Teaching Polite Requests : Part Two

In Part One of this article, I looked at how native speakers might make polite requests in a variety of situations, and the reasons why non-native speakers sometimes sound too brusque when doing the same thing : lack of any “face-saving” sequences, inaccurate intonation, and choice of an exponent which is too direct for the situation. I also looked at the factors which might influence the choice between a direct request and a more tentative one. I concluded by suggesting that the dilemma we face in the classroom is that the structural complexity of the exponents often means that we want to concentrate on them in isolation, but the social complexity of the situation means that, if we do so, we are encouraging the too-direct approach that we want students to be able to avoid. This article outlines a lesson With a test- Teach-Test format for an intermediate level class which takes this dilemma into account.


The Ss will :
  • Revise already known exponents for polite requests (request, agreement, refusal)
  • Know how to preface the request with a “face-saving” pre-sequence, and be able to decide if it is necessary to do so.
  • Know how to refuse requests in a “face-saving” manner, and be able to decide when it is necessary to do so.
  • Use the structure would you mind (not) V+ing to make polite requests


Students have already met :
  • Various exponent used to make and respond to requests including Can/Could you …, Do you think you could …, Yes certainly and I’m sorry, but
  • The expression I don’t mind to express lack of displeasure
  • Would + infinitive used to make hypothetical predictions. (1)


The first part of the lesson revises previously known exponents and focuses on the potential need for “face-saving”. This type of lesson, where students are simply extending their communicative range, is ideal for what is known as the Test-Teach-Test approach. In this approach students complete a task using any language they can, and this is then followed by a focus on how they might have improved their performance, including by incorporating new language.

Activity Sequence

a) Test

1) PW : Students roleplay five situations (see the materials below), drawing on their previous knowledge of the language to do so.
2) Full class follow up : the Teacher asks various pairs to enact the situations in front of the class. What they say is written up on the board, grammatical and lexical corrections are made if necessary but no attention is paid to intonation or discourse structure.

b) Teach (Presentation / Controlled Practice)

3) Full class : The students listen to a recorded version (2) of the first situation (asking for a favour) and compare it with their own. The teacher points out and does repetition practice of the pre-sequence, the exponent used (Do you think you could…), and the intonation, explaining why they are necessary and the possible effect of the students’ own versions.
4) PW : The students then repeat situation 2, attempting to build into it the features just focused. Again, one pair enacts the situation in full class follow-up before the students compare what they said with what was on the recording.
5) Full class : The teacher then draws attention to the next situation (asking for a service) and asks students if they want to modify their initial version and why/why not. The recorded version is used to confirm that this time the more direct approach is appropriate.
6) PW : The students then repeat situations 4 (a service) and 5 (a favour), deciding for themselves how direct they should be.
7) Full class : This is then compared as before with the recorded version. The request exponent in situation 5 is Would you mind + Ving. The teacher writes up and explains the structure (3).


a) Situations :
1. Your neighbour (who’s a very nice man) has parked his car in front of your garage, and you can’t get out. Ask him to move it.
2. You’re at work. Your printer isn’t working and you need fifty copies of a report for a conference tomorrow. Ask a colleague in another office to print them out for you.
3. You’ve just bought some petrol, at a garage. Ask the attendant to check the oil for you.
4. You’re in a hotel. There’s only one blanket on your bed and you’re cold. Phone the housekeeping department and ask them to bring you another one.
5. You are going on a business trip, but the date keeps changing. The office which makes the travel arrangements has already changed your flight and hotel bookings three times. And now you have to ask them to do it again.

