In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Teaching Pragmatics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

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Linguistics Teaching Pragmatics
Naoko Taguchi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0320


Pragmatics involves a complex interplay among language, language users, and context of use. We use language to achieve a variety of communicative goals—to introduce yourself on the first day of school, to present a new product at a company meeting, to negotiate household choirs with your spouse, or to decline telemarketers’ solicitations. For all these goals, our success depends on how we use language effectively and appropriately in the given social context. For example, an indirect refusal like “This isn’t a good time” might work to refuse a telemarketer for the first time, but on repeated occasions, we might be more direct, saying “I’m not interested. Put me on the do-not-call list.” Our choice of linguistic forms is bound to context—settings, occasions, roles, and topics of conversation. Pragmatic knowledge involves knowing which forms to use in what context, and understanding how our linguistic choice affects others’ perceptions and reactions. Given the complexity involved in pragmatics, one can easily imagine that acquiring pragmatic knowledge in a second (or any additional) language is a challenging task. The form-context connections are unique to individual languages and cultures. Second language learners (hereafter L2 learners) need to learn cultural norms that shape how people communicate in the L2 community, as well as L2-specific means of communication. While the challenge of pragmatic acquisition is clear, one element that can assist the process is direct instruction. Focused instruction on pragmatics can be effective, as research findings generally show that instructed L2 learners tend to outperform their non-instructed counterparts in the amount and quality of pragmatic knowledge acquired. A number of studies have supported this trend across different theoretical frameworks, instruction and assessment methods, and contexts of instruction. This article presents selective references of those studies. The article is organized according to three broad topics: (1) Theories and Methods of Instruction, (2) Measures of Instructional Outcomes, and (3) Contexts of Instruction. Under each topic, several subtopics are presented, along with their representative references.

General Overviews

When we consider teaching pragmatics, we often wonder what to teach. Since the 1980s, several definitions of pragmatic competence have emerged in the field, each illustrating important knowledge and skills to teach in pragmatics. One of the early definitions comes from Thomas 1983, which considers pragmatic competence involving two knowledge dimensions: pragmalinguistics and sociopragmatics. The former refers to the knowledge of linguistic forms used to achieve a communicative goal, while the latter involves the knowledge of cultural norms and social conventions in the society. Hence, pragmatic knowledge entails a repertoire of linguistic forms and sociocultural knowledge of how those forms work in context. A variety of linguistic units have been used to teach pragmalinguistics and sociopragmatics, including speech acts (e.g., refusal, request), routines (e.g., how to order food at a restaurant), and conversational implicature (e.g., understanding nonliteral meaning such as jokes). While the knowledge of form-function-context mappings is fundamental, learners also need to learn how to use the knowledge on-the-spot in a real-time interaction. Young 2019 underscores the importance of interactional competence, or the ability to interact and co-construct meaning with others, as another area of instruction. Teachers have used a variety of communicative opportunities, such as role-plays, simulations, and telecollaborations, to teach interaction abilities. Finally, learner agency has become a recent addition to the area of instruction. Ishihara 2019 contends that learners do not blindly adopt a form-function-context mapping expected in the L2 community; instead, they decide which forms to use following their own beliefs and values. For example, using honorifics to a senior person is often a social norm in Japan, but learners of Japanese may intentionally deviate from the norm and use casual language to appear friendly and close. To promote learners’ agentic choice-making capacity, Ishihara 2010 presents a teacher-student collaborative assessment task where students first read a scenario and write down what they would say in the situation. Students are then asked to explain the intention behind their linguistic choice. They are also asked to reflect on the consequence of their choice by indicating how their interlocutor might perceive their behavior. These three areas of instruction—knowledge of form-function-context mappings, interaction abilities, and agentic choice-making capacity—are summarized in Taguchi 2022, along with common instructional methods and approaches for teaching these areas. Seminal resource books that can assist materials design and lesson planning include Bardovi-Harlig and Mahan-Taylor 2003, Ishihara and Cohen 2022, and Roever 2022. The activities and tasks presented in these books are exemplary in promoting the three core areas of instruction. A comprehensive review of instructed L2 pragmatics research is found in Takahashi 2010 and Taguchi 2015.

  • Bardovi-Harlig, Kathleen, and Rebecca Mahan-Taylor. 2003. Teaching pragmatics. Washington, DC: Office of English Programs, US Department of State.

    Compiles lessons and activities for pragmatics instruction created by teachers of English as a foreign/second language.

  • Ishihara, Noriko. 2010. Assessing learners’ pragmatic ability in the classroom. In Pragmatics: Teaching speech acts. Edited by Dona Tatsuki and Noel Houck, 209–227. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.

    Presents a survey of methods and materials for assessing pragmatic competence in a classroom.

  • Ishihara, Noriko. 2019. Identity and agency in L2 pragmatics. In The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition and pragmatics. Edited by Naoko Taguchi, 161–175. New York: Routledge.

    A comprehensive review of identity and agency research in L2 pragmatics, highlighting the importance of considering learner agency in pragmatics instruction.

  • Ishihara, Noriko, and Andrew D. Cohen. 2022. Teaching and learning pragmatics: Where language and culture meet. 2d ed. New York: Routledge.

    Surveys the main approaches and methods of pragmatic instruction, and presents hands-on activities and ready-made lesson plans for classroom instructors.

  • Roever, Carsten. 2022. Teaching and testing second language pragmatics and interaction: A practical guide. New York: Routledge.

    Presents curricular guidance and practical advice on teaching and assessing pragmatic competence based on research evidence, with a substantial focus on interaction and discourse in pragmatic competence.

  • Taguchi, Naoko. 2015. Instructed pragmatics at a glance: Where instructional studies were, are, and should be going. Language Teaching 48.1: 1–50.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0261444814000263

    A comprehensive synthesis of instructional studies in L2 pragmatics, illustrating different methods of instruction and effectiveness of those methods.

  • Taguchi, Naoko. 2022. Teaching and learning pragmatics. In Handbook of practical second language teaching and learning. Edited by Eli Hinkel, 499–512. New York: Routledge.

    Presents instructional approaches to teaching three dimensions of pragmatic competence: knowledge of form-function-context mappings, interactional competence, and learner agency.

  • Takahashi, Satomi. 2010. The effect of pragmatic instruction on speech act performance. In Speech act performance: Theoretical, empirical and methodological issues. Edited by Alicia Martínez-Flor and Eso Use-Juan, 127–144. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

    A comprehensive survey of instructional intervention studies teaching speech acts.

  • Thomas, Jenny. 1983. Cross-cultural pragmatic failure. Applied Linguistics 4.2: 91–109.

    DOI: 10.1093/applin/4.2.91

    A classic paper illustrating key dimensions of pragmatic knowledge—pragmalinguistics and sociopragmatics—and how lack of these knowledge dimensions may lead to pragmatic failure.

  • Young, Richard. 2019. Interactional competence in L2 pragmatics. In The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition and pragmatics. Edited by Naoko Taguchi, 93–110. New York: Routledge.

    A seminal paper presenting the concept of interactional competence and its role in pragmatics learning and development.

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