Countable and uncountable nouns is one of the worst taught grammar points in English. Typical mistakes include:
- Telling students that "uncountable" means you can’t count something when in fact you could quite easily count rice and pasta
- Asking students to classify things as countable and uncountable without giving them any help doing so or going on to make useful generalisations from those classifications
- Asking students to classify things as countable or uncountable when they are actually both, e.g. some chicken/ a chicken and some coffee/ two coffees
- Asking students to correct things that aren’t really errors, e.g. "some works", which could mean artworks
- Explaining why nouns logically must be uncountable when they are actually countable in other languages (unless teachers are just trying to say English is more logical and therefore a better language!)
- Not offering students easy ways out, e.g. missing out tactics like making things countable with "a piece of"/ "pieces of" and choosing to use countable nouns with the same meaning in the place of uncountable ones
- Teaching that s is always used with "many" and countable nouns, then having to deal with student errors like "some sheeps" and "some childs" later
- Teaching that s is never used with uncountable nouns and later having to deal with examples like "some paints" where "some" means "some different kinds of"
- Teaching "rules" rather than patterns/ useful generalisations
- Giving them prohibitions rather than language, e.g. telling them "You can’t say ‘a bread’" rather than "You can say ‘a slice of bread’ or ‘a loaf of bread’"
- Missing that some common student mistakes are due to confusing an irregular plural with an uncountable noun, e.g. "There is some children" x and "Did you catch much fish?" (which would give me the rather unpleasant image of bits of fish rather than whole ones on my hook!)
What we need to teach students
Defining words as countable and uncountable
- Although it is sometimes connected to actually being able to count something (e.g. literally pointing and going "one, two, three") or not, "uncountable" is a grammatical term that simply means you cannot put a number directly in front of the nouns, unless the meaning is "kinds of" as in "There are seven gases in this test tube". This also means that uncountable nouns don’t have a +s or other plural form, and that they take the singular form of verbs, as in "There is some cheese".
- Words which are often uncountable include sports, isms and other abstract nouns, and things we think of as substances (e.g. liquids and gases).
- There is also a general pattern of uncountable nouns being used for general categories and the things in that category being countable, e.g. "some luggage" for the category and "some suitcases", "some rucksacks" etc for the examples.
- There are many times when both countable and uncountable forms of nouns exist with different meanings, e.g. "some staff" (= employees)/ "some staffs" (= some large sticks) and "some paper" (e.g. photocopy paper)/ "some papers" (= some official papers, research papers or newspapers).
- There is also a subcategory of these kinds of nouns, ones which become countable in particular circumstances, usually as shorthand for something e.g. "two beers" meaning "two pints of beer" and "two ice creams" meaning "two ice cream cones". People who often use things are more likely to make them countable, e.g. a customer might say "two glasses of water" and the waiter then shout "two waters" when they get to the kitchen.
- There are times when it isn’t clear if a noun is countable or uncountable because it varies by dialect and/or is changing, e.g. "some data is"/ "some data are".
Other grammar/ Collocations
- Students will need to know typical phrases to make uncountable nouns countable, e.g. "a carton" for milk and "a sheet" for paper
- Uncountable nouns are usually used with no article when talking about things generally, even in cases when you can use "the" with countable nouns as in "The lion is the king of the jungle". This means that "the" with uncountable nouns almost always means a specific thing, e.g. "the rice" meaning specific rice such as the rice I was just talking about.
- "Many" and "much" with positive statements is rare, especially in conversational English. For example, "I have much free time" would almost always be "I have lots of/ a lot of free time".
- Many uncountable nouns can be made countable by just adding "a piece of"/ "pieces of". Similar phrases like "loaf" should also be taught as things to help students rather than as just another thing to learn.
- It is also useful to point out that there are pairs of countable and uncountable nouns with the same or similar meanings such as "some staff"/ "some employees", meaning they can choose to use whichever they find easier to remember.
- "Stuff" can be used to talk about uncountable substances, in the same way as "thing" is used to talk about countable objects
Presenting countable and uncountable nouns
My favourite start to a lesson on this grammar point is eliciting or presenting nouns which can be both countable and uncountable, e.g. asking them to draw some pizzas/ some pizza, some apple/ some apples, etc. Higher level classes could match work/ works, air/ airs etc with their two different meanings. Students can then use these examples to make generalisations about whether they personally are more likely to need to say "some work" or "some works" etc, and then make the same judgements about other things like "some watermelon" or "some watermelons" and "some paper" or "some papers". Although this might seem more complicated that trying to present clear examples of nouns that are just countable or uncountable, giving the "exceptions" (which are actually very common) first is the only way of avoiding them coming up with questions like "Isn’t it okay to say ‘two beers’?" to mess up your nice tidy explanation and boardwork.
