We can work on ESL Teaching Imperatives


For many students who use English as a second language (ESL), learning to read and write in English can be challenging. Huo and Wang (2017) stated that students learning English as a second language tend to read English differently compared to students from English-dominant societies. Learning English as a second language is important to enabling ESL students to effectively communicate, interact, and integrate with others. According to Murcia & Freeman (1999), there are three core moods of sentences; declarative, interrogative, and imperative. A declarative sentence (also known as a statement) is used to state an idea and it ends with a period. For example; The doctor is at the clinic. Declarative sentences are used more frequently compared to the other types of sentences. An interrogative sentence is used to ask a question and as such, it ends with a question mark. For example; Did the child go to play? An imperative sentence on the other hand is used to convey a command or request. However, it also serves various functions including conveying instruction/direction, advice/suggestion, warning, or forbidding an individual from doing something. This indicates that imperative sentences are important in writing and speaking English. Based on its delivery, an imperative sentence can end with an exclamation mark or a period (full stop) and in some cases with a question mark. Whereas imperative sentences may seem to have no subject, the implied subject is you. Currently, there are limited resources outlining the approaches that can be used to teach imperatives to ESL students. Moreover, the teaching materials are scarce. However, imperatives instruction in ESL classrooms is critical to help students communicate in a manner that can be understood. This term paper will focus on the practice of teaching imperatives in ESL classrooms. The key aspects to be discussed include; the history of imperative instruction, research on teaching imperatives, and the methods that can be used to teach imperatives in ESL classrooms.

Background of imperative instruction

English is an international language that is used by individuals all over the world. This is why English is used as the common language to teach students at many levels of school, from elementary school to tertiary level. For ESL students, learning English, especially the grammar aspect is critical to enhancing language learning. Luoma (2004) stated that to speak in a foreign language, students have to master its sound system, have access to appropriate vocabulary and exhibit the capacity to create sentences, understand what is being communicated to them, and be able to respond appropriately. Whereas ESL students can master to read and write in English, they often have difficulty speaking, especially with regard to the use of imperative sentences.

In order to explore the research studies done on teaching imperatives and the methods used to teach imperatives, it is necessary to outline the different types of imperatives as well as the functions of imperatives.

Types of imperatives

An imperative sentence refers to a sentence that expresses a command, request, instruction, warning, suggestion, or invitation. An imperative sentence does not have a subject. Commands, instructions, or directions are given to an implied person. When used in a sentence such as “Wash the utensils!”, the implied subject is commanded to wash the utensils. English is a language with type 1 imperatives, meaning that it can form two types of imperative sentences – positive imperative sentences and negative imperative sentences (Leszek, 1995).

Positive imperative sentences

These are sentences that use affirmative verbs to address the subject. Affirmative imperative sentences tell the subject the specific action to take. Positive imperative sentences are formed using the infinitive of the verb without the “to”.

Examples of positive imperative sentences include; “Close the door!”, “Call me!”, “Drop the child at school.”, or “Wait for me here, please.”

Negative imperative sentences

These are sentences that tell the subject to not do something. Negative imperative sentences often begin with the auxiliary verb “Do not” or “Don’t” or the negative form of a verb. For example, “Don’t come home late!”  or “Do not go to work today.”

Functions or implications of imperatives

Imperatives are verbs that can have different functions/implications based on their mood or intonation. The mood of an imperative sentence expresses the intention to influence the behavior and action of the listener (Imperatives, 2009).


In most cases, imperatives are used to give commands or orders. The key difference between commands and orders is that orders do not necessarily require a form of institutional authority (Searle & Vanderveken, 1985).  This means that one can order an individual to do something, without necessarily having institutionally-sanctioned power. According to Ingeish & Hassan, 2009), the issuance of a command requires the person giving a command to have power or authority over the addressee. However, in the English language, both commands and orders can be used interchangeably.

Example of a command: Open fire!

Example of an order: Get out at once!


Imperative sentences can serve the function of giving permission.

