Teaching What’s that? What’s this?

You may remember this idea from last year’s Mid-Year Seminar in Tendo City. This is an activity for first grade JHS classes adapted from Ryan Hagglund at My English School.

Ryan’s idea was to create a real situation for using the phrase “What’s this/that?” in as natural a way as possible. The solution was to present a very strange image that demands explanation, tell the students to use the key pharase “What’s that?!?”, then wisper the answer into the ear of any student that uses the key phrase. Presented right, without much of an explanation, you’ll have a room full of kids shouting “What’s that?!? What’s that?!?” as loud as they can.

I have come up with a slight variation on this presenation that works well with team-teaching as well as a simple game for the students to play to consolidate the lesson. It involves drawing frustratingly badly drawn pictures on the board.  Paired with the lesson from the New Horizon 2nd year text book, it makes for a very interactive and enjoyable lesson.

The Procedure:

Time: about 10 minutes per activity/game, ~3o minutes altogether.

Level: JHS 1st grade and elementary 5th or 6th if simplified.

  • Write the key phrase “What’s that?” on the board in big letters. Check the meaning of the phrase quickly and tell the students that it is the “KEY PHRASE” today.
  • Then tell the students that you and the JTE are going to draw pictures on the board, but that you are very bad at drawing. Take about 5 seconds and draw a picture like this on the board:

Is it a hippo? A toupee? A sandwich?

  • Wait for the collective “Eeeeeeee!!” To die down as the students try to figure out what to do next. Then when the first student figures out to use the key phrase and says “What’s that?”, run over to him or her and whisper the answer in their ear. Repeat with other students that shout “What’s that?!?” until everyone in the class has figured out that this picture is in fact an elephant.
  • Return to the board and point at the picture. Say “What’s this?” and have the students shout the answer as a class: “IT’S A ELEPHANT!”
  • Switch off with the JTE until each of you have drawn about 2 indecipherable pictures on the board and gone through the same procedure as before.
  • Afterward, practice saying the two phrases with the students and explain the difference quickly if necessary.
TIP: Whether the class is large or small it is good if you get the students to get into table groups of 3 to 6 depending on the size of the class. For various reasons it makes the presentation more fun, easy and effective.

Now for the Game and changing to “What’s this?”

Now that the students have learned the phrase “What’s that?” and used it in a very realistic way, they can play two mini-games where they get a chance to draw pictures for themselves and use the phrase “What’s this?” in a similar context.

  • Have students form pairs and hand out small slips of paper about the size of a 3×5 card.
  • Tell students that they will have 10 seconds to draw a picture for their partner. Both students will draw a picture at the same time. Make sure to count fast because the point is to rush them so that they will draw very bad pictures, too. You’ll be surprised at the intricate masterpieces they are capable of drawing if given a proper 10 seconds, thereby obviating the need for the question.
  • Explain that they will exchange pictures and play janken. The winner starts the mini-dialogue, which looks like this:
Student A: Excuse me, what’s this? (pointing at the picture)
Student B: It’s a _______.
Student A: Oh, I see…
Student B: Excuse me, what’s this? (pointing at the picture)
Student A: It’s a _______.
Student B: Oh, I see…
  • Have students repeat this mini-game with their partner about 2-3 times.
  • You can walk around the classroom while the students are playing and ask the students “What’s this?” while pointing at their picture to give them a bit of extra practice while waiting for other pairs to finish.
  • Since students are only given about 5 seconds to draw a picture, before  you say “GO!” and start counting down from 10 you may want to ask the students “Idea. Okay?” or something else that is simple and easy to understand.
Note: “It’s a ____” and “Oh, I see” are very good to use in this dialogue because the first year JHS students will have just learned these phrases in the textbook.

Game 2

After the students have finished drawing pictures and exchanging with their partners they can now get up, walk around the room and practice this same dialogue with many different friends. The rules are similar to the last game with this 1 variation:

  • When they exchange the card with their friend after playing Janken, they hold onto the card. That way they are using new cards each time rather than the old ones they created.


I used this idea today with these 2 games in a 1st year class. They really enjoyed it. At the end of the class, when they were practicing reading from the book I had a girl come up to me, point at a word she didn’t know how to pronounce and say “Excuse me, what’s this?” The JTE saw it and was so happy that she used this phrase (admittedly in a way that we hadn’t mentioned) that he shared the experience with the other Japanese teachers throughout the day. I think the leap that this girl was able to make in understanding how to use this phrase is a testament to how effective this strategy is for teaching how to use these two phrases. I think any one of these activities would be a good warm-game for a class to be used any time after the original lesson is taught. Please share your comments if you have any.

My rendition of a "panda bear", which really drives my students nuts


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