I’ve been doing a lot of presentations on pragmatics recently and thinking about how to teach students real-world communication skills in English. The problem is that in the classroom we often communicate at a very literal and direct level. Outside the classroom, we don’t! We leave things unsaid, assume knowledge on the part of the listener, even exaggerate or outright lie! We also use idiomatic language, fixed expressions, and deictic expressions, language that take their meaning from context.

And maybe the hardest group of deictic expression is “insider expressions” when we talk to people. These are expressions that people in a particular group will understand, even though outsiders might not. You probably have slang that only your family uses, inside jokes that refer to events only your friends experience, even technical terms that are used only at your company. These kinds of expressions are helpful to communicate more quickly. They also bond the group together because if you understand them, you’re part of the group! And of course often these expressions are jokes or refer to funny incidents. In college, we used to say “Do you like stuff?” when someone said something awkward, referring to a time a guy actually asked that question to a girl he liked!

But often in our teaching materials, dialogues are written to be very clear. When speakers discuss a topic, they introduce it fully and give all needed information. So students may be unprepared for a dialogue like this:

Two teachers having a conversation about their new class lists. One says the other will have a hard time because he has a student named Adam, who is one of THOSE students!
Have you every had one of those students?

We don’t know what “those students” means exactly. But we can tell a few things from the dialogue:

  • “Those students” are bad students-note the negative reaction of the second teacher, “Oh no!”
  • “Those students” probably aren’t too bad. The first teacher is laughing suggesting amusement, not concern.
  • The laughter also tells us that the teachers probably get along well. In these situations, that kind of amusement is often a bit teasing, and you don’t tease casual acquaintances.
  • We also know most teachers have behaviors they don’t appreciate, but it will vary from teacher to teacher and school to school! They might be students who are always late or who dominate the class discussion or who never do their homework.
  • And of course, we know that teachers often complain about students as a way of letting off steam so the use of a term “those students” may be more about bonding and laughing than about actually disparaging students!

So there’s a lot going on here beyond the words on the page. I’m sure if we heard this conversation, there’d be a lot going on with intonation, body language, and facial expressions too. And in fact, we could change one word and turn “those students” from bad to good. If the second teacher said, “Oh yeah!”, we’d know they were talking about a student who is hard-working or insightful or a quick learner or is kind and helpful! The dialogue that follows would probably be all about praising Adam and sharing all the great things he does in class!

Deictic Expressions Activities

So how do we help students learn how to deal with deictic expressions, particularly insider expressions? By exposing them to input that is not always direct and literal. Here’s one way:

  1. Take a script of a play, movie, or TV show and find a scene with a few of these expressions.
  2. Have students underline them and figure out as much as they can about the meaning.
  3. Watch the scene, if possible, and have them use body language and intonation cues to supplement their understanding.
  4. Then give them the full context and have them discuss how their understand was correct or incorrect.

Because the meaning of deictic expressions by definition relies on context, students can’t just memorize them. However, they can build their analytical skills and learn to read the context, and use other clues to make a good assumption. And that’s what we’re doing in real-world communication half the time any way!

You can also check out all our drama resources for ELT, including theater games, a guide to reader’s theater, short plays, and books of drama activities! Get dramatic in the classroom in a good way!

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