You can take a more TTT (Test Teach Test) approach by asking them to find things they did more than their partner last week/ weekend with "How much/ How many" questions and then elicit which nouns they could use in those questions and why.
Another option is to get them using some countable and uncountable nouns you give them and then ask them to recall and analyse the grammar of the nouns they were using in the next stage of the lesson. For example, they could spend five or ten minutes miming sentences on the worksheet you give them like "You are going to cut some wood" for their partner to guess, then turn the handout over and try to remember the forms they were using, e.g. by selecting from "You are going to cut some woods/ some wood". After checking their answers they can try to analyse why that form was used each time. The fact that they are asked to remember or work out what the forms in the original sentences were rather than to choose which are wrong means it is much easier to create example sentences than it would be if the teacher had to search for twenty sentences which are actually wrong. It also means you can deal with rules, generalisations and differences in meaning all at the same time.
Many other popular TEFL games are adaptable in this way, e.g. the definitions game. Give students some nouns, approximately half countable and half uncountable, and ask them to define which one they have chosen without saying that noun until their partner works out what they are speaking about. They then turn over the worksheet and try to add "some", "a" and "s" to make them the same as the forms they were using before.
A similar activity where they use the language straightaway and work out the patterns for themselves later is to dictate examples of something until they work out what the category is, e.g. "hotels", "B&Bs", "youth hostels" etc for "accommodation". You can then help them spot the general pattern of which words are uncountable (the general categories) and which are countable (the specific examples). The exact same activity works for phrases to make things countable, e.g. guessing that "a slice", "a crumb" and "a loaf" are all talking about bread.
Another way of introducing uncountable words for general categories is to get the students to match categories and examples, brainstorm more examples for each category, and then label each word as countable or uncountable.
For countable and uncountable nouns that mean the same thing, they can match them (e.g. "staff" with "employee"), try to spot that there is one uncountable noun and one countable noun in each pair, and then try to guess which is which each time. They then turn over the worksheet and try to remember which nouns are countable and which aren’t, e.g. by adding "some", "a" and/ or "s" to the right nouns.
You could also add a Webquest component to a TTT lesson, e.g. by asking them choose which is more popular from "some cheese"/ "some cheeses", "some air"/ "some airs" etc, then to use a search engine to find out.
Practising countable and uncountable nouns
As at the presentation stage, often the most useful things they can do are brainstorming, categorising, matching, drawing and miming. Miming and drawing can be made more fun by also giving them sentences to act out which are unlikely but not actually impossible like "I ate lots of pizzas" and "I put some glasses in the window".
You can also base your practice activities on topics that are likely to bring up lots of countable and uncountable nouns. These include holidays (e.g. complaints), cooking, stocking up, packing, things on your CV, the economy, and things in the home. For example, students can decide together what to take with them from a crashed plane before they try to cross the desert to the nearest town, what to take backpacking, or how to stock their shop. You could also teach them opinions language and then ask them to rank lists of countable and uncountable nouns, e.g. "money", "nice friends" and "appearance" for a possible future wife or husband.
Other activities you can do with the topic of food are describing recipes, deciding on how much food is needed for a particular event, and brainstorming uses for amounts of food such as "a teaspoon of salt" and "lots of milk".
It takes some setting up, but the famous Yes/ No questions guessing game Twenty Questions can be adapted for this grammar point. For example, you can ask students to guess which place is being thought of by asking questions like "Is there much natural light?" and "Are there many people?"
Asking questions can also be turned into more of a roleplay, e.g. by asking them to continue asking questions until they find out what is wrong with the flat they are thinking of buying, holiday they have been recommended or job they are interviewing for. This can be given more of a grammar focus by telling the person asking questions whether the problem is related to a countable or uncountable noun.
You can also do more personalised activities. Give students a mix of countable and uncountable nouns and/ or expressions that go with them like "one or two", "a dozen" and "a carton of". They then work together to find things in common with their partner related to those words (e.g. "I get through two cartons of milk a week" "Me too!"), try to find things where their amount is bigger than their partner’s, or try to make true sentences about their partner.