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TESOL Connections (October 2010)

by User Not Found | 11/08/2011


  • A free chapter from TESOL's new book, Pragmatics: Teaching Speech Acts:

    Teaching Indirect Requests

  • Integration for English Learner Success: Using Centers for Academic Gain,

    by Christopher Roe

    Association News

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  • How should ELLs be grouped for instruction?
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    TESOL Connections Archives (members only)

  • This chapter is from Pragmatics: Teaching Speech Acts,

    Edited by Donna H. Tatsuki and Noël R. Houck, TESOL Classroom Practice Series

    Free Chapter:
    It’s 8 O’clock in the Morning—Are You Watching Television? Teaching Indirect Requests

    By Zohreh R. Eslami and Kent D. McLeod

    download to PDF

    Requests in English are often made using a wide range of subtle linguistic resources. Even speakers in a higher position of authority addressing subordinates often rely on a finely tuned understanding of the scale of directness to indirectness, the supportive moves that precede or follow requests to mitigate the impact, and the linguistic modifiers used to soften the message. If learners are unaware of the function of this indirectness, they may respond only to the form of the utterance and miss the true intent. As a consequence, the potential for misunderstanding by both interlocutors of each other’s politeness is high. In response to the need to raise learners’ awareness of the role of indirectness and mitigation in English, this chapter provides practical tasks for recognizing levels of directness and the mitigating moves and softeners that are so essential for making appropriate requests in English.


    The following activities have been used primarily with intermediate English as a second language (ESL) learners in an intensive English program at a major university in the southwestern United States. However, we are confident that they could be successfully tailored to fit the needs of basic as well as advanced second language (L2) learners in both an ESL and an English as a foreign language (EFL) context.

    According to Blum-Kulka, Danet, and Gherson (1985), a request is a preevent act that expresses a speaker’s expectation about some prospective action, verbal or nonverbal, on the part of the hearer. The goals of a request include action (e.g., “Can you open the window?”), goods (e.g., “Can you pass me the salt?”), information (e.g., “Do you know who our teacher is going to be this semester?”), and permission (e.g., “May I leave early?”), and the appropriateness of a particular goal is determined by the social norms of the society in which the speech act is made.

    In order to categorize the wide range of request types, Blum-Kulka, House, and Kasper (1989) developed a scale in the Cross Cultural Speech Act Realization Project (CCSARP). The scale is composed of nine subcategories grouped into three broad categories of request strategies depending on the degree of directness. These strategies can be grouped as follows:

    • Direct requests
    • Imperative (“Stop bothering me.”)
    • Explicit requesting verb (“I am asking you to change your mind.”)
    • Hedged requesting verb (“I must ask you to move to another table.”)
    • Conventionally indirect requests
      • Intention derivable (“You’ll have to leave.”)
      • Statement of wanting (“I’d like to get a ride home with you.”)
      • Suggestion formula (“How about helping your sister?”)
      • Preparatory—using could you/would you phrasing in questions: (“Could you lend me a couple of dollars?”)
    • Nonconventionally indirect requests
      • Strong hint—one that mentions the problem:

    (“Your room is a mess.” [Request to straighten room])

      • Mild hint—one that does not mention the problem or solution explicitly:

    (“It’s already 11 o’clock.” [Request for companion to leave])

    (adapted from Blum Kulka, House, & Kasper, 1989, pp. 278–280)

    These categories are relatively standard. However, the terms “direct request” and “indirect request” can be misleading. Direct requests, as well as indirect-intention-derivable and statement-of-wanting requests, can be perceived as orders or as rather pushy requests, depending on the content and context. Furthermore, intention-derivable and statement-of-wanting strategies are sometimes eliminated in discussions of requests (see Rinnert & Iwai, Chapter 4 of this volume).

    The supportive moves used to mitigate (or aggravate) the force of a request can either be internal or external to the speech act itself. Internal modifications are part of the request itself and include softening words or phrases such as please, just, and only. External modifications can occur before or after the request. Blum-Kulka, House, and Kasper (1989, pp. 287–288) describe six types of external modifications in the CCSARP:

    • Preparatory (“I’d like to ask you something.”)
    • Getting a precommitment (“Could you do me a favor?”)
    • Grounder (“I wasn’t feeling good yesterday. Could I borrow your notes?”)
    • Disarmer (“I know you’re tired, but . . .”)
    • Promise of reward (“Can you call the rest of the club members? I’ll do it next time.”)
    • Imposition minimizer (“Would you help me with this problem, but only if you have the time.”)

