Lesson Plan for Teaching Compliments


High intermediate level, adult ESL students


4 lessons, 40-50 minutes per lesson


handouts adapted from Manes & Wolfson (1981), Billmyer (1990), Dunham (1992)


To raise learners' awareness about pragmatic rules
To increase learners' input and opportunities to observe native English speakers' pragmatic behavior
To assist learners in expressing themselves better through speech act sets

Rationale of this approach

Complimenting is a tool of establishing friendship that creates ties of solidarity in the U.S. culture. It also is an important social strategy in that it functions as an opener for a conversation and allows meaningful social interaction to follow. Neglecting to give compliments may even be understood as a sign of disapproval, and the inappropriate use of compliments may cause embarrassment and even offense. The speech act set of compliments has highly structured formulas with rather simple linguistic structures. According to Manes and Wolfson (1981), 85% of the native utterances contained one of the three simple sentential patterns; the great majority of compliments included the most common five adjectives (nice, good, beautiful, pretty, and great) and two verbs (like and love) (pp.117-120). Despite this relative linguistic simplicity of the form of compliments, the act of complimenting is not as simple.

Prior to the instruction, I consulted eight ESL textbooks to investigate how they taught pragmatic behavior. Although innovative ideas can be found especially in recent textbooks, it was still impossible to identify an approach that highlighted the cultural nature of complimenting, required learners' initiative in observing the linguistic and pragmatic rules, and exposed learners to authentic input, thus stimulating their motivation. In planning classroom activities, I incorporated some textbook ideas into Billmyer's (1990) and Dunham's (1992) method of classroom instruction about compliments and replies to compliments.

As a result, I assigned learners to collect examples of naive speakers' complimenting interactions. This procedure, if adopted for every speech act, may be time-consuming and impose too great a burden on the learners. However, this student involvement seemed to have been a stimulating starter which gave learners insights regarding a whole set of unfamiliar pragmatic rules.


Day 1

I. Introduction

  • General warm-up and introduction to pragmatics

  • Introduce the concepts of compliments and flattery. Teach related vocabulary (e.g., compliment/butter up/apple polish).

  • Present a sample dialogue of complimenting between instructors.

  • Initial inventory. Have students individually work on the pre-instruction inventory to investigate their initial pragmatic level. (The inventory asks the following questions:
    1. How often do you hear people complimenting each other in the US?
    2. What do people say and how do they respond to compliments in the US?
    3. Do you give and/or receive compliments in English? Are you always comfortable with the way you exchange compliments in English? If no, when do you feel uncomfortable and why?
    4. What do people say when they give and receive compliments in your country? Provide a literal translation of some examples.
    5. What do people compliment others on?
    6. Who is more likely to exchange compliments?)

II. Student research

  • Introduce the framework of Manes and Wolfson's research (p.120, 1981) (85% of 1200 compliment data consists of first three sentential patterns, 97.2% consists of nine patterns). (See Teachers' Resource).

  • Practice complimenting in pairs

  • Motivate students to do data collection themselves in order to compare compliments and responses used today around their school with those reported in earlier research. Students should collect 3-5 compliments and responses by sincerely complimenting three native English speakers, and jot down the interactions immediately after the each conversation. If students collect compliments by means of a tape recorder rather than note taking, they may need permission from the speakers. They may also need help transcribing their data. Teachers will probably want to look over the transcriptions before they are distributed to the class. [Editors' note: this activity works especially well at the beginning of the semester when students are visiting each other's dorm rooms and admiring the new rooms. This results in rather homogenous content, however.]

Day 2

III. Awareness of Contextual Variables and Practice

  • Discuss the most common 9 sentential patterns from Manes and Wolfson, and have learners identify some of the sentences from their own data

  • Discuss contextual variables (gender, role, age, and relative status), and have learners analyze their own transcribed data with regard to such variables

  • Discuss sincerity in giving compliments and have learners decide the appropriateness of their own transcribed interactions

  • Role-play of good examples between learners and practice complimenting in pair.

IV. Pragmatic Insights: optional homework

  • Assign Handout 4 as homework and give written feedback. The handout includes excerpts about positive values of mainstream Americans from Wolfson and Judd, Sociolinguistics and Language Acquisition (pp.113-114,1989) and questions about the reading such as: Does this positive value of being slender apply to both men and women in the U.S.?/Would it be all right to say "You've lost some weight, didn't you?" as a compliment? What's the possible danger?

Day 3

V. Responses to Compliments

  • Model short exchanges (Handout 5) between instructors, elicit learner's observation of each interaction, and teach four self-praise avoidance strategies (downgrading the compliment, questioning the compliment, shifting the credit away from themselves, and returning a compliment) (Billmyer 1990, p.36) as deflect types of responses from which learners can choose

  • Share some good transcriptions by the learners (see homework assignment in IIB above) and have the whole class identify the responding patterns

  • Practice giving and responding to compliments in a mingling activity. Students form two concentric circles, each facing a partner. One compliments the other, who responds. The outer circle rotates and each student finds a new partner and repeats the process, and switch roles after practicing sufficiently.

