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Grammar fun! Adjective Order Strips

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Adjective Order Strips


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“What a strange, long trip it’s been.”


“She was a cool long woman in a black dress.”


“The winding and long road—That leads to your door.”







Do the lyrics above sound a bit off? They should. 


In English, when more than one adjective is used before a noun to modify it, the order of the adjectives usually matters. ‘A new red car’ sounds fine, while ‘a red new car’ would sound odd, at least to a native speaker. Not that there is much risk of being misunderstood if one uses the wrong adjective order, but there usually is a risk of sounding unnatural. And what language learner doesn’t want to avoid sounding unnatural? 


But hey, no problem. Just explain to your students that they should use adjectives in this order: opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose, noun. 


Ah, but remembering that—and then applying it—whilst in the midst of a conversation … Urg. 


So what’s an English teacher to do? 


If only … If only there were some way to teach this syntactic point painlessly and naturally. If only there were some way our students could be exposed to this linguistic eccentricity in a way that allowed them to pick it up without drudgery, without it being tedious and … 


Hey, wait a minute!—I know! Let’s make a game of it! And let’s call this game—oh, I don’t know … 


… how about Adjective Order Strips? 




AOS is designed to give repetitive exposure to and use of natural adjective order  without the teacher having to explicitly point out the patterns. In this way, the students have a chance to begin to acquire the patterns without even thinking about them.


The game can be played by small groups (anywhere from 2 to about 10 players), and playing it involves speaking, reading out loud, listening, and thinking about meaning. Indeed, one of the great things about this game is that it requires careful attention to the meaning of every word used, yet it keeps the natural flow of the language intact, eschewing the gruesome and barbaric practice of language vivisection.


As an added bonus, a couple of incidental language targets are involved: indefinite articles (a, an, some) and miscellaneous vocabulary (various nouns and adjectives).




THE COMPONENTS:   noun phrase strips  +  image-only playing cards 


Each strip is one sequence, comprising either three or four spaces—i.e., two or three adjectives plus a noun. (For most sequences, each space includes a determiner, such as a or some.) The sequences—four or more for a game—are laid end to end to make one continuous circuit. 


You can design your own Adjective Order Strips, making them as limited or as extensive as you wish, Or, print out and use my version from the links that I will give later in this blog post. 




The AOS set that I made for my classes has a total of 24 strips and 64 playing cards. Sixteen of the strips (eight pairs) have 2-adjective noun phrases (a new red car) and eight of the strips (four pairs) have 3-adjective noun phrases (some nice, hot, corn soup). There are four playing cards for each 2-adjective pair of strips, and eight cards for each 3-adjective pair of strips. 


Confused? Don’t worry. It sounds complicated, but you can actually ignore all those numbers, and it will all become perfectly clear as you proceed. 


I promise. 








1. Choose how many and which strips you want to play with. 


TIP: You can use as many or as few strips and their associated cards in a round of the game as you wish, but using an even number of strips will make it easier to make nice, tidy configurations. (For examples, see “CONFIGURATIONS” below.) Also, any fewer than four strips would put too few cards into play for the game to be interesting. 


TIP: You can, but certainly don’t have to, use paired strips (e.g., a new red car and an old green car). Using paired strips has the advantage of bringing the meanings of the vocabulary used into clearer focus, while using non-paired strips has the advantage of increasing the breadth of vocabulary used with a given number of strips. 




2. Select the cards associated with the strips you have chosen. 


From the deck of AOS cards, find the cards that go with the strips you have chosen. It’s easy-peasy to find the cards you need if the strips and cards are color-coded—mine are. For example, if you have chosen to use one or both of the blue strips, you need to use the blue cards; use the red cards for the red strips, etc. (The remaining cards can be set aside, as they will not be used in this round of the game.)




3. Lay the strips out in a continuous loop. 


Either you or the students lay the strips out in a continuous loop. Whatever configuration tickles your fancy is fine, but make sure the strips are all head-to-tail so that they all read in either a continuous clockwise or a continuous counter-clockwise direction. 


