“You’re more beautiful than you think” or how to teach adjectives in English

Teaching adjectives in English without a context might be a nightmare in the class, so I usually try to find a good reason to engage my students to take part in the activities.

Motivating them to join the conversation activities sometimes can be a difficult task because they lack vocabulary or simply feel less prepared. The shy ones feel uncomfortable and refuse to join the activities because there are classmates that have higher levels and even The First! This is why I think that in mixed classes, the teacher should find a way to get them all involved and to reduce as much as possible the barriers among language levels and the low self-esteem that some students might involuntarily experience.

I usually ask my students about the topics they want to talk about and to be honest, I learn a lot from their suggestions.

During the last official class… they wanted to talk about beauty and happiness. I knew it was a very delicate topic and the words were quite special, even fragile but I had to recognise that perhaps behind this need to talk about this particular subject there was something else, so I accepted.

As far as I know, happiness is a must ingredient in our lives and I am sure that it is related to self-esteem and how we all see ourselves in this world, so it was really worthwhile.

The questions to break to ice were:

So what does beauty mean? What is happiness? Is beauty automatically related to happiness?

I asked my students these simple questions. I was surprised to know what they thought about these “concepts”, as they preferred to refer to. They debated on their own personality traits and physical changes during the Secondary School and High School levels and they were forced to use adjectives and verbs in the Past Simple! It was the first time they didn’t think about choosing the right verb form but the right adjective!! It was nice to learn from them what they thought about being happy and being beautiful; I also found out that they were frustrated by the little support sometimes they got from their parents, teachers and friends when they were “in serious trouble” with their own opinion on themselves because they were not like the “posh one” in the school.

I remembered that according to the 2013 World Happiness Report, the Danes were  the happiest in the world in 2012 and I used this video to contrast their answers.

After only 15 minutes we were not only talking about what makes us happy but also about how we ignore little details in our lives because mass media manipulates us all and sell best quality levels and almost perfect models to follow in a society that perhaps lacks more self-control on this highly standardised world.

I invited them to watch this video, too.

I asked them to debate whether these women are happy with their aspect or not. The conclusion was that the advertisement was not only about physical appearance, it also focused on how we perceive ourselves and how happy we are with our body.

The video was a perfect excuse for my class to debate on values as self-esteem, self-confidence and respect for the physical aspect. The discussion included opinions on advertisements that usually sell us the image of beautiful bodies and lots of girls recognised that in a certain moment of their teen age they felt depressed because they didn’t get that perfect body displayed at TV. It was a good lesson on how to value ourselves and the rest of the people, not judging according to the aspect but to what the person really is.

I was happy my students struggled to use English and they even did more than a class of English: they could give their opinion and talk about themselves in a relaxed way, without being afraid of making mistakes. The most important was the fluency and the relevant ideas during the conversation; with short interruptions, they asked for advice when using a verb or a mixed construction, so the accuracy of the language was also included in the class development.

I loved how they interacted and later on, when I had to teach different groups, I used the same videos but I adapted the activities. We used different dynamics. With an intermediate level group, I wrote the names of my students on individual cards and then asked each student to pick one card; they had describe the classmate avoiding to say names and personal information so as the rest of the class must guess who that particular student was.

This way they could practise adjectives and got involved in using more vocabulary and grammar than in a simple fill in the gaps with the appropriate adjective – activity. I had to previously teach them some body and personality adjectives vocabulary but they really liked it.

With a group of beginners I did a variation of this activity that really worked because it was quite fun: I asked students to think about a classmate; they had to describe him/her to another classmate, who had an even harder task, to draw the mysterious one! The pictures were displayed in a funny exhibition on the class wall and they all enjoyed the activity.

If you have similar experiences, please feel free to share them.

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