As if “What is your new boyfriend like?” and “What do you like about your new boyfriend?” were not confusing enough, many courses also add “What does your new boyfriend look like?” to the same lesson. Dealt with the right way, adding “look like” can help reinforce the meaning of the preposition “like”. Appearance is also a natural extra thing to talk about in situations where we might use “like” and “be like” outside the classroom. Dealt with the wrong way, however, “look like” becomes yet another thing to cope with in an already tricky lesson. This article gives advice on how to present and practise these three uses of “like” together. There are also UE articles on teaching just “like” and “be like”, on teaching like as a preposition more generally, and on the sense verbs “look (like)”, “taste (like)”, “smell (like)”, “feel (like)” and “sound (like)”.
What students need to know about like, look like and be like
Students who are studying “be like” and/ or “look like” should already be very familiar with the verb “like” in “I like wild water swimming” (as otherwise you probably shouldn’t be teaching them such a tricky language point). The teacher’s job at this stage is therefore usually to teach “be like” and “look like” and to contrast them with what students already know about the verb.
The verb “like” means something like “enjoy”. It has the same grammar as similar verbs, including questions such as “Do you like ice cream?”, negatives like “I don’t like playing chess”, third person S forms like “He likes to leave really early” and past forms like “I liked him from the first moment that I met him”. As in these examples, the verb “like” can be followed by a noun, pronoun, -ing form or infinitive with to.
In contrast, the “like” in “What does he look like?”, “What was the hotel like?” and “Do you look like your father?” is a preposition, the same as “with” in “Who did you go with?” and “for” in “What does he use it for?” Like other prepositions, it doesn’t change form, goes after a verb, and often comes at the end of questions. “Be like” and “look like” are usually followed by a noun or pronoun, but can also be followed by -ing forms in sentences such as “It’s like taking candy from a baby”.
Although it can be difficult for even native speakers to get their head around “like” being a preposition in the same way as “on”, the grammar is the easy part! When it comes to the meaning, it gets much more complicated…
The common question “What is… like?” simply means “Can you describe…?”, so if I ask “What is the weather like?” I want a description of the weather. This makes it very similar to “How is…?”, as in “How was your hotel?”/ “What was your hotel like?” As with “How…?” questions, it is rare to use the preposition “like” in typical answers such as “It’s big but rather old, and really close to the airport”. Because there is also the similar question “What does… look like?”, “What is… like?” tends to include or focus on factors other than appearance such as personality and facilities.
“What does… look like?” is similar to “What is… like?”, but means “Can you describe the appearance of…?” In this case, there is no similar question with “How”, as “How is your new boyfriend?” is about his current condition, and “How does he look?” means you should guess his current condition from his appearance. As with “be like”, the preposition “like” is possible but not common in the answers, which are more likely to be with “be” and “have”, as in “He is tall and handsome but has no hair (just like you)”.
Unlike in “be like” and “look like” questions, in statements such as “He looks like his brother” and “It’s like the hotel we stayed in when we went to Rome”, “like” has the same meaning as “similar to”. It is therefore the opposite of “unlike”, as in “It’s unlike the hotel we stayed in…” This meaning can also be used in questions like “Who does he look like?” and “Are you like your mother or father?”, but those are much less common than the more general “What … like?” questions described above.
As with “similar to”, the preposition “like” often goes with expressions which make it stronger or weaker to explain how similar things are. With “be”, the options include:
- is just like/ is exactly like
- is almost exactly like
- is a lot like/ is really like
- is quite a lot like
- is somewhat like
- is a little like/ is a bit like/ isn’t much like
- is totally unlike/ is nothing like
The similar collocations with the verb “like” are more limited, with “really like”, “quite like”, “don’t really like” and “really don’t like” being the most popular (more extreme meanings being dealt with by other verbs like “love” and “hate”).
