Number one for English language teachers

Countability and noun types - tips and activities

Type: Reference material

Tips and activities for teaching countability and noun types.

Activity: New words

When new words come up, teachers will often write them on the board. When you put nouns on the board, write C or U next to it (like in the dictionary). Here, for example, is something a teacher has written on the board connected to the new word 'advice' that came up in class. Aside from only the countable/uncountable issue, she has also written some common collocations with advice.

  • advice (U)
  • a word of advice
  • a piece of advice
  • give advice, take advice

Activity: Not only FOOD

The issue of countability and uncountability for nouns is often addressed at an elementary level and tied in with the topic of food. However, you needn’t restrict yourself to using food to teach about countability. Here are some other common uncountable nouns that might come up with low-level learners:

  1. Weather words  wind, snow, rain, weather 
  2. School words  homework, research, information, knowledge, history, education 
  3. Travel words  baggage, luggage, traffic, transport, tourist information, money 

Other words that could come up in an elementary class are hair, advice, and furniture. When one of these words comes up, it is worthwhile drawing learners’ attention to it and pointing out that it is an uncountable word (and therefore has no plural form).

Activity: Using texts

As with so many other grammar points, the issue of countability can be brought to learners’ attention through texts. Once you have dealt with the meaning of a text (through comprehension questions for example), learners can be asked to find examples of different kinds of noun: a countable noun, an uncountable noun, a noun that can be both countable or uncountable. Attention can also be drawn to the determiners that precede the noun in each case.

Activity: Realia

One way to physically demonstrate countability and uncountability is through realia. Of course, this is where food is the most obvious choice. Real objects can provide a stronger image of something than, say, a picture. To teach countability and uncountability a starting point would be to bring in a collection of different food items.

Once you have established that students know the words for the items, and before you tell them about countable/uncountable, ask them to organize the foods into different categories. For example, food you eat for breakfast, healthy food, food or drink, food you like/hate …

Activity: Variations on the food theme

One classic grammar activity to practise countable/uncountable nouns has been that of the open fridge. Students each have a picture of a fridge full of different food. They must find the differences in their pictures by asking questions, e.g.

How much butter have you got?

or

Have you got five oranges?

If you do not have a picture, you can equally make two lists of things in a fridge (less interesting, but it still works). But if you are tired of the fridge situation, here are variations you can use.

Activity: Supermarket trolleys

Assign different 'character roles' to students: the vegetarian, the meat lover, the junk food addict, the Chinese food fan, etc. Students must not reveal their characters to the others. Tell them to make a list of what’s in their supermarket trolley. Then write the names of the characters on the board. The students must ask questions about what’s in the others’ trolleys to try and guess the character of the other person.

Activity: Miracle diet

Ask the students to work in groups and create a special 'miracle diet'. They must create a typical day’s worth of food for someone following this diet. To give them further ideas you could prepare little cards, each with a food word on it (see below). Give each group one or two of these elements which they must incorporate into their diets. Suggestions for 'miracle diet' foods:

  • rice
  • water
  • bananas
  • carrots
  • artichokes
  • tea

Activity: The picnic drill

Different kinds of drill can be used to practise countable/uncountable nouns. The 'Can I come to the picnic' drill is a common one. Tell students you are having a picnic and that they can come if they bring the right thing. Start by saying 'I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing some rice.' Students continue by repeating what you said and adding another word, e.g 'I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing some rice and some chocolate.' If they say an uncountable noun, tell them that they are welcome to come. If they say a countable noun, tell them sorry, they can’t come. Continue this way until all the students have figured out the puzzle.

Hint: To make it extra hard, you could start by saying that you’re going on a picnic and you’re bringing some furniture or luggage.

Activity: Insurance policy

Another situation that could bring out countable and uncountable nouns would be a visit to an insurance company. One student is the assessor and he/she must decide if other students are 'worthy' of receiving a life insurance policy. To do so, he/she must ask questions to other students about their lifestyles. The questions would focus on the words much/many and countable/uncountable words.

For example:

  • How much/many cigarettes do you smoke a day?
  • How much/many wine do you drink a week?
  • How much/many red meat do you eat a week?
  • How much/many exercise do you get every week?
  • How much/many hours do you sleep every night?
  • How much/many salt do you put on your food?
  • How much/many coffee do you drink a day?

Students interview their partners, then decide which one gets the life insurance policy. And which one(s) are uninsurable!

Activity: A glass vs glass

Many nouns can be both countable and uncountable, depending on whether we see them as units or as mass. For example glass (the material) and a glass (the thing you put juice in). Several of these can be highlighted by using contrasting sentences. For example:

She has short grey hair. She has a short grey hair.
We bought a coffee. We bought coffee.
I don’t have any paper. I don’t have a paper.
Is there potato in this dish? Is there a potato in this dish?
He had a fish for dinner. He had fish for dinner.

You can ask students to explain the difference between each pair of sentences (in English, or if their level isn’t high enough to provide a translation into their own language).

Activity: Original metaphors

You can use lots of uncountable nouns to get students to create their own metaphors. Start by writing 'Knowledge is power' on the board. Ask students to tell you 1) what they understand by the statement and 2) whether they agree or not. Then write the following words on the board:

  1. intelligence
  2. power
  3. energy
  4. love
  5. baggage
  6. information
  7. money
  8. peace
  9. travel
  10. failure
  11. happiness
  12. sadness
  13. health
  14. justice

Ask students to make as many sentences as they can using the same structure as knowledge is power i.e. Noun (U) is Noun (U). Once they have a good list, tell them to explain with examples why they chose those combinations. For example, one class made the following links:

  • Information is power.
  • Love is sadness.
  • Money is love.
  • Peace is happiness.
  • Information is energy.

Higher-level students can generate other metaphors using words they choose themselves.

Note: Many of the words in the list above are in fact countable nouns in other languages (baggage, information, knowledge …).

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