The Language Teacher
November 2002

Using "The Personals"

Steve Connolly


In thirteen years of teaching English in Japan, I have found that one gap in the communicative competence of the intermediate and advanced Japanese learners of English is in their abilities to describe the physical and personality characteristics of themselves and other people. Two potential reasons are the natural cultural reticence of the Japanese to talk about themselves and others, and the relative physical homogeneity of the Japanese.

To help remedy this shortcoming, I have used the "Personals" (used generically here), or similarly titled sections of various weekly newspapers from the United States, with various groups of learners. Here is an example from the "Men Seeking Women" section of the Seattle Weekly:

Grad-degreed prof, 40. NDNS. Excellent cook, adequate dancer, great potential parent seeking educated, intelligent woman who enjoys romance, adventure, science, technology, theater, art. Extra points if you've read Heinlein.

I have used this realia with groups ranging in ability from lower-intermediate to mid-advanced. The lessons have ranged from choosing a few personal advertisements (hereafter ads), and merely reading and discussing them, to carrying out various tasks using the ads as the language focus. The lessons have been an unqualified, roaring success. Indeed, L2 learners seem fascinated with these kinds of ads. They are not alone; it is a standing joke in the US that "The Personals" sections in these types of publications are read before any of the other sections.

It is no secret that motivation is a critical factor in learning, in general, and including L2 learning. Skehan (1989) points out that positive influences upon students' motivation "could be the use of materials and activities with greater inherent interest...." Nation (1999) says, "Motivation and interest are important enabling conditions for noticing. The choice of content can be a major factor stimulating interest." Dornyei (1994) characterizes "four motivational factors.... The first category, interest, is related to intrinsic motivation and is centred around the individual's inherent curiosity and desire to know more about him or herself and his or her environment [my italics]." Given the interest that "The Personals" engender, this realia and the attending tasks fit the conditions for a high level of motivation, and therefore, learning. The remainder of this paper is devoted to:

The Ads Teaching advantages using this realia

The ad section used in this discussion was "Person-To-Person" from the Seattle Weekly (1999, July 22). The Seattle Weekly is a tabloid-style weekly arts and entertainment newspaper. It includes some local business, sports and news reporting. It is enormously popular, free, and can be picked up at myriad locations on the streets of Seattle.

One attractive characteristic of the ads is their brevity. These "reading-bytes" are of a size that encourages the learners. The number of ads can easily be adjusted to fit any class time allotment, even as time-fillers. Nation (1999) points out that "[n]oticing involves decontextualisation. Decontextualization occurs when the learners give attention to a language item as a part of the language rather than a part of a message." I would characterize the ads as being semi-decontextualized, i.e., they are contextualized in the sense that they describe the physical and personality characteristics of people, but are decontextualized in the sense that they are like short lists, rarely contain complete sentences, and are devoid of superfluous verbiage, e.g. function words.

However, even though the vocabulary items in the ads are present in a seemingly depleted discourse context, in order to interpret them, they require a great deal of inferring or "reading between the lines" (gyôkan o yomu in Japanese). Indeed, the individual vocabulary items often require a plumbing of the greatest depths of their potential meanings.

Additional teaching opportunities

The focuses of the tasks that follow are adjectives describing the physical and personality characteristics of people. In terms of this type of vocabulary item, the ads are a gold mine. But, the ads provide additional teaching/learning opportunities: a wealth of non-adjectival vocabulary, a potpourri of cross-cultural information, and myriad additional teaching opportunities. For example:

Vocabulary analysis

Just how much of a language gold mine are the ads? Two columns of ads were selected at random. They contained 24 separate ads. All of the adjectives (e.g. cute), adjectival phrases (e.g. down-to-earth) and adjective-like items (e.g. w/kind-heart to mean kind-hearted) describing the physical appearance and personality characteristics were extracted. These three different adjectival constructions will hereafter be referred to as adjectives. After discarding descriptive and other abbreviations (e.g. DWF, ISO), the intensifier, very, and repetitions of the same adjective (e.g. attractive appears five times), the 24 ads were found to contain 118 different and distinct adjectives. A quick analysis of the ads reveals a whopping 16% of the total words in the ads (742) are different and distinct adjectives.

Then the question arises as to how many of the vocabulary items show up on West's (1953) first 1000- and second 1000-word most-frequent vocabulary lists: about 50%. For the higher level learner, learning reinforcement of some vocabulary would occur as a result of the repeated appearances. The other 50% would be known or unknown low- frequency vocabulary, which provides a potential for learning reinforcement, or perhaps, with vocabulary never met before, an opportunity rife with learning potential.

