Tips and ideas from Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield on teaching reported speech.


Reported speech is a very rich grammar area to teach because:

  1. It can involve considerable manipulation of form.
  2. It’s a very easy piece of grammar to locate and exploit with texts.

The activities here are divided into different kinds of drill, ways of exploiting texts and analysis.

At it’s most basic, you can simply read out a sentence and ask the students to rephrase it beginning with He said …/She said… For example:

  • T: I don’t like it.
  • Ss: He said he didn’t like it.
  • T: I hate it.
  • Ss: He said he hated it.

This can be made a little more interesting in the following ways:

Activity: Chain reports

Version 1
The following activity is a variation of the well-known 'broken telephone'. Whisper a sentence in English to a student. That student then whispers it to another and so on until the last student has to say aloud what was said originally.

Version 2
If the above seems too easy, ask students to alternate reported speech/direct speech. If they hear it in reported speech they put it back to direct speech and vice versa. For example:

  • T: I like it.
  • S1: He said he liked it.
  • S2: I like it.
  • S3 …

Activity: I didn't get that. What did she say?

This is a quick question drill. Ask a student a question. After they answer, ask another student what was said. For example:

  • T: Tomas, how did you get to class today?
  • S1: I came by car.
  • T: Sorry, I didn’t get that. Yvonne, what did Tomas say?
  • S2: He said he had come by car.
  • T: Thanks.

Activity: Mingle

Prepare a series of cards/slips of paper, each with a different sentence. Here are some examples:

I’m sorry I’m late.
These canapés are delicious.
What time is it? I don’t have a watch.
Excuse me, I’m looking for my husband/wife.
Do those canapés have meat in them? I’m a vegetarian.
I have a PhD from Harvard.
Do we know each other?

Remember me? We met at last year’s party.

Create enough cards so that each student has one. You can repeat the same sentences on other cards.

Explain that you want the students to role-play the following situation. They are all at a very formal cocktail party. Everybody must circulate and talk to each other. The trick is they must say what is on their card and as little else as possible. If you have a CD player or cassette player in the classroom, you could play some quiet music in the background during the mingle.

After five minutes (or however long it takes for most students to have spoken to each other) tell everyone to sit down again. Ask people to report back on what other people told them, using reported speech.

Activity: Text clarifications

This is another teacher-led activity that also focuses on listening skills. It uses an oral text generated by the teacher. For this activity you need to prepare the following:

  • a short anecdote (2 minutes long) related to the topic that you are already doing in class (e.g. if you are doing holidays, make it about holidays);
  • four or five sentences that contradict things in your anecdote.

Write the sentences on the board. Read them out to the students. Now explain that you are going to tell a story, but that some of the facts in the story are different. The students must listen carefully. When they hear a fact that is different from those on the board, someone must interrupt you and seek clarification, using the following structure:

Excuse me, but didn’t you say that …? (include what you had said earlier, the facts that are on the board).

Here is an example: T writes on the board:

  • I live in a big house.
  • I’m married.
  • I don’t have any children.

The teacher reads out the sentences and then she gives the instructions for the activity. She begins the story:

  • T: Well, the other day I was in my flat. It’s a small flat in the city centre …
  • S: Excuse me, didn’t you say you lived in a big house?
  • T: Ah yes, I did say that. So, it was in my big house. My boyfriend was at work …
  • S: Excuse me, didn’t you say you were married?
  • T: Of course. I’m married, I meant to say my husband was at work and the baby was crying …
  • S: Excuse me, didn’t you say you didn’t have any children?
  • T: That’s right. It isn’t my baby, it’s my sister’s baby.

Activity: Reported interviews

For this activity, search around the internet for an interview. This kind of activity works best if the interviewee is someone that your class is interested in, or at least someone they have heard about.

  1. Select some of the interview from the webpage and paste into a word document. Make copies for every two students in the class. In class, divide the students into pairs.
  2. Distribute the interview and ask them to work together and make a reported version it.
  3. Give them a word limit (150 words). When they have finished their draft report, have them swap reports with another pair. Ask them to reduce the report now to 100 words. Circulate and help.

