We compare, contrast, and rank things in everyday life whether we are talking about our favorite things, shopping, or analyzing academic material. A solid understanding of comparative and superlative adjectives will help EFL learners perform tasks involving these critical thinking skills while using English. This month’s Teacher’s Corner explores ways to help learners discover general rules related to these grammatical forms and also shares ideas for encouraging learners to use comparative and superlative adjectives during communicative activities. Before we dive into this month’s activities, let’s briefly review (and compare!) these two forms.
When comparing a characteristic of two things, the information can be expressed in three ways:
- Inferiority: A displays the characteristic X to a lesser degree than B
- Superiority: A displays the characteristic X to a greater degree than B
- Equality: A and B display the characteristic X in the same manner or quantity
This month we will examine the first two comparison categories. According to corpus-based studies (e.g., Knoch, 2004), superiority comparisons are used more frequently in English than inferiority comparisons.
Inferiority comparisons, the less common structure, take the following form:
- A is less adjective than B
Example: The black suitcase is less heavy than the red suitcase.
Superiority comparisons take one of these two forms:
- A is adjective + -er than B
Example: The red suitcase is lighter than the black suitcase.
- A is more adjective than B
Example: My Physics class is more difficult than my Art class.
General “rules of thumb” for deciding which of the two forms to use in a superiority comparison depend on factors such as the number of syllables in the adjective and the adjective’s spelling. Please see the first Teacher’s Corner activity for more information on these rules and a task in which learners use language examples to inductively determine the guidelines. While such “rules of thumb” are helpful, teachers should also let learners know that they may encounter native speakers who use the forms interchangeably (for instance, Tom is sicker than Katie. or Tom is more sick than Katie., although the first sentence is prescriptively correct). Teachers must also make students aware of irregular forms that are exceptions to the rules. These irregular forms must be memorized. Common examples include: good -> better, bad -> worse, and far -> farther.
Unlike comparatives, which provide only relative information about the two things being compared, superlatives compare one thing in relation to all other items in a group. The focus item in a superlative comparison is either ranked at the absolute top or bottom of a descriptive scale. Consider the following examples:
- Comparative: The brown house is more expensive than the red house.
(We don’t know how the brown house compares to any other house in terms of cost.)
- Superlative: The Carolina Reaper is the hottest chili pepper in the world.
(We know that compared to every other chili pepper, the Carolina Reaper ranks highest on the “heat” scale.)
Superlative adjectives fall into two categories, inferiority and superiority, which take the following forms:
- Inferiority: used for the “bottom of the scale” in relation to the quality being discussed
o A is the least adjective
Example: Sam is the least experienced candidate for the job.
- Superiority: used for the “top of the scale” in relation to the quality being discussed.
o A is the adjective + -est
Example: The cheetah is the fastest land animal.
o A is the most adjective
Example: In 2014, vanilla was the most popular ice cream flavor in the United States.
The guidelines for determining which superlative adjective form to use in a superiority comparison are similar to those for comparative adjectives; see the first Teacher’s Corner activity for more details. As with comparative adjectives, teachers should draw learners’ attention to common irregular superlative adjectives forms that require memorization such as good -> best, bad -> worst, and far -> farthest. Also, it can be helpful to highlight the use and placement of the definite article the with superlative adjectives (the brightest star, the most challenging course, the least expensive car).
Knoch, U. (2004). A new look at teaching comparisons – a corpus-based approach. Journal of Language Learning, 2(2), 171-185.
This week’s activity features a consciousness-raising (CR) task in which learners use example sentences containing the target form to discover general grammar rules about comparative adjectives.
Apart from focusing on grammatical forms, this CR task supplies two additional benefits. The teacher makes students aware of the two different form options and then invites them to solve a grammar “puzzle” by examining language examples containing the target feature. The challenge of discovery-based (inductive) rule formulation can be more motivating and interesting to students than when the teacher simply gives them a grammar rule and asks them to apply it in practice exercises. Additionally, since students complete the CR task in pairs, it not only provides explicit, inductive grammar instruction, but also serves as a communicative activity. For more information about CR tasks, be sure to check out Heather Benucci’s 2013 Shaping the Way We Teach English webinar “Discovering Grammar with Consciousness-raising Tasks.”
