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Describing words and how they help your child

Describing words (or adjectives), are words that describe properties of people (tall man), objects (red car), places (quiet neighbourhood) and events (boring meeting). While all of us use adjectives in our everyday life, they are not as common as nouns and verbs. This means that children do not hear these words being used frequently, and many children therefore struggle to master these words; in particular, children learning English as a second language or children with special needs.

Even though adjectives are infrequently used, they can be essential to conveying the meaning of some sentences (for example, 'Get me the blue shirt please'). Sometimes, we use adjectives just to make the sentence more interesting (for example, 'It was a dark, spooky night when I went looking for my sister.')

If a child is not familiar with describing words, he can struggle to convey meaning through his sentences. If he wants to play with his 'big' car and not with the 'small' car, not knowing to use the words 'big' and 'small' (which are adjectives), can cause frustration and tantrums. In school, a child can come across as disobedient or naughty if he's not able to follow the teacher's direction ('Go put your lunch bag by the big cupboard'.)

Children start saying their first words at 12 months, but it's not until about 20 months of age that they begin learning to use adjectives. The first adjectives that are mastered tend to be those ones that can be seen or felt (eg, big vs small). The more intangible ones (eg, interesting vs boring) come later. Developmentally, 'big' and 'small' are among the earliest describing words to be learnt.

So, how to teach a child adjectives?

First, start using them as frequently as you can in your own utterances. Where possible, use the adjectives in contrast (for example, 'This is a long train; that is a short train.) Remember that when teaching adjectives, you need to teach the early ones that are mastered first. (Our 50 adjectives flash cards are arranged in such a sequence.)

There are other fun games that you can use to help teach your child these words.

1) Take two 'types' of objects - for example, big and small balls. Arrange these into two piles. Each time you take a big ball, say 'big ball' and put it in the respective section.

2) Place some objects (eg, a brick, a ball, a toy car) in a pillowcase. Ask the child to feel the object and describe it; you can start the game by describing an object you feel as something round, something sharp, something soft etc.

3) Take some objects and play a game where each person thinks of an adjective to describe it. For example, an apple can be red, round, shiny, tasty, sweet etc.

4) This is a good game to play with an older child. Get some images of everyday objects. (You can use our Nouns, Decks 1 and 2.) Write down some adjectives on pieces of paper. Give your child one adjective and 4 noun cards. Your child tries to match the adjective with any of the cards. If he can come up with a sensible combination, he gets a point.

Create situations where your child has to use adjectives, to make himself understood. You can do this by offering choices -'Do you want your long, sparkly dress or your short, sparkly one?'

Above all, be patient. Remember that adjectives, such as colours are learnt over a period of time. If you want to teach your child colours, start with 3 or 4 basic colours and revise these frequently. When revising them, remember to use these together with a noun; for example, a red starfish, a blue shark etc. (Our Colour Match early years learning game gives you the basic tools for teaching colours.)

The Brainy English app has 100 adjectives that your child can learn in a fun, interactive interactive way. You can download the app here.

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