Reported Speech A Common Sense Approach
by Kendall Peet


  • Part One: A brief analysis of reported speech
  • Part Two: Problems learners face at different levels
  • Part Three: Approaches, methods, and materials

Part One: A Brief Analysis of Reported Speech

Reported speech, traditionally called indirect speech, but also referred to by linguists and grammarians as hypotactic locutions(1), refers to the use of a noun clause(2) to report a person’s words, thoughts, beliefs, etc.(3) To better understand reported speech, it is helpful to first look at direct speech, which can also be used to report a person’s words, thoughts, and beliefs.

Direct Speech

Direct speech is used mainly in writing to report a person’s words exactly. It is found in conversations in books, in plays, and in quotations, and is often used in situations where accuracy is important, such as in areas relating to law and public media. The following examples highlight the form of direct speech.

She said , I’ll call you as soon as I’ve finished up here.

I’ll call you as soon as I’ve finished up here, she said.

The distinguishing features are the use of quotation marks to tell the reader that the words are the original words spoken by the speaker, and the reference to the speaker, which can be made before or after the quote, with the comma placed accordingly.

Reported Speech

In contrast to direct speech, reported speech is used mainly in conversation and is concerned more with communicating the exact meaning than the exact words. (4) As such, the reported message may vary depending on the point of view of the speaker and the vocabulary selected (5):

She said/told him she would phone/call/ring him when/as soon as she (was) finished (at) work.

Shifting from Direct to Reported Speech

When shifting from direct to reported speech, Swan writes that grammatical changes may need to be made to the original text in order to account for the fact that “words spoken or thought in one place by one person [are or] may be reported in another place at a different time, and perhaps by a different person.” (6) The changes that Swan refers to include:

1. Pronouns and Possessive Determiners

In reported speech pronouns and possessive determiners may need to be changed when the speaker or listener change. For example:

David : Where’s Peter? Is Peter here ? Have you seen him?

John : No, not today.

David: Do you know if he ’s finished his report yet? I need it.

John : No, I don’t know. Sorry.

David : He promised me it would be finished today.

John to Peter (the next day at lunch): David asked where you were yesterday. He said he needed

your report and wanted to know if I had seen you. I said I hadn’t. He seemed pretty angry.

In this situation the speaker and listener have changed so the pronouns and possessive pronouns must change accordingly, as is indicated above.

2. Demonstratives and Deictic Adverbs

The demonstratives and deictic adverbs, such as this, these, here, now, and today, may need to be replaced by more remote forms such as that, those, there, then, and that day or by a more direct reference to the place or time (refer to Appendix 1): in the example above, today becomes yesterday, and here becomes at work.

3. Verb Tenses

Thirdly, a back-shift of tense is usually required unless the situation has not changed (refer to Appendix 2). In the example above, V1 becomes V2, is becomes were, need becomes needed, and has becomes had. As a general guideline, Swan writes that the tense does not need to be changed when the present, future, and present perfect reporting verbs are used (because there is normally no important change in time). (7) In addition to this, the past simple and continuous tenses in spoken English are often left unchanged, provided there is no confusion relating to the relevant times and actions. (8) Finally, in regard to modals, must changes to had to; past modals remain unchanged: would in the above example remains as would in reported speech.

4. Questions

When reporting questions, the changes already mentioned in regard to statements apply. In addition to these, there are also several other areas to consider. Firstly, the word order changes to that of a statement, namely subject-verb, and so accordingly reported questions are usually not punctuated with a question mark. Secondly, the auxiliary verb do is dropped. Finally, yes/no questions start with if , or whether (or not): wh-word questions, such as why, when, and where, however, do not:(9)

  • He asked, “ Is Peter here?”

becomes He asked if/whether you were at the office.

  • “ Do you know if he’s finished his report yet?”

becomes He asked (me) if you had finished your report yet.

  • He asked, “Where’s Peter?”

Becomes He asked where you were.

Reporting Verbs

The last area to discuss in Part One relates to the variety of reporting verbs used in English (refer to Appendix to 3, 4). The more commonly used reporting verbs are say, tell, and ask, and most class texts introduce these verbs first. Few texts introduce reported speech at pre-intermediate level: Cutting Edge Pre-intermediate, Unit 15 (say, and tell); New Headway Pre-intermediate, Unit 14 (say, and tell); Interchange 2, Unit 14 (say). Most class texts work with reported speech (say, tell, and ask) at intermediate level and above: English File Intermediate, Unit 7; Intermediate Matters, Unit 16; and True to Life Intermediate, Unit 18. The reason for the late introduction of reported speech to the English L2 curriculum is inherent in the complexity of the grammar outlined in Part One. The complexity of the grammar further explains why a wider variety of functionally useful reporting verbs are not introduced until upper-intermediate level.


