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  1. How do you teach the difference between “make” and “do” in your English classrooms?

    August 17, 2008 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    How do you teach the difference between “make” and “do” in your English classrooms?

    What do you do? What do you make? What’s the difference, anyway, between “make” and “do”?

    These simple words cause lots of confusion for English language learners. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time teaching a very wide range of ESL classes this distinction. Many ESL students struggle with “make” and “do” – from advanced adult education and community college students to intermediate English students in summer courses and regular university courses. The large number of idioms further complicates the problem.

    Here is a quick, imprecise guide that helps clarify the issue.

    Look at some common expressions with “do”.

    • Do the dishes.
    • Do some chores.
    • Do your work.
    • Do exercises.
    • Do your best.
    • Do it over.
    • Do the report.

    Do is used to describe an activity that you have to do, often over and over again. For instance, we “do the dishes” and “do the laundry” many times. Do also contains an element of duty and responsibility.

    Now, take a look at some expressions with “make”.

    • Please make time.
    • You make dinner.
    • You make drawings.
    • You make decisions.
    • You make plans.
    • Your make reservations.
    • You make money.
    • You make friends.

    Make is used to describe a creative activity or something you choose to do. You choose, for instance, to make plans, make friends, and make decisions. You have choices.

    Why do we say “make dinner” if we have to do it over and over? Perhaps because cooking is seen more as a creative activity than a chore. But cleaning the table, and cleaning the dishes are just chores so we say “do the table” and “do the dishes.” That’s also why Americans say “make money” instead of “do money.” Making money is seen as both creative and a choice.

    Idioms, of course, are cultural and sometimes less than completely logical. Sometimes Americans will use the verb make in a way that might seem strange, but I urge immigrants and international students to “make a decision”, “do your best”, and learn some practical workplace idioms using make and do.

    Finally, I encourage students to work together in small groups and create their own list of idioms with make and do. When I’m lucky and have time, I like to ask students to come to the white board and write their collection of idioms on the board. Homework, of course, is asking them to choose 5-10 idioms and write complete sentences.

    So how do you teach the difference between do and make to your English students?

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