The Internet TESL Journal

Teaching Abstract Concepts in the EFL Classroom

Lynn W. Zimmerman
Purdue University Calumet (Hammond, Indiana, USA)
zimmerman [at]

Abstract concepts can be interesting and challenging discussion topics for students in EFL classrooms.


Several summers I have taught English in a three-week summer camp for Polish high school students who come from all over Poland to improve their spoken English skills with native speakers. One of the challenges of teaching in such a camp is that students want to have fun, and not have dull, repetitive lessons. I successfully used an abstract concept, freedom, to intellectually challenge the students while giving them an opportunity to practice their spoken English at an appropriate skill level.

Framing the Concept

Abstract concepts can be difficult to discuss effectively without preparation and structure. Since I was teaching in Poland, I decided to call on Polish history to help me frame a discussion about "freedom." However, I have found that students often speak more readily about topics which directly concern themselves and their families. Therefore, the structure of this lesson incorporated their personal and family experiences in the context of Polish history of the last 60 years. The students related family stories told to them by their grandparents about World War II, and by their parents about life under communism. A class discussion about freedom related these stories to their own experiences in post-communist Poland. Finally, groups of students created pictorial representations of freedom which they presented to the class.

Outline of the Lesson

1. Pair work -- Sharing stories

2. Whole Class Discussion

3. Freedom Discussion

Brainstorm -- what does freedom mean?

4. Representation of Freedom

How I Implemented the Lesson

Most of the students in camp were born in the late 1980s, so to lay the groundwork, I asked them if their grandparents had related stories about their lives in Poland during World War II. The students then talked in pairs to tell a story that a grandparent had shared about World War II. A few students shared their stories with the entire class, providing a wide range of stories.
After sharing a few of these stories, I then asked the students if they had heard their parents discuss their lives prior to 1989, the end of the Communist era in Poland. They switched partners and told a story that their parents had told them.
After a few students had shared their stories with the class, I then led a full-class discussion.

Discussing Abstract Concepts in the EFL Classroom

Freedom is one of many abstract concepts that can be an interesting and challenging discussion topic for students in the EFL classroom. With careful planning, such an abstract concept can be framed in such a way that students can use concrete examples from their own lives and experiences to explore their thoughts and feelings about freedom.

To find an abstract concept which is relevant in the lived experiences of your students, research the history of their country for the past 50 years. This time frame is the richest because this is the period about which they have most likely heard family stories. Depending on where you are, the abstract concept which is relevant to your students may be peace/war; poverty; religion; or, even, the destruction/preservation of the environment. The discussion will be limited only by the level of your students' English skills.

Figure 1: Click to see larger images.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XI, No. 2, February 2005