Collocations with “look like” include both modifications of the verb and modifications of the preposition, making it like a mix of “like” and “be like” above. The most typical collocations are:
- looks just like/ looks exactly like
- really looks like
- looks quite a lot like
- looks a little like/ looks a bit like/ doesn’t look much like/ doesn’t really look like
- really doesn’t look like
- looks nothing like/ doesn’t look anything like/ doesn’t look like… at all
To summarise, the main differences between “I like”, “like” in “be like” and “like” in “look like” are (in that order):
- “like” is a verb/ “like” is a preposition/ “like” is a preposition
- “like” changes in the past, third person, etc/ the verb “be” changes and “like” doesn’t change/ the verb “look” changes and “like” doesn’t change
- “like” goes in the normal position for a verb, after the subject/ “like” goes in the normal position for a preposition (at the end of a question, etc)/ “like” goes in the normal position for a preposition (before a noun, etc)
- “like” means “enjoy”/ “like” means “similar to” or “Can you describe…?”/ “like” means “similar to” or “Can you describe the appearance of…?”
They are more difficult to summarise this way, but I would also always present at least some of the collocations above.
Typical student problems with like, be like and look like
Perhaps the most persistent problem with this language is students continuing to automatically use “like” in all answers to “What… like?” questions, as in “What is the new restaurant like?” “It is like really nice” X. It’s easy for students to understand that “It’s like really nice” X should be the much easier sentence that they already know “It’s really nice” and that the question “Can you describe…?” doesn’t need “like” in its answer, but that rarely stops the problem. This is probably because they have got so used to using the verb “like” in both questions and answers in exchanges like “What kind of desserts do you like?” “I like really heavy and rich fruit cakes and puddings”. There is no easy solution to this, as they might have been doing that for years before this class. However, you could avoid doing just the verb “like” on its own just before this lesson, and encourage short answers such as “Do you like music?” “Yes, especially classical” when dealing with the topic of preferences.
Although it’s much less common, students can also mix up the meaning and/ or form of the verbs and prepositions “like”, as in “What did the train journey like?” X and “My nose really likes my grandfather’s” X. This can also be quite automatic and so persist in communicative situations, but I find it responds much better to correction and explanation than the problem above does.
Unless they have been taught the differences in similar language such as “don’t really agree” and “really don’t agree”, students also tend to mix up the similar-sounding forms:
- don’t really like/ really don’t like
- doesn’t really look like/ really doesn’t look like
In each case, the former means “not really”, and so is only a little negative, similar to “not so much”. In contrast, the latter phrases make the negative stronger. This is well worth picking up on if students make mistakes with it, as it is a big difference in meaning and is usefully generalisable.
How to present and practise like, be like and look like
There are a few topics and situations in which it is fairly natural to use all of “like”, “be like” and “look like”, including:
- talking about family members with similar and different personalities, looks and hobbies, perhaps with a (real or imaginary) photo as a prompt
- talking about a new romantic relationship, first date, etc, perhaps with comparisons to previous dates, famous people, etc
- talking about other new people in your life such as a new boss or new teacher
- talking about celebrities who you know a lot about
If you can find, rewrite or make a suitable text on one of those topics, students can firstly listen or read for the good and bad aspects which are described. They can then analyse the text for how “like”, “be like” and “look like” are used (looking at answers to the questions, word order, meaning, etc). After that, they can have similar conversations based on real and/ or imaginary people (family, celebrities, new neighbours, etc).
Like, be like and look like practice activities
In most of these activities, students are likely to overuse the verb “like” and underuse the preposition, which is the opposite of what they need to get used to the new language points. To stop that happening, you could tell them to use an equal number of each, roll a dice to decide if they should use each of the three forms (1 or 2 = use “be like”, etc), flip a coin to decide if they should use the verb (heads) or the preposition (tails), or give them key words which go with particular forms such as “quite a lot” that they have to use.
Like, be like and look like make me say yes
Students take turns asking a mix of “Do(es)… like…?”, “Is/ Are… like…?” and “Do(es)… look like…?” yes/ no questions, and get one point for each “Yes” answer. To make for more of a mix of language, use one of the techniques above and also tell them that they can’t use the same question twice (although it’s okay to make small changes such as “Do you look a lot like your dad?” when someone has already asked “Do you look like your dad?”)
