Teaching Pragmatics Through Theatre


An earlier version of this article appeared in TESOL connections. We are reprinting it here for those who were not able to find the reassigned location of the TESOL 19 session on this topic.

When people have a conversation, they do not just exchange information. Rather, they negotiate a relationship, and the social skills involved are called pragmatics. To be good at pragmatics is to be good at the art of sending and receiving implicit messages and intentions. This can be done through gesture, intonation, the choice of specific phrases or even silences.

For example, if I say, “I don’t want you to take this wrong way, but…” you are immediately alerted to the fact that I’m about to make an observation that is not flattering. I may also underscore my sincere good will through the pitch of my voice, my eyes and my body language. Likewise, when my college-age son tells his friend, “Yeah, I got you,” he usually nods in a gesture of empathy and understanding. “Yeah, I got you,” is a short frequently used phrase that young adults in his sub culture use to bond with each other and signal their willingness to continue listening.

These expressions and phrases are loaded with meanings beyond the literal, and they help speakers make moves in a conversation that signal intention, relationship, and emotion. There are lots of them, and we employ them frequently.  In fact, a review of research by Conklin & Schmitt (2012) reveals that one third to one half of discourse is composed of formulaic language, with the greater percentage of formulaic language being used more in spoken forms.

Conklin & Schmitt’s research also suggests that English learners can increase their fluency by storing frequently occurring formulaic sequences. These ready-made chunks allow users to have agency in a conversation because they utilize cultural conventions, establish relationships, and support transitions towards goals. Consider the formulaic, “Well, I’m so glad I ran into you!” Many native speakers use this statement to signal they are ready to end the conversation.  However, the message is not apparent in the literal meaning of the words. If I say it, and you do not get that this is good-bye, I feel frustrated, anxious to be polite, but equally anxious to move on to the next part of my day.

In addition to examining useful formulaic language that conveys meaning implicitly, pragmatics also includes backchanneling. Backchanneling involves the ways people signal and reflect back their understanding of what another person has said. It can range from “uh huh” and nodding to exclamations such as “Really?” or “I know, right!” Backchanneling can also involve repeating back key phrases to check understanding as well as show engagement. It is possible that the other person may find it helpful to reiterate the message or repair a misinterpretation. These are all difficult cultural challenges, and according to Noriko Ishihara and Andrew D. Cohen (2010), without direct instruction, it can take up to ten years in a second language context for a learner to acquire these pragmatics skills.

Recently, there has been a call for instruction in the “hidden” language of pragmatics, but the field is only just beginning to figure out how to create classroom materials. Most course book dialogs do not include the patterns of real conversations with their backchannelling and culturally embedded messages. There are practical reasons for this, not the least of which is that a more authentic sounding dialog would take a lot of space. Add the fact that most scripted course dialogs are generally devised to display grammar or practice pronunciation points, and it is easy to see why students may be exposed to a rather unlikely statement such as, “I can play the piano, but I can’t play the violin,” but not a highly useful expression such as, “I can’t help it,” as in “She makes me so mad. I can’t help it. I feel like I have to say something!”

Fortunately, however, there is a group of people whose career depends on their awareness of pragmatics, and that is playwrights. They may not know the term pragmatics, but their job is to write conversations that resonate authentically with their audience. A play explores what happens when people use their pragmatics skills, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. In plays, characters have obstacles, and they need to be nimble with words to get out of a difficult situation or reach a goal. Importantly, the consequences of those language choices play out as the plot resolves.

“I put words in their mouths,” writes Australian Playwright, Andrew Bovell. “It is this, more than anything else that distinguishes what I do as a playwright and screenwriter from the work of the novelist, or the poet, or the short story writer. They write their words primarily to be read. I write mine primarily, to be said and heard.”

In addressing this distinction, Bovell is very aware of the pragmatics of the situations in which he puts his characters. Their goals and strategies inform his decisions about the dialog. He knows that a character has an agenda, and that agenda is navigated through emotional as well as informational text. For example, if a character wants to get something from someone, she has to create the conditions in which the other person is likely to agree. If she speaks recklessly, she may hurt her chances of success. This movement towards a resolution is what theatre artists call rising tension. The situation is constructed, but it resonates with people because it reflects the patterns and dynamics of real life

Teachers and students can make great use of these conversations in the classroom. A theatre script can showcase the unfolding of a relationship through the language moves that characters make. Here’s an example from my play Only the Best Intentions a one act family drama written for ELLs. In the opening scene, a mother and father are talking about their son who has missed the bus. There is a short exchange in which both are frustrated. We only hear the mother (Fiona), but her language choices reveal a movement from venting her frustration to collaborating on a solution. Here is Fiona, talking on the phone:


Jaime missed the bus again

I thought you were taking care of it.


