Many years ago now I was sorting laundry and thinking about the struggles my students were having getting everything in their sentences to agree, especially words such as much/many and few/little. I had tried many different practice activities such as task cards, games, and even worksheets (you know I was desperate if I tried worksheets!), but they still weren’t mastering the skill. As I worked on the laundry it occurred to me that I might be missing an underlying issue; I was treating the symptom and not the disease, so to speak. It was then that I realized what I’d been missing all along, the problem wasn’t with the determiners, it was with the nouns. My students didn’t know the difference between a count and a non-count noun. Inspired by this realization, I revamped my approach and spent a couple of lessons on count vs. non-count nouns.
Two things were particularly helpful to my students: a handout and a sort activity. The handout (which you can download for free using the button on the left) was very simple. It’s just a list of yes/no questions that help a student decide if a noun is count or non-count. My students referred to it quite a bit in the early stages of our lessons but less and less as time went on.
Since I’d had my revelation about how to help my students while sorting laundry, I decided to make my sort activity laundry themed. I found a t-shirt clip art and started placing nouns and pictures on each one. I quickly ran out of nouns that you actually place into a washing machine, so I expanded to other clothing-themed items. Students have never complained or noticed, but if they did I’d just play up how everything in my closet is dirty and I don’t have time to do anything but toss it all in the washing machine. Then I found baskets that looked similar to laundry baskets for students to toss the t-shirt icons in, one for count and one for non-count (so two per student or student pair). I printed and laminated (I recommend cold lamination because it’s thicker and never peels, even after you cut through it) everything, cut it all out (the most time consuming part), glued a clothes pin on the back of each basket label, and was ready to go. (Tip: print each set of sort cards on a different color of cardstock. This way when you find a lost card on the floor later you know which set it belongs to.) The students found the activity to be very helpful. They worked in pairs, often referring to their handouts, and a lot of good discussion about which basket to put the different t-shirts in ensued.
As a final assessment of my students’ abilities to differentiate between count and non-count nouns, we played a game of Slap (students use a fly swatter to slap the correct answer). They did great and I was very proud of them, but the real test came when we returned to agreement and students had to try and use those determiners again. I’m not sure who was more nervous when we started the first activity, them or me, but all nerves were quickly forgotten as they flew through it with no problems at all. I learned a valuable lesson that year and ever since I’ve taught count and non-count nouns before determiners.
This year I had to take this activity digital. Most of the activity is exactly the same: students sort t-shirts based on whether the item named and pictured on the front is a count or non-count noun. But this sort is a drag and drop in Google Slides and students sort the t-shirts onto two separate washing machines. My beginning students loved it and mentioned how having the picture on each t-shirt helped them learn some new vocabulary. And, once again, when we went to do the much or many task cards activity (this year a self-grading task card activity–learn how to make one in the blog post), the students we able to quickly work through them and comprehend why one determiner was used instead of the other. If only I found such great inspiration every time I sorted the laundry! Happy teaching, everyone.
Looking for more noun practice activities? Check out these fun sorts and games: