Noun groups and nominalisation

It is important to discuss the difference between spoken and written language and how this affects our language choices with all students. It is particularly important for Aboriginal students who speak an Aboriginal English dialect.

There are substantial differences between dialects such as Aboriginal English or working class English and standard Australian English. The differences can be similar for students who speak English as a second language. These students often only have basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) rather than cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) as described by Professor Jim Cummins.

Writing tasks need to be in contexts that require standard Australian English and students need to be aware of the purpose, audience and context of the text they will be writing. For example, writing to a letter to a friend will encourage spoken language whereas writing for publication in a local newspaper or a video clip will require standard Australian English. The writing task should be meaningful and teachers need to explain how it is relevant to students’ lives.

When students are writing there are a range of strategies to consider and apply to improve their texts. Once students are aware of the differences between spoken and written language they need to reread and edit their own texts and peers’ texts, in order to check the accuracy of grammar according to the purpose and audience for the text.

Teaching about noun groups

Teachers need to familiarise themselves with the metalanguage of ‘language conventions’ in English grammar. It is essential that teachers know this grammar and can explain it to students. The metalanguage of the noun group will always include a noun or pronoun, the noun group can include adjectives and determiners such as articles (a/an, the, some), demonstratives (pointing words: this, that, these, those) and possessives (my, your, his etc.).

Although there are countless activities, worksheets, grammar books that teachers can use to teach aspect of grammar and language conventions, the important thing to remember is context. Students will retain information when it is presented to them in meaningful ways and when it is most relevant or useful. Stand-alone ‘grammar’ worksheets are likely to be ineffective if they are not linked to the real content of the classroom

Deconstruct and reconstruct language

Deconstructing language while reading assists students to comprehend the meaning of a text and its context as well as being an effective way for students to learn about grammar and the way standard Australian English is structured. Reconstructing language while writing is a way to give students the opportunity to use the knowledge gained and practice their skills in using standard Australian English.

See how the ‘Deconstruct and Reconstruct’ way of learning in 8 ways of learning for Aboriginal students relates to quality teaching.

Activities to support the strategy

Activity 1: deconstructing reading texts

Before reading a formal or academic piece of text, talk to students about it. Discuss any pictures and summarise the story or facts and explain formal or complex terms using everyday language. Once students understand what the text is about, read it through. Then read it while thinking aloud about the meaning after each paragraph. Study each paragraph sentence by sentence, looking at how the clauses and phrases are put together. Rearrange them to see how that changes the meaning and why the author wrote it the way he or she did.

Have students identify all of the nouns (naming words) and then the determiners and adjectives that describe each noun to make up the elements of the noun group. Encourage students to recognise the function of words in context rather than just saying a word is a verb because it ends in 'ing' or 'ed'. Draw students' attention to participles used as adjectives, for example, saturated fat. Then discuss how the participle/adjective can become a noun through the addition of the suffix –tion to make 'saturation'.

In the final deconstruction phase, assist students to analyse the meaning and spelling of words by breaking them into their parts (morphemes). Discuss how words are often nominalised in academic texts, that is, nouns are formed from verbs often by the addition of suffixes such as –sion or –tion, for example, decision from decide, description from describe and adaptation from adapt. This process is called nominalisation.

Activity 2 (to follow activity 1): reconstructing written texts

Once students understand the overall meaning, vocabulary, grammatical structure and can spell the relevant words, they are ready to reconstruct the text. Students use the same grammatical structure as the text studied to support them to write a similar text but with different content words (nouns and verbs). Encourage students to use a dictionary and thesaurus to find the meaning and spelling of new words they require.

Activity 3: deconstructing and reconstructing noun groups

Students identify the naming words (nouns) in texts. They then identify all of the words in the noun group that are elaborating or specifying the meaning of the noun. Students identify the base verb in all nominalisations. If that word is unfamiliar encourage students to use dictionaries.

Prior to and during an authentic and meaningful writing task related to a topic students are studying, develop word charts on the walls (vocabulary related to the topic) so that students can refer to the words during the writing task. Be sure to include nominalisations.

Activity 4: create hip hop songs

Developing more complexity in student's spoken language can assist them to understand and use complexity in written language. If students are interested in hip hop music this can be an effective context to engage them in writing poetry and verse, as it gives students an investment in and ownership of the work.

At Collarenebri Central School an English teacher started a hip hop group called the Colli Crew which was designed to improve attendance. The Colli Crew met in first period and students had to be there to participate. The project helped the students to code switch between Aboriginal English and standard English and this group of students went on to have improved results in NAPLAN. An important aspect of any Indigenous project is involvement with the local Aboriginal community and the project’s success was largely due to the teacher and students working closely with local Elders.

Several videos were created as part of an ongoing hip hop mentoring program with Toby Finlayson from Desert Pea Media and the students. The following video shows students performing confidently using standard Australian English with advanced vocabulary such as nominalisations to present meaningful lyrics that show deep understanding of Australian history.

Colli Crew Change the Game on YouTube

The students used iPods, iPads, free easy rap and hip hop beats, and several apps such as a

  • B-rhymes dictionary
  • Song Writers Pad
  • Garage Band
  • How to Rap
  • Ruppy Beats HD


Australian curriculum

ACELA1515: understand that different social and geographical dialects or accents are used in Australia in addition to Standard Australian English. ACELA1546: understand the effect of nominalisation in the writing of informative and persuasive texts.

NSW syllabus

EN3-6B: Uses knowledge of sentence structure, grammar, punctuation and vocabulary to respond to and compose clear and cohesive texts in different media and technology.

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