Teaching grammar basics: adjectives

By Oliver Shrouder

08 Nov 2022

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Grammar is one of the most important aspects of language. All students, regardless of their age, benefit from a strong understanding of it.

A recent study facilitated by Bedrock Learning showed that 97% of teachers said grammar was vitally important for teaching and aids directly in a reader’s comprehension. The understanding of grammar forms a foundation for clear and confident communication, which allows every student to understand the English language to a much greater depth. In this article, we will look at some basic grammar rules behind adjectives and present some exercises to help your students understand them.

What is an adjective?

Simply put, adjectives are words which modify nouns and pronouns. They are one of the most widely used aspects of grammar and are most often called “describing words”.

In the classroom, learners are encouraged to use adjectives in their work to provide more detail in a sentence, as well as making the writing more engaging for a reader. Often, younger learners can get carried away with the action and movement of a story, and forget to think about what things look like, or where the story takes place. Adjectives allow writers to provide these descriptions to a reader and communicate how a story looks in their head to their readers.

From an early age, learners use simple adjectives in their writing to communicate how something looks or feels, using words such as “blue” or “scary” to provide detail - for example, a blue, scary ghost. However, from Year 3 onwards, learners are expected to select more sophisticated adjectives, using synonyms to craft the most effective description.

Your learners will discover that changing a phrase such as “the scary man” to “the menacing man” gives a new meaning to the phrase. Though “scary” and “menacing” are considered synonyms, only the latter provides further clarification and gives the phrase much more depth.

Adjectives are words which learners encounter at every stage of their education and are vital when explaining something or helping a learner to visualise a story. In sentences, adjectives are used to give clarification about a noun and can be placed in different positions to change the effect. Although we usually use adjectives to add more detail, there are many types of adjectives, all of which we use every day.

Here are some examples of these adjectives in use:

  • To describe
    • The charming man, the fluffy dog
  • To count
    • Both of my friends, the eighth slice of cake
  • To quantify
    • Two sports cars, five eggs in the nest
  • To demonstrate
    • That flower, those houses
  • To interrogate
    • Which umbrella?
  • To possess
    • My umbrella is over here
  • To exclaim
    • What an idea!

The everyday English speaker may not be aware that some of these words are adjectives, or how often they are used in everyday conversation. Learning about these adjectives is vital for effective communication and allows students to both describe the world around them with accuracy, as well as understand how this world is communicated to them.

Adjectives and nouns

Adjectives and nouns always appear together. A noun is a “naming word” for objects, people, places and more, acting as the subjects or objects of a sentence.

An adjective is a word that modifies this noun and gives it a new quality through a new description. When selecting an adjective, it is important to choose one which describes something new about a noun. If you describe water as wet, you are adding nothing new to the noun and, as a result, the adjective has no purpose. However, if you describe water as warm, or fizzy, the noun takes on a new quality, as these aspects are not already known.

Sometimes, nouns can act like adjectives. We can describe a noun with another noun, such as a boat race, or a sports team. In these phrases there is no adjective, but the noun has been modified by its reference to another noun. Similarly, we can describe a group of people as the elderly, or the rich. These are known as adjectival nouns, and we can spot these by looking for the article “the” which always appears first.

Types of adjectives

The most common misconception about adjectives is that there is only one type: the “describing word”. Though this is the most frequent use of an adjective, it is far from its only use. Here, we will explore the many types of adjectives, and how they can be used by students and teachers alike.

The descriptive (simple) adjective

A descriptive adjective is the type of adjective you are most likely to encounter in the classroom, as well as in everyday conversation. Descriptive adjectives add meaning to a noun or pronoun by describing its qualities which do not appear otherwise in the sentence. There are thousands of adjectives to choose from, and each of them changes the noun they describe.

To find where a descriptive adjective is used in a sentence, it is important to identify the subject, the object, and the verb. Take this sentence for example:

  • He wants to buy an enormous house.

“He” is the subject of the sentence, as a subject performs an action. As the action of the sentence is buying, this makes “buy” the verb in the sentence. This makes “house” the object, as the house is the thing being involved, or impacted, by the action. Now that we know where the object, subject, and verb are placed, we can look at the object in focus. The house is described as “enormous”; this describes to a reader what the house looks like.

