How to teach English greetings
Summary: Teaching tips, games and songs for teaching different ways to say hello and goodbye
“Hi” and “Bye” are among the first things that students hear and learn in the English language classroom, but subtle differences in meaning and formality and rapid changes in fashionability can mean that even advanced learners have something new to learn about greetings. This article gives tips on teaching meeting and parting expressions to everyone from low level young learners to CPE students who think they know everything. Elsewhere on this site there is also an article on starting and ending conversations more generally, explanations for students and teachers of over 50 expressions for hello and goodbye, and photocopiable versions of some of the activities mentioned here are available in the e-book Teaching Social English Second Edition: https://www.usingenglish.com/e-books/social-english/
What students need to know about English greetings
Meeting and parting greetings that students need to know, in approximate order, are:
- Good morning
- Good afternoon
- Good evening
- See you (…)
- See ya.
- Hello (sometimes spelt “Hallo” or “Hullo”)
- Good night.
- What’s up?
- Bye for now.
- Morning all.
- Bye bye.
- Hi guys (and gals).
- Hello everyone.
- Have fun.
- Bon voyage.
- Speak to you then.
- Hi everyone.
- Catch you later!
- Take care.
- Hello again.
- Have a good one.
- Hi there.
- Take it easy.
- Look after yourself.
- Hello stranger!
- (This isn’t goodbye, it’s only) au revoir.
- Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.
There are some which are perhaps surprisingly low on the list. One is “Bye bye”, which is more informal or even childish than in many other languages, and I personally only use when speaking to dogs or small children. Another is “Hello”, which is too formal for friendly situations and too casual for polite ones, and so not so often quite the right level. Students might hear “Hi there”, but I strongly recommend them not to use it, as it can sound like you have forgotten someone’s name or can’t be bothered greeting people individually. “Hello stranger” can also be rude if used in the wrong circumstances, as it can be used to mean that someone should have made more effort to meet up sooner or stay in contact.
Putting “Hiya” so low on the list is just personal choice, as I find it to be generally used with too much faked enthusiasm. “Take care” is useful but difficult to use correctly, as it is usually said when we won’t see each other for a long time and/ or the other person will do something big such as moving abroad, but some people use it with no special meaning.
That list is usually enough for even high-level learners, so the ones below are just for special circumstances or to answer student questions.
There are a few which students might need if they are going to particular places such as “How do?”/ “’ow do?” and “Ta-ra” in parts of the UK, “G’day” in Australia, “Howdy” in parts of the US and “Howzit?” in South Africa and Hawaii. Some others are famous as things that people say regionally but are in fact rarely used apart from humorously nowadays, such as the “Top o’ the morning to ya” that comedy Irishmen always say.
Others are mainly just used by particular age ranges and/ or social groups and so will almost certainly sound weird coming out the mouth of the teacher, let alone when said by the students. These include “Laters”, “Yo!”, “Oy oy!”, “Peace” and “Shalom”.
They may also hear ones which are outdated but some people (especially geeks like me) use to be humorous or add some variety to the tedium of greeting everyone every morning, like “(And) a very good morning/ day/ evening to you (sir/ ma’am)”, “Greetings”, “So long” and “Farewell”. Other ones that students might hear in old movies etc include “Cheerio”, “Good morrow” and “Ta-ta”.
They may also come across greetings from specific arts and media which are still regularly deliberately quoted, such as “Hasta la vista, baby” from Terminator, “Hi everybody” “Hi Dr Nick” and “Smell you later” from the Simpsons, “See you later, alligator” “In a while crocodile” from the old rock and roll song, and “Wasssssssuppppp” from old Budweiser adverts.
The first thing that students need to know about the ones you choose to present is if they are used when meeting or parting. This more important in English than in many other languages, as none are used to mean both hello and goodbye. The most confusing ones are “Ciao”, which only means goodbye in English (unlike in Italian), and “Good night”, which is only used when someone is leaving and/ or going to sleep and so is different to “Good morning/ afternoon/ evening”.
The next thing to teach is differences in formality. The standard formal ones are “Good morning/ afternoon/ evening/ night/ -bye” and the standard friendly ones are “Hi” and “Bye”. There is no standard way of getting even more formal than “Good…”. As “Hi” is quite common even with business contacts who you’ve only met a few times, there is a need for more casual/ friendly ones with your actual mates. These tend to be very regional and/ or quickly go out of fashion, but “Hey” is quite a common way of being slightly more casual than “Hi”, and “Yo!” seems to periodically come back into fashion.
