While it is probably true that simple language structures are the easiest thing to teach and learn, we should look very carefully at what we consider to be simple.
Take for example English articles. There are only two of them: definite and indefinite — maybe three, if we count the allophonic variant of the indefinite article ‘an’. Unlike other languages, in English we don’t have to take into account gender or case when deciding which one to use. So, why are these items so difficult for English language learners? The answer to this question relates to the rules that govern articles, which are very complex, thus making their application somewhat difficult.
Why are the rules so complicated?
American vs. British
Articles in English are prime targets for the process of language change. These tiny grammatical words made up of only two concepts, definiteness and indefiniteness, have not always fulfilled the same need throughout history. Just take for example how North Americans make plans for “the weekend”, but many Brits make plans “for weekend”. If there are differences among native speakers, then how can ESL learners possibly be expected to get it right?
If you look at a textbook or website discussing articles, you will probably find at least 15 rules for correct usage.This makes considering the correct one to use, if any, complex and cognitively demanding. I often find that even learners with advanced levels of English have questions and/or difficulties with the rules governing articles. Although articles don’t have a lot of communicative value, they are important when writing for academic purposes. For this reason, I think they are very important to academic students especially.
I believe that students who don’t have an intuitive feel for article usage need to develop a strategy or system to apply them correctly. Simplifying is one good way to go about teaching articles. By focusing on the most commonly used rules, I’ve come up with a little hierarchy chart.
I encourage learners to refer to this chart when writing. It’s a good aid that makes article selection and checking their own work quicker and easier when they have not yet internalized the rules. The intent is to use the chart in the interim until they achieve automaticity. It’s not 100% fool proof, but it does increase accuracy for beginner, intermediate, and even advanced learners. I usually make copies and encourage students to keep one in their dictionary or writing book. The ones who use it appreciate the quick reference and the fact that it simplifies the rules around article usage.
Articles Simplified Chart
How have you simplified a complicated grammatical conundrum for your students?