How to teach verbs of senses

Summary: How to teach sense verbs/ verbs of sensation/ sensory verbs/ verbs of perception, including look like, smell like, etc and verbs of senses games

This article gives some tips on presenting and practising verbs related to your five senses such as “taste” and “feel”. These verbs are incredibly useful, including for the vital communication skills of explaining things that the other person doesn’t know and talking around things which you can’t remember the English word for. However, there are some things that make them tricky to teach and learn.


What students need to know about verbs of senses

As the name suggests, there is at least one verb for each of your five senses, in examples like:

  • I (can) see him in the distance./ He’s looking at his feet./ It looks lovely./ What does it look like?/ It looks like jam (, but…)
  • I (can) hear birdsong./ I’m listening to some of my old cassettes./ It sounds great./ What does it sound like?/ It sounds like a car alarm (, but…)
  • I (can) taste liquorice./ I’m tasting the first batch to see how well it’s brewing./ This tastes slightly different to the last one./ What does it taste like?/ It tastes like a normal tomato, but…
  • I (can) smell something burning./ He’s smelling the wine first before he tastes it./ This jam smells bad./ What does it smell like?/ It smells like a lemon, but also like soap.
  • I (can) feel a sharp pain in my arm./ He’s touching the coat to make sure that it’s real fur./ He’s feeling the coat to make sure that it is real fur./ This warm bath feels good./ What does it feel like?/ It feels like a warm hug.

The first thing that students might notice is that each of the five senses above has examples with verbs which are actions such as “He’s looking at his feet” and verbs which are not really actions such as “I (can) hear birdsong”.

Actions related to senses like “look at” and “listen to” are voluntary/ deliberate, involve focussing your attention, and, in common with all action verbs, can be used in continuous tenses in sentences like “He was looking at the ground when he walked into the streetlight”. In contrast, verbs like “see” and “hear” are not really actions, but rather perceptions that kind of happen to us, often involuntarily. In common with other verbs which are not actions (state verbs), these kinds of verbs of perception cannot be used in continuous tenses. Instead, they are often used with “can”. Examples which seem to break this rule like “I’m feeling sad”, “I’m seeing him on Monday” and “I’m hearing a lot about your drinking”, actually have very different other meanings such as emotions, dating and gossiping which put them outside the topic of verbs of senses.

In each line above there is also a third group of examples where the subject is the thing that is being perceived, as in “It smells strange”. As the grammatical subject is not doing anything, these are obviously also state verbs that cannot be used in continuous tenses. They are used to explain the properties of something, often with the preposition “like”. This is especially useful and common in questions which mean “Can you describe…?” such as “What does it taste like?”. The meaning of “similar to” in statements such as “Your socks smell like cheese” is also common, but might need to be left until a later lesson to not make the lesson on verbs of senses overwhelming. There are other articles on this site on teaching like as a preposition.

Similar to the situation with continuous tenses, the imperative can also only be used with action verbs, in examples like “Look at the board” and “Don’t smell the jam every time before you use it!” (not “Hear this song” X or “Don’t see my new haircut!” X). Although I probably wouldn’t present this, it might come up in student questions, especially if you use (very common) examples like “Taste the difference”.

A final contrast related to grammar is that verbs of properties are copula verbs/ linking verbs which take an adjective in the same way as “seem” and “appear” (“It seems/ looks/ smells overcooked” etc). In contrast, like other actual actions, action verbs related to senses take adverbs (as in “He was looking longingly at my lunch”). There is more on this in an article on teaching copula verbs on this site.

As well as grammar, we can also think about collocations. Perhaps because they are actions that the subject is doing to something else, the action verbs “look” and “listen” take the prepositions “at” and “to”. In contrast, verbs explaining properties can only take the preposition “like” (and often do), and verbs of perception don’t take prepositions. There are also many adjectives and adverbs that tend to go with one of the five senses and maybe particular verbs such as “feel slimy”, “sound out of tune” and “look closely”.

