Describing Famous People : A Reading and Writing Activity

This is an activity which I’ve used successfully at both lower and mid-intermediate level.


Choose a famous person who is likely to interest the students, and who they know something but not too much about already. Use the Internet to research their biography and then “condense” it into ten to fifteen sentences, using language that the students have already encountered. If you choose someone who is already dead, you’ll probably be able to do it using only the simple present and past (active and passive) but a description of a living person may need also the present perfect. The sentences should include two or three which are invented, and the task for the students is to decide which are the untrue sentences. It will work best if it’s not too obvious – try and choose someone who has done a couple of things which the students might not expect, to act as distractors. I often use this text, describing Condoleezza Rice :

Look at the list of important events in Condoleezza Rice’s life. Three of them are not true. Read them and decide which three you don’t believe.

1. Condoleezza Rice was born in Alabama in 1954.
2. When she was a child, one of her friends was killed in a bomb attack by the Ku Klux Klan.
3. As a child, she wanted to be an astronaut.
4. She went to university at the age of 15 and at 19 she graduated with a degree in political science.
5. Her mother taught her to play the piano and at university she studied music. She is a concert level pianist and once performed with the violinist Yo Yo Ma.
6. She was appointed as Soviet Affairs Advisor in the government of George Bush Snr.
7. Before she became Secretary of State, she worked at Stanford University.
8. She is a close friend of George and Laura Bush and spends almost every weekend with them.
9. She is the first black American to become Secretary of State.
10. Her nickname in the White House is “the Iron Lady”.
11. She exercises every day with a personal trainer who is an ex-Marine.

Answers (not included on the handout): The untrue sentences are numbers 3, 9 (She’s the first black woman. Madeleine Albright was the first woman, and Colin Powell was the first black American), and 10 (The Iron Lady was the nickname of Margaret Thatcher. Rice is known as the Warrior Princess).

In the Lesson

Start with a warm-up discussion. Show the students a picture of the person you have chosen and ask them if they recognise him/her. In groups ask them to brainstorm everything they know about that person, then after a few minutes go back into full class mode, ask the groups what they decided and write their points up on the board. Don’t tell them if they’re true or not. At the end of the phase, correct any mistakes you overheard during the discussion.

Give out the text and explain the activity. Let the students read and then vote on which statements they think are untrue. Put the number of votes for each on the board before you confirm. Then ask students if the ideas which they’d had in the warm-up discussion were confirmed by the text.

For Homework

For homework, ask them to choose another famous person and to write about ten sentences, including two or three which are false about that person. Emphasise that they should keep their sentences short and simple, similar to the ones in the example text, and discourage them from copying verbatim from the Internet. Give them a deadline, by which they should send you their descriptions by E-mail. Correct the descriptions (and send them back) and print out copies of the corrected versions.

In the Next Lesson

Divide the students into groups and circulate the descriptions around the groups one at a time. As the groups read each description, they tick the sentences which they think are incorrect. At the end the number of ticks are counted and the person who wrote the description confirms which were actually the incorrect sentences.


Picture provided under Creative Commons Licence by Matthew Weston via flickr

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