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How to Teach Articles
Articles often prove a tricky grammar point for many English students, even those that may use articles in their own language. Grammatically speaking, articles belong to a class of words called determiners – they ‘determine’ the noun. In English we refer to 3 or 4 articles (depending how you count them), which are:
- the definite article (the);
- the indefinite article (a/an); and
- the zero article or no article.
It is logical to count ‘a’ and ‘an’ as one article since fixed pronunciation rules determine their use.
When to Teach
Articles pervade English. That is to say that they are not really a discrete grammar point that can be neatly packaged in the same way that the present perfect or passive voice can. This makes it difficult to place articles at just a particular point into a syllabus.
The way course books get around this is to package articles with a lexical set (often jobs) or to teach articles based on ‘rules’ (e.g. geographical features, indefinite article for first mention and definite article for subsequent mentions). In this way, articles appear explicitly in course books between beginner to intermediate levels.
However, since articles pervade the language, students are always encountering, being challenged by and being asked to produce, articles. One might therefore make the argument that we are constantly teaching (or at least practising) articles. That is certainly the view of this author, and I further propose that we make more use of opportunities that present themselves to explore article usage with students in context, as Parrott (2009, p.45) also seems to suggest.
Articles provide information about the noun that they appear before. In English, articles provide information about the number and definiteness of a noun. However, it is interesting to note that other languages use articles to determine the gender and case of a noun. If students find articles tricky, at least they do not need to consider these two aspects!
The Definite Article
The definite article, as its name suggests, is used to show that the noun is definite. In other words, this is something that is:
- specific (e.g. bring me the pen); and/or
- known to the interlocutor (e.g. we’ll be late for the train).
The particular noun that we are referring to may be definite because:
- It is unique (the Himalayas);
- We mentioned it before (the thing I told you about earlier);
- It is in the vicinity (the one over there);
- It is the most or least something (the most expensive).
In some cases, including the above examples, “the” is used as an anaphoric, cataphoric or exophoric reference.
The Indefinite Article
The indefinite article is therefore used when we are not concerned with a specific instance of a noun, and/or this is unknown to the interlocutor. For example:
- bring me a pen (any pen, I don’t mind which);
- There’s a train I sometimes take.
Further, the indefinite article tells us something about number. In many cases we could replace it with “one” and it would not have any change in meaning (bring me a/one pen).
The Zero Article
The zero article is used when we refer to plural nouns that are either unspecified or in general. For example:
- I drink coffee;
- Coffee has become the world’s most popular drink.
Some fixed and/or idiomatic expressions may require a particular article (including the zero article) which seems to contradict these basic ‘rules’ of meaning.
Course books often introduce more specific ‘rules’ for using articles. Some of these are more useful than others. The more useful include:
- We use ‘the’ with the full name of countries (the Czech Republic), unions of states (the UK/USA/UAE) and island chains (the Maldives). Otherwise we tend not to use the with countries.
- We use the zero article with cities (New York, Beijing, etc.) and continents (Asia).
- We use ‘the’ with deserts (the Sahara), rainforests (the Amazon), gulfs and peninsulas (the Arabian gulf/peninsula).
- We use ‘the’ with mountain ranges (the Himalayas) but not individual mountains (Mount Everest).
- We use ‘the’ with rivers, seas and oceans (the Nile/Mediterranean/Pacific), but not with lakes or waterfalls.
- We use ‘the’ when talking about geographical areas (the Far/Middle East).
- We use ‘the’ with newspapers (the Daily Planet) and organisations (the WHO).
While the above rules are somewhat useful, there are many rules out there that are less so. This section highlights just a few of these.
Course books tend to teach jobs with the indefinite article at an elementary level in order that students can say “I’m a doctor” for example. However, it isn’t difficult to imagine a receptionist saying “sorry, the doctor is running late”, or “the doctor will see you now.”
It might be more true than not that we use the definite article with superlative adjectives, e.g. “that’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!” However, with certain superlatives there are definitely exceptions:
- It was a (personal) best (time) for me;
- We have a lowest price guarantee at the moment;
- I’ll be trusting you with a most important job.
As with superlatives, the guidance is often given that we always use ‘the’ with ordinal numbers (e.g. first). There are times when we don’t:
- There’s a first time for everything;
- He took a second look.
A lot of food items being uncountable, students are often told that they need to use a partitive quantifier (e.g. a cup of coffee). However, this ignores the fact that in reality it would be very normal to order ‘a coffee’ in a restaurant. And while you were there, it wouldn’t sound too strange to say that you would take ‘the filet mignon’ either.
It's a/I've got a
These and other phrases are taught as always being followed by the indefinite article at low levels. Of course it is possible to say “I’ve got the remote” or “it’s the neighbour’s cat” assuming we have shared knowledge.
Articles, like other determiners, go at the beginning of a noun phrase. They may be followed by nouns, adjectives or adverbs.
The indefinite article is the only article that changes form (a or an). The rules for this are fixed and depend on the pronunciation (not the spelling) of the word that follows.
We use “an”, instead of “a”, for words that begin with a vowel sound. Words that begin with “a”, “e”, “i” and “o” always take “an”. Words beginning with “u” may or may not take “an” as many of these will be pronounced with a /j/ at the beginning. Some words beginning with a silent /h/ may also take “an”.
