When teaching ESL, I am most intimidated by grammar. I think the reason I am so hesitant when it comes to grammar is that when I learned how to speak English, I didn't learn the grammar. I may know how to say something, but I may not know why I say it that way.
So, if you’re in the same boat as I am, here is a little refresher course on nouns. Below you'll find information on what nouns are, how they're used, how to teach your students about nouns, and a few fun practice activities for your classroom.
Parts of Speech Crash Course
Before we start talking about nouns, we should go over what the parts of speech are. There are traditionally 8 parts of speech in English. The reason I say ‘traditionally’ is because the 8 basic parts can be broken down into many more parts, which some textbook creators take the liberty to do.
The 8 parts of speech are as follows: (definitions taken from Keys to Teaching Grammar by Keith Folse)
Nouns: the name of a person, place, thing or quality
Verbs: an action or state of being
Pronouns: a word that replaces or is a substitute for a noun
Adjectives: a word that describes a noun or pronoun
Adverbs: a word that modifies a verb, and adjective, or another adverb
Conjunctions: a word that connects parts of a sentence together
Prepositions: a word that shows the relationship between a noun (or pronoun) and the rest of the sentence
Interjections: a word that expresses strong feeling or emotion
When teaching the parts of speech, I’ve found it helpful to look for 3 sources of explanation. Every part has a definition that allows us to figure out what words can be categorized as such. This is the explanation that is most commonly given.
However, every part of speech also answers a question. This can be helpful for students who are having trouble sorting a word or finding it’s purpose. Then, of course, each part of speech has examples. Fill-in-the-blank examples can help students come up with example words before they even learn about the part of speech formally.
Today’s focus, as you know, is on nouns. As mentioned above, nouns can be broken down into many different parts including compound nouns and noun phrases. Yet, most nouns function in the same way, answer the same question, and follow the same patterns.
What is a Noun?
Noun Defined: Keith Folse’s definiton of a noun is, “the name of a person, place, thing, or quality.” This is a pretty basic definition and one that I believe most people would agree on. If you go to the streets and ask passersby what a noun is the most common reply would be, “a person, place, or thing.” It’s important to remember that a noun is simply the name of the person, place or thing, not the object itself. And it’s also important to remember that a noun can also be a quality, such as joy, happiness, or world peace.
Q & A: A noun answers one of two questions: either ‘who’ or ‘what.’ When looking at a sentence and trying to find out which words are nouns, it is beneficial to ask oneself who or what did the action or was affected by the action. Possible answers include, but are not limited to ‘Sarah,’ ‘pockets,’ ‘prosperity,’ or ‘the corporation.’
Noun Examples: The issue with fill-in-the-blank examples for any part of speech is that you need to be sure no other part of speech could fit. If, for example, your fill-in-the-blank was, “______ is my favorite,” then it would be possible to use a verb, such as ‘walking’ to fill-in-the-blank, which defeats the purpose of the example.
Some possible fill-in-the-blank examples for nouns and only nouns are as follows:
I see an…
She is a…
There are four…
Three Types of Nouns
There are 3 main distinctions when it comes to nouns. A noun can be either common or proper, concrete or abstract, and count or noncount. These distinctions help us determine the type of grammar we should use around the specific noun we’re working with.
A common noun is the name of any person, place, or thing. They always begin with a lowercase letter, except at the beginning of a sentence. Some examples of common nouns include fox, book, letter, and state. However, a proper noun is the name of a specific person, place, or thing. These nouns always begin with a capital letter, such as Queen Elizabeth, Maine, or Sense and Sensibility.
A concrete noun is a noun that you can perceive with at least one of your 5 senses. These are the first words that typically come to mind when thinking about nouns. Things like ice cream, costume, or wind can all be perceived with a sense. On the other hand, abstract nouns are nouns that cannot be perceived with the senses. They are typically emotions, ideas, or qualities, such as sadness, opportunity, or anxiety.
Count and noncount nouns can be confusing for students, but at the basic level a count noun is a noun that has a singular and plural form, while a noncount is a noun that cannot have a number in front of it. Most concrete nouns are count nouns, but not all. Things like potato(es), dress(es), and foot(feet) are count nouns. However, things like happiness, rain, and milk are all noncount nouns.
Don’t Forget About Pronouns!
2 Tasks to Use When Practicing Nouns
I am a big proponent of using communicative tasks and activities to teach grammar. I'm not grammatically inclined, and I tend to see grammar as a tool for more effective communication. That being said, if you'd like to learn more about how to communicatively teach grammar, check out The #1 Method to Revolutionize Your Grammar Lesson: A Communicative Method.
Practicing General Nouns: Writing Frenzy
If trying to familiarize your students with nouns in general, split students into pairs or groups of three and ask them to make 4 headings on a piece of paper: people, places, things, and qualities. Then, set a timer and have them list as many different nouns as they can under each heading. Each group gets 1 piece of paper and 1 writing utensil. After the time is up, have them count their lists and whoever has the most is the winner.
Afterwards, you can do a ‘ticked off’ activity, where you have each group stand up with their list and when you call on them they yell out one of their items. Write it on the board and instruct all groups to check the item off if they have it on their list. When a group’s entire list has been ‘ticked off’ they can sit down. At the end, you’ll have a massive list of nouns on the board! Feel free to use this list for writing tasks, speaking tasks, and more.
Practicing Common and Proper Nouns: Index Card Matchup
On index cards, write down an equal amount of common nouns and proper nouns. There should be one noun per index card, and make sure each common noun has a matching proper noun. For example, if you have an index card that says 'state,' you should also have an index card that says 'Minnesota.'
Give each student one index card and allow them to look at their word. They cannot show any other student their word. You may want to collect all of the index cards to make sure the words stay secret. Then, the students must walk around to one another and ask 'yes' or 'no' questions to find their match. Matches may include celebrity-Jennifer Aniston, book-Catcher in the Rye, bridge-Golden Gate, etc. Questions may include 'are you a common noun?' or 'are you a person?'
When students have found their match they may sit down. Once all students have found their matches the game is over. This is a great task to practice asking questions and to familiarize your students with common and proper nouns.
I love finding ways to make the more boring aspects of language learning come alive! Many students, especially those at beginner levels, are overwhelmed by grammar and don't find it immediately useful. However, my students have all really enjoyed grammar games and tasks that allow them to practice speaking while practicing grammar concepts.
Nouns are the most basic place to start when teaching grammar, but that doesn't mean that there isn't more for you, as a teacher, to learn, and it doesn't mean that it can't be fun and enjoyable! I hope that these activities and explanations help you and your students in your journey to learn English!
I Want to Hear From You!
How do you typically teach grammar? What parts of your usual teaching routine work really well for you and your students? Which parts are you looking to change?