Using abstract nouns to access symbolic meaning

I’ve been meaning to write up this lesson as I love reading other English teachers’ blogs about how they teach, like @Mrs Spalding, @Xris32, @mr_englishteach, @englishlulu, @FKRitson and @fod3 among others. I shamelessly borrow ideas and resources from these fab teachers, sharing with my team and trying out different methods and ideas, but have always been time-poor or fought shy of sharing my own lessons as they always seem so obvious!

So this is a thought I had, which I trialled with a Year 9 mixed ability class late last term as a way of accessing symbolic meaning through the use of abstract nouns. It seemed to work really well. The identification and use of abstract nouns unlocked conceptual thinking and more thoughtful analysis.  It’s so simple that I’m sure many other English teachers out there are doing it already, but my team really liked it when I shared it, so I thought I would put it out there.

The lesson went something like this:

I started by defining the terms symbolism, concrete noun and abstract noun. Then students were given an extract from ‘Of Mice and Men’ (Crooks’ room) and asked to identify key concrete nouns in the extract.

We then translated the concrete to the abstract eg. Crooks’ spectacles = vision. It got them to the conceptual level quickly and once they were off, they got better and better!  I’ve included the slides from the lesson which we co-constructed as a class. We ended the lesson by creating a class paragraph. I deliberately asked some of the lower level students to start us off and kept it simple and accessible.  Students then went on to write two more of their own paragraphs independently next lesson using the same method, many of which were far more sophisticated than the rather basic class paragraph. They were also able to transfer their use of abstract nouns to future analysis and to understand and refer to symbolism as a technique, improving their end of unit assessment essays. This method also avoided the use of PEA or PETAL which can be restrictive for some students (though a useful scaffold for others).

I found it also linked well to the use of nouns for achieving academic register by using nominalisation (turning verbs into nouns) which I had also explored with this class.         See – Nominalisation for academic writing –  Examples given:

Crime was increasing rapidly and the police were becoming concerned = The rapid increase in crime was causing concern among the police.

Germany invaded Poland in 1939. This was the immediate cause of the Second World War breaking out.  = Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 was the immediate cause of the outbreak of the Second World War.

Any feedback on this method would be more than welcome! I will be using this with other classes in future as it worked so well for my Year 9s. The lesson notes are below:

Symbolism in ‘Of Mice and Men’

Focusing on concrete nouns & abstract nouns to access symbolic meaning

Symbolism = the use of symbols or signs to represent ideas, qualities or themes eg. heart = love, animal = human, light = hope, cards = game of life, stars = dreams, chains = being trapped

noun = object, person, place, animal, thing, name – a noun tells you what a sentence is talking about

concrete noun = something your senses can perceive eg. table, concrete, pen, wall, lunch, cheeseburger, earrings, shark.

abstract noun = something intangible, that your senses cannot perceive – a thought or feeling eg. sadness, love, anger, disgust, happiness, misery, beauty, hope.

What Year 9 came up with …



  • Example of use of the ‘concrete to abstract nouns’ method in a subsequent essay from a mid-level student:

At the start of the novella, Steinbeck suggests there may be a mere glimmer of hope for Lennie, George and the other migrant workers: “the water is warm too […] it slipped twinkling over the yellow sand in the sunlight.” The use of alliteration and sibilance echoes the sound of the twinkling water, while the ‘yellow sand’ and ‘sunlight’ may represent hope and the warm water might reflect that this place could be peaceful and a safe haven. The water could represent their life at this point when they stop in the brush as it is simple, calm and flowing, although it may also be ‘slipping’ away from them like water, representing the inevitable cycle of life.

I will try and update with more examples as I mark more of their assessments!



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