Teaching the difference between ‘make’ and ‘do’ for English Language Learners

What do you do? What do you make? How do you clarify the significant difference between “do” and “make” for your ESL students?

These simple words cause lots of confusion for English language learners. Both intermediate and advanced English language learners struggle with the difference between “make” and “do”. We have so many different idioms and expressions that use these two hardworking, common verbs.

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

Look at some common expressions with “do”.

  • Do the dishes every day.
  • Do some chores during the week.
  • Do your work in an office.
  • Do homework for English class.
  • Do exercises to stay healthy.
  • Do your best on exams.
  • Do it over when required.
  • Do the report on time.

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, obligation, and responsibility.

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

  • You make art for fun.
  • You make lunch at noon.
  • You make drawings in art class.
  • You make decisions everyday.
  • You make plans for the future.
  • Your make reservations for dinner.
  • You make mistakes on an exam.
  • You make progress when you study hard.
  • You make money at work.
  • You make friends at school.
  • You make time for your family and 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.

As with so many English lessons, using some humor helps the medicine go down. Depending on the ESL class, I might choose more humorous examples than the ones offered above. 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 necessary chore. I joke with students that “if you make dinner, it’s going to be delicious. But I will burn everything, and we will have to go out to dinner.” Cooking meals requires creativity and skill.

On the other, many chores require less creativity and must be done over and over again. Even I can do it. Cleaning the table, and cleaning the dishes are just chores.  Therefore, 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 a creative activity and a choice. Learning this expression shows how the United States remains a strong consumer culture – even in the most common expressions.

Sometimes we forget how much cultural information can be contained in short sayings and everyday idioms. Sometimes Americans will use the verb “make” in a way that might seem strange to English students. Many English students note that they don’t choose to “make mistakes” on their exams! Still, our English students usually “make a decision” to “do their best” and “make progress” in learning our confusing language.

Finally, I encourage students to work together in small groups and create their own list of idioms and phrases with make and do. When I’m lucky and have time in English class, I like to ask students to come to the white board and write their collection of idioms on the board. This communicative English activity remains surprisingly popular semester after semester. 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? Which expressions do you choose? How do you make a dry grammar lesson entertaining?



One comment

  1. Difference betweeen “do” and “make” needs to be explained once and for all.
    I see people on daily basis confusing these two, and from now on i’ll be sending them this link

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