The descriptive adjective can come in two forms. The first, which a learner is most likely to encounter, is the simple adjective. A simple adjective can describe emotions, taste, appearance, colour, and shape:

  • The green book.
  • The scary darkness.
  • The knights of the round table.

The compound adjective

The second form is a compound adjective. These descriptors are adjectives combined with a hyphen, and are used the same way as simple adjectives:

  • The mouth-watering smell of dinner.
  • A right-handed student.

Both types of descriptive adjectives provide new information about a noun, helping a reader to learn more about the details of a sentence. Each of them provides a quality to the noun, which was not present before, and reveals a deeper meaning to the information within a sentence.

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The numerical adjective

Rather than describing the quality of a noun, numerical adjectives denote the quantity of a noun present. The use of numerical adjectives is important for maintaining clarity and gives exact information regarding amounts:

  • There are six apples on the tree.
  • I am the second in line.
  • Only twelve miles to go!

The examples above are called definite numerical adjectives, as they provide exact information about the number of things in a context. Not only do they provide clarity in English, but this adjective technique highlights the link between improving literacy and success in Maths.

The quantitative adjective

Quantitative adjectives are used when nouns are uncountable in nature, whereas definite numerical adjectives are only used when something is countable.

If we look at the sentence “Friday is the fifth day of the week”, we know that fifth is a definite numerical adjective, as it can be counted. Words such as few or little are quantitative adjectives, as they refer to an amount that cannot be counted. These adjectives are also known as indefinite numerical adjectives, as they provide inexact, or tentative, information about the number of people or things.

Examples of a quantitative adjective are:

  • All of my sweets are gone.
  • Several apples fell from the tree.
  • Any colour will do!

Unlike definite numerical adjectives, these adjectives do not refer to any specific amount. Instead, they are used to provide a general amount, a quantity of a noun rather than the number.

The proper adjective

To understand the proper adjective, you must first understand the proper noun. A proper noun is the name of a specific person or place, such as Elizabeth, Spain, or Shakespeare. Some proper adjectives, like the examples given above, can be modified into an adjective, and you can do this in two ways:

Shakespeare is a specific person, and his name is a proper noun. As Shakespeare had such a unique writing style, the adjective Shakespearean can be used to describe writing which is like Shakespeare’s own.

  • That movie was amazing! It had a brilliant Shakespearean writing style.

Spain is a specific place, and its name is a proper noun. As people from Spain are referred to as Spanish, it can be modified into a proper adjective.

  • I saw my Spanish friend last week.

Proper adjectives are used to make a sentence as specific as possible.

It is important to remember that all proper nouns begin with capital letters, just like the proper nouns they are modified from.

The demonstrative adjective

The demonstrative adjective is a less used adjective and is sometimes called a determiner. The demonstrative adjective identifies the position of a noun or pronoun, and gives information about its distance from the speaker.

The four demonstrative adjectives are “this”, “that”, “these” and “those”. Like the adjectives so far, demonstrative adjectives come before the noun in the sentence:

  • This bottle is by my feet.
  • That bottle is over there.
  • These shoes are next to me.
  • Those shoes are on the shoe rack.

Demonstrative adjectives work with time as well as with objects. The sentence, “This evening was amazing!” tells us that the “evening” was close to the speaker, whereas the sentence, “That weekend was so boring!” tells us the weekend happened in the past.

However, a student might make two mistakes here:

Firstly, it is important to remember that these adjectives are not the same as demonstrative pronouns. Adjectives always refer to a noun (“these flowers”), whereas a demonstrative pronoun is on its own. In the phrase “Ow! That is sharp!” we see “that” used as a pronoun, as it replaces the name of the object.

Secondly, it is important to remember the number of objects that you are talking about. “These flower in my hand” is incorrect, as there is only one flower. “Those type of things” is incorrect too, as “type” should be a plural. Learners may stumble remembering which demonstrative adjectives go with singular and which with plural nouns.

The interrogative adjective

Interrogative adjectives are unique, as they modify a noun by asking a question.