Activity: Reporting back – famous interviews

In this activity, students create the interview themselves. Divide students into groups. Tell the groups that they must do the following:

  1. Decide on a famous person (living or dead) who they would like to interview.
  2. Nominate ONE person in that group to be the famous person.
  3. Once groups have nominated their famous people ask those people to come up to the front and form a new group.
  4. Explain that the famous people are all on a panel to be interviewed by the class, who are journalists.
  5. Give the journalists some time to think of questions. During this time the famous people can talk about what they are going to say.
  6. When the journalists are ready, begin moderating the interview by asking for questions.
  7. Once all the famous people have answered the questions send them back to their original seats.
  8. Now ask everybody to write a report with at least two things they remember from the interview. They should include examples of reported speech in their report. Ask students to compare their reports in pairs.
  9. Circulate and help. At the end, ask different pairs to read out their reports.

Activity: The news

Prepare for this activity by going to a news website and looking around for short news stories with examples of reported speech. Don’t worry about not finding any, there are usually lots.

  1. Select examples of these texts and create a small worksheet. First, ask students to read the excerpts and tick the stories they already know about.
  2. Then ask them to speculate as what the direct speech was. Tell them to write in direct speech the reported speech. They can add more detail if they like.
  3. At the end, have different students read their quotes and ask the others if they can see what story it came from.

Activity: Shades of meaning 1

The choice of whether or not to 'backshift' the tenses in reported speech often has to do with the reporter’s interpretation. You can ask students to compare the meanings between two examples of reported speech (minimal pair sentences).

For example:

He said he’s hungry. vs He said he was hungry.
She said she would come. vs She said she will come.

See the section on tense choices in reported and reporting clauses for further examples that you could use and explanation of the differences in meaning.

Activity: Shades of meaning 2

You can also do the above exercise with examples from the news stories. Give the example and ask students to speculate why the tense was chosen. For example:

Hamish Hamilton and The Rude Corp claim that Madonna owes them $175,000 (£91,000) in directing and production fees.

Why not … that Madonna owed them …?

Activity: What I think and don't think

This activity is a dictation activity. Prepare some sentences that are opinions on a certain topic that you’ve covered recently in class. There should be a mixture of affirmative and negative sentences. Here are some examples on the topic of ART for an intermediate class (some of these are stronger opinions – you may want to change them to reflect your own opinion).

  • A lot of modern art isn’t very good.
  • Art galleries are great places for conversation.
  • There aren’t many famous painters from my country.
  • Graffiti isn’t art.
  • Art shouldn’t be only for rich people.
  • Some art is worth far too much money.

Explain that you are going to dictate these sentences, but that the students must write down a report of each one beginning with The teacher thinks … or The teacher doesn’t think … (see grammar explanation on negatives in reporting for when to use which stem). The above sentences would give the following:

The teacher doesn’t think a lot of modern art is very good.

The teacher thinks art galleries are great places for conversation.

Ask students to compare their answers in pairs, and then decide if they agree or disagree with you. Ask different groups to report back and have a short open class discussion.

Activity: Reacting to the news

Prepare a series of slips of paper each with a sentence beginning You’ve been asked to… or You’ve been told to… Prepare a mixture of good and bad things. For example:

  1. You’ve been asked to work next Saturday morning.
  2. You’ve been told to not drink any more wine.
  3. You’ve been asked to present an award at a film festival.
  4. You’ve been told to go the principal’s office.
  5. You’ve been asked to participate in a television show.
  6. You’ve been told to stay in bed for three weeks.

Pre-teach common social expressions for reacting to good or bad news, for example:

  • That’s great!
  • Congratulations!
  • That’s good news
  • That’s too bad.
  • Oh dear. Oh no.
  • That’s terrible!

