How to teach describing objects
Although textbooks usually spend more time on describing people like friends and family, in real life we are as likely to want to describe our new TV, favourite car, our living room knickknacks, or traditional objects in our cultures. This is even more important for students in business and ESP areas (design, R&D, etc). Describing objects can also add some context and useful vocabulary to grammar lessons such as classes on passive voice and comparisons.
What students need to know about describing objects
Things that students might need to say or write about objects include:
- name (“ruler”, “lighter”, etc)
- stats/ specs (dimensions, cost, power use, etc)
- comparisons to other objects
- history (origins, invention, previous owners, etc)
- effects on the senses (brightness, texture/ feel, sound, etc)
- reasons for its shape, colour, etc
- good points/ USPs
- bad points/ possible problems
- questions about them
Related grammar includes passive voice (“It was made by my grandmother”), like as a preposition (“What is your new bike like?” “A kimono is like a dress, but…”) and verbs of sensation (“looks”, “sounds like”, etc).
How to present the language of describing objects
The most obvious starting point for this language is students matching the names and/ or pictures of objects to some descriptions, perhaps after trying to describe those things themselves. This could include guessing the origins, materials, etc of the things they can see.
There are textbook versions of this, and it’s also possible to find suitable real-life descriptions. However, both of these can have problems like being so easy to guess that students don’t need to read or listen carefully, or conversely only being understandable if students already know much of the language that you want to present. Such descriptions therefore often need rewriting at least a little. You may also want to add distractors that don’t match any of the descriptions.
After a basic comprehension task such as that matching to descriptions, students can read again more carefully to put the language into a table with the categories above (colours, materials, etc). They can then use the same table to brainstorm more ideas and/ or find more vocabulary in lists of useful language. They can also look for patterns in the language such as different expressions with “like” and “be + PP”.
How to practise describing objects
The most useful practise of this point is speaking that is similar to what students might want to do outside the classroom, especially if that is likely to produce lots of the useful language mentioned above. For most business and ESP students, that is describing the thing that they design, market, sell, research, etc. In real life this is most likely to happen in sales situations such as presentations of a new product, and when meeting someone who hasn’t heard of your company, maybe at a networking event or around a conference/ trade fair. These therefore all make for good roleplay situations.
For general English students, perhaps the most realistic situation with the widest range of language practice is having to describe things that are common in their own culture that other people might not know such as “piñata” and “geta”. This can be fun and motivating even as a simple task like trying their best to describe one of the objects on the worksheet, then taking questions and being helped to describe it better. If the other students actually also know all of the same objects, it can also be turned into a guessing game where the other students guess what is being described before they ask questions and help make the descriptions better. The rest of this article gives some more game-like activities like this.
Describing objects games
Describing objects bluff
Make a list of objects with a mix of ones that students should know the names of and some others which no one is likely to know. A classmate asks a student about one which they don’t understand from the name, and the person who was asked describes it in as much detail as they can, including answering questions, even if they actually don’t know what it is. The person who asked about it then guesses if they really knew that thing or not.
Describing objects extended speaking game
A student chooses a category like “one thing in this classroom”, “a present you received” or “something in your bedroom” and talk about that one thing for as long as they can. They get points for how long they could speak, e.g. one point per 15 seconds (minus time off for silence), then their partners get one point for each question they can ask which wasn’t answered in the presentation.
Describing objects random pelmanism
Find at least 20 objects which students should know the names of and which can be described using the language that you have presented, and make cards for each. Students spread the cards face down across the table, then take turns taking two cards and trying to explain how they are similar in some way. For example, if their two cards say “eraser” and “sponge”, they can say “They are both soft” or “They both cost under a pound”. If their partner agrees that that is true and no one has used exactly the same comparison before, they keep the two cards and score a point. Play continues until all the cards are gone.
Creating new objects from the descriptions game
Students choose a few words and expressions at random, then try to think of something that matches all of them, making up a new invention if nothing of that kind presently exists (or if you have banned them from describing existing things). For example, if they pick “smooth”, “egg-shaped”, “orange” and “leather”, they could imagine and describe an object you put on your nose while you are sleeping to keep the skin in good condition.
This game can work with them always picking the same number of things to combine (e.g. three), or with each student or group deciding how many they want to be challenged with and getting that many points if they manage it (but no points if they give up).
Alex Case says:
Thanks for the nice comment, Sandra. You are very welcome- please spread the word!
Sandra Anderson says:
Hello Alex, thank you so much for the excellent ESL material you send on a regular basis. It is such a help in preparing lessons for students.