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Teaching younger teenage learners to express likes and wants

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This is an article from one of my first DELTA assignments:

At the beginning of each school year teaching to younger teenage learners inevitably requires me to understand and follow up their immediate needs. In the last three years learning how to express likes and wants has been one of these. I would say this is the most popular topic among my learners. Being aware of it provides them with motivation to speak and express their own ideas about free-time, sports, foods etc.

I have recently realised that teaching  to express likes and desires at A1-A2 levels is not so simple and immediate. Often learners get confused by the choice of the correct verb and form. Therefore I think the topic should be addresses with a more selective and systematic approach that could solve the issue of how and what to teach to younger teenage elementary learners to help them to express likes and wants. 

Language Analysis

a) Expressing likes and dislikes: gerund and infinitive constructions  

In English the idea of expressing likes and dislikes is strictly linked to the choice between gerund and infinitive constructions.

Carter and McCarthy (2006) list a number of common verbs normally only followed by the -ing form as opposed to the infinitive.

I fancy doing some evening classes. (not > I fancy to do some evening classes)

Some of those verbs are used to express likes (adore, appreciate and enjoy) and some others to express dislike (loathe, dislike, can’t stand, mind)

I enjoy living alone

Cats dislike getting their fur wet (MacMillan Dictionary for Advanced Learners, 2007:422)

According to the KET (Key English Test) Vocabulary List (Cambridge ESOL, 2009), the verbs adore, appreciate and loathe are not usually taught at A2 level. Therefore they will not be considered further here.

These verbs can also be followed by a noun phrase object.

I dislike people telling me what to think (Swan, 2005)

Hate, like, love and prefer can be followed either by -ing or infinitive, as well as by a noun phrase object . Carter and McCarthy (2006) provide a clear general distinction between the two uses, arguing that -ing “emphasizes the action or event in itself, while the infinitive places the emphasis more on the results of the action or event. The -ing form often implies enjoyment (or lack of it), and the infinitive is often used for expressing preferences” (Carter and McCarthy, 2006:515):

I really like my teacher and I like my class. I like being in year five. (emphasis on the process itself and enjoyment of it)

I like home-made soup. I like to make a panful and then it lasts me a couple of days. (emphasis more on result and the habit or preference)

Similarly, Swan (2005) thinks that both infinitives and -ing forms can often be used without a great difference of meaning.

I hate working/to work at weekends.

but Like + infinitive is used to talk about choices and habits.

I like climbing/to climb mountains (= I enjoy climbing)

When I pour tea I like to pour the milk in first (= I choose to, it’s my habit)

Can this idea be simplified for elementary learners?

Svartvik and Leech (2002) point to a more general approach arguing that the infinitive clause expresses an “idea”, while the -ing clause expresses a “fact”. Interestingly they also add that in some contexts, the infinitive clause may have neutral (non factual or hypothetical) meaning:

He likes me to work late ( “…and that’s why I do it” ; …”but I never do it”)

He likes me working late (“…and that’s why I do it”)

As noticed above the choice between infinitive and gerund does not generally change the meaning.

Hypothetical prediction of likes and dislikes.

Verbs of liking and disliking can also refer to unreal or uncertain situations: hypothetical predictions.

In these cases usually only the infinitive clause can be used:

Would you like to have dinner now?

No, I’d prefer to eat later

Would is a modal auxiliary verb and it has various uses, the following are the two most related to the topic of this analysis:

– Conditional auxiliary: Swan (2005) describes would as a “conditional auxiliary” with verbs that refer to unreal or uncertain situations (Swan, 2005).

We would like to talk to you for a minute.

I think David would like to see you alone. (expressing desire)

– Requests: Carter and McCarthy (2006) together with many coursebooks, argue that would can be used in requests as more formal or polite alternative to will:

would you excuse me just one second? (heard as more polite than: Will you excuse me just one second?).

The above uses raise a question: do these contextual explanations define the forms?

As Lewis (2010) argues, would is not the conditional, but it often expresses a situation which, at the moment of speaking, is “psychologically remote for the speaker (hypothetical) but has the suggestion of inevitability associated with will”(Lewis, 2010:123).

