Teaching Pragmatics in the Classroom

Pragmatics is the study of how we communicate with each other. It focuses on the meaning of an utterance beyond the literal words and considers the context in which the message is delivered as well as what is implied by the speaker’s intention and their responses. Pragmatics is considered an important part of the communication process and without it we would have much more difficulty understanding each other’s messages and responding to them appropriately.

Pragmatism is an approach to philosophy that was popularized by the American philosopher J. L. Austin in the early twentieth century. It was a reaction to the prevailing positivist orthodoxy and challenged many of its assumptions, particularly that knowledge is objective and can be verified. Pragmatism also argued that meaning is not necessarily determined by what is said, but rather is a result of the context in which it is said.

In the classroom, pragmatics can be taught through activities that encourage students to examine the context of a conversation and determine what the intended meaning might be in different situations. One example is an activity that asks students to come up with a request scenario and decide how they would make their response, keeping in mind things such as the age of the speakers, their previous relationship, the context in which the conversation was taking place and other features.

Another pragmatics activity involves having students think about how they might respond to an invitation. This can include considering how they might respond in their home language and the target language as well as in other cultures. It also includes considering the cultural norms that might dictate what is appropriate and inappropriate.

Other pragmatics lessons might revolve around specific language functions, such as greetings, requests, complaints, invitations and apologies. These lessons may be tied to content in a textbook, such as a unit on apologizing, or they might be added to the curriculum based on student need. For instance, a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder might have difficulty with some components of pragmatics and will need to be given opportunities to practice these skills in safe settings.

Teachers can teach pragmatics through direct instruction, modeling and role playing and by using visual supports to help children understand the underlying meaning of verbal expressions. They can also use social stories to help children understand how they can interact with others in a variety of ways and adhere to appropriate social norms. These social skills are critical for typical childhood development as well as for supporting children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.