Examples include; “Come in”, or “Watch television if you like”

In addition to giving permission, imperative sentences can be used to grant a request (Wilson & Serber, 1988). For example;

John: Can I open the door?

Anne: Oh, open it then.

In this example, the imperative sentence used by Anne indicates that she has given John permission to open the door.


Advice refers to a form of a non-wilful directive in which one may be required to perform a certain action with the belief that it is a good idea (or of best interest to the listener). This means that compliance with the directive is beneficial to the addressee (Bach & Harnish, 1979).

Examples include: “Never speak to strangers!” Or “Get some rest.”, or “Avoid that brand.”


Instructions that are expressed by imperative are considered to be some of the directives. However, they differ from directives in that they do not necessarily require the subject to do something. Instead, they inform the subject on how to act or perform an activity (Bache, 2000).

Examples include;

Wash hair properly and rinse.Beat two eggs, add sugar and salt into the beaten eggs, and then mix them well.


Imperative sentences can be used to send good wishes.

Examples include: “Have a nice day.” or “Get well soon.”


The word please may be incorporated into commands to make the imperative sentence a request (Bache, 2000). A request is a directive that can be granted or denied.

Examples include: “Shut the door, please.” or “Please, pass the book.”

Research on teaching imperatives

Currently, there are limited research studies focusing on the teaching of imperatives. Drowning & Locke (1995) and Murcia & Freeman (1999) sought to explore the fundamentals features of an explorative sentence and according to them, the key feature of an imperative sentence is that it does not require an overt subject – that is, it requires no obvious subject noun phrase. The authors stated that imperatives only have verbs with base form. Pioneer grammarians referred to the underlying subject of an imperative sentence as “understood you”. This means that the subject of any unmarked imperative is the second person subject pronoun, you. When faced with imperatives that do not have a subject such as; “Come here!” or “Do not step on the grass.”, it should be noted that the speaker is addressing a second person (listener). Even though the imperative sentence does not have a subject, both parties (speaker and listener) are aware of who the subject is.

Eastwood (1999) and Thomson & Martinet (1986) stated that the word “DO” can be used in imperative sentences to indicate emphasis. The authors further noted that when placed before a verb in an imperative sentence, DO can be persuasive. DO in this case is a positive imperative

Examples include; Do be careful! or Do hurry!

Eastwood (1994) and Thomson & Martinet (1986) proceeded to illustrate the negative form of imperatives by incorporating the word “Don’t” + a bare infinitive. The authors stated that the presence of “Don’t” in an imperative sentence helps to indicate the negative implication of the imperative.

Examples include; Don’t invite him! or Don’t forget the key!

Other studies have been conducted to explore Let imperatives in English. The common forms of let imperatives include; Let us (Let’s), let me, and let them. LET US is referred to as an inclusive imperative (Collins, 2004). By using LET US (LET’S), teachers or speakers urge the listeners to act in a particular way or manner. For example; “Let us cooperate during this emergency” or “Let us not be distracted by the rumors”. Other functions of this imperative include expressing a decision that the listeners are expected to accept or make suggestions (Murcia & Freeman, 1999).

LET ME is a form of imperative in which the speaker is informing himself/herself what to do. For example, “Let me go over the notes again”.

LET THEM focuses on the third person. This form of the imperative is not commonly used in English. For instance, when referring to a situation in which voters are required to elect their government of choice, the imperative form of LET THEM is, “Let them decide”.

Stockwell et al. (1973) were of the view that let imperatives should not be considered true imperatives because they comprise first and third-person subjects. Most literature of the 1950s and 1960s held that imperatives must only have a second-person subject. However, Leszek (1995) argued that let imperatives are true imperatives. Using the examples of the imperative sentences “Let us go” and “Let him go”, Leszek (1995) indicated that these imperatives have an underlying second-person subject – us and him. To illustrate the presence of an underlying second subject, the author paraphrased the sentences as follows; “You allow us to go” and “You allow him to go”. When a question mark was added (as shown below), Leszek was able to demonstrate that the subject of the imperative was also second-person.

