What do you call that thing?

Circumlocution! Something I have been trying to push in my Spanish classes is being able to use circumlocution skills when talking with others or when trying to describe something. So often do I have students ask how to say something and usually I just give them the word or the phrase, but I have been trying really hard this year to follow up their question with questions like “How can you word around it?” “What else do you know how to say to get your point across?” At the last two Central States conference, I had the privilege of attending Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell’s circumlocution presentations. You can find her blog post and presentation here.  The information provided in her presentations got me thinking about what I should be doing in my classroom. I decided to start the school year by introducing some key circumlocution skills.

I began the school year with some guiding notes. I began with using  “it’s a person, place, or thing” and then added more as we went. I created a cheat sheet like you see below for those students that switched into my class at semester. I also have the main structures on my word wall.


We did a lot of different activities in order to practice. Some of the activities were:

#1: I gave them descriptions of different items. I provided them pictures so they were not pulling ideas from thin air.  A description might be something like:  

Es una persona.
Es una persona muy importante para la Navidad..
Lleva rojo y blanco.
¿Quién es?

#2: I placed pictures around the room and students had to use their new learned skills to describe the pictures. The pictures were basic and easy to describe such as a park, an insect, or a student.

#3: Students chose an item of their liking. They had to write a detailed description without saying who or what it was. We placed the descriptions around the room and I had students go around and list their guesses. Students had a good time and once the activity was done and answered had been shared, I overheard students providing details to their friends to better describe their item.

We spent about a week practicing only circumlocution skills although we use it all the time.  While my level 4 students were reading the TPRS novel Vida y Muerte en la Mara Salvatrucha. We worked with a lot of new vocabulary. I wanted them to really understand the words we were reading so I had students create definitions using circumlocution. I then used those definitions and created a Quizlet set. I was really happy with this activity because students really understood the vocabulary being used within the book and I didn’t have to do a whole lot of pre-teaching of vocabulary after that.

Every Friday, I take the first 10 minutes or so and have students play with circumlocution cards. Kristy Placido’s circumlocution cards are amazing. You can find them here.  She has a few sets available so check them out. I have my students describe in the TL, but the other students can guess in English since they don’t know all of the words. This helps with speaking, writing, and listening in Spanish and my students always ask for more time with this activity.

With my level 3s, we are working on a medical unit and I have used circumlocution descriptions for a jigsaw activity. The students work in groups of 3 and each person has a clue. As a group, they have to read the provided clues and they have to guess either a body part, illness, or injury. I really like using this skill with the medical unit because the skill is SO applicable in the setting. I remember when a friend of mine cut her foot while we were on vacation and she used gestures and simple words to describe what happened. The doctor understood and the problem was taken care of with stitches.

I am hoping to come up with more activities that I could help solidify this skill with my students, but I am happy with what they have accomplished. I hear them using this skill all the time and they are progressing in the target language. If you have any activities that have really helped your students, please share!