How to teach indefinite articles
Summary: How to present and practise a and an, including indefinite article games
This article introduces how to teach the indefinite articles “a” and “an”, including both the meanings that they share and the differences between them. In languages such as Spanish, the equivalent of “some” is the plural of “a” and so is also considered an indefinite article, but in English we only usually mean “a” and “an” when we say “indefinite articles”, so “some” will be dealt with in articles on determiners more generally.
What students need to know about a and an
Although it is tempting to focus on the differences between a and an, what students most need to know is what they have in common. “A(n)” is basically just “one”, meaning “one of some”, “one of many”, “it doesn’t matter which one”, etc. So “Can I have a cup of coffee?” simply means “Can I have one cup of coffee?”, but without putting too much emphasis on the number. This basic explanation covers why we say “I’m a teacher” (because I am one of many teachers in the world), “It’s an apple”, “Do you have a bicycle?”, etc. That is also why we usually use “a(n)” the first time that we talk about something with “There is a cat outside our door”, because at this point it is just any cat (with “The cat is eating our pizza” being used later when we know which specific cat we are talking about).
When it comes time to present the difference between a and an, it is simply that an is followed by a vowel sound, as in “an apple”, “an elephant”, “an ice cream”, “an orange”, “an umbrella” and “an honour”. As can be seen from the last example, a vowel sound is not always the same as a written vowel. This can also be seen in “a European”, which starts with the same sound as “a yuppy” and therefore also take “a”, not “an”.
Patterns which students will need to get used to using with “a(n)” include “I have (got) a(n)…”, “Can I have a(n)…?”, “I’d like a(n)…” and “There is a(n)….”, and of course it’s impossible to avoid “It’s a pen” – at least in the classroom. All of these structures are also useful for contrasting singular nouns with a(n) and plural nouns like “I have got blue eyes”, “Can I have chips?”, “There are some chairs” and “They are jeans”.
Typical student problems with a and an
Students who have not been introduced to “an” yet can have problems understanding and learning words that are presented with it, because “It’s an orange” sounds just like “It’s a norange” to someone who doesn’t know the word “orange” yet. (In fact, the English word “orange” comes from the “n” from the Spanish word “naranja” moving from the beginning of the noun to the article, presumably for that reason).
A possible problem that could be caused by over-drilling “It’s a pen”, “Do you want a banana?” etc before introducing “an” is that students can get used to adding “a” to every sentence without thinking about it (as can also be seen in mistakes like “Do you want a grapes?” X). This can mean that even students who can easily do controlled practice of “It’s an elephant” often go back to saying “It’s a elephant” X once they start communicative tasks and (especially) competitive language games.
There can also be a more general problem of overusing both a and an, with students automatically adding one or the other to “It’s a yellow” X and “He’s a tired” X.
A more conceptual problem that students can have is with the fact that “a” or “an” is decided by the next word, not necessarily by the next noun. This means that we say “an orange bed” but “a bed” and “a red bed”. In my experience this is most difficult for students whose languages have indefinite articles that have to match the noun (for example by gender, as in “un” and “une” in French) and/ or have adjectives after the noun (perhaps meaning that they have said the article before they have fully decided what adjective they are going to put with it).
How to present a and an
First of all, students need to get used to hearing and using “a” in the right situations by the teacher always using and maybe insisting on “a” in sentences like “What is it?” “It’s a chair” and “Can I have a red sticker, please?” To allow them to get used to this without too many distractions, I would avoid nouns beginning with vowel sounds at the start of very young learner and/ or beginner courses. For example, if the topic of jobs comes up in Unit 1 of the textbook, I’d avoid “architect” and “engineer” until you are ready to do a lesson on “an”.
