Summary: Definite and indefinite articles teaching tips and practice activities, including a/ an and the games
This article gives teaching tips and practice activities for contrasting the definite and indefinite articles. “A” and “an” are treated as one thing in this article, with contrasts between them dealt with in the article “How to teach a and an”.
What students need to know about a, an and the
“A” and “an” basically mean “one”, as in “one of a few/ some/ many” or “I don’t mind which one”. “Can I have a spoon?” and “There are a hundred reasons” basically mean the same as “Can I have one spoon?” and “There are one hundred reasons”. Like the number one, “a/ an” often goes with “have” and “There is/ are”. The slight contrast with “one” is that “a/ an” puts less emphasis on the number. For example, “Can I have one spoon?” could have the special meaning “not two or three this time” or “I hope that is okay because it’s just one”. “A/ an” is therefore more common in normal communication than “one”.
In contrast to the indefinite article “a(n)”, “the” is called the definite article because it refers to one specific thing, making it more similar to “this” or “that”. Things that make it definite include:
- it is the thing that we have just talked about or will explain right after (“This is the restaurant that I told you about”, etc)
- it is the only one (in the room, in the house, in the local area, in the world, etc, as in “He’s the CEO” and “He’s the President of the United States”)
Because of the indefinite meaning of “a(n)” and the definite meaning of “the”, we often use “a/ an” the first time that we refer to things, and from then on we use “the” to mean “the thing that I was just talking about”.
Contrasts between the two that match these general meanings include:
- I’m a teacher (I’m one of the teachers in the world)/ I’m the teacher (of this class)
- John is a manager (it’s his job)/ John is the manager (of the place we are in or have just been talking about)
- The first (because there is only one first)/ A loser (one of the people between second and tenth place)
- The same (because there is only one way of being exactly the same)/ A different... (because there are many ways of being different)
- The countryside (because it all joins up and so is just one thing)/ I come from a small village in Sussex (one of the many small villages in Sussex)
- The sea/ An island
- The elderly (meaning the one group that includes every elderly person)/ An elderly man (one of the many elderly men)
- The 16th of May (the only day with that date in the year)/ We met on a Friday night (one of the 52 Friday nights in a year)
- I’ll see you the day after tomorrow (because there is only one day which is just after tomorrow, meaning in two days)/ We spent a day there (meaning any one day)
- The bus (which we want to take) is late/ I was hit by a bus (one of the ones that drives down that street)
- No one knows who invented the corkscrew (the first corkscrew, or all corkscrews)/ I needed a corkscrew, but there were none in the whole hotel (one corkscrew)
- I take the subway every single day (the one subway system that exists in that town)/ They are thinking of building a new subway (one extra system in the world)
- The pound is still a surprisingly important currency (the one currency from the UK)/ They all cost a pound (one pound)
- How can a fifteen-year-old be on the pill? (the contraceptive pill)/ I saw him take a pill, but I’m not sure what it was (a tablet)
Other uses that match the general meanings include:
- Twenty kilometres an hour (twenty kilometres in each one hour, and the same for three times a day, etc)
- Do you have the time? (the time that it is here now, which is one specific time)
- How’s the weather? (now in the place that you are)
- It wasn’t any John Smith, it was the John Smith (the most famous one/ the one that you will definitely know)
There are also ones which don’t seem to be understandable and so just need to be learnt, including “the other day” (which is “the” even though it is kind of indefinite).
“The” is often specifically taught with superlative adjectives like “the biggest room”, sometimes in contrast to “a bigger room”. These are actually just good examples of the more general meanings of “the only one” and “one of some options”, which also explains why there are exceptions such as “I need the bigger bowl” (the larger one of the two available) and “I read a bestselling book” (because there are many books which have been top of the book sales charts at some point). “The… the…” with comparative adjectives like “The sooner the better” doesn’t seem to match any general pattern, and it’s perhaps better to teach those idioms one by one as they come up or by topic.
It’s more difficult to explain the use of “the” in phrases like “He was on the phone for ages”, “I hardly ever watch the TV”, “He dried his socks in front of the fire”, “We only went to the cinema once last year” and “I’ll pick some up at the supermarket”. With all of these, we probably have a choice of several and don’t care which one, making “We only went to a cinema once last year” seem to more match the general meaning of articles given above and so be more logical.
The explanation which seems to cover most of these examples is that they are situations in which there is usually or traditionally one nearby, even though we nowadays have the choice of many. This perhaps explains contrasts like “go to the supermarket” and “go to a convenience store”. An alternative explanation for some of these such as “on the phone” and “watch the TV” is that they refer to the system that you are accessing that way, similar to “the internet”. Alternatively, a very simple explanation that seems to cover most is that “the” is used to focus on doing something (as in “I play the piano”), where “a” is focused on the physical place or object (“They have to try to get a piano up the stairs, but everything goes wrong”). I’m not sure how etymologically accurate any of these are, but whatever makes it seem understandable and memorable can be useful for students.
