Teaching Hedging for ESL Writing (Worksheet included)

Here’s my worksheet if you want the good stuff right away: Practicing Hedging.
Read on for more good stuff about hedging.

Students who have gone through an English-speaking education system usually pick up on how to write in a “proper” or “academic” way. They gradually learn the sentence, paragraph, and essay structure from their teachers and classes. Their vocabulary improves through contextualized exposure in reading. Gradually, these students learn what “sounds right” when writing.

But learners of English often need to be explicitly taught what “sounds right,” “sounds wrong,” and why.

One writing skill that is often used in academic writing is hedging. Many native English speakers do it fairly naturally in speaking and writing, but for newer learners of English, especially those who are thrown into the deep end of academic writing without much previous exposure to English, this skill needs special attention in ESL classes.

Introducing Hedging

You can use any word you want. “Softening” or “avoiding extreme language” are other ways to describe it. I’m going to use the term “hedging” for this article, but any name will do.

Here is how I introduce the topic in class. First, I write the following phrase on the board:

IEP students are smart.

(For “IEP,” you can substitute anything you want: “Korean,” “Central High School,” “This class’s,” etc.)

Then I ask my class: “Is this sentence true?

I’ll get some students who shout “Yes!” and others who yell “No!”

From there, I say “OK, let’s change the sentence so we all agree. What words can we add or change?”

Hopefully I elicit sentences like:

  • Most IEP students are smart.
  • IEP students are usually smart.
  • IEP students are smart compared to other students.

Usually more people agree with these hedged sentences. I explain that that’s the purpose of hedging: to make your sentences more agreeable.

The Continuum

Another way to explain hedging is this:

All IEP students are smart. = 100%

No IEP students are smart. = 0%

When statements are 100% or 0% , they are almost never true, because it is usually possible to find an example that proves it wrong. Instead, we want to get to 95% or 5% statements.

Sometimes when I ask students to hedge the statement

All IEP students are smart,

they will respond with

Some IEP students are smart.

But I explain that “some” means about 50%. We are trying to say that IEP students are smart, so we need something stronger, like “Most IEP students are smart,” a 95% statement.

Noticing Hedging

From there, I try to elicit more. If I’m using a textbook with reading passages, I’ll choose one that uses a lot of hedging. If there is nothing suitable in the textbook, there’s plenty of examples online.

Let’s take this paragraph, from Breaking News English about diet and aging (Emphasis mine: hedging words/phrases are highlighted. Remove if you use this in your class).

Help may be at hand for those of us who want to keep the wrinkles and grey hair at bay and slow down the process of aging. New research suggests that eating green vegetables can ward off the signs of aging. Researchers say that broccoli, cabbage and avocado in particular contain a compound that helps slow down the rate at which we age. The key compound, present in green fruit and vegetables, is called NMN. It helps slow down the physical signs of getting old. Scientists say NMN can also rejuvenate the metabolism. It helps replenish levels of energy production in our body that deteriorate as we age. It also helps reduce weight gain and the deterioration of vision.

Some questions you can ask your class:

  • Which sentences have hedging?
  • Which words or phrases are used to hedge?
  • Which sentences DON’T use hedging? Why don’t they use hedging?

Activities like these help students recognize the context in which hedging is used.

Practicing Hedging

Once students understand the concept and can recognize it “in the wild” of a paragraph, I give them the worksheet I posted at the beginning of this post: Practicing Hedging

The chart at the top can certainly be amended, but it includes the basics. I tried to collect different forms of hedging from the various resources I’ve worked with and found while trying to teach this (if there are any glaring omissions, please let me know!).

There are five sentences with more of the same type of hedging identification, and then students practice hedging the statements in the second part. Answers may vary for that second part. I usually write the hedged sentences on the board or projector to make sure that the students are using the grammar of the hedging words and phrases correctly, especially when the words are new to them.

Putting Hedging to Use

Once the students have demonstrated that they understand and can use hedging in some controlled environments, it’s time for them to use it where it counts: in their essays.

Hedging is best suited for cause and effect and argumentative/persuasive essays. When your students write these types of essays for you, draw their attention to their use of hedging in your feedback. If they are overgeneralizing, or failing to use hedging when they should, point it out.

More suggestions on teaching hedging on the TEFLtastic Blog.

Thanks for reading.


Featured Image Credit: Tim Green


2 thoughts on “Teaching Hedging for ESL Writing (Worksheet included)

  1. You’re absolutely right. Hedging language remains an essential skill for both writing and speaking in academic contexts. Your lesson provides a clear way for IEP students to appreciate the need for context and nuance and the perils of vague, generalized language.

    I’d also suggest hedging language can be quite useful outside the classroom and in our daily lives. Living in the United States, I would suggest that we need to see more hedging language in debates on controversial issues too. Here’s a list of questions that I use to introduce the topic to international graduate students at USC in advanced English classes. https://compellingconversations.com/hedging-language-seeking-clarification-arguments

    Thanks, again, for sharing. I appreciate your blog!

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