I was, but the repair guy is coming.


For the dishwasher. I told you.


I know, but I can’t leave. He’ll be here any minute.


I know you can’t. So . . . what do you want to do?


When Fiona shifts to “So…what do you want to do?” She pauses to signal a transition. Then she invites her husband to offer a solution. In this way, she’s signaling her willingness to collaborate. She is open to his ideas for getting their son to school, and this move creates a context in which he might be open to hers. This interaction can be highlighted and discussed. Students can read the scene aloud and feel “the words in their mouths,” and process the experience, perhaps coming away with a strategy they can use on group projects or with coworkers.

Or not. With pragmatics, it is important that learners have agency. Ishihara and Cohen make a distinction between raising awareness of pragmatics patterns and imposing them. “…it is up to the learners themselves as to whether they will choose to be pragmatically appropriate. Even if they gain an understanding of the social and cultural norms, they could still resist accommodating to L2 norms in their own pragmatic performance.” In other words, the goal is to help students understand the way people use language and then make informed choices about how they want to respond.


Building a Pragmatics Lesson

In designing lesson plans that involve pragmatics through theatre, there are several approaches a teacher can take. The following example sequence is just one option among many, and not all the elements would need to be included.

Ideally, a pragmatics lesson starts with an experience, so a video or audio recording of a scene can provide a model and initiate discussion. When the rhythm of a naturalistically-scripted dialog unfolds, students’ innate ability to extract patterns and meaning can be surprisingly keen. They can listen to a scene and identify the context, the relationship between the characters and what they are talking about through the intonation of the actors and the backchanneling in the script.

Once students have heard and understood the dialog, they can then do a close read of the script and have discussions about why a person said what they said, what that person hoped would happen and what actually does happen. Does the character achieve the result he wants or does he make an error? Here’s an example from Let the Right One In, a play (and film) about teenage vampires by Jack Thorne. In the play, Oskar is a bullied high school student who meets a strangely pale but athletic girl named Eli. She is a vampire, but Oscar does not know this.


Eli: I can’t be friends with you, just so you know.”

Oscar: What?

Eli: Sorry, I’m just telling you how it is. Just so you know.

Oscar: What makes you think I’d want to be friends with you? You must be pretty stupid.

Eli: Sorry. But that’s how it is.


In this scene, Eli is trying to be honest, and she uses just so you know twice. It softens the effect of her statement, though it still hurts Oskar. His defensive response is understandable, but it is not what he is really feeling. This short interaction can be decoded and discussed with students and perhaps lead to discussions of students’ experiences, perhaps in L1 or L2. They come away with language they can use when they need to relate information that is difficult to hear.

A professional play such as Let the Right One In often has more intense situations than real life, but it still contains the “truth in fiction” dialog that can resonate with readers. Many of the classic 20th century family dramas include similar opportunities to feel a character and his or her language from the inside. Lost in Yonkers, Death of a Salesman, You Can’t Take it with You, or a naturalistic play written specifically for language learners could also provide content for practice and discussion.

After reading and discussing the script, students can take on roles and practice reading. They can work in groups to discuss the plot, the motivations of their characters, and their relationships. Then when they start rehearsing, they can play with stress, intonation, and gesture to see how it feels to communicate emotions and messages in English contexts.

To get into the pragmatics, it helps to choose a specific scene that has an interesting dialog between or among characters. Students can discuss the situation, the characters motivations and decisions and then identify useful language. Next, they can take on roles, practice stress and intonation, even gesture and body language.

Such an experience can trigger memories of personal stories that can form the basis of an improvisation. For instance, in my play Just Desserts Hana and Jay commiserate with Layla after their boss has been mean to Layla. Students might pair-share a time when they have experienced injustice. What did they say? What did they want to say? What language could they have used? The new language can go on the board for further discussion.

