Look at this paragraph:
‘This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-law’s. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago. But she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.’
This is the opening paragraph of the short story ‘Cathedral’ by Raymond Carver. Do you notice anything unusual about it? Perhaps not, but there is a peculiarity which is considered typical of Carver’s style of writing. Have another look and try to pick out as many adjectives as you can find.
That wasn’t so easy was it? There are some, but not that many. Personally, I love Carver’s minimalist style, fabulously referred to as ‘dirty realism’, and consider him one of the literary greats of the twentieth century. His stripped down prose and absolute refusal to use adjectives except where absolutely necessary – in this instance the blind man was the main character in the story – makes for an intense reading experience in which you find yourself, through necessity, hanging on the author’s every word. Nevertheless, I can’t say that I get a similar feeling when I read a student’s writing that shares the same characteristic! Dirty realism might be great coming from Carver, but it’s less encouraging from learners whose English you are looking to help develop.
Teaching learners about the importance of adjectives gives them the opportunity to be more creative in their use of English. Thinking back on my years in the classroom, here are a few easy-to-use activities I’ve employed to actively encourage the wider and more imaginative use of adjectives.
1. The dramatic description word game
Compile a list of nouns from the coursebook unit you’re covering or the theme you’re teaching around. Write the nouns on strips of paper and then fold the papers in half, so the word isn’t visible. Members of the class take it in turns to choose a piece of paper.
At this point, you can take the activity in at least two different ways.
- Firstly, one learner can unfold their word and collocate their noun with an adjective. This continues around the class, with the other learners having to choose a different adjective for the noun. For instance, if the first learner chooses ‘tall’ to go with the noun ‘mountain’, the next learner could choose ‘rocky’, then the next ‘snowy’ and so on. Continue until the class runs out of ideas and then allow another learner to pick a word.
- Secondly, a learner – or a pair or a group, depending on how easy or difficult you judge the noun to be – picks a noun and then has to provide a number of adjectives that ‘work well’ with that noun. For example, for mountain they might choose ‘tall, rocky, snowy,’ and ‘Himalayan.’ The adjectives are read out to the class, who must then guess the noun.
2. ‘UnCarver’ the sentence
In this activity you encourage the opposite literal practice to that espoused by Raymond Carver. Write a simple subject-verb-object sentence on the board. Get the learners to make it more elaborate, exciting, or just interesting with the addition of adjectives. Go through several more examples together and then unleash the learners with their own sentences!
- This can work well as a precursor to peer editing, especially if you are looking to recycle vocabulary from recent units of study. You can increase the complexity of the example sentences if you are doing this with higher level classes.
- One nice alternative you could do is to have a fully ‘adjectivized’ sentence and have the learners change the adjectives for suitable synonyms. Individuals – or groups if you organize it this way – can then compare the synonyms they have used.
3. Finding adjectives in the classroom
The classroom provides an environment that is rich in adjectives, so why not use it? Go around the classroom and ask learners to look around and specifically use adjectives to describe the things they see.
- Get each learner to select a different adjective. If you do this, try starting with a ‘weaker’ learner so that they have less pressure to come up with an alternative, i.e. let ‘stronger’ learners have their turn later.
- When all learners have had a turn, you can repeat the process until they are at ease in describing a variety of classroom objects with a number of different adjectives.
4. The crazy adjective story
Another simple way of developing adjective use is with a simple story, gapped so that no adjectives are present. The story can be as long or short as you like, depending on how quickly you think your learners will get bored or lose concentration! Once you have your story template, there are a few different things you can do with it.
- Get learners to write an adjective on a piece of paper, fold the paper and put it into a box or envelope. Make a photocopy of the gapped story give one to each learner. Each then chooses one of the papers with an adjective on it. Start reading the story and, as you encounter the first blank, have the first learner read out their adjective. Keep going with each learner saying their adjective until you have finished reading the story. This is fun, yet you can follow this up in a serious way by asking if each of the random adjectives was appropriate for its gap, and discussing why or why not.
- Pre-prepare a series of adjectives on small cut out pieces of paper. Give the learners the story and get them – in groups or individually – to put the adjectives in what they consider to be appropriate places. You can either share a ‘correct’ version or you can get the learners to compare they placement and discuss the differences without reference to a ‘correct’ version.
5. Can I do it… with adjectives?
The classroom language used between teachers and learners is another opportunity for us to develop adjective use. One thing you could do it to have one special day – or one week – when any time a learner asks you a question, they have to purposefully use adjectives before any nouns.
- Here’s an example: if a learner needs help with a question in their book, they could ask, ‘Can I have help with this difficult question in my blue grammar book?’ If they fail to use adjectives, you can remind them with prompts such as, ‘What kind of question?’
- One nice way of doing this is to refuse to accept the language in any course book, or even a grammar gap fill, as being sacrosanct and, when getting feedback on an activity, require the learner to use an alternative adjective to that provided.
A final word
These are just a few ideas I’ve tried down the years which have proven to be fun, motivating and adaptable to the needs of the particular group of learners.
If you’ve done something similar, or – especially – if you have even better ideas, I’d love to hear from you!