How to teach the language of trends

Summary: Presentation and stimulating practice for describing changes, one of the most important kinds of business/ ESP language.

When I did a two-week course in teaching Business English, trends was mentioned as one of the best things to plan for the first lesson with ESP classes, as almost any group from engineers to academics need language like “rise dramatically” and “reach a peak”. Not only did I find that to be true, but I have also found that a lesson or two on trends is a great way of presenting and practising all kinds of other language, for example:

  • Vocabulary in one topic area, e.g. asking students to predict future trends in things connected to the environment such as “air pollution” and “sea levels”, or the same for education vocabulary, financial and economics vocabulary, vocabulary to describe places, language connected to sports (“cheating” etc), feelings (“happiness”, etc), personality words (“stubbornness”, etc), daily routines vocabulary (“sleeping” etc), descriptions of customs (“bowing” etc), food and drink vocabulary, health vocabulary, or social issues (“homelessness” etc).

  • Tenses, e.g. contrasting Present Perfect and Past Simple with graphs that have different trends purely in the past and in the period up to now like “It grew rapidly but since then growth has slowed down”.

  • Speculating language, in combinations such as “might go up”, “probably improve” and “could possibly bounce back”.

  • Conditionals, in phrases like “If it doesn’t recover,…”.

  • Moving from positive and negative connotations in trends to connation in vocabulary more generally.

  • Moving from trends phrases based on particular areas like war and water (“retreat”, “dive” etc) into similar idioms based on the same or other areas.

  • Moving from trends language that is included in the AWL (Academic Word List) to a more general survey of AWL vocabulary.

  • Moving from describing line graphs into other kinds of data in IELTS Academic Writing Part One like flow charts and pie charts.

  • Moving from describing graphs into language for presenting visuals in presentations more generally like “If you look at the top right hand corner,…”.

  • Moving from describing changes to speculating on reasons for them and/ or talking about solutions.

  • Moving from supporting opinions with (true or made up) trends to other ways of supporting your opinions such as personal experience and quotes.

  • Moving from comparing and contrasting two trends to describing similarities and differences more generally.

Things students need to know to be able to understand and produce the language of trends include, in approximate order of when I would introduce them:

  • A basic division into phrases that mean going up (“rise”, “increase”, “grow”, “climb”, “double”, “triple”, etc), going down (“decrease”, “drop”, “fall”, shrink”, “decline”, “slump”, “halve”, etc), either up or down (“move”, “vary”, “change”, “blip”, etc), going both up and down (“fluctuate”, “be unsteady”, “be unstable”, “recover”, “pick up”, “bounce back”, “rebound”, “peak”, “regain lost ground”, etc), staying flat (“remain stable”, “stay at the same level”, “remain constant”, “not vary”, “remain steady”, “stay the same”, etc) and becoming flat (“flatten out”, “bottom out”, “plateau”, “level off”, etc).

  • Some tenses to explain trends (in approximate order of importance for describing graphs: Past Simple, Will, Present Perfect, Present Simple for regular trends, Present Perfect Continuous, Past Perfect, Past Perfect Continuous, Present Continuous, and Past Continuous)

  • A division into phrases that mean big changes (“take off”, “rocket”, “boom”, “explode”, “accelerate”, “crash”, “dive”, “plummet”, “plunge”, “collapse”, “soar”, etc) and ones that mean small changes (“creep up”, “dip”, “blip”, “slow down”, etc).

  • Prepositions, e.g. the difference between “change from 21%”, “change to 21%” and “change by 21%”.

  • Irregular forms (“rise/ rose/ risen”, “grow/ grew/ grown”, “shrink/ shrank/ shrunk”, “sink/ sank/ sunk”, etc).

  • Language to describe (more or less) straight lines (“dropping steadily”, “continuing its steady progress”, “continuing at the same rate”, etc) and curved lines (“slow down”, “accelerate”, etc).

  • Language with positive connotations (“improve”, “ameliorate”, “boom”, “recover”, “bounce back”, “be enhanced”, “regain lost ground”, “be boosted”, etc) and negative connotations (“crash”, “escalate”, “worsen”, “deteriorate”, “slump”, “collapse”, etc).

  • More subtle differences in extremity between words, e.g. whether “rapid” or “dramatic” is a bigger change.

  • Different parts of speech, e.g. “increase dramatically” and “a dramatic increase”.

