The Best (and yet still mostly useless) Lesson I’ve Taught This Year

After 14 years of teaching, in one form or another, the Physical Description Unit, I finally have found what might be the perfect set of 3 priming activities and a task-based consolidation lesson.  You know the Physical Description Unit, don’t you?  Sure you do.   It’s the unit one where you get to teach fun stuff like:

– low frequency body-part vocabulary such as ‘eyebrows’, ’cheekbones’, ‘forehead’, and ‘earlobes.’

– the use of ‘has’ vs. ‘be’ (“She is tiny, but she has really huge ears!”)

– adjective order (general descriptor, size, shape, and then colour as in, “She has gorgeous, long, wavy, brown nose hairs.”);

– review of negative structures for ‘be’ and ‘has’, especially useful for people who have no defining characteristics (“Well, he’s not tall, and he isn’t short and he doesn’t really have long arms or legs.  He is just kind of normal looking.”)

– cultural norms and their influence on how we describe people (As in, “She has really cute, big ears.”  Big ear-ness being a ‘cute’ thing in Japan.)

– vague ways to describe age (“He is over 50, I think.”)

This is THE unit for non-stop conversation if the students in your class all have friends or family members who lean more to the Steve Buscemi side of the memorable-people-spectrum.  It is not, however, the very best unit for Japanese students who sometimes tend to think that all other Japanese people look the same.  Still, I put together a series of exercises for the unit which seemed to do the job and the students, according to their feedback, were satisfied with it. So here it is:

Activity 1: make a slide show of famous people who are chosen more for their distinct features than their fame.  I recommend Simon Rattle, Meghan Trainor, Angelina Jolie, and Lyle Lovett to name just a few.  Give the students 30 second between slides to write a short physical description of each celebrity photo that flashes up on the screen.  Wander around and pick up a few sentences that students produce.  Write the sentences up on the board, but leave a blank in place of the target language you want students to focus on.  Have the students form pairs, fill in the missing words, and then generate some rules around the target language.  My students produced the following rules:

– Use ‘is’ when describing a person’s whole body.

– Use ‘have’ when describing a part of a person’s body or something connected to their body like hair.

– Use ‘look’ when using an adjective such as ‘friendly’ or ‘crazy’

– Use ‘looks like’ when comparing someone to something or someone else.

Activity 2: have students get into groups of 3 or 4.  Each student picks one photo from their cellphone.  They all lay their cellphones down in the centre of the table and together they chose one and only one of the photos to work with.  As a group they write a physical description of the person in the picture.  Then it’s quiz time.  They show the pictures on their cell phones to another group and then read the descriptions out loud.  The second group listens, discusses, and guesses which photo is being described.  If the students show a decent command of the language at this point, you could turn it into a fluency activity by structuring it as a 4/3/2 exercise in which students have to present their descriptions in successively shorter amounts of time.

Activity 3: This activity starts off as a homework assignment.  I instructed the students to ask one of their family members to be a model.  Students were told to take a decent amount of time to really look at the family member and write a detailed description of him or her.  To help ensure the students weren’t slacking off, I included a few completely arbitrary rules such as: when writing about a person’s hair, you must use 4 adjectives; when writing about a person’s mouth, you must use at least two adjectives; when writing about a person’s earlobes; you must use 316 adjectives and 11 adverbs .  Here is an example of a description one of my students produced:

example 1

Consolidating all those physical features in one lesson composed of 6 easy steps:

1. take all those fantastic descriptions of students’ family members that the students did as homework and tape them up all over the walls.  Label each one with a number.  It should look something like this:

example 2

2. Have all the students wander around the room and read the descriptions.  You can give them a task to make it all a bit more focused.  For example, I gave my students the following two tasks: 1) correct any errors you find in the written descriptions.  2)  try and guess who wrote each description.

3. Students each pick one description which they like.  They then have to draw a picture based on that description.  I set it up in the same style as a running dictation.  The students can read the description as many times as they want, but they have to return to their own desks to draw the picture.  This ensures that students have to hold the language within their working memory which can help facilitate retention (Craik and Tulving, 1975) .  And in addition, they are transforming the language into images, which John Fanselow believes helps, “our brains make more connections than if the mediums remain the same.”