Like, be like and look like you must say yes bluffing game
This is like the opposite of the game above. Students answer “Yes” to all “like” questions such as “Does your home look like a castle?”, “Do your parents like your life partner?” and “Are you like your cousins?” Their partner then asks follow up questions to try to work out if this “Yes” was true or not. For the game to work that way, all the questions should be personal ones with “you” or “your”.
Like, be like and look like discuss and agree
Students try to make statements that they both/ all agree with like “I think the Shard looks like a place where Superman would live” and “In my opinion, eating Marmite is like torture”. To help, you could give them suggested topics (architecture, art, etc), key words such as “a lot like”, and/ or useful sentence stems.
Like, be like and look like guessing games
A student describes one thing using the three forms with “like” until their partner guesses what is being described, with only one guess allowed per hint. To make a mix of different forms possible, you’ll need to give them a list of things for each of which they will be able to describe preferences (“Cats really like this”, “I don’t really like it”), appearance (“It looks a little like a snake, but it’s pink”), and other properties (“It’s like a sandwich, but with pita bread”). To also practise the use of “like” in questions, you could ask that descriptions be given in response to “Do you like it?”, “Who or what likes it?”, “What does it look like?”, “What is it like?”, “Does it look like…?”, “Is it like…?”, etc (although they won’t be able to answer all questions with all options).
Like, be like and look like descriptions bluffing game
Give students a list of things which they are likely to know only some of such as foreign foods. Someone chooses one for their partner to describe, listens to their answers to questions like “What does it look like inside?” and “What do you like about it?”, then guesses how much the speaker really knew about that thing and how much was made up.
Like, be like and look like mini-presentations
In this simple but effective extended speaking task, students choose a topic such as “an unusual food that you have tried” or “your bedroom”, speak for as long as they can without interruption, then answer questions asking for extra details. If you want to make the activity competitive, you can give points for how long they speak and/ or points for coming up with follow-up questions the speaker hasn’t already answered during the presentation.
Like, be like and look like matchmaking game
Students try to match up real or imaginary people by their looks, personalities, and personal preferences, including preferences for their future romantic partner. There are many ways of doing this, but perhaps the best is for each small group of students to make up and write a description of a person, then the whole class to read the descriptions and preferences and work together to make the best (or least bad) way of matching them all up. To make this more challenging, you could ask students to mix in some difficult aspects, perhaps by giving them a list of issues like “Doesn’t like balding men” to choose at least three items from.
Like, be like and look like ladder game
Prepare a worksheet with the three rankings above (from “is just like” to “nothing like”, etc). Put each ranking in a table with one level per box and the most positive one top. Each table represents a ladder that students should climb to win the game.
Students choose one of the three rankings/ ladders, e.g. the one that goes from “looks nothing like” to “looks just like”, and each student puts a counter such as an eraser at the bottom. They take turns asking each other “How” questions to try to get the answer on the next rung of the ladder, e.g. “How much do you look like your father?” if the next rung says “look quite a lot like”. If they get that answer, they can move up to that rung and try again, continuing until they get a different answer to the one that they wanted. If they get a different answer to what is written on the next rung up, they fall all the way down to the bottom of the ladder and play passes to the next person. However, to make it easier, they can use the same questions again in their next turn if they like. The winner is the first person to get all the way to the top of the ladder in one go, or the person who has reached the highest rung of the ladder when the teacher stops the game. They can then do the same for another one of the three ladders.
Like, be like and look like Family Fortunes word association game
One student asks a “like” questions such as “What does Paris look like?”, “Which fruits do you most like?” or “What is working as a vet like?” The people who they asked write down five words or short expressions that first come to mind, e.g. “grand”, “classical”, “organised”, “broad” and “pale” for the first question. The person who asked the question then says one word that they think everyone might have chosen such as “romantic”, and gets one point for each person who chose that word.
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