How to Teach Comparative Adjectives
Comparative adjectives are a complicated area of grammar in English due to the large number of rules that apply to them. While students do tend to get some of the more basic rules relatively easily, they often fail to recognise that there are exceptions to these. This leads to some students steadfastly believing that such combinations as “more tired” or “stupider” are not possible.
When to Teach
Comparative adjectives are usually introduced at elementary level after students have learnt a number of base adjectives. Superlative adjectives often follow in quick succession.
As their name suggests, comparative adjectives are used to make comparisons between two things. These may be physical objects, or places and situations compared temporally (e.g. it’s warmer than yesterday).
|+er||most one-syllable adjectives||calmer, stronger, older|
|some two-syllable adjectives (or these can take more instead)||stupider, cleverer, commoner|
|+r||one-syllable adjectives ending with –e||bluer, braver, larger|
|+? +er||one-syllable adjectives ending consonant, vowel, consonant (? = the final consonant)||bigger, fitter, thinner|
|-y +ier||two-syllable adjectives ending in –y||easier, friendlier, lazier|
|more||three or more syllable adjectives||more interesting, more expensive, more agreeable|
most two-syllable adjectives, including:
– those that are the same as past or present participles
– adjectives with the endings –al, -ant, -ard, -ate, -ect, -ed, -en, -ent, -ful, -id, -ite, -ive, -less, -ous, -some
more boiling, more damaged, more needed
more crucial, more perfect, more active
some one-syllable adjectives, including:
– those that are past participles
– those that are not gradable
– to distinguish with less
more burnt, more tired, more lost
more dead, more male, more royal
They said it would be less cold, but I think it is more cold
|less||any adjective (but reverses comparison)*||less big, less famous, less happy|
|irregular||certain adjectives that don’t fit the above rules||better (good), worse (bad), further/farther (far)|
* E.g. We would typically use less happy (instead of sadder for instance) if the person being compared is still happy, but not quite as happy as the other person. However, it can also be used to downplay when people are unhappy.
Course books typically introduce comparative adjectives in a X is [comparative] than Y pattern. However, comparatives are also commonly used in a construction such as X is a [comparative] [noun] e.g. Jonathan is a better chef. We could also use it in the structure X is the [comparative] (one/of the two/option/choice) e.g. Silk is the more expensive option. As is seen in these latter options, it is not uncommon for the comparative referent to left out as it is implied by context.
The -er ending on comparative adjective forms reduces to a schwa. The vowel in “more” may also be reduced, as with the vowel in “than”.
As can be seen above, the number of “rules” is actually quite overwhelming. Course books typically deal with this by teaching first the -er forms, then adding in “more” and clarifying some of the other forms later. A number of these forms are not taught at all, leading many high-level students believing that constructions like “more tired” and “stupider” are incorrect.
The number of “rules” in English relating to comparative adjectives is likely to exceed students’ own languages. Some languages also do not have separate comparative and superlative forms, which may also cause confusion.
Students often learn idealised examples of comparative structures such as the X is [comparative] than Y format described above. While speakers may say this, introducing students to more authentic examples will help them to understand its more flexible use in English.
The reduced vowel sounds in the -er ending, more and than can cause difficulty for students. Than can often become then in students’ writing due to this being closer to what they hear.
Contexts for Teaching
Comparative adjectives can of course appear in almost any context. However, the following contexts may be useful starting points in choosing a context for a lesson.
When shopping, most of us compare the things we buy. Although for many products, it might simply be a case of price, we might also make decisions based on age, taste, quality, convenience, ease of use, etc. In most cases, it is probably several dimensions. Therefore this can be a good source of comparative adjectives.
Finding a good opinion poll, or a write up of the results, is a great way to generate discussion that can lead in to or develop from a lesson on comparative adjectives. Such polls could be about the popularity of different activities, the happiness of people in different countries or working different jobs, or many other topics.
Perhaps a good context for introducing the comparative with children is through animals. A snake is long for example while a giraffe is tall. Such size adjectives, with some scale pictures of animals, can make a great context for comparisons and discovery.
These can also make for a natural context as we often compare places when deciding where to go on holiday. Most students are likely to have some world knowledge to at least be able to compare some countries through experience or reasoned guesses. Further, comparatives are often presented to compare places in the past with the present.
Ask students to think about a product that they really want to buy. Elicit a few ideas. It might be a new phone, a piece of clothing, some gadget, etc. Some students will have different levels of specificity (e.g. an iPhone 10 or simply a new smartphone). Ask students to think about the category that product belongs to and what they look for in such a product and elicit some ideas. Now you can present two products to the class and tell them about the features. Then ask students which one they would buy and why. Students will therefore have need for the comparative forms.
If you wish to use an opinion poll or places as a context, quizzes can be a useful way of introducing this grammar point through written examples. Providing students are familiar with the base adjectives they are likely able to deduce that a question is asking them to compare two things on that dimension. I.e. a question such as “Which is bigger? a. China b. Russia” is likely to be understood. Following the quiz, the meaning and form can be clarified.
Now and Then
The comparative could also be presented through photographs of people or places now and in the past. As photographs will only depict physical changes, it would also be worth reviewing or introducing adjectives for describing personality or places. Using pictures of your hometown or yourself as a child are likely to be very motivating for students. Further, talking about yourself or hometown can serve as a model for students to do the same.
As mentioned, animals are a good context for young learners to explore comparative forms. With just a couple of base adjectives for size (tall, short, long, big, small) students can focus on just two of the forms. While students should hopefully know that a mouse is smaller than an elephant, having pictures that are to scale can provide an opportunity to discover sizes of less familiar animals.
It would be wise to start by reviewing the animals and adjectives that you wish to use. One way may be to have students organise animals into big and small. A cline or scale can then be drawn on the whiteboard and students asked to place various animals along it. The words bigger and smaller can then be added to the scale. After a few examples, it should be possible to elicit further examples from students.
If presenting multiple rules, it is useful to have students think about which adjectives follow each rule. This can be done through a sorting exercise such as providing a table and students adding examples for each rule. For younger students, games can easily be set up by putting (some of) the rules around the classroom, or on the board. The teacher can then call out an adjective while students either move to the correct rule, or throw a sticky ball at the rule.
The next logical step is to have students actually apply the rules to an adjective. A simple activity for this is to have a board race where the teacher calls a base adjective, and the student writes the comparative form.
After presenting the rules, coursebooks typically include exercises for students to put adjectives into sentences in their comparative form.
Ideally, students would now get practice at creating their own sentences by comparing two things. Personally, my favourite game for this is Comparative Arguments. Other games such as Pelmanism can be used for this purpose, requiring students to make a sentence using the adjective they have found.
Freer production activities may depend on the context in which the comparative was introduced. In the case of shopping, students could design a new product saying how it will be better than other products. For quizzes, students could design their own for other students to do. Similarly students could design their own opinion poll and report on their findings. This could even be extended into a homework project. Finally, students could write about the differences between their hometown now and in the past, perhaps for a local museum exhibition.
Songs can be a great source of language input. Because listening is enjoyable (subject to taste), students often don’t mind listening to songs repeatedly. Therefore they come to know the lyrics, which if containing clear examples of a language point, provide memorable examples for students. The following songs contain comparative examples: