More motivating lesson materials: Student-centred character construction

Eoin Jordan, Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University


Quick guide

  • Key words: Motivation, creativity, adaptation
  • Learner English level: Beginner to advanced
  • Learner maturity: Elementary school to adult
  • Preparation time: 15 minutes
  • Activity time: 50 minutes
  • Materials: Photographs or caricatures in digital format or on paper, and a bit of imagination


The following is an outline of a simple, yet versatile technique I have used with classes of all ages and ability levels to increase interest in textbooks or fixed lesson materials. The only things really necessary to make this work are that your students have the ability to answer basic questions in English and a little imagination. I have provided instructions here for a class centred on a spoken dialogue. Other possible adaptations are highlighted in the Variations sectionbelow.


Step 1:Check the internet for pictures of interesting looking people.Searching Google Images with terms such as moustache or couple has worked very well for me (make sure to set the advanced options so that you only get images that are available for reuse). See the Appendix for examples I have previously used. The pictures can be either photographs or caricatures, though it is generally best to avoid famous people as this eliminates the fun of character creation. I also recommend selecting images that link in with your lesson material; for example, if your lesson focuses on a business context, then choosing pictures of people wearing suits would be advisable.

Step 2:Before moving onto the main activity of your lesson, show one of the pictures to the class and ask students what the person’s name is. If any of them offer a suggestion, then make a note of it on the board and confirm that this is indeed the character’s name. If there are no suggestions, then choose a name yourself (such as William). You can get students’attention at this point by choosing an obviously male name for a female character, or vice versa, and checking with them to see if it is an acceptable choice.

Step 3:Once a name has been decided, ask the class other questions about the character. This part of the activity should be adjusted according to age and ability. Enquiring after the person’s age, job, or marital status are usually good places to start. If no one answers initially, then suggesting inappropriate ages or jobs is often an effectiveway to elicit responses. Students can also be encouraged to go on and describe the imaginary character’s life, personality, and interests in more detail. This allowsfor the revision of specific areas of vocabulary.

Step 4:Start to tell a story that places your newly-created character in a context where students can use the language that the lesson is focused on (for instance, William was attending a meeting with his boss…). Pictures should again be utilized to illustrate and elicit information about both the setting and the other characters that appear in the story. Following this, students can be encouraged to create dialogs with the characters and compare their work to the set materials for the class. Possible extension activities here include students practicing, writing down, and acting out their own dialogs.


The character construction process described here could equally be applied to literature-focused reading and writing exercises. For reading exercises, students could be encouraged to guess details about characters before reading a passage, and then analyze their assumptions afterwards. There is also great scope for writing practice; either writing about the character in a certain context or writing as the character with a set purpose (such as drafting a business letter to a customer as William).


Using this technique in class really attracted my students’ attention. Many of them took the opportunity to reference friends or popular cultural icons when describing the pictures, and I found they were very enthusiastic about engaging in role-play activities using their new characters. Giving your students opportunities for creative output such as this should allow you to discover more about their interests, which will likely be reflected in the personalities they give the characters. It will also help make classes more engaging and stimulating for them.

Appendices: Available below