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

Tell stories


How can we make listening more enjoyable and effective for pupils? How can we turn it from a potential chore to something more memorable (and therefore more likely to stick in their long term memories)? I am of the opinion that since humans are "wired" to engage in personal listening and speaking (the expression "social brain" has been used in this context), they may be more interested and attentive when the message comes from a real person rather than a disembodied audio source. (This may or may not be relevant, but research has been carried out which demonstrates that babies pick up phonological patterns better when they listen to a caregiver rather than listen to a tape or watch a video - see here for summaries of research into this area by Patricia Kuhl.)

One easy way to make listening stimulating for pupils is to tell them easy stories in the target language. I was reminded of this while reading Penny Ur's book 100 Teaching Tips (reviewed here

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…