Practical Criteria for Teaching Speech Acts

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John Fujimori & Noël Houck

In recent years there has been increasing interest in the teaching of speech acts in English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classrooms. Studies have focused particularly on the effectiveness of different approaches to presenting a range of acts including, among others, requests (Morrow, 1995; Rose, 1994; Takahashi, 2001), apologies (Olshtain & Cohen, 1990; Tateyama et al., 1997), refusals (Morrow, 1995), and compliments (Billmyer, 1990; Rose & Ng, 2001). However, despite the attention directed toward how best to teach them, most teachers are still unconvinced that they should teach speech acts at all, and those who would like to do so feel unprepared to make appropriate choices regarding which acts to teach, or how to develop appropriate lessons. In this article, we propose some practical criteria for teachers to use in answering questions such as:

  • Should a speech act be taught?
  • What do students already know?
  • What should students be able to do as a result of the lesson?
  • What resources are most effective in teaching speech acts?
  • How can the effectiveness of the lesson be determined?

To lend concrete support, we report one teacher's experience with teaching the act of advice-giving at a Japanese high school.

Deciding Whether a Speech Act Should be Taught

ESL texts now frequently incorporate exercises on a variety of acts. However, teachers report that these lessons rarely seem to have an effect on students' behavior unless the teacher has made a point of emphasizing the importance of a particular act. The implication is that, unless an act is made relevant to students in some way, information on speech acts added to already busy lessons is of little value. Thus, a first consideration for teachers is on which act(s), if any, they should consider spending time. The main criterion for making this decision is whether the act is an important one for their students:

  • Is it an act that students will frequently be exposed to, or need to use?
  • Do students avoid, or misuse it?
  • Is their avoidance, or misuse, potentially confusing, or offensive, to speakers of English?

Acts, such as requests, apologies, refusals, and compliments, have frequently been identified as particularly problematic for EFL/ESL learners at all levels. One less obvious act that is often misused by non-native speakers of English is advice-giving. This is the act that was brought to the attention of one of the authors by his students. Fujimori teaches English to native speakers of Japanese in a high level Japanese high school. His attention was caught by his students' apparently well-intentioned advice to their native speaker of English (NSE) teachers, which included the following:

  1. You should get married.
  2. Teacher, you had better buy a Honda.

These examples illustrate two types of problem: a) use of advice in situations in which advice is considered inappropriate, as in Example (1); and b) use of inappropriate linguistic forms to express advice (the rather abrupt-sounding forms should and had better in both Examples (1) and (2)).

In fact, from a student to a teacher, Example (1) is so inappropriate as to sound presumptuous and rather offensive. Moreover, inappropriate advice-giving does not seem to be restricted to Fujimori's students. Hinkel (1994) cites instances of students advising teachers that they should not smoke so much, and telling friends that they should not eat so many sweets.

Like most speech acts, depending on the situation, advice-giving can perform a number of interactional functions, ranging from establishing or maintaining rapport, flattering, or helping, to criticizing, distancing, or dominating (Decapua & Huber, 1995). In Anglo-American cultures, advice-giving is often associated with criticism, especially when it is unsolicited (Mandala, 1999). Thus, Anglo-American speakers of English may choose to opt out of giving unsolicited advice, or at most, use an indirect strategy. On the other hand, in other cultures, such as Japan, unsolicited advice is more often used to show "warm interest in the other's well-being" (Masuda, 1989, in Hinkel, 1994, p. 5) and is frequently used in making small talk. So native speakers of Japanese tend to feel more comfortable administering advice and using direct strategies to do so.

When non-native speakers interact in a second language (L2), they tend to transfer L1 pragmatic rules into the L2 without realizing the negative impact they may have (Blum-Kulka, 1983). So it is not surprising that native speakers of Japanese offer unsolicited advice when advice would normally be avoided, or downplayed, in English. In addition, even when advice is warranted, non-native speakers of English with many different L1s tend to rely on forms associated with direct advice, or softened advice, such as should, or had better (Altman, 1990), as opposed to the indirect advice strategy often favored by NSEs.

Thus, Fujimori's students probably did not perceive their advice-giving to Anglo-American teachers as intrusive or impolite. However, since these remarks were having an unrecognized and unfavorable effect on their recipients, Fujimori decided that this particular act was an important one on which to spend class time.