  • Metaphoric and literal uses of the language, e.g. the water meanings of “dive”, “buoyant” and “plunge”.

  • Verbs which mean make changes rather than be changed (“cut”, “slash”, “raise”, “boost”, etc) or as well as be changed (“improve”, “increase”, “decrease”, etc).

  • Pronunciation difficulties, e.g. the shift in stress between “an increase” (noun) and “to increase” (verb).

  • Phrases that can and can’t take “up” or “down” (e.g. “rocket up” but not “grow up” for trends).

It is also worth a bit of a push to make students use more of a range of language, as there is a good amount of different language that they might come across to describe trends and it can stop them repeating the same old language.

Presentation of the language of trends

Obviously the best way of presenting this language point is through authentic examples of trends language from areas that students are interested in, e.g. market reports on Bloomberg or an extract from a lecture where graphs are being explained. Things that students should be able to do with those authentic extracts without too much help (despite not having been introduced to the language yet) include matching what is said or written to the graphs in question and guessing the topic that is being explained. They should then be able to use that to guess the (approximate) meanings of the trends language used in those extracts.

There is also language which students might be able to guess the trends meaning of from the more general (non-trends) meaning without needing much context, such as “take off” and “balloon”. You can add some kind of context to this by putting words in groups and getting them to work out that the thing they have in common is all being connected to flying, all being positive, etc. This can be turned into a game that I call “List Dictation” in which the teacher reads out such lists of related words until a student can successfully guess the connection within each group, e.g. being the first to shout out "Big changes!"

An even simpler game is called The Simplest Reaction Game. Students are given cards representing a way that trends language can be split into two categories, e.g. “Changing”/ “Not changing”, “Big change”/ “Little or no change”, “Good”/ “Bad” or “Up”/ “Down”. Students listen and hold up the right card as quickly as possible, with the teacher continuing with more examples of the same kind if students aren’t sure. Students then label a worksheet with the same categories (preferably one where the words are given grouped together to help them guess, as they won’t know all the language yet). They can then test each other in groups in the same way, divide the language into finer categories, and finally try to help each other remember language for each category.

You can also use more of a TTT (Test Teach Test) or TBL (Task-based Learning) approach, for example explaining the trends language that you use in The Trends Trading Game below as you go along and then seeing if students can remember those phrases when the game has finished. The activities above can also be used in the practice stage. 

Classroom practice activities for the language of trends

These activities are given in approximate order of how often I use them in class. Please note that in all the activities below apart from the miming one, you’ll need to tell students not to make gestures as they speak, as doing so can take away the need to communicate using language or can even be straight cheating. For the same reasons, it’s also usually best to get them to describe the trends without mentioning any actual numbers.

The trends trading game

The teacher dictates some trends in at least three shares or commodities, e.g. the prices of pork bellies, copper and corn in the last three days of last month, and students draw the graphs. These figures should be something the students don’t actually know the other prices of but might be able to make a reasonable guess at, if only from the shapes of the graphs that you dictate.

By looking at the graphs and discussing any background knowledge that they may have, groups of students should guess which of the prices are likely to go up (most) in the next period. They then “bet” some money on those things, up to the limit which you have set them, e.g. buying $100,000 dollars of gold. The teacher then announces the new prices and groups have the chance to sell, buy or stick before the next round. To add more trends language, the teacher should give general statements about all the prices without any numbers (e.g. “North Sea crude has sunk to a new low”) before going through again and saying the actual prices. You could also give similar hints before the trading stage, e.g. “One will rebound, one will continue with the same trend and one will experience a dip”. More speaking can be added by getting the students involved in the initial dictating stage, by giving each of the students in the group one of the graphs and getting them to explain them to each other before they decide together how they will “bet”.

Trends mimes

Most trends language can be mimed with the simple expedient of using a finger to draw the graph in the air, but it is of course difficult to tell the difference between such mimes for “drop”, “fall” and “decrease”. It is therefore better to give students a list of trends expressions which have also have other meanings which can be more clearly mimed such as “escalate” (miming standing on an escalator), “explode” (miming a bomb) and “crash”. These mimes can be combined with miming the trends meaning until someone guesses correctly.