Let us go, will you?Let him go, won’t you?

Various linguists have stated that it is challenging for ESL students to learn the form, meaning, and application of imperative mood. Of the three (form, meaning, and application), form is considered less challenging because ESL students do not have to concern themselves with verb morphological issues such as tense and subject-verb agreement (Watcharapunyawong & Usaha, 2013). However, the clear distinctions among the different English imperatives require that teachers ensure that students receive adequate practice in using appropriately the different forms of imperatives. English teachers need to understand the interlingual difficulties faced by ESL students in order to help them make progress in English learning.

To avoid the risk of redundancy, it is recommended that teachers help ESL students to comprehend the form and functional association between imperatives and directives. This is because an utterance can become a command or request without taking the form of an imperative. Researchers have also indicated that students should be made to understand the different functions of imperatives apart from commands. Depending on the context, imperatives can function as directions, requests, suggestions, advice, warnings, threats, invitations, and prohibitions.

The concept of force exertion has been used to demonstrate how utterances can influence the interpretation of imperative sentences. Force exertion refers to the degree of force used by a speaker when uttering an imperative. Teachers should understand that force exertion is a critical feature of the imperative. Takahashi (2012) used three similar sentences (with the core imperative “Sleep until noon”) to illustrate how the degree conception of force affected the function of the imperative. The sentences include;

Sleep until noon; you are very tired.Sleep until noon and you will feel better.Sleep until noon and you will miss lunch.

The author stated that of the three sentences the force of the imperative was strongest in the context of the first sentence (a), mild in the second sentence (b), and absent or negatively exerted in the third sentence (c). The interpretation of sentence (a) is that the speaker had a strong intention of getting the subject to perform the designated action (to sleep until noon). Sentence (b) was classified as being ambiguous between a command and a conditional sentence. Sentence (c) was also interpreted to be ambiguous between a threat and a conditional sentence.  

Teachers can make the learning of imperatives to be fun and less stressful for students by employing games or role-play. For example, simple games such as “Simon says” can be used to learn and practice the form of imperatives. With regards to role-playing, teachers can give students situations in which they make a specific type of imperative such as a request, direction, or suggestion. The students’ partners will be required to accept only when the structure of the sentence and intonation are appropriate for the context. The use of these activities has been shown to enhance students’ practice of the different forms, meanings, and intonation of imperatives. Students also get to learn how to respond appropriately.

Methods of teaching imperatives

Method refers to the way of doing something – in this case, it refers to the approaches that teachers can use to teach imperatives to ESL students. The methods by which ESL students are taught imperatives should have some positive effect on their motivation. Appropriate teaching methods are important for teachers because the method of teaching can influence how students understand imperatives and thus exhibit success in using them in the English language. Various methods have been found to be effective in enhancing the teaching of imperatives to ESL students. They include; the total physical response method, using play games such as Let’s play and Simon says! and writing comic strips.

Total physical response (TPR) method

TPR method was developed by James Asher in 1965 to facilitate the teaching of imperative sentences to students of foreign languages (Asher, 1966). TPR is an approach to teaching language that is centered on the coordination of speech and action, meaning that it focuses on teaching language via physical motor activity. With this method, students can be helped to understand imperatives by using images, occasional words from the native language of students, and the teacher being as expressive as possible (Larsen-Freeman & Anderson, 2013). This helps students to feel comfortable and have fun while learning imperatives.

Asher created three hypotheses that govern the theory of TPR. The first theory is that the human brain has an innate biological program for learning any language and this is responsible for enhancing the ability of individuals to learn English as a second language. The second theory is premised on brain lateralization, meaning that the left- and right brain hemispheres have the capacity for different learning functions. The third theory holds that stress is a negative factor that interferes between learning and what is to be learned. This implies that the lower the stress, the greater the learning capacity. Therefore, an important condition for successful learning of imperatives by ESL students is the absence of stress.

