How to teach gradable and extreme adjectives
Summary: How to present and practice gradable adjectives and extreme adjectives like hot/ boiling and big/ huge, including how not to mix them up with other kinds of ungradable adjectives.
Pairs of adjectives like cold/ freezing and small/ tiny and their accompanying adverbs are one of my favourite teaching points. For a start, mixing these up is a common source of errors. However, what makes this language point special is that many of my students have never studied why “very fascinated” and “slightly starving” are wrong before. I’m always surprised that a previous teacher hasn’t spent time on this point, because it can be taught quickly and effectively and there are then lots of nice practice activities. It is also good for vocabulary development, and ties in well with other useful language that can be taught before or after, such as:
- particular kinds of adjectives such as feelings
- -ed and -ing adjectives
- adjective opposites
- hedging language
- writing reviews
- idioms and slang like “knackered” and “wasted”
What students need to know about gradable and extreme adjectives
The first thing that students need to be told (or preferably work out for themselves) is that there are two kinds of adjectives, one of which is used at various levels from “a tiny bit” and “slightly” through “fairly” to “very” and “extremely” (e.g. “interested”), and the other of which can only be made more extreme with words like “absolutely” and so can’t go with “slightly” etc (e.g. “fascinated”).
The first group are known as “gradable adjectives”, due to be able to grade them at many different levels from “a tiny bit” to “extremely”. The standard name for the other group is “extreme adjectives”, because they mean “very/ extremely +” a gradable adjective (= “boiling = “very/ extremely” + “hot”). They are part of a larger group of “ungradable adjectives” or “non-gradable adjectives” which can’t be used with “a bit”, “slightly”, etc, along with “absolute adjectives” which have a yes or no meaning such as “dead” and “alive”, which you either simply are or are not. You will find some confusion between these different groupings and their names online and in books, but I strongly suggest sticking to the name “extreme adjectives” for ones which mean “very/ extremely +” a gradable adjective and dealing with this point first before other kinds of ungradable adjectives. This article is specifically about extreme adjectives rather than ungradable adjectives more generally. Note that there are also words plenty of words which are neither gradable nor extreme, including some that seem to go across the border between the categories like “different” (which can be “slightly different” and “completely different”, but not “absolutely different”).
There is a big list of extreme and gradable adjectives with similar meanings at the bottom of this article. Some which seem gradable and extreme pairs like “long” and “endless” or “quiet” and “silent” are actually gradable and absolute adjective pairs. Other examples of gradable and absolute adjective pairs include:
- similar/ the same
- dark/ pitch black
- believable/ incontrovertible
- unbelievable/ inconceivable
- sad/ inconsolable
- tempting/ irresistible
- clean/ spotless
If you aren’t sure if an adjective is actually extreme, double check that it possible to use it with “really” as well as “absolutely”. If it sounds more natural with “almost” than “really”, it is probably an absolute adjective instead.
There are also others like “difficult”/ “impossible” where the literal meaning is absolute but we do sometimes say “really impossible” when “impossible” just means “really difficult/ extremely difficult” rather than actually not possible. Possibly for that reason, you might hear people saying “really spotless” and “really irresistible”, so you could argue that they have both absolute and extreme meanings. Other examples of pairs where one word has both an absolute literal meaning and an extreme meaning include:
- cold/ freezing
- crowded/ cram-packed
- different or distinctive/ unique
- wet/ soaking or sopping
- full/ stuffed
- unimportant/ worthless
- memorable/ unforgettable
These are probably best left out of a first lesson on gradable and extreme adjectives, but if student use them in communicative activities they will be fine.
When you have introduced the terms “gradable adjectives” and “extreme adjectives” and their meanings, students are ready to put some adjectives into gradable and extreme pairs and work out which adverbs go with which (and that “really” goes with both kinds).
The list of adverbs with gradable and then ungradable adjectives that I might include in my lessons, in approximate order of how likely I would be to do so is:
Adverbs with gradable adjectives (in order of usefulness)
a little/ a bit
quite (meaning “fairly”)
quite (meaning “very)
Adverbs with extreme adjectives (in order of usefulness)
quite (meaning “absolutely”)
“A little” is usually used with negative words and “not very” with positive ones, so we don’t often say “a little tasty” or “not very disgusting”.