Note: This CR activity does not address every possible prescriptive rule associated with comparative adjective forms; instead it focuses on general guidelines. Specific topics like the spelling changes needed to preserve vowel quality in one-syllable consonant-vowel-consonant adjectives (e.g., big -> bigger not *biger) must be addressed separately.
Lower Intermediate and above
Grammar: comparative adjectives in superiority comparisons; the activity’s content can be modified for superlative adjectives in superiority comparisons (see the “Notes” section at the end of the activity for more details)
During this activity, students will:
- Discover general rules for when to use “adjective + -er/-r/-ier than” versus “more adjective than” by examining sentences containing comparative adjectives in superiority comparisons.
- Discuss and compare the price and quality of two products or services based on information in print advertisements (Note: “ad” is a common shortened form of “advertisement”).
- Become aware of two common irregular comparative forms: good -> better and bad -> worse
- Whiteboard, chalkboard, or large pieces of paper posted on the wall
- Markers or chalk
- Picture of a smart phone and an older basic phone (a “flip” mobile phone, a mobile phone with buttons); you can draw these items on the board if desired. Optional pictures are provided.
- CR Task - Comparative Adjectives Worksheet- Answers (.pdf)
- Pencils or pens
- CR Task - Comparative Adjectives Worksheet (.pdf)
- Print out or prepare images of a smart phone and a basic phone.
- Copy or print out the CR Task - Comparative Adjectives Worksheet, ideally making enough copies for each student to have his/her own copy. To save paper, print two-sided worksheets; students working in pairs can share a copy.
- Display the mobile phone pictures on the board (a new smart phone and an older, more basic feature phone). Label them “smart phone” and “basic phone.”
- Ask students to provide adjectives to describe each phone (expected responses may include: cool, new, modern, fancy, expensive, old, cheap, etc.). List the adjectives on the board under each picture. Ensure that students provide a combination of one-syllable, two-syllable, two-syllable that end in -y, and three (or more)-syllable adjectives; use elicitation as needed to achieve this variety. For example, you might say, “How can we describe something that costs a lot of money?” to elicit expensive, and then ask, “Which of these phone is expensive?”
- Ask students how they would compare the qualities of the two phones in a sentence. You might give examples, such as: The smart phone is more modern than the basic phone. (write the sentence on the board). Then say, “What if we want to talk about price? What word can we use to describe something that doesn’t cost much money? (trying to elicit “cheap”) So, we can say the The basic phone is cheaper than the smart phone.” (write the sentence on the board).
- Prompt students to compare the two sentences on the board: “Hmm…we used more modern to make a comparison in the first sentence, but cheaper to compare the phones in the second sentence. These sentences have the same purpose, right? To compare? Maybe there is a rule that can help us know how to make these comparative adjectives. Let’s find out.” (Note: leave the sample sentences and adjective lists on the board; you will return to this information after the consciousness-raising activity).
- Put students into pairs and ask student volunteers to pass out the CR Task - Comparative Adjectives worksheets.
- Ask students if they have seen advertisements like the ones on the worksheet in newspapers, in magazines, or on the Internet for products like TVs, cell phones, etc. Ask follow up questions like: “What do you do when you look at ads? Do you look at more than one item? What information do you look at?”
- Explain the CR Task instructions:
- Tell students they are going to work with their partners to the examine advertisements in the worksheet (Part A). Explain that there are sentences below each set of ads that compare the two products. Explain that for each sentence in Part A, the pair must identify and write down the base form of the comparative adjective. Model the example in the first sentence.
- Explain that in Part B, pairs will work together to put each base form and associated comparative form in the appropriate column based on the number of syllables in the base form. Model an example and remind students that they can use tapping or clapping when saying a word aloud to count the number of syllables it contains.
- Tell students in Part C they must examine the sentences, underline the comparative adjectives, and then decide which three sentences use the comparative adjectives incorrectly. Pairs should mark these sentences with an “X.”
- Explain that in the final section, Part D, pairs should review the information in Parts A-C to complete the rules for using comparative adjectives.
- Circulate and monitor students’ progress as they complete the task, providing assistance as needed. If some pairs finish more quickly than others, direct them to use the rules they developed in Part D to correct the incorrect sentences in Part C.
