As this grammar point is overwhelmingly taught when students are still young, this article concentrates on young learners. However, most of it is relevant to or adaptable to low level adults.
“It is” and “They are” might be the first piece of grammar that young learners come across, and is an important one in class as it can be endlessly recycled once it is presented by the simple expedient of using some flashcards with two or more objects on when doing future areas of vocabulary. It can also help reinforce the need for –s after plural nouns. The ideas below should hopefully make this structure a pleasant introduction to English grammar for kids. As mentioned in some of the game ideas, this can also be tied in with minimal pairs and/ or phonics by getting the kids to spot that “They are both sh words” and “It is a ch word”.
Issues with It is/ They are
Before first teaching It is/ They are, there are several points to think about. The first is what you want to do about the contractions “It’s” and “They’re”. The six possible approaches are:
- Just use the contractions, perhaps avoiding “Yes, it is” and “Yes, they are” to make that possible.
- Just do the full forms and leave contractions until later.
- Present the full forms but use natural contracted forms during listening comprehension, e.g. the listen and touch games described below.
- Use both forms in the right contexts (e.g. full forms in writing but contractions in speech bubbles) but don’t explain the differences or force the use of one form or the other.
- Use both forms in the right contexts and expect students to do the same, but without explaining.
- Use this as a chance to present the idea of contractions, doing both forms and explaining the differences.
As briefly mentioned in the list above, the main differences between uses of contractions and full forms are that the full forms must be used in short positive answers and tend to be used in writing. It is possible to explain this and/ or prompt the relevant form without use of L1 with tactics like holding up your index finger and middle finger apart to represent the full form and together to represent the contraction. You can also draw a speech bubble around the contraction and draw a pen next to the full form.
The main argument for going to all this trouble is that native speakers almost always use contractions where they can in speech, making comprehension difficult without some work on this point. There is also the slight danger of unintentional overemphasis by saying “It IS a pen”. However, I have recently become very doubtful that these two things make it worth all the effort, especially at this early stage, and especially when most of their communication will probably be with other non-native speakers who will also avoid contractions.
The next issue once you have that one sorted is “It is” and “This is”, including the common but possibly confusing “What’s this?” “It’s a pen” classroom exchange. In many classroom interactions such as presentation of vocabulary “This is” is the more natural option and sentences like “What is it?” can sound strange. The same thing is true of many of the games below. However, This is/ They are doesn’t really work as a grammar point to present and “It is” will be more useful for their later lessons introducing other subject pronouns, the Present Continuous tense, etc.
As there is no chance of explaining the difference at this stage even in L1, your four choices are:
- Stick to “It is” even when it sounds unnatural.
- Use whatever sounds natural but design activities so the production will mainly or entirely be “It is”.
- Use them naturally but don’t correct mix ups from the kids.
- Use them naturally and correct (some) mix ups from the kids, but without explaining why.
My own choice tends to be the second of those options.
Presenting It is/ They are
This is such a simple point that I tend to present it for the first time in the middle of one of the practice activities below, for example doing some normal “What’s this?” “It’s a stocking” practice with the slow reveal flashcard game and then adding the twist of a flashcard that has more than one object on it and so cannot be got from the teacher by saying “It is…” as has been the case until then.
Another way of introducing the point by stealth can be used if they already know S for plurals. You can smoothly move on from getting them to draw, label, draw a line between etc “apple”/ “apples”, “orange”/ “oranges” etc to doing the same with “It’s an apple” and “They are oranges” without needing to present the grammar at all. A variation on this can also be used to lead up to a grammar presentation for those who don’t know S for plurals yet, with “It’s a banana” and “They are houses” possible to match just from knowledge of how to read the nouns, but “It is a chair” and “They are chairs” needing the grammar point of the day.
Practising It is/ They are
The activities below start with games and then move onto more general activities. The games near the top are ones I often use also to present the language for the first time.
Games for It is/ They are
It’s a ball/ They are balls
Throwing a ball around can be a great activity for revision at the start of any class, e.g. with students asking and answering basic questions or counting as they do so. I often finish this stage with “What’s this?” “It’s a ball” before moving onto presenting or revising vocabulary with the same phrases, and it is an easy and amusing step from this to trying to throw and catch two balls with “What are they?/ What are these?” “They are balls”.
Run and touch games for It is/ They are
Another thing I like to start lessons with is students running around and touching that classroom objects that I say like “table” and “ruler”, shouting out a sentence to identify it like “It’s a table” when they do so. This can be extended to include “They are” in several ways. One is for them to touch only one object if they hear “It is” and more than one object (perhaps at the same time if it is possible) if they hear “They are”. A more manic version is for them to touch every example of that thing in the classroom before they say the relevant sentence.
These games can also be played with students deciding for themselves whether they need “It is” or “They are”, touching and shouting out the former if they think there is only one example in the classroom (e.g. “It is a door”) and doing the same with the latter if they can find more than one (e.g. “They are windows”).
A simpler variation, and maybe the most suitable for presenting the language for the first time, is to very slowly say what they should touch starting with “It is…” or “They are…”, so that they hopefully start to use that as a clue about which of the things in the classroom they have to touch. This could also be extended by the person speaking never saying the name of the thing but just clues like “They are toys”, “They are round” etc until someone guesses, touches and shouts out the name in a full sentence.
Any of these games can also be played with flashcards on their tables, spread across the floor, stuck up around the classroom or hidden around the classroom.
It is/ They are flashcard games
Any games you usually play with flashcards can have this grammar point added to them by making sure some of the cards have two or more items on them, e.g. mixing up pictures and/ or words of “a toy car” with “dolls” and “jigsaw puzzles”. Slowly revealing a card for students to identify is even more fun this way as they must wait to put up their hands until they are sure if there is more than one object on the card or not (or take their chances and guess).
