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How to teach this and that

By Alex Case
How to present the two most basic demonstratives in adult and young learner classes, including typical student confusions when using “this” and “that”

“This” and “that” are vital words at all ages and levels, from students answering the (clichéd but unavoidable) question “What’s this?” with “It’s a pen”, to students trying to understand referencing in academic texts. This article therefore gives tips on teaching “this” and “that” in all kinds of classes.

What students need to know about this and that

Physically, “this” is simply something near the speaker, while “that” is something further away, as in “That chair is broken, but this chair is fine”.

With low-level and/ or young students, that will usually be all they need to know. At higher levels, students will also come across “this” and “that” as reference words in sentences like “However, this is still controversial” and “That did not work as expected”. “This” and “that” are often interchangeable in such sentences, with “that” sometimes adding the nuance of some kind of separation from the writer or speaker such as it being someone else’s idea or being long ago.

Common problems with this and that

More than mixing them up with each other, students often confused both “this” and “that” with “it”. As a pronoun, “it” only refers to the subject or object of the previous sentence, just like “he” or “they”. “This” and “that” can also refer to such things, especially if we want to use strong stress (“THIS is the best!”). However, “this/ that” can also refer to larger bits of text such as the whole idea in the previous three sentences. “It” cannot be used that way.

Because “it” refers back to something in the last sentence, we don’t usually use “it” when referring to something for the first time. This is why “What’s this?” “It’s a pen” is more natural than variations like “What is it?” and “This is a pen”.

Many languages have a common third term for things further away than “that”, which is possible with the expression “that over there” but is not very common in English.

How to present this and that

For the physical meaning, the most important thing is to make “this” and “that” the same for the teacher and students, usually by standing between two students and placing the pictures or objects nearer to everyone and further away from everyone. You can emphasise the distance meaning of “that” by:

  • stretching your pointing arm as far as you can
  • leaning your body towards the distant object
  • shading your eyes
  • using a strained voice

“This” and “that” can be brought into class long before presenting them by naturally using “What’s that?” when presenting the names of distant objects like “ceiling” and “tree”. When you are ready to present the difference, you can go from pointing and asking “What’s this?” “It’s an eraser” “What’s that?” “It’s a cloud” to mixing up the same two questions without pointing. I then do the same with two flashcards held nearer and further away.

For reference words in text, students can be asked to do the very useful comprehension task of underlining the ideas that “this” and “that” refer to in an article. If you do the same for “it”, students should see that the underlined bits for “this” and “that” are often longer. It’s more difficult to elicit any differences between “this” and “that”, and you may have to rewrite the text to make the distinction clearer.

How to practise this and that

There is an article on this site with games for practising the basic physical meanings of “this” and “that”. For referencing, it can be useful to give students a text where both of those words have been replaced by “it”, and ask them to change all the places where “it” is incorrect.

Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET December 2023
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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