How To Teach Requests
Presentation and practice of polite requests in communication inside and outside the classroom, including typical student problems.
Requesting is perhaps the most important of all functions to teach, because it is used often and in all situations (restaurants, emailing, telephoning, etc) and varies a lot from language to language. Politeness is also more important for this point than for related functions like offering, and is easily confused with that and polite commands. For example, many students use please + imperative for requests in sentences like “Please give me a pen” and “Please get back to me as soon as possible”, sentences which should usually be actual request forms like “Can I have a pen, please?” and “Could you let me know as soon as you can?”
Common problems with requests
Please + imperative is often just translation from L1, but can also be due to confusion with offers. For example, students might think the offers “If you need any further information, please let me know” (so that I can help you) and “Please take a seat” (= “Help yourself to a seat”) are requests and so try to use those forms in requests.
Sitting down is a cause of further confusion, because there is also the form “Please sit down”, which is a polite command rather than a request because, for example, it will not be possible to start the speeches until everyone is seated. Although there is a thin line between requests and polite commands, “Please sit down” is quite different from the request “Can you take a seat over there?”, which is much more common and useful for students. This confusion can also extend to common emailing and telephoning forms, e.g. causing students to mix up “Thank you for your cooperation” (suitable for a memo politely telling people what they must do, e.g. when they must submit their travel expenses) with “I look forward to hearing from you soon” after a request. The other two most common confusions are using “want” and “give” in situations where more polite/formal language is needed.
Presenting the language of requests
Request forms that you might want to teach include, in approximate order by level:
- Can I/you…?
- Could I/you…?
- I’d like…, please.
- Could I/you possibly…?
- May I…?
- Do you mind…?
- Would you mind…?
- I’d be very grateful if you could…
- … if it’s not too much trouble.
- Do you think that you could…?
- Would it be possible for me/you to…?
- I was hoping you could… (for me)
- I could do with some help with…
- You don’t mind…, do you?
Which forms you present depends partly on what kind of English you want to teach. For example, in British English “Can I/you…?” is a standard form that can be used in the majority of situations, including when “Could I/you…?” might be more suitable in American English. Perhaps for that reason, “May I…?” is used for more polite requests in American English, whereas in British English it is only used to ask for permission (causing me amusement when my adult students ask me if they may go to the toilet). Very polite requests in British English tend to use very long and indirect forms like the “if it’s not too much trouble” structure above.
The other things students will need work include intonation, stress (e.g. lengthening the word “possibly” to make it even more polite) and how general rules of politeness (e.g. the longer the better) work with requests.
Perhaps the easiest and most useful way to present “Can you…?” etc is to give students useful classroom requests like “Can you write it on the whiteboard, please?” and “Can I borrow a dictionary, please?” very early in the course and expect them to use the whole correct requests. With young learners you can also do requests like “Can I go to the toilet, please?” and “Can I have a blue colouring pencil, please?”, and I’ve found it particularly important in these classes never to let them get away with “Pencil, please” in case that sticks forever. With any classes, having students using these forms for weeks or months before you need to actually present the form is obviously invaluable and can make explaining the function of the phrases unnecessary.
With higher level classes, students could classify conversations or phrases by politeness or function (e.g. dividing up requests and offers, requests and asking for permission, or requests and polite commands), then try and work out the general differences between them. If they have no idea about those distinctions yet, they will need other clues such as intonation, formality of the other language used, or situation in which the language is being used to help them classify and analyse the language.
Classroom practice of requests
As with presenting the language, the most obvious and often the best context for practice is classroom communication. A nice way of doing this more intensively than usual is to have an activity during which students can ask you for help as long as they use suitable requests phrases. For example, if students are asked to label objects in the classroom with Post Its, allow them to ask you (maybe a limited number of) questions such as “Could you tell me how to spell table, please?” and “Could you tell me what this is called in English, please?”
Students can also work in pairs or small groups to set each other challenges using similar language, e.g. “Can you tell me what this in English?” with pictures from previous units of the textbook. They can also ask each other to do things in the classroom, e.g. “Could you bring me a blue book, please?” and “Can you move the magnets, please?” There are several ways of setting this up as a game, e.g. the requester and the granter both getting points if they do it (and perhaps recall what it is later with language like “Juan moved the magnets for me”), the requester trying to find things that the granter can’t do, or the granter trying to find excuses not to do any of the things that are requested.
A similar activity can be played with requests in other situations by giving students blank pictures of kitchens, offices, etc and asking them to draw things in that match their partner’s requests.
There are also many games that can be played with “Can I have…?”, some of which start with real classroom communication. The simplest is for the teacher to give a clue as to what flashcards or realia they are holding (e.g. “They begin with C”, “They are machines” or showing the lumps in a bag caused by the plastic fruit inside), and giving that thing and so a point if students can guess what it is and ask for it with a suitable request. With realia and young learners, this is more fun if you ask them to hold all the realia you give them, taking them away if they drop any.
Students can also play similar games in pairs, asking each for objects or cards with “Can I have…?”, for example in the card game Happy Families or after passing things around a circle while other people try to keep track of where they are going.
Students can also ask for letters or words to make words or sentences for points, perhaps also allowing them one extra request each time they successfully do so.
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.
Kathleen Gray says:
Thank you for this thoughtful description of some of the issues and topics related to teaching polite requests. I enjoyed reading it. It’s always interesting teaching this topic. I want to point out one slight misconception I think I perceive in your description of the difference between Americans’ use of “May I go to the toilet” (actually we would say “restroom,” not toilet!) and the British use of “Can I” in that situation. Specifically, in America we have usually been taught that “can I” means “am I able to?” — so “Can I go to the toilet?” means to the sticklers among us “Am I able / do I know how to go to the toilet?” — which causes US amusement! We assume you know how to go — the issue is, is it appropriate to go right now? So “May I” means “Is it ok with you? Hope I’m not interrupting class or something.” So it isn’t really a case of “May I” being more polite, but rather of “May I” being more precise! Thanks again for this thoughtful description and all your posts.