What they say vs what they mean: grammar revision

This short activity shows how to use different viral posts to revise grammar structures. I have tried it with students around B2 and C1 level, during both individual and group lessons.

I got the idea for this revision exercise after seeing a number of What they say vs what they mean posts. The most popular shows the difference between what the British say, mean, and what the rest of the world derives from it. There are others about men, women, programmers, meeting planners, and so on. I am sure you have seen a post or two like that yourself.

Content aside, these contrasting sentences contain/allow for a wealth of grammar structures we would often like our students to use.

The Task

Come up with a list of situations where people interact. You might work on it together with your students. Depending on their age these might be parents talking to children, teachers talking to students, neighbours talking to each other, etc.

Prepare a list of grammar structures you would like your students to revise + example sentences.

Find a What they say vs What they mean image online that will surely speak to your students, choose two or three sentences to illustrate the concept of the exercise.

Next, students draw/choose a situation from the list you prepared. They draw/are assigned a structure or structures they need to use.  Their task is to come up with 3-4 sentences showing the say vs mean contrast, creating pairs of sentences. They should use their key grammar structure for at least one sentence in each par.

Variation: after writing down say sentences, students switch their worksheets and come up with the mean part using the target structure.

Students usually have no problems inventing something fun to write in this exercise but the true objective here is using language correctly and with a certain degree of flexibility.

Take some time to compare your students’ ideas and pay special attention to accuracy. Be prepared to discuss some of their ideas as this activity usually opens the floor up to a discussion about stereotypes, euphemisms, honesty, politeness, and political correctness.

Personal Experience

I have used this activity with my adult and teenage students. I planned for it to be quite a brief revision but it turned out to be one of the most effective grammar focused sessions in a while. We spent a lot of time explaining and clearing grammar doubts even though the structure I chose were not anything new to my students.

If you decide to use this idea, make sure to do it after having offered your learners a lot of more controlled practice. In this activity, they are responsible for both the content and the form which might be a lot for some to process. Still, it is a really fun and engaging activity which is bound to get your students thinking.

If you are looking for more grammar-focused activities, take a look at this one about wishes and unreal past and the cleft sentences game.


    • Hi Ellen, try clicking on one of three links that lead to examples of visuals. You can find them at the very beginning of the post.

  1. I do really like your website. I’ve recently started my way as an English Teacher and planning has taken me long hours. Lucky me, I came across with your fantastic and useful ideas, I have already put some of them into practice and the results were great, my students were totally engaged. Thank you so much

    • Hi Leslie, thank you so much for taking the time to comment here. It’s wonderful to hear and I’m glad this site has saved you some time planning. Hope you keep coming back!

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