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Concourse 2

Teaching the article system


Before tackling this guide, you should have worked through the language analysis guide to the article system and satisfied yourself that you understand how it works in English.  If you want to try the test to refresh your memory you can click here.  The test will open in a new window or tab so just shut it to return.


Other languages


It's quite common to hear people say this or that language doesn't have articles and it's sometimes true but the real situation is a bit more complicated.  It is true that it is easier to list common languages which actually do have an article system similar to English because there are so many that have nothing of the sort.  Most common languages do not have an article system anything like English, in fact.
Here's a brief run-down of some major languages and language groups.

Languages with no obvious article system
This is a long list and includes:
All Slavonic languages (with the exception of Bulgarian and some other southern Slavic languages), Chinese languages, Japanese and Korean, Turkish, Thai and other South-East Asian languages and some other European languages such as Finnish and Basque.
Some of these languages do have a way to express what is called the partitive (some).  Finnish has a whole grammatical case for it (and 14 other cases).  In Russian and some other Slavonic languages it can be rendered by pluralising one and in Japanese the demonstrative sono can be used this way.
Speakers of these languages will have huge trouble.  They will almost randomly leave out articles when they are needed or insert them when they are not, even at advanced levels because they have few conceptual hooks to hang things on.  We can expect errors, therefore, such as:
*She is very nice teacher
*What the films do you like?
*She was in a pain

and so on.
The concepts of definiteness and indefiniteness, let alone countability and uncountability are sources of deep and abiding conceptual confusion.
Languages with an article system akin to English
This list is mostly confined to European languages and includes:
Greek, Hungarian, the Italic languages (Spanish, Italian, French, Romanian etc.), Scandinavian languages and Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Afrikaans, English etc.).
Some European languages such as South Slavic languages like Albanian have an article system based on affixation, using suffixes for the definite article only.  Basque is similar in this respect.
Although all these languages have some kind of article system, how articles are deployed is very variable.
Greek, for example, uses an article before proper names (the Maria etc.) and omits them in subject complements (She is teacher).  Like Italian and a number of Italic languages, it also uses the definite article where English would not (The tigers are dangerous animals, the money is important, I was on holiday in the France etc.)
Spanish, unlike French and Italian (but similar to German) can use the definite article as a pronoun: my book and the of John.
Errors will occur frequently because of analogy with first languages but they will not be random.  Conceptually, there are similarities.  Most errors are traceable to the learners' first languages and alerting them to differences in use will be productive.  Expect errors as in the examples above.
Arabic, and other Semitic languages are something of special case.
Arabic has both a definite and indefinite article system.
Indefiniteness is signalled by the addition of a suffix (un), a process called 'nunation'.
The definite for all genders and numbers is the prefix al- / el-.  (The 'l' may be assimilated to a following letter.)
Although the concept of indefiniteness is known, the uses of the indefinite article in English cause great difficulties.  Usually, Arabic speakers simply omit it: *He is teacher.

It should be clear from the above that this is an area which has to be approached very carefully and systematically.  It is unlikely that speakers of languages which don't have an article system will simply acquire the system by exposure to it.  They'll need a rule or two to help especially when they are writing and have time to consider how to apply them.


Keep it simple

If you have worked through the guide to the article system, you'll know that it's really quite complex.  Bear in mind that the rules in that guide where there to help you understand the system, not your learners.  Here's the overview to remind you:


So, here's a suggested sequence of rules for students which, while simplifying the area (and running a risk of inaccuracy), will help in many situations.  Learners can refine their production later to deal with exceptions and oddities.
None of the following teaching ideas involves the use of a gap-fill or text-completion task.  Such things are useful in their place but there's a cautionary note at the end.

Can you make the first rule from these examples?  Click here when you think you have it.

  1. A man parked a huge van outside my house and the thing stayed there for weeks.  Eventually, the man came and took the van away.
  2. When you go out, would you get me some cigarettes and a paper?
    (Some hours later)
    Hi, here are the cigarettes but I forgot the paper.

OK.  Now see if you can make the second rule from these examples.  Click here when you have it.

  1. A: Who's he?
    B: He's the teacher.
  2. A: What's her job?
    B: She's a teacher.
  3. A bank was robbed yesterday but the criminal was caught.
  4. I want to have lunch with the President (of the United States).

Finally, see if you can divine the last rule from this example.  Click here when you have it.

Dogs shouldn't eat sweets, I know, but I gave the dog some sweets because I know he likes sugary things.


Gap-fills and missing article texts

Traditionally article practice is an area where filling in gaps with the, a, an or ∅ is a popular classroom or study technique.  A word of caution: while these techniques are sometimes useful, there are two problems:

  1. The exercises tend to test rather than teach so need to be used after you have done some teaching of the system.
  2. Just removing all the articles from a random text will result in an unfocused exercise in which a variety of article rule use will need to be applied.  Consider this text:

Brighton is largest seaside resort in south-east of England.  For many people it seems town of contrasts, mixture of elegant eighteenth-century architecture and loud modern places of entertainment. Town was at first fishing village and did not become popular until eighteenth century, when doctors began to prescribe sea-bathing as cure for illnesses.  Rich people began to visit Brighton in large numbers, and when Prince of Wales, later George IV, arrived and decided to build house there, its future as tourist centre was assured.

Successfully to insert articles only where they are needed in that text requires the application of all of the above rules, and some.  It is a very challenging and potentially confusing task, even if you make it easier by signalling where the articles should be put.  It is usually wiser, therefore, to construct gap-fill or completion-task texts which focus the learners on only one rule (or at most two) at a time.  It's not difficult to do.

If you have students who would like a visual breakdown of the system (or you would like it), right-click and copy this.  Don't forget to reference it, please!

article system summary

If you have recently taught a successful lesson in this area or have other ideas to share, why not send the materials to ELT ConcourseClick here to see how.

Related guides
the article system for an overview of the analysis
determiners for the guide to other determiners in English
pre-determiners for the guide to these odd forms
partitives and classifiers for more on how the uncountable is made countable

Campbell, G.L. (1995), Concise Compendium of the World's Languages. London: Routledge
Swan, M and Smith, B (2001), Learner English, 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press