Matt Smith

Mastering the art of description

Activities that go over well in the classroom


As I believe I have mentioned previously on this site, my wife is Korean, or a speaker of English as a second language herself. And so sometimes it is useful to ask her what, out of the spectrum of activities that might be used to introduce and develop a particular language skill, she found to be most helpful and engaging. Which I know would have some people – some very fashionable people – thinking ‘well, that’s a strategy of very limited use, different people have different learning preferences and styles’ – I guess, therefore, I need to make some sort of comment there before I proceed with what it is I really want to talk about this month.

Because most of the world lives in societies where there are great inequalities in terms of the possession of wealth, and because to be a ‘have’ all too frequently necessitates the exploitation of one’s fellow human being, a fundamental part of such societies is that we believe people are born different in terms of their intelligence, or in terms of an imagined neurological template for behaviour – I’m not going to go too far into this here, but you try explaining it, and I mean really explaining it and not just tip-toeing through the daisies of surface thought and what everyone agrees upon, in a way that doesn’t shed an altogether unpleasant light on inequality and exploitation in any other way. So, because there is so much social convenience attached to this concept, it’s the official party line – people want to push it because it lends justification to the things they want to do, or they are fixated with the idea because the pushers have so saturated the infosphere with this concept. In addition, people from the TV generation (my generation) don’t really want to concentrate on anything too taxing in terms of brain power, and you have all those people in the world who are going to think what they want to think and do what they want to do without ever giving the slightest credence to any other option – altogether these things lend a lot (a heck of a lot) of added seriousness to the idea that teachers have to cater to individual’s ‘learning preferences’ (read in all too many cases ‘personal ideas about themselves and the world’).

Obviously, though, if you know anything about ‘that little thing that not many people have heard about that happened a few hundred years ago called the scientific enlightenment’, and particularly if you’ve ever ‘bottom up’ processed the meaning of the theory of evolution, people are a lot more homogeneous (again, a heck of a lot more) than popular/dominant theory recognises – while I don’t discount learning style and preferences altogether in my pedagogy, I find at any rate that there’s a fair chance that an activity one person really likes is usually quite popular with most.

That’s the serious shit out of the way anyway – the reason I bring up my wife again is that some time ago she reminded me about the all-time language activity that you can use, and that I’ve been thinking about lately because I’ve been using it with a couple of the classes I teach. Said all-time activity is one that, when it is properly orchestrated, I find really intrigues students of all types – if you haven’t added it to your repertoire, it’s such a versatile, useful and enjoyable activity I’d like to remind you here that you could. The game I’m talking about is Taboo – the essence of the game is that you give students something to describe, as well as a list of words (‘taboo’ words) they cannot say in the process, and that they have to do the best they can to get across to their classmates what it is they are talking about.

Now it is tempting to say that the chief value of this game is that it teaches students and allows them to practice strategies by which to circumvent grey areas in their technical knowledge – with a little further introspection, though, we can see that here is a fun activity that does not just this, but quite a lot else besides. I’ll just quickly go through some of the things I’ve been using it for lately – once you’re used to the activity, you’ll intuit for yourself the enormous breadth of things to which it might be applied.

I’ve been using the activity lately to teach the description of simple nouns with a lower intermediate group – here’s the procedure I’ve employed, and what it teaches them along the way. The first thing I do is give them a list of nouns we are going to stick to in the game – most of them will be nouns they have already learnt, because the learning objective is to practice the art of description rather than acquire this type of vocabulary, but there is the opportunity here for them to learn a few extra, and to clean up their pronunciation. I just read through the list with them in a bit of a drill to get them speaking what they see spelt in front of them correctly, and I then ask them which ones they don’t know so that I can explain them. Here is the opportunity to introduce them to the descriptive strategies they will be learning in the game, before you go directly translating anything on their noun list into their own language you can start saying how big, what colour, what shape etc. things are – the important thing here, remember, is that everybody knows all the nouns on their worksheet, or has an accurate understanding, so that they can all participate equally in the game. With the group I’ve been doing this with most recently I’ve just made a few lists of things like fruit, vegetables, common objects and animals – I find they are much more eager to engage with this particular part of the lesson if you use the fruits, vegetables and so forth in their immediate experience, rather than ones from other places of which they can have no conception of whatsoever.

Then, I just stick what information we might give to describe the things on the list (colour, shape, size, mass, origin, use etc., don’t go too far overboard to begin with) on a PowerPoint slide, and point out that giving this information is the art of English description (and it does vary, Koreans for example would never describe much of what I’ve mentioned without talking firstly about the Korean people’s feelings and folklore in regards to the noun); subsequently, I show them, still on a presentation (for a reason I’ll get to in a sec) that for most of this stuff you either have to give a direct statement, or use a comparison, to deliver the appropriate understanding. So, they see a few slides that show ‘Colour – It is green, black, blue etc., It is the same colour as ______.’, ‘Aroma – It smells good, bad etc., It smells like ________.’, ‘Origin – It comes from _________., We can see it in _________.’ that show them the language structures they will be using in the game, and that allow them to become familiar with some of the words that make these descriptive strategies work (of course everyone has to know what ‘brown’ means before they can enjoy the game); you can just flick through these, or show them how they can deliver their descriptive information, and then on a final slide show them completely, and complete with a bit of modelling on your behalf, how to play the game. Because I don’t like rampant guessing, or want them to be considerate when it comes to thinking exactly what is it on their worksheet that their mates are describing, I make it a team activity – they can get a point if they guess correctly, but they must suffer some sort of exorbitant penalty if they blow it. At the same time, you can penalise them for speaking in their own language, for using their hands instead of words, for speaking the comparative structures incorrectly, and for doing any other stuff you discover is really non-conducive to the educational road along which you’re leading them.

I chuck it all on a PowerPoint presentation, to get back to this, so that after I give them a card (on which there is a noun they are to describe, some forbidden lexicon, and a bit of a picture of the noun so they are confident about what it is they are explaining) they just don’t have to summons from thin air, or ruffle through sheets of paper to find, the strategies for communication I have just taught them – I get them out the front, and until they get in the swing of things I suggest a category of information for them to give, I go to the slide that explains how to do that, and they can look at that to help them. Put them at the front of the class, and the projector screen at the back, and they even have to look at their audience while they speak!

In this case, in other words, this is what they are learning – they get a bit of pronunciation practice and learn a few extra fruits and veges and things, they learn how to make direct statements and comparisons about things correctly, and they learn how to use English to bridge an information gap in a context in which they are under considerable compulsion, generated by the nature of the activity in the personal sense, as well as by the expectant stares of their eager-to-score-a-few-points classmates, to speak. But you wouldn’t limit yourself there, like I said, you can venture into other word classes, more complex descriptive rhetoric, nouns that require categories of descriptive information beyond those I’ve mentioned, and so on.

Have a lash in class, you probably do already, and if you would like to discuss it further I’m keen as always to hear from you




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