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

‘All learners of a foreign language are familiar with the disturbing sensation of understanding every word, and the literal meaning, but somehow missing the point.’ -Cook (1989: 41)


Functional language has been a focus in ELT over the past three decades with varying amounts of emphasis, from the Functional-Notional syllabus to a minor component in multi-layered syllabuses. However, in my experience learners often do not get the ‘whole picture’ regarding understanding and using functional language from coursebooks that teachers and learners are often expected to use and ‘work through’ in many language schools. I am currently teaching an upper intermediate course in which the learners have difficulties coping with appropriately interpreting and using functions. This paper investigates some problems that learners have with functions and suggests possible solutions for helping upper intermediate learners.

Speech Acts/Functions

McCarthy says, ‘Speech acts refer to the communicative intention of what is said or written. In speech-act theory, all language is seen as doing things’ (McCarthy, 1998: 179). Dörnyei and Thurrell say they ‘carry out an action or language function’ (Dörnyei and Thurrell, 1992: 80).

‘No utterance is completely context free in terms of meaning and function. Nevertheless,…it is possible to classify utterances into a very small set of functions’ (Hatch, 1992: 121). Searle determined five general types of speech acts (summarized from Hatch, 1992: 121-131):

Directives trying to get someone to do something
Representatives committing, in some way, to the truth of an utterance
Commissives committing to doing or not doing something
Expressives expressing emotion in some way
Declarations bringing changes to the way things are

van Ek (1980) describes six self-explanatory main functions of language:

  • imparting and seeking factual information

  • expressing and finding out intellectual attitudes

  • expressing and finding out emotional attitudes

  • expressing and finding out moral attitudes

  • getting things done

  • socializing (Finocchiaro and Brumfit, 1983: 23)

Sub- and micro- functions can be categorized, e.g., instructing, commanding, suggesting, and requesting are types of ‘directives’ or ‘getting things done’.

Although speech acts may be direct (e.g., Put that gun down!), ‘the majority in everyday conversation are indirect’ ( Dörnyei and Thurrell, 1992: 80). ‘Language learners can easily misunderstand indirect speech acts and take what has been said at its face value’ so ‘making learners aware that such structures have a “surface” and “real” meaning can therefore be very important’ ( ibid : 80-81). In other words, there is often a hidden meaning of utterances which can be problematic for learners to convey and interpret.

Consideration of the response that a speaker expects from her listener is necessary. There are two possible responses, ‘an expected, polite reaction (e.g., accepting an invitation or complying with a request), and an unexpected, less common or more “difficult” reaction (e.g., turning down an invitation, or refusing to comply with a request). These two types of reaction have been called preferred and dispreferred answers respectively’ ( ibid : 43). Yule says that preferred responses show less distance, ‘closeness and quick connection,’ while dispreferred responses show more ‘distance and a lack of connection’ (Yule, 1996: 82).

Some problems with speech act theory and implications for teaching functions

Some writers have noted several problems with such a simplification of possible utterances in a conversation. Here are some and what I think their teaching implications are:

