Types of verbs, general to specific

Students in Stage 3 and above need to move from general ‘all-purpose verbs’ to more specific words for example, from cut to slice, dice, fillet and segment.

Knowing that verbs often represent actions and the choice of more expressive verbs makes an action more vivid e.g., ‘She ate her lunch’ compared to ‘She gobbled her lunch’.

Students will need to be taught metalanguage to describe the language features they will be discussing.


What is happening?

Our experiences are generally made up of different kinds of doings, happening sand states. These can be referred to as processes. Processes typically take the form of verbs. Through verb groups we can express different aspects of our experience:

  • what we do (action verbs)
  • what we say (saying verbs)
  • what we think, feel and perceive (sensing verbs)
  • how we create links between bits of information (relating verbs)
  • how we refer to things that simply exist (existing verbs)

From: A New Grammar Companion for Teachers by Beverly Derewianka (2011), p15, PETAA

Activities to support the strategy

Exploring language using Guided Reading and discussion is a key strategy to improving the writing of students. Understanding how language works through making the connections explicit between the three language modes; Talking and Listening, Reading and Writing is crucial to learning to be successful users of Language.

Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA)

The information found here is from the book, A New Grammar Companion for Teachers, Beverly Derewianka 2011, Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA), Sydney. Reproduced with permission from the Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA). Sydney, Australia.

Quality picture books

Quality picture books and quality children’s literature should be used in all examples of the following activities. See book lists provided in the Premiers Reading Challenge as a starting point.

Activity 1: action verbs

Older students need to read more challenging fiction and non-fiction texts to be exposed to more challenging vocabulary. In Science, when reading more advanced procedures, the action verbs need to be more precise so that the procedure will be successful (e.g. dissolve, dilute, transfer, insert or filter instead of simply add or put).

Older students might also use well-selected actions verbs to construct a series of events in an historical account. They can read the text and highlight the sequence of action verbs used.

In narratives teachers should look for texts that create an ‘action sequence’ in the story to model to students how professional writers create a sense of dynamic action as in the story of Rikki-tikki-tavi by Rudyard Kipling.

Older children can be shown that action verbs can be used in a metaphorical way. Reading quality poetry can demonstrate to students how to use action verbs metaphorically. Students can then create their own texts and images improvising on the text.

For example:

Activity 2: saying verbs

In guided reading students could explore the different saying verbs used (e.g. pleaded, whispered, responded, sighed) and discuss how these can be more effective than said.

In Stage 3 students need to understand that saying verbs can be used to provide an insight into a character. The way a character speaks and interacts with others provides clues as to their personality. For example, J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter Series of books develops her characters through well-chosen saying verbs.

Instead of saying, “He was a belligerent spoilt child”, J.K. Rowling gives an insight into the character by using choice saying verbs.

  • “Make it move,” he whined
  • “Do it again,” he ordered
  • “This is boring,” he moaned

Activity 3: sensing verbs

Thinking verbs are used to express processes of cognition and can feature in texts such as arguments and discussions where we are interested in people’s ideas and opinions or in stories where a character is reflecting. Sensing verbs are concerned not only with people’s thoughts but with their feelings and desires. People express their emotions in texts such as novels, poems songs and blogs.

Sensing verbs also encompass actions of perceptions – those that involve the use of our senses: seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling.

Send students on a Senses Walk and get them to record images and words to describe what they hear, what they see, what they feel/touch, what they smell and if appropriate what they taste.

Senses walk: the
Sense Words Images
What I hear? crickets chirping, birds tweeting (blank)
What I can feel/touch? rough bark, smooth leaves, soft moss, crunching gravel (blank)
What I smell? eucalyptus leaves, lavender (blank)
What I taste Bush tucker - tangy finger limes (blank)
What I see? Tall shady trees, wild grass, birds and insects flowers (blank)

Activity 4: modal verbs

Modal verbs express the degree to which we are willing to entertain other possibilities. Most students use modality in blunt and unsophisticated ways. Students need to be given the opportunity to learn to use modality in more subtle ways as it involves making judgements about personal relationships and how to interact with others in socially appropriate ways, particularly in genres which involve persuading people.

Teachers also need to explore and be aware of the cultural differences that may impact on the patterns of modality.

Using Role Play to act out and discuss real situations where the degree of certainty and the reactions generated can be explored is a fun way to explore the subtle patterns of modality. For example:

Provide students with a few scenarios which employ high modality and then the same scenario using low modality. Discuss the impact of the interactions based on the choice of modality. This is especially important to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to understand the subtleties of language use and appropriate reactions.

Scenarios can become more sophisticated as students and learning needs mature. These role plays can further be complemented using quality literature whereby scenes using degree of modality can be dramatised, or using letters to the editor in newspapers, advertisements and using a combination of multimodal texts whereby modality is used.

Help students create a mind map using modal verbs

Mind map of modal verbs, with the words possibility, permissions, obligation, advice and certainty. Mind map of modal verbs, with the words possibility, permissions, obligation, advice and certainty.
Image: Mind map using modal verbs.
Mind map of modal verbs, with the words would, shall, needn't, mustn't, must, express, can, could (1), could (2) and may branching from the centre Mind map of modal verbs, with the words would, shall, needn't, mustn't, must, express, can, could (1), could (2) and may branching from the centre
Image: Mind map of modal verbs.


A New Grammar Companion for Teachers, Beverly Derewianka 2011, Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA), Sydney


Australian curriculum

ACELA1523 Understand how ideas can be expanded and sharpened through careful choice of verbs, elaborated tenses and a range of adverb groups/phrases.

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 text.

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