The uses of both “a/ an” and “the” to talk about things in general are much more similar to each other than any of the contrasts shown so far. If we say “A cat likes to catch birds just for fun”, we want the person who is listening or reading to imagine one typical cat doing that action. In slight contrast, if we say “The mammoth died out at least partly due to hunting”, we want them to imagine the whole species as one thing, somewhat like “the (human) population of the world”. In any case, plural and uncountable nouns with zero article like “People like…” are much more common in general statements, so these uses of “a/ an” and “the” only need to be presented at higher levels and/ or in EAP classes.
How to present a/ an and the
Before you decide how to present articles, you’ll need to decide what explanation or explanations you will use and how you plan to get there, with possibilities including:
- just one or two specific meanings for now (e.g. only “a/ an” the first time and then “the”)
- two or more specific meanings (e.g. “the” with superlatives and “the” with ordinal numbers), leading to a more general rule
- presenting/ eliciting a general rule and then linking that to specific examples like “the first time” and “a better job”
Particularly when it comes to “a(n) for the first time that you refer to something and then the”, it’s almost impossible to write a dialogue or other text that doesn’t include examples of this rule. It’s therefore quite difficult to choose the most suitable topics for such a text/ the lesson from the many available options. However, that also means that the textbook example is probably fine, as long as you check that it includes all the meanings of articles that you want to present and excludes those that you don’t (e.g. has or doesn’t have “on the phone” etc depending on if you want to include that use/ meaning).
After doing a more general comprehension task like working out what a couple are cooking together by all the things that they need (“an onion”, “the oven”, etc), students should easily be able to find examples that you’ve put in or left in that answer questions like:
- Which article is similar to “one”?
- Which article is similar to “this/ that”?
- Which article means that it doesn’t matter which one?
- Which article is used when there is only one (in that place)?
- Which article is usually used the first time that we refer to something?
- Which article is usually used when we refer to the same thing again?
Some of the practice activities below can also be used to help present the language, many with the method that I call URA (use, recall, analyse).
How to practise a/ an and the
When you are choosing a text to present the language with, it is good if it is one which includes a conversation that students can also have. For example, if the initial text has two people talking about one or more possible flats to rent, students can then roleplay a similar conversation or compare their own accommodation with “There is a bus stop nearby” and “The nearest station is ten minutes on foot”.
For more controlled practice, it is very difficult to make example sentences where only one article is possible, particularly if you want to make the sentences short enough to fit on to cards. However, it is possible, especially if you provide another contrasting article in the same sentence and/ or you tell students that they should only think about “a”, “an” or “the” (not other possible options like “my”, “this” or the zero article).
A/ an and the pictures drilling games
Students identify what the object or person on the card or picture book page is with “It’s a/ an…” and then say one more thing about it such as what it is doing (“The soldier is sleeping”, etc), what colour it is (“The dog is blue”, etc), adjectives that match it (“The boy is dirty”, etc), what it can or can’t do (“The dragon can fly”, etc), etc.
This idea is adapted from bogglesworldesl.com.
A/ an and the mini-presentations
Give students a list of topics, each of which has a definite or indefinite article, , perhaps in contrasting pairs or groups such as “The Queen” and “a princess”, and “The Earth” and “a planet”. Firstly, students choose topics to speak about in one or two minute mini-presentations, taking questions or comments from their partner(s) when they finish. After a few presentations, they try to put the right articles back into a version of the worksheet without them (“____ planet”, etc). This works really well before a presentation stage, but could also be done as practice if you give them a version without articles and tell them to ask their partner “Tell me about a/ an/ the…” with the correct article put back in.
A/ an and the slap
The teacher says “Touch a/ an/ the…”, pauses, then says the thing that students should run and touch, the thing near them that they should touch, or the thing in a picture that they should slap. The pause should hopefully get students to think about needing to touch something of which there is only one in the classroom if they hear “the” (e.g. the door) or one of multiple things in the classroom if they hear “a/ an” (e.g. a textbook). This can also be played before the presentation stage, moving on to getting students to remember that you didn’t say “Touch a whiteboard” and to work out why.
A/ an and the Simon says
This is a version of the slap game above that demands a bit more thought about the grammar. Students follow correct instructions like “Touch a desk” and “Point at the projector”, but ignore instructions which are grammatically wrong like “Touch the student” and “Hit a teacher”. Instead of or as well as with real classroom objects, this can also be done with pictures that have only one of some objects but more than one of others.
A/ an and the stations/ simplest responses
Students listen to gapped fixed phrases and short sentences like “Just BLANK moment” and “It’s all BEEP same to me” and race to raise paper with “a/ an” or “the” written on it. More fun versions include pretending to shoot those two words on the board, and running and touching opposite ends of the room labelled with those words. If you start with students just listening out for those words in complete sentences (“This is the best coffee ever” etc) and raising the card of the article that they hear, this can also start before the presentation stage.
