The articles “a”, “an” and “the” are among the most difficult grammar points in English. This is obviously true for students whose languages rarely use articles. However, it’s also really tricky for those whose languages do use articles, as the rules are often different or even the opposite in different languages. It’s difficult to make even a basic English sentence without an article, making them necessary from Elementary level, but there are plenty of little rules and exceptions to keep even Advanced learners busy. This article lays out the basic rules of English articles, looks at some trickier uses and then gives some presentation and practice activities, including a/ an/ the/ no article games.
What students need to know about English articles
The basic rules of English articles
The basic rules which students need to learn early on and keep in mind from then on are:
- “The” is used when the listener knows which thing is being talked about, as in “Can you pass me the bottle?”, where there is only one bottle or we were just talking about it. This makes it similar to “this/ that/ these/ those”. “The” is used in this way with singular, plural and uncountable nouns (“the hat”, “the hats” and “the cheese”).
- “A” is used with singular countable nouns when it is not clear or doesn’t matter which thing. For example, in “A man came into the room” the listener knows nothing about that man yet and in “I’d like a new fork” it doesn’t matter which fork. This makes it similar to “one”, but with less emphasis on the exact number.
- “An” is basically the same as “a”, but is put in front of singular countable nouns when the word after it starts with a vowel sound, as in “an apple” and “an honest mistake”
- Because of those general meanings of “a(n)” and “the”, “a(n)” is often used the first time that we mention something, then “the” is used from then on, as in “I suddenly saw a motorbike jump over the opened bridge. Amazingly, the motorbike landed safely”.
- No article (= zero article) is used to make general statements with plural and uncountable nouns, as in “Net curtains look stupid” and “I like cheese”. It is also used instead of “some” in sentences like “Would you like (some) milk?” and “I have (some) problems”
- Singular countable nouns generally need something in front of them. For example, we can say “my bedroom”, “a bedroom”, “the bedroom”, “this bedroom”, etc, but never just “bedroom”.
The zero article with uncountable or plural (“Modern teenagers understandably worry more about the future”) is the most common and easiest way to make general statements. However, the other two possibilities with countable nouns are “A modern teenager has too many issues in their heads” (used to make the listener imagine one typical example of that general category, in this case one average teenager) and “The teenager hardly existed at that time” (used to make you think of something as a whole single group, as in inventions and species). This means that for singular countable nouns “the car” could be a specific car or (more rarely) the whole technology. However, for plural and uncountable nouns “the cars” and “the information” only mean specific cars and information as they only have general meaning with zero article.
Other rules/ exceptions
The other use which students are likely to come across first and most often is “the” in “He’s gone to the cinema” and “He’s watching the television”. This doesn’t match the general rule above, as “the” is also used when the listener doesn’t know which cinema and when it doesn’t matter which one of several TVs. The easiest explanation for this is that with these sentences we are not concentrating on the thing or place (as we would be in “There was a fire in a cinema” and “I bought a new TV”), but on the action. However, this doesn’t seem to explain why we can say “I spent the afternoon in a video arcade”, but not “I went to a post office and bought a stamp” X, or why “I bought it in a supermarket” is much rarer than “I bought it in a convenience store”. I therefore tend to tell students that we use “the” with things for which there is or was often only one option nearby, even when that is not actually the case.
There is also a special use/ meaning of the zero article which doesn’t match the general rules above. “He’s in prison” means that he is a prisoner, whereas “I work in a prison” is the same as “I work in an office” and so has the typical “one of the possible prisons” meaning of “a”. There are quite a few examples of this (with “school”, “church”, “university”, etc).
The use of articles in place names also doesn’t seem to match the general rules, but place names do have their own patterns such as:
- “the” for chains of mountains (the Rockies) but zero article for individual mountains (Everest)
- zero article for most countries, but “the” for countries made up of smaller parts (often ending in -s, like “the United States” and “the Philippines”)
- “the” for rivers but zero article for lakes
How to present a, an, the and no article
Long before you present any rules, students need to get used to hearing and using the correct articles. Especially with young learners, this should probably start with “a(n)” to mean “any one” and zero article with plurals, in sentences like:
- This is an apple./ These are grapes.