Part Two: Problems Learners Face When Learning Reported Speech

General Problems

Generally speaking, L2 English learners have considerable trouble learning to use reported speech due to the number of grammatical elements that need to be taken into account. It is important therefore to present reported speech in a clear and effective context. This may not be easy in a classroom of adult students from a variety of different backgrounds, with different personal and professional interests, and different motivations for learning English. Furthermore, reported speech is something that is usually only used once or twice in any given situation and so finding a context to work on reported speech in depth is difficult and does not reflect the way language is used outside the classroom. Therefore, it may prove more effective to present reported speech in a variety of situations, rather than in a single context.

Matching the teaching style to learning style preferences present in the class may also be a problem.(10)(11) It would be best to match content and teaching style to the particular learning style and needs of each student, as students are better able to learn if teaching methods match their preferred learning styles.(12) However, in classroom situations it will be necessary to adopt a wide variety of approaches, incorporating different cognitive learning strategies, to accommodate individual learning styles (refer to Part Three).(13)

The third problem relates to the class texts. In most cases, class texts only allocate two or three pages to reported speech up to the end of intermediate level, with the focus predominantly on the main reporting verbs say, tell, and ask. There is a shortage of material focusing on the wide variety of reporting verbs used in English. Therefore, finding interesting material and activities that relate to the learners language needs and interests is a real challenge; which is a point made by Lewis.(14)

Finally, because there are so many areas that can potentially cause the learners problems, it is not always easy to manage a classroom. Therefore, teaching reported speech can turn into an exercise in classroom management skills.


Specific Problems

1. Pre-intermediate Level

The students at pre-intermediate level find the language of reported speech challenging. The reason for this is that students at this level are usually not yet comfortable using all the tenses. For example, some students still have problems using the past form correctly, especially in the negative and in regard to auxiliary verbs, and often confuse the past simple and past perfect. Therefore, students attempting to use reported speech often have problems reporting V1 into V2, and even more problems reporting V2 using V3; this is especially true of learners whose L1 has no perfect tense, such as Turkish and Chinese learners.

Secondly, learners are usually not confident with modals at this level and so they often have problems reporting modals, especially Turkish students without comparable modals in their L1.

Thirdly, learners working with both say and tell typically make mistakes with the form:

He said him to sit down.

or He told to him to sit down.

Fourthly, some students have problems using the correct pronoun; particularly learners who do not use pronouns in the same way in their L1, such as Turkish learners who mainly use suffixes.

Finally, confusion can arise from the fact that something can be reported in a variety of ways depending on the perspective and the lexis available to the person reporting. For example:

He said he would meet you later/ later on/ in a while/ when he’s free/finished.

He asked me to tell you he would meet you later/ see you later/ catch up with you later.

He wanted me to let you know that he will meet you later/ bump into you later/ hook up with you later.

2. Intermediate level

Students who studied reported speech at pre-intermediate level will have the chance to reinforce what they have learnt and to extend their understanding. Students learning reported speech for the first time at this level (toward the end of most intermediate class texts) usually find it less difficult than students at pre-intermediate level, but to a large extent experience similar problems in regard to the areas discussed in Part One.

The main problem at this level relates to the reporting of questions. Adult learners often have difficulty with the inverted word order and the use of if for yes/no questions:

“Can I start early tomorrow?” is often reported He asked could he start work tomorrow.

They also commonly make errors when reporting questions with do, did, and does:

“Did you have a good day?” is often reported She asked if he did have a good day.

or She asked to John if he did have a good day.

“When did you arrive?” is often reported She asked when did you arrive.

As a side note, adult learners also often confuse the use of the passive, which is usually placed just before or after reported speech in most class text, with reported speech as both forms are commonly used in newspapers to report. In most cases the confusion mainly occurs with students mistakenly back-shifting the tense in the passive. Though this does not affect reported speech, the two are connected and so it is good for teachers to be aware of this problem.

3. Upper-intermediate Level and Above

Finally, at the upper intermediate level and above class texts begin to extend the students range of reporting verbs, so additional problems inherent at this level relate to the variety of collocation patterns, with learners collocating verbs incorrectly (refer Appendix 3, 4).

