Summary: Teaching tips and interactive classroom activities for "There is/ are" and its negative and question forms.
It’s surprising that more emphasis isn’t put on “There is/ There are”, given this form’s common use together with many tricky points that do get plenty of textbook coverage, such as:
the indefinite articles “a” and “an” (“There is a toilet over there”, etc)
plurals (“There are actually at least eight hills in Rome”, etc)
“some” and “any” (“Are there any good restaurants near here?”, etc)
other common determiners (“There are many evil people in the world”, “There are a couple of bad apples in the barrel”, etc)
prepositions of position (“There are at least a hundred people on the beach”, “There is a fire in your bedroom”, etc)
countable and uncountable nouns (“Don’t worry, there is plenty of time”, “I have been there plenty of times”, etc)
As students don’t really want to have to deal with this form and difficult points like countable and uncountable nouns at the same time, it’s generally best to deal with “There is/ There are” early on, for example during or just before presenting English numbers, plurals or the difference between “a” and “an”.
Things to think about before presenting “There is/ There are”
The main thing to decide before teaching a lesson on this point is what you will do about contractions. The contraction “There’s” is very common in native speaker speaking and informal writing. The same could be also perhaps said for “There’re”, though the written form is less common and somewhat non-standard. I tend to write the uncontracted forms on all my materials but always pronounce them in a contracted form, so students can get used to understanding those spoken forms without needing to worry about pronouncing them that way – something which anyway isn’t common between non-native speakers in the ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) situations that students are increasingly in.
Typical student problems with “There is/ There are”
Another pronunciation issue is that “There” is often pronounced the same as “They’re” and “Their”, leading to difficulties in understanding which of those is meant. It is also easy to write the wrong one, even for native speaker writers.
A problem that is dealt with in textbooks more often is students choosing the right one between “There is” and “There are”. This common student difficulty isn’t helped by the fact that native speakers often say and even write sentences like “There’s all kinds of problems with this machine”. Looking at that kind of native speaker usage another way, though, we could say their abuse of “There’s” is a good reason for students not to obsess over this point, which I consider less important for many students than simply making an effort to use the “There is/ are” form.
Many students try to avoid “There is/ are”, instead using forms like “It has” and “It is” when “There…” would be more suitable, sometimes because the equivalent forms in their own language could be translated that way. Translation is again probably the best way of dealing with this, or you could explain that “It” usually has an actual thing it refers to, whereas the “there” in “There is/ are” is basically meaningless. You could also explain or at least get them used to using “There is/ are” to show numbers and existence and lack of existence.
A minor but complicated point is the difficulty of knowing when to say “There aren’t any… (s)” and when to use “There isn’t a…” for negative statements. The rather vague but simple rule is that if you would expect there to be one it’s usually the latter, making sentences like “There isn’t a teacher in the classroom today” sensible but “There isn’t an ant in the ant hill” a little strange.
If you want to present something new to students who have studied this point before and might not be satisfied just with revision and speaking, a good candidate is the fact that we say “There is a table and three chairs” but “There are three chairs and a table”, despite them meaning exactly the same thing. The simple explanation is that we follow the next word quite often in English, as in saying “It’s an orange table” even though the noun “table” doesn’t start with a vowel sound. If further explanation is needed, the fundamental reason could well be because when we mention the first thing in a list of, say, things in our bedroom, we probably haven’t decided what the second thing that we say will be yet.
How to present “There is/ There are”
If you present students with some sentences in context, it is usually very easy for them to work out basically what is meant by “There is/ are”. Although I usually try to avoid translation in the classroom as much as anyone, as there is a simple and almost perfect translation for the basic meaning of “There is/ are” in most languages (“hay” in Spanish, “aru/ iru” in Japanese, etc) and no close English synonym, it seems silly to avoid translation in this case. If you want to avoid the teacher speaking L1 in the classroom, just ask students to translate it and confirm if their translation is correct. If a detailed English explanation of its fundamental meaning is needed, the closest equivalent is “… exists”, making it different from “It is/ They are…”, which means “That thing/ Those things…”
Given three or four good example sentences, it is also pretty easy for students to work out the rules for when to use “There is” and when to use “There are”, especially if you present this point well before doing uncountable nouns. The basic rule is that “There are” is followed by a plural noun, usually meaning “noun+s” but obviously also similar irregular plural forms like “people” and “children”. For that reason, “There are” is often followed by determiners that go before plural nouns such as a number, “many”, “a few” and “a couple of”. Nouns which aren’t plural go after “There is” (the fact that “not plural” means both singular and uncountable is probably best left until later to explain).
