How to Teach Describing Appearances

By Alex Case
How to present and practise language for describing how people look

Describing how people look is a common textbook topic and has lots of nice vocabulary, but there are not many realistic situations it can be used in. This article therefore gives some advice on how to prepare to present and practise this useful but tricky to teach topic. There are also articles on this site on describing appearances games and describing people more generally. 

What students need to know about describing appearances

To describe the appearances of people they know, students will need to know:

  • body parts (eyes, hair, etc)
  • adjectives to describe (parts of) people (tall, long, medium-build, etc), including opposites (curly/ straight, etc)
  • expressions with “be” and “have” (“He is short but muscular. He has lots of cool tattoos”, etc)
  • connotations (that “skinny” can be negative but “slim” is positive, etc)

Typical student problems with describing appearances

Students tend to have issues with:

  • mixing up “be” and “have” (“He has blond” X, “He is blond hair” X, etc)
  • mixing up the (positive, negative and neutral) connotations of words (using “fat” without meaning to be rude, etc)
  • using “medium” on its own (instead of “medium-length”, “medium-height”, “medium-build”, etc)

How to present describing appearances

The typical textbook activity of matching pictures to written or recorded descriptions works well, as students can do so successfully by using whatever vocabulary they know and by eliminating other options even when they don’t know much of the target language. However, you need to make sure that the answers aren’t too obvious from the first sentence, so that students can’t ignore the rest of the text. Students can then match the rest of the language to features of those pictures, e.g. finding “wavy hair” on the one they identified as “Jane” and “pierced eyebrows” on the one they spotted was “Ralph”. They can then try to work out patterns with that language such as what kinds of expressions go with “be” and “have”. That could include matching opposites and similar words with opposite connotations (looking for clues like “People say that he is…, but I think…”)

How to practise describing appearances

Describing appearances communicative speaking activities

Describing appearances bluff

Students choose a random piece of appearances vocabulary and try to use it as quickly as they can in a personal sentence like “My brother has really long legs” and “My mother used to have green hair”, using their imagination if they can’t think of anything true. After some follow-up questions, their partners guess if that statement is true or not.

Good and bad appearance questions

Make a list with a mix of normal and taboo questions like “Have you ever permed or dyed your hair?” and “Did you use to be good looking when you were younger?” Students can try to only ask each other the good questions, or you can do a more fun version like:

  • grading the questions from 1 for easy to answer to 5 for taboo, then choosing which how challenging they want their next question to be (e.g. being asked a three-point question for three points, with no points if they decline to answer)
  • flipping a coin to decide if they can ask that question (heads) or have to answer it themselves (tails)

Describing appearances storytelling activities

There tends to be a lot of appearance language in stories such as fairy tales, love stories, and encounters with monsters and aliens. This can be exploited with:

  • vocabulary on cards to use as much as possible in a story
  • gapped sentence like “Her hair was…” to fill, perhaps as a chain story/ consequences game where they can’t see the previous lines of the story when they fill the next gap
Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET March 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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