Emotion vocabulary is not often taught in adult ESL classes, but it should be!
As language teachers, we know that vocabulary is crucial to communication. But beyond just naming objects and actions, our students also need to have a rich emotional vocabulary. After all, being able to describe and express emotions accurately is essential to building relationships, connecting with others, and effectively communicating our thoughts and feelings.
But teaching emotion vocabulary isn’t about memorizing lists of words (even if rote memorization is their comfort-blanket strategy). It’s about helping students understand and recognize different emotions in themselves and others and learning how to express and manage them in healthy ways.
Why Emotion Vocabulary is Important
Here are some examples of how having a strong emotional vocabulary can benefit adult ESL students:
- Improved self-awareness: An adult ESL student with a strong emotional vocabulary may be more aware of how they feel when participating in a group conversation, for example. They may recognize when they feel anxious or uncomfortable and take steps to manage those emotions to participate better in the conversation.
- Increased emotional intelligence: Adult ESL students with a strong emotional vocabulary may be able to recognize and label the emotions of their classmates or colleagues during a group discussion. This can help them respond to others in a more understanding and empathetic way and lead to improved communication and relationships.
- Greater empathy: Adult ESL students with a strong emotional vocabulary may be able to better understand the emotions of others by being able to label and describe them accurately. For example, they may be able to recognize when a classmate is feeling frustrated or overwhelmed and offer support or encouragement.
- Improved relationships: A strong emotional vocabulary may help adult ESL students to communicate their own emotions and understand the emotions of others, leading to improved relationships with classmates and teachers. For example, they may be able to express their own frustration or confusion about a lesson in a way that is understood and addressed by the teacher.
- Enhanced problem-solving skills: Strong emotional vocabulary may help adult ESL students more effectively manage and cope with stress or difficult emotions that may arise during the learning process. For example, they may recognize when they are feeling overwhelmed and take steps to manage their emotions in order to focus better on their studies.
Examples of Emotion Vocabulary
Here are some examples of emotion vocabulary for beginner, intermediate, and advanced learners:
- Beginner: happy, sad, angry, scared, excited, surprised
- Intermediate: frustrated, anxious, content, jealous, embarrassed, overwhelmed
- Advanced: melancholy, dejected, ecstatic, elated, nonplussed, indignant
Of course, these are just a few examples, and there are many more emotion terms that students can learn and practice. Students should note that emotions can also be complex and multifaceted and that different cultures may have different ways of expressing emotions.
Ways Emotions are Expressed and Understood
Emotions can be expressed and understood in many different ways, and students need to be aware of these different forms of communication. Some common ways that emotions are expressed include:
Verbal communication includes the words we use to describe our emotions and how we say them. For example, someone who is angry might use words like “frustrated,” “annoyed,” or “mad” and might speak in a loud or forceful tone.
Nonverbal communication includes facial expressions, body language, gestures, and other physical cues that can convey emotions. For example, someone who is happy might smile and have an open, relaxed posture, while someone sad might have a downcast expression and a slumped posture.
Written communication includes the words we use to describe our emotions in writing and the tone and style of our writing. It can also include the use of emojis. For example, an excited person might use exclamation points, write in an enthusiastic tone, and include emojis like 😃 (a smiley face) or 🎉 (a party horn). On the other hand, someone who is disappointed might use words like “sad,” “disappointed,” or “frustrated,” write in a more subdued tone and include emojis like 😔 (a sad face) or 🙁 (a slightly sad face)
Awareness of how emotions can be expressed and understood helps adult ESL students communicate and connect with others effectively. This includes paying attention to verbal, nonverbal, and written cues, including emojis, and being mindful of the potential for conflicting messages. Understanding these different forms of communication can also aid in better recognizing and managing emotions.
Cultural Differences in Emotion Expression and Understanding
As mentioned earlier, different cultures may express and understand emotions differently. Awareness of these cultural differences and being respectful and sensitive when interacting with people from different cultures are worthy goals.
