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How to Teach Single and Plural Nouns
In English, we often alter the form of nouns to show whether we are referring to one or more than one instance of the noun. For example, one cat refers to a single instance of a cat, whereas cats refers to more than one. While English marks the difference between one and two or more of an item, other languages may not mark this difference, or have a more complex system. Russian, for instance, marks nouns differently for one, two to four, or five or more of the same noun.
When to Teach
The idea of plural nouns is typically taught near the start of beginner level courses and may be reinforced in an elementary course. Once the regular rules have been learnt, a teacher may just point out irregular plural forms as new words are introduced at higher levels.
Ideally, before introducing plural nouns, the singular versions will have been taught. Also useful are some numbers so that students will be able to use these in combination with the plural forms.
As mentioned above, the key meaning of a plural noun is to distinguish that the speaker is referring to more than one of an item.
Countable nouns typically have a singular and a plural form. Some nouns that are usually uncountable can also have countable usages, in which case they tend to follow the regular rules for producing their plural form.
The singular form is typically the citation form that is found in the dictionary. For example:
The regular rule for forming plurals in English is to add -s after the base form. For example, dog becomes dogs.
Some words however require -es. Any noun ending in -ch, -x, -sh, -ss, -s or -z will require an -es (watches, foxes, bushes, classes, buses, quizzes). Notice also that quiz requires a second -z.
Nouns ending with -o either require -s or -es. The simple way to tell is whether it has a vowel before the -o or a consonant. A vowel would mean that it only requires -s (stereos) whereas a consonant would require -es (tomatoes).
Words ending in a -y will also change depending on whether the -y is preceded by a vowel or consonant. If a vowel, only an -s is needed (days). If a consonant, the -y is replaced with an -i and -es is added to the end (babies).
Nouns ending with an -f or -fe also have more complicated rules. The -f will be changed to a -v and -es or -s will be added so that in both cases the ending becomes -ves (knives, wolves).
Some nouns that have come into the language from Latin or Greek retain their own rules for forming the plural form (fungi, stadia, data)
Some plurals in English do not follow such nice rules. These are irregular nouns and include such examples as children, mice, and sheep. In some cases, these irregular nouns do not change. Many of these are very common words and therefore are a source of frustration to new students of English.
Some uncountable nouns can have countable uses. In this case they tend to take an -s (times, sugars, coffees).
Finally, there exist some nouns in English that only appear in a plural form (scissors, mathematics, trousers).
When applying the regular rules for making plural nouns, there are generally three sounds that students will need to make /z/, /s/ or /ɪz/.
The /z/ sound occurs after a voiced consonant, while the /s/ phoneme will occur after an unvoiced consonant.
The /ɪz/ sound adds an additional syllable to the word. It appears where a noun ends -ch, -x, -sh, -ss, -s or -z. For example, in buses, but not in clothes.
Problems for Students
Students often find the treatment of plurals in English confusing. In particular:
- Whether a noun is countable or uncountable may not be the same as in their L1;
- Irregular plurals cause particular difficulty for students in remembering their forms and which relates to singular or plural;
- Adding -s to irregular plural forms (childrens);
- Nouns that have come from other languages may lose their foreign language endings (focuses vs foci) or take on a singular form even though they are originally plural (a criteria).
- Ensuring the verb following a single or plural noun is correctly conjugated.
With young learners, animals are a common theme for introducing or practising singular and plural forms. Many irregular plural forms occur with animals such as mice, geese, sheep and fish. Not to mention that parts of animals would also likely lead to including feet and teeth.
Another common context for plurals with young learners is body parts as students will learn to say that they have two eyes, ten fingers but only one nose.
Food is another strong theme to introduce singular and plurals. However, food also uncovers one of the common problems that students have. Typically, many foods are uncountable such as bread, cheese or coffee. Each of these can be used countably though, with a supermarket boasting of having a wide range of breads and cheeses or somebody ordering three coffees in a cafe.
The most effective way of presenting plural nouns is likely to be using visuals such as pictures or realia. As plurals are often taught on beginner courses, students should really know the singular form of the nouns for the objects selected. Typical items could therefore be classroom objects (pens, tables, students), fruit (apples, bananas, oranges), animals (dogs, cats, rabbits) or body parts (eyes, ears, legs).
During the presentation stage, you are likely to need to show students one of the item, and then two or more of the item.
Classroom/School (Photo) Hunt
Make a list of items that are in the classroom or in the school. The students could go around the school to see how many of different items they can find and write this number. They should then be able to report back with this number.
Alternatively, you could give students different lists and tell them to take pictures of the items. One student may have chair, for example, while another has chairs. Students need to pay attention to the plural forms to ensure their pictures are correct and they finish fastest.
Another variation on this would be provide instructions for a photograph to be taken that must include a number of objects, some of which are in the singular and others in the plural. Students should first find the items and then take a photograph that includes them all.
For this you need to prepare some pictures which have either a singular item on them or several of that item. Students then sort them into singular or plural.
Another sorting activity would be to sort the pictures according to their plural ending (-s, -es, -ves, -ies, or irregular).
To help students hear the plural forms you could use bingo. For this, you would need to either prepare bingo cards or have students write 5 nouns from a list (of about 12 – 6 x singular, 6 x corresponding plurals). You call the words one by one in any order (note the words you have said). The first student to hear all of their words and tick them on their bingo card or list wins. Students can then take over calling out the words in their group.
Alien Guess Who
For this game, you need to create a number of pictures of aliens with differing numbers of facial features. For example, one may have three noses and six eyes, while another has four mouths and eight ears. A student then chooses one of the aliens and the other students have to ask questions to work out which of the aliens they are thinking of.
Songs are a great source of language. Because listening is enjoyable (subject to taste), students often don’t mind listening to songs repeatedly. Therefore they come to know the lyrics, which if containing clear examples of a language point, provide memorable examples for students.
Virtually every song contains plural nouns, or at least singular nouns. One easy to generate activity could be to take the lyrics to a song that students like, replace the nouns with a choice between their singular and plural forms and give it to the students. Have students try to guess if it is plural or singular first from any contextual clues and then have them listen to check.