Some examples of interrogative adjectives are “what”, “which” and “whose”, and these are also known as interrogative determiners. To know which of these to use in a question, you need to know which way the question should be answered. If you do not know the options available, you could ask “What options are there?” If you know the options, you could ask “Which options are available?” If the option is a person, you could ask “Whose options are these?”

  • Whose homework is this?
  • What kind of snack would you like?
  • Did he ask you which movie is your favourite?

A student may make the mistake of confusing an interrogative adjective with an interrogative pronoun. An interrogative pronoun is followed by a verb, rather than a noun, and substitutes for a noun in a question. In the phrase “Which did you want?”, the word “which” has replaced the noun in the sentence, rather than modifying it.

The possessive adjective

The possessive pronoun sits before a noun or a pronoun to indicate who, or what, owns it. Possessive adjectives are also known as possessive determiners. The most common possessive adjectives are “my”, “your”, “his”, “her”, “its” and “our”. These all correspond to the pronoun of the subject in the sentence:

  • John put his plate away.
  • Sarah and James took their football to the park.
  • I hid my new game.

In each of these examples, we see the ownership of the object in relation to the subject. When finding out which possessive adjective to use, it is crucial to know the pronoun of the person or thing in the sentence. If a dog was itchy, it would scratch its ear. If your spaniel, Susan, was itchy, she would scratch her ear.

Here, we can see that the adjective changes depending on the gender of the subject. If the subject does not have a gender, you can use “its” (for inanimate objects) or “their” (for groups, or when the gender is not known).

A potential error your learners may make when learning possessive adjectives is spelling. Some of the most used possessive adjectives are homonyms to different words, and it is important to make the distinction between them in the classroom.

  • Today is your special day!
  • The dog wagged its tail.

Both are often confused with the contractions you’re and it’s, which do not make grammatical sense when used in these sentences.

To help your students remember which to use, think of the contractions being full words. If you heard someone say, “Today is you are special day!” it wouldn’t make any sense.

The exclamatory adjective

Exclamatory adjectives are a combination of adjective and exclamation and are used to express heightened emotions. If you are feeling especially happy, you might shout out “What a wonderful day!”. In this sentence, the word what is an exclamatory adjective, a word which amplifies the emotion being felt alongside a noun.

  • How smart is Nadia!
  • What a beautiful cave painting!

Each of these adjectives refers to the named noun in the sentence and expresses how a speaker is feeling about them. In the first sentence, the speaker expresses surprise and happiness about the intelligence of Nadia. In the second, the speaker is in awe, stressing the importance of the painting.

Often, these exclamations are paired with descriptive adjectives. This allows for a reader to understand the aspect of a noun that a speaker is highlighting. If someone shouts, “What a beautiful rendition of that song!” we learn that the speaker is happy about the song they are hearing, because they find it beautiful.

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Adjectives or adverbs?

Two groups of words which are often confused are adjectives and adverbs. As we have already seen, adjectives modify nouns to give them more detail and meaning. The primary difference between them is that an adverb cannot modify a noun. However, an adverb can modify verbs. An easy way to tell these apart is the suffix -ly, which appears at the end of most adverbs:

  • The large man scratched his head thoughtfully.
  • I think I got the question wrong. I wasn’t thinking quickly!

In these examples, we can see adverbs in action. Rather than describing a noun to provide visual information, an adverb tells us how something occurs, or how something is done. In most cases, it does not make sense grammatically to use an adverb before a noun, so we find them after the verb in a sentence.

Rules for using adjectives

Now that you know all about adjectives, it is important to make sure you know where common errors occur, and how to ensure your students don’t trip up.


Take the sentence below:

  • I want to go to the Tudor blue old big house down the road!

For native speakers of English, this sentence probably feels wrong, but it’s difficult to articulate why; this is because the grammar technique at play here is usually learned incidentally, rather than taught explicitly. The rule of order of adjectives is being broken here. When listing more than one adjective, you begin with a quantity, then your opinion, then size, then age, then shape, then colour, then material, and finally the qualifier. When following this rule, the sentence becomes:

  • I want to go to the big old blue Tudor house down the road!

