Talking About Crime in the ESL Classroom

Crime as a discussion topic can provoke passionate opinions and draw out interesting anecdotes. It could also be a sensitive topic for some students.

Infrequently-used vocabulary is a factor when it comes to talking about crime, so I like to start by building and clarifying vocabulary. Our Crime Conversation Questions set starts with a simple brainstorming of crimes. Instead, you could give groups of students a card with the name of a crime, including relevant nouns and verbs. In groups, the students would find and write the meanings, and then explain what they’ve found to the whole class. Breaking off into groups gives each student more speaking time and improves the odds that quiet students will contribute. However, brainstorming with the whole class is definitely possible if you establish an atmosphere in which all students are comfortable speaking.

During the brainstorming session, I write the crimes that students suggest on the whiteboard under the labels noun and verb. When there is a pause in ideas, I ask for the other forms. For example, if they’ve given steal, I’m trying to elicit stealing, theft, or robbery to add to the nouns category.

The type of crimes that come up will probably differ from place to place, but here are some contenders:

Shoplifting (n), to shoplift (v) - to take something from a shop without paying

Drunk driving (n), to drive drunk (v) / to drive under the influence (v) - to drive a vehicle while affected by alcohol

Assault (n), to assault (v) - a physical attack

Murder / homicide (n), murderer (n, person), to murder (v) - to kill another person on purpose

Vandalism (n), vandal (n, person), to vandalize (v) - to damage or deface something, more often to public property

Drug dealing (n), to deal drugs (v) - to sell drugs

The following similar terms can be confusing for students. Point out that you can rob or burgle a house, but it’s impossible to steal a house.

Theft (n), thief (n, person), to steal (v) - to wrongfully take something that belongs to someone else

Robbery (n), robber (n, person), to rob (v) - to steal from, to take from someone by force

Burglary (n), burglar (n, person), to burgle (v) - to break into a home or business and steal from it

An illustration of a masked burglar holding a crowbar and climbing out of a window.

A key verb used with several crimes is commit, as in to commit a crime. It basically means do in these situations. See these other examples:

Arson (n), arsonist (n, person), to commit arson (v) - the crime of setting fire to something, like a building

Fraud (n), fraudster (n, person), to commit fraud (v) - to illegally cheat somebody to get money or something else

Here are some other important terms that come up in the question set:

Punishment (n), to punish (v) - to make a person suffer because they have done something wrong (e.g. jail time or a fine)

Self-defense (n) - protecting oneself

Rehabilitation (n), to rehabilitate (v) - to help someone to return to a healthy or non-criminal lifestyle

Death penalty (n) - the punishment of being killed (executed)

To get away with something (phr. v) - to do something bad and avoid punishment or avoid being identified as the wrongdoer

As you can see, there is a lot of vocabulary - maybe too much. Usually, I don’t want to introduce too many new words at once. If much of the above information is clarification, it’ll be okay. If there are a lot of new words, you could do a more extensive vocabulary activity or reduce the number of discussion questions to make it manageable.