Adjectives: Teaching Implications


  • Perhaps the commonest definition of an adjective used in school is that it is 'a describing word'. This is not always a helpful definition as many other words can describe, often more obviously than an adjective. Consider the use of adjectives, verbs and adverbs in the following sentences and note which words are most effective in conveying descriptive detail.

    Two dogs hurled themselves at the intruder.
    The smallest girl stormed furiously into the kitchen.

  • The definition of an adjective as a describing word tends to create a misconception amongst young writers that description is exclusively about using adjectives liberally. I often call this Rottweiler syndrome. A commonplace noun is written on the board (eg dog) and children are asked to think of adjectives to describe the dog (eg a big brown fierce dog). But if instead of dog, the noun chose was Rottweiler, this does all the descriptive work of the three additional adjectives.

    Instead, teaching could usefully explore how verbs, adverbs and abstract nouns, as well as adjectives, are used effectively to create detail and description in texts being studied.

Nominalised Adjectives:

  • When studying grammar in class, the use of genuine texts means that inevitably the words used will not fit neatly with dictionary definitions. The way that nouns can become nominalised adjectives frequently confuses learners, because they recognise the noun quality of the word, rather than its grammatical function in the phrase. Help to avoid the confusion by drawing attention to it explicitly and explore the effects of this language feature. Invite children to draw word webs derived from one base word such as 'drive' (driving; driven; drover; drove; driver) and then include the words in as many phrases as possible. Then explore how one word eg drive can be a noun, or an adjective or a verb depending on its context.

    • He parked the car on the drive (noun)
    • I drive thousands of miles each year (verb)
    • Each drive line was clearly marked out (adjective)

    Investigate the use of nominalised adjectives and/or extensive premodification of nouns in different texts. Many advertisements or promotional material use extensive premodification, including nominalised adjectives, to describe their products. Or you could investigate the very different use of nominalised adjectives in bureaucratic, scientific or academic writing. These activities encourage children to think about grammar in meaningful contexts.

Double comparatives or superlatives:

  • One error which sometimes occurs in both writing and speech is the use of a double comparative or superlative: for example, more better or most nicest.

Noun phrases:

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