This sentence sounds more natural to speak, even if you had not known the rule beforehand. This hierarchy of importance is something we learn incidentally as an English speaker, although people are unsure how this rule came to be. Even when we don’t use all of the categories, we continue to follow this order.


How many adjectives should you use? There is no definite answer, but there are ways to find out for yourself. Which of these sentences do you prefer?

  • A face appeared at the window.
  • A scary, pale, ghoulish face appeared at the window.

When comparing these two sentences, the first sentence feels punchier, as the information in the sentence is given to you much quicker. However, the first sentence does not give us any more information about the face. Was it a friend at the window, or was it a ghost? Only the second sentence tells us.

As a result, it is important to find a balance between delivering information quickly, and making sure a reader knows all the important aspects of the moment. If you hear a knock at the door, you might go and answer it. However, if you hear a loud, thumping knock at the door, you might think twice before you open it. This links to lessons you might deliver on the effects of sentence structure.

Forming adjectives from verbs

In English, it is possible to create an adjective from a verb, which results in participles. A present participle ends with -ing, whereas a past participle ends with -ed:

  • The movie was exciting.
  • I was excited by the movie.

In the first sentence, a present participle is used. This is because the sentence describes the effect the movie has on someone. However, the second sentence uses a past participle as it describes how someone was affected by the movie. Remember, when you are describing an inanimate object, you use a present participle.

However, when you describe a person, you use a present participle:

  • I don’t find books interesting.
  • Really? I am very interested in books.
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Adjective activities

Below are some activities which you can use in the classroom, each of which can help your learners become more comfortable with adjectives!

Describe Yourself

Ask your learners to describe themselves in a sentence using adjectives! Remember to make sure they use the rule of order. You could begin with describing yourself, then maybe move on to family members, fictional characters or celebrities.

Who am I?

Create a series of riddles for your learners and see if they can figure out the animal from the adjectives. Some examples are below:

  • I am fluffy and fast, and I have a wagging tail. I am a dog!
  • I am a fast swimmer, and I have a sensitive nose. I am a shark!
  • I am fluffy and striped, and I have a painful sting. I am a bumblebee!
  • I am fast and striped, and I am black and white all over! I am a zebra!
  • I am slow and slimy, with a large shell on my back. I am a snail!

Simplify the sentences

Create a series of sentences, in which there are far too many adjectives. Ask your students to take out the unnecessary adjectives from each sentence. Ask them to explain why they have removed each adjective and see if they understand what makes a word necessary. Some examples are below:

  • The scruffy, small, thin, old, spotted dog.
  • The beautiful, huge, clean Elizabethan mansion.
  • The delicious, colourful Italian dinner.
  • The rusty, broken, old, blue, metal car. 

If you want to make this activity more difficult, you can also place the adjectives in a random order. See if your students can order them correctly!

Match the adjectives

Create a series of synonyms for adjectives on cards and ask your learners to pair up the adjectives which have the same meaning. Some examples of pairs are below:

  • Angry and furious.
  • Smart and intelligent.
  • Funny and humorous.
  • Warm and welcoming.

Adjective Intensity

Give learners a pair of adjectives and ask them to identify which of the adjectives is more intense. Alternatively, you can ask your learners if a word could be made more intense, or if a word could be made even softer.

Some examples are:

  • Pop or explode.
  • Singe or ignite. 
  • Little or tiny.
  • Large or massive.
  • Quick or rapid.

How Bedrock Learning teaches adjectives

Bedrock’s grammar curriculum teaches simple adjective rules at first, introducing learners to the concept of describing nouns, before moving onto more complex adjective rules and techniques. Each lesson is taught through engaging video activities and bespoke prose, before learning is solidified through contextualising activities and mastery tasks.

Teachers and educators can monitor progress through consistent low-stakes assessment, with data processed and presented neatly in the reporting area of your dashboard. All prose and teaching is differentiated for primary and secondary, solidifying necessary grammar skills as learners progress through school.

Accurate grammar is a skill necessary for your learners’ success throughout their academic careers, and their whole lives, but it isn’t always the most engaging lesson to teach. Through Bedrock’s video teaching and human narration, teachers can save time on marking while knowing their learners are being motivated to learn grammar independently, gaining the mastery they need to apply their knowledge to reading and writing.

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