Note how low I have put “quite”, meaning that I’d probably not introduce it at all with most classes. You will also notice that I’ve completely missed out the even more confusing and even less useful adverbs “pretty” and “rather”. However, there is some info below on how to explain these adverbs if they do come up, after some advice on how to deal with the more common and useful aspects of this grammar point.
How to present gradable and extreme adjectives
Many textbooks introduce gradable and extreme adjectives with a dialogue with lots of pairs of adjectives in context like “I heard it is pretty big” “Big? It’s absolutely huge!” If you find or make up a suitable dialogue, you can start with some comprehension questions about what the conversation is about and who feels more positive or negative about that thing. Alternatively, see the practice section below for a more fun jigsaw task that can be done with such a text.
After a general comprehension checking stage, get students to put pairs of words from the dialogue together in pairs (“cold” with “freezing” etc), divide the adjectives into two groups, and make rules about which adverbs are used with which group. For students to be able to do so, the dialogue will need to contain a few examples of adverbs that only go with one kind of adjective (e.g. “completely exhausted” and “fairly good”). Although “absolutely” is probably the most common adverb with extreme adjectives, it is quite difficult to explain the meaning and grammar of that word, so you’ll also need to include at least one example of a more obvious one such as “completely” or “totally”.
I would also include examples of “really” with both kinds of adjective (e.g. “really bad” and “really horrible”) in the dialogue. There should also be a mix of pairs of two words they already know (e.g. “good” and “great”) and, to stretch them more, some pairs they will only know one word of (e.g. “dirty” and “filthy”).
Although such dialogues can be fun to write, read and roleplay, the sheer number of forms that are necessary for a grammar presentation tends to make the dialogues sound a bit unnatural. Therefore you may instead want to start with speaking (as part of a TTT or TBL lesson). Alternatively, you can start with a elicitation-style presentation stage, as even students who have never studied this grammar before can almost certainly rank some adverb + adjective pairs and then work out the rules from that, or correct some typical mistakes.
To start by students ranking, give them sets of adverb + adjective phrases of different levels like “a little amusing”, “fairly amusing”, “very amusing/ really amusing”, “really hilarious” and “completely hilarious” to put in order of strength. For an error correction presentation, most students can spot that there is something wrong with “a little huge” and “completely small”. You should be able to easily elicit that the adverbs should be swapped round to make “completely huge” and “a little small”. You can then move onto the explanation that “huge” = “very big”, so “a little very big” can’t possibly make sense. It should be easy for students to match the name “gradable” to adjectives that can be made more or less and “extreme” to those which can only be made more extreme because they mean “very/ extremely” + something else. They should then be able to match adverbs like “slightly” and “absolutely” to the two groups of words.
After presenting the two groups of adjectives and the more obvious adverbs that go with each group, the teacher will then need to decide what to do about adverbs which don’t match so obviously with one group or the other.
“Really” can be quickly and easily introduced as the nice safe choice they can go back to when they are not sure if an adjective is gradable or extreme.
With adverbs like “extremely” which sound similar to “absolutely” but actually go with gradable adjectives, I usually just ask students to remember that they are the opposite of what they might expect, with “extremely” not going with “extreme adjectives”, and they usually find the craziness of this fairly memorable. They then just need to remember that “incredibly” etc are the same as “extremely”. For a more logical presentation, you could tell them that an extreme adjective means “extremely +” a gradable adjective (hence the name “extreme adjective”), and point out how silly “extremely huge” sounds when you remember that it would mean “extremely extremely large”. Or for a more detailed explanation, you could say that adverbs with extreme adjectives sound more like a percentage (“totally”, “completely”, “utterly”, “absolutely”, etc), whereas strong adverbs with gradable adjectives (“extremely”, “incredibly”, etc) just mean “very very” (“very very big” being informal but correct, and “very very enormous” being wrong).
