How To Teach The Difference Between Adjectives And Adverbs

How To Teach The Difference Between Adjectives And Adverbs

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 18,026 views |

Descriptive words are a great way to communicate detail in a sentence, but how does an ESL student decide if an adjective or an adverb is the right choice?

How does he know which one he is looking at on the page? Here are three simple strategies you can teach your students for telling the difference between adjectives and adverbs in English.

How to Teach the Difference between Adjectives and Adverbs

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    The first and most straightforward way to distinguish between adjectives and adverbs is by their form. The majority of adverbs in English, particularly those that modify verbs, end in –ly. That’s really only a guideline, though, since many adverbs do not follow the –ly rule. But your students can make an educated guess that if they see a word that ends in –ly, the odds are more for than against that it is an adverb.

    Practice: Practicing distinguishing between adjectives and adverbs based on form is a rather straightforward process. Students look at a word and decide which category it belongs to. You can make the activity a bit more interesting, however, with this game. Put your students into groups of three. You will need one and a half decks of cards for each group. On twenty-six cards, write a collection of adjectives and adverbs. (I like to put a blank label on the card and then write the word on that label. Then I can reuse them for another activity by either removing the label or covering it with a fresh one and writing a new word on it.) Make sure your adverbs are evenly divided between ones ending in –ly and ones that don’t. You can find a good list of English adverbs here. To play the game, shuffle all the cards together and divide them evenly between two players. The third player will be the judge and should have a dictionary available. The two players hold their cards in their hands, face down, and take turns flipping one card over to a common pile. If a card has an adverb on it, students race to slap the pile. The first person who slaps the card (and the pile) gets to keep all the cards in the stack. Players then start a new pile, flipping cards until they slap for the next adverb. When all the cards have been flipped over, the winner is the one who has the most cards in their possession. The third player then plays a round with the winner and the loser becomes the judge.

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    The function of a word in a sentence is a much more reliable, albeit more complex, way to determine if a word is an adjective or an adverb. Both parts of speech are descriptive, but they describe different things. Adjectives describe nouns. Adverbs, on the other hand, describe adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs. They answer the questions how, how much, when, and where or show time, manner, place or degree. Students can tell the difference between an adjective and an adverb when they can identify what the word in question is modifying.

    Practice: I like to call this game the longest sentence, and it can be played individually or as a class. All you need is a writing surface and a standard die. Write a short sentence on the board, one that does not contain any adjectives or adverbs. Students will compete to see who can make this sentence longest by adding adjectives and adverbs, one at a time. If you are playing in teams, have one person from the first team come to the board. Have him roll the die. If he rolls an even number (two, four, or six) he must add an adjective to the sentence. If he rolls an odd number (one, three, or five) he must add an adverb to the sentence. The word must make sense and be added in the correct location or his team forfeits the round. Then a person from the other team comes up, rolls the die, and adds another word. Continue playing in this manner until one person cannot add another word to the sentence. The last team to add a word scores a point. Start again with a new sentence. Play until one team reaches five points.

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    Location, Location, Location

    Adjectives in English follow a very standard placement – they come before the noun that they modify. It’s a simple as that. When you have multiple adjectives modifying the same noun, the order of those adjectives can get somewhat complicated, but there is still a predictable pattern: quantity, quality, size, age, shape, color, origin/material, and qualifier. Adverbs, on the other hand, can appear almost anywhere in a sentence. They often come after the verb they modify, but they can also come before an adjective or adverb, at the beginning or end of the sentence, or before a verb they modify.

    Practice: Sentence diagramming is a good way to help students see how adverbs and adjectives fit into a sentence, but diagramming isn’t for everyone. To give your students a chance to practice identifying adjective and adverbs based on their location in a sentence, write a long sentence on the board which contains several adjectives and adverbs. Instead of writing out the adjectives and adverbs, however, replace each with a different letter of the alphabet. Have students predict what part of speech should go where each of the letters is. Then write the sentence again with the adjectives and adverbs and have students see if their predictions were right.

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    A Note on Adjectives and Adverbs

    While it’s pretty straightforward to use adjectives to describe nouns and adverbs to describe verbs, there is one exception that you should cover with your students. The exception to the rule is this: when you are using good/well (or any adjective/adverb pair) with a linking verb or a verb that has to do with the five senses, choose the adjective rather than the adverb. Take the following two sentences for example:

    • Dinner smells so good.
    • Dinner smells so well.

    Even though good is describing how dinner smells, it is the correct choice for the sentence because “smells” has to do with the five senses. Here are some similar examples:

    • You look good in that dress.
    • His acceptance speech sounded really good.
    • I made cookies with salt instead of sugar. They tasted bad!
    • It feels good to win the game.

    The following examples use a linking verb, which I often compare to an equals sign for my students. Because of this, the word appearing after the linking verb is actually describing the subject of the sentence and thus should be an adjective rather than an adverb.

    • She is graceful. (correct)
    • She is gracefully. (incorrect)

Knowing the difference between adjectives and adverbs is the first step to being able to choose the correct word when speaking or writing. These exercises will get your ESL class moving along that path and give them momentum to continue successful studies in English.

What are your favorite exercises for teaching the difference between adjectives and adverbs?

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