How to Teach this/that/these/those
Young learner textbooks probably spend more time than they should on “This is a cup”, “Those are trousers” etc, with the lack of realism in the dialogues used to present those forms being a good sign as to how little of a priority it should probably be. There are reasons other than being trapped by the syllabus for spending a bit of time on it, however, for example:
- Practice of “these” and “those” is (like practice of “they”) good reinforcement for plural S
- It ties in naturally with things that are always plural like “jeans” and “scissors”
- The language will come up naturally in class all the time anyway, meaning it is easy to present in a natural context and recycle in almost every lesson that follows
- It can be combined with new vocabulary in the same way as “This is a cat” often comes up during presentation of vocabulary with flashcards
- Students are unlikely to get the hang of it (or be motivated to do so) with just the book exercises
- It’s comparatively easy to present without the need for L1
- There are loads of fun activities to practise it
The biggest issue with this language point is that the most natural answers to “What is this/that?” and “What are these/those?” are usually simply “It is a…” and “They are…”, meaning in normal classroom communication students will not be producing the target forms. The most obvious solution to that is of course to get the students to ask the questions, e.g. them being allowed to ask the teacher five questions during a vocabulary brainstorming task, or students testing each other in pairs. I also tend to push the rather unnatural exchanges “What are these?” “These are…” etc while working on this language point, but allowing all correct answers during communication, including during games with points. I also accept the inevitable drift back into more natural exchanges during the weeks and months after the first presentation of this point.
Especially if you insist on this/that/these/those in the answers, another issue is that “this”/“that” etc aren’t always the same for all the people involved in communication. For this reason, all people involved in presentation or practice should sit near to each other and face in the same direction, and this most particularly includes the teacher who is introducing the language. It is also best to have the objects, flashcards etc that will be referred in pairs of near and far away ones so that it is very clear which one is which.
Both of the issues above can be illustrated with one of my favourite presentation and practice games. In the same way as a teacher often holds up a card saying “What’s this?”, the teacher holds up two cards at the same time, one closer and one further from the students and the teacher (who is standing just in front of the students and also facing towards the board). The students must listen to the question carefully and only shout out the correct one of the two cards, e.g. shouting out the name of the card which is further from the teacher and students (i.e. closer to the whiteboard) if the teacher asks “What’s that?” or “What are those?” This can be made even more fun by making it difficult to see the cards, e.g. holding the this/these card close to the teacher’s body or holding the that/those card directly behind the this/these card. It is also possible to practise the this/those distinction and that/those distinction by holding up a singular card and plural card next to each other, i.e. the same distance away from the teacher and students as each other.
An even simpler drilling game is for the teacher to drill “This, that, these, those” while pointing one finger near themselves, one finger far away, two fingers near themselves, then two fingers far away. The same thing can also be done with full sentences such as “This is a chair. That is a chair. These are chairs. Those are chairs” while pointing at those things (or pictures of them). Students should be encouraged to copy the gestures as well as the words. After one or two complete cycles, the teacher breaks the chain and switches to a random one of that four. The first student to shout out the right word or sentence and do the accompanying gesture gets a point, and/or any students doing the wrong thing or taking too long lose a point. Students can also take the teacher’s role.
A good variation of drilling and shouting out games like that above is for the teacher to have torches that they shine on the thing or things that the students should identify. With just one torch, students should shout out “these” or “those” if the beam touches two identical objects, e.g. laps over two chairs. The same thing would work with laser pens, although in this case you would either need two or would need to move it constantly between two objects if you wanted students to shout out “these” or “those”.
Another piece of hardware you can use is a stick. Make up a stick that points straight out (to represent that and those) but also has another bit that branches off to point more up, down, left or right (depending on which way you twist the stick, to represent this and these). Point it, preferably so that both parts are pointing at something, then ask a question.