Pragmatics in the ESL Classroom

Pragmatics is the contextual meaning of language, and it’s the reason that people don’t always say what they mean. For example, consider the following ambiguous statement: “A stolen painting was found by a tree.” The word ‘by’ has two possible meanings: either a sentient tree discovered the artifact or the artwork was moved by humans to its current location. Pragmatic knowledge allows us to politely hedge a request, cleverly read between the lines, negotiate turn-taking norms in conversation and navigate ambiguity in context.

Unlike grammatical errors, which are easily corrected, pragmatic mistakes can be costly in real life. For instance, if a worker fails to properly address an employee’s concern, it can undermine trust and potentially lead to a breakdown in communication. Additionally, researchers have shown that pragmatic infelicities can negatively impact a speaker’s reputation. Therefore, the inclusion of pragmatic components in the classroom is imperative.

However, pragmatics remains a largely untaught topic in many ESL classrooms, despite the fact that it’s a critical component of communicative competence. In a recent study, participants in IT, business and TESOL programs indicated a lack of pragmatic instruction (see the Forum article “Pragmatics in the English Language Classroom”).

This is likely due to the fact that pragmatism is not well understood or taught by most teachers and curriculum developers. A lack of teaching resources and a general misconception about the nature of pragmatics have also contributed to the underdevelopment of this essential skill set.

While pragmatics is not a subject in its own right, it can be included as part of a broader course on social and cultural aspects of communication. The most practical way to do this is through the inclusion of pragmatic activities in existing speaking and listening courses. For example, in the Forum article “Pragmatic Activities for the Speaking Classroom,” Joseph Siegel describes an activity based on request scenarios. The teacher creates a list of situations in which a request could be made, and students decide how they would make the request in each scenario. They then discuss their responses and why some choices are more appropriate than others.

Another pragmatic activity is the use of role-plays to teach different types of greetings. For example, in the article “Luck of the Draw,” Amy Hanna describes an activity in which students role-play different ways of saying hello to coworkers using a variety of speakers and locations. Students then reflect on the success of each role-play and compare how it differs from other role-plays they have done in class.

For more information about Pragmatism, check out the online encyclopedia of pragmatism curated by John Shook at Pragmatism Cybrary. Also, be sure to explore our range of Pragmatic Institute certifications, backed by industry-leading data, design and product training from Microsoft MVPs and authors. Get started with our free community plan today.