Even if you’re thinking about becoming an English teacher, it’s possible that you’ve never before heard about direct and indirect speech. That’s because using direct and indirect speech is something we do naturally as native English speakers, so we don’t think about it much. However, in ESL, direct and indirect speech can be a tricky concept.

You might be looking at your curriculum, especially if you are teaching English as a second language (ESL), and you see that you have to teach direct and indirect speech. What do you do? First, you need to learn the difference between the two types of speech. Then, you can start formulating ideas on the best way to teach direct speech.

The first thing you need to know to teach direct and indirect speech is that both are used when the speaker tells someone what someone else said. Sometimes, this is called “reporting,” so you might run into texts where indirect speech is called “reported speech.” However, if you’re talking about writing, like in a short story, novel or memoir, you should use the term "indirect discourse" or "indirect narration" instead.

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What Is Direct Speech?

Direct speech is when speakers report what someone else said just like he said it. They don’t change anything about what they heard when they transmit it to the next person. If the speaker is writing, he would do so by including quotation marks. Here is an example:

Direct speech: My teacher said, “You should do your homework before you come to class.”

However, when we speak naturally, we don’t always talk like this. Sometimes direct speech can sound very formal. That is because native English speakers and others who are well-versed in our complex language’s tones and idiomatic expressions often use indirect speech when we’re talking with our friends and in other relaxed settings.

What Is Indirect Speech?

Indirect speech is when speakers report what someone else said but change it a little by putting it in their own words without changing the original speaker’s meaning. The reason people paraphrase like this is usually to make the reported speech fit in grammatically with the rest of the sentence. The effect is a more fluid, seamless way of speaking, which is what makes indirect speech sound more casual and less rigid than direct speech. Here is an example:

Direct speech: My teacher said, “You should do your homework before you come to class.”

Indirect speech: My teacher said I should do my homework before I come to class.

Notice how these two sentences both say essentially the same thing, but the context changes the meaning. If the speaker said the direct speech example out loud, it would sound like people in general should do their homework before class. However, the indirect speech example clarifies the meaning by making it clear that the teacher was addressing only the speaker. This example shows that sometimes English speakers can make an idea clearer by paraphrasing it with direct speech.

Key Words to Help You Teach Direct and Indirect Speech

The best way to teach direct speech as well as indirect is to start by defining key terms. This will help your students talk about the concepts you are presenting. Having this vocabulary and knowing what to call each part of the sentence that you’re talking about will help them form a more thorough comprehension of this complex concept.

Here are the key words your students need to know:

  • Reporting Speech: The part of the sentence that introduces the quoted or paraphrased speech. In writing, this is called a dialogue tag. “My teacher said” is the reporting speech for both examples.

  • Reporting Verb: The verb that is part of the reporting speech. “Said” is the reporting verb for both examples.

  • Reported Speech: The part of the sentence that is quoted or paraphrased. In writing, this will usually be dialogue. “You should do your homework before you come to class” is the reported speech for the direct speech example, and “I should do my homework before I come to class” is the reported speech for the indirect speech example.

  • Reported Verb: The verb that is part of the reported speech. In indirect speech, the tense of this verb may change to fit the grammatical structure of the sentence. “Do” is the reported verb for both examples.

The Rules for Changing Direct to Indirect Speech

Some parts of speech change in the reported speech when you’re using indirect speech. At first, this may all seem like complicated formulas that your students need to memorize, but that really isn’t the case. As long as they remember that they’re changing the grammar of the reported sentence to fit into the one that’s reporting it, they should be able to make the changes themselves without referring back to a long list of rules.

Change Pronouns: Change the pronoun in indirect speech to reflect who is speaking. For example, if you’re reporting the speech of someone who was talking about herself with the first-person pronoun “I,” you will need to change the pronoun to "she." The reverse would be true if you’re quoting a speaker who is talking about you. However, if you’re both talking about someone else, nothing changes.

Change Verbs: Make sure the verb tense itself still matches the original speech being reported. The main way that verbs will change is to reflect the changes in pronouns. Here is an example:

Direct speech: My sister said, “I love swimming.”

Indirect speech: My sister said she loves swimming.

How to Teach Direct and Indirect Speech

There are several ways to teach direct speech. Most teachers stick to a textbook-based model. However, studies have shown that textbook-based learning isn’t the best approach.

Students remember almost everything better if they have to use it. That’s why lessons that require active participation are advisable. Lessons that require creative synthesis are even better.

If you want to make sure your students remember how to use both direct and indirect speech in their speaking and writing, create a lesson that will make them create something. Some students enjoy writing stories, while others might like putting on a small play that they have written. You have a lot of options, but whatever you do, make sure your students have fun.

An ESL Direct and Indirect Speech Lesson

The best way to teach direct speech to ESL students is to start by giving them definitions of the words. After that, develop a lesson that moves from worksheet or textbook-based lessons to interactive conversation.

For this type of ESL direct and indirect speech lesson, you will either need to find worksheets or make them. The worksheets should include fill-in-the-blank sentences that will guide students toward mastery. If your students are struggling, starting out with multiple-choice questions will help as well.

After they complete the worksheets, give them a fill-in-the-blank conversation that they can complete in the same way. Have them read the conversation like a script. After they master this step, they should create conversations on their own that use both direct and indirect speech.

Things Needed

  • Book
  • Chalkboard or whiteboard
  • Handout

About the Author

Rebecca Renner is a teacher and college professor from Florida. She loves teaching about literature, and she writes about books for Book Riot, Real Simple, Electric Literature and more.