Then students can improvise the new situation, integrating the new language chunks as needed. For example, here are a few ideas that came up in a recent English through theater class at Lone Star College. Notice the strategy of making “I” statements and the tactic of inquiry:

  • Can we talk about what you said?
  • I want to tell you how that affects me.
  • I am not sure you understand what you are saying.
  • Did you really mean that? Because it seems to me . . .
  • Do you realize what you are saying?
  • You seem to feel … Can I respond now?

When students have become comfortable with each other through theater games and activities, they have more confidence to take on these more awkward roles. They are also often very motivated to try out the new language, and if it takes, they may be better prepared for conversational challenges in the future.

When staging a full play, you don’t need to prospect for pragmatics in every scene. With other scenes you could do a mini-lesson on grammar e.g., use the context to practice if clauses, If Layla talks back, she might get fired. If she stays silent, the situation won’t change. Or you can always work on pronunciation strategies e.g., where are the linking and reductions in your part? By doing different things in different scenes, you break up the rehearsal process and address multiple skills.

Still, while students may enjoy memorizing and performing in a full-production, it is not necessary to take it all the way. If there are time constraints, you can also do a readers theatre version. Readers’ Theatre is a sort of shortcut performance in which learners become the characters and can move around the stage, but they still have a script in hand. This minimizes the rehearsal time but still allow for a meaningful experience.

Also, there is always a problem with matching roles to the number of students. In a classroom setting, it is possible to divide the class into two or three groups and have them develop the same or separate scripts to perform for each other or an invited audience.

Nowadays, you can also do a podcast with a mobile phone recording device. This has the additional benefit of a product that can be used to analyze the effects of intonation, pausing, reductions, linking, and the ways that characters’ use their voices to show emotion and intention (prosody).

Whether doing a short play as a module, or a longer play as a class project, a readers theater performance, or a podcast, the experience can be quite rewarding in that students seem to emerge with greater confidence. They gesture and talk in a way that reveals the messages and intentions behind the words, and even more barriers are broken down between speakers of different languages. In the words of a student,

The play helped me to learn differents kinds of pragmatics. Depending on the pragmatic I want to express, I know what kind of expressions to use for it. For a foreign person for who english it is not the first language, that is help me more to have a fluent conversation with other people.

— Fabienne Rene

For more material, please check out the series of short plays here: Alphabet Publishing Books The scripts work well as sources of plot driven, interesting conversations that can be used as texts for reading skills, spoken lexical chunks, and pronunciation, contexts for grammar, and even produced for a multimodal embodied learning experience.


Ajvide Lindqvist, John, and Thorne, Jack (2004) Let the Right One In, a play based on the novel

and film by Ajvide Lindqvist. Nick Hern Books, London 2004.

Bovell, Andrew, (2017). Putting Words in Their Mouths: the playwright and screenwriter at

work. Currency House, Platform Papers 52: Australia, August 2017.

Cheng, Astrid Yi-Mei, and Joe Winston. (2011). Shakespeare as a second language:

playfulness,power and pedagogy in the ESL classroom. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance 16, no. 4 (2011): 541-56.

Conklin, Cathy, and Norbert Schmitt. The Processing of Formulaic Language: Annual Review of   

 Applied Linguistics (2012), 32, 45–61.
© Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Ishihara, N., & Cohen, A. D. (2010). Teaching and learning pragmatics where language and culture meet. Harlow, United Kingdom: Pearson Longman, 2010.

Savage, Alice (2018). Only the Best Intentions: Integrated Skills Through Theatre, Alphabet Publishing, 2018.

Savage, Alice (2019). Just Desserts, Alphabet Publishing, 2019

Winston, Joe, and Madonna Stinson. Drama Education and Second Language Learning. London:

Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.

Categories: ELT

1 reply »

  1. I currently have a very high level student from Greece. The problem is he uses very unnatural and/or complicated sentence structure when writing dialogue. For example, “It may seem gross the way John acted upon me.” He is using idioms a lot in his homework as well, but this doesn’t always work either. “As he was approaching me, it jogged my memory and I remembered that when we used to be joined at the hip he had a very strange habit.” I’ve been trying to get him to use more natural language and the book Just Desserts by Alice Savage is helping me run through some natural dialogue with him. His excuse is he is simply translating directly from Greek. Well, as you know, you can’t translate directly from any language. The structure is different. There are too many nuances that can’t be overlooked, such as using idioms appropriately. We are also working on where to put the stress in a sentence. For a ESL student to be considered fluent, pragmatics has to be considered a top priority.


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