Part Three: Approaches, Methods, and Materials Available to Learners Working on Reported Speech.

When approaching the task of teaching reported speech, it is important to recognise that a class is a group of individuals with different personalities, interests, motivating forces, learning styles, and needs. Any approach to teaching this area, therefore, needs to be flexible.

The nature of the teaching institution may also affect the content and the style of teaching. For example, a private language institute focusing on general English is likely to place far greater importance on speaking than a university preparatory program preparing students for a university entrance exam.

The following points are therefore only general guidelines applicable to a range of contexts:

Engage the students, provide a context, and identify a genuine need.

Firstly, it is important to start any grammar lesson in the right way, which means avoiding openings such as, “Today we are going to study the use of reported speech.”, or “Please open your books to page 51.” Instead, a far more useful approach is to establish a clear context that the students can relate to, which highlights a genuine need for the new grammar. In general, any context that provides the students with an opportunity to talk about their lives is sure to work well. A context I have used successfully is that of organising a night out or a class holiday.

Involve the Students

Secondly, try to involve the students as much as possible throughout the learning process to keep interest and motivation high: elicit the target language, ask questions, and have students write on the board. In this way the teacher is talking with the students, rather than to them, and is a part of the learning process rather than the focus. Adopting a participative, student-centred approach to learning promotes learner autonomy, which is a necessary ingredient in the language learning process.(15)

Provide plenty of examples rather than a rule

Thirdly, provide plenty of examples as it will be easier for the students to see the pattern. In this way, the students will be better able to learn inductively through the process of discovery, which requires a deeper level of cognitive processing, and therefore aids the learning process.(16)

Provide plenty of opportunity to practice

Fourthly, it is important to provide plenty of opportunity for practice and to accommodate the different learning styles with a balance of activities that focus on the form, function, and meaning of the different reporting verbs, as well as the different skills; there should also be a gradual shift from passive to productive skills in the classroom as passive skills can be focused on by the students for homework. The difficulty will be to find interesting activities. Below is a list of possible ways to practice using reported speech:

  • There are plenty of gap-fill and transformation exercises in the supplementary grammar texts listed in Appendix 5;
  • Scott Thornbury has a good activity that focuses on here + now versus there + then;(17)
  • Role play scenarios can work well if set up properly (refer Appendix 7); (18)
  • Interview scenarios are also useful (refer to Appendix 8 for some suggested activities) ;(19)
  • Newspapers provide a good resource (refer to Appendix 8 for a good activity);
  • I would also recommend taking advantage of the extensive material and activities available on the World Wide Web (see Appendix 6);
  • Refer to Appendix 7 for a list of activities.

Experiment with a variety of approaches

Finally, experiment with different approaches. At pre-intermediate and intermediate levels, I find that a focus on the grammar helps the students to understand how to produce reported speech. At higher levels, a Lexical Approach that focuses on collocations often works better.(20) Furthermore, presenting reporting verbs according to their function or in the context of a given situation will help the students to understand why we use reported speech as well as when to use reported. What is important to bear in mind is that any approach taken needs to focus on form, function, and meaning.

1. Downing, a. & Locke, L. (1992). P. 300
2. Azar, B. (1989). P. 275
3. Swan, M. (1980). P.500
4. Thomson, A.J. & Martinet, A.v. (1960. p.269
5. Eastwood, J. (1994). P. 347
6. Swan, M. (1980). p. 501
7. Swan, M. (1980). P.502
8. Thomson, A.J. & Martinet, A.v. (1960. p.271
9. Fuchs, M. & Bonner, M. (2002). Longman p. 326
10. Dunn, R. (1983). p. 49, 496-506 Dun emphasises the importance of the four modalities to the learning process.
Rienhart, H. (1976). p. 60, 160-168 Rienhart defines the four modalities of learning as visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, tactile.
11. Gardner, H. (1993). p.7. Gardener classifies learning styles in terms of intelligence, and defines intelligence as “the ability to solve problems”. He lists 8 types of intelligence, including Linguistic, Logical-mathematical, Spatial, Musical, Body-kinaesthetic, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Naturalist.
12. Reid, J. (1987). p. 87-111. In this article Reid reports on research findings published by Domino (1979).
13. Skehan, Peter. (1989). Skehan lists 13 separate cognitive learning strategies.
14. Lewis, M. (1997). P. 18215. Thanasoulas, D. (2000).
16. Harmer, J. (1991). P. 71
17. Thornbury, S. 2001. Uncovering Grammar. Macmillan Heinemann. pp. 88-89
18. Potts, J. July, 2003. “Preparing to teach…indirect speech.” Etp, Issue 28. p.38
19. Maley, A. 1987. Role play. In this text there are role play ideas that can be used to practice reported speech.
20. Lewis, M. (1997). p. 182