  • Brown and Yule say that focusing on speech acts in the classroom may unnaturally limit learners from speaking beyond the sentence, even when the focus shifts from form to function (Brown and Yule, 1983: 20). If a learner is looking at an utterance out of context, ‘it is difficult to impute the function speakers intend’ (Hatch, 1992: 135). The clear implication of these worries is for teachers to make sure there is suitable and clear context for the learners and to focus not only on sentence level, or utterance level, functions, but how these sentences/utterances fit into the context and conversation as a whole. This discoursal view is supported by McCarthy, who says, ‘we must have our speech acts fully contextualized both in terms of the surrounding text and of the key features of the situation’ (McCarthy, 1991: 10).
  • Similarly, Cohen (1996) says, ‘an act such as “apology” may be comprised of a number of phases’ (Cohen in McCarthy, 1998: 19). The implication here is that teachers should not always limit their learners to one-step functions, opting to teach phased functions as well.
  • Another problem is that authentic spoken language has not always necessarily been the basis for the functional language taught. McCarthy says, ‘we can only appreciate the delicacy and subtlety of how speech acts are realized in spoken interaction by examining real data, and the early advocates of functional syllabuses and early investigations of learners’ performances of speech acts signally failed to do so’ (McCarthy, 1998: 20). Boxer and Pickering support this, saying that ‘intuition about speech act realization often differs greatly from the way in which naturalistic speech patterns out’ (Boxer and Pickering, 1995: 44). McCarthy also notes that ‘[r]eal data usually show speech acts to be…indirect and subtle in their unfolding’ (McCarthy, 1998: 19). Therefore, teachers should focus their learners’ attention on the subtlety and indirectness of utterances and use authentic spoken language, when possible drawing on language from corpora work or their own observations. An example of a coursebook that draws on the British National Corpus (Spoken) is the Choice series (Mohamed and Acklam, 1995: 11; and for an example see The Intermediate Choice Student’s Book , 1995: 45 ).
  • An overall, yet often overlooked, implication is that teachers could take a closer look at pragmatics to help teach functional language.


When ‘we read or hear pieces of language, we normally try to understand not only what the words mean, but what the writer or speaker of those words intended to convey. The study of “intended speaker meaning” is called pragmatics.’ (Yule, 1985: 127). Additionally, ‘[p]ragmatics is the study of …

  • contextual meaning,
  • how more gets communicated than is said, and
  • the expression of relative distance .’ (Yule, 1996: 3).

That is, pragmatics is ‘the study of “invisible” meaning’ (Yule, 1985: 127), or meaning that derives not only from the words and structures used (semantics and syntax), but also from the situation of the utterance and how that affects what the speaker means. As Hatch concisely writes, ‘…what speakers mean to convey when they use a particular structure in context…’ (Hatch, 1992: 260). This clearly links Dörnyei’s reference to ‘surface’ and ‘real’ meaning of speech acts as this is what pragmatics tries to explain.

‘Left to their own devices with respect to contact with the target language in and out of the classroom, the majority of learners apparently do not acquire pragmatics of the target language on their own’ (Bardovi-Harlig, 2003). This implies that teachers should attempt to include teaching and learning of some aspects of pragmatics in the classroom. Bardovi-Harlig also points out how lack of pragmatic awareness could affect people’s relationships: ‘[t]he consequences of pragmatic differences…are often interpreted on a social or personal level rather than as a result of the language learning process’ (ibid, 2003). Thus, we must try to raise our learner’s awareness of what they say and how it may be interpreted so that our learners reduce the chances of social and personal face-threatening interactions and utterances. White notes six possibilities: conflicting signals, creating tension, risking offence, creating confusion, public embarrassment, and interpersonal breakdown (White, 1993: 196-200). Boxer and Pickering conclude, unfortunately, that ‘important information on underlying social strategies of speech acts is often overlooked entirely’ in published ELT material (Boxer and Pickering, 1995: 44). Teachers must compensate for this; I think a long-term strategy for awareness raising could be to continually check learners’ understanding of the relationship between speakers when focusing on functional language.

This paper will now look into how teachers could exploit some areas of pragmatics to help learners cope with functional language because, according to Bardovi-Harlig, ‘Teaching pragmatics empowers students to experience and experiment with the language at a deeper level, and thereby participate in the purpose of language – communication, rather than just words’ (Bardovi-Harlig, et al., 1991: 13).


Pragmatic problems learners face with functional language

Dealing with politeness

In my experience teaching in the Czech Republic and Spain, learners have difficulties expressing politeness appropriately, tending to be either too abrupt and brusque or overly polite and too formal. Perhaps we can help our learners by explicitly showing them the theory behind politeness and how this affects using indirect functional language. Lakoff proposes three maxims of politeness:

  • Don’t impose

  • Give options

  • Make your receiver feel good . (Cook, 1989: 33; Carter et al., 1997: 278)

Learners could do consciousness-raising tasks to decide which, and when, these maxims are applied by speakers. This would help with both reception/interpretation and producing more appropriate language. Attention should also be devoted to how indirectness can help achieve politeness, and when being direct may not be impolite. Dörnyei and Thurrell present a useful type of activity addressing this (see Activity #32 from Dornyei/Thurell, 1992: 121-4).