Another common way of being more informal and therefore friendlier is to skip traditional greetings and go straight to something that sounds like “How are you?” but isn’t really answered. The most common are “Alright?” “Alright” and “What’s up?” “What’s up”, with the response having the intonation of a statement. The regional forms “How do?” and “Howzit?” have the same form and function. All of these come first in the place of “Hi” etc, so are being used as greetings.
If they’ve been abroad or watched lots of movies, your students might already have heard affectionate-sounding words that go with some of those greetings like:
- Alright, mate?
- Morning, love
- Afternoon, dear
- Hello, darling
- What’s up, bro/ dude?
- Oorigh’, my lover
- Yo plus the N-word (especially from hip hop)
It should be really clear that the last two should never be copied, but there are also problems with most of the others, such as “dear” only being used by old people and “dude” being dated and so mainly used ironically nowadays.
A cultural difference that students can find confusing but is worth copying if possible is how much variation English speakers use in greetings, including usually answering with a different expression (“Bye” “See ya”) and using a different expression with each person you meet as you enter somewhere (“Morning all. Morning. Hi. How’s it going? Alright?”, etc). This is because repeating the same greeting can seem like you aren’t really concentrating on the people, instead thinking about something else as you go through the boring motions of saying “Morning. Morning. Morning” to everyone in the office. Practising communicating this way can also help students expand their range of language.
Typical problems with English greetings
Issues mentioned above which students can have difficulties with include:
- Misusing goodbye ones like “Good night” to mean “Hello” (and very occasionally the other way around)
- Using old fashioned and/ or rarely used ones (perhaps learnt from old textbooks)
- Using ones which are childish, regional, too informal, dated, only used by old ladies, etc in the wrong situations
- Answering questions like “What’s up?” when they were only meant as greetings
- Repeating the same greetings over and over
There are also quite a few subtle differences in meaning which can catch students out, such as “See you…” expressions which are more different than they seem. Strictly speaking the “later” in “See you later” means “later today”. In contrast, “See you soon” means we haven’t arranged to meet, so “soon” is actually later than “later”! Similarly, “See you sometime” is used when we will probably never meet again. “See you around” can be used as a more positive-sounding way of doing the same thing, but literally means we haven’t made any plans but might well bump into each other anyway because we frequent the same places.
The “then” in “See you, then” and “See you then” can also be confusing for students, as the former means “therefore” and often comes after an excuse for ending the conversation, whereas the latter means “at that time”, e.g. the same as “See you tomorrow” if we have just agreed to meet then.
Greetings to more than one person are a bit of a minefield. “Dear all” is only used in (fairly) formal emails, and the spoken equivalents “Good morning all” and “Hi all” are used but sound strange to me. In both emails and spoken situations such as starting workshops the most common informal version is probably “Hi guys”, but some people don’t like that a word originally used to mean men now means everyone. Unfortunately, “Hi guys and gals” is even worse, because it is using an adult word for men but a word for females that means “girls”. I teach students that “Good morning everyone”, “Hi everyone” and “Hi guys” are the most common for each level of formality, but warn them about the issues with the last of those.
Students might also have problems with gestures that go with English greetings. English-speakers quite often raise their eyebrows to say hello, for example if they want to acknowledge someone arriving but can’t stop speaking to actually say something. In some other countries raised eyebrows only have the other dodgy meaning that you might use in a singles bar.
A palm up is a more universal gesture for hello, but the English one might seem rather casual to other nationalities, as the hand often barely moves. There are then numerous issues with handshakes, handshakes while holding their arm with your other hand, hugs, air kissing, etc, all of which vary even among English speakers. See the articles on this website about gestures and body language for more on these.
How to present English greetings
The first thing the teacher should do is to use a realistic range of greetings in the class, and to expand on that all the time. You should probably start with something neutral that students already know like “Hello”, but as soon as they get the hang of that you should switch to “Hi”, then to “Good morning”, then to “Morning”, etc. You should also fairly rapidly switch to answering greetings with a different greeting and using different greetings with each person, perhaps explaining how and why you are doing that if it causes confusion (as it often does). To provide a good model that students can copy, avoid ones which are rare outside the classroom like “Good morning children/ boys and girls” and “See you next time”.
