Adjectives are one of the most enjoyable vocabulary items to teach to English learners, the sudden ability to add meaning and variety to their communications is a great motivator. While the introduction of these vocabulary / grammar words is both relatively easy, the order of adjectives in sentences is not.
There is often confusion about what order of adjectives appear in a sentence. So, we will highlight what this is, and how we can teach it with both tips, and activities in the article below.
Teaching adjectives can be quite confusing; start with the basics and keep the instructions clear and straightforward. I would suggest teaching with flashcards and memorizing tables to get the correct order and comprehension between cumulative and coordinate adjectives.
In teaching English, the main focus should be on understanding, listening, and practicing. Teaching the order of adjectives takes some planning but with native English speakers there is an intuitiveness and a high chance that they will automatically know that “the large old black dog” is correct as opposed to the “black, large, old dog,”. They may not, however, know why.
This article will demystify the ordering of adjectives, give some general rules tips and printable activities for teaching the order of adjectives both for Native and ESL Classrooms.
Just before we get into the meat of the reasons why adjectives have an order it may be you are hear because you know and just need the order. In that case click here
It may be 15 minutes before a lesson and you just need a quick refresh. In that case click here.
There is a subtle difference between cumulative and coordinate adjectives. It should only really be taught to more advanced English students. Elementary and intermediate level English learners should learn the order and when able be introduced to the concept of cumulative and coordinate adjectives and the reasons why this order exists.
The most significant aspect of teaching is to take into consideration who your audience is. Before teaching the order of adjectives, you need to understand the difference between cumulative adjectives and coordinate adjectives.
Whether you consider it or not, there is a specific order that adjectives go by when English speakers describe something. The key to teaching adjectives is to prepare, keep your learners listening as well as talking. Learners have various strong points, but learning English rules does require visual and practical stimulants.
Cumulative adjectives combine to give a more accurate and specific qualification to a noun. Example: “the handmade stained-glass lamp.”
“the yellow mixing bowl.”
A test for cumulative adjectives is that they cannot be separated by “and.” It would not sound correct to say “the yellow and mixing bowl.” Cumulative adjectives do not have commas between them.
Cumulative adjectives are dependent upon one another since both are needed to modify the noun adequately. They build on each other (or combine) as they get closer to the noun to create a more detailed meaning. Cumulative adjectives appear in a specific order that cannot be altered without changing the importance of the sentence, and they cannot be separated by commas or the word “and.”
Examples: “dark blue dining table.”
There are various teaching methods suitable. However, not all are great matches depending on age, learning environment, or educational background.
If you look at a good description, you’ll notice that writers are often relatively frugal in their use of adjectives and adverbs.
Coordinate adjectives can be separated by “and.” For example: “the soft, lumpy bed” could also be written as “the soft and lumpy bed” or “the lumpy, soft bed” The adjectives give information of equal importance about the noun. Thus the order can be reversed.
The adjectives used as coordinate adjectives do not include any adjectives from quantity/ number and purpose. Coordinate adjectives may have commas separating them.
Coordinate adjectives are a great addition to writing as well as speaking. They help us paint illustrative pictures readers will appreciate. Like the adverb, you don’t want to overwhelm your sentences with modifiers. They tend to take away from the flexibility of a line of text. But, if they’ll help you paint a picture, then add away. Coordinate adjectives bring commas to the forefront of the conversation, and order is not essential.
Example: “the three months old, dark brown, American Bulldog.”
There is a general rule which applies to the ordering of adjectives. The subjective adjectives are used first. Factual adjectives are placed closer to the noun. For example, in the phrase -“the small, brown mouse” – ‘small’ is more subjective than brown. One person’s definition of small may differ from another person’s.
Brown is less subjective as a specific range of color is accepted as brown by all speakers. Of course, true to English, the rule has an exception, and that is the adjective describing number or quantity. Number/ quantity adjectives are always used first. For example: “ten, large, pink hats.” “many old grey elephants.” We will address this in more detail later as well.
Most mother-tongue English speakers do not know the order of adjectives used to describe a noun. They intuitively use the correct order because it sounds right to them. They may correct a second language English speaker but will not know how to explain the rules.
The hierarchy of adjectives, although not known by many native English speakers, is an inviolable one.
There are certain words you may be surprised to realize are adjectives. These are called determiners, and they come first in the sentence structure.
Determiners are words that work as articles and other limiters, including numbers.
In the general order of coordinative adjectives, the opinion/observation adjectives appear before fact adjectives. An opinion adjective is based on someone’s perception and should place first. A fact adjective is an adjective that can be proven and gets placed later.
We have already established; the following adjectives in order: determiners, an opinion/observation adjective, and a fact adjective when completing sentences that are coordinate adjectives.