A/ an and the pelmanism and snap
It’s a bit difficult, but if you can find or make at least 30 phrases or short sentences that only take “a/ an” or only take “the”, students can play pelmanism/ pairs/ the memory game (trying to find two cards with the same word missing with the cards spread face down on the table) and/ or snap (taking turns turning one card over and racing to shout “Snap” when the last two have the same word missing). You can decide if “a” and “an” count as the same or as different, but with the latter you’ll need to have more than 30 cards in total.
A, an and the discussion questions
It’s quite easy to make discussion questions with a mix of “a(n)” and “the” on almost any topic, e.g. the topic in the current, last or next unit of the textbook. Students could just ask each other the questions then try to remember the articles in them, or complete gapped discussion questions as they ask them to each other.
A, an and the things in common/ discuss and agree
Instead of or after discussion questions, students can be given key words or sentence stems like “worst” and “We would both like a ________________” with which to find experiences, opinions, etc which they have in common.
A, an and the in movie titles practice
Perhaps after doing something like describe plots of movies that they recommend, students put the correct articles into movie titles like “_______ Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, “Gone with ______ Wind” and “Four Wedding and ______ Funeral”. Alternatively, they could correct movie titles with mistakes like “Three Men and The Baby” X. There are lots of examples of movie titles with “a(n)” and/ or “the”, but it’s best to choose ones that most students have heard of (although perhaps ones with very different names in their own languages if you want to teach English movie titles at the same time). You’ll also need to make sure that each article makes grammatical sense in the title and is the only possible one in that place. For error correction to be challenging enough, you’ll also need to ensure that there are at least two nouns in most of the titles.
If you do some kind of discussion of the movies with the full correct titles first, this activity can start before the presentation stage.
A, an and the in proverbs and other idioms
You can use proverbs and other fixed phrases like “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” in the same way as movie titles, but you need to be even more careful that the grammar of the ones you choose makes sense in modern English grammar. It’s also best if they are ones which are so common that they are useful as vocabulary for your students, and if possible that they link to present, recent or future lesson topics (money idioms, body idioms, etc). At the discussion stage, students can discuss which proverbs are similar to their own language(s), which they think give useful advice, etc.
A, an and the in song titles practice
The activities above with movie titles can all be done with song titles too, with initial discussion activities including recommending songs for particular occasions.
A, an and the songs
As well as their titles, the lyrics of songs also naturally include lots of articles, but you’ll again need to make sure that they all make normal grammatical sense, particularly that the singer hasn’t missed out any articles in order for the song to scan. The best songs are probably ones that have stories to them, so that there is lots of natural use of “a/ an for the first time something is mentioned, and then the”. As a practice activity, students could try to fill the gaps and then listen to check. As well as gaps for “a”, “an” and “the”, you could also include gaps after articles such as “The ______ beautiful girl in the world”.
A, an and the storytelling activities
Any kind of storytelling is sure to naturally include lots of practice of “a(n) the first time that you mention something and the from then on”, particularly if you give students lots of words which they are likely to want to mention in the story more than once such as “wizard” and “sword”. Phrases which need articles and are also good for storytelling include “next day”, “best”, “same” and “better idea”.
A, an and the coin activities
Instead of or as well as giving students vocabulary cards, you could prompt use of a good balance of different articles by asking students to flip a coin to decide if the next line of the story should have “a(n)” (heads) or “the” (tails). The same thing could also work for asking each other questions like “Would you like a new smartphone?” and “What’s the best attraction for small kids in this city?”
A, an and the dice activities
Instead of a coin, students could use a dice to decide if the next line or next question should include:
- a and the
- an and the
- free choice
A, an and the whole text activities
Context is very important for the correct use and understanding of articles, so perhaps the best activities are those which include a longer piece of text such as a long joke, poem or very short story. Activities with these longer texts include:
- reading Student A and Student B versions of the same text to each other, finding where they are different, and deciding which is the correct article in each place
- listening to a teacher read out a text with pens down, then working together to reconstruct the text as well as they can (A, An and The Dictogloss)
- memorising a text (even if not in exactly the same words), telling that story to someone else and hearing theirs, then passing on the story that you just heard (A, An and The Telephone Game)
- deleting or covering a text word by word until the next person can’t remember all the missing words (A, An and The Disappearing Text)
A, an and the picture activities
Describing pictures that the other person cannot see should naturally bring up lots of examples of “There is a… The… is…” etc. Such activities include picture dictations (explaining something for the other person to draw, in this case also correcting them if they draw the wrong thing, but without being allowed to point at where they made a mistake) and picture differences (finding what is not the same in Student A and Student B versions of the same picture).