Sometimes about mid-semester I realize I’m really tired reading sentences like “America is the free country.” (Actually, they usually read “America is the freedom country,” but let’s focus on one issue at a time.) “Really?” I say to the offending student writer. “The only free country, huh?”
He usually looks confused. “No. It’s the free country. Not the only free country.”
“Oh, but the free country actually means the only free country,” I explain.
His continued look of puzzlement tells me it’s time for instruction in the article system in English. Mistakes like “America is the free country” indicate a confusion with articles, or words like “a,” “an,” and “the.” This confusion is common among ESL students, largely because many languages have no article system or one radically different from the one in English. It is often this confusion over the use of articles that clearly distinguishes a native from nonnative speaker - even if the nonnative speaker is perfectly intelligible. Native speakers almost never make mistakes in article use; in addition, articles are so hard for nonnative speakers to learn. Therefore, the use of articles clearly distinguishes native from nonnative speakers who are otherwise strong speakers, so this is an area that should be focused on to build the competency of our ESL students.
So what are some important features of the article system to teach? Some pointers follow:
- Teach the articles in English: “a,” “an,” “the,” and “0” (or no article).
- Teach how articles are used: they almost without except precede a noun.
- Teach article meanings—“a” and “an” actually mean “one,” so they are never used with plural nouns. They are also nonspecific or general:
- “A teacher walked in the classroom,” for example, does not identify the specific teacher and also suggests that the teacher in question may not be the specific teacher for that room.
- “The” indicates specificity or second mention of the topic of discussion: “A teacher walked into the classroom. The teacher picked up a marker,” suggests that only one teacher is under consideration: the use of “the” highlights the second mention of the same topic. However.
- “A teacher walked into the room. A teacher picked up a marker,” suggests two separate teachers are involved because “the” is not used for the second mention of a teacher.
- Finally, “The teacher walked into the room” suggests some specificity with the use of “the”: “the teacher” is a specific teacher, probably the teacher for the room.
- Finally, sometimes no article is used, for plural and generic topics:
Teachers work hard.
The speaker here means teachers in general, not a specific teacher or group of teachers, so no article is required.
These are some good overall rules about articles. Now how do you teach them?
Methods of Teaching Articles
Teach with Nouns
Generally speaking, any learning occurs best in its authentic context, and this is especially true of language learning. Language does not occur is isolated individual words and should not be taught that way. Articles occur with nouns, so when teaching new vocabulary that includes nouns, these nouns should be taught with the articles they are used with: e.g., in the living room are an armchair, a coffee table, and the new television.
Teach a List
I would usually discourage teaching language in lists, but some lists, like a shopping list or list of items to pack for a trip, are authentic uses of language and an opportunity to practice articles: “a carton of milk,” “light bulbs for the downstairs lamp,” and so forth. Give students a topic for their list: e.g., “You are shopping for a dinner for someone you want to impress, like the president of your book club. What do you absolutely need to buy for the party? Discuss with your peers.” As students discuss and write their lists, they will be using articles.
Read a paragraph from your textbook aloud to the class. Have students follow along in their books. Then together note the use of articles. Discuss why the author made the choices he or she did with articles. How would the meaning change if another article were substituted?
Delete the articles
Give out a paragraph with the articles deleted. Have students work in pairs to decide which articles should be filled in. Reading aloud often helps because often students who are at the intermediate level and higher have developed a sense of the “sound” of the language, of what sounds right and what doesn’t.
Discuss a Topic
Have students discuss in small groups a topic that will demand multiple uses of different articles: “An Ideal Vacation,” for example, will call upon both uses of articles in both the general for abstract discussion of vacations and the specific article for more specific places. Circulate as students talk, mentally noting any common problems, and then at the end pull the class together for a brief discussion.
Practice in Writing
Have students write a short essay whose topic will call upon article use: the topic “A Good Leader,” for example, is likely to call upon multiple uses of articles as students discuss both leaders in general and specific leaders.
Have students edit their own or their peers’ work. When handing back an essay, for example, have students look over their own papers, or trade with peer, focusing just on the articles. Again, have students read parts aloud, marking in pencil areas of concern. Circulate and answer questions as needed.
Teaching articles is often neglected for multiple reasons: they are hard to notice and address as students come from language backgrounds where articles are not used; in addition, student speech and writing is usually comprehensible despite article misuse, and the system for article use is rather complex.
However, incorrect article use does tend to mark the speaker as a learner of English, and more correct usage shows someone who has nativelike speech, so article use is an important area to address with students.