How and When to Teach Nouns
“A noun is a person, place, or thing.” Well… partially right, but there is much more. And knowing the definition of this basic part of speech only gets us so far. We do need to know what we are talking about when we refer to nouns. Some common language of instruction only makes sense. Even the die-hard writing process folk, who relegated direct grammar instruction to the pedagogical garbage heap in the 1980s, always agreed that teaching the definitions of the parts of speech is an essential. Ask English-language arts teachers what they wish their students knew about grammar coming into their classes in the fall. Parts of speech will be their first, and perhaps only, answer.
But why do teachers have to re-teach nouns every year? Is it the previous teacher’s fault? Is it the cyclical nature of instruction? Is it something in the water? Following is an instructional approach guaranteed to interrupt this forgetting cycle. At the end of this article, I will share an instructional scope and sequence for noun components with clear definitions and examples.
1. DIE AR
(Admittedly a depressing mnemonic. Perhaps a subconscious wish re: the Accelerated Reader® program?)
DEFINE Help students memorize the definitions of the key noun components. Rote memory is fundamental to higher order thinking. Use memory tricks, repetition, and even songs. Check out the Parts of Speech Rap. Test and re-test to ensure mastery.
IDENTIFY Help students identify noun components in practice examples and real text. Using quality, un-canned and authentic mentor text, such as famous literary quotations and short passages/poetry kills two birds with one stone: identification practice and sentence modeling.
EDIT Help students practice error analysis for each noun component by editing text that contains correct and incorrect usage. Finding out what is wrong does help clarify what is right. But don’t limit your instruction, as in Daily Oral Language, to this step. Students need the mentor texts and writing practice to master their noun components. Grammar taught in the context of reading and writing translates into long-term memory and application.
APPLY Help students the noun components correctly in targeted practice sentences. Sentence frames are one solid instructional method to practice application. For example, for common nouns…
It takes a lot of (idea) ________________ for a (person) ________________ to drive a (thing) ________________ to their (place) ________________.
Possible response: It takes a lot of SELF-CONTROL for a TEENAGER to drive a SPORTS CAR to their (place) to their HIGH SCHOOL.
REVISE Help students understand the importance and relevance of learning the noun components by revising their own authentic writing. Stress using what they have learned about noun components to improve coherence, sentence variety, author voice, word choice, clarity, and style. Make sure to share brilliant revisions that reflect these improvements as your own mentor texts. Post them on your walls and refer to them often to reinforce definition, identification, and writing style.
My favorite approach to integrating the DIE AR instructional method is Sentence Lifting. This 15-20 minute, twice per week instruction covers essential grammar, mechanics, and spelling, using authentic writing to teach these skills. Also, learning grammar in the context of motivational text, such as Grammar Comics! makes sense.
Diagnostic assessments of key grammatical features, such as noun components, serves two purposes: First, the results inform what to teach and how much time to allocate to direct instruction. It may be that one class tends to have mastery re: proper nouns, common nouns, and noun phrases but weaknesses in abstract nouns, concrete nouns, and noun clauses. A different class may have a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Why so? One of the mysteries of life. Second, diagnostic assessments provide an individual baseline upon which to build learning. Sharing this data with students is vital. Students need to know what they know and what they don’t know to motivate their learning and see the personal relevance of the instructional task. Check out my favorite whole class diagnostic grammar assessment under Free ELA/Reading Assessments.
Formative assessments need to be designed to measure true mastery of the grammatical concept. So, a useful formative assessment of noun components must be comprehensive, including all steps of the DIE AR process. The purpose of formative assessment is to identify relative strengths and weaknesses of both instruction and learning. Simply giving a unit test as a summative assessment only satisfies the teacher (and colleagues) that the teacher has covered the subject, i.e. teaching the noun components. Far better to use the data to affect instruction. Good teachers re-teach judiciously and differentiate instruction according to test data.
3. Differentiated Instruction
Differentiated instruction should focus on relative weaknesses. A good recording matrix for formative assessments will clearly inform the teacher as to who lacks mastery over which noun components and how many students need remediation. Individual, paired, and small group instruction with targeted independent practice makes sense. A workshop design in which the teacher distributes worksheets, monitors practice, and uses mini-conferences to assess mastery ensures effective remediation. Differentiated instruction doesn’t have to be a planning or management nightmare.
Primary Elementary School
- Common Nouns, such as teenager, high school, sports car, freedom
- Proper Nouns, such as Mary, Pinewood Elementary School, Microsoft Word®
- Compound Nouns, such as baseball, playground, cartwheel
- Single Nouns, such as desk, Ms. Brady, group
- Plural Nouns (with spelling rules), such as books, churches, lives
Intermediate/Upper Elementary School
- Abstract Nouns (nouns that cannot be sensed), such as freedom, patience, thoughts
- Concrete Nouns (nouns that can be sensed), such as ice cream, velvet, movie
- Nouns as Simple Subjects, such as George left town.
- Nouns as Compound Subjects, such as George and Sam left town.
- Nouns in Compound Sentences, such as George left town, and Sam left, too.
- Complete Nouns/Noun Phrases, such as Crazy George and his best friend left town.
- Nouns as Objects of Prepositional Phrases, such as George and Sam left town for the vacation of a lifetime.
- Collective Nouns (nouns that refer to groups with members), such as That herd of sheep was in the pasture.
- Nouns to Avoid (things, stuff, etc.), such as The thing is… I already have that stuff.
- Nouns as Abbreviations, such as I love the U.S.A.
- Nouns as Acronyms, such as We had a guest speaker from N.A.S.A.
- Hyphenated Nouns, such as English-language arts is my favorite subject.
- Irregular Plural Nouns, such as deer-deer, child-children, foot-feet
- Noun Clauses, such as Whenever I studied, I passed my tests.
- Greek and Latin Noun Plural Formations, such as cactus-cacti, crisis-crises, appendix-appendices
- Nouns as Direct Objects, such as I left my wallet.
- Nouns as Indirect Objects, such as I gave John my wallet.
- Nouns as Gerunds, such as Smoking is hazardous to one’s health.
- Nouns as Appositives, such as That nice couple, Juan and Tasha, brought us cookies.
- Mass (non-count) Nouns (These nouns don’t form plurals and are usually abstract), such as mud, insurance, music
- Nouns as Nominative Absolutes (a separate phrase or clause that modifies the main noun and verb), such as “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed (Second Amendment to the United States Constitution).”
- Nouns as Predicate Nominatives (a noun or pronoun following a noun and a linking verb that defines or re-names the noun), such as Joe is a murder suspect.
The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Teaching the Language Strand Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics lessons. (Check out a seventh grade teacher teaching the direct instruction and practice components of these lessons on YouTube.) The complete lessons also include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.
Teaching the Language Strand also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out PREVIEW THE TEACHER’S GUIDE AND STUDENT WORKBOOK to see samples of these comprehensive instructional components. Check out the entire instructional scope and sequence, aligned to the Grades 4-8 Common Core Standards.
The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Teaching the Language Strand “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).