Number one for English language teachers

Grammar: Noun phrases

Level: Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Teaching notes

Jim Scrivener presents some ideas for encouraging students to think about and practise longer noun phrases.

Although students can usually recognize nouns, they are often less aware of longer noun phrases i.e. pieces of language that act like a single noun, e.g. my old leather jacket with green buttons. Here are some ideas for working with noun phrases in higher-level classes.

Noun phrase spotting

When your students study a piece of text (e.g. a coursebook story or authentic article) try adding in this extra task. Ask them to go through the text and see how many noun phrases longer than a single word they can find and underline. At the end, compare answers. You can easily test if a set of words is a noun phrase – by checking if you can substitute a pronoun for it or not.  For example, in the sentence, I found that photo of Billy we were looking for down the back of the sofa, the words that photo of Billy we were looking for can be substituted by the pronoun it.

Grow your own

Noun phrases can become very long – by adding words in front of a noun (e.g.  articles, other determiners or adjectives) and after a noun (e.g. relative clauses or prepositional phrases). Set your students the challenge of creating some long noun phrases. Bring in an interesting real object to class e.g. a necklace. Write up This is … and ask pairs to work together to make a three-word noun phrase to complete the sentence, e.g. This is an old necklace. That shouldn’t cause too many problems! Now ask them to find a five-word noun phrase, e.g. This is the necklace I lost yesterday. Now ask them to create a fifteen-word one! E.g. This is my grandmother’s old diamond necklace that she gave me when I had my eighteenth birthday. You might want to continue and see who can create the longest noun phrase.

Pronoun speculation

Give students a set of short sentences where the topic is a little cryptic and which only have pronouns rather than nouns, e.g. They angrily pushed them into it. Ask students to work in pairs to speculate what the sentences are actually about and then change the pronouns into noun phrases of three or more words each, e.g. The screaming crowd of rioters angrily pushed two of the limousines parked on the embankment into the fast-flowing, dirty river below.

Noun phrase nests

Noun phrases can contain other noun phrases which can themselves contain others – like a set of Russian Matrioshka dolls. The children’s rhyme The House That Jack Built provides a good example:

This is the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat… etc.

Set students the opening words of a story, e.g. I bought a second-hand car that… and let students take it in turns to continue it with nested relative clause noun phrases, e.g. …crashed into the cinema that… was showing an old film which… starred the great actor who… etc.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • I agree with Robin above,


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  • I agree; i thought too many clauses for a phrase.

    I'm actually looking for double noun phrases when a noun is used as an adjective - like 'desert sun' and 'success story'.....which I want to highlight because there are some in a news text I am using. So I thought I should find more, and see if there is a page for rules to help students make their own double noun phrases....if anybody knows any good pages of examples? Suitable intermediate - Advanced.

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  • Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but my understanding is that a PHRASE is a group of connected words thatt contain NO FINITE VERB. Seems to me that Mr Scrivener is using lots of examples with noun CLAUSES in them. "The necklace that I LOST" and "the necklace that my grandmother GAVE me..." surely do not qualify as PHRASES. the language extension ideas are great, but the terminology is inexact.

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