A pragmatics lesson to improve group dynamics

Most Americans are not comfortable with silence. We tend to dive in and fill awkward pauses with anything that comes to mind. Our intention is usually sincere. We want to avoid the pain of failing to fill conversational space. However, awkward pauses are bound to come up when English learners are involved. It’s not always clear why they are silent. Perhaps they do not understand or they lack vocabulary, or maybe they are just not sure what is appropriate, especially if the response might make us uncomfortable.

We often assume speaker silence is a language issue, but many English learners avoid conversations altogether because they do not have training in social skills. Unfortunately, there is little to remedy this situation. Course books generally use dialog to showcase vocabulary and rules, and even when dialogs sound natural, they are almost always positive. ESL course book land is generally a happy place where no one ever disagrees and invitations are always accepted.

The field’s lack of attention to uncomfortable conversations does not serve students well because real life demands that they disagree, decline, and sometimes say no. These harder speech acts often require more language because they are frequently indirect and packaged with positive language. So if we want our students to become proficient at negotiating meaning in all its guises, we should take them through conversations that are delicate.

Pragmatics is the art of handling a conversation in way that achieves aims but is respectful of the other person and cognizant of the larger context. It includes register, functions, and the ability to signal and pick up signals that may be indirect. While pragmatics can be analyzed and used in any context, we’d like to offer a practical lesson plan for negotiating suggestions during group work.

Below we’ve reconstructed and adapted a conversation collected from an intermediate speaking class. The aim of the script is to raise awareness of how proficient native speakers might make and respond to suggestions, including signaling a rejection of the suggestion. The script is followed by a menu of lesson plan options for analyzing the pragmatics in the conversation. We do not necessarily suggest doing everything on the menu; we are simply offering different paths for getting into the pragmatic elements of a conversation. The final suggestion is to have students use what they learned to create an original role play around the same task using the awareness and language that they’ve learned.

 Establishing Common Ground

When you have common ground, it means you all agree about something. As a student you often work in groups, so you need common ground for the group to work well together. One of the skills for establishing common ground is making and responding to suggestions. For this type of negotiation, it is polite to recognize and use indirect strategies for rejecting a suggestion. In this script, you will practice both so that you can put forward the best ideas of the group.

Setting: A community college classroom. Three students have pushed their desks together to create a semi-circle. There are papers and notebooks open in front of them.

Allie: Okay, so what are we supposed to do?

Sam: I don’t know. The teacher said we have to make a restaurant proposal.

Allie: What’s that?

Sam: We have to create a plan for a new restaurant. You know like we want to borrow money and open a restaurant.

Allie Any kind of restaurant?

Renee: Uh huh…We make one that we think is going to be successful.

Allie: How about a Mexican restaurant?

Renee: Yes. It could be Mexican, American, Vietnamese…whatever.

Allie: I like Mexican…Do you want to do Mexican?

Sam: Ummm, maybe. What other types of restaurants are there?

Renee: What about Italian. Italian restaurants do well.

Allie: Yeah, That’s a good idea, but I never eat Italian. I mean it’s probably good, but I don’t know anything about it.

Renee: Fair enough. We should all feel comfortable with whatever we decide. How about you Sam. Do you want Mexican, or what do you think?

Sam: I’m not against Mexican, but I have an idea.

Renee: yeah?

Sam: How about barbecue? It’s kind of like Mexican, but it’s super Texan. Do you guys like Barbecue?

Allie: Hmmm. Not Mexican?

Sam: I’m not saying no to Mexican, but it might be fun to try Barbecue.

Renee: I like the idea of Barbecue. It’s a little different.

Allie: Well, I still like Mexican, but if you guys really want barbecue, I’ll go with the majority.

Renee: How about this…We can do one of those places, you know, where you stand in line and order at the counter. Then they bring you the food.

Allie: You mean no waiters?

Renee: Right. Then we don’t have to pay staff, and it’s cheaper for the customers. What do you think?

Allie: Is that still a restaurant?

Renee: I think it is…and we can borrow less money in our proposal. What do you think Sam?

Sam: I like it when they bring the food. I don’t mind ordering at the counter, but it’s nice if I don’t have to get up again.

Allie: Yeah, Sam’s right. Once you sit down, you don’t want to get up again.

Renee: Good point. So it’s sort of half and half then. They order and pay; then a waiter brings the food to the table.

Sam: Right. Sometimes customers just want to eat. They don’t care about socializing or fancy service.

Allie: Yeah, … when I go to those places, they’re always crowded.

Sam: We’ll make a million dollars! Ha ha. And I think we could still have tacos and stuff too, Allie.

Renee: Sure, why not? Then everybody’s happy, right? Barbecue, tacos and they usually have baked potatoes. Is that what we want then?

Sam: Sounds good to me.

Allie: Yeah, let’s do it. Write that down.





Analyzing Language

  1. Write an S for suggestion next to each suggestion.
  2. Is the suggestion accepted or rejected? Write A or R
  3. Highlight language that softens rejections. What strategy does the speaker use?
    1. a weak or vague response
    2. a delay tactic
    3. a different suggestion
  4. Does the strategy work?
  5. What other strategies do speakers use to maintain a positive relationship?
    1. agreeing with other speakers
    2. inviting others to speak.
    3. showing encouragement by giving an example or additional supporting comments
    4. summarizing decisions to verify that everyone agrees
  6. Listen to the conversation. What emotions can you detect from the speakers’ voices?
    1. disappointment
    2. enthusiasm
    3. encouragement
    4. frustration or anger
    5. doubt

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you handle the dialog in your language? the same or differently?
  2. Imagine the characters are all male. Does the conversation seem natural?
  3. Imagine the characters are all female. Does the same conversation seem natural?


  1. Practice the conversation. Try to act out the feelings behind the words.
  2. Perform your conversation for another pair. Ask the other pair. Do you think everyone is happy with the result or is someone unhappy?
  3. Listen to the other group’s conversation and answer their questions.
  4. Go back to your original group. Put away the dialog. Prepare to do a roleplay without looking at a script. Use these steps:
  5. Prepare: The assignment is to write a restaurant proposal in groups of three. First think about the kind of restaurant you want to suggest.
  6. Next, think about the language you want to use in the role play to be polite. Review the dialog for words and phrases such as “fair enough,” or “That’s a good idea, but…”
  7. Plan to politely reject at least one suggestion but be willing to agree on a restaurant when you hear an idea you like.
  8. Practice your Role play with your group.
  9. (optional) Perform for another group or the class.



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