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Susan Hansen

Research Paper
EFL 503
Denis Hall

English Article Teaching Strategies

The English article is one of the most difficult systems in the English language to

learn and one of the last ones to achieve (Master, 1990). Acquiring English articles is

very difficult for second language (L2) learners because of the vast amount of rules that

are vital to comprehend, as well as the many exceptions to go with them. Some

languages do not contain articles, while those that do, often do not use them in the same

manner as English. This makes English articles challenging to explain and many

researchers have worked hard to propose pedagogical methods to teach L2 learners. In

this paper I plan to evaluate some of these methods and propose how I think the English

article might best be taught for beginning high school and adult learners.

One form of analysis of the article system is known as the Huebner system. In

Huebner’s system one must take the noun into consideration within its context rather than

the word by itself. The semantic function of the noun phrase (NP) and which article is

used with it is then taken into consideration. Also, the way the article, noun, and NP

association change over time is a factor (Parrish 1987). Two binary features are

analyzed, information known to the speaker [+/-HK] (hearer knowledge), and specific

referent [+/-SR]. The +/- determines whether the knowledge is known to the hearer or

not, and whether a specific item is being referred to or not. From this Parrish analyzes

Bickerton’s semantic wheel to explain when to use which article depending on the

speaker and the hearer’s knowledge. Bickerton, a linguist and professor, determined that

every type of noun phrase refers to one of the four types on his semantic wheel. Type 1

represents [-SR][+HK], Type 2 is [+SR][+HK], Type 3, [+SR][-HK], and lastly Type 4,

[-SR][-HK]. These categories allow us to assign each a semantic function. Both

Huebner and Bickerton exclude idiomatic phrases, proper nouns, and expressions because

they do not follow the same patterns as regular nouns. Once a NP type is determined, we

move to their subcategories. For example, [+SR][+HK] (a specific item and the hearer

knows about it) means that a definite article will always be used in standard English and

goes on to explain each situation. Each type has two to four subcategories to look at

when determining the proper article. The categories make sense, and the systematic

breakdown into subcategories is helpful, but becomes rather complicated and a challenge

to follow for any English speaker.

Another person who has studied English article pedagogy is Peter Master. In his

1986 article, he proposes six questions to answer about every noun to figure out the

proper article to be used. “Is the noun, (1) countable or uncountable, (2) definite or

indefinite, (3) postmodified or not, (4) specific or generic, (5) common or proper, and (6)

in an idiomatic phrase or not,” (Masters 2002). His explanations are clear and simple to

understand. I like his organization and practical explanation that he uses. He agrees with

the other writers previously mentioned that one needs to look at the whole noun phrase

rather than the noun in isolation.

In 1990, Master created a flow chart similar to the one found in our textbook, The

Grammar Book on page 272, to help understand which article to use. Rather than six

questions to ask about the noun, one needs to look at whether the noun is classified or

identified. From the two categories, there are subcategories to help with the decision as

to which article to use. These subcategories are similar to the categories asked in his

previous six questions but more specific. Although he goes more in-depth in this chart, I

feel that it is more difficult to use and not as helpful to L2 English learners as his original

six question system. Master recommends teaching count vs. noncount with indefinite

articles first, along with the zero article. Then the difference between indefinite and

definite articles should be taught to understand the use of the.

Contrary to Master’s approach, Mizuno (1999) proposes a different order to

teaching the article system. He feels that “acquisition of grammatical rules tends to

proceed from unmarked items to marked items.” Definite articles being the most

unmarked, should be taught first. He feels the is the easiest to be learned because it is

used the most and can be learned through patterns. Indefinite articles are more complex,

and once the students understand NP structures they should be able to make the

distinction between the two. The last to be learned is the zero article because of its

abstractness. By the time they learn the zero article is learned as advanced English

language learners it will be easier to understand because of their advanced knowledge of

the language.

Unlike the other authors previously mentioned there were others who studied

articles that had less systematic and rule-based approaches. Pica (1983) as mentioned in

Berry (1991) and Master (2002), argued “article use may have more to do with

communication and communicative competence than with grammar and linguistic

competence.” In her 1985 study Pica found that direct instruction of the indefinite article

had little affect on L2 learner acquisition, therefore it need not be taught. After

disagreeing with Pica, Berry proposes her own seven principles that also stress not

relying on rules, but rather more on practice exercises that are more student centered, less

explicit presentation of rules, and the desire to achieve production, comprehension, and


* * * * *

Unfortunately I have not had any experience with teaching English to non-native

speakers. In my Spanish teaching I find myself teaching native English speakers English

grammar all the time before they can begin to understand the Spanish grammar. It is a

different form of explanation than an ESL/EFL student would receive because my

American students already had the English rules internalized. They may not know the

formal rules and explanations but they will most always use them correctly.

Unfortunately this is not the case in L2 learning, especially for adult learners. It is more

difficult to acquire difficult grammar concepts, such as the article, without understanding

the rules to go with them. Some basic patterns can be picked up through implicit

instruction, but a formal explanation is required at some point in the learning process.

Through my Spanish learning experience and also in understanding my own

learning styles, I find that I best learn by a formal explanation of grammar rules so that I

can understand them and internalize them. I find that this can be really important to

adults who want to know how things work. Looking back on learning Spanish, I feel that

when I learned it I had an advantage over language learners of non-article system based

languages because English has an article system as well. There are different usages in

each language, though; therefore, I think it is important to understand the rules in order to

use them correctly. Although I have not taught English, my Spanish has taught me the

importance of explaining the grammar rules and how to use them in real-life situations.

