How to Teach Regular Plurals

By Alex Case
Stimulating presentation and practice of nouns with -s, -es and -ies, including regular plurals games

Regular plurals like “churches” are vital for even basic conversations but can still cause students problems years after first coming across them. This article gives advice on presentation and practice to make the meaning, spelling and pronunciation both clear and memorable. There are also similar articles on this site on irregular plurals.

What students need to know about regular plurals

When we teach regular plurals like “dogs”, most students simply need to know when to use plural nouns in basic phrases like:

  • I like cats (not “I like cat” X)
  • I have two brothers.
  • There are two tables.
  • What are these? They are pencils.
  • Can I have some French fries, please?

Although students might take years to stop saying “I have many book” X and “I like apple” X, presenting plural nouns with those typical sentence stems makes revision and error correction easier and more effective.

Many of those points bring up words which might be singular in other languages but are usually or always plural in English such as “sunglasses”, “trousers” and “scissors”. Luckily, most of those have two parts you can point to, so are fairly easy to explain.

It might also be worth teaching the pronunciation and/ or spelling rules of regular plurals, namely:

  • sounds similar to /s/ like /sh/ are followed by the spelling “-es” and the sound /iz/, meaning that another syllable is added (presumably because it is difficult or impossible to pronounce such similar sounds right next to each other)
  • words ending in -y usually change to -ies (the main exception being words ending with vowel plus -y such as “play”)
  • with normal -s endings, voiced sounds at the end of the singular word are followed by the voiced sound /z/ (/bagz/), whereas unvoiced sounds are followed by the unvoiced sound /s/ (/hops/).

These rules are exactly the same for third person S (“She stays”, etc), so could be presented or revised with Present Simple. In both cases, however, the last point above is almost entirely useless, as it very rarely causes comprehension problems (in contrast to the /iz/ examples). The presentation and practice activities below therefore ignore this aspect of regular plurals.

How to present regular plurals

Regular plurals can be presented for the first time with any of the language points above, e.g. drilling flashcards with “It’s a T shirt” and “They’re socks”. Especially with young learners, presentation can also be done without a whole sentence, e.g. counting a stack of blocks with “One block, two blocks, three blocks”, or drilling the names of plastic fruit with “Cabbage” and “Grapes” (because the grapes are in a bunch). You will need to be very careful to avoid things which are neither singular or plural such as slices of watermelon (“some watermelon”, so uncountable). You will also want to save less obviously plural nouns like “shorts” until students have understood more basic examples.

Adult students will almost certainly have come across some English plurals before, so you can probably move onto a practice activity below after a brief error correction during a lesson on “like”, “have”, etc, such as “Can I have two hamburger, please?” X. These are also useful after getting them to work out more complex patterns like “strays” vs “flies”.

How to practise regular plurals

Regular plurals simplest responses

Give each student one card with “-(ie/e)s” written on it and another with a crossed out S or nothing. Students race to raise the right card depending on whether they think the prompt that they see and/ or hear is or should be plural. The prompts can be words, pictures, blanked sentences, etc. This can be made more fun and challenging with singular nouns ending in -s (“class”, etc) and blanked sentences that could be filled with either singular or plural depending on the person who made them (“I have ___________ but no brothers”).

You can also play Simplest Responses with different kinds of plurals if you give out cards saying “/iz/” and “/s/ or /z/” and ask students to listen for which sound the plural ends with, predict which ending a singular written noun or picture flashcard will take, etc.

Singular and plural slow reveal games

The teacher or a student slowly reveals a flashcard or draws a drawing including one thing or two or more things. Whenever someone is fairly sure that they know if it is going to be singular or plural and what the right name with the right grammar is, they shout out the suitable singular or plural noun (“A bus” or “Buses”, etc). They get one point if they are right, but everyone else gets a point if they were wrong.

Regular plural nouns Pelmanism

Make a pack of cards from pictures of single things that take regular plural -s, -ies or -es, with two of each card. Students spread the cards face down across the table and try to find pairs as they say “Bee” and then “Bees” as they find the first and then the second identical card.

Plurals target-practice

Students say “Chair” and then “Chairs” etc as they hit two identical things with two paper planes, two balls, etc. This can be done with objects in the classroom and/ or drawings on the board.

Something similar can be done with them putting their finger down on a similar picture on the page, as long as they close their eyes.

Regular plurals communicative activities

Regular plurals make me say yes

Students get one point every time they get a “Yes” answer to questions like “Do you have (some) mugs?” and “Do you have (some) jeans?”, with no points for “No, I only have one mug”, “No, I don’t have (any) jeans”, etc.

Plurals guessing game

Students think of something that they have more than one of and tell just the number to their partner, who gets a point if their personal sentence with that number (“You have four sisters”) is true and two points if it is the same as what the first student was thinking of.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet February 2023
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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