Determining What Students Already Know

Once a teacher has decided that students need to learn about a particular act, the second step is to determine what students already know about performing the act in the L2. To answer this question, the teacher can, for instance, create a quick exercise to reveal the students' current knowledge of relevant strategies, present some of the linguistic forms conventionally used, and ask the learner to report which ones are familiar, or to choose which is the most appropriate of two utterances provided for a given situation.

Fujimori wanted to determine whether his students would use appropriate advice strategies if they were given sufficient time and were focused on the activity, and whether they would use the same advice-giving strategies to superiors and peers. Following Hinkel (1994), he used the following advice-giving strategies:

  • Direct: You should buy a train pass.
  • Softened: Maybe you should buy a train pass.
  • Indirect: I bought a train pass last year, and it really made life easier.

Fujimori designed a set of short scenarios consisting of three advice-giving situations: one to a peer, and two to a superior (Appendix 1).


It's not raining right now, but you know that a big storm is approaching. Your teacher who doesn't know any Japanese, is going home without his umbrella. You think he hasn't heard about the storm. What would you say?

These situations were realistic, and reflected some of the situations in which he had noticed students producing inappropriate forms of the act. He gave the written scenarios to the 14 students in his third-year elective high school class, a group that was interested in learning English, and whose oral abilities were quite good. He told students to write what they thought they would say in each situation.

The results confirmed the teacher's suspicions that students were, indeed, ignorant of what constituted appropriate advice in English. The majority responded to the written scenarios by offering direct and softened advice; only a few provided indirect advice. In addition, none of the students opted out of offering unsolicited advice. The most common advice-giving expression was should, followed by had better, regardless of the social position of the hearer. In sum, the students demonstrated a lack of understanding of when, and what kind of, advice-giving is appropriate in English. After completing the three scenarios, two students commented that they had wanted to respond differently, but they weren't sure what was proper.

It should be noted that one alternative to focusing on three levels, as Fujimori did, is to focus only on contrasting Direct and Indirect levels, as this is often the contrast that students need most to learn to avoid problems.

Establishing Goals

Once the decision to teach the act has been taken, and the teacher has established the students' level of knowledge of the act in English, the third step is to decide what that particular group of students needs to know or be able to do. Three different levels of goals can be identified, depending on the amount of time available, and the depth of understanding that teachers would like their students to develop. These goals are:

  • Consciousness Raising
  • Knowledge Building
  • Production Development

The most expedient choice is Consciousness Raising. This involves simply letting the students know explicitly that what they tend to say is considered rude in the L2 (in this case, that advice-giving is viewed differently in English, and that it is best to avoid it whenever possible). This is the option of choice when class time is limited. A second option is Knowledge Building, the aim of which is to increase students' awareness of some of the alternatives available for producing the act (e.g., for example, the ability to recognize direct, softened, and indirect strategies). The most ambitious choice is Production Development. In addition to building learner awareness of the differences in the way the particular act is formulated and used in the L2, and familiarizing them with some of the more frequently employed strategies, the teacher provides students with the opportunity to practice some of the forms and strategies in different situations. To make the lesson relevant, teachers need to select appropriate, widely used linguistic forms that are already familiar to the learners, or that can be easily learned as chunks.

Since his students were already regularly issuing unwanted advice, Fujimori decided that he wanted his students to a) become more aware of constraints on advice giving in English; b) recognize different advice-giving strategies; and c) produce appropriate strategies in familiar situations involving classmates, faculty, or administrators.

Teaching the Speech Act

The fourth question facing the teacher is what kinds of activities will be most effective in achieving the teacher's goals. Current research indicates that an effective approach to teaching speech act production involves providing explicit instruction on the acts (Tateyama et al., 1997) and an opportunity to practice them (Morrow, 1995).

With this in mind, Fujimori developed five exercises—an initial Consciousness Raising task, a task for Knowledge Development, a comprehension task, and two Production Development tasks, along with Five Tips for Advice-Giving (Appendix 2). He used these exercises in conjunction with a lesson on health in the students' textbook. The following activities represent the class exercises used by Fujimori for presenting the activities. Needless to say, the activities can be adapted to the teaching situation at hand.

Activity 1: Consciousness raising (Judgment task)

Activity 1 was an inductive exercise designed to increase the students' awareness of English advice-giving strategies. In this task students identified the three different types of advice-giving in familiar situations. When the students had completed the exercise, the teacher discussed each level with them. He explained that when speaking English, advice should be given carefully. Indirect advice is usually given to superiors, and indirect or softened advice is used with peers. Direct advice is used sparingly. He also explained that in Anglo-American culture, advice-giving does not foster group cohesiveness and is generally not used for small talk.


