How to teach comparative and superlative adjectives

Summary: Teaching ideas and stimulating practice activities for adjectives with more, most, -er and - est.

By:|Audience: Teachers |Category:Teaching English

I’m going to break a recent pattern with my articles on this site by not saying that “big bigger biggest”, “interesting more interesting most interesting” etc needs more class time. For one thing, most textbooks spend quite enough time on this point. In addition, many mistakes such as “biger” and “more smaller” are also made by native English speaking children without causing any misunderstanding, and most books already have quite communicative and stimulating speaking tasks on this point. However, there are some contexts such as presentations, IELTS Academic Writing Task 1 and FCE Speaking Part Two where this language comes in particularly useful. In those and other situations students often need extra language explained below such as “far” and “slightly” that books don’t always present. And of course an extra communicative activity or two can’t hurt when planning a lesson! 

This article concentrates on presenting and practising comparative and superlative forms together, which makes a lot of sense when students have often already memorised “long longer longest” and many practice activities for one of the forms naturally brings up the other. However, lower level and/ or younger classes can often benefit from splitting up the two grammar points, as this helps to simplify the lessons and to provide revision of comparative forms when the topic of superlatives comes around later. There are therefore also other articles on teaching comparative forms and teaching superlative forms separately on this site.

 

What students need to know about comparative and superlative adjectives

The first thing students need to know is how to construct comparative and superlative forms. There are no rules which aren’t broken and many adjectives have more than one acceptable form, but there are patterns which are worth knowing. Very basically, short words generally change to “+er/est” and long words change to “more/ most +” (presumably because “petrifying” is quite long enough already and sounds silly as “petrifyinger”). However, most words ending in “-y” change to “-ier/-iest”.

More specifically, one syllable words almost always change to “+er/est” (but with exceptions such as “more fun/ the most fun” and sometimes with the spelling changes below) and words with three or more syllables almost always change to “more/ most +” (but with exceptions such as some words ending in “-y” still changing to “-ier/-iest”).

Two-syllable words can go either way, and with quite a lot of two-syllable words both “-er” and “more” are used by different native speakers. However, I have found that “more/ most +” as in “more/ most careful” is more common than “+er/est” in the most useful examples for my students, so I usually include more examples of that pattern in my lessons.

The only other grammar point that might need explaining is doubled letters in the comparative and superlative, something that happens with a stressed short vowel sound followed by a single consonant (“big” becoming “bigger” etc). This is because otherwise the “-er” and “-est” at the end of the word would change the vowel sounds in the same way as “magic E” and make the pronunciations of “biger” and “hotest” “baiger” and “hoatest”, in the same way that “bige” would be pronounced “baig” and “hote” would be “hoat”. This is the same change for the same reason as in “running” and “spotted” (as “runing” and “spoted” would be pronounced “rooning” and “spoated”). Long vowel sounds and diphthongs are not affected by Magic E (“short” and “shorte” being pronounced just the same), and so there is no need to add another consonant sound when adding “-er” or “-est” apart from with short vowels (so it’s simply “shorter” and “shortest”).

Students are often aware of the existence of these rules and are unlikely to stop making mistakes with the forms however long you spend on them, so I tend to very quickly move onto the much more important and neglected topic of collocations with comparative and superlative forms. With comparative forms these are, in approximate order of how big the difference between the two things is:

  • very slightly/ a tiny bit + more…/…er
  • a bit/ a little/ a little bit/ slightly + more…/…er
  • somewhat + more…/….er
  • quite a lot/ considerably/ substantially + more…/…er
  • a lot/ much/ far + more…/…er

 

With superlative forms collocations include:

  • the most…/ the …est + by far/ by a long way
  • clearly + the most…/ the …est
  • the most…/ the …est + by a substantial margin/ by a considerable margin
  • the most…/ the …est + but not by far/ by a small margin
  • the most…/ the …est + but only just

Expressions like “the second warmest” and “the third tallest” might also be useful.

