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Determiners: What are they?
Determiners are scattered across almost every sentence and many of us are blissfully unaware of it.
Determiners are words placed in front of a noun or noun phrase to make it clear which object is being referred to. They are said to “mark” nouns or noun phrases (a posh way of saying determiners are followed by a noun/noun phrase).
To make this a bit more understandable, a few examples might help. Determiners tell the reader we’re referring to:
- a specific or general thing – the classroom or a classroom
- how many – lots of students, several books
- something we’re pointing at – this work, that display
- something owned by someone – his pen, her homework
- a set number of objects – two chairs, three desks
- questions – which chair, what pen –
The choice of determiner to precede a noun/noun phrase is usually not a problem for native English speakers. However, it can be an issue for EAL students particularly for students from eastern European countries, where languages have an altogether different system of determiners.
There are a number of different types, the most common being:
- Articles. These refer to a specific or general thing – the classroom or a classroom. There are only three articles: a, an and the
- Quantifiers. These refer to how many – lots of students, several books –
- Demonstratives. These refer to something we’re pointing at – this work, that display –
- These Possessives. These refer to something owned by someone – his pen, her homework –
- Numbers – two chairs, three desks –
- Questions – which chair, what pen –
- Distributives – all, both, half, either, neither, each, every –
- Difference words – other, another
- Pre-determiners – such, what, rather, quite
Most categories have only a limited number of members. This limited nature of most categories helps explain why determiners are set apart from adjectives even though both serve a modifying function.
In contrast, there are always new adjectives being invented – a new entry in the OED in 2019 was bowfing = Foul-smelling, stinking.
Determiners in Primary School
Determiners are taught as part of the Year 4, Year 5 and Year 6 grammar curriculum.
How are determiners tested in KS2?
A Year 6 SPaG test may feature questions:
- Underline all the determiners in the following sentence:
Chen kicked his football into the goal. (Answers: his, the)
- Insert determiners into the spaces in the following sentence:
Jennifer went to _____ shops to see if she could find ______ present for _______ parents. (Possible answers: the/a/her)
The national curriculum does refer to articles and to determiners separately. Students should therefore be comfortable in understanding that articles are a type of determiner.
It’s really easy to get confused between determiners and pronouns as they can be the same words and depend solely on context.
- “This work is excellent”
- “This is excellent work”
In 1. “this” is acting as a determiner as it is helping to identify the noun (here “work”)
In 2. “this” is acting as a pronoun as it is the subject of the sentence.
How students are taught about determiners in school.
Teachers may use any of the following to discuss and learn about determiners:
- Set worksheets that imitate the Year 6 grammar test like above
- Ask students to pick out determiners in a class text
- Set a challenge to include as many determiners as possible in 5 sentences
- Use Grammar with Emile to test and consolidate their understanding
An Example Determiner Lesson Plan
What students will learn:
- How to identify determiners within a sentence
- How to use determiners within sentences
Project a picture of many minions.
Ask for someone to point to the minion. When they choose one, tell them they choose the wrong one.
Explore what went wrong here. You wanted a specific minion. How would you better ask the question to indicate you had a specific minion in mind?
“This minion”, “the blue minion”, “a minion with glasses”, “any minion”, “that minion”
Be careful not to confuse adjectives here too much, try to show that the determiners are helping to clarify to what noun you are referring to.
Main Activity 1:
Working in pairs distribute sentences featuring different determiners and ask them to circle the determiners:
A big minion has turned purple
The minion with the most hair
Those minions are being silly
Two minions are sticking their tongues out
Main Activity 2:
Ask students to write 5 sentences with as many determiners in as possible. Can anyone achieve a score of 20 determiners?
Main Activity 3:
Using the class reading book, or paragraphs linked to the current class topic, ask them to circle as many determiners as possible.
Extending more able students:
- Ask more able to students to underline the articles “a”, “an” or “the” and ask how “an” and “a” work differently from “the” (grammatically classified as indefinite and definite articles respectively) .
Types of Determiners
For those that want to know a little more about each of the most common categories of possessives:
Articles are among the most common of the determiners. There are three singular articles: a, an, and the.
A and an are indefinite articles and are used when the speaker is talking about a general version of the noun. For example: a student in year 6 needs to work hard to do well in their SATs.
The sentence is talking about any student. When the meaning is general, an indefinite article is used. Of course, a is used before words that begin with consonants while an is used before words that begin with vowels.
On the other hand, the is a definite article, and is used when the speaker is referring to a specific noun. For example: the student needs to work harder to do well in their SATs.
The sentence is referring to a particular student. It’s not a general statement, but a statement about a specific student.
There are four demonstratives: this, that, these and those.
Demonstratives are used where the speaker can point to the item they mean. For example: That student.
This and these refer to objects nearby; that and those refer to items far away. This and that are also singular while these and those are plural.
Quantifiers indicate how much or how little of the noun which is being referred to. They include words such as all, few and many. For example: few students like doing SATs
Please note that all can be used with other determiners to specify which particular items are meant, for example: all of the students.
Possessives refer to a noun that belongs to someone or something. Possessives include my, your, his, her, its, our, and their. For example: My students are well behaved.