Research Bites: Pragmatics and Proficiency

If teaching English only required us to teach subject-verb-object, our task would be so simple. But language, be a living, breathing beast requires so much more from us and our students. Layer after layer of lexical, grammatical, and phonetic complexity is added until students begin to resemble capable language users. But, it doesn’t end here. If we are teaching language to actually be used, then we need to teach “how-to-say-what-to-whom-when” (p. 1). In other words, pragmatics.


Roever, C., & Al-Gahtani, S. (2015). The development of ESL proficiency and pragmatic performance. ELT Journal. [$link]

Twitter Summary

Proficiency is not linked to pragmatics, so we really need to teach pragmatics more. #researchbites

The Research

In the authors’ background research, they found that there was, surprisingly, little connection between level of proficiency and level of pragmatic performance. That is, how well they can adjust their language based on perceived status of the interlocutor. They devised a research design to confirm these findings and find out more about the subject. They selected 26 Saudi Arabian ESL students living in Australia either completing or having already completed a preparatory university ESL program. They divided the students into four groups of beginners (n = 5), lower-intermediate (n = 5), upper-intermediate (n = 8), and advanced students (n = 8). Each group completed three different role plays, interacting one on one with the interlocutor:

  • Bread – participant and researcher were equal status – asking a roommate to buy some bread.
  • Lecture notes – participant was lower status – asking a professor for some lecture notes
  • Class Cancelled – participant was higher status – the participant was a tutor asking their student to tell the rest of their peers that an upcoming class is cancelled

The Findings

  • Beginner
    • imperatives in higher status situations
      • “Tell students no lecture.”
    • want statements in equal or lower status situations
      • “I want handouts.”
  • Lower-Intermediate
    • used “can” for almost all situations
      • “You can said to all students today no lecture.”
  • Upper-Intermediate
    • used “can” and “could” for almost all situations
      • “Can you give me notes?”
      • “Could you when you go to the shopping, could you bring with bread to
    • some usage of bare-if clauses
      • “So if you can tell your classmates don’t come today?”
  • Advanced
    • more modals: “can”, “could” , “may”, “would”
    • bare-if clauses
      • “I want to have this handout from you so if you could give me a copy.”
    • formulaic expressions
      • I’m just wondering”)
    • showed little sensitivity for status


Overall, they found that increased proficiency aids the complexity of pragmatic language, but does not necessarily equate to pragmatic competency: “An interesting finding of our study was that learners’ requests showed little sensitivity to the social status of the interlocutor except in the beginner group”. To conclude they suggest some pedagogical implications.

Suggested Developmental Sequence

  • Begin with “can”, which all learners typically know
    • Reinforcing “please” with beginners is also warranted
  • Introduce “could” as a nicer version of can
    • The authors state introducing it as a modal may be difficult for beginners to grasp
  • Introduce formulaic expressions and how to connect them to “could” statements
    • At this intermediate level, introducing phrases like “perhaps” or “possibly” would also be useful
  • Introduce indirect requests and indirect questions

Suggested Activities

  • EFL Activity: raising awareness about pragmatic changes in students’ L1
    • Learners can respond to imaginary situations in their L1 and compare their responses to notice how their language shifts. They can then attempt this in English.
  • Mix and Match Exercises (awareness raising): students can match requests (e.g. “Pass me the book.” or “Can I borrow your laptop?”) to possible addressees (e.g. classmate, teacher, stranger)
  • Productive Practice: students can respond to imaginary situations in writing, then, after feedback, in speaking, and then in role plays
  • They also recommend website “Teaching Pragmatics” for a whole host of activities.
  • They also suggest making pragmatic competence part of the curriculum.

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