 

Typical student mistakes with these forms are mainly to do with using collocations that should only go with plain adjectives, such as:

  • quite bigger X
  • very bigger X
  • extremely biggest X

 

As I said above, I spend much more time on collocations like these than on how to make comparative and superlative forms. As I tell my students, this language is vital if you don’t want to make pointless statements like “That skyscraper is taller than my house”. In addition, using collocations is a great way for students to distinguish themselves from lower level students and to make up for any inevitable mistakes with the use of “-er” etc, especially in language exams like FCE and IELTS. This is also your best hope for stopping students saying “more larger”, as this is often because they actually want to say “much larger”.

Most communicative activities with comparative and superlative forms tend to bring up other comparing and contrasting forms like “less…”, “the least…”, “(not) as… as…”, “in (complete) contrast”, “however” and “whereas”, and I tend to also teach at least a couple of these in most classes on comparative and superlative forms.

 

How to present comparative and superlative adjectives

Perhaps the most common way to present this grammar point is through a written or spoken text comparing things, e.g. a business meeting where managers consider three candidates for a job or a review of some new smartphones. After answering the usual comprehension questions, students are asked to find comparative and/ or superlative forms in the texts and then to make generalisations about how they are formed. Students can then speak on the same or similar topics in the practice stage.

This text-based method usually works reasonably well. In a perfect world the texts would include enough examples of each pattern for students to make the “rules” but also to notice the exceptions (“more fun”, etc), while also allowing them to find and rank suitable collocations (“far more…” being higher than “quite a lot more…”, etc). However, trying to include all the necessary language in a single text would obviously make for something completely unrealistic where almost every sentence has these forms. You might therefore have to include just one exception in the whole text and just a few of the collocations. When students have found the rules, the single exception and the sample collocations, you can present the other collocations and exceptions another way.

Alternatively, you can do away with texts and get students to use some suggested phrases with one of the practice activities below in the first part of the lesson, then ask them to remember and generalise about the comparative and/ or superlative forms that they just used, in a kind of variation on TTT (Test Teach Test) that I call URA (Use Recall Analyse).

 

How to practise comparative and superlative forms

As mentioned above, this article only includes practice activities which need both comparative and superlative forms, with more specific activities for each of those two forms available in other articles on Usingenglish.com.

 

Comparative and superlative drilling games

As mentioned above, students quite often already know some of these forms in the typical “small smaller smallest” drilling pattern (in the same way that they probably learnt “buy bought bought”, “go went gone”, etc). Although there is obviously no communication in such practice, I tend to encourage it as a way of students learning comparative forms as they come across them, rather than trying to apply rules every time that they want to use these forms (which is obviously much slower and is prone to break down due to the many exceptions). The only major change that I would make to that way of learning these forms is to always insist that students say “the” with superlatives (“boring, more boring, the most boring”). I sometimes also get them to say “than” with the comparative as we drill them (“warm, warmer than, the warmest”, etc). I then add drilling games such as those below to make it fun enough to practise until it starts to stick.

 

Comparative and superlative drilling games

Comparative and superlative tennis/ volleyball

One student “serves” by saying an adjective such as “Sad!” and a student on the other side of the desk or room says the comparative form to “return” (“Sadder!”). A student on the first side can then return again with the superlative (“Saddest!”). If there are no mistakes up to that point, the next person returns by starting with a new adjective (“Interesting!)”.

This game can be played with pairs of students or with two teams against each other. It can be played with a real ball going back and forth across the room or desk (being rolled if you have limited room or the students might go wild), but it works almost as well with other things like a ball of paper or an eraser, or with nothing physical at all. The turn goes back and forth until someone makes a mistake, pauses too long or has problems handling the ball (if you are using one). You can score by the rules of tennis, table tennis, badminton or volleyball, or just make up your own scoring system. Alternatively, you can just let the team who won the last rally serve next time without any actually scoring. If someone challenges the other side with something they also don’t know the answer to, I tend to score against that side. If we are playing with a ball which bounces such as a beachball, I let students bounce it up and down as long as they like while thinking of the next thing, but actually catching it or holding it means they lose the point.

 

Comparative and superlative stackinggame

Especially with students who go crazy with ball games or waste lots of time with their awful ball handling skills, I sometimes play basically the same game, but with students taking turns saying plain adjective, comparative and then superlative as they add blocks to a tower. As with the ball games above, students lose points if they make a mistake, take too long, or challenge the other students with an adjective which they also don’t know the comparative and superlative for. And in this case they also lose that round if the tower falls down.