- When students are finished, lead a brief whole-class review, and confirm students developed accurate rules in Part D. Provide clarification and feedback, as needed.
- Direct students’ attention to the two sentences on the board from the beginning of the activity. Ask students to explain why different comparative adjectives forms were used in the two example sentences (cheaper vs. more modern). Read the two sentences aloud, emphasizing the word than (using your voice and underlining than on board) in each sentence, to remind students that per the rules they found, they will use than after the adjective to compare two things.
- Have student volunteers produce the comparative forms for other adjectives listed on the board during the initial brainstorming session. Provide clarification, as needed.
- Write good and bad at the bottom of the list of adjectives. Ask students: “How many syllables does good have? How about bad? Based on the rules you discovered, what is the form for these words?” (expect: *gooder and *badder). Explain that the rules do not apply to these common adjectives, that they are irregular. Write good -> better and bad-> worse on board; ask students to chorally repeat the forms. Ask: “What do we know about irregular forms?” (expect: they don’t follow rules, they have to be memorized). Explain that there are a few other common irregular comparative adjectives, but for now these are the only two they have to memorize.
Modifying the CR task for superlative adjectives in superiority comparisons: The guidelines for when to use “the adjective + -est” versus “the most adjective” superlative forms are similar to those for comparative adjectives. You can create your own CR task worksheet for superlative adjectives by adding two more advertisements to each set in Part A and by modifying the associated example sentences to include superlative forms (e.g., The Compass TV is the cheapest.). Students can perform the same syllable-based charting process in Part B, the hypothesis testing in Part C (sentences will need to by modified to contain superlatives), and the scaffolded rule formation in part D. The scaffolded rules you supply might look like this:
Complete the rules for using superlative adjectives:
- 1. For one-syllable adjectives like clear,
add the ending ___(-est)______ to the word.
* If the one-syllable word ends in ‘e’ like large,
add the ending ___(-st)____ to the word.
2. For two-syllable adjectives that end in ‘y’ like happy,
change the ending to ___(-iest)_____.
3. For other adjectives with two or more syllables like convenient,
add the word __(most)____ before the adjective.
4. Use the word ___(the)____ before the adjective when using superlative adjectives.
- Intermediate and above
- Grammar: comparative adjectives and/or superlative adjectives
- Speaking: comparing and contrasting, explaining an opinion
During these game variations, students will:
- Game 1
- Use comparative adjectives while describing differences among a group of related things
- Use superlative adjectives while comparing and discussing related items
- Give explanations to support their opinions
- Whiteboard, chalkboard, or large pieces of paper posted on the wall
- Markers or chalk
- Pencils or pens
- Blank writing paper
- “Picture This – Same & Different” cards (.pdf) - only certain cards are needed, see the “Preparation” section for more details
- Access to a clock, watch, or other timing device
PreparationPrint out and copy the following Picture This – Same & Different cards (18 cards total):
3 – Eat Your Vegetables
5 – A Trip to the Zoo
9 – Beverages
11 – Let’s Play
13 – Time for School
15 – Personal Items
17 – Snack Time!
19 – Hobbies
23 – Bugs
25 – Tools
29 – Outdoor Places
31 – Furniture
33 – Transportation
35 – The Great Outdoors
39 – Everyday Foods
41 – Musical Instruments
43 – At the Market
45 – Outdoor Gear
You only need to print the cards that have the picture sets, not the cards with text questions.
Ideally, each group would have its own deck of cards. To save paper, adjust your printer’s settings to print 4-6 cards per page and have student volunteers cut up and sort out decks of cards before the activity. Also, two groups can share a deck of cards and swap cards when fresh content is needed.
Procedures – Game 1: Comparative Adjectives
- If desired, conduct a brief review of comparative adjective form and use prior to beginning the game. You can also play the game after initial instruction on this grammar topic.
- Put students (the players) into groups of 4–5; have them sit in circles. Have student volunteers pass out a deck (or a partial deck) of “Same and Different” picture cards to each group. Players should place the cards facedown.
- Ask each group to choose one player to be the “Timer,” making sure he or she can see a clock or other timing device.
- The Timer draws a picture card from the deck and shows it to the group.