4. Now hang up the pictures on the white board and label them all with a letter.  It will look something like this (quality of artwork will vary):

example 3

5. Have students form small groups and discuss which picture goes with which description and why.  My students were producing excellent sentences such as, “I think picture I is #4, because she has beautiful, long, straight, black hair and she looks like a TV announcer.”  They should write the numbers directly on the picture.  It will look something like this:

example 4

6. Then comes the big reveal.  Hold up the picture and ask who drew it.  Once the student has proudly shouted out sheepishly raised their hand, ask them what number description their picture is based on.  Give both the picture and the description to the person who originally wrote the description.  So now you have a student holding a description of someone in their family, mostly likely their mother, and a picture based on that description.  This alone is often enough to cause a few giggle-explosions.  Ask the student who wrote the description to look at the picture and tell the class some of differences between the picture and their actual family member.  This ends up producing such sentences as “My mother doesn’t have long legs.  And my mother doesn’t have giant hands”

I wrapped up the lesson by asking my students to take the pictures and descriptions home and show them to their family members.  It hadn’t been part of my lesson plan, but as you might have noticed from the above descriptions, the students wrote extremely positive and warm descriptions and I thought it might be a nice gift to the family members.  I also really wanted the students to share the pictures as well.  I thought they would generate a lot of conversation.  And it turns out they did.  One student, M-Chan, told me her mother cried when she read her description.  And K-Kun said his family couldn’t stop laughing when he showed them the picture of his younger brother.  They finally decided to hang it up on the refrigerator door.

So there you have it, the very best series of activities for physical descriptions I’ve ever run in my class.  There’s only one problem. This weekend, I was hanging out with some friends at a professional basketball game in Nara, Japan (yeah, I didn’t realise that professional basketaball was a thing in the Japanese countryside either, but it is)photo-11 and one of my friends said, “So, does your brother look like you?”  And here was my chance to use all that language I had just taught my students.  But you know what I actually did (and I bet you do know.  In fact, I bet you might even be touching your cellphone as you are reading this, thinking, ‘God, Kevin is so slow, I’ve been thinking about cellphones since the second paragraph’)?  I took out my cell-phone and looked for a picture.  But there wasn’t one!  So, do you think I actually used that language I taught my students?  Of course not (and I bet here you might be thinking about opening an SNS app just to see how easy it is to find a picture of your brother, or sister, or mother).  I just looked at my brother’s FaceBook account and flashed everyone his picture.  And everyone agreed, by the way, that my brother did look like me, only he’s much more handsome (true that).

So what am I left with here?  I guess you could argue that, in the odd case my students witness–or worse are the victims of–a crime, they might need this language of physical descriptions.  But even if that happened, I think they would be a little too flustered to rely on the English they learned in this lesson and would be using an electronic dictionary or, perhaps more likely, their cell phone translator apps as they talked to the police.   I guess you could also break down the unit into smaller components and find some useful language points in there.  Knowing specific body part vocabulary might come in handy in the case of an injury; and ‘has’ versus ‘be’ as a comparison of an overall state versus a specific characteristic such as, “The house is big and has wonderful views of the mountains,” might be useful in other contexts.  But the fact is, I wasn’t focused on ‘other contexts’.  I was focused on teaching students how to make physical descriptions.  I’ve been teaching this material for 14 years.  During those 14 years, I haven’t stood still.  I’ve changed it up, tried out new activities, even revisited the underlying assumptions I have about how language acquisition works.  But in the end, I’m left wondering if I only really taught physical descriptions again this year because I’ve taught it for the past 13 years.  It’s especially ironic and disheartening that this lesson utilised so much tech (power point, the internet, cellphone pictures) and yet I somehow failed to recognise how those same changes in technology had mostly done away with the reason for teaching the lesson in the first place.