The drawing and miming games below are also basically drilling games, but with a little more context.

 

Comparative and superlative miming games

Students mime “small, smaller, the smallest”, “fat, fatter than, the fattest”, etc. You can simply get the whole class to do the actions while drilling the forms, in order to make drilling more fun and to add some context to make the meaning clear. You can also make some games out of miming comparative and superlative forms. The first game idea is for the teacher or a student to mime “tall, taller, the tallest”, “painful, more painful, the most painful”, etc for the people watching to guess. You can also do the opposite, getting students to race to mime the right thing (and perhaps repeat what you said) when you shout out “short, shorter than, the shortest”. This can also be made more like the drilling games above by splitting the forms up. For example, if someone says (and perhaps mimes) “sad”, the other students race to mime and shout out “sadder, the saddest”.

 

Comparative and superlative drawing games

These games are almost the same as the miming games above, but with a pen or pencil replacing bodily movement. In the guessing version, someone draws pictures representing “thin, thinner, the thinnest”, “scary, scarier, the scariest” etc on the board and other people race to shout the right three forms out. In the racing version, everyone rushes to draw and say or write “hairy, hairier, the hairiest” after a drawn, written and/ or spoken prompt from the teacher or a classmate.

The third possibility is Comparative and Superlative Drawing Challenge, in which someone is challenged to draw something matching a superlative like “The angriest teacher” or “The most luxurious hotel”. After they make their attempt, someone else tries to draw an even angrier teacher etc, after which the class decide which one of the two is more extreme, using comparative forms to make their judgement. Note that this game can take quite a lot of silent drawing time, so it’s best to cut down on that as much as you can, e.g. setting the initial drawing task for homework, having strict time limits and/ or getting the class working on several challenges at the same time.

 

Comparative and superlative adjectives communicative activities

Comparative and superlative discuss and agree

Students use the phrases and/ or topics that they are given to try to make and agree on opinion sentences like “The countryside is actually only slightly quieter than the city”, “Moving to cities is quite a lot better for the environment than living spread out across the country” and “This city is the second or third safest capital in Europe”. This activity works with almost any language and topic, and if you do it with the topic of language learning (“…. is more effective than… for improving…” etc) it can be a good way into the topic of learner training.

 

Comparative and superlative make me say yes personalised questions game

Students ask each other Yes/ No questions with comparative and superlative forms like “Are you the second tallest in your family?” and “Is your mother more talkative than your father?” and get one point if their partner says “Yes” (but no points if they say “No” or “I don’t know”). To make for more of a range of language, tell them that they can’t use the same adjective twice unless they use different collocations with the adjective.

 

The most in the world warmer and cooler numbers guessing game

Make cards with data on some record breaking people and things, such as “The richest woman in the world, Ms…, has… dollars” and “The longest river in Europe, the River…, is… kilometres long”. Students turn those figures into questions like “How many dollars does the richest person in the world, Mr…, have?” to test their partner with, then give hints like “No, he is much richer” and “No, he is slightly poorer” until their partner gets exactly the right number (making it a bit like the finding people blindfolded children’s game Warmer Cooler, hence the name of this activity). This game is also great for practising pronunciation of numbers.

 

Superlative and comparative challenge

Ask students to work in threes. Give students a list of adjectives which are all quite subjective like “beautiful”, “disgusting”, “pointless”, “boring” and “fun”. One student should make a phrase with a superlative like “Angelina Jolie is the most beautiful woman over 40” and someone in their class should contradict them with a comparative, e.g. “I think Queen Elizabeth is more beautiful than Angelina Jolie”. The two argue about those two choices as long as they like, then the third person in their group chooses one of the two.

The same game also works for recommendations such as “The most romantic restaurant near here is…”

 

Comparative and superlative stories and storytelling activities

There are a few picture books with both comparative and superlative forms such as Big Bigger Biggest Adventure by Kate Banks and Pig Pigger Piggest by Rick Walton, but I’m surprised there aren’t more. I have therefore put up two of my own on this site, one based around the structure “John wrote a long poem, Harry wrote a longer poem, and Graham wrote the longest poem in the whole world” and the other with the structure “His eyebrows are long, his nose hair is longer, and his nose is the longest in the world.” You can also make up or ask students to make up stories with structures like “He’s not the strongest in the world, but he’s stronger than my kitten” or “He got stronger and stronger until he was the strongest person in…” As in books, the (tricky) secret to a good story is a good conclusion.

