Teaching American Speech Acts

Teaching American Speech Acts to Help ESL Students Better Integrate into American Professional, Academic and Social Life

This paper was written for a graduate-level linguistics class at Texas A&M University Commerce in 2019. The essay was written in APA format, which is difficult to completely reproduce in WordPress.

Teaching American Speech Acts to Help ESL Students Better Integrate into American Professional, Academic and Social Life

            A foreign student’s integration into an American academic institution is likely to be accompanied by culture shock and baffling instances of miscommunication. The majority of ESL programs that prepare students for entry into universities prioritize grammar, writing, listening and pronunciation. However, mastery of grammatical and lexical fluency alone is insufficient to ensure successful communication, and without integrating American speech acts into the ESL curriculum, it is difficult to ensure that students are properly prepared to integrate into the professional, academic, and social contexts that will ensure that they thrive in their lives in the United States.Communication and discourse styles differ markedly between high and low context cultures, and pragmatic incompetence presents obstacles to student success both in the academy and in professional and social life. The most effective way to address this issue and prepare students effectively is to more thoroughly integrate pragmatic competence into the ESL curriculum in a way that allows foreign students to develop an intrinsic awareness of the pragmatics of American English.

Targeted Learner Group

            Students enrolled at North Lake College (NLC), a semi-autonomous satellite campus of the Dallas County Community College District, reflect the ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity of Dallas County’s population. North Lake’s English Language Program presents students with two tracks. The first provides the community with a non-credit program of basic English for work and life and aims to help students improve their general competency in non-academic communication contexts, which might help them get a job. The other is English for Academic Preparation (EAP), which prepares students for the TOEFL exam and ultimately to enter college and university credit programs in the United States; thus this track focuses more intensively on academic English, particularly emphasizing grammar and writing, aiming to prepare students to meet the demands of intensive reading and writing requirements of college courses. The EAP program is divided into four levels, with four classes in each level: Reading, Listening/Speaking, Writing, and Grammar. The curriculum for each is quite rigorous, and instructors do not have much freedom to modify it. The lack of speech act instruction in the EAP program is particularly disappointing.

Demographic Characteristics of Target Learners

            The EAP student population is diverse, and includes both established and newly arrived immigrants, students on F-1 visas, and refugees. Many, if not most, of these students intend to remain in the United States to live and work after completing a college degree. Each EAP class is uniquely diverse, and it is not unusual to have ten distinct languages and cultures represented in a class of fifteen students. Additionally, each classroom represents a range of educational diversity, and likely includes both students who hold advanced academic and professional degrees (e.g. law, medicine) in their home countries, as well as students who have had little previous exposure to formal education. This diversity underscores the necessity of including speech act instruction in NLC’s EAP curriculum. Aksoyalp and Tugba (2015) position speech acts as “the core units of human communication,” explaining that although all languages use speech acts, such acts “mirror the basic cultural values and social norms of a language and society and reflect language use in a specific speech community” (p. 125).  

Summary of Existing Literature on the Concept of Teaching Speech Acts

            The importance of pragmatic competence to fluency have been thoroughly investigated by applied linguists.  Much of what individuals know and assume to be true about the world is based on unconscious knowledge that deeply ties language to culture. This knowledge becomes part of the habitus of native speakers for whom culture is a reflex, “made and remade in our language games” (Kelly-Hall, 2002, p. 46) but must be to a large extent willfully learned by newcomers. Wolfson (1989) explains that these assumptions “lead to the way they interpret and react to their experiences” (p. 61). Wolfson identifies several American sociolinguistic behaviors, including forms of address, apologies, requests, telephone etiquette, and expressions of disapproval and gratitude, which rely on a great deal of cultural knowledge that can even vary by region within the United States, which he illustrates with a discussion of regional differences in the use of ma’am. Wolfson’s research clearly shows that the ability to understand and reproduce the speech acts of a given language are an essential element of fluency.

            Félix-Brasdefer (2003) studied differences in Latin American Spanish and American English methods of declining an invitation and concluded that “the speech act of declining an invitation in an L2 is a complex task because it requires the acquisition of the sociocultural values of the L2 culture (p. 247). His study confirms the idea that a language learner’s understanding of the sociocultural strategies used by native speakers is requisite for effective communication in that language and encourages instructors to include sociocultural knowledge related to pragmatic competence into their syllabi. Félix-Brasdefer summarizes Schmidt’s (1993) point assertion that retention of information in short-term memory is essential  for mastery and recommends that language classrooms incorporate role-play, discussions of cultural values, and conversational practice.

