Describing people is something that students learn to do early on. They learn how to use adjectives and nouns to describe people's appearance, personality, and feelings. But I've often found that, whether it's a beginner‑level or intermediate‑level class, my students usually struggle with the answer to "What is he/she like?" Their automatic answer is to describe someone's appearance.
Students often have trouble grasping the differences between the questions and answers for "What is he/she like?" and "What does he/she look like?" They sometimes get "What does she like?" mixed up as well, since likes and dislikes are also covered in early learning stages. I've found that pointing out a few key points about these three questions and answers all at once helped students keep them straight.
1. Verb Used
The verb is the easiest way to determine which question is being asked. For each of the questions, ask your students what the main verb is.
|What is he/she like?||be|
|What does he/she look like?||look|
|What [noun] does he/she like?||like|
2. Part of Speech
One of the reasons these questions are so confusing is that like can be a verb, noun, preposition, adjective, adverb, and conjunction in English! Pointing out the part of speech helps learners realize that like can have different meanings (and therefore different responses to these questions).
|Question||Part of Speech|
|What is he/she like?||preposition|
|What does he/she look like?||preposition|
|What [noun] does he/she like?||verb|
Now that your English language learners are familiar with the different structures of these three questions, let's take a look at the all‑important meaning differences.
When we ask about someone's personality, we want to know about that person's traits (e.g., funny, serious, shy, outgoing, intelligent, helpful, etc.). Appearance is a physical description (e.g., tall, short, blonde, brunette, light-skinned, dark-skinned, etc.). If the question includes another noun, we are asking about someone's personal preference (e.g., movie, food, season, school subject, etc.).
|What is he/she like?||to ask about someone's personality|
|What does he/she look like?||to ask about someone's appearance|
|What [noun] does he/she like?||to ask about someone's preference|
The more examples your students see, the more confident they will feel in giving the right response to these questions. Show students the examples below, and then take it further by having students practice asking and answering in pairs, groups, or as a class. You may wish to point out that some answers about appearance may be considered offensive or hurtful—remind students not to describe someone's weight, age, or physical disability.
|Example Question||Example Answer|
|What is your teacher like?||She is kind, intelligent, and helpful.|
|What is your brother like?||He is funny and talented.|
|What does your roommate look like?||She is a beautiful, tall, African American girl.|
|What do you look like?||I am short and have curly, red hair and freckles.|
|What kind of music do you like?||I love hip-hop. I also like country music.|
|What school subjects does he like?||He likes math and French.|
Need more practice describing people? Try some of our lessons and flashcards!