When introducing any grammar aspect, one needs to start simple and work towards more

complex systems. If too many rules are thrown at the student at once they become

overwhelmed and are easily frustrated. For this reason, I have chosen in my paper to deal

with common nouns and exclude idiomatic phrases, and expressions. This will help ease

the anxiety level of the English L2 learners. Too much at one time becomes far too

difficult for the learner.

Many of the research articles that I read had extensive lists of rules and exceptions

that were overwhelming to me; I can’t imagine what they would do to an ESL student.

The authors that best laid out the rules simplistically and clearly from a realistic

standpoint were Masters (1986) and the authors of The Grammar Book. The first step is

determining whether the noun is count or noncount. A count noun is defined as a noun

that is countable, for example, dog, can be both singular and plural (dogs). Other nouns

are uncountable, for example, water cannot be made plural. This can be difficult because

in one language a word is countable, but in English it may not be, such as chalk. It is

noncount in English but count in Japanese (Celce-Murcia et al., 1999). We need to take

this into consideration when it comes to understanding errors made by L2 learners in this

distinction. Other nouns, known as mass nouns, are also important to consider because

they can be count or noncount depending on the situation. An example of this would be

the word coffee. Coffee is mass when talking about the substance coffee in general, but

we can also say two coffees when ordering. This concept can be practiced in a variety of

ways such as brainstorming with word lists, using fill-in-the-blank sentences, and word

bank exercises.

Once the concept of count/noncount nouns has been understood successfully. The

first article I would focus on would be the indefinite article. Mizuno (1999) proposes the

idea to begin teaching definite articles first because they are used with almost all nouns in

English at some point. On the contrary, I would have to agree with Master and start with

an explanation of the indefinite article. It is a concept that can be understood in all

languages because a(n) comes from the word one and when understood by English L2

learners, students find it makes sense to not be able to use it with a plural or noncount

noun. It also helps in the understanding of why the zero article is instead used. This

concept can also best be practiced in isolation with fill-in-the-blank exercises.

The last article to be discussed is the definite article. This is a bit more difficult to

explain to a student in simple terms. I will not cover all definite article situations at one

time because of the complexity, but rather start with the most common and easily

understood use of the. When talking about a specific noun that both the speaker and the

hearer know about, then the definite article is used. What this means is anything that is

known about in a general or local culture, a certain situation, or something prior

mentioned uses the article the (Celce-Murcia et al., 1999). There are additional uses of

the article the, but for beginning learners, these concepts often become too abstract and

confusing. Starting with this primary use provides a strong foundation to build upon as

their language ability grows.

In my lesson, I would use the explanations that I outlined above and break each

concept down step by step. First understanding the difference between count and

noncount nouns is necessary in order to grasp the concept of definite, indefinite, and zero

articles. Once learners internalize these rules we can take the explanation further to

account for other exceptions and situations that arise in the English language system. At

this time I am not going to be concerned with idiomatic phrases, and common

expressions such as in the afternoon. These phrases tend to follow different patterns than

common nouns and require more practice and memorization. After each concept is

explained I would use practice exercises, both oral and written, for students to practice

and demonstrate their understanding of the article usage. I believe that this lesson is

geared towards beginning/lower intermediate high school/adult learner students of any

language background. For this level of development I do not feel that the explanation

should go much further because the rules and exceptions can be much too complicated

for a lower level learner. As students become more advanced in their skills, we can focus

on the more complex article rules.

Being an English L1 learner, I feel often that I am at a disadvantage when it

comes to teaching English. I have never dealt with the structural rules of the language

and do not think about what I am saying and why I say it in the way that I do. Many

people do not think that it would be very difficult to teach English since they already

speak it. After researching this topic and reading other information in The Grammar

Book, I realize that explaining English grammar will be real challenge for me. After

reviewing all the research articles on the English article system and pedagogy, I feel that I

have outlined how they might best be taught from the beginning level. I hope that by the

time I finish with this program I will be better prepared to answer the difficult questions

that the English language entails.

Berry, R. (1991). Re-articulating the articles. ELT Journal, 45 (3), pp. 252-9.

Horowitz, F. E. (1989). ESL and prototype theory: zero vs. definite article with place
names. IRAL, 27 (2), pp. 81-98.

Master, P. (1986). Teaching the English article to foreign technical writing students.
The Technical Writing Teacher, 13 (3), pp. 203-10.

Master, P. (1990). Teaching the English articles as a binary system. TESOL Quarterly,
24 (3), pp. 461-78

Master, P. (2002). Information structure and English article pedagogy. System, 30 (3),
pp. 331-49.

Mizuno, M. (1999). Interlanguage analysis of the English article system: Some

cognitive constraints facing the Japanese adult learners. IRAL, 37 (2), pp. 127-53.

Parrish, B. (1987). A new look at methodologies in the study of article acquisition for
learners of ESL. Language Learning, 37 (3), pp. 361-83.

Schrampfer Azar, B. (1999). Understanding and Using English Grammar. New York:
Prentice Hall Regents.

Tarone, E., et. al. (1988). Task-related variation in interlanguage: the case of articles.
Language Learning, 38, pp. 21-44.