Who Needs Numbers in Learning Graph Vocabulary?

Michael T. Sullivan, Linguage Intercom

Quick Guide

  • Key words: Line graph, horizontal/vertical axis
  • Learner English level: Intermediate and higher
  • Learner maturity: University 
  • Preparation time: 30-45 minutes
  • Activity time: 45 minutes
  • Materials: Graph vocabulary card sheet, graph worksheet, PowerPoint slide

In recent years, graph description has been widely used in various EFL contexts, such as classroom polls, newspaper/online charts, and the TOEIC test. However, in my experience, students who describe graphs tend to focus more on numbers (e.g., went up by 20 points to 3%) than on abstract graph vocabulary (e.g., went up dramatically). In this activity, learners must grasp the meaning of the graph vocabulary in order to describe trends, as they cannot use numerical values.


Step 1: Make a set of graph vocabulary cards for each pair of students (Appendix A). On one side of the card is a blank graph; on the other side is a graph term or phrase (e.g., fluctuate, go up slightly).

Step 2: Prepare a worksheet that has two blank graphs (Appendix B). For each graph on the page, the horizontal axis shows the months of the year, but the vertical axis has no assigned numerical values. Make a space above each graph for the student to write a title.

Step 3: Write a list of graph vocabulary along the bottom of the worksheet.

Step 4: Make a PowerPoint slide showing an example of a completed line graph (Appendix C).


Step 1: Review the graph vocabulary with the use of cards. Get each pair of students to first look at the graph term or phrase on one side of the card and then draw the trend line on the reverse side of it. The teacher will visit each paired group to make sure their drawings are correct.

Step 2: Hand out a graph worksheet to each student. To explain what to do, the teacher models the activity. While the teacher dictates, all students fill in the graph on side A of the worksheet. At the end of the activity, the students look at a PowerPoint slide showing the instructor’s graph. Get the students to check if the two graphs are similar.

Step 3: Get students to work with a partner. On side B of the worksheet, each student underlines or circles at least 10 graph terms listed on the sheet that he/she plans to use. 

Step 4: Have each student choose one of the two remaining graphs, and give it a title. 

Step 5: Each paired student takes turns describing his/her line graph without using numerical data (e.g., from April to June it increased slightly). The other student listens, drawing a line on his/her graph of the sheet. Afterwards, students check each other’s graphs to see if they match. 


Assigning numbers to a (line) graph can help the learner measure changes over time, but it may also indirectly lead the learner to avoid using appropriate graph vocabulary. So, by neither focusing nor relying on numbers in a graph, learners concentrate on the word’s meaning to express the graph trends. The feedback on this activity has been positive, as it has encouraged both oral production of graph vocabulary as well as an interest in the meaning and appropriate use of it.


The appendices are available below.