    Levels of directness and mitigation are employed in rather subtle ways by native English speakers, which makes these linguistic resources ideal candidates for instruction.


    The following lesson focuses on developing an appreciation of the different levels of directness and the linguistic resources for expressing them, as well as raising awareness of some of the resources for mitigating requests. The activities illustrate the often, subtle manner in which requests can be made.

    The goals of this set of activities are (a) to enable learners to distinguish between direct and indirect requests and (b) to develop an initial awareness of softeners and their importance. (For a more detailed discussion of softeners, see Rinnert and Iwai, Chapter 4 of this volume.) This lesson includes activities involving (a) awareness of differences in directness levels, (b) analysis of a request from a movie, (c) practice recognizing different levels of directness, (d) collection of natural requests, (e) analysis of the collected requests, and (f) discussion of softeners and mitigation devices.

    Activity 1: Developing Awareness of Directness Levels

    The first step in developing learners’ awareness of directness levels is activating their prior knowledge by asking them what they know about requesting in general and about requesting in English in particular. Questions such as “How is requesting in English similar to and different from requesting in your first language?” and “How does a higher status person ask a lower status person to do something?” can stimulate a discussion and prod students to think about request forms. Questions such as “How would you ask a younger brother to wash the dishes?” draw students’ attention to their relationships with different people to whom they regularly make direct requests. A common result of this elicitation of requests is that most students provide extremely polite forms involving modals (e.g., “Would you please wash the dishes, Hyun Su?”) or extremely direct forms using the imperative (e.g., “Wash the dishes, Miguel!”) with few examples in between.

    Once students begin to contribute examples, teachers can list them on the board. Then learners can examine the list for similarities and differences and comment on any that are found. Students generally note likenesses and variation among the requests such as the use of imperatives, modals, conditionals, softeners (e.g., please, just, a little), and external modifications (i.e., preparatory statement, precommitment, grounder, disarmer, promise of reward, and imposition minimizer, examples of which are presented in the previous section).

    Activity 2: Interpreting a Request

    Once students are aware of the existence of differences in the ways of making requests in English, the teacher can show a short clip from a movie titled Pleasantville (Ross, 1998; Scene 15: “A Red Rose,” from approximately 36:55–37:22). The teacher may want to distribute Worksheet 1 (see Appendix) and go over the background of the scene before showing the clip. (Teachers who do not have access to the movie can rely solely on the text included in Worksheet 1.)

    After watching the clip and answering the questions, students can discuss their answers with the rest of the class. By the end of the discussion, students should realize that the mother was expressing an indirect request for her son to turn off the television and come eat breakfast. The mother in this scene initially seems surprised (perhaps astonished) and concerned to find her teenage son engaged in an activity (watching television) that he normally did not do.

    Activity 3: Identifying Different Request Types

    At this point students are ready to learn about the wide variation in English requests. They need to begin to recognize that even though many North Americans are considered very direct, requests can sometimes be quite subtle. Worksheet 2 (see Appendix) presents an opportunity for learners to practice categorizing different possible request forms. If students are more advanced or culturally sophisticated, they could label each of the requests on the worksheet according to one of the nine directness level subcategories previously presented. (Note: The requests have been placed in the CCSARP format order from the most direct to the most nonconventionally indirect, but it might be more effective to scramble them; see Appendix for the answer key.)

    After students complete the form, students can discuss their answers as a class. Teachers can use this opportunity to reinforce the notion that requests can be framed very differently to convey different levels of directness.

    Activity 4: Collecting Natural Data

    Activity 4 is a homework activity using Worksheet 3 (see Appendix). Students are required to collect naturalistic requests, focusing on the characteristics of the speaker and addressee and the situation (including the degree of imposition) in which the request is made. Teachers may want to go over the terminology on the worksheet before assigning the homework.

