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Towards an explicit understanding of countable and uncountable nouns

Stephen Asbridge

Quick guide

  • Keywords: Defining/identifying countable and uncountable nouns, learner-centered activity, collaborative group work
  • Learner English level: Pre-intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: High school and above
  • Preparation time: 30 minutes 
  • Activity time: Variable, but at least two 45-minute classes
  • Materials: One double-sided worksheet (see appendix) with explanations in Japanese and examples in English

The goal of this activity is to give students a role in discovering grammatical rules for themselves whilst ensuring that they fully understand what makes a noun countable or uncountable. The lesson consists of a worksheet divided into two parts, which the students work on in groups.

When asked, many Japanese learners are unable to accurately define what makes a noun in English countable or uncountable. A typical response is to say that they pay little or no attention to this area and when pressed for an answer, even more able learners, through no fault of their own, can only offer an incomplete explanation. 

In contrast to Japanese, whether or not a noun can be counted has a wide range of grammatical consequences in English. I have observed that a poor understanding of count and non-count nouns is at the root of so many basic errors, so I wanted to help my students develop a clearer understanding of how nouns are defined as countable or uncountable.

If learners have an explicit understanding in their own language of why a noun in English is countable or uncountable it can form a sound foundation for further work in related grammatical areas such as how to use the English quantifiers; “some”, “any”, “much”, “many”. This can also work on subject-verb agreement, pronouns and definite and indefinite articles.


The only preparation necessary is to copy the worksheets for your class. 


Step 1: Divide the class into small groups of four to six. Encourage the students to work through part 1 of the worksheet. There are three tasks: completion of a Japanese explanation of count and non-count nouns, a list of nouns in English to be divided into countable and uncountable groups, and a gap fill using the nouns provided to offer some context. Let the students collaborate and share their knowledge as they tackle the exercises.

Step 2: When finished, they will often have completed about half of the explanation correctly. Check the answers by reading out the correct version. An explanation of countable nouns is usually the hardest part for them. Draw the silhouette of an apple on the board and ask how they know it is an apple. They cannot smell it, it has no colour or taste but it is clearly an apple because of its shape. This, together with the text on the worksheet and the discussions they have had in their groups, helps those students who are still unsure. 

Step 3: For part 2 of the worksheet, repeat steps 1 and 2 above. In part 2, the Japanese explanation concentrates on some basic grammatical rules related to countability/uncountability and it is followed by an exercise in English designed to check understanding of these specific points.


For higher level learners, an English version of the explanation (see appendix) could be used to make the activity more challenging or given as a follow-up activity in a later class for revision purposes. Making the activity available online as homework is also a good way to “prime” this activity before teaching it in class.


When encouraged to make the rules, high school learners will happily look again at basic but important areas of grammar which need review. Collaborative work builds a good group dynamic and students are more likely to ask questions. This lesson can function as a cornerstone for work on a wide range of grammatical points.

The materials offered here are only offered as examples. There are plenty of ways of explaining the difference between count and non-count nouns in Japanese. I hope that other teachers may use the material given as a starting point and find ways of improving the explanations given. 


The appendices are available below.

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