Activity 1 asks students if the following statement is direct, softened, or indirect:

You are at a video rental shop with a friend. Your friend decides to rent a video. You've already seen it and you think it's a boring movie. You say, "You should rent something more interesting."

Activity 2: Knowledge development (Written identification task)

Fujimori designed Activity 2 to develop students' knowledge about the forms available for advice-giving. In this activity, students practiced identifying examples of the three strategies that had been discussed in Activity 1. The task focused on individual sentences or utterances, and required students to determine which of three approximately identical statements was direct, which was softened, and which was indirect. The teacher checked students' responses, giving special attention to the association of the following forms and strategies:

Table 1. Student responses

Strategy Form
Direct advice should, had better
Softened/Hedges (softeners) maybe, I think, perhaps, we should, why don’t we
Indirect wait to be asked, then use I would...
Opting out no advice or suggestion is given to the hearer


Students identify advice-giving forms:

Are the following sentences direct, softened, or indirect?

  1. You should see The Lord of the Rings.
  2. Maybe, you might enjoy seeing The Lord of the Rings.
  3. The new The Lord of the Rings is great. I really enjoyed it.

Activity 3: Production development—controlled (Written responses)

In Activity 3, Fujimori provided a first opportunity for students to try producing the appropriate advice. In an exercise similar to the needs analysis, he had students write their own responses to written scenarios. This allowed him to determine whether the students could apply what they had learned, if given sufficient time. Students were expected to decide on one of the three strategies, and produce a corresponding form. The teacher then had students write their responses on the whiteboard, and discussed the choices, drawing attention to different levels of directness. By comparing responses, students could see which responses were appropriate, depending on the situation. Activity 3 asks the students to write their own advice.


"Your friend has an allergy. She's allergic to cedar pollen. Her eyes are puffy and she's constantly sneezing." Now try to write your own advice.

Activity 4: Knowledge development—On-line (Listening identification)

In exercises four and five, Fujimori introduced a time constraint. In exercise four, students listened to dialogs that the teacher had pre-recorded, in which advice was given. As they listened the first time, they identified the situation; the second time, they focused on the level of directness of the advice. Here students were required to recognize the strategies "on line", while also focusing on meaning.

Activity 5: Production development—On-line (Spoken responses)

In Activity 5, students performed open role-plays involving opportunities for advice- giving, applying their knowledge of appropriate forms to on-line production. After observing several of the role plays, the teacher and the class discussed the students' choices. Although opting out was introduced as an option, none of the students chose this alternative. In subsequent presentations of this sequence of activities, Fujimori has placed more emphasis on choosing not to perform the act.


Read the role play card that you have been handed (A or B). Think about what you would say. Then perform the role-play with your partner.
Card A:
You and a friend are going to eat at a restaurant. Your friend says she/he will order the tempura special. You've eaten there before, and the tempura wasn't very good. You think she/he should order something else.
Card B:
You and a friend are going to eat in a restaurant. You love to eat tempura, so you're going to order the "tempura special."

Finally, the teacher presented Five Tips for Advice-Giving. For Fujimori's class, these Tips served as simple reminders of what they had learned. However, they could also be used in a class that was focusing only on Consciousness Raising. He reminded the students that each situation is unique and requires them to consider their response carefully.

Assessment of Effectiveness

After presenting activities designed to develop students' knowledge and/or production of a particular act, teachers need to assess how effective the lesson has been. This can be done by means of exercises such as the one used for the needs analysis, a controlled exercise in production, or an exercise in spontaneous production.

Fujimori chose to evaluate the immediate effectiveness of the lesson by checking on students' controlled production. He had students respond to the same scenarios that he had given to assess their initial advice-giving strategies (Appendix 1). The results were dramatic, with student responses displaying a marked change from their pre-instruction answers. The majority of the class gave softened or indirect advice to a friend, with three-quarters of the class producing some form of indirect advice to the teacher.

In addition to Fujimori's final assessment, students provided informal feedback on their impressions of the lesson. Many stated that they found the activities illuminating. Specifically, instead of pre-programmed responses, they had to consider the situation and the hearer, and measure their responses. One student commented that this was the first time that she had learned about the appropriateness of her responses. Several students nodded in agreement.