 

Comparative and superlative you must say yes

Students ask each other questions about their families like “Are you the angriest person in your family?” and “Is your father stricter than your mother?” and answer “Yes” to all of them. Perhaps after follow up questions like “What do you do when you are angry?”, they guess if the initial “Yes” answer was true or not.

 

Superlatives and comparatives in the classroom

Students get points for making true statements comparing things and/ or people in the class that no one else has said yet, e.g. one point for “My desk is lower than the teacher’s desk”. If you want to encourage more of a range of language, you could give double points for also using collocations such as “by far” and/or forbid using the same adjective twice. With very competitive classes, you can encourage personal statements like “I can jump further than Pedro” and “I am the second tallest in the class”.

 

Comparisons in groups

In groups of three or four, students make sentence which they are think are true like “I’m the tallest in this group” and “My father is much older than Juan’s father”, then ask questions like “How tall are you?” and “How old is your father?” to check. To prompt more complex language, you can give them a list of words and expressions that they must use and/ or give two points for true sentences with collocations like “a little” and “considerably”.

This also works well with the ever popular topics of their week and weekend, with students making sentences like “(I think) Maria had the most stressful week” and then asking questions to check if the sentences are true.

 

Comparative and superlative battles

Working in pairs, students choose a topic such as superheroes, monsters, beach resorts, countries, capital cities, or inventions. They imagine that they are boasting about how good their (real or imaginary) example of that thing is. They get one point for any positive word that they use, two points for a comparison with their partner’s choice, three points for stronger comparisons (comparative with collocations with strong words like “much”, or superlative), and four points for very strong comparisons (superlative with strong expressions like “by far”). If they are comparing real things such as actual beach resorts, in each case their partner must agree with their sentence for them to get the points (perhaps after some persuasion).

 

Comparative and superlative bluff

One student makes a statement comparing himself or herself to all people in their family, some people in their family or one person in their family with sentences like “I was shorter than my Dad but as he’s got older I’ve become taller” and “I’m the best at English in my whole extended family, including all my cousins”. The other students try to guess if the statement is true, perhaps after asking questions to get more info such as “How much taller are you now?”

 

Comparative and superlative SWOT discussion

Prepare a worksheet with problems and/ or opportunities that a company, government, charity etc might have to decide what to do about, such as “The office rent is getting slightly higher every year” and “We increase pay at the rate of inflation every year, but if we do that again this year we will be the lowest paying employer in our sector”. Students discuss what they should do about at least three of those things, perhaps as a roleplay meeting. You can then test them on the comparative and superlative forms and collocations that were on the worksheet.

 

Designing with superlative and comparative challenge

Groups of students write about and maybe draw monsters, superheroes, robots etc which are “The strongest thing in the world”, “Much taller than the Eiffel Tower”, etc. To make more of a range of language, I would probably limit them to using each structure (“…er” on its own, “much…”, etc) once. They can then vote on the best sounding one from the other groups. You could also give points for any good sentences which no other group thought of.

 

Selling things with comparative and superlative

Perhaps the most real-life use of these forms is in trying to sell something such a product to a customer, a service to a client, a change in your company to your boss, a holiday plan to your other half, an academic theory to a conference audience, or the idea of coming to your country to someone you meet abroad. You could bring this idea of selling into the class with a spoken or written text on the topic, but I tend to do so with gaps to fill in sales pitches, presentation hooks, etc, moving from that into analysing/ classifying successful and unsuccessful sales language.

 

Comparative and superlative brainstorming games

One student chooses something and then everyone takes turns making different comparisons with that and other people, places, objects, etc, perhaps for points. The same adjective but different collocations also counts as a different comparison. Whenever someone repeats exactly the same sentence as before or says something that the other people think isn’t true, they lose a point. They then do the same thing with the next person’s choice of thing.

