Young Learner Lessons On The Topic Of Food

By Alex Case

food vocabFood is a great topic for young learners. This is because it can get strong reactions, allows for lots of personalisation, is a gentle and interesting introduction to cultural differences, and is infinitely extendable. It can also be used to present and practise all kinds of other language and can be used in interactional speaking such as restaurant and shopping roleplays.

What To Teach About Food

If you want to teach the names of foods, it is good to choose a nice mix of things that they already know (e.g. because they are the same in L1), things that they know but might have problems with the pronunciation of, and things that are likely to be completely new to everyone, e.g. ones where they think the L1 word can be used in English but it can’t. It is also good to choose foods they have strong positive or negative reactions to such as “lollipop” and “spinach”.

Another group of nouns directly connected to food is utensils and parts of the kitchen such as “saucepan” and “fridge”, but it is usually more useful and fun to introduce verbs connected to food such as “peel”, “cut”, “chew”, “chop” and “spread”.

The teaching ideas below also contain practice for other kinds of language that can be introduced with this topic such as expressing shapes, colours, phonics, individual sounds, requests, countable and uncountable, “there is/are”, prepositions of position and expressing preferences.

Presenting Food Vocabulary

Another great thing about this topic is that it is easy to find nice flashcards (including cute ones with faces etc), plastic realia and picture books to present the vocabulary visually. It might also be possible to bring in actual food or utensils. The teacher’s main job is to select the vocabulary to have the nice mix of familiar and new that is mentioned above, while hopefully avoiding useless vocabulary such as foods that are completely unknown to the students even in L1. There might also be some other cultural differences to take into account, e.g. a pumpkin being unrecognisable because it is an American rather than a local one, or two foods having one name in L1 or English but two names in the other (e.g. “pepper” meaning both “black pepper” and “green/red/yellow pepper” in English). You can also choose foods to practise specific language, e.g. foods that are all square, round or triangular to practise shapes.

Practising Food Vocabulary

The visual prompts mentioned above can also of course be used in the practice stage. My favourite activity is to hide the thing and describe it until students guess what it is. Clues you can give include:

  • Colour
  • Shape
  • Size
  • Weight
  • Cost
  • Hardness/texture
  • Taste (e.g. “spicy”, “bitter”, “sour”, “sweet”)
  • Things you can do with it, e.g. ways of preparing like “slice” and “fry”
  • What country it comes from or is most popular in
  • What dishes it is used in/other foods it is often eaten with
  • Where it is sold
  • Which animals eat it
  • Packaging
  • Storage, e.g. in the fridge
  • What is contains (e.g. vitamins and protein)
  • Food categories it fits into, e.g. that it is a red meat or that it is a vegetable (perhaps including vegetables that most people think are fruit and vice versa)
  • People it is most suitable for, e.g. bodybuilders or people who want to lose weight
  • Other foods it is similar to
  • Calories

You can then give the flashcard or piece of realia to the student who guessed it first or pronounced it best. A nice variation on this is to give additional points if they can think of any way of combining the foods they have obtained up to that point in a dish, e.g. saying “Bread, cheese and tomato can make a pizza”. You could also allow them to swap foods to make these kinds of delicious combinations. This cooking idea can also be used as the guessing game, e.g. asking them to follow the cooking instructions as you give them (maybe making any food or utensils that you mention by cutting up card with scissors to be able to do so) and then guess the dish they are making as soon as they can.

They could also guess a word in one of the categories above from the foods you list, e.g. that you are thinking of the adjective “heavy” when you list “watermelon” and “bag of potatoes”. They could also guess which shop you are thinking of from which foods that you say are and aren’t available (perhaps in response to questions), or which country all the foods you list come from.

Most of the possible clues above can also be used for food brainstorming, e.g. asking students to draw and/or write as many “heavy” or “rectangular” foods as they can within a set time period. Brainstorming can be made more fun by doing it as a clapping game (the next person must think of something relevant that hasn’t been mentioned yet on the third clap), with a beach ball (e.g. without catching the ball students must think of something before the ball they knocked back volleyball-style reaches anyone else), or as a brainstorming race (members of each team taking turns writing on a section of the board or a piece of paper, with one point for anything correct that no other teams have written after the teacher tells everyone to stop). Brainstorming can also be turned into more of a project, e.g. thinking of or researching a food for each letter of the alphabet.

My two other standard activities for food vocabulary are just as unoriginal but reliable as those above – Pictionary and miming. Miming can be done with whole sentences (e.g. “You are peeling an apple”) or individual words, but in the latter case you will have to think carefully about which foods can be mimed and if you will allow sound effects or not (e.g. if students can make the crunching sound when they mime biting into an apple). Pictionary can be made more interesting with unusual and disgusting combinations of foods, e.g. “two huge cherries” and “a spider pizza”.

You can add an element of fun to shopping and restaurant roleplays, e.g. by not telling them what is in the shop or on the menu, or by giving the shop assistant or waiter roleplay cards like “You only have vegetables” or “All your food has alcohol in it”.

The topic of food also goes very well with project work, e.g. designing healthier diets, putting together menus, writing recipes, describing local table manners, drawing food pyramids, writing questionnaires, drawing the process of growing and processing food, and dividing food into categories. As well as drawing foods, students can make 3D models, take photos and cut photos out of magazines.

Although fewer than you might imagine, there are also good songs and storybooks on this topic, e.g. The Very Hungry Caterpillar and the song Mr Greedy’s Very Light Lunch.

Written by Alex Case for July 2012
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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