Last and most assuredly least is that old favourite of textbooks full of grammar for its own sake, “quite” with gradable and extreme adjectives (“quite good”/ “quite perfect”, etc). It is true that all native speakers would recognise “quite wonderful” as meaning “absolutely wonderful”, but that phrase is rather comically old-fashioned and students are highly unlikely to come across it outside of period dramas. If at all possible I therefore avoid mentioning “quite” at all, especially as it is likely to entail an explanation of the unstressed and stressed meanings of quite in “quite good” (OO meaning “very good” and “oO” meaning fairly good). If I do get a question from students who remember something about “quite” from high school English lessons, I tend to elicit that the “quite” in “quite spotless” must mean “absolutely” because you can’t be “fairly spotless”. I then tell them to never use “quite” in their own speaking and (especially) writing due to its ambiguous meanings.
“Pretty” and “rather” share the same issues and explanations as “quite”. “Pretty” is slightly less old-fashioned than “quite” with extreme adjectives, so I generally leave it out but might mention it in higher level classes even if I leave “quite” out. “Rather” is probably even less common and more out-of-date than “quite”, and so I only deal with it if students come up with it, and then quickly move on.
Classroom practice activities for gradable and extreme adjectives
The activities below are given in approximately the order that I would use them in, starting with ones that can be used to get to grips with the basic grammar and ending with freer speaking. Many of them can also be used before the grammar presentation in Teach Test Teach or Task-based Learning lesson, as mentioned above.
Gradable and extreme adjectives stations/ simplest responses game
Students listen to adjectives, adverbs that go with particular kinds of adjectives, sentences or blanked sentences (“I’m feeling absolutely BLANK. I think I might die”) and race to indicate if an extreme or gradable adjective is being used or needs to be used. Very young and/ or active students can run up and down the classroom and touch the walls with “gradable” and “extreme” cards on them. Older and/ or shyer students can point at the two walls, raise “gradable” and “extreme” cards, or just raise their right hand for “gradable” and left hand for “extreme”.
Gradable and extreme adjectives miming game
One student chooses a pair of gradable and extreme adjectives, e.g. “loud” and “ear-splitting” and mimes them in either order, e.g. blocking one ear and then two ears for “loud/ ear-splitting” or vice versa for “ear-splitting/ loud”. The first person to say the right words in the right order gets a point.
It’s more challenging, but students can also mime adverbs with adjectives. For example, a student mimes “a little cold”, “fairly cold”, “very cold” then “absolutely freezing” with different amounts of shivering and hugging themselves to set up the situation (without their partner speaking at this stage). They then mime one of those four levels for their partners to race to shout out. If you give students the words in the right order of strength on the board or a worksheet, this activity can be done without the need for a long presentation stage. You can then test students on their memory of which words go together and which are stronger, before eliciting why.
Gradable and extreme adjectives drawing game
The games explained for miming above can also be played with students drawing different levels of bigness and hugeness etc and then circling the one they want their partner to say the name of.
Gradable and extreme adjectives jigsaw games
Perhaps the most common extreme and gradable adjectives “controlled practice” in textbooks is asking students to match up pairs of gradable and extreme adjectives. This is also the most pointless possible activity, as either the students already know all the words and so are learning nothing, or they just have to completely guess with no evidence and so are likely to learn nothing. However, there are two ways of letting them use vocabulary they know and/ or context to make matches, both of which I call Jigsaw Games.
To make a jigsaw task full of context clues that they can use to match up the words, make or find a dialogue full of pairs (“Would you say that it was good?” “Not just good, absolutely superb!”) like the one mentioned in the presentation section above. Split the dialogue up in places between the adjectives, e.g. as “Would you say that it was good?” “Not just good”/ “absolutely superb!”. Students put the dialogue into order, underline the adjectives, then match up pairs of words.
An easier game to set up is to make a table with pairs of adjectives next to each other, e.g. “disappointed” in the left column with “devastated” next to it in the right column. Cut the table into cards, but make sure that each card has at least two boxes in the table, and maybe up to four or five boxes each. For example, the top card from the left-hand column could have “disappointed” with “cold” and “warm” attached below it, and the right card could have just “devastated” and “freezing”. It’s probably best if the cards are different sizes in this kind of way. Don’t cut the table up so that each card has just one word.
Give out packs of cut up cards. Students can use the matches that they know and some guesses plus knowing that the whole thing must make a nice rectangle shape to complete the task, usually without too much help from the teacher. Then you can test them on their memory of all the matches, including the ones they didn’t know before the activity.
