Lesson Plan for Teaching Compliments


High intermediate level, adult ESL students


Approximately 300 minutes (e.g., Six class meetings for 50 minutes each)


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


  • To raise learners' awareness about pragmatic norms
  • To increase learners' input and opportunities to observe various 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 other English speakers' complimenting interactions. This student involvement seemed to have been a stimulating starter which gave learners insights regarding a set of unfamiliar pragmatic norms.


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 other English speakers, and jot down the interactions immediately after each conversation. If students collect compliments by means of an audio 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.]

See Sample Handout 1: Data Collection & Language Analysis: Compliments and Responses

Day 2

III. Awareness of Contextual Variables and Practice

  • Discuss the adjectives used and the most common nine sentential patterns from Manes and Wolfson (1981), 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. If the student data contains pragmatic uses of various varieties of English that are not typical in mainstream English, the class can make use of this opportunity to discuss cultural backgrounds of the speakers, the contexts in which the expressions may cause confusion or misunderstanding, and possible rephrases to make them less misleading.

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

IV. Pragmatic Insights: optional homework

  • Assign the following homework and give written feedback or make this a class discussion. The activity can be based on excerpts that focus on different cultural norms with regard to compliments or responses to compliments. For example, excerpts about positive values of mainstream Americans from Wolfson and Judd, Sociolinguistics and Language Acquisition (pp.113-114, 19183) can be followed by discussion questions 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?

See Sample Handout 2: Culture-Focused Discussion

Day 3

V. Responses to Compliments

  • Present short exchanges, elicit learners' observations 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) as deflect types of responses from which learners can choose (Billmyer, 1990, p.36).

  • Share some good transcriptions by the learners 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  (see Ishihara & Cohen, 2010; Ishihara, 2010 for the image and an alternative set-up).

Day 4

VI. Compliments as a Conversation Opener

  • Model or show a conversation in which conversation is sustained and developed through compliments and responses. 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.)

For more information and modifications of this lesson, see Ishihara (2004, 2010), Ishihara & Cohen (2010).


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.

Ishihara, N. (2004). Exploring the Immediate and Delayed Effects of Formal Instruction: Teaching Giving and Responding to Compliments. Minnesota and Wisconsin Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, 21, 37-70.

Ishihara, N. (2010). Compliments and responses to compliments: Learning communication in context. In A. Martínez-Flor & E. Usó-Juan (Eds.), Speech act performance: Theoretical, empirical and methodological issues (pp. 179-198). Amsterdam, the Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Ishihara, N., & Cohen, A. D. (2010). Teaching and learning pragmatics: Where language and culture meet. Harlow, England: Pearson Education (reissued in 2014 by Routledge).

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.

Wolfson, N. & Judd, E. (1983). Sociolinguistics and language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.


<< Return to Compliments

CARLA Mailing List Signup Contact CARLA CARLA Events Donate to CARLA CARLA on Facebook CARLA on YouTube Twitter
Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) • 140 University International Center • 331 - 17th Ave SE • Minneapolis, MN 55414