b) Dialogues :
1. Hi Dave, how are things? / Oh, not so bad. You? / Fine … Erm, the thing is – I have to go out and your car is parked right in front of my garage. I’m sorry to bother you, but do you think you could move it? / Oh, of course. I didn’t realise … I’ll do it immediately. I’m sorry.
2. Ellen, I’m really sorry but my printer’s not working and I have to make some copies of the IBN report for the conference tomorrow. I’m sorry to be a nuisance but do you think you could print them out for me? / Oh, I’m sorry Pauline. I’m afraid I’m already late for a meeting. Why don’t you ask John? He’s free. /OK. Thanks
3. Unleaded petrol please. Fill it up. Oh, and can you check the oil please? /Yes, sure.
4. Housekeeping. / Oh, hello. This is room 673. Could you bring me another blanket please? / Yes, certainly. At once.
5. Sheila, I am really sorry to have to ask you this, but they’ve changed the date of the Paris meeting again./ What, again?/ Yes, it’s on the 6th now. I’m sorry, but would you mind changing the flight and hotel bookings again. / OK. Leave it with me.


This stage moves through receptive exposure to productive practice. It also introduces and practises the negative request.

Activity Sequence

Teach (Controlled practice/Extension)

1) Full class : Repetition of the target structure. Substitution drilling using the first four situations from stage one – the request only, not the full conversation.
2) Full class : The teacher hands each student a card with containing an “anti-social” command. For example : Sit on Giulia’s desk / Open the door / Walk around the room / Whistle a song / Put your books on Belem’s chair / Draw on the board / Put your bag on my desk/ etc. Once the students are carrying out the action, the teacher starts making requests : Ali, would you mind closing the door. Philippe, would you mind moving your books off Belem’s chair etc. As the teacher makes the request, each student “obeys”. Towards the end (4) start introducing negative requests : Birgit, would you mind not putting your feet on the desk? Mika, would you mind not whistling? etc.
3) PW : With a partner the Ss try and remember, and write a list, of all the requests made by the teacher. Full class follow up : the teacher elicits the requests, writes them up and corrects and explains as necessary.
4) PW : The students are given a list of situations and, with a partner, decide and write the request (not the complete conversation) they would make, using Would you mind …. Full class follow up.


Situations :
1. You’re not feeling very well. Interrupt a colleague in a meeting and ask her to tell your boss (Paul), who is out of the office at the moment, that you’ve gone home.
2. You share an office with a colleague who always listens to the radio while she works. Today you’re trying to write an important report and you can’t concentrate. Ask her to turn it off.
3. Your sister always comes to dinner on Wednesdays, but today you’ve got a really bad headache and don’t want her to come. Ask her.
4. You’re in a meeting. One of the other participants interrupts you every time you start to talk, and it’s really annoying you.
5. While you were on holiday your company installed a new programme on all the computers. You don’t understand how it works. Ask a colleague to show you.
6. You’re in a hotel. The TV isn’t working. Ring reception and ask them to send someone to check it.


This stage asks the students to combine the new structure with what they have learnt previously.

Activity Sequence

Teach (Consolidation)

1) Listening : At this stage of the lesson you could usefully insert a listening comprehension activity, taken from any book you are using, which includes the language which has been focused on up to this point. See note 3 below for one suggestion.


2) PW Roleplay : The students should work with a different partner from the one they worked with in Stage 2/4. They choose three situations (more if time allows) from the list they worked on in 2/4 and roleplay them fully. The teacher monitors noting appropriate and inappropriate versions.
3) Full Class Follow-Up : The teacher writes up mistakes from the inappropriate versions, and asks the class to correct them. S/he then asks various pairs who provided appropriate versions to enact them in front of the class.


1. If students understand this use of would, then the literal meaning of would you mind can be made clear. If they have not yet met this use, then it can be taught as a fixed phrase or translated into their own language to explain the meaning.

2. There are three possibilities here : a) if you’re using a textbook which contains suitable recorded dialogues, use those; b) write your own, similar to the ones included here but suitable for the needs of your own students, and record them with a colleague; c) if you can’t use a recording, you can act them out for the students yourself.

3. An example of a dialogue which would be suitable comes from Unit 6 of International Express Intermediate, Liz Taylor, OUP. The tapescript for this dialogue is available on the OUP website.


Brumfit, C. Communicative Methodology in Language Teaching, Cambridge