Perhaps because they are the classes that we are most likely to be drilling “It’s a cat” with, the distinction between “a” and “an” is often taught in classes with pre-school students. In my experience, you can just about manage a presentation of an + a/ e/ i/ o/ u with five-year-olds. However, even then it rarely leads to any production of “an” after that page of the book has finished, however long you practise it for. In fact, this is a perfect example of a grammar point that you could spend years drilling from the first year of elementary school but teens and adult learners could pick up in minutes, even if they have never come across it before.
Having said all that, it isn’t possible to avoid “It’s an apple” until students reach their teens, especially if you are teaching example words for initial letter phonics. There is also the danger of drilling “a” so much in their early years that they automatically go back to it even after they study “an” that is mentioned above. My usual approach with very young learners is therefore to avoid words beginning with vowels for the first couple of weeks, then slip in “It’s an orange” etc naturally without focussing on why I’m saying “an”. To avoid them thinking that it is “a norange”, you can drill with the pattern “Orange. It’s an orange”. Students usually have no problem copying this, as it is more difficult to say “a orange” than it is to say “an orange”. However, you can’t really correct them until you have explained why, so at this stage it is just providing a model and drilling.
With three-year-olds I’ll leave it there, and even skip the “a/ an” page of the textbook if there is one. With four-year-olds, the best approach if possible is to have a poster on the wall with “an” with vowels on the left and “a” with consonants on the right, perhaps next to the A to Z initial phonics poster. You can then just point to the poster when needed.
With slightly older students, I’ll use presenting “an” as an excuse to teach a whole bunch of words beginning with vowel sounds, with only a very short grammar presentation, and I’ll probably skip the homework page with “a” and “an” in unless I’m sure that their parents will help them with it. Then from around 8 or 9 years old they are ready for a whole lesson on the topic with the more fun games from below and/ or “a and an” songs, but probably sticking to words where the written first letter and first sound match to simplify things (avoiding “an honest man” etc). Games which can work in the presentation stage are mentioned below.
Adults, teens and tweens should be able to actually work out the rules for themselves, including the fact that it is the first sound of the word which decides if we need “an” or not, not necessarily the first letter. After doing some different comprehension tasks with a written and/ or spoken text, students can list the nouns in a two-column table by whether they go with “a” or “an” in the text, then work out why. Topics which might include enough singular countable nouns include jobs (e.g. the many jobs of one person or jobs of everyone they know) and what to do with things (what recipe you can make from a single apple etc, how you can use a hanger etc to help do tasks, how to solve problems like opening a wine bottle without the traditional tool for doing it, etc).
How to practise a and an
A and an stations/ simplest responses
Students listen to words or sentences and race to raise one hand for “a” and the other for “an”, throw balls of paper at those two words on the walls of the classroom, hold up one of the words on scraps of paper, etc. This can start with the teacher just reading out the word or sentence including “a” or “an”, beginning with nouns that they already know. After working out or hearing the rule, students can then do the same for gapped sentences (“Would you like BLANK cup of tea?” etc) or picture flashcards (a picture of an octopus for “an”, etc).
A and an brainstorming games
One team of students brainstorms words which take “a” and the other brainstorms related words that take “an”. Obviously there are more of the former than the latter for most topics, so you will need to give more points to the team which chose or was chosen to brainstorm the “an” examples. There are two ways of doing this. If the teacher brainstorms some examples beforehand, they can decide that, for example, there are around four times as many examples with “a” and so offer four points for each “an” example. Alternatively, teams can bid for the chance to do the “an” side, starting bidding from ten points per example and with the teacher accepting the lowest bid (therefore making it like competitive bidding for a contract, not like auction bidding).
Suitable topics for a and an brainstorming games include:
- household items (a sofa, an armchair, etc)
- nationality nouns (and possibly similar words like “a Liverpudlian” and “an Asian”)
It’s best to avoid topics with many uncountable nouns like food more generally unless you want to use the game as a transition into nouns with don’t take “a” and don’t take “an”.