The three groups of verbs of senses (action, perception, and properties) for each of the five senses are:

  • look (at)/ see/ look (like)
  • listen (to)/ hear/ sound (like)
  • taste/ taste/ taste (like)
  • smell/ smell/ smell (like)
  • touch or feel/ feel/ feel (like)

Sometimes two or three of the different kinds of verbs related to senses have the same spelling and pronunciation, but you can see that they are very different in meaning and use in contrasting sentences like “He’s feeling his way in the dark”, “I (can) feel a hand on my shoulder” and “It feels slimy”. To help with this, you can sometimes use synonyms and other similar words for each of the uses, such as the different ones here:

  • stare (at) or glance (at)/ notice/ appear (like)
  • strain to catch/ catch/
  • try or sample/ catch a hint of/ give a hint of
  • sniff/ make out/ stink (like)
  • touch/ sense/

To summarise, what all students studying this point need to know are:

  • there are three different kinds of verbs of senses: actions, perceptions and properties/ descriptions
  • sometimes the three different kinds of verbs of senses are the same word (as in “feel”, “feel” and “feel”) and sometimes they are different words (as in “listen”, “see” and “sound”)
  • they have different meanings, collocations and grammar

You may also want to teach more specific information such as:

  • actions related to senses can be used in continuous tenses and the imperative, and sometimes collocate with prepositions (as in “look at” and “listen to”)
  • perceptions cannot be used in continuous tenses, but are often used with “can”
  • properties/ descriptions after often used with the preposition “like”, and cannot be used in continuous tenses
  • which words collocate with each verb
  • (near) synonyms of some of the verbs


Typical student problems with verbs of senses

As can probably be predicted from the descriptions above, students are likely to mix up the meanings and uses of the three kinds of verbs connected to senses above, as in “I can listen the teacher in the next classroom” X and “Don’t disturb him. He’s hearing his favourite music” X. This is quite likely to include problems with adjectives and adverbs such as “It smells badly” X.

To help students remember which kind of verb is which, you could introduce examples which they are already likely to know such as:

  • Can you hear me?
  • Can you see the Big Dipper?
  • Hearing test/ Listening test
  • I can’t hear the high notes (anymore).
  • I can’t hear you.
  • Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once.
  • Look at page 23/ exercise 3 and…
  • Look out!
  • Touch your head!
  • You can’t see me!
  • I Can See Clearly Now the Rain Has Gone
  • You looking at me? Then what the hell you looking at?

You could also include examples where all three verbs are the same such “Taste the difference” to reassure them that sometimes it’s virtually impossible to make a mistake.

There may also be issues within each kind of verb, with the most common probably being misusing the preposition “like” in statements like “It looks like hot” X. This could be because “like” does not look like a preposition and so doesn’t trigger a noun in the same way as “It’s for…” or “It’s about…” would. However, it is sometimes simply because students are repeating the “like” in questions such as “What does it smell like?”

Students also tend to confuse “look at” and “watch”. The latter should be used with things that could move/ change such as wildlife and movies, often meaning for a longer time than people typically just look at things.


How to present verbs of senses

Given the major differences between the three types of verbs explained above, it is difficult to find many situations in which all three can be naturally presented in a single text, particularly at lower levels. The only semi-realistic situation I could come up with for a conversation was with someone saying something on the phone like “I’m looking in the dictionary now. I can see two entries. There is a picture next to the second one. It’s a kind of bird. It looks something like a stork”. The same could perhaps work with people talking on the phone about a map with symbols on it.

Particularly with higher levels, you might be able to find or add enough examples of natural uses in a popular science article on how our senses work or contrasting our senses with those of animals. The same thing might work even better as a presentation with photos, with the presenter saying something like “It is listening out for a mate. It can hear females who are over 100 miles away. For us it sounds like a rumble, but for the whale the meaning is clear”. The same might also work for the senses of present or future robots.

Whatever kind of text you use, it’s best if it includes “listen”, “hear” and “sound” to show the differences in meaning and use without any possible confusion. It should also include different meanings and uses of the same word such as the three types of “feel”, so that students have to use the context to work out what the meaning is each time. I would also make sure that there are some examples of using of verbs of properties to make definitions like “It’s a pie. The filling tastes really rich and…”, as this is the most important use of verbs of senses for classroom communication.

After doing comprehension tasks such as matching what is mentioned in the text to some pictures, students can analyse the texts for grammar, collocations and meaning.

As well as the difficulty of finding, adapting or making suitable texts to deal with all three kinds of verbs at the same time, there is then the difficulty that students will need a lot of imagination to get involved in similar kinds of communication (pretending that they are looking things up over the phone, giving presentations on the senses of something from nature or technology, etc). It might therefore be better to split the presentation into two or more parts. The other possibility is to use many very short example texts, perhaps even just the short phrases, advertising slogans, movie titles etc that are given above as ways of making the language memorable. As well as being easy to find or write, using a combination of shorter texts would mean that you could easily include the most useful function of defining things with sentences like “I don’t know the English word, but it looks like a ladder but in a triangle shape so that it doesn’t need to touch a wall”.


