Number one for English language teachers

Subjects and objects in English - tips and activities

Teaching tips and ideas from Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield on teaching subjects and objects in English.

Activity: Working on word order and prepositions

The errors most likely to occur for learners will be errors of placement of the object (word order) or errors in the choice of preposition (to, for, no preposition). The following activities are suitable to focus on word order and choice of preposition. They are all intended for elementary to intermediate level students but could be adapted to higher levels for remedial work.

Jumbled sentence

Select three or four sentences which have a direct and an indirect object. If possible, try to personalize them using the names and backgrounds of your students. Here are some examples from an intermediate Spanish class I taught:

Jose bought his wife some perfume last year.
Mercedes sold her car to a friend.
Oscar wrote his mother a long email yesterday.

Divide the class into groups of three or four. Give each student one of the sentences, but tell them not to show it to anyone else. They must copy each word of the sentence onto separate little pieces of paper.

When they have finished, tell the students to lay out the pieces of paper on the desk in front of them. They must then change places with another student in the group and try to put the sentence back together.

At the end of the activity, ask the students to come and write their sentences on the board. They should then work as a group to discuss which ones are true or not.

Jumbled sentence plus extra word

This activity is the same as the one above, except that in this case, ask the students to write an extra word on a piece of paper and mix it in with the others. The students must reassemble the sentences and find the extra word. Extra words that work well for this are small, grammatical words like articles or prepositions.

Correct / incorrect

Collect a series of examples of sentences with direct/indirect objects. This could be from a collection of your students' homework. Select a mixture of correct and incorrect sentences. If all your samples are correct, rewrite some so that they are incorrect.

Write these sentences on the board, or dictate them for the students to copy down in their notebooks. Ask them to decide which ones are correct and which are wrong. For the incorrect sentences, tell them to correct them. Sample incorrect sentences:

Alison gave ten dollars her.
Tell to us the truth.
I made for Jack a cake.

Activity: Total Physical Response and Drills

These activities are for more mechanical practise of the placement of objects in sentences.

Total Physical Response

There are many verbs (e.g. give, hand, pass, lend, take, throw) which can take two objects and are well suited for TPR (Total Physical Response) teaching. In TPR, the teacher gives a series of commands which the students act out. Eventually, the students can give the orders to each other. The following commands would be good practice for this grammar point at an elementary level.

Give your pen to Sofia. Give Sofia your pen.
Hand your books to me. Hand me your books.
Susan, lend your bag to Jason. Susan, lend Jason your bag.
Throw the ball to Catriona. Throw Catriona the ball.

Get it for me please!

Write the following sentence frames on the board.

________ me a ________, will you?
Can you ________ a ________ for me please?
Could you ________ me a ________?
Would you mind ________* a ________ for me?

On one side of the board, write the following verbs:

buy, lend, get, bring, give**

Tell students to work in groups. One person is nominated as the butler or maid. Everyone in the group asks the butler or maid to do something for them. They can choose how rude or polite they want to be. At the end, the butlers/maids report back what they had to do, and for whom. Have the butlers/maids from all the different groups take a vote at the end to see who had the most polite employers.

*notice here the verb will be with –ing.
** notice that for some of the verbs (lend, give) take the preposition to and not for; this would have to be pointed out to students during the exercise.

Mumbling Mike or Mumbling Mary

The following activity is based on a substitution drill suggested by Diane Larsen Freeman*. Set up the following situation. Mike (or Mary) often mumbles the end of their sentences, especially when he (she) feels bad about what’s happened. This means that the listener has to ask a question to get clarification. Write the following dialogues on the board.

Mike: I gave Juan the money.
B: Who?
Mike: I gave the money to Juan.

Mary: I sent Sally the document.
B: Who?
Mary: I sent the document to Sally.

Mike: I bought Jenny flowers.
B: Who?
Mike: I bought flowers for Jenny.

Notice how the last example involves a change in preposition, which should be pointed out to students.

Ask students to work in pairs and take the role of Mike/Mary or B. They should practise the mini-dialogues then create similar ones for themselves. This is essentially a creative drill.

Sentence creation

Instead of the usual, and sometimes boring, Write four original sentences with the grammar, a variety of sentence creation situations can be devised. Here are two for practising direct and indirect objects.

Written instructions

Ask students to design a set of written instructions for each other. Set the following examples to get them started.

Give the person next to you a pen.
Tell me your name.
Write your address on a piece of paper and pass it to another student.

Students write a series of instructions and give them to another student to complete. When they have finished doing their instructions, elicit some of them and write them up on the board, checking that the grammar is correct.

Four words, one sentence

Write the following four words on the board and ask students how they could make them into a sentence: she, the teacher, the homeworkgive.

Elicit the different possibilities, pointing out that the verb and pronoun can change form and that (depending on the order) other words might be necessary. The above example might generate:

She gave the teacher the homework.
The teacher gave her the homework.
The teacher gave the homework to her.

Give students the following sets of four words and ask them to do the same.

I, my friend, describe, painting.
Justin, Britney, pass, salt.
The teacher, the student, explain, grammar.
We, you, dinner, make.
The soldier, the prisoner, whisper, secret.

This activity is one of many grammaring activities. For more on grammaring, see Scott Thornbury’s book Uncovering Grammar.


Students are more likely to pick up aspects of grammar such as word order if they are frequently exposed to it. If objects and word order are particular problems for your students, try incorporating the following into your regular teaching.

Classroom language

Use these examples of classroom language (along with the usual things like What’s the word for… , I don’t understand …)

Please tell us the answer.
Ask another student the question.
Can you lend me your pen?
Pass the paper to the person on your right.
Hand me your papers.

Try to include the above examples in your classroom talk and instructions.

Exploiting coursebook texts

Ask students to highlight direct and indirect objects in texts from the coursebook. Here are three examples from texts taken from Inside Out Intermediate.

So it was no surprise when a friend gave me The Little Book of Calm for my last birthday.
My parents bought themselves a new car, and they gave me the old one.
My male co-workers make lists only for work, whereas I have to make lists for work and for home too.

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