How to Teach Reported Speech for ESL Students

Before we talk about how to teach reported speech in ESL, let’s get to the bottom of what should be your very first question: What is reported speech?

Also known as indirect speech, reported speech is used to report what a person said. As opposed to direct speech, reported speech requires that you follow specific sequence of tenses while delivering the speaker’s message.

In this article, we are going to explain the teaching methods that you can use for teaching reported speech statements to your ESL students.

Teaching Reported Speech in The Present Simple

First of all, you should teach your students how to report speech in present tense. This is the simplest way to teach speech, so it is the best starting point for getting familiar with indirect speech.

Ask your students to tell what they typically do on weekends by using the present simple tense. You can start with yourself, for example, “I spend time with my family.” Write down a couple of examples on the board.

On the other side of the board, convert those statements into reported speech, for example, “Sophie says she spends time with her family.”

Now show the students what happens when the “say” verb is used in the past. In this case, all tenses should “take a step back in time”, e.g. present simple changes to past simple. For instance “Sophie said she spent time with her family.”

Ask the students to convert the remaining statements into indirect speech with the sequence of tenses in mind.

Teaching Reported Speech in The Past Simple

Now you should demonstrate your students the sequence of tenses for past simple in reported speech.

Ask the students to tell what they did last weekend by using the past simple tense. For example, “I went shopping with my friend.”

Write down a couple of examples on the board.

On the other side of the board, convert those statements into indirect speech, for example, “Melanie said she had gone shopping with her friend.”

Explain the students that now the past simple “takes a step back in time”, e.g. changes to past perfect.
Encourage the students to convert the remaining statements into ESL reported speech with the sequence of tenses in mind.

Teaching Reported Speech in Other Tenses

Now you can explain what happens to other tenses when direct speech is converted into indirect speech:

Present continuous becomes past continuous.
Past continuous becomes past perfect continuous.
Present perfect becomes past perfect.
Past perfect remains the same.
Past perfect continuous remains the same.
Will becomes would.
Can becomes could.

For each tense, you should introduce a context or specific situation. For example, for “can”, ask the students to give examples of things that they can do. E.g. “I can play football,” becomes, “Matt said he could play football.”

Practicing the ESL Reported Speech

There is a wide range of fun ESL activities and exercises that can help your students remember all rules related to indirect speech in a fun and engaging way.

Check out our article about fun ESL activities.

Here are some examples of games to practice reported speech

Dialogues from movies, cartoons, and TV shows

In the classroom, play an abstract of some popular movie, cartoon, or TV show with some fun dialogue and ask the students to convert this dialogue to reported speech statements.

Comic strip gaps

Give the students some comic strips with gaps in place of speech bubbles. Working in pairs or groups, the students work try to figure out what the characters are saying. Then each pair should report the speech of the comics’ characters. Please note that each pair or group should get a different comic strip.


Bring to the class some celebrity magazines or print out new articles from the internet. The students should act as journalists and report the speech of celebrities. For example, “Prince William said he was going to become a father again.”

Paper planes

Each student should write some fun fact on a piece of paper. Then the students should fold their papers as airplanes and fly them towards the middle of the classroom. After that, each student should pick up the plane that landed next to them, unfold it, read the fact and report it as if it was said by the plane. For example, “My paper plane said that is was fun to learn English.”

What did they ask you?

Tell the students to think of a list of people who might ask them questions: a police officer, a teacher, a taxi driver, etc. Then each student should report something that someone asked, without revealing who it was, e.g. “This person asked me where I wanted to go.” The other students should guess that it was a taxi driver: “A taxi driver asked you where you wanted to go.”

How Do You Teach Reported Speech?

Obviously, reported speech isn’t the first thing you’re going to teach new students, but in time, it would come up. How would you go about teaching it?

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section.

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