Day 4

VI. Compliments as a Conversation Opener

  • Model the conversation on Handout 6, have learners highlight topics, point out the rapidly shifting topics, and identify another function of complimenting: a conversation opener

  • Have learners practice in pairs opening a conversation with a compliment and develop it

VII. Closing and Relating to Other Functions

  • Have students complete the post-instruction inventory individually. (The inventory asks the following questions: 1) Write down an imaginary compliment interaction as you would say it. 2) After studying about compliments, how do you feel about giving and receiving compliments in English? 3) Did the classroom information help you to feel more comfortable with giving and receiving compliments?)

  • Show a list of other functions of language and have students indicate their interests in such acts. (This can be done as the final question of the inventory: 4) Are you interested in learning about other functions of English? Check the ones you are interested in: greetings, thanking, inviting, refusing invitations, requests, apologies, congratulating, offering condolences, addressing people.)

Description of Some of the Activities

Initially, learners individually worked individually on the pragmatics inventory (Handout 1). In class discussion, learners then shared with their perspectives about complimenting behavior in the U.S. and their native countries. In this discussion, their varying expectations and cultural differences became evident. In my classes, for example, Asian learners were shocked by the frequency and explicitness with which Spanish speakers give compliments in their cultures; Arabic speakers fascinated the others with the way they respond to compliments in their language. Also, some learners guessed that people of higher status were more likely to receive compliments. Since this did not correspond to the findings in Manes and Wolfson (1981), it helped to motivate learners to conduct their own survey in complimenting behavior.

In the following stage, learners collected samples of native speakers' compliment and response interactions and studied them to see whether their own findings conform to those by Manes and Wolfson (1981). Each learner collected at least three compliments and responses by listening to native English speakers or by sincerely complimenting them, and jotted down the interactions immediately after the each conversation. This combination production and data collection activity encouraged learners to use compliments in real life, and to observe and analyze native speakers' utterances. In terms of varying response types, these data were generally good models, being rich in variety. Since compliments can also be easily and naturally initiated by learners, students practice the speech act set with native speakers within the natural course of conversation. Some learners even continued the use of compliments beyond the classroom instruction. Although a few learners reported awkwardness in conducting the survey, they generally enjoyed experimenting and learned the importance of being sincere in giving compliments. This initial learner involvement was intended to raise learners' pragmatic awareness, provide authentic linguistic input, and create a learner-centered class.

After compliments themselves were investigated (see Steps I-III), learners completed an optional worksheet on cultural values as reflected by compliments (see Teacher Resources).

In an attempt to attain the second objective of multiplying learners' input, findings from learner-collected data and good transcripts were shared in class and speaking exercises were conducted during Steps III, V, and VI (see Procedure).

In the first speaking exercise in pairs, the focus was on giving compliments whereas responding to compliments is emphasized in the second. In this activity, learners practiced both giving and receiving compliments. They formed two concentric circles, facing a partner. The students in the outside circle looked at their partner and tried to find some nice quality to compliment them on and gave a compliment. The students in the inside circle responded to the compliment. The circles moved over by one person, the students changed partners, and repeated the exercise. When they had completed the circle, they switched roles and went around again. Students were advised not always to accept compliments, but to express themselves in the most comfortable way using the learned deflect strategies such as downgrading, questioning and shifting credit. This activity functioned as a good springboard for even more learner-initiated practice since learners started complimenting each other for pleasure before and after the class time. After studying a function of complimenting as a conversation opener in Step VI (see Procedure), learners also practiced initiating a conversation with compliments, extending the topic and sustaining the conversation.

Reflections and Alternatives for EFL contexts

The inventories that students complete before and after the unit can be very informative for the teacher (and students) and can serve as a gauge of learner involvement and interest. In the classes that I have taught, students created compliment interactions that were fairly short, whereas after the instruction, their compliments and responses were longer and rich. After instruction, their dialogues also reflected a variety of compliment response types. In contrast to the initial dialogues in which learners tended to accept compliments merely by saying "thank you", they seemed to have acquired a variety of responding expressions and particularly preferred deflect types, questioning, shifting credit and downgrading, as well as the simple acceptance of a compliment. Having various tools of communication allows learners to respond at their own level of comfort, in this case deflecting compliments rather than simply accepting them. This is further supported by the fact that in the post-instruction inventory, many of the learners reported that they felt good about giving and receiving compliments and that it was important to learn how to do it. Compared with their responses to the pre-instruction inventory (Step I), where fewer than a third of the learners reported that they were comfortable with compliments in English and two-thirds were not, the newly acquired knowledge and skills may be considered the tools with which they express their feelings freely and comfortably. In summary, this instruction contributed to the learners' pragmatic awareness, increased their linguistic and pragmatic input, and improved their comfort and confidence level. Most students indicated strong interest in learning other speech acts such as refusing an invitation, apologizing, giving condolences, and making a request. Thus, learners' understanding of giving and receiving compliments assisted in their broader interest in pragmatics.

