How to teach English plurals
Summary: Teaching tips, games and other classroom activities for regular and irregular plural nouns.
Plurals can be both the first grammar that language learners study in English and a continuing source of confusion years later with points like “two fish” and “mediums/ media”. There is already an article on this site called How to Teach Irregular Plurals, so this article mainly concentrates on regular plurals. However, almost all of the teaching ideas would also work with a mix of regular and irregular plurals.
What students need to know about English plurals
When I first started planning this article, I assumed I would write first about how to form English plurals. However, when I started making a list of the most useful plurals at each level (see below) it was striking how few useful ones for lower levels there are which don’t just take -s. I shouldn’t have been surprised given that my students only occasionally make mistakes with making plurals, and much more commonly use the singular when a plural is needed. Students therefore first of all need to learn when to use plural forms, preferably doing to first of all with some familiar nouns which they already know how to make the plural of. Common collocations with plural nouns which are useful even for low level learners include:
- Numbers (“Two…”, etc) and similar expressions (“a couple of”, “a few”, “some “, “a lot of”, etc)
- “How many…?”
- “They are…”
- “These/ Those are…”
- “There are (some/ a few/ several/ two/ a couple of/ -n’t any/ no)…”
- “I like…”
- Present Simple verbs without third person S (“The… have…”, etc)
Those are also all good points to teach with, just before or just after plural nouns.
Those collocations with plural nouns can be contrasted with similar forms which need singular nouns, such as:
- “It is…”
- “This/ That is…”
- “(There is/ I have/ Would you like/ Can I have) a/ an/ one…”
- Present Simple verbs with third person S (“The… wears…”, etc)
After some practice putting the singular or basic “…s” form plurals into the right places in such phrases, students are probably ready to do the same with slightly more difficult regular plurals. The other regular endings are “-es” (as in “passes”) and “-ies” (“parties”, etc), of which the priority is probably teaching “-es”. When “-es” is added to a noun, it is pronounced “iz” (like the verb “is”). This happens after sounds which are similar to “s” such as “sh”, “ch”, “z” and “j”, presumably due to the difficulty or impossibility of pronouncing “-s” directly after those sounds without an extra sound in between. For example, pronouncing “hutchs” as one syllable with the “s” sound directly after “ch” is almost impossible, and clearly “passs” would sound exactly the same as “pass” (because length of consonant doesn’t matter in English). Due to the vowel sound in “iz”, these kinds of “-es” endings add one syllable to the word (unlike the other regular endings “-s” and “-ies”). For example, if we look at the plurals of the one-syllable words “head”, “fly” and “glass”, “heads” and “flies” still have one syllable, but “glasses” has two syllables. Both this added syllable and the kinds of sounds “-es” is added to are exactly the same as the rules for adding “-es” endings to Present Simple verbs like “He preaches…” and “It passes…”, so “-es” endings with plurals could be taught with, before or after that point.
Something that I hadn’t noticed until making the lists of useful plurals below is how many of the most useful words with “-iz” endings and an added syllable actually already end in “-e” and so only have “-s” added, as in “cases” and “colleges”. This means that the spelling of the plural affix gives no clue as to the pronunciation, as there are also plenty of words ending in “-e” that therefore have “-es” endings in the plural when an “-s” is added but don’t need an extra syllable such as “eyes” and “games”.
“-es” is also added to some words ending in “-o” such as “tomatoes”, but this doesn’t change the pronunciation, even native speakers make mistakes with it and many that can end in “-oes” are also correct with “-os”, so I wouldn’t spend much or any class time on this pattern.
“-ies” endings are much easier but less important than “-es” endings, as they are simply a spelling change with words that end in “-y” such as “flies” and “ponies”. The main difficulty for students is nouns which end in “-y” but don’t follow this rule, namely ones with a vowel sound before “-y” like “plays” and “boys”.
After mastering “-s”, “-es” and “-ies”, students should then be ready to be introduced to irregular plurals. There are few important irregular plurals at low levels and most of those don’t follow any particular rule (as with “children” and “people”). Therefore to start with it is probably enough to tell students that some plurals don’t follow the regular rules and need to be learnt one by one just as they would learn other irregular forms such as irregular comparative adjectives (“better”, etc) and irregular past participles (“been”, etc).
Higher level learners should be able to work out patterns such as words ending with “-f” often (but not always) taking “-ves”. These rules and ideas for how to teach them are given in the article How to Teach Irregular Plurals on this site.
