Realisations about Nominalisations

From ‘Getting to grips with useful grammar’ – A crash course for using grammar as a tool to analyse language. Published by Harry Robertson

Tonight at our PETAA ‘Grammar and Teaching’ course with Jo Rossbridge we were empowered by learning to nominalise. It will, apparently stand us all in good stead if we become politicians because we will be able to obscure our meaning as we turn our collections of simple sentences into more abstract ones. Conversely, in being aware that nominalising is a trick of the trade, we may be more sceptical and delve into the backgrounds of speakers to know their context and therefore better decipher the true meaning of their messages.

Watch these steps;

Mothers of newborn babies nagged politicians successfully for longer paid maternity leave.
(active voice – person or thing doing the action comes first in the clause)

Longer paid maternity leave was successfully nagged for by mothers of newborn babies. (passive voice – the theme is the thing being affected by the action comes first)

Persistent lobbying led to longer paid maternity leave for new mothers. (nominalisation – ‘lobbying’ the noun, being a more accurate term for the process of badgering politicians)

The last sentence in being nominalised is more abstract because the noun ‘lobbying’ is a particular process, an idea, and a technical term. The information has been condensed and so it is lexically denser and is not as explicit and finally, as there are no actors – there is no one to blame.

Jo Rossbridge says that using nominalisation helps writers and speakers to pack more into their sentences and clauses. This is because we group the information into larger noun groups, throw in more embedded clauses, ellipse the subjects leaving out unnecessary pronoun repetitions and move the action or event to be the subject (theme) of the sentence giving room for another idea to be added into the sentence.

If we ask;

  • In which stage should we begin to teach this?
  •  In which KLAs should we focus on nominalisation?
  • Which sort of texts will be more likely to employ this technique?

We need to also ask when are our students exposed to nominalised words? The NSW K-10 English syllabus suggests that we begin to teach nominalisation in Stage 3. It so happens that our students are exposed to nominalised words, abstract ideas, from much earlier than Stage 3. Most of the concepts that we are teaching across the KLAs in all stages, the big ideas, are nominalisations. Look at the Maths and Science syllabus as well as History and Geography themes.

Nominalisation is present across all the stages of schooling so from quite early on we need to teach our students to listen or read and unpack the abstract or technical terms. In early Stage 1 last year one teacher was teaching our students to superposition and superimpose to compare the areas of surfaces. Right from the start we introduce and teach what these terms mean and we are using nominalisation.

So what are the processes? We start with ‘hands-on’ processes. For superpositioning and superimposing the teacher modelled with towels of three different sizes, she then gave the students different sizes of paper to play with. As the students manipulated the areas of paper into their positions they used the terms, ‘superposition’ and ‘superimpose’ in sentences as they did so – “Superimposing is comparing the size of two areas by putting one area on top of the other”. They were using nominalisation to explain what they were doing in Kindergarten and at the same time learning and explaining technical terms.The teacher did not expect the students to write these words but she repeated them until they could use them and explain what they meant.

Superimposing – the comparison of areas by placing one area on top of another.
This image of a rectangle has another smaller rectangle placed upon it to depict superimposing.

Superpositioning – the comparison of areas by aligning the edges (or corners) of two areas when one is placed on top of the other.
This image of a rectangle has a smaller rectangle placed upon it aligned with the bottom left corner.

In later years we would expect these students to use nominalised words and sentences in their writing. Jo suggests that they learn the vocabulary through unpacking related rich texts as well as hands on experiences and so we front-load this vocabulary. We can then unpack these more difficult  words into plain speech using common nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs to help to explain their meaning.

When we do give students opportunities to write we need to show them how! We cannot expect them to know what to do without modelling it for them. We need to deconstruct an example and then jointly construct our writing. Jo says that joint construction is the step between speaking and writing. Our children may know the information but they will have no idea how to represent their knowledge unless we show them how. We need to teach all writing, and in particular nominalisation, explicitly.

Nominalisation is hugely important.We need to support our students to be able to unpack nominalised sentences and writing. It is very different from their everyday conversational spoken language and it is so lexically dense and abstract that it can be difficult to understand. From very early on we need to give our students guidance to unpack the nominalisations they are reading and teach them to use them in their own writing. Nominalisations are used increasingly to express abstract ideas, arguments, reasons, causes and issues across all the learning areas in our students’ trajectory from the early years of school through to tertiary education.


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