There are socially constructed rules that guide how individuals interact with each other. The rules guide turn taking, greetings, eye-contact, body language and the way individuals are referenced in conversations.

These rules can be described as the pragmatics of oral language and they are often implicitly learnt. However, not all children develop an understanding of pragmatics by simply being immersed in social situations.

For some children, the explicit teaching of social language and the way language varies according to its contexts is needed. Raban (2014) suggests, “consolidating implicit awareness with explicit understanding” (p. 6). Pragmatics can be thought of in terms of both expressive and receptive language, that is, the social conventions of both speaking and listening, in an Australian context. It is important to remember that cultural differences could result in pragmatic differences.

Teaching pragmatics is important for EAL/D learners

Research in pragmatics in language learning shows ‘lower-proficiency listeners have greater difficulty processing both contextual and linguistic information and, therefore, are less able to activate their pragmatic knowledge’ (Vandergrift & Goh, 2018, p. 137). Therefore, explicit teaching of pragmatics is important for supporting EAL/D students in developing their listening and speaking skills.

The following demonstrates how pragmatic knowledge is important and where misunderstandings can occur for EAL/D learners.

A: Do you have a ruler?
B: Yes, it’s right here.
A: I mean, can I borrow it?

For EAL/D learners, the goal of teaching pragmatics is that students learn:

  • what can be said in English
  • how something can be said in English in different situations
  • to also express what they want to say and how they want to say it.

Cultural information is often inferred in speaking and listening exchanges and may need to be explicitly taught or explained to EAL/D learners. Similarities and differences between English and the linguistic practices of students’ home languages can form the basis for discussion, role plays or text creation.

Some examples include:

  • indirect references to 'soften' requests (e.g. Could you tell me where the park is?)
  • modifying speech when speaking with a peer or with a teacher, or during a class presentation
  • who can or cannot be addressed by their first name (e.g. in some Australian schools students address teachers by first names)
  • forms of address (e.g. addressing strangers as ‘sir’ instead of ‘uncle’ as in some other cultures)
  • when the speaker should express thanks
  • when and how a person should apologise. In some cultures apologies can be non-verbal, and students may need to learn how to verbalise an apology
  • appropriate greetings or topics of conversations for a new acquaintance.

EAL/D learners need to learn about the possible social impact of their linguistic choices in different contexts, for example, greeting a friend or the principal. Support EAL/D students to investigate spoken texts by considering the tenor (the relationship between the language users), mode (oral, written or visual) and field (the topic).

For more information see: Teaching EAL/D learners about the pragmatics of language

It is worth considering the tacit factors, related to pragmatics, which promote or prevent effective classroom talk. The grouping of students is one such factor. Teachers need to decide when students self-select their talk partners and when talk partners are selected for the student. Talk that presents a challenge, such as an ethical discussion may be more suited to self-selected groupings, in the initial stages, to help build confidence.

Another factor to consider is the class seating arrangement. A group of students seated on the floor, facing the teacher who is seated on a chair sets up the traditional social structure of the classroom, which may be more conducive to an IRF (initiation, response, feedback) talk pattern, rather than a dialogic one. Seating students in a horseshoe or square pattern with the teacher included in the seating pattern, allows all participants to see each other and sets up a different pedagogical relationship (Alexander, 2008).

A third factor to consider is the amount of time a teacher provides for student responses. Some points in the lesson demand an instant response from students, but opportunities for more thoughtful extended answers might also be provided if students are given time to think before replying (Mercer and Dawes, 2008). The inclusion of think time makes explicit the link between speaking and listening and thinking and learning.