I have noticed that learners sometimes have problems understanding implicatures that speakers make, either when I speak to them, when they listen to a cassette or view a video, or when they listen to their peers.

What exactly is ‘implicature?’ Yule says, ‘…“implicature” is one of the central concepts of pragmatics … certainly a prime example of more being communicated than is said’ (Yule, 1996: 46). Hatch explains: ‘Grice (1975) claimed that what is conveyed by an utterance falls into two parts: what is said and what is implied . He uses the term “implicature” to cover what is implied (i.e., what is conveyed minus what is said).’ (Hatch, 1992: 260). Of course, where a speaker may imply meaning, a listener thus can infer meaning. As Yule says, ‘It is important to note that it is speakers who communicate meaning via implicatures and it is listeners who recognize those communicative meanings via inference. The inferences selected are those which will preserve the assumption of cooperation’ (Yule, 1996: 40).

Again, it is the indirectness that my upper intermediate learners seem to have problems coping with. I think we can help our learners by training and guiding them to notice implicature, concept checking with questions such as:

  • ‘Could the speaker mean something different than what you first think the phrase means?’

  • ‘Is there a more indirect/direct way to say this?’

Another way to help learners with implicature is to have tasks in which they imply something by using what is not the most immediately obvious speech act. For example, a learner’s task is to get a peer to open the window. The learner cannot say, ‘Open the window, Juan?’ Instead, the learner says something such as, ‘It’s a bit warm in here, isn’t it, Juan?’ This would help learners to understand both the difficulty of dealing with implicature and how they can use speech acts in more creative ways to achieve something. This would also help show learners the importance of both the speaker and the listener in successfully communicating with implicature. Dörnyei and Thurrell suggest two activities to help learners deal with the indirectness of implicature through dispreferred responses and echoes expressing hidden meaning (see Activity #27 from Dornyei/Thurell, 1992: 100-3 and Activity #28 from Dornyei/Thurell, 1992: 104-6).


Upper intermediate learners do not seem to be very aware that conversation tends to be cooperative, and if they do, they find it difficult at times to avoid unintentionally flouting cooperativeness, e.g., through inappropriate responses or through non-responses. They are often able to take a rather long turn, but find difficulty interacting effectively when dealing with shorter functional utterances, going back and forth.

Grice’s Cooperative Principle is: ‘Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged’ (Grice in Yule, 1996: 37). He suggests four maxims:

  1. quality (being true)

  2. quantity (being brief)

  3. relation (being relevant)

  4. manner (being clear)

(summarized from Grice in Carter,, 1997: 279).

These are ‘unstated assumptions we have in conversations’ that help people cooperate with each other (Yule, 1996: 37). For learners, we could state them by the more accessible name, ‘four important conversational rules’ (Dörnyei and Thurrell, 1992: 107).

Cook points out, though, that ‘the politeness principle and the co-operative principle are often in conflict with each other. Politeness and truth are often mutually incompatible…and so are politeness and brevity.’ He adds, ‘the tension between them [reflects] a dual purpose in human intercourse: to act efficiently…and to create and maintain social relationships’ (Cook, 1989: 33-34). This may also help to explain why our learners sometimes have trouble knowing when to cooperate and when there is no need. (see appendix H, Cook vs. McCarthy)

To help deal with this tension and to raise awareness of these rules, Dörnyei and Thurrell suggest showing learners how and when to break the rules. They suggest teachers should explicitly teach these rules to learners and then focus on the impact on conversation of both preferred and dispreferred responses. (see Activity #29 from Dornyei/Thurell, 1992: 107-9)