            Other scholars have examined the particular areas in which breakdowns in pragmatic understanding become major impediments to student success. Riley (2008) argues that while “verbal interaction allows for the transmission of sociocultural beliefs, structures, and practices. . . cultural belief systems and social contexts affect the ways in which individuals acquire the communicative competence needed to interact successfully within a speech community” (p. 407).This concept extends from spoken language to written communication, which is central to academic life. As NLC’s EAP program aims to prepare students for entry into American academic life, many students arrive in credit courses without the pragmatic knowledge to understand and integrate written feedback from American professors who may prioritize politeness over directness.

            Increased competence in speech acts would translate to writing competency as well, alleviating difficulties caused by contrastive rhetoric. Connor (2002) posits that the rhetorical traditions of different cultures can manifest in student writing in English, leading professors to misinterpret the quality and even authenticity of the student’s written material. As Baker and Bricker (2010) point out, both native and non-native speakers struggle to understand indirect teacher feedback and hedged speech, and they conclude “sacrificing clarity for politeness may not be necessary or helpful for the ESL student” (p. 83). While this is certainly good advice, most professors are not well-versed in the specifics of pragmatic instruction for L2 speakers and are wont to unconsciously incorporate politeness strategies consistent with their own language socialization. While educating professors in more effective means of communicating with a diverse student body is certainly worth the time and effort, it remains inevitably on newcomers to adapt, and such adaptation will serve them outside the halls of academia.

Incorporating Instruction of American Speech Acts into Existing Curriculum

            At North Lake, instruction in pragmatics is limited to a minimal amount of written scripted exercises in the grammar textbooks, which prioritize mastery of grammatical concepts. The listening and speaking texts offer more speech acts; however, there is minimal explanation to help students discern meaning in the creative reinterpretations they will undoubtedly encounter from native speakers. While audio materials that accompany the listening and speaking text do include some authentic materials, such as radio shows and documentary videos, even these offer limited exposure to the range of interpersonal speech acts such as those that would occur in conversation with native speakers, including apologizing; interrupting; contesting; requesting information; complaining; and extending, accepting and refusing invitations.  

            Unfortunately, existing ESL textbooks do a lackluster job of integrating pragmatics. A study by Aksoyalp and Tugba (2015) examined how seventeen EFL textbooks addressed making suggestions, apologizing and complaining. Their study concluded that while the speech acts were addressed in varying detail commensurate with proficiency level, “speech acts received limited attention when compare to other components of language such as grammar units, phonology, spelling, etc.” (p. 131). This problem is exacerbated as students enter credit courses and find that despite a mastery of English grammar, vocabulary and phonology, they lack pragmatic competence. This can result in negative pragmatic transfer, which Félix-Brasdefer (2003) argues “constitute a major cross-cultural challenge. . . because they require a high level of pragmatic competence” (p. 229). These findings underscore the importance of developing a teaching methodology that fills in the pragmatic gaps left by textbooks.

Project Design          

            The goal of this project is to provide students in North Lake College’s English for Academic Purposes program explicit instruction in the pragmatic use of American English. Pragmatic instruction will be implemented in a combined Level 1 and 2 Listening and Speaking class. Instruction in English speech acts would be most efficacious when integrated as a supplement into existing curriculum. Providing students with opportunities in the classroom to make use of the instruction will alleviate some of the fears that arise when American speech acts are at odds with students’ existing cultural and linguistic knowledge and presuppositions.

            As instructors have little to no control over curriculum, the operationalization of this theory will require the development of supplemental materials to accompany instruction. As Aksoyalp and Toprak (2015) discovered, ESL texts do an inadequate job of integrating pragmatic skills, so the implementation of pragmatic instruction will require instructors to address pragmatics directly and find authentic cultural materials to employ in the classroom. These include exposure to realistic American social interactions, such as what one might find on popular American television shows with easily understood plots (e.g. Friends, The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon) as opposed to the scripted, simplified skits and dialogues that accompany so many ESL coursebooks.

