Written by Xavier Munoz, Faculty Support Manager, LCNV
Grammar has to do with rules. To what extent do you agree or disagree?
To explore that opening statement, let’s take a partial look at the English articles – a/an, the, and the zero or no article.
Now, those of you who teach might be thinking that English articles are incredibly difficult for students. “I taught them the rules for when to use a/an vs. the, and they can answer grammar exercises correctly. But, unless I tell them to, they don’t apply the rules in their speaking or writing.” Sound familiar? Even advanced learners may make errors when using the articles. And, in truth, research in second language acquisition has found that language learning is not linear, not sequential. Language learners continue to build accuracy, meaningfulness, and appropriateness to their grammar and vocabulary as their proficiency develops.
But how would you explain or teach the English articles? Chances are that you might be thinking of descriptors like nonspecific or general for the indefinite article – a/an. Or you might be thinking to pair articles with count and noncount nouns in a unit on, say, food, clothing, or furniture. (Side note: the word some is often considered the plural form of the indefinite article.) If we take our cue from textbooks, we might see a leveled approach like the following. The low-beginning text All-Star 1 explicitly presents it as such: Articles: a and an
We use a before a singular noun that starts with a consonant or consonant sound. We use an before a singular noun that starts with a vowel or vowel sound.
The high-beginning text All-Star 2 explicitly presents it like this: Count and Noncount Nouns
Singular count nouns: We use a and an before singular count nouns.
Plural count nouns: We use no article before plural count nouns.
Noncount nouns: We use no article before non-count nouns.
The low-intermediate text Downtown 3 explicitly presents it like this: Indefinite vs. definite articles
We use indefinite articles (a, an) for singular count nouns. We use them to talk about a general category of something. Example: Give me a book. (any book, not a special book)
We use the definite article (the) for a special or specific thing or things. We use the when there is only one of something (the White House), when the speaker and listener both know which thing they are talking about (the beach was wonderful today), or when they talk about a noun for the second time. Example: I saw a movie last night. The movie was really boring.
There’s more to articles than is mentioned above – generic sentences, abstract nouns, geographical places, illnesses, etc. But we don’t want to overload our students (or ourselves, for that matter!) with all of the nuances. Can we make it easier though? Yes! Larsen-Freeman (2000) suggests that learners can better understand and use grammar if they learn the reasons behind seemingly arbitrary rules. And the core reason is listed in the Downtown 3 description: a/an is for introducing new information, the first mention; the is for information known by both the speaker/writer AND the listener/reader, the second mention. We can see this discourse-level use especially in jokes and stories. Just as I might do in class, I will try to draw your attention to the target grammar by using bolding and underlining.
A reporter meets a man carrying an eight-foot-long metal stick and asks, “Are you a pole vaulter?” “No,” says the man, “I’m German. But how did you know my name is Walter?
See if you can fill in the appropriate article in the following excerpt, from an Indian folktale.
Once upon a time, __ fox and __ squirrel were friends. Farming was their livelihood. __ squirrel was jealous of __ fox because his crop always turned out so much better. This time __ fox was cultivating pumpkins.
Source: Excerpt from “The Dexterity of a Squirrel” in Folktales of India by Brenda Beck, Peter Claus, Praphulladatta Goswami, Jawaharlal Handoo
In both of the examples above, the difference between a/an and the is revealed through the discourse-level context (i.e., above the level of the single sentence). Even at a beginning-level, I think it is to our learners’ benefit that we not shy away from exploring language above the single sentence. We needn’t necessarily expect them to produce that much language, but we can draw their attention to meaningful and appropriate use of grammar to prime them for future learning explorations. Check it out for yourself. Look through a textbook you’re currently or recently have used with a student. Or look through something you read recently. Do you notice instances of first mention, second mention?
In summary, Grammar has to do with rules AND reasons. Reasons can help learners see the logic woven into the grammar, rather than just seeing it as random or arbitrary rules. At the discourse level, we can see that there is a shift from the indefinite article a/an to the definite article the based on what the speaker/writer assumes that their audience knows. We use the indefinite article for new information or first mention of a particular thing. We shift to the definite article for familiar information or second mention of that same thing. The definite article is also used when referring to unique objects.
Larsen-Freeman, D. (2000). Grammar: Rules and Reasons Working Together. ESL Magazine, 3(1), 10-12.