How to practise verbs of senses

As I’ve said about presentation above, practice activities are often best split into parts which each practise one or two of the three kinds of verbs, with students covering all three as they work their way through the different parts of the activity. For example, roleplays could include ones that mainly involve verbs of perception, others that combine actions and properties, etc. As well as being easier to design and so easier to make realistic, this helps make the distinctions between them clearer by showing which situations each is most likely to be used in.


Verbs of senses roleplays

Possibilities for roleplays include:

  • Imagining you are somewhere else, describing what you are looking at there, can hear there etc, until your partner can work out where it is
  • Describing and/ or asking questions as someone closely examines something, e.g. while a wine taster is at work
  • Describing ingredients or other food for someone who has to choose them for cooking, shopping, etc, (with a semi-realistic reason for not just using the names such as them being in unlabelled containers)
  • Presenting a design for a genetically engineered animal, superhero, robot, etc that has super-senses (but maybe also some weaknesses in other senses)


Real English verbs of senses activities

Perhaps after an introduction task such as circling examples they are familiar with and labelling them with “advertising slogan”, “song title”, etc, students try to fill gaps in “It ___________ like heaven” with the right verb in the right tense.


Verbs of senses guessing games

Guessing games where students listen to descriptions and guess what is being described obviously work most naturally for verbs describing properties in “What does it look like?” and “It smells bad but tastes great”. To add the other kinds of verbs of senses, you can make sure that you include topics such as:

  • things around you now (for “I can smell it now”, etc)
  • things associated with particular times and/ or places (“I can smell it when I walk down the high street”, etc)
  • animals (“It can smell really well”, etc)

Of those three, the topic of animals is the most fun and the easiest way to include all three kinds of verbs, but will need quite a lot of imagination from students unless you find or prepare suitable hints.


Verbs of senses mini-presentations

Students say anything they want about topics on a worksheet like their favourite food and favourite actor, then their partner asks questions to find out more about the taste, appearance, etc. If you want to give points, they can be for speaking a long time and/ or for asking questions that haven’t been answered yet.


Verbs of senses cultural exchange

Students explain things that are unique to particular countries, regions, etc and that some people might not understand. These could be things in their local culture that they might want to mention and then will need to explain such as festivals, things in English-speaking cultures that they will probably come across like Mr Bean, things from other countries that English speakers tend to be familiar with such as humus, or things in a country that they will visit. Activities include guessing games, working together to explain stuff, and bluffing games where they sometimes explain things that they don’t really know.


Verbs of senses bluffing games

Students sometimes describe things that they don’t really know and their partner works out when it’s imagination, or they add one false detail to a real description for their partner to spot. These should be things that some students don’t know and it would be useful to learn more about such as the topics in Verbs of Senses Cultural Exchange above.


Verbs of senses things in common/ discuss and agree

Using key words, sentence stems and/ or questions related to verbs of senses, students try to agree on what smells bad but tastes good, which person in the class most looks like someone famous, etc.


Verbs of senses sentence completion games

Students complete sentences like “I usually smell __________________ before I use it” and “__________ tastes as good as _____________ but is cheaper” and do an activity such as mixing up true and false sentences, finding things in common, or guessing which gaps their partner wrote particular things in.


Verbs of senses random pelmanism

Make a pack of cards of recent vocabulary that is physical objects such as “brick” and “ketchup”. Students choose two words and say how they are similar in a way related to one of the five senses to be able to keep those two cards, e.g. “They both often feel damp” for “earth” and “armpit”. All sentences must be different, although small changes (e.g. a later sentence being “They always feel really damp”) are okay. These sentences will probably mostly be with verbs of properties like “They feel/ look/ sound/ smell/ taste (like)…”, but could also be with actions or verbs of perception in sentences like “I look at these every day”, “I can see both of these from my bedroom window” and “I can taste these flavours in my favourite red wine”.


Sense vocabulary list dictation

Read out a list of vocabulary related to one of the five senses until students guess which one it is. If you want to score, the first person to guess correctly gets a point but anyone who guesses wrongly loses a point and can’t guess again in that round. To make this more difficult, you could start with ones which could have several answers such as “delicious”. This more matches a lesson on sense vocabulary more generally (dealt with in another article on this site), but can be used in a lesson just on verbs if the vocabulary is limited to those verbs, (near) synonyms, and collocations.

Enjoyed this article?

Please help us spread the word: