Te Kete Ipurangi Navigation:

Te Kete Ipurangi

Te Kete Ipurangi user options:

You are here:

‘What is it?’ (Nation, 1978)

Students guess what is being described, or the meaning of a word.


This task may have one of three goals:

  • to learn a new word
  • to practise specific grammar patterns
  • to build fluency in speaking, listening or reading


  • Repetition of a word or grammar pattern
  • Information distribution – superior-inferior, for example, only one person (teacher or other student) knows the answer
  • Student arrangement – whole class (or groups or pairs)
  • Challenge – a hidden solution
  • Language modes – any of the language modes, depending on the procedure you follow (see below)


There are three ways to do this, according to your goal:

1. To teach a new word

  • The teacher gradually tells students the meaning of a new word by using it repeatedly in context, and giving many different contexts. It is important not to give too much information at the beginning. It is good to repeat sentences twice and repeat previous sentences from time to time, to give maximum exposure to the new word.
  • Ask students to raise their hand (not call out the answer) when they think they know the meaning of the word.
  • Don’t ask the first student who raises their hand, but wait until most have raised their hands to ask for an answer.

Example 1: Here is an example in English for the word ‘precise’:

Sometimes it is important to make a precise measurement. Sometimes it is not important to be precise. Doctors need a lot of information to find the precise nature of a disease. If you tell me your precise age, you will tell me how old you are in years, months, and days! When you give someone precise instructions, the instructions must be accurate and complete … (Nation, 1995, p. 7)

Example 2: Here is an example in Māori for the word ‘manaaki’:

He mea tino nui ki te Māori te manaaki i te tangata. Ki te tae atu tētahi ope manuhiri ki te marae, ka pōhiritia, ka manaakitia e te tangata whenua. Ki te tae mai tētahi tangata ki tō kāinga, me manaaki koe i a ia. Me pēhea te manuhiri e manaaki ai? Ki te manaaki koe i te manuhiri, ka tiaki koe i a ia, ka whāngai koe i a ia, ka awhi koe i a ia.

2. As a listening or reading task

  • The teacher describes an object either orally or in writing and students try to guess what it is. If students are listening, follow the procedure as above for teaching new words. The first sentences must not give too much information so that the students are motivated to keep reading or listening.

Here are examples in English:

Example 1: I forgot it when I left home this morning. This made me angry because it is useful. I don’t like it very much but I need it. Not every person has one, but I think most people do. Some people like to look at it and now many people play with it. Mine is quite heavy …

“The rambling description continues with more clues given until the learners guess that a watch is being described.” (Nation, 1989, p. 20)

Example 2: It is big. It costs a lot of money. Some people own one, some people own more than one. We can see many of them in a city. It has four wheels. It can travel very fast. Usually four or five people can ride in it. It is usually kept in a garage at night. What is it? (Nation, 1989, p. 75)

Examples in Māori:

He aha tēnei mea?
He nui tōna hanga. He nui hoki tōna utu. He nui ngā mea pēnei ka kitea i ngā tāone nui. He nui ngā tae. Ko tōku he mea whero, engari, ko tērā o tōku tungāne he kōwhai. Kei ētahi whānau tētahi noa iho, kei ētahi atu whānau e rua, neke atu. Ka taea pea e te tokowhā, e te tokorima rānei, te haererunga i te mea kotahi. He tere ki te haere.
He aha tēnei mea?

He aha tēnei mea?
He mea iti. He pango. Ka kitea i ō tātou kāinga. He nui atu ka kitea i te raumati. E ono ngā waewae. E rua ngā parirau. Ko ngā mea pakeke e rima ki te waru mitamano te roa. He mea tino hōhā. He aha tēnei mea?

3. As a speaking or writing task for students:

  • As above, the teacher describes an object orally or in writing, but takes care to use a limited range of simple sentence patterns. The students guess as above.
  • Write the description as an example on the board.
  • Demonstrate how to change the sentences minimally to describe something else, by underlining the content words that can change.
  • Ask different students to use the sentence patterns to describe other objects.
  • Once the students understand the process, you can play ‘What is it?’ as a game with the whole class or groups, with different students describing an object and others trying to guess what it is. They can do this orally in pairs or groups, or write their descriptions down and swap them. Students need to know to give the least useful information first.

