Beginner Ideas: Describing Pictures with “There is” and “There Are”

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There is a table. There are two hands. There is some coffee. There are two cups. There are two cups of coffee. There are two bracelets. There is pink nail polish. There aren’t any faces…

Early on when teaching beginners, there usually comes a point when my students have enough vocabulary to make simple sentences with the verb “to be,” but they can’t yet say much else. They can describe what they see in front of them using “there is” and “there are.” They can form plural nouns and use the words “some,” “a lot of” and maybe “any.” They have learned to use numbers, and they might even know a bit about adjective order in English. They still need more practice with “to be,” though, before we move on to other verbs.

At that point, I like to bring out the pictures. I show a series of simple pictures to my students, and we work together to describe what we see. I try to look for pictures with a mix of images that they already know the words for, as well as some words that they haven’t learned yet.

Here are some examples of the types of images that I might start with:

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How can I use pictures with individual students or small groups?

  • Flip through the pictures individually, and prompt students to name or make simple sentences with the words that they know. (There is a bicycle. There are two people.)
  • Allow students to ask you questions such as “What’s this?” or “What are these?” or “How do you say __________?” about objects in the picture. Encourage them to ask you “How do you spell __________?” when they would like you to write a word on the board.
  • After you finish going through a series of images, go through them again, to review the new vocabulary.

How can I modify this idea for a bigger class?

It is possible to use the idea above as a whole-class warmup or end-of-class activity for a bigger group. However, you can definitely make changes if you’d like to let your students work in small groups or pairs.

  • You might show one image to the entire class. Ask students to write a list of things that they see in the picture in small groups. Prompt them to ask each other “What’s this/that” questions, and to look up unknown words in their dictionaries.
  • You might also start this activity by having students write their lists individually, and then compare ideas in small groups.
  • After the groups are finished speaking, bring the class back together, and review all of the sentences and new vocabulary that students came up with.


  • Divide your class into groups. Give each group a different picture to work with. Tell your groups that they should be able to describe everything that they see in the picture. Give them time to find the new vocabulary that they will need.
  • After they finish, call a group up to the front of the room, and display their image on the projector. Prompt students from other groups to ask them, “What’s this/that?” questions about the picture.
  • Once again, after each group has had a turn, flip through all of the images again to review new vocabulary that students have learned.


What do you think?

Have you used any of these ideas with your students? How else have you used pictures to teach beginners? I’d love to hear from you, so please take a moment to leave your comments in the box!

A cool thing about conditionals – When grammar meets psychology

After I teach real and unreal conditionals, I like to show my students the following example:

Speaker A and Speaker B are both entering a competition. Based on the following statements, who do you think is more optimistic about winning?:

Speaker A: If I win, I’ll be really happy.

Speaker B: If I won, I’d be really happy.

The answer: Speaker A probably is. He used a real conditional, while Speaker B used an unreal conditional.

If you teach grammar to ESL students, you know that we use real conditionals when we think that something is realistic (If it rains, I will being an umbrella), but we use unreal conditionals when we think that something is unlikely to ever happen (If I were president, I would give everyone free ice cream on Fridays.) So in the example above, Speaker A subconsciously thinks he has a good chance at winning, while Speaker B is not really so sure.

While it’s likely that neither speaker was thinking about the psychology behind their choice of words, it’s cool to think that your feelings are subtly reflected in your grammar.


What’s your favorite subtle grammar point to teach? Please share your ideas in the comment box at the bottom of the page.

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

Working Hard or Hardly Working? - a cliche worth teaching, and some grammar to go with it

I didn’t think that anyone used that line outside of comedies about stereotypical offices. But a few years ago, there was was this one guy who worked in the Sales department at my school. EVERY time I bumped into him at the coffee maker (we didn’t have a water cooler), I knew what was coming:

“Working hard or hardly working?” He would ask and grin as though it were the first time he’d made that zinger.
“Uh… Just normal working, I guess,” I would stammer, because how are you supposed to respond to that question? Is it rhetorical?

I hadn’t thought about that guy in a while, but an advanced student of mine recently made a mistake that reminded me of his favorite one-liner. On an essay about women in the workplace, the student wrote, “100 years ago, many women didn’t have jobs, but nowadays women hardly work.” 

I love that mistake because she was pretty much saying the opposite of what she meant, and she have me a great example to help illustrate the difference between “hard” and “hardly.”

Teaching Hard vs. Hardly

If your student makes the hard/hardly mistake, here’s what you need to know:

1- “Hard” can be an adjective or an adverb.

  • One meaning of the adjective is “difficult.”
    • English is hard.
    • Teaching is a hard job.
    • Life is hard, sometimes.
    • That was a hard test.
  • The adverb means, “did the action with a lot of struggle or difficulty.”
    • If you study hard, you will pass the class.
    • I always work hard.
    • Work hard, play hard. (Another cheesy line.)

2- “Hardly” is an adverb. It can mean barely or rarely.

  • She just arrived in the United States, and she hardly speaks English.
  • I hardly ever drink coffee in the evening.
  • He hardly works because he can’t find a full-time job.

Lesson Plan Tips

I don’t have a full-blown grammar lesson plan for you, but here’s a loose suggestion on how you might introduce the topic:

  1. On the board, write: 100 years ago, most women didn’t have jobs, but nowadays they hardly work.
  2. Ask: What’s wrong with this sentence?
  3. Give examples (see the ones listed above), and ask students to come up with some of their own.
  4. On the board, write: Are we working hard or hardly working? If students chuckle, you know they get it.

Ideas or Comments

Have your students made any memorable mistakes with Hard vs. Hardly? Do you have any other suggestion to add for teaching it?

What other confusing word pairs can you think of?

Please leave your comments in the box below!