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


List of Appendices

  • Appendix A: Cook vs. McCarthy

  • Appendix B: Free functional language/pragmatics activities from Bardovi-Harlig

  • Appendix C: This article’s assessment of four ‘Real Life’ sections from Cutting Edge Upper-Intermediate

Appendix A: Cook vs. McCarthy

In the readings, I found a curious disagreement. About the Cooperative Principle, McCarthy asserts that, ‘In a decade of English language teaching since they first came to my notice, I have never met an occasion where the maxims could be usefully applied…’ (McCarthy, 1991: 2). However, Cook seems to contradict this. He says that pragmatic theories, including the Cooperative Principle ‘provide essential insights both into the nature of coherence, and into the problems of communicating in a foreign language and culture. They are essential tools for discourse analysis and thus for the teacher and learner’ (Cook, 1989: 29).

It is not surprising to me that two writers that I find very helpful to my own teacher development disagree. I side more with Cook, who, it must be said, does criticize the pragmatics theories (1989: 43), because in my experience saying ‘never’ about any theory, method, or technique may consequently limit the teacher’s ability to help his or her learners make sense of English and their ability to communicate. I think it is more important ‘how’ we make use of these, rather than becoming dogmatic about always or never using them.

Appendix B: Free functional language/pragmatic activities from Bardovi-Harlig

In Teaching Pragmatics, Bardovi-Harlig provides a series of activities focusing on functional language with more pragmatic integration than typical coursebooks tend to present. These activities are free for any busy teacher at .

Although the activities do not exhaust areas covered in this paper or the extremely broad area of functional language, it is a start and gives busy teachers a chance to integrate some of these ideas into their courses.

The activities cover these five general areas:

  • Awareness

  • Conversational Management

  • Conversational Openings and Closings

  • Requests

  • Assorted Speech Acts

Appendix C: This article’s assessment of four ‘Real Life’ sections in Cutting Edge Upper Intermediate

Module, page Function focus Brief Assessment/Some possible Improvements
1, 15 Starting, maintaining, ending conversations

Assessment: The activity raises learners awareness of what could be considered rude, but there are no suggestions to help learners avoid being rude for these functions.


  • T can ask learners what would be considered rude in their own language in these situations?
  • T can elicit, or give, some useful language to avoid being rude. Learners could practice that.
  • T could ask why learners think Fiona is being rude? This could help them realize that if they are in Sean’s situation, they may be met with dispreferred responses.
2, 27 Responding sympathetically

Assessment: The book does quite a good job here with many useful phrases and focus on appropriateness for different situations.


  • T could direct more focus to how the closeness of personal relationship influences phrase choice for this function.
  • T could focus learners on ‘why’ these functional phrases are appropriate or not.
  • T could draw attention to how the imperatives here are not really commands.
  • Again, T could exploit learners L1 here to identify similarities/differences between English.
4, 47 Explaining how things work

Assessment: Several useful phrases are supplied. But, learners are only asked to decide if they are used for explaining or asking how to use something.


  • More awareness of specific functions of the language (e.g., saying you understand, asking for help, telling how, checking instructions, warning or correcting), enabling more appropriate usage.
  • Awareness of physical closeness can be raised to help explain deictic references in the expressions (e.g.,’This thing here?’)
  • Uses of imperatives ‘Look out!’ are not rude in this context, and could be focused on; upholding maxim of quantity.
  • Idea of cooperation between participants to transfer knowledge can be focused on.
9, 105 Saying what’s wrong with things

Assessment: Learners listen to and role play ‘complaint’ situations with no guidance for levels of politeness, appropriateness, nor focus on useful functional language.


  • T could lift some useful language from the recordings and concept check politeness and usefulness.
  • Learners could rank complainers on a continuum of rude-polite and express why. Then listen to a homemade recording of native speakers explaining how they did the rankings for comparison and insight.

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