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Noun phrases – How to teach them without misconceptions

If we oversimplify teaching noun phrases then children will carry their misconceptions with them throughout school and beyond, says Rachel Clarke...

  • Noun phrases – How to teach them without misconceptions

We’ve all been told that adding an adjective before a noun will tell us more about that noun and help our readers visualise our descriptions, but is that all there is to know about noun phrases?

In the first instance, we need to recognise the role of nouns as words that name people, places, objects and ideas. Then, almost as I’ve suggested above, we can begin to build noun phrases by adding further words to tell our readers more about those nouns.

The thing is – it’s not just about adjectives. Let’s start with the noun ‘gate’ and look at how we can add further words to create a noun phrase.

gate (noun)
a gate (noun phrase)
the red gate (noun phrase)
a gate with a yellow handle (noun phrase)
the red school gate with a yellow handle (noun phrase)

First off, it’s worth noting that once we attach a determiner to a noun, we’ve created a noun phrase. We should also note that determiners is a very broad term that includes words such as a, an, the, some, those and even numbers such as one.

Quite understandably this can seem a little mind-bending, which I suspect is something to do with being told that noun phrases are formed by adding adjectives to nouns.

‘The red gate’ feels like a good, solid noun phrase, and so it is. It specifies the colour of the gate, which really helps the reader to visualise it. And if you want to examine the word categories being used, it consists of a determiner, an adjective and a noun.

Moving on to ‘the red school gate’ the noun ‘gate’ has been yet further expanded. Not only do we know about its colour, we also know what type of gate it is: a school gate. It’s a cracking example for busting the myth that an expanded noun phrase needs to include at least two adjectives.

Red is certainly an adjective, but school is a noun which is being used to give us some very specific information about the gate. Sometimes we can add information after   noun in order to create a noun phrase.

This is what we see in the examples ‘a gate with a yellow handle’ and ‘the red school gate with a yellow handle’. In both of these examples a prepositional phrase has been added to the noun ‘gate’ in order to describe it in greater detail.

They’re both expanded noun phrases even though one has very little information before the noun and the other has lots.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will also have noticed that ‘a yellow handle’ is in fact another noun phrase used within the prepositional phrase to tell us more about the gate!

How to teach noun phrases

It’s a lot to take in, but once you’ve tuned your eyes into spotting the different ways that words can be added to a noun to form noun phrases, you’ll be spotting them everywhere, including in your children’s writing.

So, what can you do to teach children about noun phrases? Here are a few of my favourites:

  • Use picture books that include detailed images. Ask children to label the nouns in the images and then to expand them to form noun phrases. This is easy to differentiate to match the stage and age of the learners so that younger children add adjectives, whereas older children write expanded noun phrases that use prepositional phrases after the noun.
  • Provide the class with a partially completed noun phrase, eg the red school gate with… Take turns to complete the noun phrase. It doesn’t matter if the noun phrase is silly or doesn’t make total sense, it’s all about learning a structure that they recognise and replicate in their own writing.
  • Challenge children to find noun phrases in the titles of books in the reading area eg The Cat in the Hat, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Little Prince. Children could sort the titles into those that add information before the noun and those that add information after the noun.
  • Create noun phrase pyramids like the one in this article. Challenge children to select and use their noun phrases within sentences. You can add rules such as: use your noun phrase in a sentence that starts with a fronted adverbial, or: use your noun phrase within dialogue.
  • Provide children with extracts from texts that include lots of noun phrases. Ask them to mark the noun phrases. Extend the task by asking them to expand the noun phrases further such as by adding a prepositional phrase or adding further information before the noun.

Where to find noun phrases

One of the most important things to bear in mind when teaching any aspect of grammar is that it doesn’t stand alone or exist in a bubble. Noun phrases are an essential part of sentences and one of the best places to find great sentences is in authentic children’s books.

Noun phrases are such a key part of writing that you won’t struggle to find examples. However, some books are particularly good to share with children at different ages and stages of development.

1 | Red Rockets and Rainbow Jelly

by Sue Heap
This is the perfect starter text for the youngest children. Over the course of the book, children see how descriptions are improved by adding adjectives. It’s also a great book for teaching children to use ‘and’ to join words and phrases.

2 | Titch

by Pat Hutchins
This book contains lots of easy to replicate noun phrases where the expansion comes before the noun.

3 | The Three Little Wolves and The Big Bad Pig, by Eugene Trivizas

From the title onwards, this book oozes with noun phrases expanded both before and after the noun. As a twisted traditional tale it delights readers and is certainly not beyond the interest level of children in KS2.

4 | Firebird

by Saviour Pirotta
This one of my all-time favourite books for teaching noun phrases expanded with prepositional phrases. It’s also an excellent book for learning about traditional tales from other parts of the world.

5 | Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy

by Lynley Dodd
Surprisingly, I’m not suggesting this book for the youngest children but instead for the oldest. Each character’s name is an expanded noun phrase where the expansion comes after the noun.

To make things even more challenging, you’ll see prepositions, non-finite clauses and similes all being used to expand the names of the characters. It’s incredible stuff.

Director of the Primary English literacy consultancy, Rachel has over 20 years’ experience in primary education, in which time she has been a SENCO, English subject lead and deputy headteacher.

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