Teach English Writing Skills: Noun Modifiers

Nouns Modifying Nouns

Writing skill: sentence fluency

ESL students learning to write English sometimes produce wordy sentences. Wordiness is not good. It makes the text hard to read. Plus, it’s not stylish. Learning how to use the fewest number of words to express an idea is an important writing skill.

The purpose of this lesson is to teach ESL students one writing skill: rewrite sentences so that a noun modifies another noun. In the back pages of a dusty grammar book, this might be called noun adjuncts. I prefer to call it a noun modifying a noun.


Step 1. Describe Lesson Purpose

Wordiness is a problem in student writing. Students can fix this problem when they learn a few sentence writing and editing skills. This lesson teaches students to cut the number of words in a sentence by using a noun to modify a noun.

Step 2. Examples

Show some examples of wordy sentences. After rewriting, they are clear and short.

  • There is a spoon made from metal on the coffee cup.
  • There is a metal spoon on the coffee cup.

The second sentence is better. It tells us about the spoon, but uses fewer words.

  • Here is a book about history.
  • Here is a history book.

BOOK is the main noun. The noun HISTORY tells us something about the book.

Step 3. Explain Modify

Use adjectives as an example.

  • There is a red book on the big table.

In this sentence, there are two modifiers: RED and BIG.

Step 4. Build a List

Give students a few base words and ask them to make a list of phrases that have a noun modifying a noun. Some students might suggest adjectives; remind them we are looking for noun modifiers.

Write these base nouns on the board (suggested modifiers below).

soup     bag     bowl      watch     

book     lamp     milk      can


Step 5. Details

Provide two details about noun modifiers.

1. Plural forms of noun modifiers are usually (but not always) changed to the single form. For example:

  • It’s really hard to buy soup made from tomatoes in this country.
  • It’s really hard to buy tomato soup in this country.

2. When the noun modifier has a number, we usually write it with a hyphen.

  • I have a contract at the bank for seven months.
  • I have a seven-month contract at the bank.

Step 6. More Examples

If required, here are a few more examples to show the class.

  • I’m taking an online class about science.
  • I’m taking an online science class.
  • She works in a small shop that sells coffee.
  • She works in a small coffee shop.
  • I just bought a bag for sleeping when I go camping.
  • I just bought a sleeping bag.
  • She has not picked a dress for her wedding yet.
  • She has not picked a wedding dress yet.

Step 7. Practice Questions

Print or display the practice questions on one of the attached pdf files (suggested answers at the end of each file). There are two sets of questions.

Level 1. 10 questions; comparatively simple vocabulary.

Level 2. 12 different questions; comparatively advanced vocabulary.

Both sets of practice questions focus on high frequency words from the New General Service List.


Teaching Follow Up

This writing lesson is a good pre-teach activity for a longer writing assignment, like the one outlined in the Narrative Challenge.


Suggested noun modifiers (from Step 4 above)

soup: chicken soup, tomato soup

bag: paper bag, plastic bag

bowl: soup bowl, rice bowl

watch: pocket watch, wrist watch

book: grammar book, science book

lamp: desk lamp, table lamp

milk: chocolate milk, rice milk

can: coffee can, garbage can

Teach writing?

Get the ebook Teach Essential Writing Skills. Transform the quality of EFL student writing by focusing on four essential skills. Click here for details about the ebook that should be part of every writing teacher’s resource library.


Save time. Teach well.

Cut your lesson prep time with this colossal collection of ESL resources that stimulate language learning and critical thinking. Simplify your lesson planning because teaching should be a joy, not a chore.toolbox-front-cover-3d-book-8-8

Leave a Comment

IMPORTANT! To be able to proceed, you need to solve the following simple math (so we know that you are a human) :-)

What is 8 + 14 ?
Please leave these two fields as-is:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.