Instant a and an brainstorming dice game
Students roll a dice to decide the topic (e.g. 1 = transport) then again to decide if they should shout out a related word with “a” or a related word with “an” (1 = a, 2 = an, 3 = a, etc). They get points for the first right answer and points off for any words which are wrong or are repeated from earlier in the game. This is fairest with a dice rolled on a computer screen that everyone can easily see, but rolling a big dice across the floor under people’s desks can be add extra excitement and randomness.
A and an slap
The teacher or another student very slowly says “It’s (pause) a(n) (pause)…” and then the name of the thing that students should slap the flashcard of or run and touch in the classroom. The pause after “a” or “an” is important as it helps students learn to anticipate which nouns might be coming next after each of those words.
A and an roleplays
The discussions mentioned above for presentation dialogues can also be used as roleplay speaking. For example, students could be told which tools are missing and have to think of other objects they could use, or do the opposite of thinking of how they can use a coat hanger etc to do jobs around the house. To add enough practice of “an”, they could use a coin to decide if the next noun in their discussion should be with “a” (heads) or “an” (tails).
A and an hangman
Hangman can be a good way of introducing a and an. It’s better if they have to guess whole sentences like “I have a mountain bike” and “I don’t want an ant as a pet”, as it makes “a” and “an” something that helps them guess the noun instead of just an annoying grammar point. For more intensive practice, you can play a variation where they guess the next letter one by one in order, with that next letter being put in instantly if they are wrong and the next person guessing the letter after that.
A and an word strings
Students split strings of words like anappleabananaacatadoganelephant into nouns with a and an. This is easiest if you start with strings or words like this example where the nouns are in alphabetical order, or you could do one string where all the nouns take “an”. For more challenge, you’ll need to include more nouns that start with “a” and “n” and/ or words where the first letter doesn’t match the first sound.
If you make the first string one with only words that they know well, this activity could be used before the presentation stage, with students working out why “an” goes with some of those words. However, note that many students studying this point for the first time will not have good enough reading to do this task.
A and an jigsaws
Find or write a text with lots of examples of “a” and “an”, including or avoiding tricky ones like “a university” depending on what suits your students’ age and level. Cut the story up between the articles and nouns, and get students to put it back together from meaning and grammar clues. If there are enough meaning clues, this could possibly be done before the presentation stage (especially if they have been introduced to “It’s an apple” etc without a grammar presentation in the lessons before).
A and an definitions game
Students define a word without saying its name or any of its letters, but starting with “It’s a BLANK” or “It’s an BLANK”, before other hints like “It’s a fruit”, “It’s yellow”, and “Monkeys eat it”.
A and an pelmanism and snap
Make a set of cards with a noun or adjective plus noun on each, at least a third of which take “an”. Perhaps after putting them into columns by if they take “a” or “an”, students either spread the cards across the table and try to find pairs which take the same indefinite article (= A and An Pelmanism/ Pairs/ Memory Game) or take turns turning their next card over and race to shout out if the last two turned over match by which article they take (A and An Snap).
A and an video activities
Students watch a video and race to shout out “It’s a…”, “He has an…”, etc about anything that they see. If you are scoring, you could give one point for each correct answer and take one off for a wrong answer or repeating what someone said. Different sentences with the same noun like “There is a beach ball” and “(He is sad). He doesn’t have a beachball” also get points.
A and an sentence completion games
Give students gapped sentences with a and an like “I have a ________ (in my bedroom/ pocket/ bag)”, “My father has an _________________”, “I often eat an ______________”, “I want a ________________”, and “I have an _____________________ but I want one more”. This also works with more complex sentences like “I got a __________ for my birthday”, but you need to carefully match the sentences to the level of the students (which is often very low when this grammar is first introduced).
There are a couple of games that work with these sentence stems. The simplest is for a student to read out a noun (or adjective plus noun) which they put in one of the gaps and for other people to guess which it was put in. You could also play a bluffing game where they choose one sentence for their partner to use their partner quickly completes it, then they guess if that is true or not (perhaps after follow-up questions).
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