    In an EFL setting in which students have little or no access to English speakers, students can collect data in their first language (L1). This option can be quite effective, as the translation of the request into English can be especially helpful in cases where there are clear differences or clear similarities between L1 and L2 norms. Alternatively, learners could work with a partner to create examples of direct and indirect requests given various scenarios.

    At this point, students may need to be reminded of the importance of recognizing explicit and implicit request forms and the pragmatic variables associated with them. In particular, it can help if the teacher highlights the importance of considering variables such as distance and dominance between the interlocutors, as well as the level of imposition, when assessing the appropriateness of a request.

    The last two activities focus on raising learners’ awareness of and ability to produce a range of mitigation and softening techniques employed in making requests and how these differ according to the interlocutors, situation, setting, distance, dominance, and imposition.

    Activity 5: Analyzing Natural Data

    Activity 5 requires students to look for patterns between settings and request formulations using the data they collected for their homework. It may be helpful for them to review what was learned from the previous lesson exploring the differences between direct and indirect requests. In this activity, students’ attention is drawn to the characteristics or the situations and the speakers of particular requests. They will then consider what kinds of mitigation and softening devices were used. Worksheet 4 (see Appendix) can also be completed on the board or on a transparency as a follow-up to small-group work.

    After students have worked through several of their fellow students’ worksheets, the teacher may have a group present some of their unordered requests and situations and have class members predict which request matches up with which setting characteristics. The teacher may want to direct learners to any differences in mitigation and softening between males and females and formal or informal situations. Learners could also be asked how they feel about the use and amount of mitigation in the collected requests as a point of comparison with their own cultures.

    During this activity, it may be beneficial for the teacher to provide explicit instances that he or she feels are important for learners to become aware of and acquire. As previously discussed in the Context section, some particularly common forms and formulas include:

    1. Internal modifications

    • please, just, um, cool, OK, and only
    • It would be . . . if you could . . .
    • for a moment/for a little while
    • I was wondering if . . .
    • Would it be possible/all right/OK/etc. . . .

    2. External modifications such as those discussed in the Context section

    Activity 6: Practicing in Role-Plays

    To provide opportunities to practice mitigation or softening in requests, teachers can make role-play cards with information about the characteristics of the interlocutors, setting, situation, and request (see Activity 6 in the Appendix for an example with a suggested answer).

    Students can write down and submit their requests. Time permitting, one or two pairs could perform in front of the whole class followed by a brief discussion of the appropriateness of the request.


    The lessons presented illustrate the oftentimes subtle manner in which requests can be made, the scale of directness to indirectness, and the supportive moves that precede or follow requests in order to mitigate the impact. Additionally, the usefulness of authentic audiovisual input in the improvement of learners’ pragmatic awareness and production of requests in both ESL and EFL contexts is clearly evident in these lesson plans.

    In particular, these activities can be readily adapted to the needs of basic as well as advanced learners of all ages and in both ESL and EFL contexts. Irrespective of the characteristics of the group, the selection of media or examples should reflect an appreciation for their proficiency level, interest, maturity, and environment. For younger learners, for example, the selection of animation or comic books would be a popular choice. For learners in an EFL context, where the availability of authentic materials may be somewhat circumscribed, the translation of native language media could offer excellent opportunities for cross-cultural exploration of requests in the native and target languages.

    Of course, one of the challenges of the language used in media is that it may not represent authentic language use. However, with the popularity of reality television shows (e.g., Survivor) more genuine sources of language are increasingly available. Furthermore, the level of difficulty of the language used in these programs should match the students’ level of language proficiency.

    To read the rest of this chapter and see the appendices,
    download the PDF for free.

    To purchase this book, Pragmatics: Teaching Speech Acts, go to the TESOL Bookstore.


    Integration for English Learner Success:

    Using Centers for Academic Gain

    by Christopher Roe, download to PDF

    Teachers in classrooms across the country are eager to locate successful strategies that will enable their ever-increasing language diverse student population to grasp content instruction. Within any classroom, there may be multiple languages and a wide array of proficiencies, which makes grouping nearly impossible. Using a structured grouping platform may be just what teachers at any level need to get content across to students.

