Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Look at That and Watch What Happens.

Richard FirstenBy Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

You’ve put some questions on the board that you want your students to answer in writing so you can get an idea of their writing skills. One of the questions you’ve ask is “Do you like gardening?”

A student hands in her paper, and her answer to that question is



“Uh-oh!” you say to yourself. Right away you know you’ve got to make three corrections to that sentence, so when the student gets back her paper with your corrections, she sees the following changes you’ve made:


Not an unusual situation, right? But what if she comes up to you at the end of class and says she doesn’t understand your changes? What if she’d like you to explain the differences between on and in, earth and ground, and no and not?

Okay, on and in aren’t too bad. You might choose to show her the difference with two simple drawings like these:




And, of course, you can reinforce the concepts by explaining that on means “touching the surface of something,” but in means “completely surrounded by something” if you think your student will understand the vocabulary. You would probably do some physical demonstrations as well, but keeping the concepts as simple as possible is paramount.

Now what about earth vs. ground? Hmm . . . Okay, we can say that we usually use earth when talking about the planet, and sometimes we use it when talking about the substance we can hold in our hand, while ground refers to the natural surface that we stand on outside.

Lastly, we can explain that no is used in a negative short answer (I said, “No!”) or as a negative adjective meaning that something doesn’t exist or the absence of something (no time, no money), while not is the negative adverb we use with practically everything else. If you feel like giving examples, you can give examples with auxiliary words such as do, have, and can (do not, have not, cannot) or with adjectives (not bad) or adverbs (not here) or phrases (not anybody I know).

Whew! Not so easy, is it? Over the years, I found that one of the most arduous jobs I had (besides teaching the present perfect) was dealing with important distinctions between related vocabulary items. Sometimes the differences are clear, but at other times they can be subtle. I realized that I needed to be on my toes in this area of English teaching, and so, slowly but surely, I learned how to communicate the distinctions between words in a way that my students could grasp. Three words that  would pop up regularly and early on were see, look (at), and watch. Aaaarrrrgh!

This is how I distinguish meanings among these three little gems:

  • See is the involuntary action of using the eyes. When you open your eyes, you see.
  • Look (at) means to pay visual attention to a stationary object or an object that isn’t involved in any special activity. Look is also the more commonly used verb in the imperative when we want someone to pay attention to someone or something.
  • Look (at) and watch basically mean the same thing, paying visual attention to some object. The difference is that look (at) focuses on the object per se, whereas watch focuses on what the object is doing. In addition, some people discern that look (at) has a shorter duration than watch.

Once I had the distinctions among these three words clearly in my head, I was able to use simpler language if necessary and clear demonstrations to get the meanings across to my students. The key was to have a clear understanding in my mind of any troublesome words like these before working on them with my students. There may always be some exceptions to these basic distinctions, but for the most part, you’re safe explaining the words this way.

How about if we have some fun getting such troublesome words clear in our minds? Let’s have an interactive blog piece this time! Below are typical pairs of words that give our students problems. See if you can come up with clear, easy-to-explain distinctions between the two in each pair and I’ll post my interpretations next time. You can compare your thoughts with mine and see how closely we come to showing the distinctions between these words. This could be a hoot!

  • a bee’s sting / a bee sting
  • meat / flesh
  • a few / few
  • on a show / in a show
  • blooms / blossoms
  • perfume / cologne
  • chicken / chickens
  • large / big
  • door / gate
  • stations / channels
  • hear / listen (to)
  • tall / high
  • bottle / jar
  • damage / damages

By the way, check out the title of this blog piece again. It’s “Look at That and Watch What Happens.” Okay, so what if I substitute one of the verbs and say “Look at That and See What Happens”? Does this title have the very same meaning as the first? Think about it!

Later, my friends.


Comment from renata maina
June 16, 2011 at 3:22 pm

Loved reading your very interesting article.As for the words I might try explaining: you can HEAR without LISTENING because hearing is merely using one of your physical senses, while listening is hearing and understanding and interiorizing what you hear. Talk to you some other time!

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