Teaching the pragmatics of language:   

  • Role play. Act out a similar situation in a different context. For example, greeting different people at the airport; telling different people you are feeling unwell; explaining to different people that there is a fly in your meal.
  • Role play how to greet someone; explain something; complain, and request.
    Supporting EAL/D learners

    Before the role play, support EAL/D learners by providing a clear sense of audience using images to scaffold discussion about language choices, for example how much to say, how much technical language to use, or whether to use supporting resources such as images. Students can also consider paralinguistic components of communication, such as volume, pitch, intonation, facial expression and body language. Students might discuss and contribute to a dialogue for a scene. When different groups of children perform their own role play around a similar situation (e.g. making friends, stopping bullying, asking for help), comparing the different language choices in each role play draws EAL/D students' attention to language options available, and why a certain response may be appropriate or inappropriate.

  • Character hot seating.
  • Character interviews.
  • Make classroom displays highlighting how to ask for common classroom requests.
  • Use picture story books that focus on conflict and model what can be said and how it can be said, when solving the conflict.
  • Create classroom clines to illustrate the degree or intensity of vocabulary. For example: putrid, disgusting, unappetizing, unappealing. Discuss when it might be appropriate/inappropriate to use such vocabulary.
  • Create a set of classroom agreed rules for accountable talk (Mercer and Hodgkingson, 2008, see: Accountable talk.

Links to the Victorian Curriculum - English

  • Listen to and respond orally to texts and to the communication of others in informal and structured classroom situations using interaction skills, including listening, while others speak (VCELY174)
  • Explore how language is used differently at home and school depending on the relationships between people (VCELA165)
  • Deliver short oral presentations to peers, using appropriate voice levels, articulation, body language, gestures and eye contact (VCELY175)
  • Engage in conversations and discussions, using active listening, showing interest, and contributing ideas, information and questions, taking turns and recognising the contributions of others (VCELY210)
  • Listen for specific purposes and information, including instructions, and extend students’ own and others' ideas in discussions through initiating topics, making positive statements, and voicing disagreement in an appropriate manner (VCELY244)
  • Listen to and contribute to conversations and discussions to share information and ideas and negotiate in collaborative situations and use interaction skills, including active listening and clear, coherent communications (VCELY275)
  • Participate in and contribute to discussions, clarifying and interrogating ideas, developing and supporting arguments, sharing and evaluating information, experiences and opinions, and use interaction skills, varying conventions of spoken interactions according to group size, formality of interaction and needs and expertise of the audience (VCELY366)
  • Participate in formal and informal debates and plan, rehearse and deliver presentations, selecting and sequencing appropriate content and multimodal elements for defined audiences and purposes, making appropriate choices for modality and emphasis (VCELY367)
  • Understand that patterns of language interaction vary across social contexts and types of texts and that they help to signal social roles and relationships (VCELA334)
  • Understand that successful cooperation with others depends on shared use of social conventions, including turn-taking patterns, and forms of address that vary according to the degree of formality in social situations (VCELA271)
  • Understand that language varies when people take on different roles in social and classroom interactions and how the use of key interpersonal language resources varies depending on context (VCELA235)

Links to the Victorian Curriculum - English as an Additional Language (EAL)

See the Communication and Cultural and Plurilingual Awareness strands under Speaking and Listening in the EAL curriculum


Alexander, R.  (2008). Culture, dialogue and learning. In N. Mercer and S. Hodgkinson. (Eds.) (2008). Exploring Talk in Schools. London: SAGE Publications.

Mercer, N. and Dawes, L. (2008). The value of exploratory talk. In N. Mercer and S. Hodgkinson. (Eds.) (2008). Exploring Talk in Schools. London: SAGE Publications.

Mercer, N. and Hodgkinson, S. (2008) (eds.). Exploring talk in schools. London: Sage Publications.

Raban, B. (2014). Talk to think, learn, and teach. Journal of Reading Recovery. Spring, 2014.

Vandergrift, L., & Goh, C. (2018). How listening comprehension works. In J.M. Newton, D.R. Ferris, C.C.M. Goh, W. Grabe, F.L. Stoller & L. Vandergrift (Eds.), Teaching English to second language learners in academic contexts: Reading, writing, listening, and speaking (pp. 125-144). New York: Routledge.