Rather than just presenting example sentences and going straight onto the analysis stage, I tend to ask students to use the forms before trying to remember and then analyse them. For example, I often start by getting students to agree on and complete sentence stems on the topic of the week like “There is a good ________________ near here” and “There are too many ___________________ in this city”. They are then given the same sentence with at least some part of the “There is” and “There are” forms removed to complete, e.g. “_____ _______ too many dogs in this city”. They then try to work out why each form is needed in each case.
“There is/ There are sentence completion guessing game” below also works well with this kind of TTT (“Test Teach Test”) lesson structure.
There is there are games and other classroom practice activities
Most of the activities below are for the early presentation of this point which is suggested in the introduction, meaning without the need to already understand the more challenging forms like uncountable nouns. The activities are often also suitable for young learners.
There is/ There are speaking race
This is perhaps the simplest game for this grammar point. The teacher or a student asks a “How many.,.. are there?” question such as “How many chairs are there (in this room)?” or “How many women are there (in the picture)?” and the other people race to count and shout out the answer, preferably as a full sentence like “There are three windows”, “There are no bins”, “There isn’t a dog” or “There is one blackboard”. Instead of people just making up their own questions, you can get them to pick a card with a noun that they must ask about, a letter that they must use to start the noun (“How many baskets are there?” with “B”, etc), or a question that gets the number that they have picked as an answer. With pictures, it’s obviously most fun with a very detailed picture like “Where’s Wally?” You could also ask them to race to write correct sentences as well as or instead of speaking.
There is/ There are run and touch
This is a more physical version of the game above. When asked a “How many… are there?” question, the students run and touch those things as they count them, then shout out the correct answer once they have sat down again.
A more controlled version with more of a possible range of language is for students to do the same with pictures, having to touch things and count them before writing and/ or saying “There are four monkeys” etc. This works best if there is one large picture per group of two to four students, or if students work in teams and one person from each team touches and counts things on the picture stuck to or projected onto the board. If they are working with small pictures on their own, you could ask them to circle or colour in the correct objects rather than just touching them.
A running and touching game with more speaking is explained below.
There is/ There are continue the sentences challenge
In this game, students try to continue a sentence in a way which means it is both grammatically correct and true. The way I like to do this is throwing a ball around the room, with each person adding one word as they throw the ball on, leading to sentences like “There” “are” “four” “legs” “on” “the” “table” and “There” “is” “not” “an” “elephant” “in” “this” “room”. As with the latter example, you can have the rule that students can add “not” to the sentence if they like. People who can’t think of anything to say, pause too long or say something that isn’t true (or isn’t grammatically correct if you want to be strict about that) have to leave that round of the game or give up one point.
This idea can be combined with the run and touch game above by people racing to run, touch and count the thing that the last person adds to the sentence as soon as they do so, e.g. running, touching and counting the board pens as soon as they hear the last part of “There” “are” “four” “board pens”. As with the simpler game above, the person speaking must listen carefully to what the previous people say and make sure that what they say matches both grammatically and factually.
There is/ There are stations
An even simpler TPR game is for someone to ask questions like “Are there three chairs in the classroom?” and “Is there a clock tower in London?” and the people listening to run and touch cards saying “Yes” and “No” on opposite walls of the classroom, shouting out the correct short answer at the same time. You can also play it with four walls, with “… there is” and “… there are” being different walls each time.
If you want to work on accurate use of “is” and “are” with “there”, you can have those two words as the things which should be run to and touched. Things that they listen could be gapped sentences (“There ______ no spiders in the classroom”) or questions (“How many board erasers are there?”). You will probably also want to get students shouting out the whole correct sentence as they touch “is” or “are”.
There is/ There are flashcard activities
Holding up picture flashcards is obviously a good way to elicit and drill sentences like “There is a cat on the mat” and “There are some bears in the forest”, but they can also be used in more fun ways. This can be done by revealing the cards very quickly for students to shout out the answer as quickly as possible, flashing the cards past the students for them to try to spot or guess, or revealing the cards very slowly for students to shout out as soon as they are fairly sure what they show. See memory games below for one more idea.
There is/ There are memory games
Students ask each other “There is/ are” questions about things they have seen but can’t see anymore, e.g. “How many apples are there on page 12?” about their textbooks, “Where are there three boxes?” about their classroom (with the people who must answer having their eyes closed), or “Are there any forks?” about a still life scene of kitchen toys which has just been covered with a cloth.
