Too Many Mistakes? Too Little Input!

Students who are learning English make many mistakes, of course. But one of the most difficult things for them to master is the difference between countable and uncountable nouns and when to use much or many. Even advanced students have problems choosing the right words. In a recent workshop at TESOL Strasbourg’s Spring Day, Fiona Mauchline showed us an interesting exercise, which was getting students to write personalized poems with the following template:

I have too many ………… and too few …………….
I have too much ……….. and too little …………..
I have enough …………… but I don’t have enough ………….

Wanting to use this with my students, I talked with some of them about what they had too much and too little of, what they had too many and too few of, and they came up with sentences like these:

I have too much homework and too little time.
I have too much sport and too little rest.
I have too many cookies and too few jars of Nutella.
I have too many flies and too few fly-swatters.
I have enough swim-suits but I don’t have enough sun.
I have enough time for shopping but I don’t have enough money.
I have enough ice-cubes but I don’t have enough whiskey.

I thought the results were positive, but that there hadn’t been enough repetition for them to actually acquire the structures.

So I decided to add in a TPRS style story. I had used one in the past about a boy who had too many cats and too few baskets. We came up with the following story:

There was a teenager whose name was James. He won one hundred and fifty-five gold fish at the fair, but the merchant didn’t give him enough bowls. He had a problem. He had too many gold fish and too few bowls.  Moreover he had too little fish food and he didn’t have enough money to buy fish food. So his fish were very hungry.

Fortunately he met a beautiful teen-aged girl whose name was Angela. She had a problem too. She had too few gold fish and too many bowls. Also she had too much fish food. James and Angela lived happily ever after and had many little gold fish.

At our next meeting, I’m going to ask them to develop the story, adding in details and some dialog. Why did Angela have too many bowls? We’ll get many more repetitions and by then I think that they will have heard the target structures enough times that they will have started to acquire them.

What is my goal in this type of work? It is not to ensure that my students will never ever make a mistake when they have to choose between many and much. They will occasionally make the wrong choice. But I believe that it is when they stop to think about it that they risk making the error. With enough input, their subconscious will make the right choice, simply because it “sounds right”.  It’s the inner ear that we try to develop with TPRS.

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