Number one for English language teachers

Demonstratives – tips and activities

Type: Reference material

Tips and activities for teaching demonstratives.


1. Using gesture and mime

This is probably the most straightforward way of illustrating the basic use of demonstratives, one which can most easily be done in the classroom. Point at a chair near you and say “This chair.” Then point to a chair across the room and say “That chair”. You can repeat this with other items in the classroom, incorporating THESE and THOSE. This can be extended to illustrate the demonstrative pronouns by asking:

“What’s this/that?” “What are these/those?”

Warning! This way of teaching is one which has been HIGHLY criticized on two counts:

  1. It uses what is called display questions. Display questions are questions which you (the teacher) already know the answer to.
  2. It’s not particularly reflective of real life language.

One counter argument to the two points above is that display questions of this nature in an elementary classroom are in fact useful as a way of reviewing vocabulary and that in the classroom setting itself are authentic tools of checking knowledge.

A simple refinement to make the exercise (slightly) more natural would be to change the question “What’s this?” to “What’s this in English?” a question which the students are arguably likely to ask in real life situations.

2. Minimal pair sentences

You can always set up minimal pair sentences to ask students to explain (in their own language, if necessary) what the difference is. For example:

Can you take this bag?

Can you take that bag?

Ask students what the difference is grammatically between the two sentences. Then ask them to speculate what the difference in meaning is (e.g. in b) the speaker is probably indicating a bag further away from him/her, while in a) the speaker might have the bag in his/her hand). Finally, ask them to create more of a context for the sentence, for example by suggesting who is speaking, what are they speaking about, where are they etc. Here are other minimal pairs using demonstratives.

This is really difficult.

That is really difficult.  

I don’t think this is a good idea.

I don’t think that is a good idea.

This is Charles, my new boyfriend.

That’s Charles, my new boyfriend.

3. What are they talking about?

A similar activity to minimal pairs above would ask students to simply work on the context of parts of dialogue they imagine they’ve “overheard”. In other words, get them to do the last part of the previous exercise first and then come to the grammar later. Here are some examples of “overheard” conversations with an element of mystery about them suitable for an intermediate level:

  • A: Did you hear that?
  • B: Yes, I did. Doesn’t sound too good.
  • A: Excuse me, but what are those?
  • B: Sorry, sir. I had to bring them.
  • A: Look at this!
  • B: Yes, very nice dear.
  • A: Here you are.
  • B: But I didn’t want these ones.

4. Reported speech transformations

If you’ve taught reported speech, you’ll know that there are several changes that occur between direct and reported speech (e.g. tense backshift, the day before for yesterday etc) Determiners will also change. Compare:

“I know this man,” said David.

David said he knew that man.

The reason behind the change is because that is considered more distant, in this case distant in time. It’s worth pointing this out to students as a further example of deixis.

5. Finding referents

As with pronouns (such as he, she, it) you can also help students make sense of longer texts by asking them to find examples of determiners that refer to something earlier in the text. Ask students to find examples of this/these/that/those and underline them. For each one they find they must:

  • underline the thing/things it is referring to
  • suggest why the writer is using that particular determiner

Go through the examples as a class.

6. Useful language

Looking at some of the examples of that and this in the grammar explanation above I was struck at how useful they could be as set phrases. You could teach the students the following “chunks” to help them in speaking activities.

  • To highlight something you are going to say:
This is the most important bit …

This is what I mean to say…

  • To add emphasis to a reason.

I do it because I enjoy it. That’s why.

  • To explain something more clearly

This grammar is quite straightforward. That is, it’s not very difficult.

  • To agree with someone, or say you understand

That’s right.

  • To say that you’re happy with something:

Anchor Point:bottomThat’s okay/fine.

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