The Smuggling Game: “some,” “any” and “a” with Lower Secondary Learners

By Jessica D’Ambrosio

One particular summer a few years ago, I was teaching a group of energetic A1/A2 students of predominantly lower secondary age at a mixed-nationality summer school in the UK. I was looking at upcoming language points in our prescribed textbook when I realised that countable and uncountable nouns with ‘some, any’ and ‘a’ – specifically when distinguishing between positive, negative and question structures – was coming up soon.

In this article I will briefly explore the problems I was having getting students to practise these particular structures, outline the activity I designed as an alternative, and briefly reflect on this activity’s strengths and weaknesses.

Problems with practising the structure

It can be difficult to find activities that provide practice of the structures in a way that is interesting: this is particularly true of teenage learners, who tend to have shorter attention spans than adults.

Providing targeted yet meaningful practice.
Due to the difficulties in designing a freer practice activity that necessitates the structures’ use, “gamey” activities such as dice, board games or battle ships are often used to prompt the production of single structures in isolation. Although often successful in achieving this, they are less successful in providing adequate practice for spontaneous use in wider discoursal contexts.

Cognitive over-load.
Students often perceive these structures as very complicated: practising structures in an isolated way compounds this by allowing too much time for students to mentally analyse the “grammar rules” before production, resulting in cognitive over-load.

The activity

Aim: To provide semi-controlled speaking practice of countable and uncountable nouns using “some/any/a” in the context of a roleplay. In this roleplay, students will try to “smuggle” food into a foreign country, with the activity providing both a speaking frame and visual prompts for scaffolding.


For set-up:

  • A picture/cartoon of a police officer with a sniffer dog.
  • A picture/cartoon of someone secretly carrying something in a jacket.
  • A picture/cartoon of an airport.
  • Blu-tac.

For the main activity:
Two sets of cut-up picture tiles. The cards could be anything, but should include both countable and uncountable nouns, and both singular and plural nouns. Textbooks and resource books frequently include picture sets like this.

Activity set-up:

  1. Draw a picture of a country on the board. Ask students to invent a name for the country. Write the name.

  2. Stick up your picture of the airport somewhere on the country. Elicit “airport.”

  3. Under the airport, stick-up your picture of a police officer with a sniffer dog. Elicit what his/her job is. (The answer could be: “to find illegal things”/“to find bad things”, etc.)

  4. Next to the police officer and sniffer dog, stick up your picture of someone smuggling something in their jacket. Ask students “what is he/she doing?” Elicit/teach “smuggling something”.

  5. Tell students “You want to go to (this country). You want to bring food. But, food is not ok.”

Preparation phase – scaffolding:

  1. Distribute a set of picture cards to each student. Elicit the name of any foods which students don’t know.

  2. On the back of the picture cards, students should write something which looks similar to the illustrated food. Do an example together. Encourage students to be creative with their answers. I always allow them to look up or ask for words which they don’t know, and then go through these words with the class. (For example “balls” for “apples.”)

Students can write almost anything they want which looks even slightly similar, but should not write other food.

Phase 1: Scaffolding with preparation time.

  1. Put students in pairs. One student should be a passenger, and one should be a police officer.

  2. Elicit/give students this basic speaking frame:
Police officer Passenger
Do you have .............?  
  No, I don’t have ........., but I have ...........
Ok, that’s fine / That’s not ok  

3. Using this frame as a base, passengers should try to “smuggle” their items into the country. The police officer will ask them about each item.

For example, with the card “apples” the conversation might go like this:

Police officer: “Do you have any apples?”
Passenger: “No, I don’t have any apples, but I have some balls.”
Police officer: “... OK, that’s fine.”

Depending on the “similar item” the passenger has come up with, the police officer can decide whether to allow the item or not. It’s difficult to come up with a fair rule for this, but students do tend to have fun arguing about it. Students can then swap roles.

Optional follow-up variations.

These optional variations could be done in the same lesson, or repeated in subsequent lessons as revision.

Phase 2: Repetition with less scaffolding.
Give students cards of things they want to smuggle, only this time they must think of a similar item on the spot. For weaker classes you could use the same cards; for stronger classes, you could use a different set.

Phase 3: Student-generated items.
Give students blank squares and ask them to write down things they want to smuggle into the country. Students can come up with quite colourful ideas, so decide in advance whether you want to set restrictions on this or not. You could also consider using cards with indications to ensure students use a variety of countable/uncountable nouns. For example:

Countable (1) Uncountable. Countable. (many.)

Notes on the activity

Although it’s quite a silly roleplay/game, young teenagers of this age group do seem to find the idea of smuggling quite fun: some classes get very into the roleplay, improvising enthusiastically around the speaking frame.

Providing targeted yet meaningful practice.
Although the roleplay repeatedly uses a speaking frame and an arguably unlikely situation, the frame does succeed in necessitating the use of specific structures whilst stopping students from using these structures in isolation from each other, embedding them instead in a larger, discoursal context.

Cognitive over-load and internalisation of grammar rules.
The activity is arguably the most successful at achieving this through:

  • Semi-conscious clarification of grammar patterns by presenting the same noun types close together in positive, negative and question structures.
  • Internalisation of grammar patterns through multiple repetitions of the chant-like speaking frame.
  • Not allowing students enough time to over-think grammar rules by embedding practice in a conversation.
  • Providing scaffolding with the use of pictures and a speaking frame, allowing students to direct more of their processing load towards when to use “some/any/a.”

Older students:
I have also had success in trying this activity with adults. Although this age group doesn’t necessarily get as enthusiastic about smuggling, it was still successful from the point of view of the second and third point mentioned above.

A useful rule of thumb?

Many textbooks include a rule of thumb when dealing with this grammar point which claims:

Uncountable/plural nouns:
i) ‘some’ is used in positive sentences.
ii) ‘any’ is used in negatives and questions.

However, it is probably more accurate to describe “some” as being used “when the idea is restricted or limited in some way,” and any as being used when the idea is “unrestricted or unlimited” (Lewis 1986:34). The above exercise can also be used with this explanation, as the speaking frame uses a very common implementation of the rule:

“Do you have...” = asking about everything
you have. (Unrestricted.)
“I don’t have any...” = “I have absolutely
none.” (Unrestricted.)
“I have some...” = I have a little/a few.” (Restricted.)

Teachers faced with the former “rule of thumb” by their textbook – especially those expecting it to come up in summative assessment – could easily use the exercise to practise this implementation whilst presenting students with a more accurate rule. It could also be used as a springboard for elaborating more on the use of “some/any/a” in the sense of restricted/unrestricted in future lessons.


The central idea of the activity could easily be adapted for other roleplays by keeping three key elements.

  • The repeated speaking frame.
  • Pictures with similar items for scaffolding.
  • An interesting situation.

One example might be a shopping expedition: customers want to buy items which shopkeepers don’t have, so they try to sell them similar items instead.

Author's Bio: Jessica D’Ambrosio is a qualified Delta teacher and materials designer working at a private language school in London. Her interests include learner autonomy, language learning technology, incorporating creativity in the classroom and training students to deal with authentic material. She is currently working on a book for learners that clarifies lesser-known language concepts to help develop autonomy outside the classroom.


Lewis, M. (1986). The English verb: An exploration of Structure and meaning. Boston: Heinle ELT.