Due to the nature of the task, teachers may have to control some of the variables: for example the gender of the complimenters, age, or environment. The advantage of having the learners observe speakers of their own gender, age, and status as students, does, however have the advantage of offering language models from similar speakers.

Teaching this unit in EFL contexts would require some changes. Instructors may use TV dramas and feature films so that learners can observe scripted complimenting interactions in context. The use of technology may also allow learners to interview native English speakers. With the use of e-mail or chat features, learners would be able to ask how native English speakers would give and receive compliments. The data from this study can also be shared with EFL classes. Joint instructional projects by EFL and ESL teachers might enable learners to collaborate on gathering and analyzing data in two entirely different contexts at the same time.

Teacher's Resource

Compliment Formulas

Top 3 compliment formulas (Manes and Wolfson 1981, pp. 120-121)

  1. NP is/look (really) ADJ (Your blouse is really beautiful; Your hair looks great!)
  2. I really like/love NP (I really like your dress; I love your new apartment)
  3. PRO is (really) ADJ NP (That's a really nice rug.; That's a great looking car)

An additional six formulas

  1. You have such beautiful hair.
  2. What a lovely baby you have!
  3. Isn't your ring beautiful!
  4. You (really) did a good job!
  5. You (really) handled that situation well!
  6. Nice game!

Compliment Response Formulas

(Billmyer 1990, p36)

Responses to compliments

Respose types

A: That's a nice shirt you are wearing!


B: Well, I just got it in Target, though. It was pretty cheap



A: You did an excellent job yesterday, Jim! I really enjoyed your presentation.


B: Do you really think so?


A: Oh, yeah, it was fabulous.



A: I love your clock. It looks great in your living room!


B: Thanks. A friend of mine brought it to me from Oregon.

shifting credit


A: Y're lookin good!


B: Thanks. S're you!


Compliments as Conversational Openers

A & C = daughters
B = mother

A: That's a nice sweater, mom.
B: Thanks.
C: It really is very nice. Where did you get it?
B: I got it at Second Time Around in exchange for the red bag.
A: Oh, you got rid of the red bag?
B: Yeah, well, what else was I going to do with it?
A: But it was a gift from Jenn.
B: I know, but that's okay, she wouldn't mind. We've used it enough.
C: Speaking of Jenn, how's she doing, I wonder. We haven't heard from her much these days, have we?
B: No, not much, which doesn't surprise me, since she's gone on a whale-watching tour off the coast. She must be traveling in Canada by now.
C: Oh, really? I never knew that! How did I miss such news?
A: You never knew that? Oh, that's right! You were out of town on business the last time she stopped by. Now was it when you were in New York or Chicago?

Giving and Receiving Compliments

Positive Values of Mainstream Americans
(N. Wolfson & E. Judd, 1983. Sociolinguistics and Language Acquisition)

1. Being slim has strong positive value among mainstream speakers of American English, and the adjective thin (e.g., "You look thin") is interpreted as complimentary in itself in this society. That this is very definitely not the case for speakers from other societies around the world is often a cause of some confusion, and even insult, when nonnative speakers are the recipients of such remarks. Favorable comments on the attractiveness of one's children, pets, and even husbands, boyfriends, wives, or girlfriends seem to fall within this category, as do compliments on cars and houses. (p. 113)

Question 1. Does this positive value of being slender apply to both men and women in the U.S.?
Question 2. Would it be all right to say, "You lost some weight, didn't you?" as a compliment? What's the possible danger?

2. It is useful for nonnative speakers to know, for example, that the quality of newness is so highly valued in this society that a compliment is appropriate whenever and acquaintance is seen with something new, whether it is a car, a new article of clothing, or a haircut. The fact that the new appearance may be due to an alteration (such as a new hairstyle or the loss of weight) as well as to a purchase leads us to conclude that the true importance of the comment lies in the speaker's having noticed a change, thereby proving that he or she considers the addressee worthy of attention. (p. 114)

Question 1. Do you agree that newness is highly valued in the U.S.? What about in your country?
Question 2. What would be an example of the "new appearances"?

Exercise: Giving and Receiving Compliments

For the next few days, pay attention to any compliments that you give, receive, or overhear and jot them down on your notepads. Observe carefully the circumstances in which these compliments were given and received in terms of role, gender, status, and other factors. Fill out the following form and then decide whether or not the interaction was appropriate.





Other info



Jodi: That’s a nice sweater!

Noriko: Oh, you like it?

Jodi: Yeah, that’s a nice color.

Noriko: Thanks!









Sincere/ appropriate

Interaction 1 (2 and 3)









Billmyer, K. (1990). "I really like your lifestyle": ESL learners learning how to compliment. Penn Working Papers in Educational Linguistics, 6(2), 31-48.

Dunham, P. (1992). Using compliments in the ESL classroom: An analysis of culture and gender. MinneTESOL Journal, 10, 75-85.

Manes, J. & Wolfson, N. (1981). The compliment formula. In F. Coulmas (Ed.), Conversational Routine: Explorations in Standardized Communication Situations and Prepatterned Speech (pp. 116-132). The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton Publishers.


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