Testing students’ memory is a good way of extending an elicitation and drilling stage with picture flashcards of “There is a lion under the stairs” etc. When you have finished drilling the whole pack of cards, see how much students can remember with questions like “Is there an elephant under the stairs?”, “How many penguins are there in the shower?” and “What is (there) under the carpet?”
There is/ There are discuss and agree
This activity, which was mentioned as a way of presenting “There is/ are” can also of course be used as a practice stage. At this stage students might be able to do activity without the help of sentence stems, but they will probably need some suggested topics such as “this area”, “this country”, “entertainment”, “eating out”, “things to do in the morning” and “green spaces” to help them agree on and write down sentences like “There are enough pubs in this area”.
How many are there answer me
Students ask “How many… are there (in…)?” questions that they think they will get particular answers to, for example “How many books are there in your house?” because the card that they are holding says “About 100”, “How many classroom are there in your school?” because no one has said “There are seventeen” yet, “How many people are there in the world?” because they just secretly wrote “There are over seven billion” in their notebooks, or “How many lights are there in this room?” because they just rolled a six on the dice.
There is/ There are make me say yes
Students get one point for each time they can get a “Yes, there is” or “Yes, there are” answer from their partner, with no points for “No there isn’t/ aren’t”. To make this more challenging, students can be given particular topics, places, nouns etc to ask about, and/ or they can be made to aim for a particular one of the two positive answer with the flip of the coin, e.g. only points for “Yes, there is” if they throw heads.
There is/ There are short answers answer me
Students ask questions to get “Yes, there is”, “Yes, there are”, “No, there isn’t” or “No, there aren’t” answers, depending on which cards they are holding, what side of the dice comes up, where their sticky ball lands on the board, etc. With the card game, the students can discard their cards as they get answers that they are holding, and the person with fewest cards when the game finishes wins. This can also be combined with “How many are there answer me” above by having cards saying “There are three” etc as well as the Yes and No ones.
I don’t know how many there are
Students get one point for each “How many… are there?” questions that someone else says “I don’t know” to. This is most fun if they are asked questions about their own house and other members of their family with questions that they probably don’t know the answer to like “How many towels are there in your bathroom?” and “How many music tracks are there on your father’s mobile phone?”
How many are there trivia quizzes
Students ask each other questions like “How many Spanish Steps are there?” and “How many pyramids are there in Egypt?”, perhaps giving hints like “No, there are far more” and “No, there are a few less” until the person who is answering reaches exactly the right number. The information can come from worksheets that you give them, from the internet, or just from their own knowledge.
If they’ve done uncountable nouns, they could also ask “How much liquid is there in…?” etc.
There is/ There are drawing games
Sentences like “There are seven elephants” and “There is a huge mouse” are great for drawing amusing pictures of classrooms, zoos, streets, amusement parks, etc. The easiest way of organising the activity is for “Yes” and “No” replies to decide whether the things mentioned in questions like “Are there twelve shoes?” and “Is there a monster?” should make it into the picture or not. Things that get “No” answers are either drawn crossed out or are just left out of the picture. The “Yes” or “No” answers can be decided by the next student, by a vote of all students, by the flip of a coin, or by throwing a ball at something saying those two things such as two halves of the whiteboard.
Drawing can be done in a similar way with “How many chimneys are there?”, “How many clouds are there?”, “How many witches are there?” etc. Again, the answer can be decided by students or by chance, e.g. with a dice that has numbers zero to five rather than one to six.
You can also get students to make sentences that should be put into the drawing like “There are three churches” and “There isn’t a sun”. Students could just take turns saying and/ or writing what they want to go in the picture (or not go in the picture if they make negative sentences to stop other people doing so). However, it is more fun to add a random element. One possibility is for students to throw a dice or throw at numbers on the board and make a sentence with that number to go in the picture (or not if the number zero came up). Other ways of adding randomness is for students to pick a letter that the noun in their sentence must start with, or simply a card with a noun on it. A more fun version is for students to write any sentences they like and put them in a bag. Between five and ten sentences are then taken out at random for each of the scenes which are drawn on the board, leading to scenes like six exercise bicycles in the office and two photocopiers in the school gym.
A more complex drawing game for more intensive practice of the grammar and reading is for students to put together words on cards that have been spread across the table to make the sentences that they want to draw or have drawn, e.g. “There” “are” “twelve” “snakes” for the living room picture.
