely in a second language. In C. A. Yorio & K. Perkins (Eds.), On TESOL ’79 (pp. 275–287). Washington, DC: TESOL.

Schauer, G. (2004). May you speaker louder maybe? In- terlanguage pragmatic development in requests. EUROSLA Yearbook, 4, 253–272.

Schauer, G. (2009). Interlanguage pragmatic development: The study abroad context. London: Continuum.

Searle, J. R. (1969). Speech acts: An essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Siddiqa, A. (in preparation). The acquisition of politeness strategies by young EFL learners in France: An exploratory study of interlanguage pragmatic development. Doctoral thesis, UMR7320 Bases, Corpus, Langage. Université Nice Sophia Antipolis.

Siddiqa, A. (2016). A developmental pragmatic study of politeness in EFL: learning to make requests in French secondary schools. 3rd International conference of the American Pragmatics Association, November 4-6, 2016, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Siddiqa, A. (2016). Opportunities for developing L2 politeness strategies in EFL classrooms in France. ESSE, Aug 2016, Galway, Ireland.

Siddiqa, A. (2015). Beyond “classroom English” Colloque international du LAIRDIL: Regards pluridisciplinaires sur la créativité et l’innovation en langues étrangères, December 2015, Toulouse, France.

Siddiqa, A. (2015). The use and acquisition of politeness strategies among EFL learners in France: An exploratory study of interlanguage pragmatic development
The Ninth International Im/Politeness Conference, Athens, Greece.

Taguchi, N. (2011b). Pragmatic Development as a Dynamic, Complex Process: General Patterns and Case Histories. The Modern Language Journal, 95(4), 605–627. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.2011.01246.x

Vasquez, C., & Sharpless, D. (2009). The role of pragmatics in the master’s TESOL curriculum: Findings from a nationwide survey. TESOL Quarterly, 43, 1, 5-28.

Vellenga, H. (2011). Teaching L2 Pragmatics: Opportunities for Continuing Professional Development. TESL-EJ, 15. Retrieved from http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume15/ej58/ej58a3



Top tools for learning 2016

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 17.20.58

I recently responded to an online poll of educators’ tools for learning and saved my responses to kick off a class on learning technologies for language teachers.

These are my picks; here’s why. (They are all free.)

Getting started


LastPass is a password manager that saves your passwords online and lets you access them from one master password (the *last pass*word you’ll need from now on). It can generate secure passwords, but I don’t risk this (if you have connectivity problems you can’t retrieve these from memory). Instead I create my own passwords with a keyword system and save them to LastPass.

I suggest this as my first tool for learning because it’s the obvious first hurdle to using almost any platform, tool, or application and I find until students or trainees are confident logging in and out of multiple sites it’s difficult to build up confidence or expertise.

An associated tool is Xmarks, which lets you synchronise bookmarks across browsers and devices, which I also find useful for moving between machines, though if you share computers it might not be so relevant.

Google apps

Once you have your password manager set up, my next recommendation is Google Drive, where you have e-mail (Gmail), online storage (Google Drive), online wordprocessing (Google Docs) and spreadsheets (Google Sheets), as well as Calendar, Slides, and Forms (for online surveys, questionnaires, and tests). Also worth a look are Sites for building your own websites or getting learners to do so, and Communities for working with groups.

I find these work well for planning my teaching, administration (attendance, grades), giving feedback on student writing (Docs), or collecting links to sound files, for example (Forms). We have run telecollaborative projects on G-Drive, using a private folder to save student-teacher video selfies, with sub-folders for class tandems to share their learners’ productions and prepare collaborative papers and presentations.

If you have multiple Google accounts it’s worth associating one account with one browser (work gmail on Firefox, home gmail on Chrome, for example) to avoid problems signing in and out. I have never found the offline functionality anything close to effective, so only for use with good internet connectivity.

Writing and feedback

Google Docs

As noted, Google docs is useful for your own writing, but also for use with learners. They can edit their own documents, prepare translations in groups, or submit work for evaluation and you can set access to private (sign-in), public (no sign-in) or an intermediate option with files accessible via link (no sign-in).

I find the Docs interface (there is also one for Sheets, etc) less easily navigable than Drive. Also be aware that you need a computer for full functionality – on smartphones and tablets comments are not accessible, for example.


Evernote is very useful for taking notes offline and saving all sorts of bits and pieces which you can tag and sort into Notebooks or leave unorganised to search. The search function is great and it works offline. There’s an app for your phone but the free version limits the number of devices you can connect.

Collaboration and sharing


After Google apps perhaps the single most useful tool, Dropbox lets you save files and synchronise across devices. I use it to save teaching materials (slides, handouts) but also for collaborative research writing with colleagues in other countries. Accessible offline, syncs in the background, usable like a drive or folder on your own computer.

