Describing Appearance: Writing Physical Descriptions

Page No.: 
Mary Reidy, Uminohoshi High School


  • Key Words: Vocabulary, Writing
  • Learner English Level: False beginner through Advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: Junior high school to Young adult
  • Preparation Time:Vocabulary 30 minutes--compiling visual material can vary
  • Activity Time: Two 50-minute classes (repeatable if necessary)

Every year I am assigned one third-year writing class. The class meets for two 50-minute periods a week. There are usually 20 members in the class. The writing class provides its members with an opportunity to improve their creative writing skills in an L2 environment. I believe that a form-dominated approach works best because prior to this class they have had few if any creative writing opportunities. Their previous instruction in writing classes involved translating, filling in gaps, and reordering the words of phrases in given sentences. They have had very little free writing practice, so they still have many basic difficulties when attempting to write creatively in English. Their difficulties center around the following: articles, plurals, pronouns, verb usage, spelling, and vocabulary. My aim is to help them to improve their basic writing skills by providing them with interesting and challenging writing tasks. The following activity allows my students to develop these skills and exercise their creativity by writing physical descriptions of people.


  • A sufficient set of vocabulary that will facilitate the writing task.
  • A set of large visual aids (posters).
  • A set of smaller visual aids (postcards).

Note: The level of interest will increase considerably if the visual aids are of famous or attractive looking individuals.


1. Begin with pronunciation practice of all the vocabulary terms.

2. Explain word meanings by applying the given vocabulary terms to the large visual aids.

3. Teach the correct usage of the two given verbs: "to be" and "to have." Write several example sentences on the board.

4. Ask class members to orally describe individuals in the large visual aids.

5. Write on the board exactly what is produced by the students.

6. Draw attention to and correct errors should they occur.

7. Randomly distribute three of the small visual aids to every student.

8. Set a time limit for them to write their physical descriptions of each of the pictures on the cards.

9. Circulate, observe their work, and answer any questions that may arise.

10. Move from the physical to the abstract. Set a time limit for them to describe physically: (a) a teacher in the school, (b) themselves, (c) a classmate, or (d) a boyfriend.

11. Circulate, observe their work, and answer any questions that may arise.

In order to achieve a satisfactory level of familiarity, accuracy, and speed it may be necessary to repeat numbers 7-11. At a later date, without advance warning, you can spring variations of numbers 8 and 10 on the class.