Say what you see – A fun speaking activity to practice circumlocution

What do your learners do when they find themselves in the middle of a conversation and don’t know a word that they want to use? For my learners, it seems their natural reaction is to either say the word in the first language or reach for their dictionary and look it up. I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong with doing either of these things. If they use their own language, their partner might know the word and be able to help them out. If they look up the word, they obviously find a new word they can learn. However, both of these can break the flow of the conversation and particularly the latter. Especially if it takes they time to find a suitable translation.


I have been trying to get my learners to practice talking around the word. In other, words to use circumlocution. To be descriptive and use the vocabulary they have to describe a word. For example, if they don’t know or can’t remember the word ‘honey’, say ‘it’s made by bees’ or ‘I put it on toast and it tastes sweet’. Doing this helps them maintain their conversation in English. Even if their partner doesn’t know the word in English, there still can be a level of understanding. After the conversation is finished, they can then take a moment to check and look up the word. This sounds straightforward, but often my learners forget or soon slip back to checking their dictionaries, so I decided to incorporate activities that encourage them to do this even if they know the word.


The activity is called say what you see. It is very simple to set up and administer and my learners find it a lot of fun. You can use it with any words or make it as simple or as complicated as you want. You begin by selecting images prior to class. With a beginner class, I would choose a very simple image that contains vocabulary they know. It can be an image of an object or a scene. For example, it could be a picture of a flower or a bedroom. Before the activity you can pre-teach vocabulary or sentence structures they might need.


When you start the activity, put the class into pairs. Tell them that you are going to show a picture to one of the pair but not the other. The learner who sees the picture then has to describe it to their partner and the partner needs to draw it! The learners who have seen the picture then begin to describe it without using the word and their partner has to draw what they say. With more advanced students, it works well for almost any kind of image. I have shown pictures of cartoon characters, scenes of nature, and even scenes from movies or characters they like. One of my favorites was a scene from the Studio Ghibli movie, Spirited Away. You are only limited by your imagination.


Every time I have tried this it has brought the energy levels of the class right up. There are howls of laughter and lots of English. Once they have finished drawing the drawer gets to see the original picture and compare their drawing to it. I then ask the pairs to change roles and repeat the process. When the activity is done, I explain that this was an exercise to help them practice maintaining a conversation even when they don’t know a word. It seems to work as these days I have less learners who instantly reach for their dictionaries when they are in mid conversation.


What do you think? Have you tried anything similar? Would this work with your students? Let me know what you think in the comments box below!


  • Leah Urso

    Love it! Can”t wait to try it in my classroom!

    • admin

      I hope it goes well!

  • Elmira

    That really works n it’s lots of fun. For sure it makes students to go in for details to describe a pic just the way it’s. N they easily can notice their gaps to fill. From time to time I try this approach n the class enjoys very much .)

    • admin

      Yeah, it certainly gets my learners talking!

  • Lily

    It is an engaging activity.

    • admin

      Thanks! That’s great to hear.