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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

He said, she said… How to teach reported speech effectively

How to teach reported speech TESOL

The structure and meaning of reported speech in English is notoriously difficult to teach. Teacher training courses such as the Trinity CertTESOL tend to steer their new teachers away from it, and even the most experienced teacher can have issues getting to the heart of why we have different forms of grammar for different ways of reporting what someone has said.

For example, what is the difference between the following sentences?

  1. He says he’s finished the project

  2. He said he’s finished the project

  3. He said he finished the project

  4. He said he had finished the project

All of these sentences report the same original claim: ‘I’ve finished the project’, so why do we have so many ways of reporting this?

The notion of ‘speaker distance’

The main reason behind the changes in grammar which happen here is subjective to the person reporting the statement. If the ‘reporter’ feels that there is some distance between the moment of reporting and the original moment of speaking, they are more likely to use past tenses in their report.

Here, ‘distance’ doesn’t mean physical distance, but how relevant or true the original statement is at the moment of reporting. Several factors can affect this notion of ‘speaker distance’, the most common being:

  • something has happened since the speaking event, which puts the report into a different, unconnected situation

  • The reporter doesn’t believe the original statement from the speaker, so wants to show this by adding past tense distance.

An example of the first reason would be:

Ned wants to ask a girl, Julie, out on a date, but doesn’t have the courage. He tells his best friend Jim ‘I’m going to ask her out today’.

That afternoon, someone asks Jim why ned looks so nervous. Jim replies: “He said he’s going to ask Julie to a romantic picnic this weekend”.

The end of the day comes, and Ned hasn’t asked the big question, so the next day, the same person comes up to Jim and asks “So what happened? Did Ned get a reply from Julie?”

Now that the original situation, where Ned was nervous and still in the ‘asking out’ situation, is over, Jim’s reply changes: “He said he was going to ask her out, but in the end he couldn’t do it”

The distance here comes in the cut-off point of the original situation (Ned not asking the question), which puts the reporter into a different situation. The original situation is ‘in the past’ as soon as that happens, and so the report changes its grammar.

After the weekend, further distance is put between the original speaking event and the report, as the weekend is finished, and it is no longer possible for Ned to ask Julie to the picnic then.

Planning to teach reported speech

Think of another example, where someone makes a claim that another person doesn’t believe. Think about the language that would be used in:

  1. The original statement

  2. A report of this by someone who believes it

  3. A report of this by someone who doesn’t believe it, and wants to show this with ‘speaker distance’

This is an effective way of planning out language for a class on reported speech, and keeps things authentic. Remember, the distance through the three levels of statement to report is shown through grammar which moves further into the past the more distance there is:

Present simple / continuous

…shifts back to Past simple / continuous

…shifts back to Past perfect simple / continuous

Other forms can also be ‘back-shifted’ in this way:

Will / can

...shift back to would / could

...shift back to would have / could have

So how can we bring this into a lesson?

As With any highly conceptual grammar point, the first step is to build a clear context in which to place the language you are teaching. As with the Ned / Jim example above, a lot of contextual information or story is required to set the scene fort the language effectively. The change of situation, or the unbelievable statement must be built up in a clear and engaging way.

Second, make sure you elicit the key reports at each stage of the story where the reporter speaks. The key question here is “what does he tell his friend?” This will prompt students to give you examples of reports that they think fit the situation, and which can be accepted or corrected.

Thirdly, another useful technique for conceptual grammar is to present the situation visually, perhaps on a timeline where the cutoff point between one situation and the next can be seen clearly. This will help students to ‘see’ the difference between the continuing situation and the reporting situation.

Finally, check that students are making all the changes necessary for their reported speech events. Check that the tense, verb form and pronouns are all different to represent the report accurately.

Once the situation, concept and form have been presented, why not play a game of ‘2 true, 1 lie’, where students share two true and one untrue story about themselves, and their partners have to guess which ones Are/aren’t true by using reported speech:

“You said you (original statement form) and I believe you”


“You said you (back-shifted statement form), but I don’t believe it!”

This will test whether students have grasped the concept and can apply the grammar in their own ideas in a meaningful way.

Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.

If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.



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