The Internet TESL Journal

Teaching "How are You" to ESL Students

Brendan Daly
brendan_daly [at]
This article provides information about first topic initiation in casual conversation and presents a simple procedure for demonstrating and practicing appropriate responses when beginning conversations and initiating first topics.


EFL/ESL students commonly treat "How are you?" as a literal inquiry about their health and there is a tendency to give an overly 'honest', but inappropriate, reply. That is to say the fundamental intent to convey general sociability, rather than specific meaning, is lost. Moreover, EFL/ESL student soften do not know how to initiate a first topic immediately after "Howare you?" as evidenced by the uncomfortable silences that commonly occur after "How are you?" A number of factors can be seen to contribute to this delay, affective factors, such as shyness and fear of failure, linguistic factors, such as limited knowledge of relevant vocabulary and/or grammar, and lastly, a lack of experience. Indeed it is this very lack of experience that can limit exposure and with it access to the various conventions commonly employed when responding to "How are you?"

Like any other complex human endeavor, "How are you?" looks relatively straightforward when done by someone who has mastered the conventions involved and no longer has to think about what they are doing. However, for a non-native speaker getting past "How are you?" can be quite an ordeal.

As a language instructor, I have also found teaching "How are you?" to be time consuming and rarely as successful as I had hoped it to be. That was, until came across a very simple observation: whoever speaks first gets to initiate the first topic (Schegloff 1986).

Furthermore, conversation openings have been observed to follow a basic sequence structure that consists of a set of routine conventions (Schegloff 1986). Consider the following example:

Although this example is made up it serves to illustrate the very important point made above: the first speaker gets to initiate the first topic (Schegloff 1986). (Even if turns 1 and 3 and 2 and 4 are combined speaker A will still end up initiating the first topic.)

Obviously, natural responses to "How are you?" are not fixed, however, the variation that does exist also tends to be of a conventional nature. Schegloff (1986: 129) observes that there are three basic responses to "How are you?": positive (terrific) negative (terrible) and neutral (fine). In general, he observes, that neutral responses are preferred as they get through "How are you?" quickly (op cit: 129). On the other hand, positive and negative responses tend to 'open up' "How are you?" sequences; for example, if someone says they feel terrible when asked how they are, the person who asked the question will usually try to find out why (ibid).

However, as Schegloff (1986) points out, it is an oversimplification to consider responding to "How are you?" as a choice among A, B, or C; for example, speakers who are familiar with each other's style can recognise smaller subsets of these groups and a neutral expression like "Okay" can actually be heard as negative because it does not sound like something the speaker would usually say (op cit: 129). Beyond the words themselves prosodic features -- sound characteristics like loudness or duration of stress on a syllable, together with changes in the pitch of voice -- can also shape a response as neutral, negative or positive (op cit: 130).

As such, EFL/ESL students need to be made better aware of the dimensions of these natural, but conventional, variations in opening sequences.

However, classroom 'conversations' tend to be removed from real world conversation in which everyone has an equal right to speak. Moreover, students also have various expectations about the classroom, not the least of which is that the teacher tells them what to do. Therefore, as the right to initiate action is reserved for the teacher, there is a natural tendency for teachers to commonly be speaking first and to naturally initiate a first topic. Given this, students do not really get the opportunity to practice topic initiation.

One way around this problem is to approach instruction over several stages; direct instruction via an awareness raising activity, which is followed by an opportunity for student experimentation. Following pertinent feedback, students can be encouraged to mingle and further test out a variety of responses. Finally, students should be allowed an opportunity to report back on their experimentation.


Begin by eliciting a range of responses to "How are you?" in plenary. At this point it may also be useful to outline the nature of the exercise to establish its general direction and heighten student motivation.

Awareness Raising

Using a written example, similar to the one above, the teacher runs through a basic example of an opening sequences to highlight the basic principle that the first person to speak wins the right to initiate the first topic. (It may also be useful to show various permutations such as combining turns 1 and 3 and 2 and 4 in the example above to show that the first speaker still ends up with the right to initiate the first topic.)


Next, in small groups the class can group their responses from the warm up activity under positive, negative and neutral. In plenary, groups can report back and the whiteboard can be used as a focal point for the activity. This should afford an opportunity to explore any exceptions that arise. If no positive or negative responses were elicited in the warm-up this is also a useful stage to generate some.


Here, the students are allowed to circulate and practice doing opening sequences with neutral responses and then initiating a topic that is either teacher assigned or student generated. Once the students have been given an opportunity to report back and received appropriate feedback, they can be encouraged to test out replying to positive and negative responses and initiating a first topic. For more advanced students it is also possible to explore the prosodic features mentioned above.


Initially in small groups and then in plenary, students compare and contrast positive/negative responses to "How are you?" with neutral responses. When students are encouraged to critically observe the replies to their positive and negative responses, and if the first speaker notes what happens to the topic they had planned to initiate when they are placed in a situation where they have to reply to a positive or negative response, then this kind of empiricism, with its promotion of critical thought, can facilitate the onset of competence.

Getting past "How are you?" felicitously is the first step towards opening routines that allow students to smoothly move on to initiate a first topic. Hopefully, the exercise presented here provides language teachers with a practical activity to develop language learners ability to handle this most ordinary of human interactions.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XI, No. 3, March 2005