Show, Don’t Tell: How to Teach Adjectives to ESL Students

Do you have a favorite adjective?

It’s hard for me to pick just one.

Adjectives are, by far, the best part of speech!

When used correctly, they can turn any regular old sentence into something special. Look at the two sentences below and tell me which one sounds better.

The water was blue. It was cold, but felt good after sitting in the sun. 


The water was a brilliant blue. It was chilly, but felt refreshing after baking in the bright sun. 

Obviously, the second one, right? While both sentences are good, the second one is so much more interesting and expressive!


Show, Don’t Tell: How to Teach Adjectives to ESL Students

It’s believed that the English language is made up of more words than any other language in the world. While impressive, it’s not hard to believe when you look at the number of adjectives we have and the number of synonyms we have for each word.

We English speakers like to describe our situation and surroundings in great detail. Bur for ESL students, the number of adjectives we use can be overwhelming. Take the word “pretty,” for example. We could also say:

Beautiful, attractive, lovely, appealing, cute, gorgeous, ravishing, stunning or alluring.

Of course, each adjective comes with its own unique nuance that changes the definition slightly—which is what makes adjectives great!

In order to attain a certain level of fluency and mobility within the English language, it’s important for ESL students to become familiar with the different types of adjectives. Students will need to have a firm grasp on adjectives in order to communicate successfully in English. Today, we’ll explore several categories of adjectives and how to teach adjectives in the ESL classroom.

Types of Adjectives Every ESL Student Should Be Familiar With

There are hundreds of commonly-used adjectives in the English language. To make it easier for students learning these words, try teaching adjectives in groups rather than individual, unrelated vocabulary words. Today, we’re going to look at some of these adjective categories and how you can teach them to your students. If you want a more in depth-look or quick review of the different types of adjectives, check out “7 Types of English Adjectives to Know.”

Positive Adjectives

Positive adjectives are adjectives that have an inherently positive meaning. They can be used to describe or further identify nouns and pronouns, and without positive adjectives, the English language is reduced to dry, basic sentences.

There are dozens upon dozens of positive adjectives. Words such as “grateful,” “important,” “motivated” and “pragmatic” are considered positive adjectives. It’s important for students to learn positive adjectives so that they can better express their thoughts and feelings about the world around them, people and different situations.

Note: Make sure students are aware that positive adjectives can be turned negative when “not” precedes the adjective. For example, The lecture was not engaging at all. Additionally, students should be aware that some adjectives have negative connotations and definitions themselves, such as “annoyed,” “furious” and “broken.”

Comparative Adjectives

Another important type of everyday adjective is the comparative adjective. Think about how often in our day-to-day lives we compare two or more things. For this reason, students need to become familiar with comparative adjectives and how to use them correctly in order to properly express their thoughts and ideas.

A useful formula for your students to use when thinking about comparative adjectives is: subject + verb + comparative adjective + than + object.

Remind your students that the suffix “-er” is added to the adjective to express the difference between the two nouns; for example, Your house is bigger than my house. 

Superlative Adjectives

I like to think of superlative adjectives as related to comparative adjectives.

Your ESL students may also find it easier to understand superlative adjectives in relationship to comparative adjectives.

Similarly to comparative adjectives, superlative adjectives are used to discuss a noun in relationship to other nouns. We use superlative adjectives to show that one object is the least or most, the smallest or greatest in terms of quality.

Encourage your students to memorize the following formula: subject + verb + the + superlative adjective + object. Remind your students that for regular superlative adjectives we add the suffix “-est” to the adjective.

For example, The bus is the easiest way to get downtown. 

Note: You may want to take some time to review some of the irregular superlative adjectives. For example, three syllable comparative and superlative adjectives change structure. We say “more diabolical” and “most diabolical” respectively. Likewise, there are a handful of adjectives that completely change such as “good,” which becomes “better” and “best” respectively. For a more in-depth explanation of the rules surrounding superlatives, you can show your students this post by the British Council.

Descriptive Adjectives

Descriptive adjectives are perhaps some of the most useful adjectives for ESL students to master. These are the adjectives used to describe the size, shape and color of places, people, things and ideas.

Descriptive adjectives allow writers and speakers to modify a noun and paint a vivid picture of that noun in the mind of the reader or listener. Descriptive adjectives include adjectives such as “blue,” “old,” “tall” and “soft.” For example, My brother has blond hair, but I have brown hair. 

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5 Engaging Activities for Adjective Practice

Now that we’re done covering the most common adjective categories, let’s look at ways you can get students comfortable with using them in sentences. Here are some fun activities to use in your next adjective lesson. Best of all, most of these activities can be modified for any level and age group of ESL learners.


But first, did you know that FluentU makes language learning easier and more effective? By including FluentU in your coursework, you can help students expand their vocabulary and communicate like a native English speaker. That’s because FluentU uses actual real-world material, like music, movie clips and news articles, to teach English. Instead of clunky dialogues, they learn English from actual conversations between native speakers.

Try using FluentU alongside the following activities to really get your students engaged.

1. Picture Race

Useful for Teaching: Descriptive Adjectives


Picture Race is a great game for getting your students to use adjectives. Before class, print out several pictures you want to use in the activity. If you need help finding pictures to fit the theme of your lessons, check out Pixabay. Make sure you add variety to your photographs or paintings, choosing a mixture of people, places and things. 