Size – Adjectives that describe a factual or objective quality of the noun (enormous, small)
Shape – A shape adjective describes the form of something (flat, circle)
Age – An age adjective (adjective denoting age) tells you how young or old something or someone is (old, new)
Color – A color adjective (adjective denoting color), of course, describes the color of something (pale, black)
Origin – Denominal adjectives denoting the source of the noun (Europe, Madagascar)
Material – Stating what the item comprises. Often regarded as part of the noun. (wood, plastic)
Purpose – A purpose adjective describes what somethings use is. These adjectives often end with “-ing.”
Let’s clarify that the order of cumulative adjective rules is not set-in-stone and depends on the emphases’ order.
Adjectives indicating quantity and number are always used first. These include actual numbers and general quantity adjectives such as many, few, countless, hundreds, few, and many more. Numbers are factual, but quantity can be subjective.
These are the most subjective adjectives. They describe the noun from the speaker’s perspective. One speaker may refer to something as beautiful, cute, ugly, cruel, but this does not fit the definition of these adjectives for all speakers. The adjectives reflect the English user’s opinion on the quality or appearance of the noun.
Although the object’s size may initially seem like a factual adjective, it is not, in fact, objective. A person who owns Chihuahuas may refer to a German Shepherd as an “enormous dog,” whereas someone who owns Irish Wolfhounds may refer to a German Shepherd as a “large dog’. Size adjectives are therefore dependent on the frame of reference of the speaker.
Age adjectives are similar to the above in that they are also used subjectively. There are, however, more accepted norms on what is considered old and young or new compared to size adjectives.
Shapes are becoming more objective adjectives, but there is still room for subjective interpretation. Example: Someone may describe an object as “roundish,” whereas another speaker may represent it as ”oblong.”
Color is objective but also open to interpretation due to the many shades of one color. Example: dark blue vs. navy blue Both of these refer to the color blue with subtle distinctions made by the speaker based on his/ her experience and exposure.
Origin adjectives refer to where the noun originates. It could be a specific country or a more generic origin. Example: “the old, British man.”
“the brilliant, sunset colors.”
In these examples, “British” and “sunset” both qualify the origins of the noun.
These are very objective adjectives. They refer to factual qualities regarding what material the item is made of – such as steel, silk, wood, etc.
Factual objectives are used to describe the purpose or function of an object.
Example: “the sharp, stabbing knife” stabbing indicates the function of the knife.
“the silver soup spoon” – describes that the spoon is used to eat soup.
When you see learners succeeding in their sentence structures and able to hold significant conversations it can be incredibly gratifying. Their initial introduction to the language is essential and will inspire them to strive for perfection.
There needs to be structure in your sentences, whether just starting to learn words or the English language; adjectives are essential to get right from the get-go. It’s easier to teach adjectives to fewer people as they can share examples and test each other, whereas a big class might get confused by each other. I
Teach the order of adjectives by reading aloud, video, group lessons, and acronyms. Start with the basics and keep the instructions straightforward. Providing learners time to practice is vital; spice up grammar with hands-on activities rather than worksheets to help them be more engaged and grasp the skill effectively.
Let’s look at a few activities to consider when teaching the order of adjectives to a class:
Choose your adjective.
Each learner chooses a noun/item. They need to select several adjectives of their own choice to describe other learners’ nouns to ensure they know where adjectives would be suitable.
Video or Read Aloud
Get learners engaged right from the start by pleasantly surprising them; with a picture book, it can be simple but be sure to use a book that starts from the basics such as various forms or adjectives and ordering of adjectives. We would recommend “Many Luscious Lollipops: A Book About Adjectives” for kids. Videos are a great stimulant to get learners’ attention; it’s a great way to introduce how we sometimes add multiple adjectives to describe a noun.
Whole Group Lessons
One of the most efficient ways English teachers teach new grammar skills is to project them onto your board, screen, or showcase posters. Get the learners to write the rules themselves; it has been proven to help learners retain the information; however, time constraints don’t always allow for it. A good idea would be to create mini grammar booklets for your learners to have on hand for future reference.
Introduce an acronym – Introduce an acronym (NOSASCOM) on the day you present your adjective lesson order.
bring a treat (could be other items). After giving your learners the object, allow them to create a web of adjectives around the item they received. Then have them sort the adjectives and let them make sentences.
Digital Task Cards
they have so many benefits for the teacher and learner. There is virtually no preparation work, and it’s engaging for the learners. Teachers easily assign them to learners using a URL link, and students can practice skills and master them all at the same time.
Try teaching some of these simple ideas to your young learners; most activities are recommended to do in groups as this allows them to learn from each other. All activities are to help learners understand the order of adjectives specifically.
