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March 2015
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Grammatically Speaking
by Michelle Jackson

Dr. Michelle Jackson is the associate director of teaching at New Mexico State University’s Teaching Academy. She designs, develops, and delivers workshops on a variety of teaching and learning topics. Prior to NMSU, she was the manager of the English Language Institute at UT El Paso. She has taught English as a second language at UT El Paso and Harvard University as well as Spanish at UT Austin. She is enthusiastic about sharing teaching strategies as the new grammar columnist for TESOL Connections

During my first semester as a college ESL instructor, I was tasked with teaching English adjective order. Adjective order was an error that had marched cavalierly across my desk in students’ essays, knowing I was unfamiliar with how to address it. Students described their “beautiful, smart, tall mothers” and their “blue old cars.” While I had readily seen these constructions, I only intuitively knew they were incorrect. That is to say, they sounded wrong, but I was uncertain why they were wrong.

Furthermore, I had little idea of how to teach the concept outside of the confines of traditional lecture. In these instances, I surrendered to the battalion of papers, passively wrote “word order” in the margin, and promptly returned them. After a bit of practice, I developed the following in-class activity that allows for student production, group work, and peer correction, thus turning the teaching and learning of English adjective order into an interactive endeavor.

Materials Required

  • Post-it notes, enough for each student to have one
  • Paper and writing utensils for all students
  • Chalkboard, whiteboard, or doc cam & writing utensils

Timing: 25–35 minutes

Step 1

Have students break into groups of six. Each group must select an object to describe. This could be any object that comes to mind. If students struggle with selecting an object, I suggest they search their backpacks, which often yields some interesting items. Write the order of adjectives on the board where all students can view it easily, or provide them with the chart below. Explain to students that if adjectives are not in this order, it can lead to confusion for readers and/or listeners. (5 minutes)

English Adjective Order: Article, judgment, size, shape, age, color, nationality, material

Adjective Type 


1. Article 

a, an, the 

2. Judgment 

 perfect, beautiful, silly

 3. Size

 big, small, tall

 4. Shape

 round, octagonal, triangular

 5. Age

 100-year-old, new, ancient

 6. Color

 yellow, vermillion, beige

 7. Nationality

 German, Spanish

 8. Material

 cloth, wood, stone

Step 2

As a group, the students will write one sentence describing the object. The sentence must use six adjectives and follow the order of adjectives rule. Inform students they will share their work with the rest of the class. Allow for students to use dictionaries in any form (e.g. printed, electronic) as this yields better results. (5–7 minutes)

Step 3

Each group should write its sentence on one piece of paper. Ask students to double-check that they have followed the order of adjectives rule. The instructor should walk around to ensure students’ sentences follow the correct adjective order. (2 minutes)

Step 4

Students write the six adjectives used in their sentences onto six Post-its. Each student fixes a Post-it to his or her chest. (2 minutes)

Step 5

Each group will come to the front of the room and write its sentence on the board, eliminating the adjectives. (1 minute)

For example, the sentence “The large rectangular old Japanese glass vase belonged to my grandmother,” would be written on the board as:

_____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ vase belonged to my grandmother.

Step 6

The group members stand in front of the class so that the adjectives on their Post-it notes are out of order. For example, the Post-its might read:

Japanese large glass the rectangular old

Step 7

The instructor calls on a student to read the sentence using the board and the Post-it notes. The instructor explains that the adjectives are in the wrong order. The seated groups work as a team to write the correct complete sentence on a shared piece of paper. (1 minute)

Step 8

Call on an audience member to come to the front and move the group members into the correct order. The instructor asks the rest of the audience if the move is correct. Then the instructor asks the group presenting if it is correct. (2 minutes)

Repeat Steps 5–8 as necessary.

Optional Extension

When students know they will be sharing their writing, they often work harder to create texts they believe are worthy of others’ attention. You could have the class vote on the best sentence and discuss why it is the best. Did the group capture the object through a careful selection of adjectives? Did they use humor in their description? Did they use sophisticated vocabulary or terms from the current unit that made their example timely? Never miss the opportunity both to praise your students’ writing and to discuss what makes good writing good.

Happy teaching,


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