How to Teach Adjective Word Order

By Alex Case
Tips on putting adjectives in the right order before nouns, including stimulating ways of presenting which adjectives go first and later

Even simple adjectives can be hard to put together before nouns, with many students who are familiar with “big” and “blue” not knowing that it’s “a big blue ball” not “a blue big ball”. It’s therefore well worth spending some class time on the order of adjectives before nouns at all levels that adjectives are taught at (so probably all levels).

What students need to know about adjective word order

The general rule is that adjectives which are more based on opinion tend to go before adjectives that are more factual. To put that another way, adjectives which people might disagree on generally go before adjectives which people are less likely to disagree on. In the example above, what size of ball can be called big is more debatable than what is blue, therefore “a big blue ball” is the usual adjective word order. In contrast, colours are more subjective than nationalities and materials, so we say generally say “a monochrome French photo” and “a purple cotton shirt”.

As well as teaching this general rule, it is also possible to teach how specific categories of adjectives are typically arranged. You can find totally unmanageable lists of ten categories in order, perhaps the most useful of which are:

size + shape + colour + age + origin + material + noun

I don’t usually plan to present these kinds of more complex rules, since they leave out other kinds of common adjectives and aren’t the best way to illustrate the general pattern above. However, it’s worth having such details up your sleeve for students who get confused, and such categories can be useful to illustrate when to use “and” to link two adjectives of the same kind (“a long red and green yoga mat”, etc).

Another reason not to teach ten categories of adjectives is that both the general and more specific “rules” are by no means hard and fast. For example, we sometimes put similar categories of adjectives in different orders simply because it sounds better that way. In addition, adjectives can sometimes be more strongly associated with the noun and so stay close to it. The most extreme example of that is when the adjective is actually part of the compound noun. For instance, “a black British bird” and “a British blackbird” are both possible, because in the latter the colour is part of the species name.

How to present adjective word order

Students don’t need to understand the rules of adjective word order in order to understand the meanings of the adjectives. They can therefore quite easily do a comprehension or speaking task with examples like “A small square box of delicious dark chocolate”, then try to work out what patterns those examples show. For example, they could choose which of the things described with two or more adjectives sound like the best elements of a hotel stay, or they could work out which things are being defined in sentences like “It’s a salty black vegetarian spread”. They could then work out what kinds of adjectives are used where in those examples, and maybe put their own choice of nouns and adjectives together to do something similar.

The more game-like activities below can also be used in the same kind of Test Teach Test way.

Adjective word order family fortunes

To prepare this task for your students, choose around ten things to describe, and write or find at least five different descriptions for each of those things, with each description having at least two adjectives. Rank those descriptions by how often you think that they are used to describe that thing (or do some research to find out the actual frequency of use). You could also add a sixth thing that is ranked bottom because it doesn’t follow the rules of adjective word order. Then mix each list up so that the most popular is no longer top. Students choose one of the lists, try to choose the description that they think is most popular, then get points for how highly that description is ranked.

After eliciting the word order of the examples that they just discussed, you can do more challenging practice with more examples that have bad word order and so shouldn’t be chosen, and/ or ask them to make similar lists to test each other with.

Adjective word order matching activities

Adjective word order dominoes

To get this activity ready, collect at least fifteen useful combinations of two or more adjectives before a noun such as “a big red spot”. Put them in sentences that give good context, then split each of the sentences between two of their adjectives (“The worst day of my teenage life was getting a big + red spot on the day of my graduation photos”, etc). Make sure that the sentences can be put together both through word order and through meaning, and check that alternative matches are not possible. The sentences can then be made into dominoes by making cards which each have the second half of one sentence on the left side and the first half of a different sentence on the right (“red spot on the day of my graduation photos/ My best ever present was a huge French”). Students can then work together to put the cards together correctly and/ or play an actual game of dominoes with the cards.

Adjective word order sentence matching

You can use the same sentences as in dominoes above and add more communication by splitting the sentence halves between Student A and Student B worksheets and then mixing up the endings on the Student B sheet. Put the adjectives and nouns in bold and the rest of the sentences in normal script (e.g. “I want to go to a beautiful white” on Student A’s worksheet and “sandy beach this summer” on Student B’s)”. Without showing their worksheets to each other, students try to match the sentences just from the words in bold, then read out the rest of the sentences to help and to start checking.

Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET May 2024
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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