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Teaching ESL Students How to Make Requests in English

By Heather Marie Kosur

Requests are the expression of needs and desires. Politeness theory, as hypothesized by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, accounts for the different ways that a speaker may frame a single request. This ESL lesson plan teaches English language learners about making requests in English.

Positive Politeness

Begin by talking about making requests with positive politeness strategies. Positive politeness is a collection of politeness strategies that address the positive face of the addressee. Positive face stems from a desire for approval and confirmation and refers to the need of a person to be approved of by others. Positive politeness strategies include the following:

  • Attending to the needs, wants, or desires of the addressee
  • Using in-group markers to express solidarity
  • Being optimistic
  • Seeking agreement or avoiding disagreement
  • Offering or promising
  • Joking

For example:

  • You're a wonderful cook. Make me something to eat.
  • Bring me some tea, sweetie pie.
  • Please call me at noon.
  • You wouldn't mind opening the window while you're up, would you?
  • If you make dinner, I'll wash the dishes.
  • Wash your hands before eating, or you'll die a terrible death!

Negative Politeness

Follow up by defining and providing examples of making requests with negative politeness strategies. Negative politeness is a collection of politeness strategies that address the negative face of the addressee. Negative face stems from the need not to lose self-respect or self-esteem and refers to the need of a person not to be distracted or imposed upon by other. Negative politeness strategies include the following:

  • Being conventionally indirect
  • Using hedges and other mitigations
  • Apologizing
  • Minimizing the imposition or distraction
  • Being pessimistic

For example:

  • Would you pass the salt?
  • You could wear a suit to the interview.
  • I'm sorry, but you need to move your car.
  • If it's not too much to ask, please email this report to the Dean.
  • You wouldn't want to give me a ride to the airport, would you?

Modal verbs are a frequent feature of negative politeness strategies.

Bald On-record Requests

Next, explain making requests baldly and on-record. Bald on-record requests are straightforward and direct requests that do not seek to address neither the positive face nor the negative face of the address. In English, bald on-record requests are made through the imperative mood without any positive or negative politeness strategies. For example:

  • Shut the door.
  • Have the report to me by tomorrow morning.
  • Stop complaining just to complain.
  • Eat you vegetables.
  • Wash your hands before eating.
  • Don't forget to finish your essay.

Off-record Requests

Finally, describe making requests off-record. Off-record requests are indirect requests that eliminate the potential for the speaker to impose on the addressee by allowing the addressee to draw an implicature from the statement. Implicature is defined as what is suggested or implied in an utterance but not explicitly stated. Both off-record requests and their implicatures are context-dependent. For example:

  • It's hot in here. (Open the window.)
  • My car is in the shop. (Give me a ride.)
  • I really dislike chicken. (Serve a different meat instead.)
  • You look nice in blue. (Wear blue more often.)
  • Washing your hands before eating is recommended. (Wash your hands before eating.)
  • All reports are due tomorrow. (Finish your report by tomorrow.)

Off-record requests are the most difficult type of request for both native and non-native English speakers to understand because implicature is not always clear or easy to get.

Practicing Requests

After teaching the four ways of making requests in English, assign activities to the ESL students as practice. For example:

  • Writing practice: Have the students write one request using all four request strategies, e.g., Bake me a cake (bald on-record); Please bake me a cake, darling (positive politeness); You wouldn't mind baking me a cake, would you? (negative politeness); and I would really love a cake.
  • Spoken practice: Divide the class into small groups and have the students practice making and granting or denying requests orally, e.g., Could you open the window? Sure! or Please call me tomorrow. I can't; I'll be out of town tomorrow.
  • Identification practice: Provide the students with a list of requests and have them identify the politeness strategy used, e.g., Could you bring a dessert to dinner? → negative politeness.

Making requests is an important function of the English language. This ESL lesson plan provides the necessary information about the four English request strategies and some suggested activities for teaching how to make requests in English to ESL students.


  • Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Burt, Susan Meredith. 2010. Class lecture presented in Cross-Cultural Aspects in TESOL at Illinois State University, Normal, IL.
  • Mishoe, Margaret and Michael Montgomery. 1994. The pragmatics of multiple modal variation in North and South Carolina. American Speech 69(1).3-29.