- an umbrella
- a university
- an hour
- an honest man
Articles are usually pronounced in their weak forms:
a = /ə/
an = /ən/
the = /ðə/
In some cases articles may be pronounced so weakly that they are barely detectable. In other cases they may be joined (catenated) with other words.
If an article is being pronounced in its strong form, it is either to stress its importance or because every word is being pronounced clearly (e.g. for a speech):
a = /eɪ/
an = /an/
the = /ðə/ (before consonants)
/ðɪ/, /ðiː/ (may be used before vowels otherwise /ðə/)
Articles rarely cause comprehension issues for students. However, they do give important cues that would help students if they were able to make use of them. In spoken English this is made difficult by the fact that articles are not clearly pronounced. One solution therefore is to draw students attention to articles in the materials they study, particularly in listening.
The wrong, or lack of, use of articles by a student in speaking or writing also rarely causes communication problems. However, this does put strain on the communication.
Students may make mistakes using articles because:
- They don’t understand the reasons to use articles;
- They don’t know a particular article is required in a fixed phrase;
- They apply ‘rules’ from their own language;
- They omit articles through the stress of production;
- They don’t realise a noun is uncountable (a good fun);
- They may put other determiners after the article (the my book).
For teachers, teaching articles can be difficult due to the number of so-called ‘rules’ some of which hold more water than others. Many of these rules are taught in course books at low levels, with course books teaching articles less explicitly (if at all) at higher levels. Students are therefore expected to simply learn articles from exposure at this point.
Where articles are taught, or tested, explicitly at higher levels, this is often done in single sentences. While many of these imply a certain answer according to one of the commonly taught rules, the sentences often lack enough context to ensure there is only one correct answer.
Although I’ve never seen it, I have heard stories of teachers choosing to present an incomprehensible number of rules for articles in a lesson. This kind of teaching is certainly going to drain the energy of students with probably little impact on their ability to actually use articles.
Firstly, we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. The basic reasons for using articles are good guidelines for students to follow, and some of the additional rules of thumb are true in the vast majority of cases. We can continue to teach these tendencies, although we should remind students that they are tendencies and therefore they may not always be true.
We should also pay attention when introducing new language. Articles can come up in many chunks or grammar patterns. When presenting these, we have the opportunity to draw students attention to the articles. One way that may help with this particularly is drilling. We can also consider the effect of changing articles in chunks that we are teaching.
When presenting or practising any language point, we should remember that context is very important. This is perhaps particularly true for articles, since how definite or known something is will depend on the context. This doesn’t entail a difficult change, just a move from single sentence examples and gap fills to paragraphs or even whole texts.
Since students often have problems hearing articles, we can also spend time with students listening for them. Students find this kind of activity difficult, at least initially. For this reason it may be best to try this in short bursts.
Finally, testing students on article usage in new chunks or patterns they have learned should be done regularly. We might have some students who regularly test themselves on new vocabulary, but the truth is that most of them probably do not. Regular testing will however improve their recall of articles in chunks and provide useful data about what students still have memorised.
Contexts for Teaching Articles
Articles pervade virtually every context in English. In fact, it is easier to list contexts where you may not find many articles. In particular they are often left out of CVs/resumes, newspaper headlines and instructions.
Articles can therefore be taught within just about any context. However, for the basic rules of thumb, the following contexts may prove particularly fruitful:
- Travel (articles relating to places and geographical features);
- Restaurants/Cooking (articles related to food particularly the a + uncountable noun contradiction);
- Sports (articles relating to comparatives and superlatives);
- Anecdotes/short stories (known/unknown items).
Beginner students will likely need a slow introduction to articles. It is therefore best to teach the definite and indefinite articles separately initially. This can be done by teaching the articles with a lexical set such as jobs (a lawyer, a doctor, etc.), and also in lexical chunks (it’s a, I’ve got a, where’s the, in the morning). In a lexical set, the “a/an” rule is easily taught providing there are some words that start with a vowel sound. Although students sometimes confuse the fact that the choice depends on pronunciation and not spelling, few students seem to have many problems with this.
Exploring Articles in Chunks
When dealing with articles in chunks, we can explore what happens when we change the article. For example, we can present students with the following:
|cold||charger for an iPhone||minute|
|flu||pen I can borrow||time|
|covid||book I gave you||remote|
|any questions||answer to number 3||work|
- Have you got a/an _____
- Have you got the _____
- Have you got _____
Students can add these to the three sentence stems. Some of them may be possible with more than one stem, with the same or with a different meaning. In particular:
- Have you got time?
- Have you got the time?
Students can be given other sentence stems to consider what can and can’t follow the three articles.
One area that students need help with in practising articles is in hearing them in context. One very simple activity you could do is to play audio (such as the songs below). Tell half the class to listen for ‘a’ or ‘an’, and the other half to listen for ‘the’. When they hear their word, they should stand up and sit down quickly. Obviously, it is best not to pick audio which is too fast and to be prepared to slow it down. If students are really opposed to getting up, you could have them lift their left hand for ‘a/an’ and right for ‘the’.
Alternatively, you could have students sit with an edited tapescript that has the articles missing. Play the recording twice; once for students to mark where they hear articles, and a second time to write the correct article.
Practice and Test in Context
However you choose to practise articles, it is always better to do so in context. Using longer texts as gap fills therefore makes much more sense than single sentences. Similarly, if you are going to test articles in recently taught chunks, these should also appear in context.
Songs for Teaching Articles