How to teach the language of feelings
Summary: Teaching tips and classroom activities for the language emotions, from very young learners to advanced learners.
This article gives advice on presenting and practising emotions language from happy and sad with very young learners to subtle differences between different feelings and feelings idioms with high-level learners, including tips on how to tie in related language points like -ed and -ing adjectives, extreme adjectives, and “I want”.
What students need to know about the language of feelings
The teacher’s first job when planning a lesson on feelings is choosing vocabulary which is suitable for their class. First of all, you should make sure that the lesson includes a mix of words that they already know, ones they know but not so well, and completely new ones. The next thing to think about is teachability. The most teachable emotions are usually those which can be represented by pictures and/ or actions, plus those with accompanying stories and songs. With higher level learners, idioms with colourful language like “I feel all mixed up” tend to most memorable, though it can be a challenge to find expressions which both stick well and are common enough to be worth teaching. You could also think about what kinds of feelings students are most likely to want to talk about in class, in language exams and/ or in the outside world.
Ones that can be mimed and/ or drawn, in approximate order of difficulty and usefulness, are:
- happy/ pleased/ cheerful
- tired/ sleepy
- angry/ cross
- afraid/ frightened/ scared
- surprised/ shocked/ amazed
- nervous/ stressed/ worried
- ill/ sick
- embarrassed/ ashamed/ shy
- disgusted/ revolted
- fed up/ sulky
- irritated/ annoyed
- brave/ courageous/ unafraid
- calm/ relaxed
- in love/ infatuated
Other adjectives which are useful but which will need to be described with stories, songs, typical situations, opposites, typical reactions, etc include:
- certain/ sure
- unsure/ doubtful
- under pressure
- grouchy/ grumpy
Higher level students will also need to know other forms of the words, especially nouns such as “anger” but also perhaps adverbs like “angrily”.
From around Upper Intermediate level, I almost always use the topic of feelings as a chance to mention, revise or present extreme adjectives like:
- freezing/ frozen
- boiling/ baking/ roasting
- terrified/ petrified
- delighted/ overjoyed
- exhausted/ wrecked/ shattered
- stunned/ astonished/ gobsmacked
- mystified/ baffled
- wasted/ wrecked/ blotto/ plastered
- hyper/ hyperactive
Feelings idioms include ones with actual feelings words in them, ones which are synonyms for simpler feelings words, ones which have wider meanings that cover several feelings words, and ones which explain feelings which don’t have simpler expressions.
Idioms including feelings words include:
- bored silly
- bored to tears/ death/ distraction
- proud as a peacock/ as punch
- pleased as punch
- beside yourself (with glee/ anger/ excitement)
- head over heels (in love)
- as happy as a lamb/ Larry
Ones with (exact or approximate) synonyms include:
- beat/ bushed/ knackered – tired/ exhausted
- on cloud nine – happy/ overjoyed
- wish the ground would swallow me up – embarrassed/ ashamed
- ants in your pants - restless
- at your wits’ end – fed up
- in bits – (very) upset
- over the moon – delighted/ overjoyed
- tearing your hair out – (very) frustrated
- under the weather – (a little) ill/ sick
- out of sorts – ill/ sick
Feelings idioms which have wider meanings include:
- having kittens – angry/ stressed/ panicky
- worked up – excited/ stressed
- on top of the world – fit and healthy/ happy
- Ones which don’t have exact synonyms include:
- bent out of shape
- cheesed off
- freaked out
- weirded out
- have your nose out of joint
- hot under the collar
- on tenterhooks
- on the edge of your seat
- on the spot
- shaken up
- steamed up
- tongue tied
- wound up
Students will also need to know typical sentences that go with the language of feelings like “I am (very/ a little)…”, “I feel… (because…)”, “I’m feeling…”, “Are you…?”, “You look…”, “You must be…”, “… makes me (feel)…”, “When I feel…, I…” and “I last felt…,…”
Unusually (but not uniquely) “I feel…” and “I’m feeling…” can be used interchangeably to talk about feelings right now without changing the meaning. However, as “I feel… (when…)” can also have the usual Present Simple meaning of repeated habits, I would stick to Present Continuous for the “in progress” meaning.
Typical student problems with the language of feelings
The most common problems for students with the language of feelings is a lack of clear translations. For example, many languages lack a clear translation for the English word “bored”. Like “ennui” in French, the closest equivalent often sounds much more serious than just a lack of interest. The word “upset” is also almost untranslatable, best explained with higher level students by miming or drawing water flowing out of an upset glass of water to show why “upset” can mean all kinds of losing control of your feeling (crying, losing your temper, etc). To avoid confusion with “sad”, you should avoid miming crying to present and practise “sad”, and stick to just a downturned mouth for “sad” instead.