In particular, it is quite common in classroom teaching to present questions with

Would you…? as “polite forms”, but this does not define the forms. What is the contrast between  Do you like and Would you like? I believe it is important to stress the importance of the two defining qualities that Lewis (2010) presents in his research:

  • distance “from the speaker” (psychologically)
  • reference to the perception of the listener at the moment of speaking.

These make clear the differences in contrasts like:

Do you like a tea?

Would you like a cup of tea?

This could represent a difficulty at elementary levels. This will be discussed again later.

Would like and Want

The first meaning of the verb Want in the Macmillan Dictionary for Advanced Learners (2007) is: to feel like you would like to have, keep or do something. The connection between the two verbs appears clearly in the definition. Where does the main difference lie ? Where is the contrast between I want to drink a beer and I would like to drink a beer?

The verb want always requires complementation, it is followed by an infinitive with to and it is not used with a that-clause.

Liz wants to see the gardens

I want him to think about his future (not > I want that he thinks about his future)

According to Carter and McCarthy (2006) want and would like can be used in offers and invitations, in both cases Would you like is the most polite:

Do you want some fruit?

Would you like a banana?

    1. Would you like to come to dinner on Friday night?
    2. I’d love to
    1. We are going to the theatre on Sunday. Do you want to come?
    1. I can’t because of work

As noted above the main difference is in politeness. Interestingly, Svartvik and Leech (2002) do not include the verb want in offers, requests or invitation, considering only the most polite forms such as would like, will, could etc.

This raises a question about the importance of want in speech acts and the distinction  with the use of would like.

As McCarthy (1991) suggests,  modal verbs can soften the force of a speech act. Past forms such as could instead of can or would instead of will, can also soften speech acts and contribute to politeness. This involves discourse analysis and suggests that the difference in the use of the two verbs often lies in the specific context of a speech act.


Most learners may have problems recognizing native speakers’ intonation patterns. Differences in British English between yes/no questions (rising intonation) and wh-questions (falling intonation) cause particular problems. Italian learners need these distinctions to be pointed out.

Young teenage learners could also find it difficult to remember that the l in would is silent.

 Issues for learners

This analysis raises several possible issues for learners:

  1. The choice between gerund and infinitive constructions may result in difficulty in understanding for young teenage elementary learners compared to adults. From my experience learners at this age do not have a well developed idea of the difference between enjoyment and preference, or idea vs fact. Often they are not able to see the difference between: I like going to the gym/I like to go to the gym (because it keeps me fit). The same issue arises when dealing with a group of mainly active or kinaesthetic learners, where the distinction between idea and fact is not sufficient if not supported by a very practical activity.
  1. Italian and Spanish commonly expresses the idea of “liking” with the equivalent of ‘to please’ (piacere, gustar). This means that the subject corresponds to the English object, and vice versa (Swan and Smith, 2001), which, in my experience can cause mistakes, especially at elementary level. e.g. Ice cream likes me.
  1. Italian learners tend to have problems using the gerund after verbs instead of the infinitive. Although there is a gerund in Italian, it is not used in the same way as English (Swan and Smith, 2001).

Dutch learners do not have an equivalent of the English gerund, and will often substitute                              a to-infinitive for one. So they will produce sentences like: I don’t mind to do it.

  1. I have noticed that, at elementary levels, understanding the difference between would you like and do you like is crucial to establish a clear distinction which can be applied in similar situations at higher levels. The problem is likely to lie with the choice of the correct context. In my experience a contrastive approach between English and Italian seems to be useful.

Suggestions for teaching

As a general principle I advocate a systematic and gradual approach to teaching likes and wants to young teenage elementary learners.One of the first need of learners of this age is to be able to talk about what they like and desire. Starting from this idea I would proceed as follows:

At the beginning  of the course I would suggest teaching the affirmative and negative forms of the verb to like + object and as a basic construction to express likes and dislikes.

At this point I would consider the idea of introducing the verb to want, giving importance to the use and meaning.

As a following step I would present Would like and the function of making offers.

Once the structure is clearly understood I would add other verbs to express likes and dislikes: love, hate, mind, can’t stand. At elementary level I would not introduce the distinction between gerund and infinitive constructions.