The same thing can also be done with the model dialogues that you use by choosing ones with or adding a variety of useful greetings. Comprehension questions which will help students pay attention to the greetings but also let them use other clues include “When is the dialogue taking place?” and “What is their relationship?”
With young learners, this can be supplemented with a greetings song. Many are available on YouTube, but they all seem to have problems such as:
- presenting wildly different levels of formality in just the one situation without explaining any differences
- repeating the same one or two greetings long after students know them perfectly
- being very static and boring or repeating the same gesture(s) all the way through
- adding other confusing language which students might misunderstand to be greeting (presumably to scan, rhyme or make the song long enough)
- “greetings” which are only used in such songs like “Good morning to you”
- including other languages (presumably for cultural awareness purposes)
If I was going to make up a greetings song or chant myself, I’d make it from just the most common hello and goodbye greetings, starting by shaking hands with those next to you, then raising a palm to everyone else in the class, then finally waving goodbye to them all, with words something like:
"Hi. Hello. Good morning. Good morning. Good morning everyone. (while shaking hands with as many people as possible nearby).
Bye. Goodbye. Bye bye. Goodbye. Goodbye everyone." (waving and trying to make eye contact with everyone in class before the song or chant finishes, perhaps standing in front of each person as you do so).
Even that rush to shake hands and then wave doesn’t really provide a dynamic start to the class, so I’d probably just start with an action song and do the greetings in other ways.
It’s also debateable whether a collective morning class greeting is useful or not. Standing up and joining in “Good morning everyone.” “Good morning Mr Case. Good morning everyone” is a classroom experience that native speakers might have, and can be good for classroom focus and discipline, but doesn’t provide a useful model for communication outside the classroom.
With adults and higher level young learner classes, the solution is probably a whole lesson on greetings. Alternatively, you could do a lesson or two on a larger topic including greetings such as starting and ending conversations or meeting people for the first time and again (dealt with in other articles on this site).
Particularly if they have heard you and recordings use some of the same greetings over the preceding weeks, you can start a lesson on greetings with Greetings Simplest Responses. Students listen to the start or end of conversations and indicate if they think that the people are starting or ending conversations. They can show their comprehension by holding up cards which say “hello” and “goodbye”, throwing things at those two words on the board, or running and touching the walls representing “meeting” and “parting”.
There is also a simplest responses game to help students analyse the differences between greetings. In English Greetings The Same or Different, students hold up cards saying “The same” when they two or more with the same meaning like “Hi guys” and “Hello everyone”, or hold up the “Different” card if they hear “See you later” and “See you sometime”. After checking their answers, students can play the same simplest responses games in groups, then test each other in other ways such as trying to remember ones with the same meanings.
A similar activity is Good and Bad English greetings, in which students listen to at least two greetings or responses and choose the best, e.g. holding up the card with “A” written on it if the task says “A: Yo, yo, yo, what’s up, man? B: Yo, yo, yo, what’s up, Sir?” or “A: Hey, what’s up? I’m very well thank you, and you? B: Hey, what’s up? What’s up.”
How to practise English greetings
It is very difficult to provide intensive practice of greetings other than students testing each other with the simplest responses games above, or similar tasks with short listening extracts. However, you could give students starting and ending phrases on a worksheet or cards, ask them to pick one, think up a suitable situation to use it, then roleplay that situation, making sure that they use what they picked. As long as they match each other, they could also choose one starting one and one ending one and make sure they use both in one conversation.
For more intensive practice, you’ll need to get students to quickly change partner and use a different greeting each time. This can be made into a mingling activity in which they cut each conversation as short as they can (without being rude), and use a different greeting to what their partner says and different to what they have said before each time. To set a limit to the game, you could give each student a number of cards saying “Greeting” which they can discard when they have used a greeting that they haven’t heard or used before during the game, letting them sit down when they have used the whole pack. For more challenge, you could let another students stop them discarding if they copied the greeting that they used, cut the conversation short too quickly, or used a greeting which doesn’t match the situation and rest of the conversation.
You can also just make sure you include lots of suitable greetings in other lessons. For example, in a lesson on starting and ending conversations more generally you can make sure there is lots of practice of different greetings by asking students to skip the body of the communication each time, just roleplaying the beginning and end. You can also add different situations, levels of formality, etc to lead to more of a range of different greetings. And from then on you should always insist on suitable greetings when doing roleplays, playing mingling games such as Find Someone Who, changing partners, entering and leaving class, etc.
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