Some students might also have problems getting their heads round words which aren’t adjectives in their own language, such as “thirsty”, which is always “have thirst” in Spanish.
Like character words, feelings is a topic where it is simply best to completely avoid translation, instead relying on drawings, miming, sounds, opposites, synonyms, explaining the differences between similar words, etc. In fact, I ban bilingual dictionaries during classes on this topic, even in lower level classes.
Students also often have problems with “bored”/ “boring”, “tired”/ “tiring”, etc, but you can help students avoid this problem (both in this class and later) by using “I feel…” (instead of just “I am…”) with the “-ed” adjectives. You can then elicit the fact that “I feel…” goes with “-ed” adjectives when teaching or correcting “-ing” forms.
Problems with extreme adjectives and related adverbs like “I am extremely freezing” X and “I’m absolutely tired” X often come up with this topic, even when not specifically practising extreme adjectives.
How to present the language of feelings
Some textbooks and songs teach feelings as an extension of “How are you?” “I’m fine, thank you”, leading to exchanges like “How are you?” “I’m hungry”. Students usually love being able to express their real feelings this way, and it takes the tedium out of practising “How are you?” However, it is not ideal, seeing how we literally never answer “How are you?” that way in real life.
Feelings words are slightly more likely as answers to more casual/ friendly versions of “How are you?” like “How’s life?”/ “How are you doing?”/ “How’s it going?”, but these questions strange sound coming from the mouths of students who are younger than around 12. Similarly, we only ask “How are you feeling?” when we know that the other person have had medical problems, “What’s the matter?” only works with negative feelings, and “What’s up?” usually just gets a “What’s up?” response back in American English. It’s so difficult to choose between all those different possible questions that I usually just follow the textbook, but “How are you feeling?” would probably be my first choice, if only because it might prepare students to ask “How do you feel about…?” (and not “How do you think about…?”) when we do the language of opinions later.
If you are teaching feelings language with “How are you?”, start by practising the usual basic questions like “What’s your name?” and “How old are you?” at the beginning of each class with a beach ball, blocks, etc, at this stage with everyone answering “I’m fine, thank you (and you?)”. Then, in a later class answer “How are you?” with your real answer, with a gesture and sounds to show the meaning of “I’m sleepy/ hungry/ hot” etc. Students can then be encouraged to the do the same, eliciting the words they want to say from the teacher with gestures, sounds, drawings, etc. This would then lead naturally onto presentation of the target language with picture flashcards, songs with gestures, picture books, etc.
You could also skip the questions and start from a song or picture book. For example, I often use the song If You’re Happy and You Know (Clap Your Hands) at the end of the classes for a nice positive feeling to go home with. Then in a later class I introduce a version with more feelings such as “If you’re angry, angry, angry, stomp your feet”. You could also use the song or story to link between previous language and the new language point of feelings. For example, you could use the Go Away Big Green Monster picture book to revise colours and/ or body parts. You can then introduce that the monster looks angry and that students must feel scared, before introducing other feelings like “cold” and “bored”.
With adults and higher level learners it can be quite difficult to link naturally to this topic, given how little we talk about our feelings in real life. Perhaps the most natural way is to link to offers, suggestions, requests etc with “Are you cold/ hot/ thirsty/ hungry/ tired?”, “You look…”, “You must be…”, etc. The same can also be done with the topic of small talk.
How to practise the language of feelings
Emotions acting games
Students mime feelings for others to guess or race to make the quickest and/ or best mime of the word that is said or written up. You could also get them to mime whole sentences like “Mosquitoes make me irritated” and “I’m sleepy because it’s four a.m.” They could also put cards with words on them together to make sentences like “The monkey is angry” and “Bananas make me sick” that they want to mime, or that they want to make their classmates mime.
Emotions sound effects
All the miming ideas above can be added to or replaced with the students making sounds, such as a growling sound for “hungry” and blowing air out of your mouth for “bored”.
Emotions drawing games
This is also similar to the drawing games above, but this time with drawing. Students try to guess what is being drawn, or else compete to make the quickest and/ or best picture to represent feelings like “sad” or sentences like “The dog is hot”. You can also get students to make sentences that they want to draw or want their partner to draw, e.g. putting cards together to make the sentence “Maths + makes me + bored” or “The elephant + is + disappointed” and then praising or laughing at the drawing of that thing.
Emotions guessing games
Students can either describe things related to a feeling until their partners guess the feeling or they can use feelings to describe something that their partners must guess. For example, they could say “I feel this way on Friday afternoons” for their partner to guess “excited” or they could say “This feels scared when it sees a mouse” for their partner to guess “Elephant”.