Guess from the trends

Students read a description, listen to the teacher, or listen to a classmate and guess what is being described from the trends which are mentioned. For example, if one person says “It rapidly increased when I was a teenager in the sixties but suddenly decreased when I started work and has slowly been decreasing since then” they can guess that it is “amount of hair on your head”. Students might need a list of suggested topics, and you can use that list as useful vocabulary revision or presentation as suggested in the introduction above. Students might also need to (secretly) draw a graph of their trends before they describe them.

Trends discuss and agree

Students try to agree on a past, present or (probably) future trend in things like “importance of friendship” and “belief in god” (it doesn’t work for things that have actual numbers like “inflation” and “exchange rates”). This can be done with a list of trends based on useful language you want to introduce or revise such as “interest in green issues”. You can also do it the other way round, giving students useful trends language that they should try to agree on a trend with, e.g. making “smartphone sales are booming” from the word “boom”. Both of these can be done with sentence stems rather than just expressions to use, e.g. “_______________ will probably slow down” or “International tourism ________________ in the short term”.

A third possibility is to give them some descriptions of real trends and ask them to agree on other things such as how good or bad those trends are, what the reasons for the trends are, how they are likely to continue in the future, or what the government should do about them.

Predict the trends

The teacher dictates some trends up to a certain point in time, with students drawing line graphs of what they hear. Students guess how the graphs continued, share their ideas (preferably without showing their graphs to each other), then listen to the teacher’s description to check. 

Make decisions based on trends

Based on trends, students can decide what products their company should produce, how the government or a charity should spend its money, what policies the local government should have, what issues should be debated in the UN (or in class), what their starting position should be in a negotiation, what position they should take in a debate, etc. To add more trends language, the data should be dictated by the teacher or other students before the discussion stage. 

Trends support

Students decide on their position in a debate or negotiation, then try to find or make up trends to support their position. 

Trends bluffing games

Students read out a mixture of their descriptions of real trends (from graphs, financial pages, academic papers, etc) and ones that they have completely made up. They’ll probably need a list of suggested topics for their made up trends, and the person listening and guessing which aren’t true might want to draw the graphs as they listen.

Trends spot the deliberate mistakes

Students describe a real trend with part changed to make it false, e.g. saying that something crashed when it really only dropped slowly. From their specialist knowledge or the subject (in EAP and other ESP classes) or their own copy of the data, students try to spot which part is wrong.

Match the graphs information gap pairwork

Give out Student A and Student B worksheet with the same 10 graphs mixed up on them (all without numbers). Ask students to match them up without showing their graphs to each other, e.g. finding that in both graph 1 on Student A’s worksheet and graph 6 on Student B’s worksheet the line shows sales increasing more and more rapidly but then dipping a little.

Spot the differences between graphs information gap pairwork

Give out Student A and Student B sheets with the same ten graphs but some changes made to about half of them on one sheet or the other, e.g. a rapid but regular rise in graph 1 on Student A’s sheet but an accelerating rise in graph 1 on Student B’s sheet. Students try to work out which graphs are different without showing their worksheets to each other.

Spot the similarities between graphs information gap pairwork

Students describe the graphs on their Student A and Student B worksheets to each other, trying to find the similarities. These could be one similar section on each matching pair of graphs (e.g. in both A1 and B1 there is a peak) or a certain number of graphs which are the same (given in the same order on both worksheets or in mixed up order).

Choosing trends

Students are given a large amount of data and together try to decide which the most important part is, meaning which trends and/ or which parts of those trends. Important can mean important for the world or important for supporting their own point of view (or an opinion that they have been told to support). In the latter case, they can then go onto use that data in a debate.

Trends language the same or different

This is an activity which I use with many language points but which is especially useful with trends language given the mix of lots of phrases meaning the same things and subtle distinctions which can be confusing. Students listen to groups of trends phrases such as “boom, take off, rocket” and “flatten out, stay flat” and raise the “The same” or “Different” cards depending on what they think about the meanings of those things. If more than two are given, they are all the same or all different. They can then label those phrases on the worksheet in the same way, and test each other with the same game once they have checked their answers.

Trends discussion questions

Discussion questions can be written which give students trends to discuss (“Happiness doesn’t increase with wealth once a country reaches a certain point. Why do you think that is?” etc) and/ or hopefully get students to produce trends in their answers (“Are you optimistic about…? Why/ Why not?”, etc).

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Written by Alex Case for

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