Here are a few examples of how cultural differences can affect emotion expression and understanding:
Varying levels of emotional expressiveness
In some cultures, expressing emotions openly and vocally may be more common, while in others, emotional restraint may be more highly valued. For example, in some Latin American cultures, it is common to express strong emotions through gestures and vocalizations, while in some Asian cultures, emotional restraint is more highly valued, and openly expressing emotions may be seen as a sign of weakness. How their culture expresses emotions can greatly affect your students’ willingness and eagerness to learn emotion vocabulary.
Diverse facial expressions and gestures
Certain facial expressions or gestures commonly used to convey certain emotions in one culture may not have the same meaning in another culture, and these mismatches can result in misunderstandings.
In some cultures, a smile is a universal sign of friendliness and happiness, while in others, it can show embarrassment, discomfort, or even insincerity. A mismatch in understanding happens when, for example, a Japanese student smiles out of embarrassment and is perceived by her Western teacher as smirking with disrespect. Similarly, gestures like pointing, nodding, or shaking one’s head can have different meanings in different cultures. For example, in some cultures, nodding one’s head up and down means “yes,” while in others, it means “no.”
Different meanings of eye contact
In some cultures, eye contact may be seen as a sign of respect and attentiveness, while in others, it may be seen as a sign of aggression or disrespect. For example, in some Western cultures, maintaining eye contact is seen as a sign of honesty and engagement, while in some Asian cultures, avoiding eye contact may be seen as a sign of respect.
Awareness of cultural differences and respect and sensitivity when interacting with people from different cultures is important. Being open to learning about and understanding how emotions are expressed and understood in different cultures can help improve communication and relationships with people from diverse backgrounds.
Activities and Exercises for Practicing and Understanding Emotions
There are many activities and exercises that can help students practice expressing and understanding emotions. Here are a few ideas:
Role Plays: A Playful Way to Practice Emotional Vocabulary
This type of activity involves students acting out different scenarios and expressing the emotions that would be appropriate in those situations. Here are some examples of low-level role-playing scenarios that can help students practice expressing emotions:
- A job interview: In this scenario, one student can play the role of the interviewer, while the other student plays the role of the job candidate. The students can practice expressing appropriate emotions, such as enthusiasm, confidence, and gratitude.
- A disagreement: In this scenario, two students can act out a disagreement and practice expressing emotions such as frustration, anger, or sadness. They can also practice communicating effectively and finding a resolution.
- A celebration: In this scenario, students can act out a celebration and practice expressing emotions such as happiness, excitement, and gratitude.
- A difficult conversation: In this scenario, students can practice expressing emotions such as sadness, disappointment, or hurt during a difficult conversation. They can also practice effective communication and conflict-resolution skills.
Bring Emotion Vocabulary to Life with Authentic Materials
There are several ways you can use authentic materials to help students practice identifying and describing emotions in real-life situations and develop their emotional vocabulary. Here are a few examples:
- Show a movie clip or news article and have students identify the emotions expressed by the characters or people in the material. You can then discuss the emotions as a class or have students work in pairs or small groups to discuss and describe the emotions.
- Ask students to write a short paragraph describing the emotions they see or feel while watching or reading the material. Encourage them to use emotion vocabulary words they have learned in class.
- Create a group activity in which students take turns showing a video clip or news article and leading a discussion about the emotions being expressed. This can help students practice identifying and describing emotions and allow them to lead a discussion.
- Play clips of various songs and pieces of music and have students discuss or write about the emotions these evoke.
- Incorporate authentic materials into other language skills activities, such as listening comprehension or grammar practice. For example, you can have students listen to a podcast and identify the emotions being expressed by the speakers or have them correct the grammar in a news article while paying attention to the emotions being expressed.
Using authentic materials in your lessons can be a valuable way to help students practice identifying and describing emotions and develop their emotional vocabulary. Choose materials that are appropriate for the level and interests of your students and provide support and guidance as needed.