One of the sentence completion games below is also a guessing game.
Emotions sentence completion games
Give students at least 15 gapped sentences like “I feel _________________ in PE lessons” and “______________ makes me feel disgusted” and ask them to fill in as many as they can, either with true information or with a mix of true and false information depending on which game below you want to play.
Emotions sentence completion things in common
Students try to fill the sentences with things that are true for both/ all of the people in the group such as “We usually feel disappointed when we see fireworks”. For more motivation, you can give a point for each sentence that they make and extra points for sentences which aren’t true for any other groups in the class.
Emotions sentence completion guessing game
Students read out just the part that they have filled in, and the other people in their group try to guess which sentence those words were written in. For example, one student reads out “Fish and chips” and the other people make guesses until they find out that the sentence that was written was “Fish and chips makes me full” (not “Fish and chips makes me disgusted”!)
Emotions sentence completion bluffing game
Students read out a sentence and the other students try to guess if it true or not, perhaps after asking for more information with questions like “Why do you feel that way?”
Emotions bluffing games
As well as the sentence completion bluffing game mentioned above, there are several other lying games that you can use with the language of feelings. The simplest is just students picking feelings cards and making a mix of true and made up sentences with them like “I felt really hungry just before this class” and “I have never felt hopeful about my country’s national football team”. They can also make two true statements and one false one and see if the other students can spot the false one. Alternatively, they could secretly flip a coin to see if they should say something true (heads) or imaginary (tails).
Feelings things in common
Students try to make sentences that are true for the people in their group such as “We were both tired this morning” and “We always feel hot when we have PE”, perhaps using a list of feelings and/ or sentence stems to help.
Make a pack of cards with a feeling, a thing that people often want when they feel a particular way (“ice cream” when they feel hot, etc), and/ or a thing that prompts a particular feeling (“spider” to make them feel “scared”, etc) on each card. Students spread the cards face down across the table and then take turns turning two cards face up, like the card game Pairs/ The Memory Game. Depending on which cards you gave them, students can try to find:
- Matching feelings and things
- Two things that prompt the same feeling
- Two feelings that can be prompted by the same thing
- Two feelings that could prompt the same reaction
If too many matches are possible with the cards that you made, you can play Reverse Pelmanism, in which students try to find pairs of cards that everyone agrees can’t go together.
Emotions language stories
Students try to use as many emotions words as they can while they tell a story, perhaps picking random cards and having to use them in the order in which they were picked to make it more challenging.
Emotions intonation practice
Students read out words, phrases, dialogues, etc that you want them to memorise, using their voices to show different feelings each time. The easiest way of doing this is for the teacher or one student to say a feelings word with neutral intonation and the other students to say the word back with their voice showing that emotion, e.g. saying “sick” back while coughing and/ or groaning. The prompt could also be a written word.
The same idea can also be used as a guessing game, with one or two students saying language such as lines from a shopping dialogue with voices which are excited, scared, etc until their partners guess what feeling they are going for. After a few rounds of this, you can then test them on their memories of the dialogue(s) that they were reading from.
Feelings video tasks
Students watch a video, perhaps with the volume off, and try to make sentences with feelings and reasons like “The dog feels confused because his bone has disappeared” that other students accept could be true. It’s best if the characters in the video have faces which don’t show feelings too clearly so that some debate is possible. Especially if their faces are more expressive, you can also stop the video and get students to guess how people will feel in the next few seconds, then play the next bit to check. Students could also read all the dialogue first, guess how people will feel at each point, then check as they watch.
Emotions vocabulary projects
Students design, draw and label a theme park with feelings like “(You will feel) scared” for the ghost train, “(Don’t get) confused” for the maze and “(I have never been more) thrilled” for the 4D theatre.
Songs for the language of emotions
The great version of If You’re Happy and You Know It with extra emotions mentioned above is available on CD and YouTube from SuperSimpleLearning. I haven’t found any others which have such good actions and suitably simple language, but for older and higher level learners there are plenty of other YouTube videos and lists of suggestions online if you Google something like “Emotions adjectives songs”.
Pictures books for the language of emotions
Again, there is just one clear recommendation for me, in this case Me Myself from Apricot Books, which starts with simple things like name and hometown, has a kind of story as it shows a girl being sometimes good and sometimes bad, etc, and then has a mirrored last page for students to practise their own emotions faces in. Perhaps the book’s only problem is that it looks too young for children over about nine or ten, and that some of the words are actually more personality words. Again, there are lists of other suggestions online but most are more suitable for higher level learners.