So here, in this blog post, I have shared with you the very best lesson plan that I will never use again. But before I end this overly long post, I’d like to share 3 questions that have been haunting me lately.  How much of what I teach is truly necessary language? If what I teach is not justifiable based on usage, but I teach it well, and it helps students generate and develop their own language system, does that make the lesson viable?  And perhaps the question that bothers me the most, how can I be sure that with these eyes clouded with experience, I’m able to clearly see the language needs of my students in the here and now?


11 thoughts on “The Best (and yet still mostly useless) Lesson I’ve Taught This Year

  1. Very interesting points. I’ve been thinking about it – the only useful application I could think of is reading stories. That’s where you encounter descriptions of characters.The question is if they will be reading stories in English…
    Great activities!


    • Hi Naomi,

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I also thought about how this unit might help students who were reading a narrative text in which there were descriptions of people as well. And it would be pretty useful for students who need to write a short story which is character driven. But in the push and pull of daily conversation, it’s not high priority language. But maybe focusing on the content, as opposed to the method of how students learned (discovery techniques/language awareness) and practiced (personalisation) isn’t particularly useful either. I remember John Fanselow once said he could teach most of the English a student needed to know with nothing more than a cereal box. And I’m pretty sure that, regardless of the low usage of the target language, the content was slightly more useful than what you’d find on an average box of cereal.



  2. hi kev

    yes the curse of english for specific purposes looms large here, e.g. english for sullen teenagers?
    there’s been some social media chatter on natural order hypothesis and if we accept this then maybe we can look to it to give our curriculum some basis alongside usage, frequency, motivational aspects, x, y, z, alpha to omega and whatever other things we deem fit for our classrooms 🙂

    sorry no helpful answers to these perennial questions


    oh nice to see depth of processing paper make another appearance on your blog 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Mura,

      As always, thanks for a comment that helps expand and shine new light on my post. I think a ESP course for ‘sullen teenagers’ is an excellent idea and I am hoping you might put together a syllabus and share it on your blog.

      I actually haven’t thought about Natural Order Hypothesis in a long time. That and Manfred Pienemann’s Teachability Hypothesis are interesting, and the idea that there is a natural order to the acquisition of structures that is inherently limited by a students interlanguage development would be a nice additional base for a curriculum, but then we run into the problem of if we should teach or avoid structures because students aren’t prepared for them?

      It’s always kind of shocking to me how much we still don’t know about just how people acquire a second language. In the face of the uncertainty, perhaps lessons which result in heightened language awareness, development in the techniques students need for autonomous learning, a sense of success and a dash of enjoyment are really enough to qualify any lesson a success.



  3. Hi Kevin,

    A great point, well-made. In the EFL classroom, we often end up with this well-defined and refined lessons that ‘always’ work, but the engagement aspect often overirdes the usefulness.

    As it happens, I have a half-finished blogpost on a similar matter that you have inspired me to finally finish off. My youngest kid is now 18 months old and responding to all sorts of linguistic stimuli and one of his current favourites is anything to do with hands. It struck me as he cycled through responses to ‘clap your hands’, ‘show me your hands’, ‘put it in my hand’, and so on, thay most coursebooks would teach the word ‘hand’ as a body part most likely together with have got as a grammar point and some silly ‘the alien has got 6 hands’ type of production activity…

    Thanks for the post and for reminding me about blogging again!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Dave,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I’ve been a fan of your blog from way back (at least ‘way back’ in internet years, which is like dog years multiplied by 6.4…or something like that). I like your example of ‘hands’ and those collocations. Another one might be “Put your hands up.” I bet there must be scads of ways to teach body part vocabulary using these kinds of phrases which would be a novel take on the standard lesson plan. Thanks for the idea.

      And if this lesson ends up leading to a new post on RTL, then teaching this slightly unnecessary lesson was most worthwhile indeed.



  4. Lovely post Kevin, and does sound like a very good lesson in that the students got to move around and use English with each other, got use a range of skills and language and felt motivated to look at and talk about people connected personally to them/certain celebrities.

    I agree it’s hard to think of any situation when you would really use language like this bar joining a picture-less dating website or describing someone to the police (depressing much??). Even looking at pictures of celebrities we probably use language more like “what has she done to her X?” and “He is such a Y” ☺ But just because it’s ‘themed’ rather than contextualised language doesn’t mean it’s not useful.