            Teaching pragmatic competence through the specific address of speech acts should include the three categories of pragmatic awareness that DeCapua and Wintergerst (2016) identify: cognitive awareness, receptive skill development, and productive use (pp. 283-285). Lessons will incorporate cognitive awareness by specifically addressing differences between students’ native culture and American culture. In a typical lesson, this will involve an introduction to the lesson that elicits student discussion about how they would handle specific situations within their own cultures (see Appendix A for sample lesson plan and Appendix B for lecture slides). This allows them to make connections between speech acts and understanding and primes them to begin thinking about speech acts in the L2 context as having different interpretations. Using actual practice and media, including clips from television shows with natural language, students will learn to identify specific speech acts in their natural context, thereby developing receptive skills. Following the advice of Félix-Brasdefer (2003), through observation and discussion of authentic materials, students will be able to recognize the pragmatic meaning behind the observed speech acts.

            After having watched and discussed the targeted speech act, students will practice in class through role-playing activities. For example, in a lesson on how to politely decline an invitation, students will practice in class with some students extending invitations to other students who rely on mock schedules to accept or decline the invitation (see Appendix C for sample student material).

            The end of the lesson will ask students to put this knowledge to productive use through activities such as role-playing and simulations that require them to produce the targeted speech act. Such activities allow students a safe space to perform speech acts which may initially be at odds with their own assumptions about what is polite and appropriate. This puts them at ease and makes them more receptive to speech acts that they encounter in authentic contexts outside the classroom and prepares them to participate in and produce such acts. Out-of-class assignments will include exercises such as cloze activities designed to reinforce student knowledge of the targeted speech act, fill-in-the-conversation and open-response activities, and out-of-class group activities that involve writing and performing skits using the targeted speech acts.


            In addition to the practical aspects of learning a language, newcomers to a society often encounter unexpected frustrations based on presuppositions. DeCapua and Wintergerst (2016) explain, “[t]he communicative intent of meaning that speakers intend to convey is culturally based, context-specific, and influenced by a variety of variables that carry different weight in different cultures” (p. 258). Thus, it is absolutely imperative that ESL programs include opportunities for students to be specifically instructed in American speech acts. As all of North Lake’s students currently live and work in the United States and most intend to pursue degree programs in American institutions, it is a disservice not to prepare those students for the pragmatic aspects of communication in the professional, social and academic contexts of American life.


Aksoyalp, Y., & Tugba, E. T. (2015). Incorporating pragmatics in English language teaching: To what extent do EFL course books address speech acts? International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature, 4(2), 125-133. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.tamuc.edu/10.7575/aiac.ijalel.v.4n.2p.125

Baker, W. and Bricker, R.H. (2010). The Effects of direct and indirect speech acts on native English and ESL speakers’ perception of teacher written feedback. System 38(1), 75-84. 10.1016/j.system.2009.12.007

Connor, U. (2002). New directions in contrastive rhetoric. TESOL Quarterly, 36, 493-510.

DeCapua, A., & Wintergerst, A. (2016). Crossing cultures in the language classroom (2nd ed.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Félix-Brasdefer, J.C. (2003). Declining an invitation: A cross-cultural study of pragmatic strategies in American English and Latin American Spanish. Multilingua-journal of Cross-cultural and Interlanguage Communication 22, 225-255. doi:10.1515/mult.2003.012.

Kelly-Hall, J. (2002). Teaching and researching language and culture. Harlow, UK: Pearson.

Riley, K. (2008). Language socialization. In B. Spolsky & F. Hult (Eds.), Handbook of educational linguistics (pp. 398-410). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Wolfson, N. (1989). Perspectives: Sociolinguistics and TESOL. New York, NY: Newbury House.

Appendix A

Sample Lesson Plan – Listening and Speaking

Prior knowledge: Students in this lesson have already learned and demonstrated proficiency in both writing and responding to formal invitations and in issuing informal spoken invitations, such as: Do you like horror movies? Do you want to go see It this weekend?

Terminal objectives: The goal of this lesson is to enable students to politely extend, accept, and refuse a spoken invitation to a social event.

Enabling Objectives: Instill students with an understanding of the pragmatic features of American English in the context of offering, accepting and refusing spoken invitations. Different tasks within the lesson will address cognitive awareness, receptive skill development, and productive use of speech acts. By the end of the lesson, students will feel comfortable politely offering, accepting and declining invitations.


To be provided by the teacher or school

  • Dry-erase markers
  • Computer and projector in classroom
  • Video
  • Lecture slides (see Appendix B)
  • Notecard activity (see Appendix C)
  • Homework

To be provided by the student

  • Pencils/pens
  • Notebook or paper for note-taking
  • Dual-language dictionary (optional)

Lesson Outline

Total Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes

I. Introduction,10 minutes

Elicit ideas, responses and have a class discussion: Your coworker has invited you to their birthday party on Saturday at 7:00 PM. There is a problem. You cannot go! Your coworker’s party is at the same time as your mother’s 70th birthday party! How do you respond politely to your coworker?

