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Some problems with functions and speech acts
and some solutions through pragmatics to help
upper intermediate learners
by Greg Gobel
- 4

A simple way to incorporate more pragmatic awareness

Teachers could helpfully include more metapragmatic explanation and guidance. Vellenga observes: ‘There is, in most books, a lack of metapragmatic discussion related to speech acts. Speech acts may be mentioned or modeled without any commentary on usage or contextual reference’ (Vellenga, 2004: 10). It seems that when coursebooks include useful functional language they miss opportunities for helping learners gain more awareness of the implications they say or hear.

Bardovi-Harlig suggests four steps for ‘integrating pragmatically appropriate language into the English classroom:

  • identification of the speech act;

  • data collection and description;

  • text and material evaluation;

  • development of new material’ (Bardovi-Harlig, et al., 1991: 5).

Regarding steps three and four, in addition to teaching lessons specifically designed for pragmatics work with functional language, such as the types by Dornyei and Thurrell mentioned above, I think teachers could use a lot of existing material and add a pragmatic focus – much like Jenner and Bradford (MET v10/4) advocate incorporating intonation practice into existing listening activities, saying that ‘[almost] any material can be exploited’ for intonation work, we could do the same by analyzing our coursebooks and then integrating pragmatics into functionally focused activities. For me, this has several practical day-to-day advantages:

1. saving time,

2. adding a deeper dimension to tasks and language already part of a course, and

3. teachers having familiarity with the tasks if they have used the particular coursebook already.

This may not be as thorough as our learners need, though. As Vellenga shows, New Headway Intermediate, one of the most popularly used coursebooks, has less than 20% of its pages dealing with pragmatic information (Vellenga, 2004: 6). In the long run we would need to develop new activities altogether (see appendix B); but adapting what we have is a useful departure point for busy teachers.

Looking at Cutting Edge Upper Intermediate

In the upper intermediate class that I teach, we use Cutting Edge Upper Intermediate, containing several sections called ‘Real Life.’ The aim of ‘Real Life’ is to ‘provide opportunities for roleplay of practical, everyday situations’ (Cunningham/Moor, 1999: 6). Based on this aim, it is not surprising that functions and speech acts are often the focus in ‘Real Life’ sections (although, they are also elsewhere in the book). I include my analysis of four ‘Real Life’ sections in appendix G.1, briefly stating the functional focus, assessing the book’s treatment, and proposing possible additions/adaptations to give more thorough pragmatic help to our learners. (See the original coursebook pages: Cutting Edge Upper-Intermediate, 1999: pages 15-16; 27; 47; 105.)

In conclusion

Increasing the amount of time spent helping learners with pragmatic meaning of speech acts/functions and presenting functional language through a discoursal approach with heavy emphasis on the context will help learners to gain a better understanding and ability to use it. Teachers should play a very important role in continually concept checking and guiding learners to deeper pragmatic understanding of speech acts and their ability to use them by taking a few minutes to consider what useful changes would enhance their coursebook’s tasks and thus their learners’ communicative competence.


  • Bardovi-Harlig, Kathleen, and B.A.S. Hartford, R. Mahan-Taylor, M.J. Morgan, and D.W. Reynolds. 1991. Developing pragmatic awareness: closing the conversation. ELT Journal. 45/1, January, 1991. Oxford University Press.

  • Bardovi-Harlig, Kathleen and Rebecca Mahan-Taylor. 2003. Teaching Pragmatics. US Department of State. This can be found at the website

  • Boxer, Diana and Lucy Pickering. 1995. Problems in the presentation of speech acts in ELT material: the case of complaints. ELT Journal. 49/1, January, 1995. Oxford University Press.

  • Brown, Gillian and George Yule. 1983. Teaching the Spoken Language. Cambridge University Press.

  • Carter, Ronald, Angela Goddard, Danita Reah, Keith Sanger, and Massie Bowring. 1997. Working with Texts. Rutledge.

  • Cook, Guy. 1989. Discourse. Oxford University Press.

  • Cunningham, Sarah and Peter Moor. 1999. Cutting Edge Upper-Intermediate, Teacher’s Resource Book. Pearson Education Limited.

  • Dörnyei, Zoltán and Sarah Thurrell. 1992. Conversations and Dialogues in action. Prentice Hall.

  • Dörnyei, Zoltán and Sarah Thurrell. 1994. Teaching conversation skills intensively: course content and rationale. ELT Journal, 48/1, January, 1994. Oxford University Press.

  • Finocchiaro, Mary and Christopher Brumfit. 1983. The Functional Notional Approach: From Theory to Practice. Oxford University Press.

  • Hatch, Evelyn. 1992. Discourse and Language Education. Cambridge University Press.

  • Jenner, Bryan and Barbara Bradford. Intonation through listening. MET, Vol. 10, No. 4.

  • McCarthy, Michael. 1991. Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge University Press.

  • McCarthy, Michael. 1998. Spoken Language and Applied Linguistics. Cambridge University Press.

  • Mohamed, Sue and Richard Acklam. 1995. The Intermediate Choice, Teacher’s Book. Longman Group UK Limited.

  • Mohamed, Sue and Richard Acklam. 1995. The Intermediate Choice, Student’s Book. Longman Group UK Limited

  • Vellenga, Heidi. 2004. Learning Pragmatics from ESL & EFL Textbooks: How likely? TESL-EJ, Vol. 8, No. 2, September, 2004.

  • White, Ron. 1993. Saying please: pragmalinguistic failure in English interaction. ELT Journal, 47/3, July 1993. Oxford University Press.

  • Yule, George. 1996. Pragmatics. Oxford University Press.

  • Yule, George. 1985. The Study of Language. Cambridge University Press.

Published material used or mentioned in the appendices

  • Bardovi-Harlig, Kathleen. 2003. Teaching Pragmatics. US Department of State. This can be found at the website

  • Cook, Guy. 1989. Discourse. Oxford University Press.

  • Cunningham, Sarah and Peter Moor. 1999. Cutting Edge Upper-Intermediate, Student’s Book. Pearson Education Limited.

  • McCarthy, Michael. 1991. Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge University Press.


Greg Gobel lives in Madrid both teaching at Chester School of English and as a freelance teacher trainer. He has been an English language teacher since 1997 and a teacher training since 2000. After more than 7 years in Prague, he moved to Madrid in autumn, 2004. You can contact Greg at


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