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How to teach comparative adjectives

By Alex Case
Adjectives with -er and more teaching tips, including what students find difficult about comparatives and ways to present them

This article gives ideas on how to present, revise and expand the topic of comparative adjectives like “darker than”, including dealing with typical student issues with this point.

What students need to know about comparative adjectives

Comparative adjectives like “smaller”, “wider”, “bigger”, “more interesting”, “happier” and “worse” are used to compare two things, often with “than” in sentences like “Kyoto is hotter than Tokyo in the summer”.

As can be seen in those comparative adjective examples, the rules for forming the comparative are:

  • short adjectives, including almost all one-syllable words, take -er
  • short adjectives that end in -e drop that before taking -er
  • words ending with a short vowel and a single consonant need the consonant to be doubled before -er (“sad – sadder”, etc)
  • long words, including all words over two syllables and some two-syllables words, take “more” (presumably because “expensiver” is too long and sounds ugly)
  • final -y changes to -ier (including in some words which would be long enough to take “more” if they had other endings)
  • there are some irregular forms like “further”

These might be too many rules for a first class on comparative adjectives. You can simplify the lesson by avoiding words which need doubled letters, which is easy to do as there are only around eight examples that are suitable for lower level classes. You could also avoid two-syllable words and limit irregular forms to “better” and “worse”.

As soon as you can, it is also worth teaching common collocations with comparatives like “much taller than” and “slightly more difficult than”, as basic sentences like “The Eiffel Tower is taller than a tree” are not much use in real communication. Common forms include:

  • much better/ far worse/ a lot shorter
  • quite a lot further
  • slightly warmer/ a little more skilful/ a bit colder

To expand the range of language at higher levels, you could also add “substantially”, “somewhat” and “a tiny bit”.

Another good extension when revising and expanding on this point is “not as… as” as the opposite of comparative, as in “brighter – not as bright”. This is more common than “less bright” and a useful introduction to “as… as”.

Typical student problems with comparative adjectives

The most common problem is students doubling up with forms like “more better”. This is something that young native speakers also often do and rarely causes cause confusion. However, “more …er” is sometimes an attempt to produce “much …er”, which is another reason why this form should be presented as soon as possible.

Once you present those collocations, students can get them mixed up with adverbs of degree, producing problems like “very bigger” instead of “far bigger”.

How to present comparative adjectives

As seen in many textbooks, the simplest way of presenting this language is by students matching descriptions like “John’s hair is longer than Bill’s but his beard is shorter” to pictures. This can be done just from understanding the adjectives, and can be supplemented with clues without comparative like “He is wearing a huge hat”. Similar things can be done with descriptions of things that they know like “This country is bigger than China but its population is much smaller and it’s nearer to Alaska”. After working out what pictures or other things are being referred to, students can analyse the model sentences for formation of comparative adjectives, collocations, relationship to “not as… as”, etc.

Another option is to introduce some comparative forms during an activity on another language point, to be expanded on later. I most often do this with warmer cooler guessing games such as one in which students try to answer “What time do I…?” and get hints like “a little later” and “a lot earlier” until they get exactly the right answer.

How to practise comparative adjectives

This is dealt with in the article 17 Fun Comparative Practice Activities.

Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET February 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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