Human Adjective Bingo
Get your learners to create their own Bingo board for an adjective reviewing the game. Give your learner blank cardboard and magazine; let them cut out pictures in the magazine of people and paste them on various card sections. It’s time to play human bingo. To start playing, call out adjectives in the correct order to describe people; if you get it right, you can cover that picture until someone screams out bingo!
Divide your class into groups of six; learners will work together to create a letter from a pen pal and make a blank pen pal form for each learner. Begin by writing the pen pal name and age in the blanks at the top of each sheet. Then each learner folds their paper until the following line, so the next person doesn’t see what they wrote.
Everyone passes their paper to the person on the right to fill in the following blank and fold the paper over until the pen pal form is complete and each learner can read aloud and enjoy the humorous answers. (You will need to create a pen pal form with parts of a sentence; include blanks where learners need to fill in the adjectives, at least three adjectives per sentence)
This simple activity allows you to teach your learners new adjectives and ensure they are in the proper order. Start by giving them an example on the whiteboard by writing a sentence. (The girl is fetching her bag). Teach your learners that adjectives make a sentence more interesting by giving detail; challenge your learners to add adjectives to your sentence you have on the board, one at a time. As they add more adjectives, point out the correct way to order them. Give each learner to do a sentence of their own.
Exposure, Exposure, Exposure!
The most effective means of teaching students to use the correct order for adjectives is to have as much exposure as possible to naturally occurring English. Encourage the students to watch English movies, read English books, and speak with English people. Over time the students will begin to get a sense of when the adjectives sound correct or not.
Classifying Adjectives As A Teaching Method
Present the order of adjectives to the students ensuring they understand what each of the classifications means. Make cards with various adjectives on them. Hand these out to students and ask them to classify which category the adjectives fit into in the classification system.
You can ask the students to think of synonyms for the adjectives you provided. This activity gives them a chance to generate adjectives, improve vocabulary and learn the adjective order in one task.
Hand out cards with adjectives and nouns/ noun phrases on them. Ask students to use the cards to generate sentences using the correct order. This activity can be done humorously, creating ridiculously long strings of adjectives to add interest to the class.
Draw A Picture
Students should work in small groups and take turns to give descriptions using the correct adjective order. The other students must draw what has been described to them. The students can also complete the activity using themes such as describing their homes.
What Am I Wearing?
Students work in groups and must describe their clothing using correct adjective ordering and of course relevant adjectives.
Students may make the mistake of classifying words as adjectives when they are, in fact, a part of the noun. For example: “wet suit” is a single concept, and wet does not function in this instance as an adjective.
Other examples: “washing machine.”
These are known as compound nouns.
The below table, big as it is, is intended to help you remember the specific order of adjectives. There is no real need to memorize it, however you can download the image version here and it can be useful as a memory jogger for you and your students in class.
We have a copy of this table for download here. It is a worksheet example A4 where students have the headings, and have to insert adjectives they think fit the headings. It is a very useful to way to practice the order that adjectives go in. If you want an full set of our adjective workbooks we have a 13/14 page version in the shop you can check out here.
The teaching of the order of adjectives at first glance can be confusing for native speakers, teachers, never mind students. Here is a shorten summary to help you achieve this.
Adjectives are used in a particular order when describing a noun:
Cumulative adjectives do not vary in their order, but coordinate adjectives have a less strict order.
The teaching of adjectives at first glance can be confusing. Start with how well you know your class, either young, adults, or first-time English language learners; assess how they interact with activities; you will learn the best methods techniques for your study.
Ensure your learners fully grasp cumulative and coordinate adjectives before moving onto the specific orders and general rules of each. Practice will be most successful for learners to understand adjectives fully; among other teaching activities, you will notice the best methods to introduce activities individually and in a group and move onto more complicated activities as their knowledge grows. Always be prepared to change the lesson or activity you set out to accommodate your learners at the most convenient time. The main focus should be on understanding, listening, and practicing no matter your learners’ age group or English background.
Oh and most importantly, have fun when that lightbulb moment goes off in their heads and you know they have grasped it.
English is a Piece of Cake. Order of Adjectives. http://www.englishisapieceofcake.com/order-of-adjectives.html
Grammar Monster. The Order of Adjectives In English. https://www.grammar-monster.com/lessons/order_of_adjectives.htm
Macmillan English. Grammar: Putting Adjectives in Order. https://www.onestopenglish.com/ask-the-experts/grammar-putting-adjectives-in-order/153513.article
Teach This. Adjective Order Worksheets, ESL Games and Activities. https://www.teach-this.com/parts-of-speech-activities-worksheets/adjective-order