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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

Teaching quantifiers communicatively with context: few, a few, fewer and less

Quantifiers in TESOL

English quantifiers can be tricky for learners. They depend on a range of factors, from countability, quantity, number and even the personal perspective of the speaker. However, seen as a purely grammatical language item, quantifiers are often undertaught through simplified gap fill and grammar translation exercises, which may not help learners to process the full range of lexical and attitudinal aspects of meaning and use.

Fewer and less - a shift in usage

Officially, according to the ‘rules’ of English grammar, the quantifier ‘few’ should be used with countable nouns (nouns which have a separate plural form, and can be given a number), whereas ‘less’ is only used to quantify uncountable nouns, which have no plural form. However, it is common to hear sentences such as:

‘There are less people here than usual’

‘Queue here with 10 items or less’

‘There were less cars on the road 50 years ago’

Are these sentences incorrect? Officially, yes, but if so, why do we see the second sentence printed on signs in supermarkets across the English speaking world? Usage in this area is changing, probably to simplify the conscious choice of language when thinking about countability - ‘less’ is a more frequent form, as it also modifies adjectives and is used in other phrases and structures, so the language brain is more likely to jump to ‘less’ when quantifying things in a hurry.

So what do we teach our students about ‘fewer’ and ‘less’? Do we stick to the hard and fast countability rule, which is broken on a daily basis, even in public print? Or do we teach ‘less’ more flexibly. This is up to you, and specifically the context where you are teaching. Academic writing, for example, is more likely to contain the more considered ‘fewer’ as compared to casual speech, but it is worth taking real usage into account when we teach these grey area forms.

Few and a few - a relative view

A good example of the nuance of quantifiers is the use of phrases with ‘few’. These items show the importance of context, and understanding of the speaker’s perspective when quantifiers are used. For example, in the following sentences, what is implied by the use of ‘few’ and ‘a few’? Does the speaker have a positive or negative view of how many people responded to the party invitation? Why?

  1. I don’t know what happened. Of the few people who said they were coming, only 10 showed up

  2. I don’t know what happened. A few people said they were coming, but only 10 showed up

In sentence 1), the ‘few people’ who responded is given a negative connotation, meaning that more responses were expected. Whereas in 2), the use of ‘a few’ implies a positive, perhaps as many people, or more than expected, responded. In each case, the specific number of responses could be the same (say, 20), but the expectation of the speaker changes the way that they quantify the number.

This relative view is true of all quantifiers (except where exact numbers are used) - ‘a lot’ of milk in a cup of tea for one person may not be much for another, depending on what they expect. Similarly, a few people at a wedding is a very different number to a few people at a dinner party. Quantifiers are relative to expectation, so we should ensure that this is reflected when we teach them.

Teaching quantifiers with context

Rather than giving lists of gapfill tasks about different topics, and asking students to complete sentences based on single examples, the relative, personal aspect of quantifiers is teachable with the simple addition of some contextual information for each example. Set up the context around what each student considers as ‘a lot’, a little’, ‘few’ or ‘a few’ before they answer, or even as part of the answer, and you can be more sure that they are accurately taking on and applying these subjective forms. For example, compare the following tasks, one decontextualised list, and one with added personal context:

Task 1: Complete the following sentences using ‘a lot of’, ‘a little’, ‘little’, ‘a few’ or ‘few’

  1. There were __________________ students in the class on Friday.

  2. I saw ___________________ tourists on holiday.

  3. _________________ people believe in aliens.

  4. I love chocolate. I eat ___________________ every day.

  5. She doesn’t like sweet things. She takes ___________ sugar in her tea

In this task, there are many possible answers to each sentence, depending on the context or the attitude of the speaker. It is not enough to present these sentences alone to students and expect them to be able to justify why they chose one answer over another as ‘correct’.

Instead, start by getting students to build a context for their use of quantifiers first. This will give them something to draw on when they come to use ‘few’, ‘a few’, ‘a lot’, etc.:

Task 2: 

i) Predict how many people in the class…

  1. …have flown in a helicopter

  2. …play football regularly

  3. …eat breakfast every day

  4. …always do their homework

  5. …know your family name

ii) Now, interview the members of the class and find out how many people really do / have really done these things

iii) What was your original prediction, and what was the real situation, for example:

I thought a lot of people ate breakfast every day, but very few really do.

iv) Look back at your sentences from iii) - why did you use the quantifiers that you did? Did you feel positive or negative about the number of people? Why?

By adding this interactive context, and then following the sentence work with some reflection and detailed feedback on language choices, there is a lot more opportunity for students to think about and justify their language choices. This in turn will make their authentic language choices in this area more informed.

Next time you teach quantifiers, think about the tasks you set your learners - do they contain enough context to justify one quantifier as more ‘correct’ than another? How can you build in more authentic contexts to get students discussing their attitudes towards the amounts and numbers they are describing?

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