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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

Know your grammar: What are articles, and how can we teach them?

The articles ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’ are in a class of word called determiners. As the name suggests, a determiner is a part of speech which works with noun to determine (tell us something about) the quality of that noun. Similar to an adjective, and in a way a kind of adjective, determiners usually come before nouns, and give us more information about the number, specificity and ownership connected to that noun. There are four main types of determiner: articles, quantifiers, demonstratives and possessive adjectives. This post will look more closely at the articles (a, an and the).

One of the most-studied and probably least accurately used aspects of English, articles are a challenge for many reasons. On one hand, there are some clear rules as to their usage. On the other hand, there are some quite unpredictable patterns for students to remember. In terms of general use, articles communicate whether a noun is seen as unique, specific or general, either in a singular or plural form.

A note on terminology…

I am already using grammar terminology to describe these different types of determiner. It’s worth noting that this terminology is useful for teachers to understand more about them, and what they do. However, when teaching these forms, it may be more useful to stay away from high-level grammar terminology and use sentence examples and tasks to get students working out how determiners can be applied, either deductively or inductively. Basically, use the terminology and theory to understand how the forms work yourself, and then pass this on to students through examples and tasks.

1) Indefinite Articles (‘a’ and ‘an’)

‘A’ or ‘an’ are used before general singular nouns, indicating that the one being talked about is one of a general group, as in ‘I don’t drive a car’ (any car, out of all the cars in the world), or ‘I’d like to eat an apple’ (one apple, out of the many apples in the bowl, for example).

‘A’ is also used when we introduce a noun for the first time (except in the case of proper nouns, which do not need an article - see below), for example: ‘I saw a cat and a dog fighting’. Here we don’t know which cat or dog is being described, as it is the first time they have been mentioned, so ‘a’ is used.

2) The Definite Article (‘the’)

‘The’ is used with singular nouns to indicate that it is a specific one, and is often used with a further definition of which noun is being described, as in ‘the car that I hired broke down’ (that specific car, the only one which I hired’, or ‘the apple I bit into was rotten’ (that specific apple).

‘The’ is also used with nouns to show that they are unique, or that there is only one of the noun being determined, as in ‘the sun sets at 8pm’ (where there is only one sun) or ‘He was praised by the teacher’ (where there is only one teacher for the class). In the same way, ‘the’ is used with superlative grammar (the biggest, the best, the tallest…), as there can be only one biggest, best, etc. in a group of examples.

As a definite article, ‘the’ also works as a reference to a noun after it has already been mentioned once. This is because at the first mention, we do not know which one it is (it is being mentioned for the first time - see above), whereas after the first mention, we know which one it is (the one we just mentioned), and it is therefore seen more specifically, or definitely. For example: ‘I saw a cat and a dog having a fight. The dog was barking angrily, but the cat won the fight without making a sound’

3) The ‘0’ Article

No article (the ‘0 article’) is used when we talk about general plural nouns, as in ‘dogs are bigger than cats, but cats are sharper than dogs’, or when using proper nouns, such as country and place names and people’s names.

No article is used when we are referring to uncountable nouns in general (in the same way that we use ‘a’ for general countable nouns, as above), for example: 0 Sugar is sweeter than 0 lemon juice

Special uses of articles

Other usage patterns are connected to the use / non-use of articles. Rather than being ‘exceptions’ to the general rules above, these are more usefully described as specific usages, as they can often be explained in the same terms as the above, though in more specific situations, for example:

Geographical features take ‘the’ when they form an ‘adjective + noun’ phrase, as in:

The Atlantic Ocean, The Baltic Sea, The Caucasian Mountains, The Elysian Fields, etc. Here, we are referring to a specific ocean / sea / mountain range, so ‘the’ is used.

When the geographical feature has a specific title or name, no article is used, as in other names and proper nouns, as in Mount Fuji, Lake Geneva, Sydney Harbour, etc.

A common structure is the sequence ‘The ____ of ____’, which is used to assign a noun to a specific country, as in ‘The Bank of England’, ‘The Queen of Denmark’ or ‘The Democratic Republic of Congo’. The _____ of _____ is a useful structure for students to learn, and brings both articles and prepositions into students’ lexical memory as these phrases can easily be taught as chunks of language rather than specific uses of ‘the’.

Some article usages seem irregular on first sight, but may be more rational on second thought. For example, we say ‘in the morning’, in the afternoon’, but ‘at night’ without an article. This may be because we can specify more easily about a morning or afternoon (when we are awake and we witness events and perform actions), as compared to at night, when we are typically asleep. It is noticeable that when we are awake at this time, we can add ‘the’ to specify, as in ‘I woke up during the night’ or ‘things that go bump in the night’ (which we would have to be awake to be aware of).

There are many other patterns of usage which can be taught separately, and are too numerous to go into here, but it’s worth taking these one by one rather than flooding students with mixed practice that covers too many points, and can get confusing very quickly.

How to order teaching activity with articles

Given the range of different uses and patterns above, it is effective to return to the different aspects of articles at different levels of study. Also, given that most European languages have articles, and others do not, the point at which the different uses of articles are taught should be considered according to need.

Lower levels of study

In general, articles are so common that they can be presented lexically, as parts of common chunks at low levels, ensuring that they are taught alongside common words such as ‘morning’, ‘afternoon’, ‘evening’ (ie rather than teaching these words individually, present them as chunks such as ‘the morning, the afternoon, the evening, etc.’. This will cement the articles as part of noun phrases early in a period of study, say at beginner and elementary (CEFR A1 / A2) levels. Similarly, rather than presenting nouns as individual words (car, bus, truck), why not present these items with ‘a’ (a car, bus, truck, etc.).

Intermediate levels of study

At intermediate levels (high CEFR B1 to B2), students typically have enough language resource to look more deeply at using ‘a’ the first time a noun is mentioned, followed by ‘the’ for second and subsequent uses. This can be done through simple gap fill exercises at paragraph level, and through guided writing tasks.

At this point, the differences between uses of ‘the’ in countries and geographical features can be explored, with learners telling each other about the seas, lakes, mountains, etc. in their countries, and assigning names (with or without ‘the’ as appropriate) to them in their descriptions.

This is also a good point to introduce the structure ‘the…of…’ as more complex noun phrases, and introducing this as a collocation which can be used (or not, as appropriate) to talk about institutions (banks, schools, universities, governments).

At this point, when looking at comparative and superlative grammar, it is worth paying special attention to the use of ‘the’ for superlatives. 

Higher levels of study

At higher levels (CEFR B2 and above), students are more ready to discuss the less formulaic patterns of article use in more academic styles (for example to name species: ‘the elephant is the biggest land mammal…’, and the choice between using the structure ‘the…of… in place of possessives in more formal communication: ‘for centuries, it has been the dream of scientists to find a unified theory of everything). 

There are also more subtle choices of article use which are interesting to explore at this level, such as use / non-use of ‘the’ with institutions such as university, school, prison and hospital, where use of ‘the’ distances the speaker from membership of the institution - there is a clear difference of meaning between ‘I’m going to hospital this afternoon’ (implying that the speaker will undergo medical treatment) versus ‘I’m going to the hospital this afternoon’ (perhaps to visit someone, not as a patient), or ‘he’s in prison’ versus ‘he’s in the prison’.

Articles are so frequent, as so widely used in English, that they need to be a focus at every level of study. However you decide to work with them, however, be selective. Don’t overload students with several functions and usages at the same time, and break down each usage with lost of examples to contrast the effects of using / not using different forms, and this complex language point will become much more manageable for learners.

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