Look Into My Eyes…and Learn Unforgettable Vocabulary!

Sometimes, you get lucky.  A planned activity that you hope will be moderately interesting and instructive turns into a runaway success.  Here’s one:

Inspired by a recent article in the New York Times that reported that reading Chekhov was the best way to learn to interpret other people’s body language, I was lured into taking the Times’ online quiz to see how good I was at reading visual cues.  As it turned out, I had inadvertently latched onto what became a wildly popular vocabulary and speaking activity.

I started by putting students in groups of four and announcing that we were going to have a pop vocabulary quiz.  “Please number a piece of paper from 1 to 10, with one paper per group,” I told them.  Their groans quickly subsided when I cued up the New York Times wellness quiz from October 3, 2013 entitled, “Can You Read People’s Emotions?

Under each of more than 30 photos of different people’s eyes, the Times listed four different adjectives.  The challenge posed by the Times was to “choose the word that best describes what you think the person depicted was thinking or feeling.” For example, are the eyes depicted “Apologetic,” “Friendly,” Uneasy,” or “Dispirited”? Each of the 30 photos has its own distinct set of adjectives.

Needless to say, the first challenge for the IEP students in my advanced Speaking & Listening class was to understand the adjectives attached to each photo.  So as we went along, we detoured to learn the meaning and pronunciation of the adjectives that were confusing to students, stopping along the way to discuss how some of the adjectives related to others (i.e, what’s worse: despondent, despairing or dispirited?)

They then had to argue and reach consensus with members of their group about which adjective to select to best describe the feelings of the person in each photo.

We repeated this effort 10 times, using the first 10 photos in the New York Times quiz. Then, I went back to the beginning and asked  the different groups to shout out the adjective they had chosen for each picture. Sometimes the different groups agreed. At other times, the groups disagreed with each other.

Finally, we checked online to see which answer the Times’ editor considered “correct.” The teams added up their points.  One group had a perfect 10.  Another straggled in with only 4 points. But in fact, there were no losers—everyone learned a lot of great new vocabulary in a way they would not soon forget.

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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15 Responses to Look Into My Eyes…and Learn Unforgettable Vocabulary!

  1. ew says:

    Thanks for the inspiration! I tried this with my c.c. vocabulary elective last week, also tying in discussion/reading on whether expressions are cultural or universal, and idioms of emotions. It was really rich.
    By the way, I have really enjoyed your blog entries, Alexandra. Keep it up!

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Hi, EW- Thanks for writing in, and for taking the time to share the creative ways in which you extended this activity. I’ll keep them in mind for next time. Best, Alexandra

  2. Thanks Alexandra – a wonderful resource.

    This year I had an mixed level class of post-graduate students at Shichuan University and I used non-verbal communication also to great effect. It was specially significant because the wonderful Chinese people are much more reserved with both facial and body gestures. I used pictures of American celebrities caught on camera in interesting situations. The class enjoyed tryihg to determine what was going on and the emotions involved in each.

    I on the other hand very much enjoyed – during the class – exaggerating my facial expressions and using broad and comical body gestures while telling a story or making a point. I found the comical use of expressions and gestures quickly lightened the mood and reduced the formal authoritative gap that exists in the student teacher relationship in the chinese education system.

    I found having the students laugh at my antics quickly loosened tongues.

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Thanks, Norman, for sharing your insights. As you probably already know, the film THE KING’S SPEECH is Exhibit A for your theory on the value of using body humor and comic expressions to lessen tensions in class. I usually show relevant portions of that film to my students every semester and use it as a springboard to discuss ways to lessen fears of public speaking.

  3. Kevin Knight Kevin Knight says:

    Hi, Alexandra. This is what I did in class. http://blog.tesol.org/looking-at-communication-through-a-leadership-lens/ Kevin

  4. Anita Voluntad-DePace says:

    Thanks, Alexandra. This will be a great activity for my upper school ESL students as it is fun, engaging and educational. This will also provide vocabulary for them to use when describing characters. I also like that it gives them an opportunity to explain their reasoning, which will be excellent when writing. My professor once said that vocabulary is key and this lesson is an authentic way in which to teach it!

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Thanks for your enthusiasm, Anita. The more I teach, the more aware I have become of the importance of finding ways to encourage students to take charge of their own vocabulary learning. I rarely assign vocabulary lists, but instead, encourage students to choose which unfamiliar words in a given piece of writing or listening they want to learn and to remember. The NY Times’ emotions quiz allows for both self-directed learning and authenticity.

  5. Weijuan He says:

    It is interesting and I will try this method to encourage my students in China to learn English. Vocabulary is something very hard for them, as English text books for Senior Students (Senior 1–Senior 3 in high school in China) are a little difficult. I am working hard to improve the situation. Thanks!

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Thank you for your comment. I have a Chinese student in my class and he enjoyed this as much as anyone else. It connects vocabulary to the real world, which makes it both more enjoyable and more memorable. Please let me know how it goes when you try this in class.

      • Weijuan He says:

        I am now in Utah University, SLC. I will be back home in January and my students are waiting for me. I am also eager to know if they are doing well? I have been reading Education Week and I am thinking about how I can help my students to improve their learning habits and learning methods with scientific approches. Thank you for your consideration!

  6. Joyce Bodig says:

    Great exercise. But where are the NYT editor’s correct responses?

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      So glad you like the activity! You can find out what the Times’ editor thinks is the “correct” response by clicking on any of the four adjectives under each photo on the quiz website, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/well-quiz-the-mind-behind-the-eyes/?_r=1& If your choice corresponds to their choice, the word “CORRECT” appears in green. If you choose an adjective the Times’ editor doesn’t think is right, the word “INCORRECT” appears in red. You just need to click on one of the adjectives that follows each photo. Enjoy!

  7. Kevin Knight Kevin Knight says:

    This is a wonderful activity, Alexandra! Thanks for sharing it! My interest is in leadership communication, and this activity fits in well with audience analysis, understanding stakeholders, getting buy in, etc.


    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Kevin. I’d love to hear more about how you see using this activity in the context of leadership communication.

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