This kind of making a rectangle jigsaw can also be done with more than two columns. For example, you can make a jigsaw with four columns with synonyms like “small” and “little” on the left and “tiny” and “miniscule” on the right. It is possible to cut these kinds of four-column versions into cards that have more than one box horizontally and/ or vertically, e.g. some square cards made up of four boxes.
Gradable and extreme adjectives pelmanism/ snap
Make a pack of cards with individual gradable or extreme adjectives on each one e.g. “bright” on one card and “furious” on another. Students spread the cards across the table and then take turns trying to match up two gradable adjectives or two extreme adjectives. For example, if they get the “miserable” and “revolting” cards, they can keep the two cards and score one point because they are both extreme adjectives. To add more language to the game, it is best to ask students to try to add the same adverb to both words that they pick to make sure that they match, e.g. “fairly good” and “fairly interesting”. If they don’t match, they have to put the cards back in the same places and play passes to the next person.
If most or all of the cards that you made can be put in pairs of similar gradable and ungradable adjectives (e.g. “clean” and “spotless”), then students could work together after the game to match them up. I don’t recommend actually playing a game of pelmanism where they must find gradable and extreme adjective pairs to get a match because the game takes far too long this way, but it could perhaps be useful as a final stage if students play with the cards face up.
Gradable and extreme adjectives reversi memory games
Make a pack of cards where each one has one gradable adjective on one side and an extreme adjective that means “very +” that thing on the other side, e.g. “pretty/ attractive” on one side and “gorgeous/ stunning” on the other. Students spread the cards out on the table, either side up. To play the game, they have to guess what is on the other side of each card, leaving each card turned over if they are correct. To add extra language and help them guess, I would ask them to use a suitable adverb with the adjectives on each side each time, e.g. “fairly” + “pretty” and then “totally” + “gorgeous”.
There are several different “reversi” games that you can play with these cards. If they put the cards in a column on the table, they play until one of them manages to go from the bottom of the column to the top in one go without making any mistakes. If you make the two sides of the cards different colours (making sure that there is a mix of gradable and extreme of each colour), they can play a version of Othello (with or without a board) where they try to make all the cards their own colour by turning over the ones which are on the other side.
If students just spread the cards across the table completely at random, they can try to guess what is on the other side of the cards until they make a mistake and the winner is either the person who made the highest number of right guesses over the whole game (e.g. 35 correct guesses) or the person who managed the longest stretch of cards in a row without an error during the game (e.g. nine cards in a row).
The same games can also be usefully be played with cards which with have synonyms of extreme adjectives on some cards and synonyms of gradable adjectives on other cards, e.g. “huge” on one side and “massive” on the other side of one card and “big” and “large” on the two sides of another card. It also works nicely with antonyms, e.g. “huge” and “tiny” on one card and “big/ large” and “small/ little” on another.
Gradable and extreme adjectives warmer cooler game
One student thinks about something that they have experienced and/ or have an opinion on such as a local park or a particular teacher’s lessons. They tell their partner the topic and point at suitable gradable and extreme adjectives on a worksheet, e.g. “My mother’s cakes” and “tasty/ mouth-watering”. Their partner guesses the level of that thing with one of the adjectives and an adverb and is given hints until they reach exactly the right level, e.g. “Your mother’s cakes are really tasty” “Even more” “Your mother’s cakes are absolutely mouth-watering” “Maybe slightly less” “Your mother’s cakes are really mouth-watering” “That’s right”.
Gradable and extreme adjectives comparing game
This is a little like the boasting game below, but simpler and with real information. One student asks their partner “How is your…?”, e.g. “How is your walk to the station?” Their partner answers with a true adjective plus adverb, e.g. “It’s pretty tiring” or “It’s absolutely endless”. If the person who asked the question can answer the same question (truthfully) with a stronger adverb plus adjective pair of the same kind, e.g. “Mine is absolutely exhausting”, they get one point.
Gradable and extreme adjectives discuss and agree
Give students a worksheet with pairs of adjectives that they are likely to be able to make opinions sentences with like “tasty” and “lip smacking/ finger licking”, along with suitable adverbs. Students try to agree on things that are “absolutely impossible” etc, disagreeing with phrases like “I’d say it’s fairly difficult rather than absolutely impossible” until they can write sentences that everyone in their group thinks is true.
