Nouns and only nouns

Students are asked to communicate using a bank of nouns - and nothing else.


  • Communicate with a partner using only nouns.
  • Discuss what can and can't be easily expressed using only nouns.
  • Determine which other types of words are useful for expressing complex ideas.

Lesson Plan

The teacher explains that this activity will involve you trying to express progressively more complicated concepts and actions to a partner using only these words, your own body language and imagination.

For this task students will need to split into pairs (or threes). Slide 1 in the Activity page in the right hand menu presents 20 nouns. Using only the 20 nouns in the table and no other words or versions of these words, students will need to communicate some basic ideas to a partner.

The ideas to be communicated appear below, and can also be printed as cards using the pdf attached at the bottom of this page. After printing the cards, one student should take a card and – without showing their partner what is on it – try to communicate the idea on the card to them. The partner should write down what they think is being communicated. Allow a maximum of 1 minute on each of these to keep the pace up.

Here are the nouns:

food house man door
cat ball woman tree
dog name child table
your name mouse baby mouth
foot ground sky face

Here are the instructions on the cards.

Express to your partner that...

  1. you are hungry
  2. it is your birthday
  3. a dog is chasing a cat
  4. a dog is being chased by a cat
  5. you were sad but now you are happy
  6. a dog is running quickly
  7. some dogs are chasing some cats who are chasing a mouse
  8. you would like to play football
  9. you want to know their name
  10. a tree near your house has been cut down


What did the activity reveal? How easy was it for you to express your ideas in a way that your partner understood? Now make a list of some of the ideas you found it trickiest to express and think about why that might be.

Perhaps you noticed that, while body language is useful for some things, it can’t always help with concepts like time (past, future, etc.), or intentions that you have for the future.

How did you express your attitudes or feelings towards something? It’s easy enough when you can use facial expressions and gesture, but what about when you try to explain certainty or possibility?

You might also have noticed that when we change round who is doing the action, as in examples 3 and 4, the concepts change, despite the nouns being the same. You might have found this difficult to express too.

And what about saying that there is more than one of something: plurals, like dogs or mice?

How do you communicate concepts like happy, sad or quickly?

So, which other types of words (in addition to nouns) would make it easier to communicate these ideas? In English we also have a range of other word classes available to use and they tend to fill the gaps that you have just been looking at. 

The thinking behind this activity is that it will start to stimulate ideas about the role grammar plays in our communication. While we have words and non-verbal communication (facial expression, pointing and other gestures), we need grammar to create more sophisticated ideas.

In a paper about teaching English as a foreign language, Richard Cullen states that ‘without any grammar, the learner is forced to rely exclusively on lexis and the immediate context, combined with gestures, intonation and other prosodic and non-verbal features, to communicate his/her intended meanings’.

This activity highlights the potential of language to communicate much more than just information about what is around us or what we are doing. It can go beyond that to convey a range of other concepts, all of which are explored in different parts of the Englicious website:

  • time and tense
  • aspectuality and aspect
  • modality
  • morphology
  • agency

Rather than starting with the terminology, we aim to provide a more organic approach, where ideas about the different functions of language are introduced, exemplified in context and discussed with some linguistic terminology.


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