How to teach advice, recommendations and suggestions
Summary: Teaching tips, games and other classroom activities for "should", "If I were you", "I would suggest", etc.
Of all my articles on this site, this is perhaps the one that it is most difficult to see the need for, as the advice and recommendations sections of most textbooks and websites often their strongest bit. However, there can be some weak points in those materials such as not clearly showing differences in use and meaning between phrases and not providing suitable questions and responses to make whole conversations from advising/ recommending/ suggesting. In addition, some ESP books miss out this topic, despite it being an important point for people working on helpdesks, selling logistics services, writing reports, etc. With such a great topic, it is also a shame that it isn’t exploited more to teach other grammar, vocabulary, functional language, or even learner training. All of these are explained below, along with some game ideas just in case your students want even more fun. There are photocopiable materials on this and other social English topics in the e-book Teaching Social English: Interactive Classroom Activities https://www.usingenglish.com/e-books/social-english/
Distinguishing between advice, recommendations and suggestions
“Suggestion” is a rather vague term, used below to cover both advice and recommendations. The word is often used in soft advice and recommendations expressions like “Can I make just one little suggestion?” and “Might I suggest…?” This softening use of “suggest(ion)” is something that is likely to come up in lessons on both recommendations and advice but is not really suitable for the topic of a whole lesson, and I wouldn’t recommend trying to teach both recommendations and advice in one class. Therefore, one class should either be on “advice” or on “recommendations”.
The difference between advice and recommendations is difficult to define in a few words. Generally, a recommendation is something that comes from your own experience and/ or specialist knowledge, seen in the use of the heading “Recommendations” at the end of some reports and academic papers to show that it is based on evidence provided in the rest of the document, and in collocations like “I personally recommend…” and “My personal recommendation is…”. “Advice” doesn’t necessarily have this meaning, as when you advise someone to go to the doctor it is probably because of your own lack of experience and knowledge of what is wrong with that person.
The kinds of situation we are talking about can also be different for those two topics. Lessons on “recommendations” are more likely to be about fun things like what to do on holiday, while classes on “advice” often deal with medical issues, personal problems, etc. This does match the personal knowledge or experience definition of a “recommendation”, but there could be said to be two kinds of recommendations, with “Our recommendation is that…” only used in more serious reports etc and “We really recommend…”, “I think you’d love...” etc used in communication on lighter topics.
There is quite a lot of overlap in terms of language between recommendations and advice, with “If I were you”, “You should” and “You must” etc being used in both. However, terms like “had better” don’t match lighter topics like things to do around town. All of these can confuse some students.
All this means that the first task for teachers planning a lesson is to decide whether they want the class to be on advice, more serious recommendations, or lighter recommendations. They then need topics that match that kind of language in terms of level of seriousness, etc. I would recommend alternating advice and recommendations from course to course in order to be able to revise the language that they have in common and expand on what students know each time. For example, you could cover advice with “should” in Elementary level, recommendations with “should” and “I (would) recommend…” etc in Pre-Intermediate, and expand the language as you do the same from level to level or term to term.
“Should have + PP” (“You should have told him” etc) is used for giving feedback and expressing regret rather than for actual advice, so shouldn’t be taught just before or after the topic of advice/ recommendations (as some textbooks do, to much confusion).
What students need to know about advice, recommendations and suggestions
Whichever kind of advice or recommendations you choose to cover, students need to know how to use both strong forms like “You really should…” and weaker forms like “You could…” and “You might want to think about…”. Surprisingly, my students don’t seem to have studied this at school. In particular, they often don’t know that “You had better…” is strong, let alone that it has a more specific meaning of “…or something bad will happen”. Perhaps the strong form they are most comfortable with is “must”, so it’s well worth telling students that this phrase is completely natural in recommendations like “You really must see the laser show” (not meaning that there is an obligation to do that).
Possible forms include (in approximate level of strength, but mixing up advice and recommendations):
- You have no choice but to…/ The only option is to…
- You absolutely must…/ I can’t recommend… enough./ If there is one thing that I recommend/ that you should do, it’s…
- You really must…/ I think you’d love…/ I reckon… would definitely be your kind of thing./ If you like..., then you’ll love…
- You’d better… (or you’ll regret it/ or…)/ The sooner you… the better.
- (Whatever you do,) don’t miss…/ don’t forget…/ You must…
- I strongly/ highly/ thoroughly recommend…/ You really should…
- … works every time./ You won’t regret…
- You should…/ You ought to…
- My advice would be…/ My (personal) recommendation is/ would be…/ I (would) (personally) recommend…
- I find that (just)… works for me./ … tends to work.
