Number one for English language teachers

Adjectives and noun modifiers in English – tips and activities

Type: Reference material

Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield provide a selection of useful tips and ideas for teaching adjectives.

Introduction

Research shows that people remember words through association with other words. It appears that the mind remembers not so much lists of words, but rather networks of association. Learners need strategies to help develop these networks. Adjectives, since they are content words (as opposed to function/grammatical words), are prime candidates for network building. Depending on the adjective, the best association to make is:

  • with an antonym (cold – hot)
  • with a synonym (kind – nice)
  • with common noun collocations (an overwhelming success)

Low levels and adjectives

Low level learners need lots of new words, and they need them quickly. It’s therefore a good idea to highlight common adjectives from an early stage in the course. It is also important to point out that some very frequent adjectives may have more than one meaning. For example, “old” can mean the opposite of young (for people) or the opposite of new or modern (for things). So when putting adjectives on the board it’s worth also recording them with a noun in cases like this.

old – an old man
young – a young man

Low level learners need to see the same language over and over again for it to pass from short term to long term memory. Many common adjectives are quite easy to incorporate into teacher anecdotes or sample sentences when pointing out other elements of grammar.

Higher levels and adjectives

With higher levels there is the temptation to teach the long order of several adjectives. It is, however, perhaps not such an effective strategy. This is because long strings of adjectives are not that common (how often does one say “a lovely big old white bearskin rug??”) and the work spent on this could be better used elsewhere (adjective and noun collocations for example, or adjective and preposition combinations; both of which are more frequent).

Attributive and predicative adjectives

In teaching the grammar of adjectives, most course materials focus on: placement of adjectives and comparative/superlative forms. Attributive and predicative adjectives are explicitly addressed so seldom that many English teachers might not even know what they are. It is worthwhile pointing out this aspect of adjectives to students though, especially if they come across an adjective in a text that can only be used in one position or another (see activity on Using Texts below).

Adjective alphabet

With low to pre-intermediate learners you can challenge them to alter a simple sentence by adding a different adjective each time: one adjective for each letter of the alphabet.
For example: Write the sentence “He’s just a/an _______ baby.” on the board
Then say: “He’s just an amazing baby.” Ask another student to continue with an adjective beginning with the letter b.

S1: He’s just a beautiful baby
S2: He’s just a common baby.

and so on…

Think of …

You can ask learners to provide examples themselves of people or things which have the quality of the adjectives you have taught. Imagine you’ve taught adjectives to describe a person’s appearance (to a low level group for example). Ask the students to come up with examples of:

  • a handsome movie actor
  • a beautiful singer
  • a tall politician
  • an ugly old man
  • a short actress
  • a middle-aged TV actor

A variation of this activity would be to have students do the activity in small groups. Have each group read out their answers in front of the class. For every example that a group has which no other group has written, the group scores a point. The group with the most points at the end wins.

Three adjectives

  • long and difficult
  • quick but complicated
  • important but dangerous
  • green and happy

Before or after?

concerned
The police called a meeting to listen to the (1) ________ parents (2) ________
What is the difference between placing concerned in position 1 or position 2?

responsible
We only want to talk with (1) ___________ people (2) _____________.
What is the difference between placing concerned in position 1 or position 2?

Using texts

After working on a text for comprehension, you could instruct advanced learners to find all the adjectives and discuss their position. Which ones are attributive and which are predicative? Is it possible to change certain sentences so that the adjectives are in a different position? What effect does this have on the text?

Jazz up a text

Personality questionnaire

  • I get angry with…easily.
  • I’m impatient with…
  • I’m always honest with…
  • I try to be kind to…
  • I’m sensitive to…

Find someone who ...

Colours
Find someone who…

  • has a black cat
  • drives a red car
  • is wearing white socks
  • has green eyes


(intermediate +):

Adjective + preposition
Find someone who…
 

  • was pleased with their last test
  • finds it difficult to study
  • is anxious about exams
  • finds irregular verbs easy to remember

Anchor Point:bottom* Penny Ur, Andrew Wright Five Minute Activities, Cambridge University Press

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