For the teacher: helping Cambridge First candidates with adjectives

In this essay I am going to examine teaching the features of adjectives to upper intermediate learners studying general English in Spain. I think it is important for my learners to become more aware of how adjectives are used in communication both receptively and productively because it matches their needs. A majority of upper intermediate learners in my context want to pass the FCE exam but they often lack the words to do it. They need to be more aware of the meaning, form, and pronunciation of adjectives to successfully

  • Compare the photos in the Speaking paper
  • Manipulate words to form adjectives in the Use of English paper
  • Understand adjectives in both the Listening and Reading papers
  • And use adjectives accurately when they write

My students need to value word knowledge and realize how a deeper understanding of adjectives might improve their “ability to use the items both productively and receptively.” (Moir, Nation 2008:164)

By becoming aware of the features of adjectives, upper intermediate students can make greater progress in communicating more accurately and understanding with greater certainty.

Analysis and Learner Issues

Pinker defines adjective as “The part of speech category compromising words that typically refer to a property or state.” (1999:289) Adjectives describe nouns in such a wide variety of ways that any definition has to be a bit fuzzy. Adjectives can:

  • Describe who or what things belong to: Our Gang
  • Describe quantity: no future
  • Or describe the quality of things: bright idea.

Position of adjectives: attributive and predicative


Attributive adjectives such as demonstrative, distributive, quantitative, interrogative, and possessive adjectives always come before their nouns:

those children what school

Predicative adjectives are adjectives of quality and can come before their nouns:

a poor father a sad boy

or after verbs like be, become, seem:

The boy seems sad.

Some adjectives are only attributive or predicative and some change their meaning depending on their position. He is a small businessman (he has a small business) contrasts with The businessman is small (he is small in size).

Learner issues

I find that my upper intermediate students make errors with the position of adjectives when the position determines meaning. They say things like It was a late flight when they mean to say that the flight was late. The position of adjectives also produces comprehension problems and “may cause difficulty in processing information, particularly in listening to English.” (Parrott 2000:25)

Order of adjectives


When two or more adjectives come before a noun, two broad guidelines are: general before specific and opinion before description. (Parrott, 2000:21-22)

Although variations are acceptable, the following order would sound most natural: size, shape, color, origin, material, and then use. (Thomson and Martinet, 1989:35)

Learner issues

I find that that my upper intermediate learners sometimes have problems using adjectives in the correct order when writing detailed descriptions. I have observed students make mistakes such as * “…a large Spanish vibrant city.” In Spanish there are rules that dictate whether adjectives should come before or after the noun if more than one adjective is used. Spanish students sometimes incorrectly apply the rule to English.

Comparative and superlative forms of adjectives


Comparative adjectives are used to compare “some common feature of two or more things or people in terms of degree or quantity” (Parrott 2000:73) Superlative adjectives are used to describe the singularity of one thing or person “in relation to others on some kind of implied scale.” (ibid)

One syllable adjectives can be inflected with -er to form the comparative and -est to form the superlative. (Quirk, Greenbaum 1973:133) We almost always use more or most before adjectives that have two or more syllables and with adjectives that are past participles or ungradeable. (Parrott 2000:69) There is “a small group of highly frequent adjectives” that have irregular forms. (ibid)




one syllable- big

The tree’s bigger than when we saw it last.

NASA recently built the biggest building in the world.

two syllables- useful

It’s more useful for quick jobs.

A screwdriver is the most useful tool to have at home.

past participle- talented

It doesn’t matter who’s more talented.

Diana is the most talented singer in the class.

ungradeable- terrible

He was more terrible than I expected.

It was the most terrible day he’d ever had.

irregular- bad

Paul is worse at football than John.

That was my worst performance yet.

Learner issues

I have found that my students often have problems using more complex language of comparison and says things like: “The weather is every time more colder.” Less confident upper intermediate learners often avoid these structures altogether. Learners have difficulties with comprehension of comparisons as well. In a recent upper intermediate class involving the dictogloss technique, many learners had trouble understanding “it’s wetter in the spring than the summer” perhaps due to the weak forms of –er and than.

Participle forms


Present participles (ing) and past participles (ed) can be employed as adjectives. (Quirk, Greenbaum 1973:140)

Past participles are often used to describe people’s feelings and normally follow be, feel, seem, look, etc. They are passive and mean “affected in this way.” (Thomson, Martinet 1989:33)

She felt tired after the match.

Present participles are used to describe the effect that experiences or events have on us. They can be used before the noun or after be and other linking verbs. They are active and mean “having this effect.” (ibid)

The book was boring.

Learner issues

The difference in meaning between present and past participle adjectives can be confusing for learners. I have observed my students here in Spain make errors when describing a film as “bored” or saying “I am annoying by the traffic noise”. I have found that learners often cannot tell the difference in meaning between sentences such as “She’s interesting.” and “She’s interested.”

Adjective formation


Adjectives can be formed by two “productive word formation processes.” (Celce-Murcia and Olshtain, 2000: 81) These are affixation and conversion. McCarthy says that native speakers recognize roots, prefixes, and suffixes and in a sense use them to understand or make guesses at the meanings of words they may have never seen before. (1990:99)


Prefixes can be added to adjectives and have a wide range of different meanings.



added to




“the opposite of”









Learner issues

I find my upper intermediate students misuse prefixes and make errors particularly with negative prefixes. I frequently observe learners overuse the prefix un-, saying things like *unlogical .


Suffixes can be added to nouns and verbs to make adjectives. They can also be added to adjectives with a change in meaning.



added to




“pertaining to…”



gradeable adjectives



Learner issues

My learners often misuse suffixes and produce errors like *coasted area or *agricultured land. Pronunciation also poses problems for my learners. Unlike English, suffixes are often stressed in Spanish.


Some adjectives have the same form as nouns and verbs. Depending on its function, an adjective in one context might be a verb or a noun in another. (Thornbury, 2002: 106) This is called conversion and refers to words that change word class without affixation.

conversion from adjective to noun

The annual Christmas party has been cancelled.

True annuals include corn, wheat, and rice.

conversion from adjective to verb

We didn’t think the house was very clean.

I’ll clean thee windows tomorrow.

Learner issues

The principal difficulty my upper intermediate learners in Spain have with conversion is a lack of awareness. Most students have no trouble understanding the word book as a verb in context but they avoid using the word productively and favor reserve which is more similar to Spanish. Conversion is far less common in Spanish than in English and can confuse learners.

Gradeable and ungradeable adjectives

Parrott says gradeable adjectives “describe qualities that we can measure or grade in some way”. (2000:23) We can describe things as being dry, hot or boring and modify or grade these adjectives to a higher or lower degree. Some adjectives are extreme and can only be intensified to a higher degree by using adverbs like absolutely or really.

Learner issues

The concept of gradeable and ungradeable adjectives is often difficult for my upper intermediate students. When they write or speak they use intensifiers incorrectly and produce errors such as *“very boiling.” Learners are not always aware of which adjectives are gradeable or ungradeble.

To conclude, I hope these ideas will help you feel more confident in the classroom.

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