 

Comparative and superlative boasting games

I based this on the game Yuppies in one the Communication Games books, where students pretend to be two nouveau riche idiots taking turns saying “My car is rarer than your watch” and “That’s true, but my watch is more beautiful than your car”. This can also work with added superlatives like “I can’t argue with that, but my car is by far the fastest in the world”. However, you will need to add something to make sure there is a range of language such as a rule that they can’t use each form (“much”, “most” with no adverb, etc) more than once.

 

Comparative and superlative discussion questions

Discussion questions can include comparative and superlative forms (“What the most realistic way of solving the planet’s problem with CO2?”, “Do you agree that this city is getting uglier? What can be done about it?”, etc) and/ or be designed to produce this language in the answers (“How different are the capital and second city of your country? Do you think they should be made more equal?” etc). In the former case, to produce more intensive practice of this language you can give gapped questions for students to complete as they ask them to each other, e.g. “Is it _______ (good) to learn a few words really thoroughly than to learn lots of vocabulary quickly?” Alternatively, after they finish the speaking activity, you can test them on their memory of the language that they just saw in the questions.

 

Comparative and superlative eliminating words games

Give students a worksheet with lots of vocabulary on it, e.g. every means of transport that you can think of or some places like “Georgia” and “Florence” that students have problems with the names of. One student chooses three words from the list. To cross off the three words and get a point, they must make two different comparative or superlative sentences but with the same adjective, both of which their partners agree are true. For example, if they say “Florence is more interesting for tourists than Milan. Rome is the most interesting city in Italy for tourists, but not by much” and their partners agree, they get two points. They can’t reuse exactly the same sentence twice, so they can’t say “Milan is further north than Florence. Florence is further north than Rome”. However, even slight variations are okay, making “Milan is quite a lot a further north than Florence. Florence is considerably further north than Rome” acceptable.

This game also works with a list of key comparing words on the worksheet that students have to use in order to cross them off, e.g. using the word “considerably” in “This summer is considerably cooler than last year” and getting one point if their partner agrees.

 

Superlative and comparative clues guessing game

Students give hints like “It’s the longest thing in this school”, “It’s much longer than a car” and “The longest one in this city is 50 metres long” until their partner guesses what they are speaking about (in this case a swimming pool). This works for all kinds of topics, e.g. transport, places, animals and technology. However, you’ll probably need to give students a list of suitable things to describe and/ or some example hints in case they can’t come up with their own. It can also work with future times, e.g. “India will have the biggest population” and “China’s economy will be bigger than America’s” for the year 2025.

 

Guess the comparative or superlative sentence

This is one of the few games where students don’t need any persuasion or extra rules to use more complex language like “but not by far”, as they will find the language very useful to challenge their partners more.

One student secretly writes a true comparative or superlative sentence about one or more things that their partner knows at least something about, e.g. “A cactus is much easier to look after than a cheese plant” or “Cookies and cream ice cream is the second most delicious flavour”. They tell their partner just what thing(s) their sentence is about, e.g. “Cactus and cheese plant”. Their partner then tries to guess the whole sentence while they give hints like “It’s a positive thing”, “It’s about having one in your house”, “The first word is ‘cookies’” and “The next letter is ‘s’”. This game also works as hangman, with the person guessing letters (rather than whole words), until the whole sentence is up on the board. It can also be played with their partner just guessing a few words to fill a gap, e.g. “Cookies and cream ice cream is _________________ flavour”.

 

Random ranking

Students are given a list of at least five useful items of vocabulary and rank them in any way that they like or that they can come up with. For example, they could rank character words by how often people mention them in dating profiles. They then show their ranked list to another group, who have to think of one way in which that list it could have been ranked that way. The guessing group then compares the words one by one using the criteria that they thought it must be ranked by, getting one point for each statement that the other group agrees with. For example, they would get two points if the guessing stage went something like “‘Creative’ is the best thing to put on your CV” “Okay, we agree” “‘Reliable’ is the second best word to put on your resume” “Yes, that’s possible” “And ‘Ambitious’ and is better to put on a CV than ‘sociable’” “No, I don’t think so. Our ranking was actually by ‘Characteristics we want our future children to have’”. Note that in this case the guessing team still gets two points because their first two sentences were agreed with, even though their guesses weren’t related to the actual reason why they were originally ranked that way.

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Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com