Alleviating Article Anxiety

Simplify Blue Marker
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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?

Too Many

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.

The Solution

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

articles chart (1)
Source: Gwen Zeldenrust

How have you simplified a complicated grammatical conundrum for your students?

Hi, I’m Gwen Zeldenrust. After a brief absence from the profession, I realized that teaching is my passion and the path that my career should follow. Most of my practice has been focused on teaching ESL to adults in Ontario. In addition to that, I’ve been a trainer for an insurance company, a teaching assistant for several professors at university, taught English in Japan and Core-French at the local school board. While I’ve been teaching ESL I’ve also been working on a project which has developed organically among a group of teachers. Under the name of Language Foundations, we’ve produced a video that teaches strategies for interacting successfully in Canada. The video project has inspired in me a true passion for writing. I love being able to reach out with my thoughts, share ideas and discuss different perspectives. I think writing and teaching are very complementary!


5 thoughts on “Alleviating Article Anxiety”

  1. Articles Simplified Chart even more simple:

    Noun -> specific -> the
    -> non-specific -> non-count -> no article
    -> count -> singular -> a/an
    -> plural -> no article, use s

    I simply mark their errors with these one of these 3 error messages: “specific” or ” How many?” or “non-count”

    “specific” reminds them to put “the”
    “How many?” reminds them to put “a/an/s”
    “non-count” reminds them to remove the “a/an/s”

  2. Brilliant! Thank you for this! I’ll definitely use it, including Rosemary’s version and feedback notations.

    Yes, I do simplify this very complex area of language and have had a lot of success with the way I tackle it. Hey, this would make a great blog post. Thank you for the inspiration!

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