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How To Teach The Language Of Opinions

Teaching the language that students need in order to give and ask for opinions, rather than just asking them to do so.

I think it is fair to say that most language learners are asked to give their opinion much more in class than in the rest of their lives. This is true of British and American education – with formal debates and essays giving your own opinion being common in secondary education and the beginning of university but almost non-existent in real life – but even more so in “communicative” EFL settings. I am in the fairly typical position of being someone who has never taken part in a debate even in English. However, I have asked students who have never debated in L1 to do so in class in L2. The “standard” way of doing a reading or listening always ends with discussion questions about what they read or heard, and face-to-face meetings are even more common in Business English textbooks than they are in life (emailing, teleconferencing and online collaboration being much less common in class than in real life).

One possible reaction to all this would simply be to use more of a range of ways of speaking in class, e.g. more personal questions and extended speaking tasks, to keep the number of opinions given and asked for down. There are, however, plenty of good reasons for asking students what their opinions are:

  • Students like being asked for and giving their opinions (probably precisely because they don’t have that opportunity to do so outside the classroom, especially in some cultures or for some parts of society such as women or younger people)
  • It is in exams such as IELTS Speaking Part Three and FCE Speaking Part Four
  • It can be tied in with lots of other things, e.g. cultural topics (e.g. “Agree which of this advice for visitors in your country is up-to-date or how acceptable or unacceptable things are”), learner training (“Give your opinions on these self-study techniques”) and spoken grammar (e.g. “Agreed” and “Couldn’t agree with you more” but not “Agree”)
  • It is an easy way of adding speaking to almost anything

Given the usefulness and ubiquity of asking for and giving opinions, it is surprising how little time textbooks dedicate to the language learners will need in order to do so – and students certainly need some teaching because even in Advanced classes they will generally happily say “I think…” and “I agree” (if not “I am agree”) for an entire lesson if not pushed to expand the language they use.

What students need to know about the language of opinions

Books which do give some space to the language of opinions tend to mainly give alternatives to “I agree”, “I disagree”, “I think…” and “What do you think about…?” These are certainly useful, given that in English we don’t like to repeat words and expressions and that some of these such as “I disagree” are not common outside second language contexts. I have found, however, that telling students this is not always enough to get them to use “You are quite right”, “I’m not sure I agree”, “In my opinion…” and “What are your feelings on…?” once their focus is off the language and back on “winning” the debate. What they need in order to argue their position is by no means limited to agreeing and disagreeing anyway, and language that they have perhaps never been taught or practised intensively like suggesting compromises is one of the areas that tend to stick better than “I am in agreement”. This is also true of opinion phrases that are actually different in meaning such as “I was with you until you said…” or “The logical consequence of what you are saying would be…” Although how often they are used outside classrooms is debatable, colourful idiomatic expressions like “Off the top of my head…” and “No kidding!” also tend to be quite memorable.

Here are the things students will need to know in order to fully take part in an exchange of opinions (in no particular order):

  • Strong and weak language (e.g. strong and weak agreement)
  • Informal and formal language
  • Polite language (e.g. polite disagreement and indirect questions for asking opinions)
  • Collocations
  • Supporting their arguments (e.g. giving examples, giving personal experience, giving statistics, quoting, giving reasons, explaining consequences, and predicting)
  • Suggesting compromises or areas of limited agreement
  • Typical mistakes to avoid (e.g. “I am agree” and “How do you think about…?”)
  • Cultural differences
  • Idioms/fixed expressions (e.g. “You took the words right out of my mouth”)
  • Sitting on the fence/being non-committal
  • Showing changes in position/view
  • Weighing up different views
  • Constructing long or complex arguments (e.g. “There are three main reasons why I am against this”)
  • Replying to long or complex arguments (e.g. “In reply to your second point”)
  • Turn taking, e.g. interrupting and responding to interruptions
  • Asking for clarification
  • Clarifying
  • Pausing for thought
Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub | August 2012
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.

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