Nouns: Teaching Implications


The omission of capital letters on proper nouns is a common feature of many children's writing. A secure understanding of the distinction between proper and common nouns enables writers to determine for themselves whether a noun should be capitalised.



Both the National Curriculum and the National Literacy Strategy require the study of how words are built up. The suffixes used to form nouns provide a rich forum for exploring word formation, such as how a verb or an adjective can be made into a noun. Noun suffixes also lend themselves to consideration of concrete and abstract nouns

Compound nouns:

  • Recent research into spelling errors in writing at GCSE (Technical Accuracy Project: The Findings - QCA, 1999) show that for able writers in particular there is a tendency to separate compound nouns into their original components eg sun light; bed room; foot ball. Teaching could usefully explore how compound words are formed, and the history of some compound nouns now in common current usage.

  • It is worth noting that a reverse spelling problem is also common, though this is more with compound words than compound nouns. Many writers make a single word out of words which should be separated eg alot, infact, incase.


Greater use of abstract nouns in effective writing:

  • Confident writers make choices, conscious or unconscious, about which words they use to carry meaning and use a variety of syntactical structures. Recent research (Technical Accuracy Project: The Findings - QCA, 1999) indicates that A grade writers make greater use of abstract nouns than less successful writers. This greater usage of abstract nouns appears to be for two reasons:
    1. A more sophisticated vocabulary which makes greater use of abstract notions and concepts.
    2. A more flexible syntax in which the writer chooses to use an abstract noun rather than an adjective (eg fear rather than frightened), an adverb (eg with haste rather than quickly), or a verb (eg death claimed him rather than he died).

  • It is important to note that there is not necessarily any intrinsic virtue or sophistication in abstract nouns per se: rather it is about the choices and varieties that writers have at their disposal.

Reading and Writing

  • There are several ways in which looking at how nouns are used in texts can inform both textual analysis and an understanding of possibilities and choices as a writer.

Proper Nouns

  • Proper Nouns are an invaluable resource for establishing character or setting very quickly. Look at the opening of 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' - in just a couple of paragraphs, we are introduced to Mr and Mrs Dursley and their lovely son, Dudley. Can any reader form a favourable impression of someone called Dudley Dursley! We know that Mr Dursley works for a company, called Grunnings; and we know that they live in Privet Drive, a road name that summons up images of all that is suburban and uneventful. Choosing character and setting names carefully can avoid the need for additional explanatory description.

  • Traditional fairy tales rarely use Proper Nouns for characters or settings which relate to real world places or names. Characters have invented names such as Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin or Goldilocks and settings, if named, frequently have generalised names, such as the Forest of Enchantment. Many fairy tales successfully weave their magic without actually naming any character or setting, using only generalised participants, such as the prince, a stepmother, or a woodcutter.

Noun phrases

  • Exploring how noun phrases are used in different texts is a useful way to begin thinking about genre characteristics. You could ask children to look at a range of texts and underline the noun phrases, then compare differences. Some patterns you might find are:

  • Advertising: heavily expanded noun phrases, with pre- and post-modifying adjectives, and post-modifying relative clauses.

    eg. Across this verdant landscape are majestic stone farmhouses, whose perfect and natural beauty complements the surroundings, and picturesque old villages where markets are held and local wine and olive oil bought and sold.

    Fairy tales: noun and adjective pairs, reflecting the narrative simplicity of fairy tales eg. wicked stepmother; beautiful princess; ugly dwarf; enchanted castle.

    Newspapers: post-modified noun phrases, providing additional detail to key foregrounded information

    eg. Mr Redhead, a lawyer in his late thirties;
    the burglar, who wore a baseball cap

    Technical writing: heavily pre-modified noun phrases, frequently with nouns modifying the head noun. These can be found in scientific or technical writing but they are also a feature of bureaucratic writing:

    eg. The internal combustion engine thermodynamics outline provided below.
    The finite heat release model assumes that the heat input Qin is delivered to the cylinder over a finite crank angle duration.
    The Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 changed the expensing of certain depreciable business assets, individual capital gains tax rates and the tax rates on dividends received by individuals.

    This kind of writing can be very hard to read!

Kenning poetry

The Anglo-Saxon poetic device of the kenning plays with the concept of the noun, particularly the notion of naming. The kenning is a metaphorical circumlocution, effectively creating new nouns and noun phrases for familiar nouns. So the Anglo Saxons called the sea, the whale-road and a shield, a battle protector. The word 'kenning' derives from the Anglo Saxon 'to know' and indicates the belief that naming things is a way of knowing things. Using kenning poetry is a useful way to explore nouns, naming and describing in a creative context.

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