- I have a cat/ I like cats
- Do you like dogs?/ Would you like a hotdog?
Quite soon after that, students will also need to be able to use “the” to say more about those things and/ or to talk about when there is only one thing, as in “It’s a cat. The cat is green” and “Touch a chair. Touch the whiteboard”. It should be possible to get students used to using “the” this way for at least a couple of lessons without needing a grammar presentation, and in fact with young and very low-level learners I rarely bother with an actual grammar presentation of “the”.
If you want to have a whole lesson on articles, you’ll need a text with exactly the uses that you want to present. For example, you will need to make sure that there is no “on the phone” in the text if you only want to present the most general uses of “the”, or you will need to add “I met him at university” and “There was a riot in a university” if you want to teach this special use of zero article. After doing something else with that text such as discussing the most surprising thing in it, students could be given a gapped version of the text to fill in, with those gaps being articles, zero article, and/ or things which go after those article (“aardvark” after “an”, etc). After filling the gaps from memory or their grammar knowledge, students then match definitions like “it doesn’t matter which one” and “makes general statements with plural and uncountable nouns” to the examples of “a(n)”, “the” and “-” in the text.
I would avoid translation at the presentation stage, as the closest words in L1 almost always actually have very different uses to their equivalents in English. For example, in many languages “a(n)” and “one” are a single word and/ or the closest equivalent to “the” is more like “this”.
Particularly in higher level classes, you could also present articles through fixed expressions such as proverbs. However, you’ll need to be very careful when you choose which ones to use, as some idioms have uses that match none of the rules and exceptions above (perhaps because they have preserved archaic uses of language or simply because it sounds better/ catchier that way). After a comprehension activity such as discussing which proverbs they think are most true in real life, students can try to remember what articles they had and then work out rules for why.
Some of the practice activities below can also work from before the presentation stage.
How to practise a, an, the and no article
Definitions game for articles practice
Give students cards with things to explain without saying the name until people guess, making sure that there is a good mix articles by including things which are unique (“The Sun”, “The Himalayas”, etc), examples of something (“a computer virus”, etc) and general descriptions (“toddlers”, “fake news”, etc). The person guessing must use the same article as on the card to count as a correct guess (perhaps using the fact that the other person started with “It…” or “They…” to help).
Articles simplest responses/ stations
Students raise their right hands if they think “a(n)” should go in a gapped sentence and their left hands if they think “the” should go in it, keeping both hands down if they think nothing (zero article) should go in that gap. With a bit more preparation, the same thing can also be done with them holding up pieces of paper with “the” and “a(n)” written on them. Alternatively, for more fun they can:
- run and touch two opposite walls
- aim balls or paper aeroplanes at those words on the board
- slap those words on scraps of paper on the table
Guessing articles pairwork
This works best when you also want to present or practise a lot of functional language and you are teaching many different uses of articles. Make Student A and Student B worksheets with at least twenty sentences arranged by article (including zero article), e.g. twenty five telephoning phrases with different articles missing. One student reads out phrases with the same article missing (including some where actually nothing is missing) until their partner correctly guesses how to fill those gaps, with only one guess allowed per hint.
Articles pelmanism and snap
Make at least 30 cards with gapped phrases or sentences, each of which can only take “a”, “the” or no article (plus at least another 10 cards for “an” if you want to practise that at the same time). Perhaps after putting the cards into columns by the missing word, students can play a memory game where they try to find two cards with the same word missing from the whole pack laid face down on the table (Articles Pelmanism). Perhaps after that, students can also race to shout out when the card which they have just turned over and the card which their partner has just turned over have the same word missing (Articles Snap).
