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How to teach describing people

By Alex Case
Talking about what people are like teaching tips

Although textbooks often have lessons on personality and appearance, in real life it is much more common to describe people more generally, including things like age, job, free time interests, and relationships, as in “This is my older brother. He’s a doctor. He doesn’t look much like me, but we both have green eyes, are both workaholics and are really into football. He’s working in Ethiopia at the moment”.

As in that example, language points which could come up in a lesson on describing people include “be” vs “have”, third person S, Present Simple and Continuous, “like” as a preposition, and British and American differences.

How to present the language of describing people

The situation above of describing people in photos is a good way of giving some context to such language, as are conversations related to dating such as talking about a new relationship or trying to set people up on a blind date. Other people who it is reasonably realistic to describe in those kinds of ways include:

  • a new boss
  • a new neighbour
  • a new teacher or classmate (including evening classes such as yoga)
  • a celebrity who the other person doesn’t know (such as a new pop star or favourite vlogger)

Although some textbooks include written descriptions of those kinds of people such as an email to a friend after starting to date someone new, for written texts it is perhaps better to go for magazine profiles of people who have just become famous such as those in new reality TV programmes.

Before reading or listening, students could describe people from their photos (including guessing things not shown like age), or guess things about them from a description of who they are (“the youngest political leader in the world right now”).

Before looking at the language in detail, possible general comprehension questions include about how positive or negative the speaker and listener feel about that person, matching the descriptions to the photos (starting with things not shown in the photos like personality and dislikes), and checking how right their predictions are.

The easiest basic language analysis is for students to put the related vocabulary into columns labelled “appearance”, “personality”, “relationships”, etc. You can also do grammar at the same time with columns labelled “be+”, “have+” and “like+”, or by students adding those three words to a gapped version of the same text.

How to practise describing people

Real and imaginary describing people

The obvious next step is for students to take part in dialogues where they describe the same kinds of people. To go beyond that, students will need to use their imaginations, perhaps as a bluffing game, e.g. guessing which descriptions or which parts of the descriptions are not real.

Describing people guessing game

Describing people can be made a little more fun by students choosing someone on a list like “A local shop assistant” and “One of my cousins” and describing that person until their partner guesses which person it is.

Ideal descriptions

Students describe the best possible personality, appearance, etc of a newsreader, a husband, a private tutor, etc.

Describing people discussion questions

Language exams like IELTS and Cambridge First often have questions on this topic like “What was your favourite teacher like?”, “Can you describe your best friend?”, and “Which of your parents are you most like?” Students might also be able to make up similar questions like “Do you look like your siblings?”

Describing people extended speaking

A student talks as long as they can about their primary school teacher, dentist, uncle, etc, then their partner asks as many follow-up questions as they can. If you want to score, you can give points for each period of 20 seconds that they speak (with time off for silence), and a point for each question that wasn’t answered in the mini-presentation and was asked later.

This can also be turned into a bluffing game, where they only say what they know during the extended speaking but then answer all questions, including ones they don’t really know the answer to like “What’s his favourite sport?” Their partner then guesses which answers are just imagination.

Describing people coin games

Personal profiles coin game

Students ask yes/ no questions about someone like “Are they patient?”, with the person answering flipping a coin each time to decide if the answer is positive or negative. The questioner then decides if they want that person as a date, nanny, member of their team, etc.

Matchmakers coin game

This is almost the same as the game above, but with both students taking turns asking and answering, to see if their friends could be compatible and so suitable for a blind date.

Lost twin coin game

Students roleplay having a telephone or IM conversation with someone who they suspect is a long lost relative, but flip a coin to decide if they will react to each personal description with “Me too” (heads) or “Really? I…” (tails). When they finish that conversation, they can share the most amazing similarities in the class (“Both of us have pink teddy bears called Dave”).

The same can be done without a coin by just asking them to respond in those two ways fifty percent of the time each.

Describing people ask and tell

The problem with students making up their own questions on this topic is that they tend to make ones like “What is your postman like?” which are difficult or impossible to answer. This activity makes that aspect part of the game by students making up questions and then flipping a coin to see if they can ask it to someone else (heads), or must answer it themselves (tails, for “tell”).

Good and taboo describing people questions

This is another good way of making students think more carefully about what kinds of things they ask about. Students try to only choose suitable questions from a list of questions like “Are you more like your mother or your father?”, “Is your boss good looking?” and “Do you want your children to be blond?”

Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET October 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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