Another way of doing this is to present vocabulary that has things in common, for example presenting “(It is a) ball” and “(It is a) yoyo” and then eliciting that “They are circles”. This can be done with the words with things in common presented straight after each other in this way, or cards can all be stuck to the board after they are presented and students can try to spot any similarities at any point after that. You can also make sure the “It is…” structure comes up when talking about similarities by making sure the pack has a mix of objects with things in common and ones that don’t match each other at all. When all the cards are up on the board, students are asked to mention any sentences like “They are hard” that hadn’t come up with during the game and to spot and explain any which don’t match with sentences like “It is in the bathroom” and “It is a lizard”.
The game above can also be played with several objects with things in common on one card, e.g. slowly revealing a card with different toys on it and getting students to identify both the category and at least one of the examples. This can also be done with specific examples of one word, e.g. for “palace” you could have a card with at least one which they would know so they can say “They are palaces. It is Buckingham Palace.”
It is/ They are pelmanism
Pelmanism, also known as Pairs or The Memory Game, is a popular card game and TEFL game where the whole pack of cards are spread face down on the table and students try to find pairs that match each other in some way, e.g. two clubs, two toys or two words starting with “ch”. There are several ways in which this game can have “It is” and “They are” added to it.
The simplest way of adding this language is to get students to identify the first card after they turn it over (e.g. “It’s an apple”) and the second card in the same way (“It’s an apple”) before saying the same thing for both to explain that they have a pair (“They are apples”). Alternatively, they can find singular and plural cards for the same object (“It is an apple” for the first card and “They are apples” for the second) or cards that match completely (“They are apples” with “They are apples”).
The same thing can be done with things that have things in common, e.g. “It’s a steak”, “It’s an apple”, “They are red”. The game can be set up so the similarities are colours, shapes, sizes, categories of vocabulary (e.g. half the cards are body parts and half are animals), etc. Students can also be asked to say both a similarity and a difference (e.g. “They are transport. It is big. It is small.”)
Higher level classes can be given a random selection of recent and/ or upcoming vocabulary to use try and think of their own connections between in a game I call Random Pelmanism, e.g. “It’s a clothes horse” “It’s an aerial” “They are both metal”.
Another variation of pelmanism that also includes both “It is” and “They are” is for students to try to turn over two cards which are related plus one more card which is different. They then identify the similarity (e.g. “They are dangerous”) and difference (e.g. “It isn’t dangerous” or “It is cute”).
It is/ They are brainstorming races
The kinds of descriptions that students are asked to come up with in some of the games above can also be given to the students for them to come up with examples of. They then draw and/ or write those things and get points for saying and/ or writing sentences identifying both the category and the individual examples, e.g. “They are toys. It’s a toy car”.
The same game can be played with things that are more difficult to think of, e.g. “They are big. One is friendly and one is dangerous”.
It is the odd one out
This is a common vocabulary exercise that can have this language and more fun added to it with a competitive element. At least three pictures and/ or words with an odd one out is quickly flashed up, e.g. with a PowerPoint slide, OHP or on an A3 flashcard, and students rush to identify the odd one out and the similarity between the others with sentences like “They are in the classroom. It is in my house”. This can also be done with two or more categories and an odd one out in the list, e.g. “They are on your head. They are on your feet. It is on your body.”
It is/ They are stations
Stations is a quite popular young learners game in which students touch one of two walls in the classroom depending on which thing they hear or think is suitable, e.g. the right wall if they hear “ch” and the left wall if they hear “sh” or the right wall if they think the word takes “a” and the right wall if they think the word takes “an”. The same can easily be done with “It is” and “They are”, e.g. by students touching one of the two walls based on how many things are on the flashcard, in the classroom, in their city, in the view outside the window, or in the world.
Guess how many
As well as the slow reveal flashcard game mentioned above, students can also guess how many things are in your hand, in a plastic bag, under a cloth after you removed stuff, etc. They then make a suitable It is/ They are sentence depending on whether they think the number is one or larger.
It is/ They are target practice
Students are given two balls and throw one of them at something in the classroom. If they can identify the thing they hit (e.g. “It’s a curtain”), they get one point. They can then keep that one point and stop there, or take a chance and try to throw the other ball at the same (kind of) thing. If they do take that chance, they can get four points if they can do so and say “They are curtains” or lose all their points if they hit something different.
The same game can be played with pictures, e.g. large flashcards around the room or pictures projected on the board or a screen.
Using picture books for It is/ They are
Perhaps the most fun kinds of books are ones in which things are hidden and need to be found, e.g. Where’s Wally and I Spy books. Perhaps with the text covered up, the teacher calls out or writes up the name of an object or kind of person and the students must race to find how many there are of that thing and shout out the correct sentence, e.g. “They are wizards”. This can also be done with pictures in front of the whole class, e.g. with an OHP, or students can even make similar pictures to help each other.
A less fun but more educational version is to use a picture dictionary – both A to Z and ones with words in categories work fine. Open a random page of the book and let students compete to use both “It is” and “They are” to identify objects on the page and the theme of it, e.g. “It is a zoo. It is a zebra. They are Z words” or “It is a tractor. It is a combine harvester. They are on farms”.
Using videos for It is/ They are
This is simplicity itself – choose a video where objects appear both singularly and in groups, and get students to stick up their hands whenever they think they can make a sentence that no one else has yet, e.g. “They are presents” and “It is a teddy bear” in a Xmas video.