CONFIGURATIONS: Here are some possible configurations for a game played with eight AOS strips. These are to be read in a clockwise direction; simply reverse the direction of every strip if you want the reading to go in a counter-clockwise direction:



4. Shuffle the cards and deal them. 


Ideally each player gets the same number of cards, but it doesn’t matter much if some players have one more or one less card than some other players. If you really want everyone to have the same number, you can just deal the same number of cards to everyone, then toss any leftover cards into the discard pile. 






Now we get to the fun part. Yay!  




1. Start a place marker—a bean bag, a pencil eraser, or anything suitable—on any word cell. (Only one place marker is needed in the game.) 




2. Whoever has been chosen as the first player rolls a die or spins a number spinner. They move the place marker the number of spaces rolled or spun, and they (or the group) read, starting from the word cell they landed on and continuing to the noun. 


As you will see, this is key to the game, so let’s make sure it’s clear. 


Let’s say the strip is a tall funny green monster. If the place marker lands on tall, then the entire phrase is read: a tall funny green monster. But if it lands on funny, only read from there: a funny green monster. If the place marker lands on green, read, a green monster. And if it lands on monster, just read, a monster. 




3. Any card that matches the description that was read can be discarded. 


For example, there are eight cards for the monster strip. (These same eight cards are also for the other monster strip: a short scary hairy monster.) If a monster is read, all eight of the monster cards can be discarded. If a green monster is read, this describes four of the cards, so those four can be discarded. A funny green monster, two cards. And if the whole phrase is read—a tall funny green monster—only one card is being described, so only that one card can be discarded. 


Steps two and three above are the heart and soul of the game. You do NOT have to explain this to the players ahead of time. Just have them roll the die and indicate  to them what they should read for the first couple of rolls. They will pick it up quickly. The same is true of knowing which cards to discard—make sure you are one of the players for at least the first time a group plays the game. They will readily follow your lead and will figure out the rules very quickly without an explicit explanation. 


(Hmmmmm. Isn’t ‘an explicit explanation’ redundant?) 




4. The turn passes to the next player. The place marker begins wherever it landed for the previous player. 




The object of the game is to be the first to go out (i.e., the first to discard all the cards in your hand). 






• To make the game more competitive, you can instate a rule that only the first card put down may be discarded—they’ve gotta be quick! This will also extend the length of the game. 


• To elicit more speaking from the players, it can be required that a player say, for example, ‘I have a funny green monster’ before they discard their card. 


• You may want to put a time limit on the game, rather than playing until someone goes out. (The last few cards can be hard to get rid of.) 


By the way, you can expedite the later phases of the game by removing any strips for which all the cards associated with it have been played.  


• To make the game cooperative, you may want to use a time limit to challenge the group: Can at least one player go out before the time is up? This can give ‘positive pressure’ to motivate the players to strive for speed, which can foster fluency. 








As promised earlier, here are links to printable (A4 size) PDFs of my version of Adjective Order Strips: 


PDF of Adjective Order Strips “playing board” strips 


PDF of Adjective Order Strips playing cards  


You are welcome to respond to this blog entry with any questions or comments you may have about the PDFs or the game. 


And here is a link to a YouTube video showing the game being played. Feel free to leave questions and comments there too! 


One more! Click here for a YouTube video showing how I make playing cards. 


One more one more!! Click here for a YouTube video showing how I make game tiles (in this case, the strips). 










Lyrics by: The Grateful Dead, The Hollies, The Beatles, respectively. 


And did you notice anything about those lyrics at the top of this post? For one thing, they all use the word ‘long.’  


More interestingly, the ‘messed up’ order of the first two actually follows the ‘rule’: opinion first, then shape: a strange, long trip and a cool, long woman. The original lyrics for both break the prescribed pattern! (Takeaway lesson: This adjective order ‘rule’ is not written in stone.) 

Alan Miesch

Alan Miesch

After years as a ‘professional dabbler’, Alan Miesch found himself drawn into teaching English to non-native English learners. He has experience in a wide range of milieus, both in the United States and Japan, teaching young children, teens, and adults. He is now the proprietor and sole teacher at a private English classroom in Numazu, Japan.
Alan Miesch

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