Gradable and extreme adjectives projects
Students work together to produce a poster advertising something, using an equal number of gradable and extreme adjectives. The adjectives can be in pairs but don’t have to be, as in “I thought it would be absolutely terrifying. It was quite scary, but also really fun!" Afterwards the class can vote on the best sounding place.
Suitable things to describe include theme parks, summer schools, summer camps, and holiday resorts.
Gradable and extreme adjectives boasting game
This is based on the game “Yuppies” in one of the Communication Games books.
Students take turns boasting about their possessions, husband or wife, skills etc, continuing as long as they can without repeating any adjectives or topics. For example, they could say “My house is really big” “That’s great, but my front garden is absolutely huge” “Oh really? Well, my wife is completely stunning” “I’m not married, but my girlfriend is incredibly thin”. As with this example, the conversations doesn’t necessarily need to progress in pairs of gradable and extreme adjectives.
To prompt more language use, the game can be played with a pack of cards with suitable adjectives and/ or topics on them.
Gradable and extreme adjectives anecdotes game
This is similar to the game above, but rather than boasting students listen to their partner’s story and try to link their own anecdote to what was just said with a similar topic and/ or adjective, e.g. “The B&B was really cheap and pretty comfortable”, “You’re so lucky. When we went to London last year our hotel was absolutely exorbitant and completely filthy” “That reminds of when we went to Hong Kong last year. The whole place was surprisingly dirty” etc.
Reviews with gradable and extreme adjectives
Ask students to use gradable and extreme adjectives as they review restaurants, films, books, comics, theme parks, etc. To make sure that they use a good mix of gradable and extreme adjectives, I would tell them to use exactly 50% gradable and 50% extreme adjectives (of any kind, not necessarily in pairs of ones with similar meanings). To add more challenge and make for a more interesting feedback stage, you could ask them to try to produce the most negative or positive review using that mix of words, with people voting on the most successful attempt after reading or listening to other people’s reviews.
The big list of gradable and extreme adjective pairs (grouped by meaning)
admired, respected or well-respected/ idolised
amusing or funny/ hilarious or side-splitting
angry, irritated or annoyed/ furious or enraged
annoying or irritating/ infuriating
attractive, good looking or pretty/ gorgeous or stunning
bad/ awful, dreadful, disastrous or terrible
good/ great, brilliant, fantastic, fabulous, terrific or splendid
big or large/ gigantic, huge, massive or enormous
little or small/ tiny, miniscule or minute
bored/ dead bored
boring/ mind-numbing or stupefying
interested/ captivated, fascinated or spellbound
interesting/ captivating, fascinating or spellbinding
exciting/ gripping or thrilling
excited/ gripped or thrilled
busy/ rushed off my feet
crowded/ packed or cram-packed
challenging, difficult, hard or tricky/ impossible
confusing/ mind-boggling or mystifying
cool or cold/ freezing or frozen
hot or warm/ baking, boiling or roasting
depressed, sad or unhappy/ miserable, or heartbroken
depressing or sad/ heart-breaking
glad, happy or pleased/ overjoyed
different or distinctive/ unique
yucky/ revolting, sickening or repulsive
tasty/ delicious, mouth-watering or lip-smacking
drunk, merry, or tipsy/ wasted, wrecked, or blotto
wet/ soaked, soaking or sopping
sleepy or tired/ exhausted, knackered, wrecked or shattered
expensive or pricey/ exorbitant
frightened or scared/ terrified or petrified
frightening or scary/ terrifying or petrifying
hungry or peckish/ starving or dying of hunger
important or necessary/ crucial, vital or essential
unimportant/ pointless or worthless
impressive/ awe inspiring
loud or noisy/ ear-splitting
nice or pleasant/ charming, lovely or delightful
poor/ dirt-poor or poverty-stricken
rich or wealthy/ loaded or filthy rich
silly/ idiotic or ridiculous
surprised/ amazed, gobsmacked, stunned or astonished
surprising/ amazing, astonishing, stunning or unbelievable