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Teaching Nouns

Nouns are the most commonly occurring form in almost any sentence and tend to carry most of its meaning. As such, an understanding of what nouns are and what they do is a good place to start in a beginning level grammar or writing course.

What Is a Noun?

In teaching nouns it's helpful to start with an example like in the sentence below:

     Tom gave a ring to Jessica on the Beach at 6pm.

Even beginning-level students often have some ability to recognize at least some nouns, so begin by asking students to identify the nouns in the sentence, or you can go through each word in the sentence and ask students if it's a noun.
Then ask the follow-up question: "How do you know _________ is a noun?"

From there you can work out that a noun is a person, place, or thing. * A time, like 6pm, can be considered a thing, or you can add the additional category of time to your list of what a noun is.

On the other hand, if none of the students can recognize a noun, hold up a book or some other easily recognizable item, and tell them that a noun is a thing. Hold up other things in the room and ask them if they are nouns until they get an understanding of the concept. You can check their understanding by eliciting other examples of things from volunteers among the students.
Next, repeat the process with the name of your town/city and pictures of some famous places from online telling students that a noun is also a place
Finally, point to one of the students in the class and announce that they are a noun because nouns are also people.

At this point, return to the example sentence you started with...

     Tom gave a ring to Jessica on the Beach at 6pm.

...and ask students to identify the nouns.

Practice: Divide the class into pairs or small groups, and ask them to use their phones, tablets, etc... to find pictures of five things, five places, and five people.

What Do Nouns Do?

Being able to recognize a noun is only the first step in being able to correctly use them. The next step involves teaching students what jobs nouns do in a sentence, and to begin that lesson, let's take another look at our example sentence.

     Tom gave a ring to Jessica on the Beach at 6pm.

Nouns basically do three major jobs in a sentence. They can be...
  • subjects
  • objects... or ...
  • subject complements

What is a subject?

In any sentence, the subject is the person, place or thing that does something. *The only exception to this is in the case of a subject complement sentence where the subject is the person, place, or thing that equals some other person, place, or thing. We discuss this soon.

Students can find the subject of a sentence by asking:  Who or What is doing something? Ask students to tell you who is doing something in the example sentence.

What is an object?

In fact, there are really three kinds of objects, and each one can be identified by asking the right question.

   direct object:

     The direct object is the part of the sentence that answers the question:What/Who + Subject + Verb

For example, In the sentence...

     Tom gave a ring to Jessica on the Beach at 6pm.

...the direct object question would be: What did Tom give? and the answer would be a ring. Thus, a ring is the direct object. *This question test also becomes useful later on in identify gerund/infinitive, or noun clause direct objects.

   preposition object:

     The preposition objects are easier to identify and are simply the parts of a sentence that answer the questions Where? or When?. This makes sense when we consider that the job of a preposition is to tell us where or when something happens. So, in our sample sentence...
  • the beach = where?
  • 6pm = when?

   indirect object:

     A final type of object students will encounter (though less often) is an indirect object. We can find the indirect object in a sentence by asking the question To whom?. Thus, in our example, if we ask To whom did Tom give a ring?, the answer (and the indirect object) is Jessica. This hold true even if we alter the order of the sentence slightly.

For example,in the sentence...

     Tom gave Jessica a ring on the Beach at 6pm.

     ...Jessica is still the indirect object because it still answers the question To whom did Tom give a ring?.

What is a subject complement?

A subject complement occurs only in a sentence with a be verb and creates a situation where two nouns are equal to one another. Take the following example.

     Tom is the guy on the beach.

In this sentence, the subject is Tom and, with regards to meaning, the subject complement is the guy on the beach. Notice that the be verb creates a special relationship in which Tom and the guy on the beach are the same person. Because of this equal relationship, it is possible to re-write the sentence as...

     The guy on the beach is Tom.

...and still retain the original meaning. *This concept becomes useful later on when using gerunds/infinitives and noun clauses to change the grammar in a paraphrase.

Practice: [in pairs or individually] Create a set of ten sentences of your own containing the noun jobs discussed above and have students identify the subjects, objects, and subject complements. A good follow-up practice would be to ask students to write sentences of their own and identify the nouns and their jobs.


page last modified: June 16, 2014

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