English as a Second Language/The use of what


Dear Mr Cole,

"What" does not refer to a noun that comes before it# It acts as noun + relative pronoun together, and means 'the thing#s# which/that# #Michael Swan#

I# What she said made me angry#=The thing that she said made me angry#

II#This is exactly what I wanted.=This is exactly the thing that I wanted.

I completely understand the meaning of "the thing#S# which/that" in the above context. However, I find it difficult to explain it to children. Could you tell me how to explained it to children, please?


Some grammar points will be difficult to explain to children, based on their age.  This is because the concept of true abstract thought such as that found in linguistics, doesn't begin until very late childhood and into the early teenage years.  I'm not sure what age children you are teaching, but you may need to use physical items, such as colored blocks with the words labeled on them.  Then you could show that it is possible to replace "what" (on a yellow block) with "the thing" (on another yellow block), but not "what" on a blue block (when you use "what" as a question."  Of course, you would have to make some uncolored or alternatively colored blocks to put the rest of the words of the sentence/question on, so that the children wouldn't be confused.  I'm not sure how helpful my answer will be, but teaching children this concept will be difficult indeed :)

Mr. Shannon Cole

English as a Second Language

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Shannon Cole


I can answer questions related to learning the English and Spanish language.


I have taught ESL and Spanish since 1998 at the university and middle school levels. I am a native of the U.S., and have taught in both the U.S. and Mexico.

I am owner and operator of www.coleinstitute.com, an online language school.

Georgia TESOL in Action (1999)

B.A. in Spanish; M.Ed. in Language Education

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I have clients worldwide, some who want their documents proofread, and others who take lessons with me through the Internet. Some work at high-profile companies and government organizations. Besides the U.S. and Mexico, my recent students come from South Korea, Switzerland, Turkey, Colombia, Russia, Italy, Paraguay, China, Japan, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia.

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