- If it was me/ If I were you/ If I were in your shoes/ If I were in your place/ If I was in that situation, I would…
- I (would) suggest…
- You should probably…
- It’s (well) worth thinking about…
- How about…?/ What about…?
- Have you thought about…?/ Have you considered…?
- Perhaps you should consider…
- You might want to think about…/ It might be worth thinking about…
- You could…
More advanced classes could also use phrases passing on advice like “A wise man once said that…”, “As the proverb goes,…”, “As they say,…”, “My grandmother always says…” and “It might be an old wives’ tale, but…”
You can also continue that list down to more and more negative recommendations:
- I’m not sure that you should…/ I wouldn’t necessarily recommend/ I wouldn’t really recommend…
- I don’t think (that) you should…
- If I were you, I’d avoid…/ I’d be in no hurry to…
- You can forget about…/ Don’t bother…/ Avoid…
- You definitely shouldn’t…
In order to take part in communicative activities like those below, students will also need to be able to respond to recommendations/ advice in both positive and negative ways with phrases like:
- Of course. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that myself.
- That’s a great idea. I’ll definitely do that./ That’s an excellent suggestion. I’ll do exactly what you said.
- That seems like a good idea. I’ll give it a try.
- You are probably right. I’ll give it a go.
- That’s not a bad idea. I’ll try my best to do that.
- That might be worth thinking about.
- That might work. I’ll consider it.
- I’m not so sure that’s a good idea (because…)/ I’m not sure that would work (in this case) (because…) Can you suggest anything else?
- Are you sure (that’s a good idea)? Don’t you think that…?
- Do you really think so? I would have thought that…
- Actually, … already. (Do you have any other ideas?)
You might also want to present the next step of responding to that feedback with phrases like:
- In that case,…
- You may be right. So, how about…?
Before all that, they will also need questions to ask for advice or recommendations, such as:
- Can you suggest anything?
- Can you give me your (professional) advice?
- Do you have any ideas?
- Do you have any recommendations?
- Do you know any suitable…?
- How can I solve this problem?
- What can I do about it (do you reckon)?
- What do you recommend?
- What do you think I should do?
- What would you do (in my place/ in that situation/ if you were in my shoes)?
- What’s the best solution?
- What’s your advice?
Typical student problems with advice, recommendations and suggestions
Not surprisingly given the similarities and subtle differences between advice and recommendations, students can tend to get mixed up between them, for example saying “I’d advise you to have a gin and tonic” when it is not for medical purposes. I tend to let students use advice and recommendations interchangeably unless they say something that is particularly strange or confusing, at which point I explain the personal experience/ personal knowledge meaning of recommendations. However, my students make so many mistakes with phrases like “You had better go to Kyoto if you visit Japan” that I have started bringing up the special “… or something bad will happen” meaning of “had better” at the presentation stage. Students may not be familiar with a range of different strengths of phrases, and more generally may overuse the same few phrases in every situation.
Although this is really a topic for another lesson (and article) on modal verbs, students may ask you the difference between “You have to go to the doctor” and “You must go to the doctor”, so it may be worth preparing to explain that if you don’t already have a snappy explanation up your sleeve.
If you are using second conditional forms like “If I were you,…”, students might have been taught that “If I was in your shoes,…” is wrong. It might be worth telling them that it is common in modern speech, especially if they are “correcting” other students when they use that more contemporary form.
The other common grammar issues are with verb patterns (“How about go with us…?” X, “He suggested me to go home” X, etc) and countable and uncountable (“Do you have any advices for me?” X, etc). The latter problem can also lead to mistakes with articles like “Do you have an advice?” X
Students can also struggle with collocations, particularly with verbs (“give + advice”, “make + recommendation”), adjectives (“personal + recommendation”, etc) and adverbs (“really/ absolutely + must”, “strongly + recommend”, etc).
Although it is more of an issue when covering invitations, students can also confuse suggestions like “Why don’t you go to…?” with invitations like “Why don’t you come to…?”
More than any of those problems with actual recommendations/ advice, students tend to have real problems with negative responses. Problems include using rude responses like “Really?” and “Seriously?”, using rude intonation in responses like “Actually… Do you have any other ideas?”, using overly formal ones like “Thank you for your recommendation, but…”, and just responding positively to everything (because it’s easier or to be polite).
The lesson ideas below deal with all these problems.