- The other players get 1 minute to examine and compare the pictures, silently thinking about how the items are different. The Timer tells the players when to start and stop the silent brainstorming process. During the brainstorming time, students should think about adjectives that can describe these differences; you can give students the option to write down the adjectives.
- Next, for 3 minutes, players (except for the Timer) take turns going around the circle naming one difference they observed among the pictures. The Timer keeps track of when to start and end play, giving the group verbal cues (“Ready, go!” and “Time’s up!”).
- Players should state their observations about the pictures in complete sentences using comparative adjectives. Players should not repeat a response given by another person.
- After each player gives his or her response, the others give it a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” (or other locally appropriate hand gesture signifying “Okay/Not okay”) depending on whether they think the response used the comparative adjective correctly. To reach consensus on the correct form, players should briefly discuss any responses that some people deem unacceptable.
- Players get 1 point for each acceptable answer. Responses that exactly repeat a previous a previous answer get a “thumbs down”/0 points. If a player can’t think of a response, they can say “skip” and receive 0 points for that turn. Players keep track of their own points on a piece of paper during game play.
Example Play for a 5-person Group:
Timer: Ready, begin!
Player 1: Fish is smellier than bread. (Thumbs up – 1 point)
Player 2: Fruit is tastier than fish. (Thumbs up – 1 point)
Player 3: Chicken is expensiver than bread (Thumbs down – 0 points; incorrect form, should be “more expensive”)
Player 4: Eggs are healthier than bread. (Thumbs up – 1 point)
Player 1: Fruit is tastier than fish. (Thumbs down – 0 points; repeated answer)
Player 2: Eating chicken is messier than eating bread. (Thumbs up - 1 point)
Player 3: Um… I can’t think of anything. Skip. (0 points)
…and so on.
Optional: To make the game more competitive, have two groups compete against each other while working from the same picture card. Groups complete the brainstorming separately, and then they come together, taking turns giving responses. The Timer from one group remains the Timer, and the Timer from the other group keeps score for both teams. All other members of both teams give responses and participate in the brief thumbs up/thumbs down review for each answer. The two groups can play through several cards, switching the Timer and Scorekeeper roles after each round. The group with the most points when the time allotted for play is up wins.
Procedures – Game 2: Superlative Adjectives
- Before the activity, write the Superlatives Question Bank (see Step 5) on the board. If desired, cover the question bank until you are ready to use it.
- If desired, conduct a brief review of superlative adjective form and use prior to beginning the game. You can also play the game after initial instruction on this grammar topic.
- Put students (the players) into groups of 4–5; have them sit in circles. Ensure each group has a deck (or a partial deck) of “Same and Different” picture cards. Players should place the cards facedown.
- Ask each group to choose one player to be the first “Question Master,” making sure he or she can see a clock or other timing device.
- The Question Master draws a picture card, examines the pictures, and then develops a question about items on the card with help from the “Superlatives Question Bank” on the board. The Question Master then shows the card to the other players and tells them the question.
Superlatives Question Bank
Which (item type) is the most or least ______? Why?
- useful / useful where we live
- familiar to you
- important to you in everyday life
- Important in the world today
- helpful in an emergency
- exciting / boring
- (choose your own superlative adjective)
Which (item type) is the ______? Why?
- (choose your own superlative adjective)
Example for a 4-person Group:
Question Master: Remember, the question is “Which communication tool is the most useful? Why?” Maria, you’re first.
Player 1: To me, the radio is the most useful tool because you can use it in an emergency without electricity.
Player 2: I think T.V. is the most useful tool. T.V. gives us news and entertainment.
Player 3: E-mail is the most useful tool because it lets you communicate with people all over the world.
Question Master: I agree with (Player 2). T.V. is the most useful tool. T.V. gives us text, image, and sound information.
- Once everyone has shared his or her answer, the person to left of the previous Question Master becomes the new Question Master, and the process begins again with a new card.
- Play can continue for a set amount of time or until all groups have played a pre-designated number of rounds.
- During game play, circulate and monitor students’ progress. Answer questions and provide support as needed.
Note: Game 2 does not give players points; it simply provides a context for students to communicate using the target grammar point and creative thinking. If you’d like to add a competitive element, include the thumbs up/thumbs down evaluation and point system to rate grammatical accuracy described in the Game 1 instructions.