The proponents of TPR argued that memory is increased when stimulated via association with motor activity. The process of learning English as a second language (including learning imperatives) can be stimulating because it is parallel to that of learning the first language. TPR is also referred to as a comprehension approach due to the significance it places on listening comprehension. According to Asher, listening comprehension that involves action and gesture makes it easy for students to engage in learning and memorize the concepts being taught regarding imperatives.

Procedures of TPR

To begin with, a teacher should create a conducive environment that eases tension and allows students to perform commands in front of their peers. It is necessary to encourage collective participation from the beginning of lessons. Teachers can then employ appropriate techniques that target imperatives through TPR. The techniques can be classified into introductory techniques and working techniques. Introductory techniques are simple methods used to introduce students to imperatives (including the types of imperatives and functions of imperatives).

Having made a clear introduction about imperatives, a teacher moves to the modeling phase. This involves issuing commands and engaging students to perform the activities associated with the commands (Terrel, 1985). Simple commands can be used in to enable ESL students to gradually understand imperatives. Examples of simple commands that may be used include; “Raise your hand!”, “Sit down!”, “Close your book!” Objects within the classroom environment are important and can be used to facilitate TPR techniques. For instance, a teacher can use commands such as “Point to a blue shirt.” or “Walk to the blackboard.”

As learning progresses, a teacher should ensure that students demonstrate a good understanding of imperatives and they can respond to the commands or instructions on their own. Teachers can proceed to introduce unfamiliar utterances of imperatives.

Once students have learnt to respond to the different forms of oral imperatives, they can be taught to read and write them. During the initial stages, teachers can plan imperative instruction to comprise about 70% listening comprehension, 20% speaking, and approximately 10% reading and writing. With time, ESL students develop competence with reading and writing imperatives. Teachers can then expand activities to include games and skits.

Advantages of TPR

TPR involves activities that can make it fun and enjoyable for ESL students to learn imperative sentences.

TPR is a memorable activity that enhances the ability of students to recognize the different types and functions of imperative sentences.

This method is suitable for classes with a large or small number of students. This is because the teacher can easily direct the engagement with students by using fun activities.

This method works effectively with mixed-ability classes due to the use of physical actions. The use of physical actions enables all the students to understand and apply imperatives in English.

Let’s Play

The second method that can be used to teach imperatives to ESL students involves engaging them in play activities. A teacher can use different pictures as prompts to practice imperatives that combine “Let’s + a verb). For instance, a teacher can use a picture with food and ask students to form imperative sentences that are associated with the picture. It is expected that students will produce responses such as “Let’s eat.” or “Wash hands before eating!”


Asher, J. J. (1966). The Learning Strategy of the Total Physical Response: A Review. The modern language journal, 50(2), 79-84.

Collins, P. (2004). Let-imperatives in English. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 9(2), 299-319.

Downing, A., Locke, P. (1995). A University Course in English Grammar: New York: Routledge.

Eastwood, J. (1999). Oxford Practice Grammar: Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ingeish, B. K., & Hassan, S. W. (2009). The Semantic Implications of the Imperatives in English and Arabic. Journal of The University of Karbala. Vol, 7(3), 15-29.

Larsen-Freeman, D. and Anderson, M., 2013. Techniques and principles in language teaching 3rd edition-Oxford handbooks for language teachers. Oxford university press.

Leszek, A. S. (1995). A critical study of imperatives (Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Luoma, S. (2004). Assessing speaking. Cambridge University Press.

Murcia, M. C., & Freeman, D. L. (1999). The grammar book: An ESL/EFL Teacher’s Course. New York. Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

Takahashi, H. (2012). A cognitive linguistic analysis of the English imperative: With special reference to Japanese imperatives (Vol. 35). John Benjamins Publishing.

Terrell, T. D. (1985). The natural approach to language teaching: an update. Canadian modern language review, 41(3), 461-479.

Thomson, A.J., & Martinet, A.V. (1986). A Practical English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Watcharapunyawong, S., & Usaha, S. (2013). Thai EFL Students’ Writing Errors in Different Text Types: The Interference of the First Language. English Language Teaching, 6(1), 67-78.

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