How to present the language of advice, recommendations and suggestions
Perhaps the easiest way to present this language is to give students examples on a topic such as dental health (“You should probably floss after every meal”, etc) or tips for visitors (“You really must walk around the red light district”, etc). Ask them to take turns reading out one of these phrases and responding with phrases you have given them for the purpose like “You are probably right” and “Do you really think so?” After they finish the activity and discuss any sentences that they have questions about as a class, ask them to try to remember language for strong and weak recommendations/ advice, positive responses and negative responses from that worksheet. Then let them look back at the sentences to check and expand on their list of phrases. It might be difficult for students to work out which phrases are stronger without extra context, so it is best to group the phrases together on the first worksheet, for example in pairs of strong and weak phrases or with strong ones grouped together and weak ones grouped together. If you do this, this also makes it possible for students to label each sentence with “S” for strong or “W” for weak after or instead of trying to remember the forms.
If you want to provide more context, it is very easy to make up or find model dialogues with people asking for and responding to advice/ recommendations on topics like tourism, health, exercise, diet, relationships and work. When students read or listen the first time, they can try to work out what advice/ recommendations were given (perhaps from a bigger or mixed up list) and if each suggestion was accepted or rejected. They can then look at the transcript to check their answers, find suitable language, discuss which suggestions they agree with, give other suggestions on the same topics, and then use the same language to discuss other topics.
Particularly if students have studied the same or similar language before, the other possibility is for students to give each other advice on something that they probably have real questions on, such as language learning tips or exam tips. After a few minutes on this, the teacher elicits and gives feedback on what other language they could have used to ask for, provide and respond to advice/ recommendations. The teacher can then set a similar task to use the elicited list of language with.
Teaching other language through advice, recommendations and suggestions
This topic can be a great way to introduce or practise grammar that can be found in the advice/ recommendations phrases like imperatives, modal verbs, second conditional (“If I were in your place,…” etc) and verb patterns. However, I more often link it to other language points, usually vocabulary like:
- names of places such as countries, regions, towns, natural features and places around town (“If you like Greece, you’ll love Croatia”, etc)
- food vocabulary such as names of foods, eating implements and actions of cooking and eating (“You shouldn’t spear the food with your chopsticks”, etc)
- medical vocabulary such as medical problems and treatments
- finance vocabulary (“You need a balanced portfolio, so don’t invest everything in the NYSE”, etc)
- HR vocabulary
- phrasal verbs (“If I were you, I’d just break up with him”, etc)
- relationships vocabulary
- expressions related to failure and success (“take one step forwards and two steps back”, “reach your goals”, etc)
- vocabulary related to education (“essay”, “end of term”, “fresher”, etc)
- collocations (sentences with “make” and “do”, etc)
- personality (especially negative personality words)
The easiest way of teaching or practising this vocabulary through suggestions is providing a list of situations which have the useful vocabulary in them (“I keep on getting nose bleeds”, “My boss doesn’t delegate”, etc) for students to discuss their advice/ recommendations for. Better classes may also be able to make their own ideas for problems from just the key vocabulary (saying “I have a stomach ache. What do you think I should do?” if the worksheet says “ache”, etc). Alternatively, you can prepare more general situations that are designed to bring out the target language in the answers (“Ask your partner for recommendations on what to do in this town on Sunday afternoon” for places in town vocab, etc). Particularly with more general situations like these, I also tend to provide a list of suggestions with suitable language in such as “I recommend putting a sticky plaster on it even though there is no blood, as Band Aids always make small kids feel better” for students to use and/ or discuss the suitability of.
To then test students on the vocabulary, a nice simple activity is to ask them to remember if words from the worksheet are positive (probably meaning ones in the suggested solutions) or negative (mainly ones in the problems that they had to discuss). This also works for just the problems if they are a mix of issues to deal with (“I think that I might be demoted”, etc) and things that people want to achieve (“I want to be promoted”, etc).
All of these ideas for including vocabulary practice also work for grammar. For example, if you cover passive voice just before or after advice/ recommendations, the two topics can be combined by having passive in the problems (“My passport has been stolen”, etc) or designing situations to produce passive voice in the answers (“I don’t understand what all these certifications on the coffee mean”, etc). This also works for Present Perfect (“I have twisted my ankle”, “I’ve been having problems sleeping”, etc), countable and uncountable nouns, and future time expressions (“I have an important presentation tomorrow morning and I haven’t even started the PowerPoint”, “I want to be CEO by the end of this decade”, etc).
Activities below such as guessing games and Tips and Useful Phrases can also be used to present or practise other useful language, with the latter also making it possible to combine giving advice with other unrelated functional language.
