Developing Pragmatic Competence: Requesting

Patricia Galien, International Christian University


  • Key Words: speaking, pragmatic competence
  • Learner English Level: False Beginner to Advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: High School to Adult
  • Preparation Time: 5 minutes to make copies
  • Activity Time: 25 minutes (including introduction)


"I want the handout from yesterday." What would you think upon hearing this statement from a student in class? Your first reaction would probably be to grant the request. However, if we examine this speech act beyond its utilitarian function we will begin to question its success. One thing that we can say is that it "gets the job done." The speaker is grammatically competent and the teacher understands what the student wants and needs. However, in terms of pragmatic performance this communicative act is obviously unsuccessful because this student (with no ill will) has made a request in a way that is socially inappropriate.

In the above example either the student is unaware of possible ways to soften her request or she is failing to use what she already knows. In the case of requesting, a teacher can help improve a particular student's pragmatic competence by simply explaining the inappropriateness of the speech act at the time it is made and by offering examples of ways the act could have been more polite. Later a whole class activity can be used to reinforce ways one can request politely. Such an activity can be quick and enjoyable as is the activity offered below. This activity focuses on polite requests, particularly the use of the modals would, can, and could.


Make copies of the handout (see Appendix). You will need one for each student in your class. Before class, write the following categories on the blackboard:


Requesting Agreeing to a Request Refusing a Request
  Yes, of course. I'm really sorry, but...
  All right.  
  I'd be happy to.  


  1. Begin by giving some examples of situations in the classroom where requests are often made, such as asking a classmate for help, or asking the teacher for another handout.
  2. Ask the students to think of some language used to make requests. Write their ideas on the blackboard under the heading "Requests." If the students come up with the words "would," "can," and "could", underline them. If they don't, wait until the next step to introduce them.
  3. Give each student a copy of the activity in the Appendix. Tell the students to look at the border around the box. (The students might have used some of these phrases in the language they gave you for making requests.) Read the words and remind the students of the importance of these phrases when making polite requests.
  4. Contrast an impolite request with a polite one; for example, "I want the handout from yesterday" compared to "Could you please give me the handout from yesterday?"
  5. Tell the students that in a few minutes they will stand up, mingle and make polite requests of one another. When someone requests something of them they may agree to the request or refuse it. Direct their attention to the language on the blackboard which can be used to agree to a request or refuse it.
  6. Depending on the level of your students, you may want to review some vocabulary, such as borrow, lend, and whistle.
  7. Tell the students that there are two rules: a) you must be polite, and b) You must talk to eleven different people.
  8. Ask the students to stand up, walk around the room and politely make the requests written on the handout. During the activity, monitor the students and take notes of any requests they may be having difficulty with. After most of the class has finished all eleven requests, ask the students to sit down.
  9. When they are sitting down ask a few students to model the requests that the class seemed to be having trouble with.


The number and variety of examples that you will want to write on the blackboard will depend on the level of your students. If your class is advanced, you will want to explain a variety of ways to soften a request. One possible variation is to include increasingly polite examples for requesting on the blackboard and during the activity students can refuse requests whenever they feel they have not been asked politely enough. The person requesting will then have to try again with a more polite expression. However, if your students are at a basic level, keep the language polite, but simple.


This activity is lively and fun and can be referred back to when students need to be reminded of ways in which they can make requests more politely.