It should be realized that implied meanings can be far different from decontextualized meanings. For example, drive is on the first 1000-word list. However, driven might be known to the higher-level learner, but perhaps not as it is applied to people. For another example, while both full and figure are on the first 1000-word list, and most learners know the meanings of both, full-figured (in one of the ads) has an entirely different meaning. The learner would have to try to infer the meaning of the combination from the parts and their context.

General Task Goals

The following tasks are designed to facilitate the achievement of two major learning goals:

The tasks include a wealth of opportunities to satisfy Nation's conditions for a successful task: negotiation, repetition, generative use, involvement, and successful completion of the task. The tasks also follow the conditions outlined by Willis (1996): "[T]asks are always activities where the target language is used by the learner for a communicative purpose (goal) in order to achieve an outcome." They may include elements from all six of those task types delineated by Willis: listing, ordering and sorting, comparing, problem solving, sharing personal experiences, and creative tasks. This combination of tasks seems to fit especially well into Nation's (1999) "three important processes that may lead to a word being remembered," i.e., noticing (including negotiation and definition), retrieval, and to some extent perhaps, creative or generative use.

Teacher Instructions
General instructions

Specific task procedures

Following are the specific procedures that may be followed in carrying out the various tasks. I have developed forms to facilitate carrying out these tasks; copies are available upon request.

  1. Have the learners brainstorm potentially applicable vocabulary describing physical and personality characteristics.
  2. Have the learners brainstorm the possible meanings of the standard abbreviations (e.g. DWM) which are often found on the first page of the section. Discuss the answers.
  3. Choose one learner from the class--preferably single, a comparatively high-level speaker, outgoing, and unlikely to be embarrassed--as the person who will place a personal ad in the newspaper (hereafter referred to as the "designated learner").
  4. Assign each learner a different page; the learner chooses one or more ads. From their ads, the learners then choose adjectives describing physical or personality characteristics, the meanings of which are either unknown to them or about which they are unsure.
  5. The learners, in turn, read their ads out loud so as to provide a platform for facilitating group interaction and interpretation. As a group, the learners discuss the meanings of the words and then classify them according to the categories on their worksheets. The teacher must try not to intervene unless the final meaning of the word determined by the learners is far from the intended meaning. As a group, the learners then categorize each characteristic according to a) whether it is a physical or a personality characteristic, b) whether it is a desirable or undesirable characteristic, and c) whether it applies to men, women or both. They may also want to discuss synonyms and antonyms, although discussing alternate meanings may result in confusion later on.
  6. After a corpus of vocabulary has been built up, all of the learners, including the designated learner, review the vocabulary individually. The designated learner may be allowed to add characteristics that fill any serious gaps in his or her concept of an ideal mate. The other learners choose characteristics that they personally believe suit the designated learner best, and rank them in order from one (most important) to ten. They each turn over their sheet, provide an oral synopsis of the ideal mate for the designated learner and justify their choices. The designated learner must agree or disagree with each speaker, in turn, and must justify his or her reasons for doing so. The other learners assist the speakers with vocabulary they may not recall. The speakers are encouraged to use the chosen vocabulary, or to generate heretofore new and potentially applicable vocabulary.
  7. As a group, the learners continue to discuss their choices and the reasons for making those choices toward the (nearly impossible) goal of arriving at a consensus "ideal mate" for the designated learner.

Potential follow-up activities

The number of potential follow-up activities is practically limitless, constrained only by the imagination of the teacher. The original task may even be repeated with a different designated learner, and/or different vocabulary items.


I would characterize these related tasks as the most consistently successful activity that I have ever used with higher level learners. The reason, as has been stated, is the extremely high level of motivation that this subject creates. If there is an Achilles' heel to the whole activity, it would probably be a result of a needs analysis. That is, in many cases, particularly with Japanese company employees at higher levels of English proficiency, a need for this specific type of vocabulary may be minimal, except, perhaps, in the personnel section of a multi-national company. That said, the response of the learners has been that the enjoyment of the activity is high enough and motivating enough that a lot of related and ancillary vocabulary is generated, not all of it related to the physical and personality characteristics of humans.


Dornyei, Z. (1994). Motivation and motivating in the foreign language classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 78, 273-284.

Nation, I.S.P. (1999). Learning vocabulary in another language. New Zealand: Victoria University of Wellington.

Nation, I.S.P. (1990). Teaching and learning vocabulary. New York: Harper & Row.

Person-To-Person. (1999, July 22). Seattle Weekly, 24, 196-201.

Skehan, P. (1989). Individual differences in second-language learning. London: Edward Arnold.

West, M. (1953). A general service list of English words. London: Longman, Green & Co.

Willis, J. (1996). A framework for task-based learning. Essex: Addison Wesley Longman.

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