One thing to be careful about: the default drag and drop which copies a file from one drive to another in other circumstances moves the file on Dropbox. So if you download a file from a shared folder you delete that file for others. Doesn’t work well on an external drive; you must save your local version on your local hard drive.


This free website platform lets you make your own website with images, media, and other links very easily and intuitively. It has the advantages over Google sites of a) letting you create classes with your students’ names and e-mails, and b) making comments on pages easy to see.

Audio and video


For language teachers, you need the digital audio player VLC, which plays any format you can imagine.


This open platform is a good place to share audio files, which you or your learners can upload and save privately, share to a select audience, or open to the world. With adult learners you can outsource the recording (smartphones), uploading (SoundCloud), and sharing (Google Forms) so you can focus on the feedback.

Social media


I use the microblogging site to find and communicate useful resources for teaching (educator blogs, tools, pedagogical resources) and research (conference and journal calls for papers, new publications).


I save the references in my tweets to curated sites to help keep track, though the service for the free version of Scoop.it has fallen off and it may not be worth starting there now.

Low-tech classroom teaching

Finally, special mention for technology you can use in class without technology: with Plickers, learners hold up paper cards to answer pre-set or spontaneous multiple choice quizzes, and the teacher records them via smartphone.

Coloriage magique: on busywork and boxticking


Sometimes good ideas lead to disappointing applications. Bruner’s appeal for discovery learning as an alternative to “mere memorizing” (Whyte, 2011) brought “learning by doing” to teacher education programmes the world over. But it often feels as though our educational system is entirely geared towards doing rather than learning, and this is ultimately detrimental to learning.

Asked about her experience of ICT training in pre-service primary teacher education, a graduate some years ago reported feeling as though she had been given a stack of “magic colouring” pages (often distributed in French primary classes for arithmetic practice) at the start of the year, had worked steadily through them, and having completed everything successfully, nonetheless had no impression of having learned anything substantive whatsoever at the end of the year. I was reminded of this comment on reading a recent post by Hendrick on resisting fads and gimmicks in the classoom.

My impression is that the managerialisation of education has brought learners, teachers, and teacher educators alike to an almost exclusive focus on box-ticking. We all spend our time completing tasks designed more to show that work has been finished to standard, rather than on the content to be considered, assimilated, or reflected upon.

With respect to learner at the receiving end of classroom instruction, Hendrick (2016) argues against dumbing down by appealing to contemporary youth culture and passing fads:

By insisting that the only way kids can learn is by being distracted into learning, we are offering them a debased view of the process itself

The same writer also contests the conflation of motivation and learning in a 2015 post here, arguing

If [learners] are being motivated to do the types of tasks they already know how to do or focus on the mere performing of superficial tasks at the expense of the assimilation of complex knowledge then the whole enterprise may be a waste of time.

It seems to me that the magic colouring activity corresponds exactly to those two points: the “learner” is simply repeating operations already known to them (in the above illustration, counting to 5), for the dubious reward of an unrelated outcome (Pokemon picture).

In further criticism of death-by-colouring, Hendrick cites a 2015 post by Quigley pointing to research which suggests that student use of highlighters as a revision tool is less effective than other, more reflective methods. Quigley anticipates resistance from teachers reluctant to abandon such ineffectual yet reassuring practices and responds thus:

I have been given feedback by teachers that use highlighters regularly that it is useful for effective organization in MFL; that they work best for lesser able students English; that it makes things stand out more than the humble pen.  My question would be: how do you know?  I can assure you that I am not certain that the answer will be what I expect, far from it. The research may be poppycock when translated to your setting, but if [sic] we won’t know that if we don’t reflect on the evidence and question our methods.

In the university contexts where I teach and train future teachers, many of the questions students ask during lectures are related less to how the course fits in their overall programme of study, or how particular points relate to more general learning objectives, than to specifics of how the course will be graded and what kind of questions can be expected on the exam. Robert Duke has an interesting take on teacher responsibility in this area in his 2009 lecture Why students don’t learn what we think we teach.

It’s interesting that one answer to Quigley’s call for teacher engagement with evidence is one I find appealing: action research (which I’ve written about in Talking the talk and Online support for classroom language teachers, and Masters in Teaching English research project topics). But of course as my trainee teacher noted earlier, without a change of tack, even these projects can be reduced to so much busywork, a coloriage magique, and just one more box to tick on the way out.


Duke, R. (2009). Why students don’t learn what we think we teach. Cornell University.

Hendrick, C. (2016). Why fads and gimmicks should be resisted in the classroom. Chronotope,18/09/2016

Hendrick, C. (2015). Engagement: Just because they’re busy, doesn’t mean they’re learning anything. Chronotope, 22/03/2016

Quigley, A. (2015). Why I hate highlighters. The Confident Teacher. 17/01/2015

Whyte, S. (2011). Good questions. Learning and teaching foreign languages.