I have been planning to write about grammar for a long time. I don’t think that grammar is so important in language teaching, however, no established teacher can afford not knowing grammar, above all in adult courses. In my career as a supervisor of native and non-native English teachers, I noticed that most new teachers have difficulties what to explain about any grammar structure to their students. The more they knew about the students’ first language, the clearer the answer became to this question. But there is always a first time.
Therefore, I would like to start with a series of posts about different grammar points explaining what and how to teach to foreign students. My main target group are first-experience teachers, but my ideas might be useful also for native teachers with some experience, who have had some awful moments after a student’s question about grammar or standing in front of pairs of empty eyes gazing at them after their explanation.

Adjectives (base form)

When teaching adjectives, you definitely need to clarify:
1) their grammar function and
2) their position.

Ad 1) Adjectives can be
a) predicative (after the verb to be): My cat is old. or
b) attributive (before a noun) I have an old cat.

Ad a) Adjectives don’t have plural forms:
This book is very popular.
These books are very popular (not *populars as some students might logically think).

Ad b) Good news: attributive adjectives don’t change their forms (singular/plural or gender) like in Italian or German. They are always the same.

So these points teach to the students what they don’t need to worry about.

Ad 2) Attributive adjectives stand before the noun they describe: an old lady (not *a lady old), a blue T-shirt (not *a T-shirt blue), etc.
This second point can be a real difficulty for Italian students who are used to putting the adjectives after the noun, so this needs to be practised, not later than at elementary level.

Practice:

  • Give a picture to your students and ask them to describe it. Then ask them to write to every item or person in the picture an adjective. Finally, ask them to repeat the first task by adding the listed adjectives.
  • Find spot-the-differences exercises online: two pictures with about 10 differences. These exercises involve plenty of adjectives (e.g. In this picture the girl has short hair, in this one she has long hair). This exercise is an exam exercise for Cambridge YLE Movers and Flyers.
  • Nationalities are really useful to practise adjective-noun word order. Ask your students to write down as many nationalities as they can. After a quick open class feedback ask them to add a typical item to each nationality (Mexican food, American football, Indian tiger, Argentine tango, Cuban cigar, etc.). Then ask them to make a story by adding one sentence with one of these items. The story starter might be: I saved enough money to travel around the world. I set off on a Sunday morning and took a flight to … First student: Mexico where I ate Mexican food. Second student: Then I drove to Argentina where I danced Argentine tango, etc.
  • Colours: with young learners a numbered colouring page might be useful (every number is ordered to a colour and the students are supposed to use the appropriate colour in every part of the numbered picture). I also like asking my students to design an alien or a monster and colour them, then describe them. Clothes are usually colourful, so even describing different outfits might be a good practice.
  • Paintings, like Lichtenstein’s Bedroom at Arles are perfect to make adults describe colourful pictures.
  • Games like Guess who are perfect to practise adjectives. Students are supposed to make questions like: Have you got white hair? or Have you got a red hat? etc.

Adjective, comparative and superlative

Most adjectives have comparative and superlative forms (some of them don’t like dead, pregnant, retired, etc.).

When teaching adjectives, remember this scheme: adjectives can have 1 syllable, 2 syllables and 3 or more syllables.
1) adjectives with one syllable (short adjectives)

short – shorter than – the shortest
long – longer than – the longest
slow – slower than – the slowest
fast – faster than – the fastest

Ergo: Comparatives are made by adding the -er ending and are used to compare two things, so we nearly always add than. Superlatives follow the definite article (the) and are made by adding the ending -est to the adjective. Superlatives are used to say that one item is outstanding from all the other items and are not in comparison with anything.

Spend some time on examples like

nice – nicer than – the nicest (here only -r and -st get added to the adjective, since it has a final silent -e anyway) and
big – bigger than – the biggest (mono-syllable adjectives with one vowel and one consonant at the end double the consonant in their comparative and superlative forms)

3) adjectives with 3 or more syllables

beautiful – more beautiful than – the most beautiful
intelligent – more intelligent than – the most intelligent
dangerous – more dangerous than – the most dangerous

The functions are always the same, but here the comparative form is made by adding more before the adjective, while superlatives are preceded by the most.

2) adjectives with 2 syllables (I usually discuss this group after number 3, but on the whiteboard I write it between point 1 and 3)
a) if they end on -y, they behave like short adjectives (group 1; mind the change from -y to –ie)

happy – happier than – the happiest
easy – easier than – the easiest
funny – funnier than – the funniest

b) if they end on a consonant sound, they behave like long adjectives (group 3)

modern – more modern – the most modern
stupid – more stupid – the most stupid
fragile – more fragile – the most fragile

Note that this second group is pretty unstable: you will hear examples like more happy or moderner, but teach this guideline to the students at lower levels, they will have all the time from level B2 to C2 to discover how unsure some stone-solid grammar rules might be.

Finally, there are a few irregular adjectives. My list of five is:

good – better than – the best
bad – worse than – the worst
much/many – more than – the most
little – less than – the least
far – father/further than – the farthest/furthest

Two special cases:
– you can express equality by using an adjective in its base form with so/as – as: Sicily is as beautiful as Malta.
– you can use also negative comparatives by using less + adjective: This hotel is less expensive than the last one we stayed at.

Practice:
Close exercises usually make students use comparative and superlative forms separately. However, for example in Italian, the comparative and the superlative forms are mostly the same, they only add the definite article to the adjective in the superlative form. This is why you will hear Italian students say: *My city is the better city in the world. Therefore, I’d suggest that you find free practice tasks where students need to use all forms of the adjectives according to the content they want to express. For example:
– comparing offers (travel packages, hotels, means of transports, apartments for rent, offices to let, job offers, etc), for example: The Seagull Hotel is more modern than the Relax Resort, but it has no swimming pool. The SuperStar Hotel has a swimming pool, but it is also the most expensive of all.
– at lower level a simple comparison might give plenty of practice: compare yourself to your best friend and your brother/sister. For example: My best friend is older than me, my brother is older than my best friend, so my brother is the oldest of us.
– comparing cities is also a good exercise: Milan is bigger than Rome, but Rome is more beautiful.
– if you work with YL, you can always call their Superheroes for help: Superman is the fastest, but Ironman has the coolest outfit.
– polls are excellent source of speaking practice: you can ask your students to carry out mini surveys in the classroom and compare TV shows (which is the most popular?) or their eating and living habits (who is the healthiest person in class?), etc. So they can report to you: Giovanni eats more fruit than Maria, but Maria doesn’t do any sport and she also smokes. So Giovanni is healthier than Maria…

NB: Note that my experience is based on European languages. Unfortunately, I do not know any Asian or African language. So you always need to consider your students’ first language and add eventual extra points to this summarizing list.

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