How to practise advice, suggestions and recommendations
As in real life, people tend to love giving advice so much that they will find simply asking for and giving suggestions on topics like stress and careers stimulating enough. However, the ideas below also give more intensive and varied practice of the language, and deal with some of the problems mentioned above.
Advice and recommendations challenges
One student asks for advice/ recommendations and tries to politely reject the ideas that they receive for as long as they can, giving a different reason why each suggestion is not suitable. If you want to make the activity into even more of a game, you can give points for the person whose tip is finally accepted and/ or points for each time that they can politely reject ideas.
Advice and recommendations discuss and agree
Students use the topics, vocabulary or sentence stems on the board or a worksheet to try to make (strong or weak, positive or negative) advice or recommendations that they both agree with. For example, if the topic is “folk remedies” they could write “It might be just the placebo effect, but a hot toddy with whisky seems to work if you have a cold”, and if the sentence stem is “We _______ recommend Chinese medicine ________” they could write “We would only recommend Chinese medicine for mild medical problems like achy muscles” if they share that opinion.
Advice and recommendations roleplays
Particularly if students are likely to be in such situations in the future, it can be useful to ask students to roleplay natural situations for giving and responding to suggestions such as:
- Post offices/ Delivery services
- Tourist information offices/ helplines
- Careers advice
- A technical helpline
- Investment advice
- Relationship advice from a friend
- Study abroad advice from an agency
These roleplays can be made more fun by adding difficulties such as the person who is asked not knowing (and perhaps needing to ask someone else or transfer you to someone else) or the person receiving the tips being sceptical about them. If you can think of five or six suitable situations and five or six possible complications, both can be chosen with the roll of a dice, perhaps with 6 being “free choice of situation” and/ or “no special complications”.
Advice and recommendations coin games
As explained below, a coin can be used in bluffing games to decide if students should give genuine advice or not, and if they should respond genuinely or respond with their opposite of their true response.
The coin can also decide if they should give strong advice (heads) or weak suggestions (tails) and/ or if the person asking the question should respond positively (heads) or negatively (tails) to each suggestion. The latter can be quite amusing if they get advice like “If I were you, I’d just shoot your neighbour” and they have to say “That’s a great idea. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that. I’ll do it tomorrow” because they flipped the coin and got heads.
Before starting to speak, a coin can also decide which from pairs of roleplay situations they should take part in and/ or who has each role.
Advice and recommendations dice games
As mentioned above, dice can easily be used to set up a giving advice/ recommendations situation and/ or adding complications to the roleplay situation. During the communication, students can also roll a dice to decide how positive or negative their advice/ recommendations should be and/ or how positive or negative their response to that advice/ recommendation should be.
Agony Aunt letters
Students read typical magazine problem page issues about school life, relationships, appearance, family relationships, etc and write solutions. They then compare their solutions with other groups, perhaps voting on which of the other groups’ ideas they liked best.
Advice and recommendations dominoes
Because of different collocations and grammatical differences, many of the suggested phrases above have beginnings and/ or endings which don’t go with any of the other phrases, making them perfect to make a set of dominoes from. Split about 14 to 20 phrases into beginnings and endings. It’s best if the phrases are split so that there are no other possible combinations between the different halves, but the activity is still possible even if there are a couple of alternative matches. Put the split phrases into a Word document table as a set of dominoes, with the ending of one phrase on the left half of each domino and the beginning of a different phrase on the right-hand section, so that the dominoes will form a big circle if they are put together in the (only) correct way. To help with this, it can be a good idea to have phrases that alternate in some way around the circle, e.g. phrases by the person giving advice and phrases by the person asking for the advice alternating all the way round.
After working together to put the cards together in this way (trying again if they have any dominoes left or have made any wrong matches), students can play an actual game of dominoes. Alternatively, the cards can be cut into halves so that students have to put the phrases together without the help of being in domino form. The cards can also be used for the using phrases card game below.
Advice and recommendations longer phrases games
As you might have noticed in the list of phrases above, many things to say have both a shorter (“You should…”) and longer (“You really should…”) form. This can be exploited to make a jigsaw activity, hopefully one that will encourage students to use longer and more complex phrases in communication later. Put the phrases into a three-column table, with the optional extra parts in the middle column (“It is” + “definitely/ probably” + “worth trying…” etc). Make sure that there are few or no alternative matches between the different parts of the cards. Cut up one pack of cards per group of two to four students, keeping the cards from the middle column separate. Give out just the left-hand and right-hand cards and ask students to put them together to make basic phrases, then give out the middle cards for them to check and expand on their matches.
The same cards can then be used for the activity below.