Kind of on the cusp between regular and irregular plurals (but trickier and less important than either) is plurals of longer expressions like “brothers-in-law”, “passers-by” and “postmen”.
Something else that will come up very early but probably won’t need actual teaching until somewhat later is words which are always plural in English and so need plural forms of the verb as in “The trousers/ scissors/ headquarters are…” Students might need help distinguishing these from singular and uncountable nouns that end in “-s” which need third person S like “The news is bad”.
If you have previously taught plurals with the help of textbooks or pronunciation books, you are probably surprised that I haven’t yet mentioned that final “-s” can be pronounced either “s” or “z” depending on whether it follows an unvoiced sound (“cap”/ “caps”) or voiced sound (“cab”/ “cabs” and “tree”/ “trees”). The reason for this getting such a late mention in this article is that I think actively teaching “s/ z” endings is a complete waste of time. This is because students can usually pick it up naturally (as it is more difficult to pronounce “s” after a voiced sound and “z” after an unvoiced sound), misunderstandings due to getting it wrong or mishearing it are extremely unlikely, and it is easily corrected as you go along. If students do need an explanation, it is simply that the unvoiced sound “s” follows unvoiced sounds and the voiced sound “z” follows voiced sounds, presumably because it is easier not to have change the voicing as you speak.
Typical student problems with plurals
As mentioned above, the most common student problem with plurals is simply using a singular noun when a plural is needed in errors like “There are two convenience store in my street” X, “How many sister do you have?” X and “I like apple” X. This is common with the many students whose first languages rarely or never use plural forms, but the same kinds of errors are also made by all language learners and English-speaking children. Students also often make the related mistake of using the plural but then not matching words around it in sentences like “Was there many people there?” X
Although it less of a problem than with other English final consonant clusters like “fifth” and “prompt”, students can sometimes have problems pronouncing the singular and plural with the same number of syllables, producing unnecessary “-iz” endings that sound like the plural should be spelt “chaires” or “cupes”. Students whose languages’ spellings are more phonetic than English can also sometimes pronounce “-es” ending as they are written, with “e” and “s” sounds (rhyming with “bless”) instead of “i” and “z”.
Other possible pronunciation problems tend to sort themselves out over time without too much specific practice, if only because the plurals are usually pronounced the way they are in English specifically because they are easier to say that way. More common can be spelling problems like “beachs”, “butterflys” and “sunrais”.
More seriously, practice of singular and plural is almost certain to lead to problems with uncountable nouns like “I like ice creams” X and “How many free times do you have?” X Students studying plurals for the first time are usually not ready to deal with uncountable nouns yet, so all you can do is plan the lesson carefully to give your class lots of countable things to talk about and ignore any uncountable noun problems that come up during communication. However, at higher levels an activity or lesson on distinguishing irregular plurals like “sheep” and “media” from uncountable nouns like “pork” and “information” can be very useful.
How to present plural nouns
Even students who speak languages in which plural forms are rarely or never used don’t seem to have any problem getting their head around the fact that nouns used about one thing (“a plate”, etc) are different from those used to talk about two or more things (“two plates”, “some plates”, etc). However, possibly because of how unnecessary the plural form usually is to actually communicate what you want to say, students will need a lot of drilling, correction and time before they get used to adding plural endings.
The first thing you need to do when introducing plurals for the first time is to make sure that all the nouns that you are using just take “-s” in the plural, leaving out any nouns that take “-es”, take “-ies”, are irregular, are uncountable, etc. In fact, in young learner classes I would go further and only teach (the singular of) such nouns in the two or three lessons leading up to that point to hopefully save the students bringing up awkward exceptions in the communicative stages of the first lesson on plurals.
I find that presenting plural nouns in a simple phrase or sentence helps make the meaning clear and helps students remember to add the form when needed. The easiest way of doing this is to drill “A pen, two pens, three pens” etc or “It is a pen, they are pens”, meaning that students will need to know “It is a…” and/ or numbers before the first lesson on plurals. I find that no actual explanation is needed at this stage, instead moving quickly into one of the games below to give the language more fun and context.
How to practise plural nouns
Plural nouns drilling games
Plural nouns beach ball drilling games
As students throw and catch or bounce a ball, they can count as high as they can with one noun (“One chair”, “Two chairs”, “Three chairs”, etc) until they make a mistake or drop the ball. They can also send the ball back and forth as they test each other with different nouns to make the plural out of (“Fox” “Foxes”, “Phenomenon” “Phenomena”, etc), perhaps with the rules of tennis, ping pong or volleyball.
