“So, I’m Like, What?”: ‘Like’ in the ESL Classroom

“So, I’m Like, What?”
‘Like’ in the ESL Classroom

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 7,677 views

I invite you to try something the next time you’re in a classroom full of ESL students, especially those of intermediate level or higher.: count and note down how many times your students say ‘like’ (outside of similes, and verbs) and then inform them of your findings at the end of class.

Students who have really made a habit of this popular and quintessentially modern expression can find themselves using it three or four times each sentence, and so perhaps a hundred times in one class. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t help finding that a little bit troubling.

This isn’t the place for a thousand-word polemic on how ‘like’ is destroying the English language. I do find it rather lazy and unhelpful, but I’m as powerless as anyone else to change the way modern people speak. However, I’m most interested in how if affects the ESL classroom, where I think it can be actually very damaging, and where teachers can have a direct and positive impact on our students’ style of speaking.

3 Reasons for Staying away from ‘Like’ in the Classroom

  1. 1


    I’m passionately interested in language fluency. ‘Like’ acts as a delayer, an audible procrastination, slowing down the delivery of the sentence. If a student needs more time, that’s obviously fine, but habituating ‘like’ in this way might also delay the development of fluency by removing that important momentum which brings the next word. We’ve found a way to slow things down, so why bother learning to recall the words more quickly?

  2. 2

    Vocabulary Damager

    I’m also very interested in the precise use of vocabulary. As my students would tell you, I’m seldom content with an approximation, as this genuine exchange from a few months ago will show:

    Teacher: So, did you guys see Interstellar?
    Margo: Yeah. It was, like, pretty boring.
    Teacher: Well, was it boring, or not?
    Margo: Huh?
    Teacher: You’ve told me it was, ‘like’ boring. So, were you bored?
    Margo: Sometimes.
    Teacher: So, parts of the film were boring?
    Margo: Yeah.
    Teacher: So, want to try one more time? (This is a theme in my classes, so Margo knew just what to do)
    Margo: (Sighing reluctantly) The film was pretty good, but boring in some places.
    Teacher: Now I know what you think! Thanks.

    This happens all the time. A three-word, rather lazy description, which used little language and told me almost nothing about Margo’s views, became a seven-word opinion, fleshed out with sufficient language to communicate its nuances. ESL teachers are in the business of enabling and encouraging production; ‘like’ does nothing to further this aim.

  3. 3

    False Modifier

    My students often use ‘like’ to modify the importance or severity of what they’re saying. “This is, like, impossible,” doesn’t really mean what it says; the student is ‘finding it difficult, or ‘struggling a bit’. In the same way, “She’s, like, in love with her Ipad,” uses a strong word but leeches all the power out of it; surely it would be better, from a language learning perspective, to say, ‘She’s very fond of her Ipad,’ or if you’re in the mood for some colorful hyperbole, ‘She’s becoming surgically attached to her Ipad’.

This isn’t just old-fashioned TeflGuy being deliberately mean-spirited and trying to force his students to speak an antiquated, wordy form of English. ‘To find something difficult’ is a worthwhile verb phrase; ‘to struggle’ is a helpful verb; ‘to become fond of’ is similarly very common and good to know, etc. If I permitted my students to use ‘like, impossible’ whenever they encountered this kind of situation, they would - to the detriment of their learning, in my view - never practice any of these terrific adjectives:

Awkward, Complicated, Challenging, Tough, Laborious, Tiresome, Strenuous, Burdensome, Onerous, Arduous, Wearisome, Confusing, Formidable…

Just as worryingly, they would seldom have contact with these less formal , highly colorful expressions:

A nightmare, A can of worms, A bump in the road, A snag, A bear, A three pipe problem, A thorny question, A knotty problem, A headache, A brainteaser, An uphill struggle, A mountain to climb…

I have a simple view on matters such as these: It’s better if my students know more words, because we can only think in the words that we know. We learn words through encountering and then using them, freely and spontaneously. ‘Like’ invites students never to graduate beyond intermediate-level vocabulary, and that simply won’t do.

More rare, but also indicative of a worrying trend, is the use of ‘like’ to downplay the content of the sentence. You might have heard the same kind of thing. I had an advanced student with a large vocabulary, but she was wary of utilizing it in front of her friends, lest she appear nerdy and un-cool. This led to the memorable assertion: “She’s, like, totally misanthropic.” Not only ‘like’, but also ‘totally’ help to dilute the impact of this ten-point word. I don’t know about you, but the idea of my students importing false crassness to hide their articulate side totally, like, keeps me up at night. We should be applauding and encouraging the expressive and nuanced, not shyly burying it under high-schooler verbiage.

So, Like, What Are We Gonna Do about It?

Firstly, your students need to be made aware of how they sound when they use ‘like’ all the time. I pull no punches here, telling them very simply that they will risk sounding like lazy, boring high school students. If they want to sound mature and smart, ‘like’ isn’t going to have a major role in their speech.

Then, they should learn to monitor what they say, and work to reduce the number of ‘likes’ in each sentence. One student found it helpful to stop himself by pressing together a thumb and forefinger; another blinked hard each time. Recording their own natural speech works well; four of my South American students went to a bar and recorded the conversation for an hour, and then found that they’d averaged seventy-five ‘likes’ each during that hour. They were visibly shocked, and rightly so; sure, they weren’t inciting racial hatred or drowning puppies, but using ‘like’ in this way is a habit without positive outcomes. They just ended up sounding half as smart as they truly are, and for no good reason.

The teacher’s vigilance will help. You can choose to allow your students to taper off, hoping for a gradual reduction, or you can insist that they go ‘cold turkey’. There are virtues to both approaches; the latter is akin to ripping off a band-aid, as it will hurt for a few days or weeks, but then the habit will be bludgeoned into submission and you’ll be done. Use your own judgment, and decide how much of a big deal it’s worth making. There may be other issues which take primacy, such as Chinglish and its cousins, but I do urge you to address this issue early and often, to ensure that your students don’t fall unnecessarily into what I consider rather bad habits.

Working with examples might help, and so I’m happy to share with you a worksheet I created for my ESL classes in Boston. vocabulary-like.pdf [471.41 Kb] (Count: 217)

‘Like’ is here to stay, but I can’t support its encouragement in the ESL classroom.

I’d love to know what you think, so please leave a comment if you have experience on this topic, or just want to let off some steam. Good luck in your classes!

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