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Teaching the Difference Between “Need” and “Want”

The subject of thsi article is something that not only teachers, tutors and other fellow educators will appreciate, but also parents and caregivers. Understanding the difference between “need” and “want” is important from a linguistic perspective, of course, but also something that kids should master on an emotional level at some point in their lives, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Let’s take a look at the linguistic side of this, and talk about teaching learners the difference between the words “need” and “want.”

Need Vs. Want: Necessity Vs. Desire

When looking at the definitions of these two words, the clear bifurcation comes in their fundamental meaning and purpose. We use “need” to express our necessities, and we use “want” to express our desires.

All humans need…Many humans want…
…water…soda (kids), wine (adults)
…food…junk food
…shelter…a penthouse apartment

We cross the line from “need” to “want” when something that we are pursuing can be said to be something that is in excess of our basic need, and instead fits the description of a personal wish or desire. That’s easy enough to understand as a concept, but unfortunately, the term “need” is often abused by kids and adults alike.

It’s easy for people — especially kids — to confuse a strong, even burning desire with that of a real necessity, and it can be very hard to subsequently reason with those people to assure them that what they’re dealing with is a “want” rather than a “need.”

Teaching the Difference Between Need and Want

Teaching “Need” Vs. “Want”: Some Ideas

The concept of need vs. want seems straight-forward enough, but what are the best ways to teach it? We’ve come up with some ideas to help below:

Venn Diagrams

A great way for some learners to understand and appreciate the difference between these two concepts is to help them visualize it as best as possible. One great way to do this is through venn diagrams, an activity that works on many different age and language levels, even with  native-level speakers.

Beyond just exercising students’ language skills, venn diagrams help students to flex their critical thinking muscles, too, especially when it comes to those things that could fit into both categories.

Venn diagrams not only help students separate and visualize different concepts, but they can also work as an excellent fuel for discussion and debate, which brings us to the next idea.

Class Discussion/Debate

If you’re looking for a more direct and straightforward way to get learners thinking about these two different words, then starting off a class discussion or even a debate is a good idea. For a discussion, you could place some examples of things on the board or screen and ask students to say if it’s a “want” or a “need” and then explain why.

To elevate a discussion to a debate, one could take needs and debate which are greater and why. Alternatively, they could debate on which items qualify both as wants or needs, or purely as wants.

Teaching the Difference Between Need and Want

Quick-Thinking Exercises

Have you ever played the game “The 5-Second Rule”? It’s a fun, quick-thinking game that gives players 5 seconds to name 3 things given on each card. You could adapt this idea to your wants and needs class, asking students to, for example, “Name 3 things you need to live,” or “Name three things you need to finish your homework” and students can answer in rapid-fire mode.

  • Name three celebrities you want to meet?
  • Name three countries you want to visit
  • Name three foods you need to stay healthy
  • And so on…


Another idea for younger learners to get them thinking and active in class is to use flashcards of the needs and wants in question, and have them stick them in columns on  a board, or on marked sides of their tables.

Kids can work in groups to put flashcards in the right groups before sharing their answers, or you could have students come up one by one and put a card on the board while making a sentence. “I want an ice cream,” “I need water.”

“Jump Ship”

A very active way to teach the concepts could be a game we call “Jump Ship” in which you mark two areas on the floor — you might need to clear some space to do this — and have students stand in the middle to begin. You then reveal a want or a need, and have them jump to the right “ship,” one of which is marked “Want” and the other “Need.” Students can then jump from one ship to the other as you go through examples.

For older and/or more able students, you can adapt this to a simple division activity where you mark corners of the room or other spaces with “Want” or “Need” and have people go stand in which one they think is right. You could also add some discussion/debate element here as kids in different ships or in different corners explain their choice.

“Need to” Vs. “Want to”

There’s an additional grammatical aspect to this issue, and that’s when we come to add “to” into the mix. Some learners, especially ESL learners, may struggle with knowing when to add the “to” and when not to add it. Fortunately, there is a fairly straightforward rule to help us navigate these needs.

English isn’t exactly famous for having concrete rules with few or no exceptions, but the following is a pretty solid principle that you can use to help students make the right choice between “need,” “need to,” and so on.

Need/Want + noun

When the word after “need” or “want” is a noun or noun phrase, we don’t need the “to.”

  • We need more practice before the competition
  • Our house needs a new coat of paint
  • My teacher wants students to take part in the essay contest

Need/Want to + verb

When the word after “need” or “want” is a verb or verb phrase, then we need the “to.” The “to” forms part of the infinitive.

  • We need to practice more before the competition
  • You need to paint your house again, it looks a mess!
  • My teacher wants to see students take part in the essay contest


Ultimately, whatever age or level you are teaching, it always helps to give plenty of examples and demonstrate them on your whiteboard, in homework exercises, on worksheets, and so on. Even better, get the students speaking and making examples for themselves, all the time learning from any mistakes that they make.

Hopefully the ideas we have highlighted on teaching need and want will be of some help, and you can check out the rest of the site for similar English Vocabulary exercises, as well as phonics and reading resources as well.

Teaching the Difference Between Need and Want


I have been a teacher of English for over 15 years, in that time i made hundreds and thousands of resources and learnt so much i think its worth sharing. Hopefully to help teachers and parents around the world.

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