Combining feeling with other language points
Feelings can easily be combined with other language points, including:
- want/ want to
- ed and ing adjectives
- gradable and extreme adjectives
- indirect speech
- Present Continuous
- related vocabulary
- prepositions and determiners
Combining feeling with want (to)
Want and feelings hangman
A student secretly writes a sentence like “I want to eat two hamburgers because I’m really hungry” or “I feel lonely so I want to speak to my mummy”. The other students guess letters from that sentence until they have the whole sentence, either in the guessing any letter in any order way of normal hangman, or letter by letter in order through the sentence from the start to the end.
As well as letters, the person who wrote the other sentence can also give other hints such as “It’s a negative feeling”.
Want and feelings pictionary
A student draws a stick man with a thought bubble with what they want in it and with a facial expression, body language etc to show the feeling until the other students guess that “He wants a comic because he is bored”, etc.
Want and feelings pelmanism
As mentioned in the pelmanism section above, to practise the language of desires students could turn over two feelings cards and try to think of one thing that someone might want or want to do in both situations. The other possibility is to have one set of “want” cards with things like “an ice cream” and “go swimming” and another set of feelings cards. This works best as “reverse pelmanism”, in which the aim is to find two cards that can’t possibly go together like “hot” and “fleece”, with the other students seeking to show how they could actually match with sentences like “I’m hot and I want a fleece, to use as a fan”.
Combining feelings with conditionals
Feelings go quite naturally with conditionals, most commonly with zero conditional in sentences like “I feel bored when it rains”, but also with second conditional (“How would you feel if your parents divorced?”). Feelings could also possibly go with first conditional (“How will you feel when the summer ends?”) and third conditional (“I would have been happier if I had chosen something different at university”). This can be practised with hangman and sentence completion games from above, either with just one kind of conditional or with a mix of different ones.
Combining feelings with –ed and –ing adjectives
To practise “bored/ boring”, “frightened/ frightening” when dealing with feelings, you could combine both in hangman or a drawing game with sentences like “The monkey feels frightened because the mouse is frightening”, perhaps also with others that don’t exactly follow that pattern like “scared/ scary”. Alternatively, you could do the same with sentences which have to take either “-ed” or “-ing” like “The teacher is boring”.
Combining feelings with opposites
There are many games that can be played with feelings opposites like “sad/ happy” and maybe also other opposites that are suitable for the same students like “black/ white” and “big/ little”, including drawing and miming. They could also do Things in Common with a list of words that are arranged as opposites, then you can test them on the opposites matches that they just saw.
Feelings opposites tennis
Students test each other on “tired”/ “energetic”, “excited”/ “disappointed” etc as they pretend to or really send a ball back and forth, perhaps with the scoring rules of tennis, volleyball or badminton.
Feelings opposites reversi
Create cards with opposites on each side, e.g. “boiling” on one side and “freezing” on the other. Students take turns trying to remember the other side of as many cards as they can, leaving any which are correct turned over and stopping whenever they make a mistake. There are many ways of organising this, but I tend to say that the longest uninterrupted string of guesses during the game wins.
Combining feelings with gradable and extreme adjectives
Pairs of words like “happy/ overjoyed” and “disappointed/ devastated” can also be practised with tennis or reversi. They could also try to create pictures to represent the gradable and/ or extreme adjectives, perhaps along with suitable situations for both. The sentence completion games above are also more challenging and more fun with a mix of gradable and extreme adjectives.
Combining feelings with reported speech
Students say what people said to them and their partners guess how they felt about it, or they say what they said and their partners guess the feelings that prompted those words.
Combining feelings with Present Continuous
Miming and drawings fit in well with sentences like “I am hot because I’m running” and “I’m hitting my brother because I am angry”.
Combining feelings with other vocabulary
There are lots of words related to feelings such as the idioms above and other words like “smile” for “happy” and “tears” and “outburst” for “upset”. These can be practised at the same time as revising feelings language with a list dictation, where the teacher reads out words and expressions related to one feeling until the students guess which one it is.
After or instead of this, students can also brainstorm suitable vocabulary into columns in a table which say “Words associated with sadness” etc. If you use exactly this wording for the headings, you can then test them on the noun forms of feelings vocabulary.
Combining feelings with prepositions and determiners
Many of the feelings words and idioms above typically go with particular articles, prepositions or adverbs, as in “___ top ___ ____ world” and “satisfied _____ something”. These can be practised by reading out phrases which have the same word missing until the people listening guess what the missing word is, with only one guess allowed per hint. If you can’t find enough suitable feelings words and idioms, you can also add related questions like “How do you feel ____ that?” and sentence stems like “I’m so hot! I want ____ go somewhere with air conditioning”.