Azar, B. (1989). Understanding and Using English Grammar. Prentice Hall. p. 276-81
Bell, J. & Gower, R. (1991). Intermediate Matters. Longman.
Cunningham, S. & Moor, P. ( 2001). Cutting Edge Pre-intermediate Student’s Book. Longman
Downing, A. & Locke, P. (1992). A University Course in English Grammar. Prentice Hall.
Dunn, R. (1983): "Learning Style and Its Relation to Exceptionality at Both Ends of the Spectrum." Exceptional Children . pp. 49, 496-506
Eastwood, J. 1994. Oxford Guide to English Grammar. OUP. pp. 346-355
Gairns, R. & Sturat, R. (1996). True to Life Intermediate. CUP
Gardner, R.C. (1982). “Language attitudes and language learning”. In E. Bouchard Ryan & H. Giles, Attitudes towards language variation Edward Arnold. pp. 132-147
Gardner, Howard. (1993). Multiple Intelligences, The Theory in Practice. Basic Books. p. 7
Harmer, J. (19910. The Practic of English Language Teaching. Longman.
Lewis, M. (1997). Implementing the Lexical Approach. LTP.
Maley, A. (1987). Role Play .OUP
Oxenden, C. & Latham-Koenig, C. (2001). English File Intermediate. OUP.
Potts, J. (July, 2003). “Preparing to teach…indirect speech.” Etp, Issue 28. p.38
Reid, J. (1987). “The learning Style Preferences of ESL Students.” TESOL Quarterly. 21:1. pp. 87-111.
Reinert, H. (1976). "One Picture is Worth a Thousand Words? Not Necessarily." Modern Language  Journal60. pp.160-168.
Richards, J.C., Hull, J. & Procotor, S. (1991). Interchange 2. CUP
Skehan, P. (1989). Individual Differences in Second-Language Learning. Edward Arnold.
Soars, L. & J. (1998). New Headway Pre-intermediate. OUP
Swan, M. (1980). Practical English Usage. OUP.
Thanasoulas, D. (November, 2000). “What is Learner Autonomy and How Can It Be Fostered?” The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 11 .
Thomson, A.J. (1960). A Practical English Grammar. 4 th edition. OUP. pp. 268-287
Thornbury, S. (2002). Uncovering Grammar. Macmillan Heinemann. pp. 88-89


Kendall Peet has taught in Thailand, South Korea, and Turkey, and is currently teaching at FIBSB in Bucharest. He has completed the RSA DELTA and is presently completing his MA in Applied Linguistics. His key interests include teaching academic writing and developing a needs-based (learner-led) approach that encourages greater learner autonomy. Kendall can be contacted at:

Appendix 1: Adverbials of Time and Place

Direct speech

Indirect speech


then/ at that time/ immediately


yesterday/ that day/ on Tuesday etc.


the day before/ the previous day/ on Monday etc.


the next day/ the following day/ on Wednesday etc.

this week

last week/ that week

last year

the year before/ the previous year/ the preceding year/in 1990 etc.

next month

the month after/ the following month/ in August etc.

an hour ago

an hour before/ an hour earlier/ at two o’clock etc.

in two days weeks)

two days from then, two weeks from then

five days ago

five days before, five days earlier

five weeks ago

five weeks before, five weeks earlier



Appendix 2: Tense Shift

Simple present


Simple past

"I always drink coffee", she said


She said that she always drank coffee.

Present continuous


Past continuous

"I am reading a book", he explained.


He explained that he was reading a book

Simple past


Past perfect

"Bill arrived on Saturday", he said.


He said that Bill had arrived on Saturday

Present perfect


Past perfect

"I have been to Spain", he told me.


He told me that he had been to Spain

Past perfect


Past perfect

"I had just turned out the light," he explained.


He explained that he had just turned out the light.

Present perfect continuous


Past perfect continuous

They complained, "We have been waiting for hours".


They complained that they had been waiting for hours.

Past continuous


Past perfect continuous

"We were living in Paris", they told me.


They told me that they had been living in Paris.



