Teaching Plurals

Teaching Plurals 1


In speaking exercises, I teach my ESL kids plurals early on, for the main reason that it can’t be avoided for very long when teaching even the simplest phrases, such as I like… or I have… Importantly, when I teach kids plural sounds, I’m also preparing them for future lessons using the same morphological rules governing third-person verbs and possessives. My goal is to start the exposure early, be intentional in its roll out, and use the vocabulary as much as possible in later lessons.


Teaching Plurals 2


Looking at the rules above, it’s a LOT to take in. Even I can’t remember all the letter-to-sound associations! It’s like trying to remember the order of stacked adjectives! Ugh! It’s much easier to get students used to using the language rather than memorizing and then applying the rules.


The Roll Out


My youngest pre-school kids get their first exposure to plurals with picture books, songs, and chants that focus on counting. Then, when I begin formally teaching plurals, I remind them that they’ve already been using the language.


Teaching Plurals 3


When teaching plurals to my kindergarten and early elementary school students, I don’t teach pronunciation as a set of rules, but instead stress an awareness of the sounds made when modifying nouns to make them plural; the three sounds being /s/, /z/, and /ɨz/. I break this down into a series of lessons that 1) introduce listening to the differences in singular and plural words grouped by final consonant sounds, 2) identifying the voiced and unvoiced sounds with simple interactive activities that include practice making the sounds, and 3) employing plurals in games and activities – all in that order.


I start with singular and plural flash card examples, saying each word and asking students if they can identify where the words are different and what that different sound is. Reading them again, I have students identify which word is being said, sometimes with eyes closed. Next we do the same activity using simple sentences students are already familiar with, e.g., I like cats or I have one cat. A simple Missing Word activity is perfect for getting students to use the words in the context of a game.


Teaching Plurals 4


Soon after this, I introduce vocabulary with the -z sound and we compare the final sounds of the words from the previous lessons. How are they different? Can you make the two different sounds? Can you feel the difference in the voiced and unvoiced sounds when you touch your throat?


When the class is ready, I add –ez words. I ask students how the last sounds of cats, dogs, and foxes are different and we practice making the sounds. Once again, I get the kids using the vocabulary with simple flash card activities such as a Circle Pass amongst students. Be sure to check out my 50+ Flash Card Activities if you’re looking for more game ideas.


Teaching Plurals 5


Importantly, leave the cards on a board or table accessible to students during the weeks you are teaching these lessons. This allows kids to experiment on their own without a teacher hovering over them.


Plural Vibes


The reason we use -s and -z sounds is a matter of language efficiency when speaking. You can teach kids to be aware of the vibration (voiced) or lack thereof (unvoiced) in the sound of the last consonant by having them touch their throats when saying the words. In words like cat, there is no vibration (unvoiced) in the last consonant and the –s continues this non-vibrating sound into the plural. The final g in dog has a vibration (voiced) and, for efficiency in speaking, the –z sound of the plural continues this vibration as a plural. For native speakers, this is one of those “default” rules we employ without even realizing it, but will readily recognize if misspoken. For more on this, check out the video below from the Elemental English Youtube channel.



The effect of these lessons is to build a physical and aural language experience that students can draw from as in Jean Berko Gleason‘s Wug Test below. Keep in mind, this isn’t going to happen without extensive exposure and practice.


J.B. Gleason devised the Wug Test as part of her earliest research (1958), which used nonsense words to gauge children’s acquisition of morphological rules‍—‌for example, the “default” rule that most English plurals are formed by adding an /s/, /z/ or /ɨz/ sound depending on the final consonant, e.g., hat–hats, eye–eyes, witch–witches. A child is shown simple pictures of an imaginary creature or activity, with a nonsense name, and prompted to complete a statement about it: This is a WUG. Now there is another one. There are two of them. There are two________. The Wug Test also includes questions involving verb conjugations, possessives, and other common derivational morphemes.


Review, review review!


Once the lessons have been introduced, it’s time to find opportunities to use them! Review activities and additional vocabulary will keep the lessons fresh in students’ minds.


Monotonously flipping through flash card decks isn’t the only way to review. Games are great for keeping your students’ skills up. As your kids get older, you can up-cycle the games you played when they were younger coupled with the new lessons. Vocabulary review activities like Bingo and I Have/Who Has are perfectly adaptable. Be sure to give students the opportunity to practice the language before playing the games.


Teaching Plurals 6


Charts are another capital way of keeping the vocabulary in front of your students. Include them in interactive notebooks or tack charts on a classroom board to provide students with references that can be used when speaking and writing.


Teaching Plurals 7


Later on, my kids are reintroduced to plurals in their Phonics & Spelling books. Being already familiar with nouns as plurals, they’re prepared to create sentences with new vocabulary in context, like these are and those are.


Teaching Plurals 8


For older students and adults who already have vocabulary at their command, check out this plural set of readings and activities when reviewing or planning your next pronunciation boot camp lessons.


Teaching Plurals 9


Forward Teaching


Again, these early lessons are going to be helpful when you get ready to teach third-person verb conjugations and possessives, as the morphological rules that apply to the ending sounds of verbs are exactly the same as plurals. Remind your students of this simple pronunciation fact!


  • eat – eats
  • run – runs
  • dance – dances

  • it – its
  • her – hers
  • watch – watch’s


From their first exposure with counting books and plural pronunciation activities, your students’ lessons should build toward future fluency goals. Begin early and loop review activities into your lesson plans as students build their language skills. And don’t forget to have fun!


As always, best of luck in your classes!


Donald Kinney

Kinney Brothers Publishing

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