The University of Iowa

Learning English With Your Children and Teens: Using Junk Mail to Practice English

Family shopping at grocery store

Using advertisements and coupons to practice English literacy skills allows families to become more familiar with which grocery nouns are countable and which are noncountable.


Posted on: March 30, 2021

Editor’s note: Learning together can improve your children’s and teens’ English language skills as well as your own. This post is part of an ongoing series designed to help caregivers who are English learners find English learning opportunities for the family in their everyday lives.

We live in a digital world. And yet, in this age of text messages and smartphone apps, your postal mailbox might still regularly be stuffed with junk mail like sheets of coupons and advertisements. Although your instinct might be to put the papers straight into the recycling bin, there are ways to use that junk mail or other everyday objects (collectively referred to as realia) to support your literacy development of English as well as that of your children and teens. Language enables us to solve problems and to socially interact with others (Vygotsky, 1978). Therefore, practicing with realia such as coupons and advertisements can allow you and your children or teens to practice scenarios and interactions that occur in everyday life. This kind of realia also can help you and your children or teens gain cultural knowledge about the United States, such as the kinds of products that can be found in stores and the kinds of information often found in advertisements (Xu, 1999).

Building Skills Together: Activities Using Junk Mail to Practice English

The activities below are a few ways you can use junk mail like coupons and advertising to practice English with your children and teens.

Create a Picture Dictionary

You can collect many coupons and advertisements. To create a picture dictionary, organize them alphabetically in a scrapbook. As you organize, point to the coupons and advertisements and have your child or teen identify the product by its English name. Then have your child or teen point to a coupon for you to identify so that you can practice vocabulary, too. Once you have created your picture dictionary, you can use it to practice other English language skills such as grammar and pronunciation.

Practice Grammar: Countable and Noncountable Nouns

With your children or teens, identify the products on the coupons that are countable and noncountable nouns. For example, eggs are countable because you can number each one. Also, they are usually sold in a package with a specific number such as 12 (also known as a dozen). By contrast, cereal is noncountable because it would be difficult or impossible to number each flake or piece of cereal. And, instead of being sold by a number you could count by hand, cereal is sold by measured amounts such as a 12-ounce box of cereal. Next, use the coupons to make a grocery list. With your child, circle the countable nouns: apples, bananas, paper towels, etc. Draw a box around the noncountable nouns: milk, bread, detergent.

More practice: With your children or teens, group the items on your grocery list into labeled categories, such as “produce,” “household cleaners,” and “dairy.” For example, milk and cheese are kinds of dairy products. Write the word “dairy” on your list and underline it. Then write “milk’ and “cheese” below it. Ask your teen or child:

What are some other dairy products?

Practice Pronunciation: Ending Consonants (s)

With your children or teens, identify products on the coupons that end with the letter “s,” such as “eggs,” “cupcakes,” “paper towels,” and “bananas.” The “s” is used to make the items plural. Explain that when a word ends with a vowel or other voiced consonant sound like “m, “n,” “ng,” “l,” “b,” “d,” “g,” “v,” r”,” or voiced “th,” the “s” is added to make the word plural and has a /z/ sound. Say the word “eggs,” emphasizing the /z/ sound at the end of the word.

Then explain that when a word ends in a voiceless sound like “p,” “t,” “k,” “f,” or the voiceless “th” sound, the “s” has a /s/ sound. Say the word “cupcakes,” emphasizing the /s/ sound.

Decide together whether each coupon with an ending consonant “s” should be pronounced with the /z/ or /s/ sound.

Practice Speaking Skills: Ask and Answer Questions (How Much?)

With your children or teens, roleplay being a customer and a cashier. Use the sentence frames below to practice asking and answering questions about the coupons from your picture dictionary. Then switch roles.

Sentence Frames to Practice Speaking English

Question: How much can I save on ______________ with this coupon? Examples:

How much can I save on bananas with this coupon?

How much can I save on cereal with this coupon?

Answer:  You can save ______________. Examples:

You can save 39 cents.

You can save 12 dollars.

These sentence frames will allow you and your children or teen to practice countable and noncountable nouns (see Practice Grammar: Countable and Noncountable Nouns above). As you practice, remember that countable nouns can end with the letter “s” while noncountable nouns do not. For example, the word “bananas” is a countable noun while the word “cereal” is a noncountable noun. These sentence frames will also allow you and your child or teen to practice pronouncing the end consonant “s” (see Practice Pronunciation: Ending Consonants (s) above). Remember that words with the ending consonant “-s” can end with either an /s/ or /z/ sound. For example, the word “cents” ends with an /s/ sound while the word “dollars” ends with a /z/ sound.

Practice English Conversation

Tell your children or teens that you are going on a weekend trip. Decide together where you are going to go. Say to them:

We can only bring three things with us. What should we bring?

With your children or teens, decide which three things pictured in your coupon dictionary would be most useful on your weekend trip. You can certainly consider the amount of savings on the coupons in your decision. As you talk with your children or teens, try to use and pronounce correctly countable and noncountable nouns.

Note: Remember that when you practice English conversation with your children or teens, it is okay for you to use words, phrases, or sentences in your home language if you do not know how to say something in English or if a word or idea needs more explanation. Incorporating the home language can be an effective way to complete a task and to support the learning of new content in the target or new language (Genesee & Lindholm-Leary, 2012). The goal of conversation practice is to find as many opportunities to use English as you can. You might find yourselves using more English each time you talk.

When learning a new language and a new culture, the things you encounter in daily life can provide new learning opportunities. Junk mail is one way to practice English for free with materials you can find right in your own mailbox.

For more practice, try one of these Activities for Using Junk Email in the ESL/EFL Classroom from the website The Internet TESL Journal.


Genesee, F., & Lindholm-Leary, K. (2012). The education of English language learners. In K. R. Harris, S. Graham, T. Urdan, A. G. Bus, S. Major, & H. L. Swanson (Eds.), APA handbooks in psychology®. APA educational psychology handbook, Vol. 3. Application to learning and teaching (pp. 499–526). American Psychological Association.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.). Harvard University Press.

Xu, Hong. (1999) Young Chinese ESL children’s home literacy experiences. Reading Horizons: A Journal of Literacy and Language Arts, 40, 47–64.

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Building Background Knowledge Together

For English learners, these terms are helpful to know before you try the activities in this post.

  • There is mail you receive that you want to receive, such as a letter, or something you need to receive such as a bill. The mail you do not want to receive is often called junk mail. Coupons and advertisements are kinds of junk mail. Even though advertisements and coupons can be useful, many people refer to them as junk mail because they receive so much of it and because they did not ask for it. The word spam is often used to describe this type of unwanted content that is sent to your e-mail. For more information about this topic, read this article about spam from the website for English learners, Breaking News English.
  • A coupon is a ticket or a small piece of paper that gives you a discount on a product or service. Coupons can be found in the newspaper or online. Coupons are also often delivered by mail. With coupons, you can get discounts on all kinds of products, such as food, laundry detergent, or paper towels. To use a coupon, bring the paper ticket (or print it if it is online) with you to the store. Give the coupon to the cashier when you are paying at the checkout counter.

Example of a coupon for cereal
  • An advertisement is a notice about a product, service, or event. Advertisements often are meant to inform of a discount or reduction in price. Some advertisements include coupons.

You can discuss the following questions with your children or teens in English or in your native language:

  • Do we have junk mail in our native country? How is it similar to or different from junk mail in the United States?
  • Do we use coupons? What do we usually buy with coupons?
  • Did we recently receive an advertisement in the mail? What kind of information did it have on it?

You may choose to revisit some or all of these questions with your children and teens as you encounter more junk mail.