II. Video Activity,15 minutes

Introduce video activity. Watch video, elicit discussion about what is going on in the video.

III. Lesson, 15 minutes

Using expressions with would to be polite (it is assumed that they know how to use would to make a polite request (“I would like to speak with…”)

IV. Practice, 35 minutes

  1. 5 minutes: Explain activity
  2. 20 minutes: Student activity. Notecard situations and schedules (offer, conflict) Students are given a personal schedule for the week (there will be three or four different schedules. Speed dating style. Each student is also given a notecard with a description of a party or activity that they have to invite a classmate to.  Student has to offer the invitation politely using would. The classmate either has to accept or decline the invitation politely based on their schedule.
  3. 5 minutes: Summarize the activity. Issue invitations to individual students requiring them to accept or decline based on their schedule.
  4. 5 minutes: Close the activity. Address any questions or issues that came up.

V. Conclusion, 5 minutes

Wrap up the lesson, answer any questions, assign homework

Appendix B

Power Point Lecture Slides

1            Discussion

Your coworker invites you to his birthday party on Saturday at 7:00 PM.

There is a problem. Your coworker’s party is at the same time as your mother’s birthday party.

In your culture and language, how do you respond to your coworker?

2            How do Americans typically respond?

Which response is the most polite?

I’m having a birthday party Saturday at 7. Do you want to come?

  1. No, thanks.
    1. That sounds great! But I can’t. My mom is having a birthday party that day too.
    1. I’d love to come! 4.Yes, I’ll be there!

5.No, thank you. I don’t want to come.

3            Watch video
  • Video discussion

What happened in the video? Who gave an invitation?

What was the invitation for? Who was invited?

How did she respond?

Is this similar to or different from your culture?

5            Inviting Someone
  • Greeting/Statement – Hey! You know my birthday’s this weekend. I’m going to have a party.
  • (Question)         – Are you free Saturday night? This one is optional.
  • Invitation – You should come to the party!
  • (Additional information) – It starts at 7.
6            Inviting someone

There are many ways to invite someone. You can use these expressions

Statement – I’m having a party tonight.

Invitation –

  • Would you like to come? (most formal)
  • Do you want to come?
  • You should come. (most informal)
7            Accepting an invitation
  • Enthusiasm: Cool! That sounds fun!
  • Acceptance: I’ll be there.
  • Questions/Statement: What time? Do I need to bring anything?
8            Script – Acceptance

Juan: Hey Dalila! I’m having a party this weekend. You should come!

Dalila: Cool. What day?

Juan: Saturday at 8. My house. Dalila: Sounds fun. I’ll be there. Juan: Great! See you Saturday. Dalila: See you!

  • Declining an invitation 1.Interest That sounds fun! 2.Denial   But I can’t come. 3.Excuse       I have to work.
10            Script – Declining

Juan: Hey Dalila! I’m having a party this weekend. You should come!

Dalila: Sounds fun. What day? Juan: Saturday at 8. My house.

Dalila: I wish I could, but I have to work Saturday night. Juan: That’s too bad. Maybe next time.

Dalila: Hopefully!

11            Activity

Schedules and conflicts Inviting and accepting/declining

12            Homework

Cloze Activity

Appendix C

Materials for Notecard Activity


Invite someone to meet at Starbucks for coffee on Saturday at 1:30 PMAsk your friend to help you move to a new apartment
You are going to see a movie on Saturday at 8:30 PM. Invite someone to join you.You have an extra ticket to the Beyoncé concert. Invite someone to join you.
Ask someone to meet you for breakfast at 9:00 AM on Saturday.Ask someone to go shopping at North Park mall with you on Saturday afternoon.
Invite someone to your birthday party at 9:00 PM on SaturdayInvite someone to go with you to a lecture at the university.
Ask someone to join your study group for chemistry at 3:00 PM on Saturday.Invite someone to come see your band perform at a local bar from 8:00 PM to 12:00 AM.

Student Saturday Schedules

9:00 – 10:30 AMVolunteer at homeless shelter
11:00 AMBrunch with friends
2:00 PM – 10:00 PMWork
12:30 PMHave lunch with family
2:00 – 6:00 PMStudy for math exam
7:00 PMVisit a sick family member 
8:00 AM – 2:00 PMWork
4:00 PM – 6:00 PMStudy Group
7:00 PM – 10:00 PMHang out and see a movie with friends