Skip to main content

Teaching the gender of nouns

Having recently read an article about the effectiveness of learning through chunks, I was reminded about an issue which has always struck me as significant. This is a nuts and bolts question for language teachers and it's about teaching grammatical gender.

Getting the gender of nouns right plagues second language learners, even those working at near-native speaker standard. Personally, after years of exposure and practice, I rarely hesitate with French gender, but still get caught out by the occasional word which I already know or which is new to me.

How can we help learners to acquire gender effectively?

My hunch has always been that it is better to present nouns in a list together with an article, rather than indicating the grammatical gender in brackets. Why? Individually learning, memorising and storing in long-term memory the gender of every TL word seems like a boring, cumbersome and ultimately impossible task. Far more successful is to present and practise words with their accompanying article so that students get to hear these chunks multiple times.

When presenting and practising nouns with beginners it is useful to be consistent about the article you use, definite or indefinite. This presents a conundrum. In German the definite article works best since the indefinite article "ein" is the same for masculine and neuter nouns. Better therefore to use "der, die, das" as much as possible. In the very early stages of learning French you could stick to "un" and "une" as far as possible. Confusion quickly arises if you mix up indefinite and definite articles.

Unlike German, with French and Spanish gender is generally distinguishable with both definite and indefinite articles. The "l apostrophe" in French causes a problem, however, so this might suggest a case for using indefinite articles. On the other hand, I would argue that, where possible, you should choose the article most commonly combined with the noun. For example, the word "vérité" might better be practised with the definite article "la" since, I assume, this collocation is more common. In this way, as with child learners, students will think of the chunk "lavérité" as much as "vérité".

Another aspect is the fact that many nouns are commonly preceded by a plural article, e.g. "des gants, des champignons, les yeux, les cheveux". Better, therefore, to list and use these in the plural, separately indicating the gender for information.

In lists, if you value consistency, you might default to either indefinite or definite articles as far as possible, i.e. with beginners in French you would list simple nouns preceded by "un" or "une". You may also wish to separate out masculine and feminine (and neuter) nouns and list items in alphabetical order to help students with memorising. Colour-coding is another useful aid to memory with beginners.

At an advanced level you can teach the relationship between gender and noun endings. There are some quite effective general rules (with exceptions) for this in French. In German you can point out such patterns at an earlier stage. These rules are no doubt handy, but the basic feel for gender, developed through exposure and practice, is more fruitful in the end.

Whether you lean towards a skill-acquisition model or a nativist, comprehensible input approach, repeated exposure to the noun with its article is most likely to lead to successful gender acquisition. So you need to make sure students are exposed to chunks of article with noun as one phonological entity. Careful planning and recycling of lexical items will accelerate the process of gender acquisition.

Experience tells us that students who get to an intermediate or advanced level achieve a significant "gender sense" and can correctly guess the gender of most words when you ask them. I make the assumption that they did this in a similar way to the first language learner, by hearing repeated examples of the noun with its article. My advanced level students were generally very good at guessing the gender of lexical items, even invented ones.

Finally, as an example of a list at beginner level, you might end up with something like this for French (clothing). You could add colour to this.

Un blouson
Un chapeau
Un haut
Un pull
Un T-shirt

Une chemise
Une cravate
Une jupe
Une robe
Une veste

Des gants (m)
Des chaussures (f)
Des chaussettes (f)

At a more advanced level, on the theme of cinema, you might get:

Un acteur
Un cascadeur
Un comédien
Un film
Un navet

L'écran (m)
Le producteur
Le réalisateur
Le son
Le tournage

La bande sonore
La caméra
La projection

Les critiques (m)
Les effets (m) spéciaux

Any comments would be welcome, here or via Twitter.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. I teach Spanish at a primary school and present vocabulary words with an article to aid in learning gender. This year, the students found it hilarious how "things" had gender, and learning new words (spontaneously) became a gender competition! The girls clapped because "la luna" is feminine, but the boys were thrilled to hear that "el universo" is masculine. Then they heard "la pizza" and "el chocolate". So much fun! Thank you for the article.

  2. Hi. Glad you found it iseful.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…

Responsive teaching

Dylan Wiliam, the academic most associated with Assessment for Learning (AfL), aka formative assessment, has stated that these labels have not been the most helpful to teachers. He believes that they have been partly responsible for poor implementation of AfL and the fact that AfL has not led to the improved outcomes originally intended.

Wiliam wrote on Twitter in 2013:

“Example of really big mistake: calling formative assessment formative assessment rather than something like "responsive teaching".”

For the record he subsequently added:

“The point I was making—years ago now—is that it would have been much easier if we had called formative assessment "responsive teaching". However, I now realize that this wouldn't have helped since it would have given many people the idea that it was all about the teacher's role.”

I suspect he’s right about the appellation and its consequences. As a teacher I found it hard to get my head around the terms AfL and formative assess…

Five great advanced level French listening sites

If your A-level students would like opportunities to practise listening there are plenty of sources you can recommend for accessible, largely comprehensible and interesting material. Here are some I have come across while searching for resources over recent years.

Daily Geek Show

I love this site. It's fresh, youthful and full of really interesting material. They have an archive of videos, both short and long, from various sources, grouped under a range of themes: insolite (weird news items), science, discovery, technology, ecology and lifestyle. There should be something there to interest all your students while adding to their broader education. Here is one I enjoyed (I shall seriously think about buying tomatoes in winter now):

France Bienvenue

This site has been around for years and is the work of a university team in Marseilles. You get a mixture of audio and video material complete with transcripts and explanations.This is much more about the personal lives of the students …

Sentence Stealers with a twist

Sentence Stealers is a reading aloud game invented by Gianfranco Conti. I'll describe the game to you, then suggest an extension of it which goes a bit further than reading aloud. By the way, I shouldn't need to justify the usefulness of reading aloud, but just in case, we are talking here about matching sounds to spellings, practising listening, pronunciation and intonation and repeating/recycling high frequency language patterns.

This is how it works:

Display around 15 sentences on the board, preferably ones which show language patterns you have been working on recently or some time ago.Hand out four cards or slips of paper to each student.On each card students must secretly write a sentence from the displayed list.Students then circulate around the class, approaching their classmates and reading a sentence from the displayed list. If the other person has that sentence on one of their cards, they must hand over the card. The other person then does the same, choosing a sentenc…