Articles sentence completion activities
There are quite a lot of sentence stems which tend to specifically take “a(n)”, “the” or zero article, like “I would like…”, “… near my house annoy me”, “When I was at/ in…” and “I like…” If you make a worksheet with at least six sentence stems for each article (treating “a”/“an” as one thing), possible activities with these sentence stems include:
- students work together to find things in common (e.g. try to find things that they would both like)
- a student picks a sentence for their partner to complete, asks questions about the statement, then guesses if the statement was true or not (Articles Sentence Completion Bluffing Game)
- a student reads out just the part that they wrote in the gap, then their partners try to guess which sentence it came from (Articles Sentence Completion Guessing Game)
Of those three games, the last is best for actual grammar practice, as students need to think about which article their partner used and which sentence stems that article is likely to go into.
If you give sentence stems with the articles still in like “I would like a…”, this activity can be used before the presentation stage, with students then trying to remember the articles in the stems (or in examples of complete sentences made from those stems) and work out why they were there.
Articles discussion questions
Give students discussion questions with a mix of articles in and/ or discussion questions which will probably elicit a mix of different articles in their answers. After asking and answering the questions, students can try to put the correct articles in gapped versions of the questions and/ or gapped sample answers. Alternatively, you could give students gapped questions to complete as they ask them to each other. Both versions also work with statements which they should agree with and disagree with, such as good and bad advice.
The versions without gaps can also be used before the presentation stage.
Articles drawing activities
Although it is perhaps more natural with “some”, it’s possible for students to decide what goes next on a picture with just “a(n)”, “the” and zero article. This could include things where there is always one like “The sun is big and red” and “The ground is covered with grass”, suggestions for things to add with “There is a house” and “There is (some) snow”, and changes to what they have already drawn in the picture with “The cloud is black”. This is more fun and more intensive practice of the language if they don’t have free choice about the next article. For example, students could take a card from the pack and use the article that is written on that card to make a sentence about what to draw. They could also use a dice (see below).
Articles dice activities
This language point has quite a convenient number of options for a dice to be able to mean:
1 or 2 – a/ an
3 or 4 – the
5 or 6 – no article
1 = a
2 = an
3 = the
4 = no article
5 = a, an or the
6 = free choice
A roll of the dice could use one of those systems to decide the next thing to draw on a picture, the next line to add to story, the next sentence to find things in common with, the next sentence to play a bluffing game with, etc.
Articles quick responses race
The teacher or a student reads out a story really slowly word by word and the others race to shout out “a”, “an” or “the” when they are sure that it is the next word. If you are scoring, they get one point for being the first to guess correctly, but lose one point if they guess wrongly (including any time that they shout out a, an or the where a zero article goes).
Articles practice with longer texts
As which article you need depends so much on context, it’s often good to use longer texts such as very short stories or story-like jokes. The three ideas below give some ideas for how to use such longer texts.
Split a text just before or after at least six places where there are “a”, “an”, “the” or zero article. Shuffle the text and give it to students to put together by meaning and/ or grammar.
It is also possible to do the jigsaw task before the grammar presentation, as long as it is possible just from the meaning. They can then analyse why each part goes in each place.
Articles songs activities
Perhaps after listening to a song and counting the number of “a”, “an” and/ or “the” that they hear, students try to fill gaps in the lyrics with articles (including zero article). They then listen again to check. It’s quite difficult to choose a song specifically to practise zero articles, but most songs which have enough examples of “a(n)” and “the” will also have at least one place with a plural or uncountable noun that needs zero article (“Why do _____ birds suddenly appear?”, etc).
Songs could also be used for the jigsaw task above.
Students listen to a short story or factual text with a mixture of the target meanings of articles, first of all twice with their pens down. They then work in small groups to try to construct the text, using their own words if they can’t remember the original wording. They listen once more with their pens down, then do more work on their text. Finally, they compare what they wrote to the original text, only making changes if they are sure that they have made a mistake or that they have changed the meaning.