English articles convey a greater wealth of information than you’d think. These useful little words enable us to be more precise. When we don’t teach our students to use them properly, we deprive them of the ability to be unambiguous in their own communication. But, time and again, I observed teachers completely ignore their students’ mistakes with articles. Many of my own students were shocked to learn that there was more to English articles than the vowel-consonant rule for a/an. So why do we avoid teaching them?
We tend to neglect English articles for four reasons.
First, English articles are just so easy!
Hey, we’re not teaching German here. We’ve only got three articles (four if you count the no article). We use these tiny little words intuitively. I mean, really, how often have you stopped writing to ponder whether you’re using the correct article? Why would we use up any of our limited time with our students talking about articles? They’ll probably learn it on their own without difficulty, right? Yeah, we already know that’s not true.
Second, English articles are just so hard!
I’m not contradicting myself! It’s simply the truth: articles are one of the easiest parts of grammar ever UNTIL a student asks a question about one, right?
Just when we think we’ve got the perfect way to explain a rule, a student asks about an article that doesn’t follow any of the rules you can explain.
Third, this isn’t grammar class!
“Ask your grammar teacher this,” you might deflect. “We’re focused on vocabulary in this class. This class is for practicing speaking, not grammar. This is a listening class, not a grammar class.”
Of course, it’s harder to distract them from your lack of an answer if you teach all-inclusive classes. Regardless, grammar is in everything. It’s a part of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It affects vocabulary. You don’t have to abandon your lesson plan to teach an impromptu grammar lesson, but you should be able to answer your students’ questions.
Finally, we use the rules, but we don’t know them explicitly.
Most of us can easily and confidently explain to use “a” if the next word begins with a consonant and “an” if it’s a vowel. But you know that a student is going to ask about an exception. Why is it “an hour”? What about “a university”? When we stop to think about English articles, we realize that a/an is for singular nouns and the can be for singular, plural, and noncount, but why does The fruit is on the table. have an article but Fruit is on the table. does not?
Why is it the United States but not the Canada? And we haven’t even mentioned the two ways to pronounce the! All of the whys can have teachers stumped, and not being able to answer a student’s question is not going to work. (No matter what you may have been told by others, the fact is that in some cultures, if the teacher cannot answer, the students will question their capacity for teaching.)
True understanding of articles must come first.
Not all of us took the same path to become ESL teachers. Some of us got a postgraduate degree in TESL, but some of us pivoted away from our training, experience, and education and found ourselves teaching English to non-native speakers. The ability to speak a language doesn’t grant us the ability to teach it. We may have spoken it our entire lives, but to truly serve our students well, we must be able to explain its intricacies. A solid foundation in grammar is a step towards that. If you haven’t got that foundation, work on it.