15 Real Life Situations for the Language of Describing People

By Alex Case
Teaching the vocabulary of appearances that people actually use outside of class

Many of the activities commonly used with the topic of describing people such as ranking personality words and picture dictations are totally unlike anything we do in real life. Although this doesn’t have to be a bad thing if these are the most effective and fun ways of practising the language, there are several potential dangers: that students will be put off what can be a difficult language point by thinking it is trivial; that teachers will spend the majority of classroom time on the most difficult parts of the language rather than the most used; or that the teacher will get carried away with the great games available for this language point and lose sight of how much students might or might not need this kind of language in real life. Here are 15 suggestions for situations where we do use this kind of language outside the classroom, and ideas for how we can use that fact in our classroom activities.

1. Meeting someone at the airport/ meeting someone for a blind date
This can be reproduced by students writing emails describing themselves, but putting fake names or numbers instead of their real names. Students then read one of the emails and as quickly as possible go up to someone and say “Are you number 1/ Ezekiel?” and get one point for each right guess but lose one point for each wrong guess. The person with most points after 5 minutes is the winner. Alternatively, do something similar with a picture of an airport full of people or a town square with lots of people waiting.

2. Reading descriptions to find if you want to go on a blind date
For example, “internet dating”. Students can read descriptions of famous people, choose which one sounds best and check it against the photos to see if they made the right choice.

3. Trying to fix someone else up for a blind date
For example, describing a male colleague to a female friend to see if she wants you to arrange for them to “accidentally” meet. To make it into a game, students are given the name and/ or photo one person each and without giving the names or showing the photos, they match up the males and females in the best combination they can. This works best if the people are chosen for their comedic potential, e.g. Hannibal the Cannibal and Queen Elizabeth.

4. Filling in a dating agency application form
Students can deliberately add a certain number of inaccuracies, and see if other students can spot them.

5. Describing a new boyfriend or girlfriend or someone you are interested in to your friends or family
One student does this with a photo or with the description of a famous person (without showing it to the other people or saying the name, and trying to just say good things), and the other students pretend to be the parents or friends, ask questions and say if they approve or disapprove. The student then reveals the photo or name of the famous person, who should be someone obviously attractive or totally unacceptable. Alternatively, people can describe real and imaginary boyfriends and girlfriends, and the others have to guess if they are real or not.

6. Trying to explain which famous person you mean when you can’t remember their name
This can be with people describing until others guess, or as the game 20 Questions.

7. Talking about what kinds of people you usually fancy (= your type)
The other person listens, asks questions and tries to find the most suitable person in a magazine

8. Deciding which job candidate is most suitable for the job
Activities like this are available in many textbooks and supplementary books, especially Business English ones.

9. Deciding which actor is most suitable for each part
If you use a real film or TV series that the students don’t know yet, matching the physical descriptions or photos to the descriptions of the characters’ jobs/ personality etc (but not appearance), you can then watch part of the TV series or movie and find out what the real casting director decided.

10. Describing who you most take after in your family
This can be difficult to turn into real communication in the classroom. One way is for one student to describe their two parents in detail, perhaps in reply to questions, and then the person listening says which parent it sounds like they most take after (or most take after in certain aspects), and check if the person agrees. You can also extend this to grandparents.

11. Describing what people are like in a particular region or country/ correcting people’s misconceptions
Students start off saying and correcting obviously wrong thing like “There are so many blond people in India” and move onto trying to find exceptions etc to things that people usually say, such as “Swedish people are all really tall”

12. Describing why you felt different somewhere or at some time
For example, “At primary school, I was the only girl with short hair”. This can be played as a bluff game, for example by giving students a card that says “Tell the truth” or “Tell the story of how you were the only person in the country you visited who had dyed hair”

13. Writing recruitment ads for jobs that demand particular kinds of appearance
And deciding if writing desirable appearance in job ads is allowable, and if so, for which jobs.

14. Pen friend letters
The problem with this one is that the task tends to be uncommunicative and lack fun- unless a real pen friend is reading it of course! Alternatively, they can exchange pen friend letters and write back to each other, including one untrue detail that their partner has to spot when they read it. A funnier but less realistic variation is to do it as a “chain letter”, where each person writes one line without seeing the previous lines and then hands it to the next person to continue.

15. Suggested birthday presents
As a shop assistant/ shopper roleplay or as friends giving advice. More communication and fun can be added by people not showing pictures of the objects they are recommending or the famous people they are shopping for until after they have made their decisions.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet July 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
© Teflnet


  • Jaelani says:

    Thanks forinsightfull ideas

  • Joan Killeen says:

    Thank you. I have picked up several ideas here to use with my (difficult) younger teenagers. I tend to keep away from dating and those sensitive topics because some of them are just not ready and the last thing I want is to make them feel ill-at-ease. But there are lots of good ‘safer’ ideas, especially the airport/railway station theme. Brilliant!

Leave a comment

Teflnet : ESL Lesson Plans : Classroom Ideas : Vocabulary TEFL Ideas : 15 Real Life Situations for the Language of Describing People