The Internet TESL Journal

Activities to Teach the Count and Noncount Noun Distinction

Ron Belisle
ronb [at]
Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute (Spokane, WA, USA)

Look carefully at these sets of sentences below.

I bought some flour.
I bought some flowers.
My father has company.
My father has a company.
It is in the woods.
It is in the wood.
I need some glass.
I need some glasses.
I like strawberry.
I like strawberries.
I ate hamburger.
I ate a hamburger.
There is none.
There is a nun.
Baseball is popular.
Baseballs are round.
Use some pepper.
Use some peppers.
Orange is beautiful.
Oranges are beautiful.
She likes chicken.
She likes chickens.
You need some peace.
You need some pieces.
I like Apple.
I like apples.

To a Japanese learning English, what is confusing about the pairs of sentences above? Unlike Japanese nouns, English nouns have a count or noncount distinction. In English singular count nouns require some kind of article or determiner as follows: (See exceptions below.*)

To help students understand this important grammatical distinction and to provide ample classroom practice, I introduce the lesson by orally asking the students to translate the following English sentence into Japanese. (I don't write the sentence on the blackboard, but just repeat it orally.)

Yesterday, I bought flour.

Almost always the students translate the sentence incorrectly as follows:

Kino, hana o kaimashita.

The students mistake the word "flour" to mean "flowers."

To provide practice and reinforcement of this grammatical distinction, I use four activities which students enjoy. In addition to teaching the count/noun count distinction, these particular activities also teach the use of the following:

Activity 1: Shopping List Game

Skills taught: Count or noncount distinction.

This is a commonly used activity among ESL teachers that can take various forms.

Students sit or stand in a circle. The teachers starts by saying. "Let's go shopping! Do you like shopping? (Let students respond.) I'm going to buy some ______ ." The teacher says something like "some apples" or "some rice" or another count noun or noncount noun. The student to the left of the teacher has to continue the shopping by saying "I'm going to buy some ______ (what the teacher just said) and some ______ (something new). Then the next student continues by adding another item to the list. "I'm going to buy some ______ and some ______ and some ______ . After about five or six students and when memories begin to falter, the next student can start with a new single item.

This game reinforces the use of count or noncount items related to food or products bought at a store. The teacher's role is to correct the student's grammar. If a student says, "I'm going to buy some egg." The teacher should repeat the correct sentence and have the same student repeat it correctly again.

Activity 2: This is a …

Skills taught: Use of indefinite article, focus question, rejoinder
Items needed: hand held items of singular countable nouns using "a" instead of "an"

Write this on the board:

Student A: This is a ________ .
Student B: A what?
Student A: A _________
Student B: A what?
Student A: A ___________
Student B: Oh! A ________!

This is a rhythm/repetition game in which students stand in a circle, pass items (countable singular nouns) to adjacent students while saying the pattern above. (It's best to use singular count nouns which are short in length and start with a consonant.) Try to get the students to stay in sync.

Activity 3: Let's Go Camping!

Skills taught: countable and uncountable distinction

Write this on the board.

Let's go camping!
My name is ________. I'm going to take a/some ____________.

This is both grammar practice and a kind of language puzzle. Students sit or stand in a circle and practice repeating this sentence using correct English grammar while trying to figure out the puzzle (or pattern) at the same time. Quick movement around the circle and repetition are important. Be sure to let students know that the main purpose is the grammar practice and not to figure out the puzzle, or they will sit and think too long about what to say. The puzzle part involves certain things which are okay to take camping and certain things which are not depending on the first letter of the student's first name.

Each student repeats the sentence above in turn around the circle. The teacher gives correct (grammar and puzzle) examples often. For example, "My name is Ron and I'm going to take some rice. How about Emi?" (Referring to the student to the left of the teacher.) Students should practice repeating the whole sentence inserting whatever noun they want. If Emi does not choose a noun that starts with an "e" (the first letter of her name), then say something like "Good English (if the English is actually correct ), but I'm sorry. You can't take any ________ .

Usually by the first time the circle around two or three students have figured out the pattern. Continue until all (or most understand).

Activity 4: Wally's World

Skills taught: There is/are, much/many, countable/uncountable distinction
Items needed: students

Write this on the board.

In Wally's World there are/is ___________,
but there are/is no ____________ .

This is another grammar practice game with a language puzzle twist. It should be noted that the use of "Wally" has no particular relation to any book or place.  It's purely fictitious I use it because it sounds good to me and it's good pronunciation practice for my students.  Another name could be used instead.

In this game students try to figure out the pattern and all the while they are practicing certain forms and learning to distinguish between countable and uncountable nouns. Quick repetition is important.

Students sit in a circle and in turn repeat the sentence above inserting nouns of their choice. Only nouns which have a double letter (for example, trees) are acceptable in Wally's World, which of course is a fictitious place. The teacher starts with an example. Below are some acceptable ones. You could undoubtedly think of dozens more on the fly.

In Wally's World, there are feet, but there are no hands.
In Wally's World, there is coffee, but there is no tea.
In Wally's World, there are walls, but there are no buildings.
In Wally's World there is beer, but there is no wine.

At first the teacher should occasionally interject an acceptable example for every second or third student to help them try to figure out the pattern. The teacher's role is to correct a student's grammar and to let the student know if their sentence fits the correct pattern. Always be sure that students have the opportunity to repeat the correct grammar form.

One note on this grammatical structure. You many want to mention that in spoken English, the contractual use of "There's + plural noun" is common, for example, "There's five people in the room." or "There's two cars in the parking lot." However, rarely will one hear the non contractual use of sentences like "There is five people in the room" or "There is two cars in the parking lot."

*A few exceptions to the use of articles and determiners before a singular count noun are as follows:
Or when referring to traveling
Or when referring to meals


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. X, No. 4, April 2004