An important goal of TEFL teaching is to keep students talking, getting them to practice new words and reinforce those they’ve learned. A simple tactic for doing this is asking questions about what they have, whether it be a drawing, a book, or a toy. However many teachers, myself included, often fall into a rut of asking the same questions over and over long after their kids have outgrown them merely because it often seems there are only so many ways for a kid to describe something. Chief among such questions are “What color is it?” “How many are there?” “Is it big or little?”
As teachers, we have to move away from this routine. It’s boring, it’s repetitive, and it doesn’t challenge the kids to think creatively or use their English in new ways. It is important to remember that asking questions isn’t only intended to test their vocabulary, but also to help them think outside the box. Here are some more challenging description methods you can try with your students:
Give it personality: What is its name?
This can easily be asked of toys and drawings, and of everyday objects as well. Oftentimes when I start using this question they’ll simply tell me what something is (“Me draw bunny!”). But simply telling me that a drawing of a bunny is a bunny isn’t enough—by getting them to name that bunny, it often sparks a whole new conversation (“Bunny name is Zombie. Zombie is silly monster; Zombie eats shoes”). Names are associated with personalities and individuality—a concept not lost on children.
Break it down: What shapes is it made of?
Asking what shape something is can be very simple, but asking what shapes something is made of can become very complex and can also be a great way to discover new words. For example, try asking a kid what shapes a teddy bear is made of. They’ll definitely start with the most simple (“Nose is triangle; foot is circle.”) but will soon rise to the challenge of breaking down more complicated portions (“Ear is BIG circle and little circle; tummy is loooooong circle.”). Here the teacher also learns what shapes the kids don’t know and can introduce words like oval or oblong.
Opposites & Abstract: What is it not?
A great way to encourage abstract thinking is to ask the students for the exact opposite of the information they have. Basically, instead of asking “What is it?” try asking “What is it not?”. This challenges them to rack their brain for relevant words and phrases rather than simply identifying what they see in front of them, and then decide whether those words apply to the situation. Further, it helps them practice more varied sentence structure other than “It is _____.” For example, if you’ve asked your students what the weather is, try asking them what the weather isn’t today. Rather than the repetitive “It is sunny,” you’ll be able to elicit a greater range of responses (It’s not rainy! It isn’t stormy. No tornado today!”).
Give these a try. See how they work in your classroom!