    Over the past 15 years, the Center for Research on Education Diversity and Excellence (CREDE) has developed standards for teachers to use in their classrooms that will do just this—provide content to students with any language background and give them the opportunity to practice listening, speaking, reading, and writing with native speakers. It has been used in various countries around the world to test the strategies with varying degrees of success.

    The research behind CREDE’s studies is extensive. Their site details numerous studies supporting center work with English learners. See CREDE’s Web site for further information. To sum it up, the standards are culturally responsive, developmentally appropriate, and tested in schools across the Unites States and in other countries as well.

    The Standards

    These five standards, described below, are the catalyst to changing instruction in the classroom from what we have known to what we can do to make a difference for English learners. Educators who have been in the classroom for some time will find that center work is not a new concept. The research behind the five standards and their effectiveness with English learners in activity centers cites higher student achievement in standardized tests and gains in language arts areas (Tharp, et al., 2004; Doherty, Hilberg, Pinal, and Tharp, 2003; Hilberg, Chang, and Epaloose, 2003; Dalton, 1998; Wink and Putney, 2006). Activity centers offer students time for in depth exploration of a topic in small groups. After a general lesson is presented to the whole class, a teacher can divide the class into learning groups based on their abilities, interests, language needs, or other criteria. This gives the teacher the opportunity to focus on one small learning group at a time to ensure the content is understood. The center work is structured in an effective way to reach students and give them equal access to the curriculum that everyone desires, or more importantly, deserves. The five standards can be presented independently at first, and combined or integrated, as students and teacher understand the application. The CREDE Five Standards for Effective Pedagogy and Learning (n.d.) are:

    • Joint Productive Activity

    Teacher and students produce products together

    • Language and Literacy Development

    Using curriculum to develop language and literacy

    • Contextualization

    Making connections to the lives of students

    • Challenging Activity

    Using complex thinking to extend learning

    • Instructional Conversation

    Providing structured conversation to enhance concepts

    Each standard relies on several components to make it comprehensible for students. That is, students are able to take content and, with the help of guided instruction, their peers, and their teacher, make connections that are relevant to the concepts being taught. Eventually, the goal for a teacher is to combine the standards so that there is no separation between them—instead they are all interwoven to bring the most meaning for students. While each standard needs to have teacher input and/or interaction, there is only one teacher and 30 (or more!) students. Hence, the teacher designs the activities according to the guidelines for each standard and then sets the students to task to uncover the learning. For the Instructional Conversation standard, the teacher must be present so as to guide the learning through conversation. At this point, the teacher can discover what students are learning about the subject and the depth of their learning. This is a key component to the center and to the theme being introduced in that the teacher can adjust the center work to accommodate learning needs or fill in areas that are not being addressed.

    Planning: Hard Work Nets Good Results

    With any new topic, there is a level of planning that needs to take place. The teacher has to decide upon the theme being taught (in any given subject) and then design the center work around the theme. Items taken into consideration when developing a theme include:

    • Major goals of the unit
    • Connections between lessons
    • Integration of curriculum
    • Assessment types and rubrics
    • Accommodations
    • Materials and resources
    • Related field trips

    This intensive planning is only done once. The following year, the unit can be adapted according to the class and adjusted depending upon the desired results of the theme.

    Here’s how the centers using a theme might look in a second grade classroom:

    Unit Theme: Apple Pie (Literature)

    Centers: These typed directions are put in file folders in each center area, which could be desks pulled together or specific areas within the classroom, depending upon the space a teacher has in the room. Any related items to the directions are also put in the folders or left at the table for students to use.

    1. Joint Productive Activity

    Your group has been given blank maps and books of the story, How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World (Priceman, 1994).

    Please retrace the route taken by the girl in the story. Label the places she visited 1–6. Then, list the ingredients she got from each location.


    • List the continents visited by the girl
    • List the animals she encountered
    • List the modes of transportation she used
    • What languages might she have encountered on this journey?
    • Draw a map of one of the places visited and label the following: capital, bordering countries, bodies of water, languages spoken, continent, and other facts you may know or have learned.

    2. Language and Literacy Development

    Your group has been given copies of the book, How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World.