Teachers who are not very confident can use a pattern or a plan to create ‘What is it?’ tasks, and make substitutions to describe new objects. Nation (1989, p. 48) gives an example of this in English:

It is thin. It is thin.
It is black. It is silver.
It has many teeth. It has a sharp point.
It is made of plastic. It is made of steel.
We can find it near a mirror. We can find it in our house.
It costs five cents. It costs one cent.
Everybody uses it. You need good eyes to use it.
It is used for combing your hair. It is used for sewing things.
What is it? What is it?

Teacher considerations

Don’t give too much useful information at the beginning or it will be too easy to guess the answer quickly.

Watch out for signs of frustration if the students are taking too long to work out the answer and give more clues to ensure success. If students are giving the clues, watch out for them taking too long and prompt them to make it easier for their classmates if necessary.

When using this technique to teach a new word, make sure you repeat sentences regularly and present the word in a variety of contexts.

If doing this as a whole class activity, students need to know not to call out their answer, but to raise their hand and wait for the end or until most students have their hands up. This is so that every student can have a good chance of working out the answer for themselves.

Students also need to be aware that they need to be patient and to wait for more information to work out the answer.

It is best to plan to use the technique multiple times to get a good benefit from teaching students the technique.


‘What is it?’ can be used as a follow-up to reading if there are a number of objects or people in the text. For example, a character or person in the text can be described in terms of their thoughts, actions or character, for example: “He was very cruel. He owned a farm. He was just married. Who is he?” (Nation, 1989, p. 79).

As a speaking/writing task for students, ‘What is it?’ can be used with students at different levels in the same class when it is made easier for some by having sentence patterns to follow, but it is open to more advanced students to add any of their own ideas. Make it even easier for students by giving them a range of words they can use to substitute in the sentences.

After using it to teach a new word (procedure 1), repeat the activity as a listening task (procedure 2) by saying “it” instead of the new word to test if the students can remember the new word.


Describe classroom/household objects.

Describe another student in the class (level 2, Achievement objective 2.5 Communicate about physical characteristics, personality, and feelings).

For example:

He is 13 years old.
He has black hair and brown eyes.
He is tall.
He is wearing a blue shirt and black trousers.
He is wearing glasses.
He likes football.
Who is he? (adapted from Nation, 1989, p. 114)

Example in Māori:

Ko wai tēnei?
Tekau mā whā ōna tau.
He pango ōna makawe.
He kahurangi ōna whatu.
He tangata poto.
Kei te mau mōwhiti.
Kei te mau ia i tētahi poraka kikorangi.
He pai ki a ia te whakatangitangi kitā me te pānui pukapuka.
Ko wai ia?

Describe a famous person or a well-known place (level 5, AO 5.4 describe, compare, and contrast people, places, and things).


The repetition and variety of contexts provided by the vocabulary teaching use of ‘What is it?’ are important factors in learning new vocabulary.

Conveying the meaning of the word slowly requires the students to think more deeply which makes them more likely to remember the word and its meaning than if you quickly and efficiently tell them the meaning.

Important conditions for language acquisition are created by (Nation, 1995, p. 7):

  • the positive attitude created by the game-like nature of the task
  • the fact that students are forced to notice the word or grammar pattern
  • the thoughtful processing they must use to solve the puzzle – “It is not possible to do the exercise without thinking carefully.” (Nation, 1989, p. 48)

Evaluation of the task

How quickly did the students guess the answer?

If they guess it too quickly, not much benefit is gained.

If it takes too long, they will get frustrated and the benefit will again be lost.


  • Nation, I. S. P. (1978). ‘What is it?’: a multipurpose language teaching technique. English Teaching Forum, 16 (3), (pp. 20–23, 32).
  • Nation, I. S. P. (1989), Language Teaching Techniques. English Language Institute Occasional Publication No. 2. (pp. 20, 48, 75 and 114)
  • Nation, I. S. P. (1995). Teaching Listening and Speaking. English Language Institute Occasional Publication No. 14. (p. 7 and p. 55)

Site map