Plural nouns stacking games
As students make a tower of blocks, paper cups, plastic kitchen sets, etc, students say what is in the tower (“There are two red blocks, two cups and three knives”, etc). You’ll need to make sure that the students have at least two of each thing and use things which have suitable plural forms for their level, e.g. some that take “iz” endings such as two (small) boxes.
Plural nouns flashcard games
There are few things more tedious than raising a picture of one teddy bear and then a picture of two teddy bears for students to shout out the names of, but these kinds of flashcards can be made more useful and fun with a couple of simple variations. One possibility is to flash the card up so quickly that students might miss how many of the thing is on each card. This will mean that they have to really concentrate when you show the card and that there is some guesswork involved when they shout out “(They are) teddy bears”. Another possibility is to slowly reveal the card for students to shout out “(It is an) apple” or “(They are) apples” as soon as they are fairly sure how many of that thing is on the card. This is most fun if the cards have a mix of ones where the picture is so big that there is clearly no room for a second thing and ones where the pictures are small and spread out, because this will mean that sometimes students can guess quickly and sometimes have to wait to see the second picture (or else take a chance by guessing before the second picture appears).
Singular and plural Kim’s game
Place a mix of objects on the table, with more than one of some of the things (e.g. one ruler, two erasers and three paper cups). Cover the objects with a cloth and remove and/ or add to some of the things. When you reveal the changed collection of things, students have say what has changed with sentences like “(There is) one fork (but there were two forks/ some forks)”. Especially if students are likely to try to cheat or get restless while waiting, you can also do all the changes beforehand and just show students before and after photos, but it’s more fun with physical objects. Using objects “live” also makes it easier to get students doing the same to test each other.
Make or find a picture with lots of things in it such as one from Where’s Wally?/ Where’s Waldo? Students try to find if there is just one or more than one of the thing that someone names and then shout out the right singular or plural form. Especially with a less detailed picture, the same game can also be played with the picture face down and the students trying to remember how many of each thing there is.
Plural nouns pelmanism
Pelmanism (also known as “the memory game” and “pairs”) is the very well-known game in which students turn over two of the cards that are spread face down across the table in order to find a match. This is perfect practice of plurals if you get students to say “(It is a) banana” when they turn over the first card and “(They are) bananas” if they find a matching one. However, you’ll need lots of matches for each card (e.g. six or eight banana cards) for there to be lots of plurals practice, so this limits the amount of vocabulary that can be practised and only makes this game suitable for very young learners.
For older and more advanced classes, you could make a pack of cards with a mix of different kinds of plural and make a match two words that have the same kind of ending, e.g. “locus” and “alumnus” and at least four other similar cards matching because all of their plurals end with “-i”.
Plural nouns TPR games
Plural nouns run and touch games
With very young learners, you can ask students to run, touch and count things in the class when you say the singular, e.g. running and shouting “One window, two windows” as they touch those things if you say “Window”. Alternatively, they can listen carefully to whether they hear a singular or plural and touch the right number of things before they sit down again, e.g. touching just one shelf if they hear “Shelf” but touching at least two if they hear “Shelves”.
Singular and plural mimes
This takes a bit more setting up than most activities in this article, but if you prepare the prompt worksheet or cards beforehand it is possible to get students miming and guessing sentences like “(It is a) ball” (miming playing soccer) and “(They are) balls” (miming juggling).
See the Simplest Responses game below for a TPR game concentrating more on pronunciation.
Plurals pronunciation activities
Plurals simplest responses games
Students listen to some words and show which of two categories they think the nouns belong to by racing to hold up one of the two cards they have been given. The simplest version is for students to listen and raise cards saying “Singular/ One/ A” or “Plural/ Two/ Some” depending on what they hear. After a little practice of just listening for “-(e/ie)s” endings, they can then listen to sentences with blanks like “I have many BLANK” and “There is a BEEP outside my house” and react in the same way depending on what form of the noun is missing.
Other possibilities for ways of dividing up the words and cards to hold up include “(basic/ simple) +s ending”/ “other ending”, “the same number of syllables (in the singular and plural)”/ “different number of syllables”, and ones with specific numbers of syllables such as “one syllable”/ “two syllables”.
