Teaching Reporting Verbs to ESL Students

Published: 08th March 2007
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The most common verbs we use to report what someone says are "say" and "tell". These are the verbs which students learn first when they learn reported speech. These are fine, of course, but there will come a time in your students' learning when they want to use other verbs to more accurately report what someone says. We use many different reporting verbs in English, and the way we use them in a sentence varies, for example:

Verb + gerund: James denied taking the money.

Verb + preposition + gerund: They apologized for arriving late.

Verb + infinitive: Susan promised to work hard.

Here's an effective way to teach some of these different reporting verbs, while at the same time practising listening and speaking.

First, you need a short story with a lot of dialogue. Your characters need to do the things that we use reporting verbs to report! They need to promise, offer, beg, encourage, threaten, suggest, apologise, and so on. The number of these things that they do depends on how many of these verb forms you want to teach.

Here's a story I often use:

7 year old Adam was leaving school one afternoon when he saw a group of older boys, aged 8, smoking.

One of them, Chris, said 'Hey, Adam, have a drag of this'. What did Chris do? (offer)

'No, I don't want to', Adam replied. What did Adam do? (refuse)

'Go on. It's really good', said Chris, and then Trevor said 'I smoke 5 a day.' What did Chris do? And Trevor? (encourage / boast)

'Go on. You'll like it and you can join our gang', said Chris.

'Well, OK then', said Adam. What did Chris do? And Adam? (persuade / agree)

Adam coughed and coughed and he felt sick. On his way home he stopped to buy some mints to get rid of the smell. But when he got home Mummy was waiting for him and she gave him a big kiss.

'Adam. You've been smoking!' she said. What did Mummy do? (accuse)

'No, I haven't.' What did Adam do? (deny)

'Tell me the truth Adam.'

'OK, I did smoke, but only a little.' What did Adam do? (admit)

'Adam, if you ever smoke again I'll tell Daddy.' What did Mummy do? (threaten)

'No Mummy, please don't tell Daddy. I'm really sorry. I'll never smoke again.' What did Adam do? (beg / apologise / promise)

'OK, Adam. You shouldn't listen to those naughty boys. Now, why don't you go upstairs and do your homework?' What did Mummy do? (advise / suggest)

Notice that after each part of the dialogue there is a question. Each of these questions requires a different reporting verb for the answer. So, the answer to the first question, "What did Chris do?" is "He offered Adam a cigarette". The answer to the next one, "What did Adam do?" is "He refused to smoke", and so on.

Here's how to use the story in your class:

1. Make a worksheet with only the questions written on it, and some space underneath each one for students to write their answers.

2. Read the story once or twice for gist, having the students answer some general comprehension questions (How old are Adam and Chris? What did Adam try for the first time? etc.)

3. Hand out your worksheet and tell students to answer the questions as they listen again. If you want to make it a little easier, write the verb you want them to use next to each question, as shown in the story above.

4. Read the story again, stopping after each question to allow time for students to write their answers.

5. Feedback the answers, correcting as necessary and writing the reporting verbs on the board in columns, each with a heading:

verb + infinitive

verb + gerund

verb +object + infinitive

verb + that

verb + object + preposition + gerund

verb + preposition + gerund

For a full list of the verbs in each category, have a look at http://www.eslbase.com/grammar/reporting-verbs

6. Read the story once or twice more, asking individual students to give you the answers orally as you progress through the story. They should be able to do this now without referring to their worksheets.

7. Finally, hand out the story complete with dialogue, questions and answers, so that your students will have the verbs and their rules in an easy-to-remember context.

To practise these reporting verbs, you can set up a role-play activity. Divide the class into groups of 4 or 5 . Write each verb on a small piece of paper and give 3 or 4 to each student. Tell them that they are friends who share a house, but they have been living together for some time, and their habits are starting to annoy each other. They are going to have a house meeting to discuss their grievances! If a student has slips of paper with, for example, "deny", "accuse" and "apologise", (s)he must deny doing something, accuse someone of doing something and apologise for doing something.

Model the activity first with a couple of students: "Mario, you're always leaving your laundry on the floor." "Elena, if you don't stop playing loud music at 2am, I'll throw your stereo out of the window." Ask the students what you said. (You accused David of leaving his laundry on the floor. You threatened to throw Elena's stereo out of the window.)

Now it's the groups' turn. Give them a few minutes to gather their thoughts, and then tell them to start their meeting. Nominate a stronger student in each group to act as the "chairman" of the meeting if you like.

After ten minutes or so, or when the conversation is dying down, stop the activity and ask the housemates to report back to the class on what happened at the meeting, using the reporting verbs.

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