Approaches and Activities

I would recommend introducing each topic through a receptive skill activity.In many coursebooks the verb to like is introduced through a reading or listening text about sports and free-time activities: e.g. a dialogue among classmates talking about their free-time (I like action films etc). Listening texts also allow the teacher to focus on the intonation patterns issues I mentioned before. Learners could be asked to do a listen and repeat exercise focusing specifically on yes/no question intonation (Do you like football? etc.) (Barker, Mitchell 2008). The more actively learners are involved in repeating questions the more confident they will feel during language production.

Reading and listening activities are usually followed by “noticing” activities. According to Scrivener (2005), to learn a language item learners need to “notice” specific items when they are being used. It follows that the teacher should provide texts and exercises that help learners notice specific items. In my experience, texts specifically written for learners are particularly useful (e.g. dialogues containing many examples of the target items). In order to “notice” rules learners are asked to literally work on the text given by underlining, circling etc. some key features: e.g. Read and listen to the text about A day in London. Then underline all the activities the friends like doing (Spencer, 2007). I have noticed young learners appreciate this inductive approach and show motivation and commitment. At this point the teacher could also encourage learners to return to the text and find textual evidence that can support their choice (e.g. can you read one of these activities from the text?).

As an alternative approach to present the language item, the teacher could set up a situation (e.g. a short conversation between two friends or mum and son etc.), model some language that fits the situation (e.g. mum: what would you like for lunch?) and have students practice the new language in a controlled way. A choral repetition activity could also be useful to check pronunciation.

In order to give students intensive oral and written practice I would first use activities designed to restrict the language needed and require the use of the target items. As Scrivener (2005: 255) argues “the real learning experience is when learners try to use the language themselves”.  Consolidation and practice activities can be:

Gap fill: e.g. complete the sentences with the -ing form of the verbs in brackets. (e.g.do you like (read) comics?)

Rationale: this is a controlled activity where students can concentrate on the form and make it familiar. For my experience this activity is very useful for young Italian learners to understand and express the idea of “liking”.

Substitution drill: e.g. substitute the smiley with the correct verb. (e.g. 🙂 = like/enjoy – Lucy 🙂 swim.)

Rationale: this is a semi controlled activity, students can practice things in activities that call for restricted language, but they also have the chance to choose among a small group of lexical items.

Pairwork – Free practice: Guided speaking activity – e.g. Complete the table with the things you like doing after school (e.g. reading magazines), then use the same table to interview your classmate.

Rationale: Students can use the new language when speaking and writing. They could also practice intonation.

Once completed I would suggest a recording and reporting activity to allow revision and feedback.

This is basically the approach taken in Kelly and Chiodini (2010) and Barker and Mitchell (2008). Interestingly Spencer (2007) approaches the topic of expressing likes and desires in a slightly different direction. He suggests presenting the topic through a dialogue builder activity (e.g. Complete the dialogue with the words in the box. Read the dialogue before you start.) Students are asked to work on the language item before being aware of it. Words in the box include different language items: going, would, watch, to etc.

This approach appears to be very productive in solving the issue of the contrast between do you like? and would you like?. The two constructions are included in the same text so students could “notice” the difference in context. I would then suggest focusing on this contrast in the following practice activity e.g.: write questions with do you like and suggestions with would you like to…? using these words: dancing – dance with me etc.

None of the above approaches propose the distinction between gerund and infinitive constructions to young teenage elementary learners, this will led to a temporary simplification of expressing likes and dislikes at this level.


  • Barker, C. and Mitchell, L. (2008). Dynamic 2. 1st ed. Oxford: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
  • Carter, R. and McCarthy, M. (2006). Cambridge Grammar of English. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kelly, P. and Chiodini, G. (2010). That’s it. 1st ed. Edizioni LANG, Pearson Italia.
  • Leech, G. and Svartvik, J. (2002). A Communicative Grammar of English. 3rd ed. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.
  • Lewis, M. (2010 ). The English Verb. Cengage Learning EMEA
  • Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (2007). 2nd ed. Oxford: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
  • McCarthy, M. (1991). Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning teaching. 2nd ed. Oxford: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
  • Spencer, M. (2007). Result!. 1st ed. Oxford: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
  • Swan, M. and Smith, M. (2001). Learner English. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Swan, M. (2005). Practical English Usage. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press

One thought on “Teaching younger teenage learners to express likes and wants

  1. Pingback: your #oldeltpost from 2012 | ELTSquared.co.uk

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