Difficulties in teaching the language of describing people
…and how to cope with them
1. What is he like? / What does he like?
This can be a classic example of students mastering one form then coming across a form that is similar in some way and the confusion seeming to put them back to zero- which at least we can say is part of the natural process of learning a language (both L1 and L2)! It will help in this case if you have already taught them that questions and answers tend to have the same verb, but “do”/ “did” is used when there is no auxiliary verb in the statement form. Therefore “What is he like?” is usually followed by an answer with the same verb “He is…”, whereas “do” does not need to be in the answer to “What does he like?”, making it “He likes…” Lots of practice activities use both these forms, for example when talking about personality, appearance and hobbies during blind date games or choosing presents for family members.
2. What is he like? / How is he?
Students will almost certainly already know “How are you?”, but probably answer it as a fixed phrase and so not be able to generalize the meaning of “How + be …?” You can prepare for this moment by expanding their repertoire of these questions, for example “How was your weekend?” and “How was the homework?” They should then be able to make the rule that “How…?” means “Is/ was … okay?” You can then elicit a similar question that means “Describe…” (“What… like?”) and so make the distinction clear. You can concept check by asking which question is asked about someone you have never met/ heard about before. This can then be practiced with pictures of people whose mood is clear in their expression, describing both their mood and appearance.
3. The answer to “What is he like?” doesn’t include “like”
Get students to answer the question “Describe…” or “Tell me about…”, then ask them to find a question on the board or worksheet that means the same as those two questions, the answer being “What is he like?” They should now be able to understand that the answer is the same for those three questions. Alternatively, add “like” to their answer to “describe…”, e.g. “My brother is LIKE tall”. They should easily be able to tell you that it is a mistake. If you then write “What is your brother like?” “He is like tall”, they should also be able to explain that it is always a mistake. You can practice this by one person giving the answer to a “What…. like?” question and the other person trying to guess the question, e.g. “He is taller than me” “What is your father like?” “No, my father is shorter than me”
4. What is he like? / What does he look like?
This is fairly straightforward. Brainstorm answers to “What is he like?” starting with “He is…”, then ask if the answer “He is intelligent” matches the question with “look” (= the question about looks). This can be practiced with a dating agencies game, where the best looking people have the worst personalities and people have to choose what balance of the two they will go for.
5. The answer to “What does he look like?” does not include “like”
See 3 above for the grammar explanation. This can be practiced with any activities where they describe people, e.g. testing each other on their memories of a crime scene.
6. What does he look like? / Who does he look like?
Students should already know that a “who” question is answered with a person, so you should be able to elicit the answer “He _________ his father/ Michael Jackson/ someone famous” to “Who does he look like?”. If they fill the gap with “He looks his father”, elicit that other phrases they know with “look” like “He looks after his little brother” and “He looks at the TV” always take a preposition. This can be practiced with photos of people who are doing impressions or who work as celebrity look-alikes.
7. He is medium height/ build/ His hair is medium length
Students often expect a simpler expression, similar to “He is tall/ short/ fat/ thin”, often trying “He is middle”. You can try and avoid this problem by teaching “He is quite/ a little fat”, “He is slightly taller than me” or “Her hair is shoulder length”. This will come up in any activity where you describe people, especially real people- even if you are trying to avoid it!
8. Is/ have
Students often make mistakes by mixing up “have” and “be” in sentences like “He has a big nose” and “He is blond”, even when the same distinction exists in their own language. Try brainstorming phrases that can go after each verb, perhaps as a board race.
9. Personality words
Personality words tend to not translate easily and also have similar words with very small differences in meaning in English. This is therefore a good opportunity to use monolingual dictionaries, making students concentrate on the positive and negative connotations and opposites in the dictionary entries. They will still need to think about the meaning quite a lot before they can really understand the fine differences. A good one for this is a pyramid ranking debate, e.g. ranking what are the most important characteristics for a wife or husband and seeing if the two lists match.
10. Insulting language
There is a big difference between saying someone is “fat”, “chubby”, “big boned” etc. You can practice this by giving students a list of things that could be considered insulting and asking them to change each sentence to soften its impact.
11. Cultural differences
There may be cultural differences on whether telling someone they have a big nose etc is a compliment or an insult, whether it is okay to ask about and describe female family members, and which characteristics people use to distinguish themselves from others (does everyone have black hair?) You could practice this by having a list of cultural differences that students have to spot the misunderstanding, offensive statement or other mistake in.
12. Offending each other
There is a slight chance that if you ask students to describe each other they could say make their partners feel self-conscious or even offend their classmates by mentioning a factor such as weight that they would rather not talk about or have noticed. You might know your class well enough to be sure that this isn’t a problem or to be able to put people in groups with people they are sufficiently comfortable to discuss these things with. Alternatively, you can let them form their own groups. Otherwise the best thing is to avoid any of the games that this could be an issue with, or do the same games but with photos of famous people that the students have brought in.
13. Racism and PC language
For example, students may be aware of “the N word” from English language rap or a similar word in their own language, but be totally unaware of it being very offensive. One way of dealing with this is to have a list of example sentences with common and sillier PC language, and get students to decide which ones are silly and which ones are common and necessary replacements for language most people find offensive.
14. We actually don’t describe people that often in our lives
This means that students are unlikely to get a lot of practice outside the classroom and/or that the number of great games you can play on this topic will make you spend far more time on this topic than is justified by how useful it is. Ways round this include only doing this topic when the grammar that comes up matches the rest of the syllabus, or using it as an easy introduction to describing objects etc.
15. Most practice activities and games are unrealistic
For example, how often do we describe the physical appearance of our families to other people? If that is such a central part of the textbook that we want to use it, we should at least think of what precise situation or during which topic we would do that (maybe saying who you take after or trying to persuade your friend to date your brother) or try to add some more artificial but effective reason to listen (“Which of the family members your partner described were just made up?”) See the separate article on this topic for more realistic situations and how to use them in the classroom.
July 2008 | Filed under Teacher Technique
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.
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