15 top tips for learning articles
These tips are given below in the approximate order of how often I tell students and trainee teachers about them- because they are easy to understand, easy to remember or something they are not likely to have heard from other teachers.
1. Always write articles on your vocab list/ the whiteboard/ worksheets
For example, tell students to write and learn “The President of the United States” or “He is the president” rather than just “President” and “A banana” and “Some tomato juice” rather than “Banana” and “Tomato juice”.
2. Learn “the” with superlatives
This is one often occurring and easy to understand and remember example of the tip above that I stress very strongly in my classes- when you learn a table of comparative and superlative adjectives learn “big, bigger than, the biggest” rather than “big, bigger, biggest”. You can also insist on the same form when you elicit and on their vocabulary lists.
3. Learn articles with jobs
This is another common example of tip number one- usually meaning “A teacher” but also possibly including “The Queen” or “The CEO of Microsoft”.
4. You almost always need an article and not having one has a special meaning
I tend to pick a slightly random but impressive sounding number like 95% and write it on the board next to “something plus noun” with only 5% next to “only noun”, giving common examples of the 95% as being “a”, “the”, “some”, “any”, numbers and “my”. You can reinforce and expand this point by showing that “He was in prison” actually means “He was a prisoner”, unlike “He visited the prison” with its ordinary, “95% of the time with article” meaning.
5. The = that, A/ an = One
This is a variation on the well known explanation that you use “the” when people know what thing you are referring to, but is easier to understand (if less general). Another way of explaining and using this explanation is “If you can put ‘that’ into the sentence, then you probably need ‘the'”. The same is true for the number one and “a”/ “an”.
6. Rely on memory as much as logic
This a generalisation of the top three tips above. Not only are the explanations of which article to use difficult to understand and full of exceptions, the evidence is that students still make article mistakes years after hearing and trying to apply those rules. The aim then should be to make the use of articles instinctive, which must eventually mean shortcutting consciously understood rules. One way of approaching that is just to learn as many examples of real article use as you can.
7. Put articles on your vocabulary list
One difficulty of learning the use of articles is that translation is absolutely no use at all, and this makes it difficult to include on students’ lists of things to learn/ vocabulary lists once they have got past the point of “a = uno”. One way past that is for them to learn entire sentences including the articles, for example quotes, film titles, song titles, lines or choruses from songs, common classroom phrases, common travel English phrases, common sentences from phone calls or emails, other functional language stems, and proverbs. Another is for them to use tackling articles as a chance to learn lots of vocabulary. This can also mean idioms such as proverbs and other things mentioned elsewhere in this article such as names of jobs. Country names is another good category of vocabulary to learn whilst trying to get to grips with articles. As a motivation to tackle articles this way, you can tell students that even if they don’t get articles always right by the time they finish that exercise, at least they will have learnt lots of words. All of these forms can be learnt as a translation from something with similar meaning (not a word for word translation) such as an idiom with the same level of formality, as a gapped sentence on one side of the list and the missing word on the other, or as a sentence with an error (perhaps one they really made whilst speaking or writing) on one side and the corrected version on the other.
8. Relax and give it time
If I remember my readings on Natural Order correctly, articles are one of the last things native speaker children and second language learners stop making mistakes with- and even if I don’t remember correctly that piece of information has given some of my students a feeling of relief and a reason to listen to some of the other tips in this article such as learning vocabulary at the same time.
9. Write even if you only want to speak
Articles are one of those points that are very difficult to correct or self-correct when speaking- sometimes because there is a mistake in nearly every sentence a student makes! Students who want accuracy in speaking should therefore spend at least some time writing, even if it is just a script of a typical conversation. If they want to particularly work on articles, they can then go through their writing again with a checklist of tips on how to use them, checking for one after another- e.g. going through once to check that most nouns have articles or similar in front of them, a second time to check that they haven’t used “a” before a word starting with a vowel sound, etc.
10. “An” is before a vowel sound, not a vowel
For example, “university” starts with the same sound as “yacht” (/j/ in the phonemic chart, a confusing symbol that is best remembered by thinking of the German word “ja” for yes), and so takes the same article- “a”.
11. Reading reading reading
Articles, especially “a”, are so quiet and short in speech and so seldom change the meaning of a sentence that you can happily ignore them whilst listening. That and the limited results in the short term of teaching and correcting the use of articles means that students need to read and notice hundreds and thousands of examples in written texts before their use begins to become accurate and natural. As is generally true with reading, they need to understand the vast majority of the text to pick that up the language that they don’t know, which for most students means graded readers rather than authentic texts.
12. “An apple” sounds like “A napple”
So much so that “a norange” (from the Spanish “naranja”) actually changed to “an orange” sometime in the history of the English language.
13. A/ an = One (of several/ many), The = you know what thing
For example, “Take a chair” means any one is okay but “Bring me the chair” means the chair we were talking about before or the only chair in the room.
14. The = The only one (in the world/ the room)
For example, “The heavy weight champion of the world”. If you have taught students to say “the biggest” every time when doing superlatives as suggested above, you can lead to this by telling them that superlatives is just one example of this more general point.
15. “A” the first time it is mentioned and “The” the second
This is another gross generalisation that is nonetheless very useful, similar to “Ask the first question about experiences using the Present Perfect and follow up questions using the Simple Past”.
Alex Case says:
Some more fun activities for this grammar point here: