How do you like to present the infamous trio a, an, and the to students? Even with upper level students, I feel that a review of the basic principles is always in order. I also find that a concrete task (highly visual and/ or tactile) allows either the illustration or discovery of those so-called rules. Here’s just one idea. Feel free to share your own approach.
STEP 1 – Assemble about half a dozen household objects. Aim for three of a kind, for example, three kitchen utensils and three tools. Let’s say you have a hammer, a screwdriver, a wrench, a vegetable peeler, a grater, and a corkscrew. Hold each item up and ask the class to identify the objects by name. List whole sentences on the board, e.g., It’s a hammer. Then state the rule governing the use of the indefinite article.
RULE 1: We use the indefinite article to define or classify a noun.
STEP 2 – Create two categories which the objects can be divided into. (With upper level students, ask them to come up with the two categories.) For instance, kitchen utensils and tools or things for cooking and things for fixing or building. Point out the use of no article (the zero article) in the titles of each category. State the rule.
RULE 2: We use no article (“the zero article”) with plural count counts when speaking generally.
STEP 3 – Ask students to place all the objects into the appropriate categories. They must name each object as they place it into a category. This can be done as a class so that whole sentences can be written on the board as each placement is made: The hammer is a tool. The grater is a kitchen utensil. Etc. Then state the rule.
RULE 3: We use the definite article after the first mention. “The” makes a noun specific.