Present conditional

"I will be in Geneva on Monday", he said


He said that he would be in Geneva on Monday.

Future continuous


Conditional continuous

She said, " I'll be using the car next Friday".


She said that she would be using the car next Friday.    ©

Appendix 3 Reporting Verb Collocations

Note that some reporting verbs may appear in more than one of the following groups.

1. Verbs followed by 'if' or 'whether' + clause:



2. Verbs followed by a that-clause:




3. Verbs followed by either a that-clauseor ato-infinitive:



4. Verbs followed by a that-clausecontaining should
(but note that it may be omitted, leaving a subject + zero-infinitive):




5. Verbs followed by a clause starting with a question word:




6. Verbs followed by object + to-infinitive

beg command


warn ©

Appendix 4: Reporting Verbs

When using reported speech, most students learn to use "say" and "tell":


John told me he was going to stay late at work.

Peter said he wanted to visit his parents that weekend.

These forms are perfectly correct for reporting what others have said. However, there are a number of other reporting verbs which can more accurately describe what someone has said. These verbs take a variety of structures. The following list gives you reporting verbs in various categories based on sentence structure. Notice that a number of verbs can take more than one form.

verb + object + infinitive

verb + infinitive

verb + (that)

verb + gerund

verb + object + preposition + gerund

verb + preposition + gerund








Jack encouraged me to look for a new job.

They invited all their friends to attend the presentation.


She offered to give him a lift to work.

My brother refused to take no for an answer.


Tom admitted (that) he had tried to leave early.

She agreed (that) we needed to reconsider our plans.


He denied having anything to do with her.

Ken suggested studying early in the morning.


They accused the boys of cheating on the exam.

She blamed her husband for missing the train.


He apologized for being late.

She insisted on doing the washing

Appendix 5 Recommended Learner Supplementary Texts

Fuchs, F. & Bonner, M. (2002). Grammar Express: For self-Study and Classroom Use. Longman.

Units 72-76

-Recommended or pre-intermediate through upper intermediate level learners

Murphy, R. & Smalzer, W. (1989). Grammar in Use Intermediate (with answers). CUP.

Units 45-47.

  • Recommended for intermediate through upper intermediate level learners

Thewlis, S. (1993). Grammar Dimensions: Form, Meaning, and Use. Diane Larson-Freeman

Unit 32

  • Recommended for intermediate through upper intermediate level learners

Azar, B. (1989). Understanding and Using English Grammar. Prentice Hall. p. 276-81

  • Recommended for intermediate through advanced learners

Hewings, M. (1999). Advanced Grammar in Use (with answers). CUP. Units

-Recommended or strong upper intermediate level learners and above

Appendix 6 Websites to Practice using Reported Speech

The following are a selection of websites offering reported speech practice activities.

Appendix 7 Suggestions for Classroom Activities

1. Penny Ur and Andrew Wright have a good activity in Five-Minute Activities (1992). They suggest challenging the students toward the end of the lesson to recall and report certain things said during the lesson. As an alternative to this, they also suggest writing a list of things said on the board and then asking the students to guess who said them.

2. Group activities which require students to mediate between two people work well. Have pairs stand on the opposite site of the room and then have a person running between them carrying messages in order to achieve a task such as organising a night out or a holiday somewhere.

3. Have students interview each other and then report back in groups. This can work as a good warmer, especially to start the week after the weekend.

4. Ask the students to write a report based on a picture or a series of pictures, as suggested by Friederike Klippel in Keep Talking(1983), on page 131.

5. Organise the class into pairs or small groups and then give each group a picture and ask the pair/group to write a dialogue. Then pass the dialogues around the class and have each group report the dialogue. In the end take the dialogues and place them on the wall so that the students can compare the way they reported the dialogues.

The following are suggestions taken fromGrammar Practice Activities (1998), by Penny Ur.

6. Using articles from a newspaper. First, have your students highlight any direct or reported speech in the articles. Then ask them to read them out to the class while the students in the class try to guess the speaker and/or the context/circumstances.

7. Another suggestion is to interview a student or guest in front of the class and having the students report the interview as if for a newspaper.

8. As a follow-up to 7, ask the students to interview someone for homework, write a report, and present it to the class. Alternatively, the reports could be compiled into a mini newspaper.

9. Give the class a quotation quiz, where you say what some said in reported speech and they have to guess who said it. This can be followed up by looking at the original statement and discussing the context and meaning and relevance to today.

10. Have the students conduct a paper conversation and then write it up in reported speech.

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