Skip main navigation

Describing, explaining and giving examples

Cambridge English | Teaching Your Subject in English | Video | Teachers talking about describing, explaining and giving examples in content lessons
The difference between describe and explain, describing, for me, has a neutral tone to it. You’re simply trying to be factual, and you may be describing events, places, people, and so on. But if you’re explaining, then this seems to be a rationale, a reason. Why are you explaining? Somebody’s asked you for an explanation or the cause of a certain effect, for why things are the way they are. And you take that and from that, you would provide an explanation. So why, for example, do we need to eat plenty of dairy foods? Well, because they supply us with calcium. OK. Why are bones weak? Why don’t they get formed? Why are teeth rotten?
Well, because the owner of those teeth hasn’t been eating the calcium. This is my explanation. And if a question if a learner asks me a question along those lines I assume he or she is familiar with the physical status but doesn’t understand a process or a rationale for something, a cause-effect, perhaps. And then I might describe a rock and then learners look at rocks and decide which rock it is. But I provide a written model as well so that they can adapt it for describing or defining different rocks that they might look at. For explanations, Paul mentioned about building on word/text/sentence level, they will need more support.
It is much more challenging to explain, for example, a rock cycle and to define or describe a rock. So they may need a language frame or they may need a diagram visual organiser to help them glue their thoughts together. I have introduced a lot of materials, like different kinds of arts, like videos or a lot of pictures or a lot of hobbies and graphs and so on for myself in the teaching. I’m very fond of giving examples, whether I’m describing, explaining, almost whatever I’m doing. But that’s perhaps my own particular learning style, but I believe in giving examples and then extrapolating from them, helping the learners to see what they present, what patterns they may illustrate.
It helps the learners to work things out for themselves. For example, when I’m trying to describe cyclical events in geography or in science, then I would take a simple example like the water cycle or the seasons or something like that, just to show how in nature, these cyclical events go on in many different places in many different ways. So that’s why I think and students would extract from those examples the basic principles. These are patterns which repeat and repeat and so on.
Helen, Kay and Paul talked about helping learners to understand subject-specific information in English by describing, explaining and giving examples.
For example, The candle is dark red and cylindrical. It’s about 10cm high, 6cm wide and there’s a white wick running through the centre.
Now you’re going to see John, Anna Maria and Kay talking about describing, explaining and giving examples. Watch the video and decide if these sentences are true or false. If the sentences are false, correct them.
  1. John thinks that we describe factual things and we use explanations for processes and for talking about the reason or the causes of things.
  2. John gives an example of a description: We need to eat plenty of dairy foods because they supply us with calcium.
  3. Kay provides her learners with a written model of her description of a rock so that her learners can learn the description by heart.
  4. Kay thinks explaining is more difficult for learners than describing.
  5. Kay suggests using texts to help learners explain things.
  6. Anna Maria uses videos, pictures, texts she has copied and graphs to help with describing and explaining.
  7. John uses examples when he’s explaining because he thinks they are difficult concepts to describe.
Check your answers with the document in the downloads section.
Tell us which of these things do you do most often when teaching your subject in English: explaining, describing or giving examples, and which you think is most difficult. Read other participants’ comments and respond to any difficulties they have with your advice.
This article is from the free online

Teaching Your Subject in English

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education