    Please reread the story as a group. Each person reads one page, reading in a round-robin manner. After reading, do the following:

    • Look over each page carefully.
    • Identify words that your group is unsure of in the story
    • Illustrate the words so other students may easily define them—ask for help or look them up in the dictionary
    • Now, look for synonyms for the word gather on page 4 of the story.
    • Look for synonyms for the word catch on page 3 of the story.
    • Write an optional ending for this story OR add a country to visit for something the main character may have left out.

    3. Contextualization

    (For this center, internet accessibility or resources on farming in the area would be of great help.) This story, How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World is about collecting ingredients to make an apple pie.

    In your group, can you list the crops that we grow here in the Central Valley? Where do these crops grow? What are the some of the things the fruits and vegetables are used for? List these on a chart.

    Share with the group your favorite food to make or eat. What are the ingredients? Are they found here in the Central Valley? List these on a chart.

    What is one dessert that you love to eat? Can you list the ingredients? List them on a chart.

    What do your items have in common?

    4. Challenging Activity (Making Meaning)

    This story How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World is about collecting ingredients to make an apple pie.

    In your group, you are going to write and illustrate a book, making a food item that you all agree upon. Once you have decided on the food item, begin the process.

    Follow the pattern of the book to get you started. Use maps and draw pictures that illustrate your pages. You won’t have much time so you may want to divide and conquer the tasks (writing and art work).

    We’ll share these at the end of the session.

    5. Instructional Conversation

    In this center, the teacher asks specific questions of the students to guide them through the learning process and to ensure that they are gaining the facts or learning goals that were intended in each center.

    Each of the first four centers relates to the theme of apple pie and the literature unit. Students work in small groups in order to facilitate the centers and spend about 20 minutes per center (at the primary grades, longer at intermediate grades). They then rotate to another center on the same or a succeeding day, depending upon the structure of the teacher’s classroom. The teacher models each center prior to students’ center time and is available in the classroom unless involved in an instructional conversation. This time is not to be interrupted so that the teacher can develop concentrated learning for students and for teacher observation of learning by each student.

    One great feature of this type of work is that it is very flexible and supports any teacher’s classroom style. Another feature of the centers is that after a teacher has had practice developing centers based on this philosophy, they begin to blend so that there really is no need to label them separately. They simply reflect the standards as designed. Each center involves listening, speaking, reading, and writing, which are the goals for most lessons for English learners. There is also peer modeling involved, as groups are heterogeneous. This process becomes seamless as more centers are developed over the course of a school year. In order to self-monitor progress, the teacher uses a rubric as he or she moves along the continuum toward full integration.

    Perhaps the most significant feature of using the centers is that a teacher can apply them to any subject area. Originally designed for social studies and science, over time educators have adapted the format to include all subject areas.

    Chris Roe has been an educator for 29 years. He is a former elementary school teacher and administrator. He is currently an Assistant Professor at CSU Stanislaus in the department of Teacher Education. He can be reached at:


    Center for Research on Education Diversity and Excellence (CREDE). (n.d).

    The CREDE Five Standards for Effective Pedagogy and Learning. Retrieved from

    Dalton, S. (1998). Pedagogy matters: Standards for effective teaching practice.

    Santa Cruz: UC Santa Cruz

    Doherty, R., Hilberg, R. Pinal, A & Tharp, R. (Winter 2003). Five standards

    and student achievement. NABE Journal of Research Practice, 1(1), 1–24.

    Hilberg, R., Chang, J., & Epaloose, G. (2003). Designing effective activity

    centers for diverse learners. Santa Cruz: UC Santa Cruz.

    Priceman, M. (1994). How to Make An Apple Pie and See the World.

    New York: Random House.

    Tharp, R., Doherty, R., Echevarria, J., Estrada, P., Golenbery, C., Hilberg, R.,

    et al. (2004, March). Five standards for effective pedagogy and

    student outcomes (No. G1). Berkeley, CA: UC Berkeley. Retrieved from

    Wink, J. & Putney, L. (2006). 5 standards of effective pedagogy become 5

    activity centers. [PowerPoint presentation]. Presented at Standards

    for Effective Pedagogy, January, 8, 2009 by Chris Roe and Joan Wink.

    Adapted from the Center for Research on Education, Diversity and

    Excellence (CREDE), specifically created from the contributions of

    Annela Teemant.