    Anyway to answer your Qs: 1) “How much of what I teach is truly necessary language?” Depends what your students truly need to do in English. If your students don’t have specific needs then I guess a (reputable) coursebook’s language focus decisions are as good as any – though yours might be better! 2) “If what I teach is not justifiable based on usage, but I teach it well, and it helps students generate and develop their own language system, does that make the lesson viable?” If you agree with above that “true necessity” may not be immediately relevant in your context, then my answer to this question is definitely yes. Forget the weak connecting context of “describing people” and look at it for what it really is in most grammar-based coursebooks: a way to reinforce the verbs be and have in very common patterns – to feed in ideas about adjective order that can filter through to a much wider range of descriptive contexts – to teach some vocabulary which sounds ridiculous in long artificially drawn out sentences but is still pretty useful and relatively high-frequency for the most part (Mura already made this point!) 3) “how can I be sure that with these eyes clouded with experience, I’m able to clearly see the language needs of my students in the here and now?” I think you can be somewhat reassured by the fact that you reflect and you blog and you question and you re-shape and refine your lessons time after time, which is awesome. Also, keep asking your students??


    • Hi Sophia,

      Thank you. Reading your comments are always such a welcome step in my reflective process. I hadn’t really thought about the fact the lesson could be viewed as themed vs contextualised. I was so hung up on the fact that the language itself might be outdated in a functional kind of way, I was unable to see it from a different angle. And it’s true that my students do not have any pressing, focused language needs. They like English, want to get better at it, and mostly have a vague idea of doing something in their future that requires a higher level of proficiency than the average Japanese English speaker. So maybe just keeping them engaged with the language and playing with it is sometimes enough.

      Actually, today we were reviewing this particular unit, only we focused on clothes. Students had taken pictures of their favourite piece of clothing, brought in the photos and then wrote short descriptions of them. In many respects it was similar to the original class. The students, having already had a bit of practice with adjective word order, seemed to loosen up and flat out enjoy making these enormous, teetering sentences with 8 or 9 adjectives. And I noticed that for some of the students, something clicked and that they were making a conscious effort to include articles. Perhaps the sheer artificiality of it all made the structure of a noun phrase more salient. And the students also liked learning about each others’ clothes. We are planning to put up a blog at the start of next week with the photos and sentences and see if anyone else in the world is even slightly interested in what kind of clothes the typical high school student in Japan is digging nowadays.

      Thanks again Sophia,



  5. Although of course we should pay attention to language that students need, I don’t think we should get too paranoid about it with kids. After all, how many people need trig or the date of the Magna Carta?? Our main job is to inspire our students to enjoy and continue with English, and if “ear lobe” helps, then why the hell not!


    • Hi Alex,

      Thanks for dropping in and leaving a comment. I guess, for the most part (how’s that for a hedge), I agree with you. I’m in a high school and my students do have to learn all kinds of things they don’t really want to learn and maybe don’t even ‘need.’ But I still feel turning a critical eye even on the most successful lessons is an important part of the reflective process. Still, I appreciate the positive support.

      I’m also not sure that students should have to take classes where they learn the Magna Carta or trig or even English without someone being able to clearly explain why, and to a certain extent convince the students that it’s necessary. The way things work now, having many students with no interest in a subject, no understanding of why they have to take it, and remembering almost nothing once it’s over, doesn’t seem to be the best way to run an education system. Why do we make the students learn those things anyway?



      • That’s definitely a question that teachers, schools, education boards, governments etc should be asking, though I doubt there is any easy way of choosing which things to learn. When they do so, though, I do think “To inspire” should be a much higher priority than to “Teach practically useful things”, certainly when it comes to physics, but even when it comes to language. For one thing, apparently the only advantage that students who start extensive English classes earlier have is more interest in English (as other students joining later quickly catch up with the actual language). With adults also, inspiring our students to use English more outside the classroom is more important than practical language, even when it comes to ESP students.


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