Charades: A Lively Way to Practice Identifying and Expressing Emotions
Emotion vocabulary charades is a game in which students take turns acting out different emotions for their classmates to guess. The teacher or facilitator creates a list of emotion vocabulary words, and students use facial expressions, body language, and gestures to convey the emotion without speaking or using verbal cues. The rest of the class tries to guess the emotion, and the student acting out the emotion vocabulary word confirms or gives more clues.
The class can keep track of the number of correct guesses or work together to guess as many emotions as possible within a certain time frame. This activity can help students practice expressing and understanding emotions and improve their nonverbal communication skills.
To differentiate for different proficiency levels, the teacher or facilitator can adjust the difficulty of the emotion vocabulary words or provide more or fewer verbal clues for lower or higher-level students, respectively. For example, more advanced students may be given a list of more nuanced or subtle emotion vocabulary words, while lower-level students may be given a list of more basic emotion vocabulary words and more verbal clues.
Emotional Journaling: A Cathartic Language Learning Activity
This therapeutic activity involves students writing about their own emotions and experiences in a journal. This can be a helpful way for students to reflect on and better understand their own emotions and process and cope with difficult experiences. Here are some tips for implementing emotion journaling in the classroom:
- Set aside time: Set aside a regular time for students to journal, such as at the beginning or end of the school day. This can help students establish a routine and make journaling a habit.
- Encourage honesty and self-expression: Encourage students to be honest and open in their journaling and to express their thoughts and feelings freely. This can help students develop their emotional intelligence and self-awareness.
- Provide prompts: Consider providing prompts or themes incorporating emotion vocabulary words for students to write about, such as “What made you feel happy today?” or “How did you feel when you had a disagreement with a friend?” These prompts can help students focus their writing and reflect on specific emotions and experiences.
- Respect privacy: Emotion journaling can be a personal and vulnerable activity, so it’s important to respect students’ privacy and ensure that their journal entries are kept confidential. Encourage students to use their journals as a safe and private space to express their thoughts and feelings.
Emotion journaling can be a helpful way for students to reflect on and better understand their own emotions and can also serve as a tool for coping with difficult experiences. It can be a valuable addition to the classroom, especially for students who struggle to express their emotions verbally.
Engaging with Emotions Through Discussion
Emotion discussions can be a useful activity for students to learn about and understand the emotions of others, as well as to practice expressing their own emotions. These discussions can take place in small groups or as a whole class and can be facilitated by a teacher or counselor.
During a discussion on emotions, students are encouraged to share their experiences and feelings about a particular emotion or situation. For example, students might be asked to discuss a time when they felt angry or describe a situation that made them happy. As students share their experiences, they can listen to and learn from their peers and better understand how different people experience and express emotions. This also provides them with authentic exposure to new emotion vocabulary words.
Creating a safe and supportive learning environment when conducting emotion discussions is important, as this helps students feel comfortable sharing their emotions and experiences. It is important to remember that these discussions should not be judgmental or critical, overly personal, or intrusive. Students should not be pressured into disclosing sensitive or private information about their emotions or personal experiences.
Tips for Creating a Safe and Supportive Environment for Emotion Discussions
To create a safe and supportive environment for emotion discussions, teachers or facilitators can establish some ground rules or guidelines to follow. These might include:
- Respect: Encourage students to listen to and respect the emotions and experiences of their peers and refrain from judging or belittling them.
- Confidentiality: Make it clear that what is shared in the discussion should stay within the group unless there is a concern for someone’s safety.
- Comfort level: Encourage students to share as much or as little as they are comfortable with and to respect the boundaries of others.
- Support: Encourage students to offer support and understanding to their peers and to be open to hearing different perspectives and experiences.
By following these guidelines while teaching emotion vocabulary, teachers and facilitators can create a safe and supportive learning environment where students feel comfortable sharing their emotions and experiences and where they can learn from and support one another.
Teaching emotion vocabulary benefits student self-awareness, emotional intelligence, empathy, relationships, and problem-solving skills. By helping students develop a strong understanding of emotion vocabulary, teachers can support their students in building relationships, connecting with others, and effectively communicating their thoughts and feelings.