Thursday, September 10, 2015

Amazing Adjectives

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

Descriptive adjectives can make students’ speaking and writing richer and more interesting. However, my students tend to rely on the same, worn out adjectives time and time again: good, fine, nice. You might have heard responses like this before if you also teach English and/or have teenagers.

Azar’s Basic English Grammar does a great job of introducing students to adjectives in a couple of places. In Chapter 1, Using BE, there is a section in which students are introduced to the “be + adjective” combo and in Chapter 14, students get more practice with the syntax associated with English adjectives. However, some students need to spend a little more time experimenting with using adjectives in order to use them accurately.

A Lot of Adjectives

For many students at all levels, using a wide variety of adjectives in speaking or writing is less of a grammar problem and more of a vocabulary problem. In other words, once students learn the words old and young as beginners, they may not be motivated to learn substitutions like ancient, elderly or mature and youthful, juvenile and fresh. After all, there are so many words to learn in English, why waste time learning synonyms when the original word will do?

Simply put, as I described in my previous summary of Jack Richard’s (2008) book, Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, a limited vocabulary relegates students to a lifetime of being an Intermediate level English learner. While there is certainly nothing wrong with that if that’s what they want, Richards contends that, in order to become an Advanced ESL/EFL learner, students need to develop a robust vocabulary. Part of that, of course, is moving beyond fine and good to incorporating more descriptive adjectives into speech and writing.

A Beguiling Board Game

One of the activities I do with my TOEFL students to prompt them to enlarge their word bank is a simple board game. This activity works really well with character adjectives. First, I create a grid with the adjectives I want the students to learn and print it on card stock. For homework, they take home the grid and cut it up to make flash cards with the character adjectives on one side and the translation on the other. The goal is for students to come to the next class familiar with all of the adjectives and ready to play the board game.

I create the game by changing the grid into a game board. I change the lines between some of the boxes and add arrows to show the students how to move around the grid. Then, I put the students into groups of three or four and give each group counters, dice and a game board. The students take turns rolling the dice and moving around the board. When they land on a square they have to make a sentence using the character adjective that demonstrates the meaning of the adjective. For instance, if a student lands on a square containing the word brave, he/she should say something like, “My father is brave because he takes out the trash at night even though there might be bears in the garage.” (By the way, I am Canadian, so this is a real sentence!) If the student can’t make a sentence or tries to pass off something like, “I am brave”, then he/she has cannot move on to that square and must return to his/her original square. The first person to reach the end of the game board in each group is the winner. The prize is honor and glory (and occasionally chocolate).

Cool Cribs Card Match

Student also struggle to increase the number of adjectives they can use to describe places. One game I like to play to help them with this is a card match. To make the set of cards, I collect a bunch of pictures of rooms from magazines. (For a real challenge, make all the rooms similar or at least all the same kind of room, for example kitchens or bedrooms.) Then, I cut up the pictures so that I have two index card-sized squares cut from each picture. I glue the pictures onto index cards so that a different section of each room is on each card. I hand out the cards and a post-it note, one to each student, and remind them not to show their cards to any other students.

Students then have five (or so) minutes to come up with a list of adjectives they could use to describe their room and write them on their post-its. I encourage students to use their bilingual dictionaries at this point so they can experiment with new adjectives. While they are doing this, I walk around and help as necessary. Then, the students stand up and walk around the room. As they meet with a partner, they share their list of adjectives while keeping their index card secret. If the pair thinks their room is the same, they can show each other their pictures, but if not, they move on to a different partner and repeat. As students find their room match, they move their books and sit with their partner for the class.

Crazy Categories

Sometimes advanced students run into trouble using adjectives correctly. It isn’t always obvious that you can use curvy to describe a woman’s figure, but you can’t use it to talk about her hair. Or that you can say I have thin hair (sadly true) but not skinny hair. In order to help learners with these frustrating collocations, I prepare a list of level-appropriate character and physical adjectives. If the list is challenging, I might ask the students to look up the ones they don’t know and translate them before the next lesson. Before the class starts, I write a variety of categories on the white boards around the classroom: character, hair, face, body, eyes, smile, etc. As the students are arriving, they can pull out their adjective lists and start to write the words up in the categories that they describe. So, for instance, thin could be written in the hair, body, face and smile category, but skinny would have to be only in the body (and maybe the face) category. There is a lot of discussion if students disagree with a particular categorization and students seem to really enjoy this challenge.

I’m always interested to hear how other people provide practice for these tricky structures in their lessons. What do you do? What’s worked for your students?

Richards, J. (2008). Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Comment from nina dellona
September 28, 2015 at 9:49 am

Thank you so much for these helpful and fun activities. I’m excited to try these in my classes. Do you have a picture of the board game you mentioned? I want to see how you adjusted the grids to create a board game.

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