Talk To Teach

Teaching Students How to Talk About Feelings

When teaching English to young French students, the communication skills needed to express emotions and feelings should be given priority and early attention. Being able to talk about how they feel helps students overcome culture shock and homesickness and is also useful to those charged with keeping tabs on their mental and physical health.


We all know that talking about emotions and feelings is not always the easiest thing to do. And that goes double for talking about them in a foreign language. Learning and teaching the language of emotion can also be tricky. The basic emotions are human universals so on the one hand, learning to express them in a foreign language is a simple matter of learning new vocabulary that describes familiar ideas.


On the other hand, the subtleties, subjectivities, and advanced concepts associated with emotions and feelings make it arguable that attaining fully-native expressive and receptive fluency in this realm of a foreign language is impossible. This appears particularly true when cultural components are considered.


Often, even when working in our native language, we can’t find the words to express how we feel. This is because the topic of emotion and feelings and so much of our communication dealing with it involves high degrees of subjectivity and abstraction. And we all know that, when communicating about this subject, it is notoriously difficult to be clear and very easy to misunderstand.


Matching your instructional strategy to the topic is the key to effectively teaching English language learners what they need to know in order to express and understand feelings. The subject begins with the simplicity of basic emotions – think “happy” and “sad” – then ranges into the complexity of feelings like “discouraged”, “enthusiastic”, and many others. Likewise, you should keep it simple when teaching the basics then move into more complex language and ideas with the support of a solid understanding of the matter at hand.


Emotions vs. Feelings 

In English, these two words are commonly used interchangeably. Actually, from a scientific standpoint, emotions and feelings are completely different. An emotion is a hard-wired, physical, universal human response to change of some sort. Emotions are instinctive, arising from the limbic system of the brain, developed and genetically programmed over many generations of human evolution. Psychologists do not agree on the number of human emotions, but basic examples include anger, fear, surprise, disgust, happiness and sadness.


In contrast to emotions, which are measurable physical responses, feelings are individual mental processes that cannot be measured. Emotions actually precede feelings, our personal mental reactions to an emotion. Feelings are generated by thoughts and images that we have paired with a specific emotion over time. Emotions are usually short-term and fleeting, while the feelings they provoke may last and grow over a lifetime.


While researchers have recently compiled a list of 27 categories of emotion, the English language includes over 4,000 words for expressing feelings. This should offer a clue as to what the scientific distinction between emotion and feeling means to a simple ESL teacher: teaching students to talk about emotions can be a relatively quick and easy task; tackling the universe of feelings presents more difficulty.


Building the Basics

As with any lesson, the best way to open a study session on expressing emotions and feelings in English is by engaging your students in the topic. Make the abstract concrete via the use of age-appropriate illustrations, photos, and videos. Emojis can be very useful and they are fun to mix in anyway. Share some pictures that clearly depict people showing different emotions and begin gathering related vocabulary. Most or all basic emotions are universal, so your job should mainly consist of ensuring that the students have new words for concepts they already possess.


If they have been previously exposed to any English at all, there is a good chance your students will already have command of some basic vocabulary. Let them make contributions to the development of a relevant word list. As with most vocabulary work, there is more learning value in engaging students in building word lists than in offering pre-made handouts. For introductory lessons, keep the focus on adjective word forms and the associated simple verb tenses.


As students gain proficiency, push the difficulty level up with less-clearly definable terms from the realm of feelings, for instance “embarrassed”, “shy”, “excited” and so forth. At this point, provide a simple introduction to the possible connections between emotions and the differences between emotions and feelings. Work together to create categories or tree structures that illustrate these concepts and help students learn the word associations. Take the opportunity to draw out discussion and encourage students to provide examples from their own experiences.


Apply New Knowledge

Once the students are prepared with a good selection of “emotional” vocabulary, they can begin to apply, test, and consolidate what they have learned. Review or teach the simple verb tenses as necessary so students have the grammar needed to put some short sentences together. Time and location expressions like “now”, “today”, “in class”, “at the movies” and etc. will also be useful.


Let the students search for pictures in magazines or online, come up with some examples of emotions and feelings being displayed, and identify and explain them for the class. Role playing, either in singles or pairs, is another nice activity. Play charades by letting the students draw from a set of cards with words describing feelings then acting the feelings out while classmates guess. With sufficiently advanced learners, look for opportunities to explore the contexts and possible causes for emotions/feelings shown in pictures. It can also be useful and interesting to explore cultural differences in the perception and expression of emotions and feelings.


Build Receptive Skills

Understanding the emotions and feelings expressed by others in the context of authentic communicative interaction calls for well-developed listening comprehension skills in addition to the ability to decode facial expressions and body language. If appropriate to your students’ ability level, the next step is to move away from the use of visual aids and see if the learners can identify emotions and feelings when listening to passages read from texts or recorded samples of dialogue.


Video is also a great resource for the topic of feelings and emotions because it offers authentic input and supports close analysis and discussion. You can use it to cover the basics with beginners, and get into details of voice tone, stress, and emphasis as well as body language with advanced students. Role playing dramatic, emotion-packed bits of dialogue clipped from popular films is a fun way to practice native-like pronunciation and intonation with expressions of emotion.


Keep It Real

With the basics in place, the best way forward is further development and refinement of students’ skills via real-life communication. Playing games with classmates and host family members and experiencing the ups and downs of winning and losing is a great way to get exposure to emotionally-charged situations of the positive type. Observing then discussing the interactions and expressions of others in public social settings is good for reaching higher levels of understanding and picking up on advanced forms of language.


The body of language used to express emotions and feelings in English is huge. That’s why it’s such a fun and interesting part of teaching English – there is so much room for exploration and creativity.


Teaching Students How to Talk About Feelings