How Do You Teach the Difference Between “Make” and “Do” in Your English Classrooms?

Distinguishing the difference between make and do in English classrooms

“Do all you can to make your dreams come true.”

―Joel Osteen (1960- ) American preacher

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 particular 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. In some languages, “make” and “do” are sometimes assigned the same verb–for example, “hacer” in Spanish takes on both meanings. The large number of idioms involving these two words further complicates the problem.
Here is a quick 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 perform, or complete, 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. Something is usually produced or formed in the process. 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.” In these examples, nothing is generated in the process. That’s also why Americans say “make money” instead of “do money.” Making money means generating revenue, and therefore, something has been created.

Idioms, of course, are often cultural and therefore 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 practice using 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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  1. Jim – Thank you for your kind words and visiting the website.

    Teaching “make” vs “do” is essential in intermediate and advanced ESL and EFL classrooms. Unfortunately, the English teacher has to be careful in how they present the material to provide clarification instead of increasing confusion among English language learners.

  2. Hi Jim
    I love the site and will be dowloading the book.
    I teach middle school ESL so much of this is advanced but I can tailor a lot of ideas to fit their knowledge level.
    One comment re:teaching the difference between “make” and “do”. In the example “make money” I was always told that we do not “make” money, but we earn money.
    Something to consider.

  3. Ah, good point!

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