Distribute the slips of paper to the students and ask them to read them silently. Then tell them to move around the class and 1) tell other students what they’ve been asked or told to do. 2) react to what other students tell them.

As a follow-up, you could ask them to work in groups and transcribe what they think was probably originally said.

Activity: Conspiracy theories

Prepare a small handout with the following 'claims' on it.

Moon hoax? It is said that Neil Armstrong didn’t walk on the moon.

Elvis lives? It’s claimed that the singer Elvis is still alive today.

UFOs and the US government? It’s believed that the American government knows, and is hiding, information about extraterrestrials.

Think of four or five other conspiracy claims that you could add (you can add local ones too). Include one or two which are more 'believable' than the others (maybe even true ones). Write them in a similar style (i.e. headline, then the sentence stem It is claimed/said/believed that …). Make one copy of this handout for every three or four students in the class.

Divide students into groups and give each group a card. They must read the card and then assign a score (0 to 5) to each theory 0 = we don’t believe this at all to 5 = we believe this is true. Do some feedback at the end, then collect the handouts. Ask students to try and rewrite from memory what the theories were, paying attention to the reporting structure.

Activity: Drill sergeant

This is another simple drill for reporting orders. Explain that you are going to be a drill sergeant: you are going to give four different students orders and then ask someone to report back what was said. Give short simple orders to different students in a brisk, sergeant-like voice. For example:

  • Put down your pen!
  • Listen to me!
  • Pick up your bag!
  • Answer your mobile phone!

The students must carry out the orders. Once you’ve given orders to four students, ask a fifth: What did I just say? The fifth student must report the orders (e.g. You told Maria to put down her pen, you told Giovanni to listen to you.). If they can do it correctly, they become the drill sergeant.


This is a drill but with a role play element (that of being the sergeant) – to make the role even more effective you could use a prop, like a ruler or some kind of stick to wave around. You then give the prop to the next drill sergeant. Make sure nobody gets hit with the prop though!

Activity: things I was asked/told to do

To provide more practice in reporting structures with ask/tell, ask students to make a list of things they were asked or told to do in different situations. For example:

  • when they were a child
  • when they first started learning English
  • in their first job
  • on their first day at school/university

Tell students to compare with each other once they have written their lists. Then ask different students to report back.

Activity: Survivors mingle

This is a group role play, where students imagine that they have survived a plane accident and are stranded on a desert island. Prepare a series of cards/slips of paper, each with a different suggestion for the situation. Here are some examples:

  • We should just wait for someone to come and find us.
  • Why don’t we explore the island?
  • Let’s get wood for a fire.
  • We should all stay together. There are dangerous animals around here.
  • I think you and I should try to escape together.
  • Let’s build a boat.
  • We should try and fix the plane.

(you can make your own. Begin with Why don’t we… Let’s …. We should…)
Create enough cards so that each student has one. You can repeat the same sentences on other cards.

Explain that you want the students to role play the situation described above (to make it more 'real' you could elaborate on the story of how they got there). Everybody must circulate and talk to each other. They must say what is on their card and as little else as possible.

After five minutes (or however long it takes for most students to have spoken to each other) tell everyone to sit down again. Ask people to report back on what other people told them, using one of the following reporting verbs: suggest, advise or recommend.


Here is a variation which lets the students choose more of the language. Set up the scene, then give the students the sentence stems: Why don’t we … Let’s …. We should … and ask them to write a suggestion. Give them one of the above as an example. Then continue the activity.

Activity: Election pledges

To practise the structures following verbs like promise and offer, you can ask students to imagine they are speechwriters for a candidate for President or Prime Minister of their country. They must prepare a very short speech. You could give them the following outline to help:

  • I know that …
  • So I promise to … and to …
  • If we are elected, my government pledges* to …
  • My opponent has promised to …
  • But we all know that …
  • Together we can …

* pre-teach pledge – it has the same reporting structure as promise, or offer

Students can write this in groups. Then have different students read out their election speeches. Who is the most convincing?