There is/ There are test your senses
Students test each other on what is in a bag full of things such as plastic fruit, doll house furniture and soft toys with questions like “Is there a teddy bear?” and/ or “How many saucers are there?” The game is most fun if they are allowed to feel the bag to help them guess, but they could also guess from just the size and shape.
There is/ There are sentence completion guessing game
Students complete at least half of the sentences that they are given to make true statements about themselves, their family, their home, their local area, etc. For example, they could add “notebooks” to the gapped sentence “There are seven ______________ in my house” and “convenience store” to the sentence “There isn’t a ___________________ near my house”. They then read out just the part that they have written (“notebooks” etc) for their partners to guess which sentence it came from.
There is/ There are bluffing games
There are several ways of using lying as the game element in speaking activities for this language point. Perhaps the simplest is for students to make sentences that are wrong in only one aspect like “There are blue stars in the dome of our parliament building”, “There are twenty three stripes on the American flag” and “There are only two chairs in my dining room” for other people to try and make factual. The part that is changed can be the number, positive and negative, position, etc.
Bluffing can also be combined with sentence stems in a similar way to the sentence completion guessing game above. Students fill around half of the gaps in 15 to 30 sentences like “There aren’t any ________________ in my bathroom at the moment” with true information, and the other half with false information. Their partners then try to spot which is which, perhaps after asking extra questions like “Why aren’t there?”
There is/ There are magazine search
Students describe something from a picture in a book or magazine that they have in front of them such as “There are two brown hats” and “There are many really tall men”. The other people then race to find pictures showing exactly that in their books or magazines. This is easiest if students all have the same book or magazine (e.g. their textbooks if they have enough pictures in them), but can work with many different editions of National Geographic etc. There is there are something unique Students try to think of statements with “There is” or “There are” which only have one online search result such as “There is a pink ostrich” (a real example that I just found). They search to see if that is true (or ask the teacher to do so), then try again. The team with the most examples and/ or the most amusing ones wins the game.
There is/ There are personalised gapped sentences guessing game
Students write incomplete true sentences about their room, bag, house, street, area etc for other people to guess the missing words of, e.g. “There are ________ pairs of shoes in my cupboard”, “There ____________ twenty pairs of shoes in my cupboard”, “There are twenty _______________ in my cupboard”, “There are twenty pairs of shoes _____________ my cupboard” or “There are twenty pairs of shoes in my __________________”.
I hope there are many
Students ask each other “How many… are there (in…)?” about each other’s houses and the number that is in the answer is the number of points that they get, e.g. no points if the answer to the question “How many CDs are there in your living room?” is “There aren’t any CDs in my living room” and 35 points if the answer to “How many toy soldiers are there in your bedroom?” is that number.
There is/ There are hints game
Students guess what is being spoken about from hints on what is in, on, under, near etc that thing. At least the first hint must have “There is” or “There are”, e.g. “There are three eggs in it” for “my refrigerator” or “There aren’t any clothes in it” for “my sock drawer”.
There is/ There are boasting game
Students work in groups of three or four. Two people take turns boasting about how good something is, e.g. the (imaginary) hotels that each of them stayed in while they were on holiday. When they have finished the other student(s) in their group declare a winner due to a combination of realism and impressiveness of what they were describing. They are not allowed to repeat the same nouns as the other person in their statements, but otherwise anything else is okay.
There is/ There are complaints competition
This is the opposite of the game above, meaning students compete to describe how bad their houses, classrooms, schools etc are while still remaining within the realms of possibility.
There is/ There are projects
Similar to the two games above, students make up, draw and write descriptions of good or bad areas, beach resorts, hotels, office buildings, natural environments, etc. If you don’t mind using tenses in slightly unnatural ways, you can also get them to draw and describe before and after with pairs of phrases like “There are many cockroaches” on the before side of the page and “There are butterflies and dragonflies” on the after page. If you want a competitive element, you can get students to vote on which is the most or least attractive sounding example, with completely impossible ones excluded.
There is/ There are hangman
I’m not a huge fan of hangman in the classroom, but at least in this case there is a relevant language point. Students ask “There is/ are” questions to find out how many of each letter there are in the word that they are trying to guess, then try to put them in order to make a word. The questions can be in “Are there any Ps?” or “How many As are there?” format, or possibly both of those, with the “How many…?” question only if the first answer is positive.