With young learner classes the same words can be used for Plural Stations, in which students run and touch walls depending on what category they think things match, e.g. the wall near the board if they hear or think there should be an “iz” ending. They could also raise one of their two arms, make one of two gestures, throw things at two targets, etc instead of holding up cards or touching walls. These variations can also work for more than two groups, e.g. one of the four walls of the classroom each for “-s”, “-es”, “-ies” and singular.
A quieter way of practising different categories of plurals is with a maze. Make a table with at least 30 squares and write in words that have the same kind of plural to make a (zigzag) line from the top left corner to the bottom right corner of the table. For example, if you want to practise “-iz” endings, you could put “church” or “churches” in the top left corner, put “lash(es)” in the square next to it, then continue with similar words joined up vertically, horizontally or diagonally across the maze until you reach the bottom right corner. Then fill all the other squares with words which don’t match that category such as “table(s)”. Students try to draw a line through the maze by finding the right words and crossing out the wrong words (to help or to fill time while waiting for other groups). The same game also works to test spelling with “-ys” and “-ies” words, in which case you definitely need to put the singular of the words in the squares.
Plural nouns communicative activities
Most of the activities below need students to at least be able to make and understand simple sentences like “There is/ are…”, but some such as the top one might be possible with lower level students if don’t mind some of the group discussion being in L1.
Singular and plural decisions
Give students a situation such as “three nights camping” and ask them to decide what and how many of each thing they will take, probably from a list of suitable objects (with the right level of difficulty of plurals). They can then compare ideas with other groups, and maybe vote on which other group has the best plan.
Singular and plurals storytelling
Make a list of things that might appear in the singular or plural in a story such as “dwarf” and “diamond” for a fairy tale, and put them on a worksheet or some cards. Ask students to use the words to make a story, deciding as they do so how many of each thing appears in the story and making sure that they use the right singular or plural form. They can then tell their story to people from other groups, perhaps then retelling stories that they heard and/ or voting on which other group’s story they like best.
Singular and plural sentence completion games
Students fill in the gaps on a worksheet and then play one of the two games below with their completed sentences. The sentences that they complete could be ones with gaps for singular or plural nouns (“There are many _______ in my bedroom”, “I have one ______ in my bag”, etc) and/ or singular or plural nouns that they should make (personal, true) sentences out of (“_________ clothes__________”, “____________ mistake ________”, etc).
Singular and plural sentence completion guessing game
Students complete at least half of the sentences on their worksheet with true information and then read out just the part that they have written (e.g. “CDs” or “I buy new BLANK once a year”, not including the words printed on the worksheet) for their partner to guess the whole sentence of.
Singular and plural sentence completion bluffing game
Students complete the sentences on their worksheet with a mix of true and false information. They then read out one sentence and see if their partner can guess if it is true or not, perhaps after asking for more details (in which case they should continue lying or continue telling the truth).
Singular and plural things in common
Students try to make sentences that are true for both of them with a mix of singular and plural forms, e.g. “We both have two siblings” or “We both have one glass of milk in the morning”.
Singular and plural differences personalised speaking
Students try to find sentences for which their partner would put in a singular noun and they would put in a plural of the same noun, or vice versa. For example, if one person can say “I have two sisters” and the other person says “I have one sister”, they get one point. You could also give them extra points if they make a sentence which no one else in the class thought of. You could also allow “I have no …s” as a plural sentence if that would be good practice for your students.
Singular and plural competitions
Students get one point if they have more than one and their partner has just one of something (but no points if their partner has none of that thing).
The big list of regular plurals ending in -s, -es and -ies, arranged by level
There are far too many useful words ending with “-s” to list, so this is mainly a list of words ending in “-es” and “-ies”. However, it also includes words that take “-s” in the plural because the singular already endings in “-e” but which have an “iz” pronunciation like “-es” endings. There is also a short list of the most useful words ending in “-s” which are always plural.
There is a similar list of irregular plurals in the article How to Teach Irregular Plurals.
Plurals that take es with an “iz” pronunciation and one added syllable (listed by level)
Plurals with just -s added but “iz” pronunciation and an added syllable (listed by level)
List of plurals ending in ies by level
List of plurals ending in ys by level
List of plurals ending in oes by level
Note that there are many other possible -oes plurals that I probably wouldn’t teach, usually because an -os plural is also possible.
Words ending in s that are always plural (with no singular form without –s, listed by level)
The words below always take a plural form of the verb (“The jeans are…”). They are therefore different from singular and uncountable words ending in “-s” which take third person S such as “The news is…” and also different from words which end in “-s” in the both the singular and plural such “The series is/ are…”
glasses (meaning spectacles)