What are stacked adjectives?
Nothing made me feel more inculcated into my own language than the idea of stacked adjectives. As native English speakers, it’s not something we often consciously think about. Nonetheless, I’ve learned that teaching my youngest ESL students adjectival order is not only beneficial to their long-term studies, I’ve discovered a pleasurable approach that insures the lessons stick in their memory. Unlike native speakers, it has to be taught intentionally.
In an English speaker’s subconscious mind, multiple adjectives have a specific order. When they fall out of that learned order, the brain glitches and the meaning can be lost, confused, or even misconstrued.
Let me quote from Katy Waldman’s The Secret Rules of Adjective Order:
Though red big barns and big red barns are semantically identical, the second kind pleases our ears more. These tricky situations – neither pure correlation nor accumulation – generally occur when you cross the border between adjectival regions, such as size and color. When that happens, an invisible code snaps into place, and the eight categories shimmy into one magistral conga line: general opinion, then specific opinion then size then shape then age then color then provenance then material.
Thank you Katy! Think about the following sentences:
A black cat.
A big black cat.
A big black plastic cat.
A beautiful big black plastic cat.
A beautiful big old black plastic cat.
A beautiful big old black French plastic cat.
Even the simple sentence, “A black big cat” is a language pothole, difficult for an English speaker to mentally ignore, let alone read when the adjectives are out of their stacked order (did you miss it or did your brain reorder the sentence?) Figure this one out:
A yellow cotton handsome Indian new jacket.
It’s difficult to even say, much less discern what the sentence is trying to convey, coming off more like a word salad to an English speaker’s way of ordering meaning. In their proper sequence, the adjectives should be aligned thusly:
A handsome new yellow Indian cotton jacket.
How did it happen that, without any memory of having learned this, I expect my adjectives to be in a choreographed line dance with each other? It begins when we’re very young and is reinforced in numerous story and picture books, like Lillie’s Purple Plastic Purse, or The Giant Jam Sandwich.
So, don’t be afraid to start exposing your ESL students to adjectival order. In fact, I recommend that you start off very young – even before they learn how to read. With a bit of forward-thinking, it will make their elementary and junior high school English classes a little easier. If you’ve been doing chants such as, “Five Little Monkeys” or “Five Little Ducks,” you’re not only priming your kids to hear the sounds associated with numbers and plurals, but stacked adjectives as well!
Making Sentences Without Words
Start with simple nouns that begin with a consonant, like ‘cat.’ Pull out an ‘A’ card from your ABC deck. Then grab a few of your number, color, size, and emotions cards as well. (Download color and number flashcards from my online store for free!)
Start with a simple minor sentence. Then add a color adjective. Once kids understand this easy pattern, mix the cards up, and have students reorder or make new sentences themselves. It may be helpful to teach your kids that ‘A’ means ‘1’ in this context.* Don’t forget to make a small ‘period’ or ‘full stop’ card as well. And there’s no need to be all academic when explaining it! There will be plenty of time for that in their little futures. Teach a ‘period’ as a ‘bliiiing!’ or ‘ker-dunk’ or a Khoisan click of your tongue and I promise your kids will never forget to include it – to the point of annoyance.
Now, let’s add some more adjectives.
With emotions, colors, size, and an ‘A’ card, your kids have learned to make their first stacks of adjectives – and they can’t even read yet! You’re also teaching them to recognize ‘A’ as their first sight word. Like many teachers, you’ve probably been drilling a lot of vocabulary in separate flashcard sets. This exercise brings that vocabulary together into coherent and ordered meaning that visually mimics language and text. Later on, as your students move from speech to text recognition, and then to decoding language in connected text, it will be helpful to remind them of this simple exercise and the songs they used to sing when little. Let the kids make their own sentences or dictate sentences for an excellent listening exercise. Always ask the students to ‘read’ their sentences and help students who don’t yet understand that the correct order is important.
Upping the Ante
Once students are confident with ordering simple adjectives, start throwing numbers into the mix. By necessity, you’ll also be putting an emphasis on the ‘s’ sounds of plurals that they’re likely already using in songs and regular verbal exercises, like “Five Little Monkeys?” and “I’m four years old.” For more on this topic, be sure to check out my post on teaching plurals to ESL students!
Now that you’ve introduced these concepts to your kids, keep a board or table available with cards so that students can make sentences on their own. You may be surprised at what they put together! It also pays to have a bit of sympathy and patience. Trying to consciously LEARN this order must be terrible! I’m glad I have no memory of it – a sort of potty training of the brain. If you introduce this concept early on, it’s going to be easier as their studies become more sophisticated.
If you’re teaching older students, download a stacked adjective worksheet page from Stories For Young Readers, Book 2, a full textbook available on David Paul’s ETJ Book Service or the Kinney Brothers Publishing web site. The worksheet is very helpful when learning to do the Adjective Conga and includes an answer key. Again, color, number, and more flashcards are available from my Teachers-Pay-Teachers store. Please feel free to visit and download!
To learn more about early reading skills, check out my previous posts Sight Words: What, When, and How and Teaching CVC Words. You might also be interested to learn about the most common adjectives, why Big Bad Wolf follows a different adjectival order, or test your knowledge of stacked adjectives.
Good luck and enjoy!
*OK, you grammar mavens – let’s keep it simple. I understand that ‘a’ is a special kind of adjective called an indefinite article that refers to a singular noun whose specific identity is not known to the listener or reader. Unfortunately, at their age, my kids aren’t going to get that as an explanation – nor should they be expected to. I also use numbers instead of written words in sentences until they learn to read the numbers as sight words. I’m aware that this is a grammatical infraction, but I pay little heed to academic imperatives when it comes to teaching my youngest English learners. Using easy-to-understand concepts (reduced though they may be) to teach young learners is not damaging anyone. If you are so inclined to always be aligned to Elements of Style, simply put the words on the front of all your cards and you’ll be covered.