Learners often find our use of articles (definite, indefinite and zero) difficult to grasp.

Teachers don't always help as much as they might because they often insist on dealing with them at phrase or sentence level, as offered in coursebooks and practice books, rather than at discourse level where they operate as part of a system of reference.  The result is that some learners just give up.  Speakers of Slavonic languages (teachers as well as learners), which manage quite well without articles, get particularly frustrated when interference from their mother tongue leads, as often as not, to omission of the definite article where it is needed and inclusion of an indefinite article where the definite article would be appropriate.  Here are some examples, all from real non-native language:

  • thanks for a reply to my message
  • we went to theatre last night
  • authorities here are giving me problems

None of this is big stuff.  None of it interferes with communication in a serious way.  Yet I once watched a class in a Central European country in which the teacher tore into her (intermediate level) learners every time one of them made a mistake with an article, at one stage announcing: "You will never speak like an English person if you don't learn to use the article."  Needless to say, the kids were reluctant to open their mouths and showed all the symptoms of an incipient neurosis.

I would always want to approach study of the article system through text analysis, even at a very basic level, asking learners to account for the use or omission of articles at various points in the text.  Here is an example of a task:

To get to Walton you need to head along County Road until you reach a roundabout.  At the roundabout, go straight on and you'll see a large church on the left.  That's Walton Church.  Go past the church and you're into the main shopping area of Walton.  Many of the shops are small businesses but the whole area is a bit run down and there are quite a few derelict buildings.  

Account for the use of the definite or indefite articles in bold in the text.

I'm quite happy if learners discuss this kind of question in their mother tongue at lower levels.

Please share your approach to teaching articles.  Or is this something you try to avoid?  Do share your difficulties and queries.