Final Comments

Although a brief lesson such as the one presented in this report will obviously not result in consistently sensitive acts that employ correct grammar and situationally appropriate forms, it can provide students with the awareness of strategies and forms they need to develop the knowledge and skill required to recognize and produce these acts. In Fujimori's case, students displayed, to different degrees, an increased awareness of the constraints on advice giving in English, and some understanding of the implications of different forms. While the ability to adapt strategy and form to situation will come only with experience, these students were able to produce forms that reflected a consciousness of the distinction and knowledge of the linguistic options available to convey the distinction.

A complete set of advice-giving activities can be found online at:


Altman, R. (1990). Giving and taking advice without offence. In R. Scarcella, E. Andersen, & S. Krashen (Eds.), Developing communicative competence in a second language (pp. 95-101). New York: Newbury House.
Billmyer, C. (1990). The effect of formal instruction on the development of sociolinguistic competence: The performance of compliments. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Blum-Kulka, S. (1983). Interpreting and performing speech acts in a second language – A cross-cultural study of Hebrew and English. In N. Wolfson & E. Judd (Eds.), Sociolinguistics and language acquisition (pp. 36-54). Cambridge, MA: Newbury House.
DeCapua, A., & Huber, L. (1995). 'If I were you …': Advice in American English. Multilingua, 14, 117-132.
Hinkel, E. (1994, March). Appropriateness of advice as L2 solidarity strategy. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Baltimore, MD.
Mandala, S. (1999). Exiting advice. In L.Bouton (Ed.) Pragmatics and Language Learning, 9, (pp. 89-111). Urbana-Champaign: University of Ilinois.
Morrow, C. (1995). The pragmatic effects of instruction on ESL learners' production of complaint and refusal speech acts. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo.
Olshtain, E., & Cohen, A. (1990). The learning of complex speech act behavior. TESL Canada Journal, 7 (2), 45-65.
Rose, K. (1994). Pragmatic consciousness raising in an ESL context. In L. Bouton (Ed.), Pragmatics and language learning, 5 (pp. 52-63). Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois.
Rose, K., & Ng, Kwai-fun, C. (2001). Inductive and deductive teaching of compliments and compliment responses. In K. Rose & G. Kasper (Eds.), Pragmatics in language teaching (pp. 145-170). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Takahashi, S. (2001). The role of input enhancement in developing pragmatic competence. In K. Rose & G. Kasper (Eds.), Pragmatics in language teaching (pp. 171-199). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Tateyama, Y., Kasper, G., Mui, L., Tay, H-M., & Thananart, O. (1997). Explicit and implicit teaching of pragmatic routines. In L. Bouton (Ed.), Pragmatics and language learning, 8 (pp. 163-177). Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois.

John Fujimori has a Master's degree in Education from Temple University Japan. He currently teaches at Meiji Gakuin High School in Tokyo. His research interests include pragmatics and vocabulary acquisition.

Noël Houck is an assistant professor in the English and Foreign Languages Department at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She was a member of the faculty of the Graduate School of Education at Temple University Japan (TUJ) from 1992-2000. Her main research areas are pragmatics and discourse analysis. She has co-authored a book on Japanese refusals in English with Susan Gass, and has recently presented research with Seiko Fujii on disagreement in English, Japanese, and English-Japanese academic discussions.

Appendix 1


Directions: Read each of the situations. After each situation, write what you would say in the situation in a normal conversation. Do not ask anyone else what she or he would say.

1. Tomorrow you and your friend have a very important test. You have studied hard, so you're confident you'll do well. Your friend hasn't studied at all and may fail the class. Tonight is the last chance to study. Your friend says:
Friend: Let's go sing some karaoke.
You: _____________________________________________

2. It's not raining right now, but you know that a big storm is approaching. Your teacher, who doesn't know any Japanese, is going home without his umbrella. You think he hasn't heard about the storm. What would you say?
You: ________________________________________________

3. You are walking down the street and meet Mr. Suzuki, our principal. You talk for a minute or two. He looks very sick. What would you say?
You: ________________________________________________

Appendix 2

Five Tips for Advice-Giving

  1. THINK before you give advice. Is the advice necessary?
  2. Do use indirect advice with superiors.
  3. Do use indirect advice, or softened advice, with friends.
  4. Try to avoid direct advice, such as "should", or "had better".
  5. Don't give advice just to make small talk.