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Teaching Articles

Six practical ideas on the teaching of the articles a/an/the

One of the biggest challenges I have faced as a teacher over the past five years has been the teaching of articles, particularly in written English. A great deal of the students learning English across the globe will be native speakers of languages such as Mandarin, Russian or Japanese that omit their use entirely. Very often my students have been learning academic or business writing and want to be able to produce professional, error free emails and essays.

For a native English speaker who uses articles without ever having consciously considered the governing rules, explaining how they are used correctly can be a frustrating experience. My own personal strategy has been to ring fence about 15 minutes, usually at the end of a lesson, and devote this teaching a specific use of articles, starting with the most common uses and working through to the more obscure over the course. The following may be a useful template to begin with:

Lesson 1. Referring to singular nouns for the first time and thereafter: Present a picture and write a description similar to the following:

“Here is a picture. In the picture there is a house. Next to the house there is a car. The car is a Honda.”

Encourage your students to identify the rule of when the indefinite or definite article is used. Distribute pictures and tell them to describe them in pairs or write about them.

Lesson 2. No article for non-specific nouns: Comparisons of animals is a good way to teach the use of no article with non-specific nouns. As well as referring to the animals themselves it can be used to refer to environments and food sources.

“(-)Camels live in (-)hot, desert areas. They eat (-)plants and drink (-)water from (-)oases”

These descriptions, either written or presented can then be contrasted to a specific animal, for example, one shown in a documentary.

“The camel has had a long journey, and stops to eat some leaves from a tree by an oasis”.

Lesson 3. Superlatives: Most students beyond elementary level will be aware of the use of the definite article with superlatives. A simple recapping should be all that is necessary in most cases.

Lesson 4. Ordinals: A simple idea for teaching article use with ordinals is to write and drill the date for the day of the lesson as well for the coming and previous days.

“Today is the 12th of August. Yesterday was the 11th of August. Tomorrow will be the 13th of August”.

Conveniently, this can be recapped and highlighted as a starter to every lesson as the teacher elicits the day’s date. The fact that ordinal numbers usually end with a th is also a handy mnemonic that can be pointed out to the students.

Lesson 5. Locations: Encourage the students to describe maps and the features within as a way of teaching definite articles.

“In the north of the city is the library. To the south we can see a football stadium. In the centre of the city, there are a lot of skyscrapers”.

Lesson 6. Jobs: When talking about a person’s job, the indefinite article is usually used. A simple way to teach this is to have the students discuss jobs they do, their parents do, or that they would like to do.

“I want to be a pilot. My mother is a doctor and my sister is a nurse”.

These are just six examples of how articles are commonly used, but by understanding these, students can make rapid progress and gain spoken and written confidence.

Consolidate learning by setting written assignments which incrementally require different uses of articles. Regularly recap what has been learnt by listing areas of article use and asking for examples. You can also give groups of students sentences with correct and incorrect uses of articles and have them identify problems and explain why certain sentences are wrong. Above all, stress to students that article use is a difficult aspect of English with many different rules. Explain that they should not become discouraged if they make mistakes, but focus on recognizing common patterns of use before moving on to more uncommon ones. It is by learning the most common uses of articles that they will be able to eliminate the bulk of their errors.

Written by David Beauchamp for TEFL.net June 2015

4 Comments

  • Alex Case says:

    The Donte comment above seems to be spam

  • Editor says:

    ring fence (noun): a fence completely enclosing a farm or piece of land

    ring fence (verb): enclose (a piece of land) with a ring fence

    Here of course it is used figuratively about time (15 minutes)

  • Kim says:

    What do you mean by “ring fence”?

  • Jenny Sayell says:

    Thanks for these excellent ideas, which I found very helpful. I teach English at a technical university in Germany and this subject always comes, every semester!

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