Advice and recommendations card games
Before speaking, cards can give students situations that they should roleplay, topics that they should talk about, or vocabulary that they should use in their questions to their partner.
Cards can also be used during the speaking, by having words, phrases or whole sentences that they should use during the discussion. Students deal out the cards and can discard cards (and score points) if they use the words in the right way during a roleplay discussion. This can be a good way of getting students off always saying “should”. As mentioned above, the cards from longer phrases and dominoes activities can also be used this way as a follow-up stage.
Strong and weak advice and recommendations simplest responses games
Students listen to pairs of phrases for (positive or negative) advice/ recommendations, responding positively or responding negatively and indicate which one from each pair they think is stronger, perhaps by raising an “A” or “B” card that they have been given. They can then label the same paired phrases with “S” for stronger and “W” for weaker on a worksheet, before testing each other in the same way, trying to make the weaker phrases stronger, etc. As well as making fine distinctions in strength clear and teaching longer phrases in an easy way, this is also a great way of introducing and practising using stress and intonation to make phrases more and less positive and negative, perhaps even including identical sentences pronounced two different ways.
Advice and recommendations rephrasing
A nice extension of or variation on the discussing advice/ recommendations task that is suggested for presenting the language above is to give students phrases which they probably disagree with or at least would want to make stronger or weaker such as “You really must have a ham sandwich while you are in England” and “It might be worth thinking about calling an ambulance if you have chest pains again”. Students work together to change the advice/ recommendations to ones that they think make more sense, then compare with another group. This could also include changing the responses if you give them exchanges like “I can’t stand my boss. He sniffs really loudly all day” “If I were in that situation, I would quit my job” “Thanks. That’s a good idea. I’ll do that straightaway”.
Advice and recommendations cultural differences and useful phrases
I use this activity more to present cultural tips and other language such as presentations phrases, but it can also be useful further practice of, revision of or a link to the language of advice. Students read through some tips on communication such as “You ought to have an opening line (‘I’m writing to you in connection with…’ etc) after the greeting” for the topic of emailing or “You should use polite language (‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, etc) about the same amount as the shop assistant” for the topic of shopping, and mark any which they think are the same in their own country (or other countries that they know about). For example, if they think that “Whatever you do, don’t try to start conversations with people at other tables in a bar (so don’t say ‘Can I join your conversation?’)” is true in Germany too, they write “G” or “Germany” next to that tip. After discussing any which they don’t understand or aren’t sure about as a class, you can test students on their memory of the advice phrases and/ or example phrases in brackets (“I’m writing to you in connection with…”, etc).
Advice and recommendations guessing games
Especially if you want to use this topic to practise other language such as vocabulary, you can get students to give advice on one of the problems on a worksheet without telling their partner which one they chose. Their partner then guesses which they are giving advice for, with only one guess allowed per piece of advice. After their partner successfully guesses what situation they are making suggestions for, they can then discuss if they agree on the advice that was given for that situation.
If you want to intensively practise a range of strong and weak positive and negative recommendations, you can also kind of play the game the other way around. One person chooses one of the problems and their partner tries to guess what advice they would give in that situation.
Guessing the advice is perhaps more useful with written prompts, for example reading a report, writing the final recommendations section, then comparing to the actual recommendations section. The same thing can also be done with reviews by reading all but the section saying how much the reviewer recommends or doesn’t recommend that thing.
Justifying strange recommendations game
Students choose a strange suggestion from a list like “I strongly recommend a low fibre diet” and “I think you’d like a night-time boat tour around the industrial shoreline” and try to think of a suitable situation and/ or reason for saying that.
Advice and recommendations bluffing games
Students use a mix of their own real situations, tips and/ or responses and some made up ones, then try to guess which thing that their partner said wasn’t real. For example, one person can ask advice on paying off their huge student loans, and after discussing good ideas in those situations their partner can guess if the problem was real or made up. I tend to let students use their own r eal situations or imaginations freely as the ideas pop into their heads. However, you can also let the reality or not of the questions be based on cards, dice, a coin, etc.
For similar practice of actual advice/ recommendations, students can respond to questions like “I get really dry skin in the winter” with a mix of real and fake tips like “I find that just licking it works for me”, “If the skin actually cracks, a sticky plaster can help keep the moisture in until it heals” and “Dry it first with a hairdryer before you leave the house”. Alternatively, the questioner can respond with their own real responses like “Licking? Seriously?” or the opposite of their real responses like “Licking? Interesting. I’ll give it a try and see how it goes”. After finishing the exchange, the other person guesses which responses were genuine.
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