Students’ questions are very informative. Their queries tell us what topics interest them and which aspects of a topic they need to study.
An intermediate student recently asked me about There is/There are statements. A short, simple sentence is easy to construct: There is a car. There are cars. “But what about a string of nouns?” the student asked. “Does it matter if those nouns are plural or singular?” Show a photo to students, like the featured one on this post, and challenge them to choose the correct verb: There [is / are] a pen, a pair of sunglasses, a wallet, and some other personal items. Why is the singular verb correct?
You could also use this conversation starter and then lead into a look at the grammar: There is a time and a place for _____, and it’s not at the dinner table.
If you’d like to review the rules and give some interactive practice with subject-verb agreement using There is/ There are statements, please check out my there is.there are_handout.
UPDATE: (September 11, 2017) Some wonderful discussion resulted after I posted my YT video. I still stand behind the pattern of using a singular verb before a series of singular nouns or a coordinated noun phrase where the first noun is singular. However, I would clarify for students that this isn’t so much a rule as it is a pattern or preference. Biber et al recognize this preference in their discussion of subject-verb concord (186). They also point out that proximity plays a role (189), too. I think it’s important for students to learn how most English speakers think and what preferences speakers have with There is/There are constructions. We can explain that in the above example “a time and a place” is indeed the (notional) subject and as a compound subject the verb should be plural (are), but most speakers and writers would opt for a singular verb (is).
Photo credit: Bag, Leather, Goods, Accessories by Snufkin. Retrieved from the Public Domain at https://pixabay.com/en/bag-leather-goods-accessories-1609281/.
Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.