In class, divide your students into small teams. Each team will need a sheet of paper and a pen. At the front of the room, hold up or display one of the images you’ve prepared. The teams race against each other to come up with as many adjectives as they can to describe the image. Give them two minutes.

At the end of the two-minute mark, have each team read out their list of adjectives to the class. Teams get points for every adjective they came up with that the other teams don’t have on their lists. For example, if Team One and Team Two both have the adjective “green” on their list, both teams cross it off. However, if Team One has the adjective “bright” and the other teams do not, Team One gets a point.

Once the points are tallied, display the second picture. Continue with as many rounds as you choose. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins.

This game is great because some students may have a larger vocabulary and other students can learn from them.

2. Describe Your Best Friend

Useful for Teaching: Positive Adjectives, Comparative Adjectives, Descriptive Adjectives

This is primarily a writing activity. Students should work individually to describe their best friend.

On the board, write down “appearance,” “personality” and “compared to me.” Then, instruct the students to start by describing their best friend’s physical appearance.

  • What do they look like?
  • What color is their hair?
  • Are they tall or short?

Then, students should write a few sentences describing their friend’s personality. They’ll need to exercise their knowledge of positive adjectives to accurately describe their friend. Finally, ask them to compare themselves to their best friend using comparative adjectives.

Save time at the end of the lesson for students to read or share their descriptions with the class. Make any corrections that are needed so that the whole class can learn from the mistakes or errors.

Tip: For a variation on this activity and to get your students to practice different sets of adjectives, ask them to describe their favorite season and type of weather or to describe their favorite city.

3. Grow the Sentence

Useful for Teaching: Positive Adjectives, Comparative Adjectives, Superlative Adjectives, Descriptive Adjectives

This activity is ideal for practicing all types of adjectives, while also giving students the chance to practice the correct positioning of adjectives in various sentences.

Before class, prepare a worksheet listing various sentences with the adjectives removed.

For example: The ____ tomatoes taste _____ than the ____ peppers. 

The students will need to fill in the adjectives. If your class needs a little extra help, try providing a word bank with various adjectives for the students to choose from. In the previous example, the sentence should eventually read: The red tomatoes taste better than the green peppers. In some cases, there may be more than one right answer and that’s okay! Aim to provide 12-15 sentences and make sure you create sentences that require different types of adjectives.

After you pass out the worksheet in class, have students work individually or in small groups to complete the exercises. Don’t forget to save time at the end of class for students to share their favorite sentences, and make corrections as necessary.

4. Taboo

Useful for Teaching: Positive Adjectives, Comparative Adjectives, Superlative Adjectives, Descriptive Adjectives

This is a fun, high energy game for the whole class to enjoy!

Start by asking for a volunteer to stand in front of the class. Then, instruct the volunteer to think of an object—it can be a person, place or thing, but should generally be something most students would be able to guess.

Once the student has an image in mind, he or she should begin to describe the object using as many adjectives as they can to describe the thing they are thinking of without actually saying what the object is. The rest of the class must try to guess what the object is based on the description. You can either have students shout out answers or ask them to raise their hands with their guesses and call on them in turn. The student that correctly guesses the object goes next.

Tip: A more structured variation of this game is to prepare cards with different objects on them before class. In this way, you, the teacher, can control what objects and items are described in class. In class, the first student selects a card and must describe that object without saying what the object is.

5. Adjective Bingo

Useful for Teaching: Positive Adjectives, Comparative Adjectives, Superlative Adjectives, Descriptive Adjectives


Prepare several bingo cards with different images of objects and items. Then, in class, give a bingo card to each student or group. After all the cards have been handed out, stand at the front of the class and call out different adjectives and details about the individual objects. Give students a chance to see if they have an item that matches your description. For example, you may say “red apple.” On some bingo boards maybe you included a “red apple” and on others you included a “green apple.” Students will need to listen carefully to correctly fill in their bingo boards. If a student gets a diagonal line, vertical line, or horizontal line, they should call out “BINGO!” Make sure you check their board to ensure they successfully achieved “BINGO!”

Tip: For your more advanced students or older students, you could let them take turns being the person who calls out the descriptions.

Make Your Next Adjective Lesson a Smashing Success

Adjectives are the spices that add flavor to the English language. Everyone loves listening to a  story if it’s filled with great descriptions. And with these activities, your students will begin to master adjectives and be able to embellish their English in no time!


And One More Thing…

Looking for fun resources for teaching adjectives and other vocab? Then you’re going to love FluentU! FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into language learning experiences.

There are many different types of videos, as you can see here:


FluentU makes it easy to watch and understand native English videos with interactive captions. Tap or click on any word to see what it means, learn how to use it, hear it pronounced and more.


For example, if you tap on the word “brought,” then you see this:


You can learn any video’s vocabulary with FluentU’s fun quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.


The videos are organized by genre and level, so it’s super easy to find the ones that work for you. FluentU also keeps track of your learning, then suggests videos and examples perfect for you.

Start using FluentU on the website or download the FluentU app from the iTunes store or Google Play store.

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.

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