Before you scroll down for the two videos, here’s some food for thought.
Students of all ages and levels often get the third person S wrong, and it seems important to understand why this happens and think of how we can intervene. Here are a few issues to keep in mind:
1. The so-called morpheme studies from the 1970s showed that the third person S is internalized relatively late – after ing, auxiliary be, articles and irregular past forms. No amount of awareness-raising, drilling and corrective feedback seems to alter this sequence. But things are more complicated than meets the eye.
2. Strangely enough, the correct use of the third person S sometimes seems to depend on the verb at hand. In spontaneous communication, students tend to conjugate the verbs correctly in sentences such as “She likes” and “Sue works”, for example, but are more likely to get “She sees”, “He goes” or “Lucy watches” wrong. Also, nouns ending in S, for some reason, sometimes “attract” the third person S: “My parents lives” is more likely than “They lives.” One hypothesis: Perhaps certain words create a phonetic environment that makes them sound more “third person-friendly” than others, which means that when choosing the correct form, students sometimes operate lexically / intuitively.
3. So it’s our job to help students move from lexical and intuitive use of the third person S towards a more conscious understanding and systematic deployment of the underlying systems. When our students make a subject / verb agreement mistake, we shouldn’t automatically assume it’s a slip. They may not be aware of the rules – not least because we hardly ever teach them!
4. The terms “singular and “plural” might confuse students. After all, from their perspective:
Singular = no S
Plural = add an S
Student: Everybody in my family like sports.
Teacher: Third person singular, remember?
Student: That’s what I said. Like! No S.
Or even worse:
Student: People likes her.
Teacher: Remember – people is plural.
Student: That’s what I said – likeS.
So it seems more sensible to avoid “singular” and “plural” when referring to the verb:
Student: People likes her.
You: People = they.
Student: Oh, ok. People like her.
5. Subject / verb agreement mistakes hardly ever hinder communication, which means they often go uncorrected. But the less we correct these mistakes, the less students will think about them. This might lead to fossilization, since when it comes to morphology, awareness seems to play a key role in interlanguage restructuring.
With that in mind, I have put together two song-based videos to help students move beyond intuition towards are more systematic understanding of subject/verb agreement. Video 1 (8 minutes) is more teaching-oriented, while video 2 (5 minutes) works more like a quiz. Choose which one to use depending on your students’ profile.
If the video is out of synch, go back to the beginning and click play again.
Thanks for reading.