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.




Dear Rod

Thank you for your write-up on the use of articles in English. I think almost all second language learners of English have problems with the use of articles. One of the reasons, perhaps, is: most of these languages do not have articles. 

Your example reminds me of the examples I use in my classes. 1. ' Once upon a time there lived a King. The King had two wives. The wives had ten children. The children had twenty friends....' 2. A man and a boy were going along a dusty road. The man was pushing the boy on a tiny bicycle. The bicycle belonged to the boy's sister...'

Students' task would be to understand and explain the use and omission of articles. And instead of using the terms 'homophora','cataphora' and 'anaphora', I would use simpler words 'contextual reference','forward reference' and 'backward reference'.

Once this becomes clear most of the learners can manage with the use of articles.


Dear Rod,

Hi, glad you are back,

I definitely agree with you on using a text for better explanations while teaching articles. When students get this idea that they must use the article “The” when they are talking about something which is familiar to the listener or it has been mentioned earlier, they make less mistakes and an easy text as you mentioned will help a lot.

Sometimes comparing the use of articles from English to mother tongue may confuse them and I think students better learn English without comparing it with their mother tongues. As an example we never use English tenses in Persian the same way as it is used in English.

Comparison languages is useful for researchers who want to know or teach the differences between English or other languages but early learners of English language, whether children or adults, will be distracted from getting the main idea of English sentence patterns if they compare them with their mother tongue .They may also be frustrated when they find out that English grammar rules do not comply with their mother tongues. May be on comparing English with French we get less differences rather comparing it with Persian or other languages. Please specify your ideas about this matter.

Many thanks and Merry Christmas,

A Mazinanian


Thanks, Harsh and A. Mazinanian for your thoughts on rhe article.  It is certainly interesting to reflect on how the reference system works in different languages and language families.  French is a romance language, related to Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan and Romanian.  All these languages, as far as I know have a well-developed article system, used for reference and for the purposes of expressing something specifically or non-specifically, though not always in exactly the same way as English.  However, again as far as I can recall from my schooldays, Latin, the source from which all these languages are derived, had no need of an elaborate article system.  How strange is that!  And how did the articles come to be introduced into these languages? I'm sure there's scholarly work on this somewhere!

Whiole copmparisons with the mother tongue can be confusing, I do believe that a bit of contrastive study of discourse can sometimes help, since every language, including, I am sure, Persian, necessarily has a system of anaphoric reference even if this is not dependent on articles. 

Thanks again for your interest and warm wishes 


I'd agree with Rod that sometimes 'a bit of contrastive study of discourse can sometimes help'. E.g. for Russian speakers I do appeal to their knowledge of demonstrative pronoun 'this' to substitute 'the' and indefinite pronoun slike some-, any-. And it helps, students get better understanding and in shorter time. But I'd agree as well that better use of articles would come with more context and practice. under practice I mean actual use of articles in free speech both heard and spoken. 

Tatyana Let

Dear Tatyana

 Thanks for your contribution.  I agree that practice is important, but so is exposure - to real texts, both spoken and written, with awareness questions to draw students' attention to how and when the article is used.  Otherwise they simply may not notice what is going on, the more so since the article isn't always vital to successful spontaneous communication.

 Best wishes


My own experience as a learner and a teacher backs this up, and I go along wholeheartedly with the notion that learners benefit from observing language, hypothesising about it, testing out their hypotheses by experimenting and working with the feedback they get from their interlocutors. We as teachers would do well to allow time and space for this kind of experimentation and to offer learners support rather than a scolding when they do make mistakes.

Over my years of learning, teaching and training I have become increasingly aware of the impact that teachers can and often do have on our learners, and their attitudes to English. Affective factors, such as attitude and self-esteem, are well-known to have a profound effect on learners’ motivation and ultimately on their success or failure in learning.