Posted tagged ‘article usage’

The Art of Teaching Articles (Part 2)

March 20, 2010

In a previous posting, I offered a couple of ideas for presentation and practice in the classroom. I can’t imagine being able to cover this topic in one day at any level, so I feel it’s worth sharing additional activities. Do you have a favorite to share? Here are my suggestions.

  • News Writer

I originally presented this activity (December 2008 posting) as a way to help students master punctuation. It can easily be modified for practice with articles.

Choose either a very short news article or a brief excerpt from a news source. (My all-time:The Week.) Be sure to select a topic that is appropriate for your students in terms of age, interests, and language goals. Hand out copies of the text in which most articles have been omitted. Be careful to omit only those uses of articles which students have studied in class. Have students work solo to fill in the missing articles and then compare work with a partner. Finally, hand out copies of the article in its original format. As a class, discuss differences between students’ choices and the choices made by the writer.

  • Total Recall

Choose an excerpt from a film. One possibility is the wonderful tango scene from Scent of a Woman. Use [this clip] and watch from about 2:00 to 7:00. Have students take a few minutes to write down all that they can remember/ all that they understood. Pair them up and let them compare notes. Together they should decide on a final summary of the scene paying particular attention to the use of articles. As time allows, ask the pairs to share their short texts and comment on the use of articles.

Model:  The two men went to the young woman’s table. They talked, and then the older man asked if she would dance the tango. She was scared, but said yes. The two went to the dance floor. They danced. The woman had fun. It was special because the older man is blind.

  • Deep Pockets

STEP 1 – Warm up by asking students about items they have with them – in their pockets, wallets, purses, backpacks, etc. Each question can use the format Who has a(n)___ ? They don’t have to respond verbally to this first question. They can simply raise their hands. Immediately follow-up with a specific question directed to a student who indicated s/he had the object.


Who has a cell phone?

Tony, you have a cell phone, right? Is the cell phone turned on or off right now?

Repeat this Q & A pattern a few times. Then call attention to the fact that each time you asked the first question, an indefinite article was used. Then the definite article was needed to refer to the known item in the second question. Review, if necessary, the rules for making a general reference for countable and uncountable nouns. Then tell students that it’s now their turn to ask one another questions.


STEP 2 – Have students work in small groups. Taking turns, one student reveals 3 personal items in his/ her pockets, wallet, purse, etc. The student must identify all three by name.


These are car keys.  [zero article + plural noun]

This is a business card. [a + singular noun]

This is a pen. [a + singular noun]


STEP 3 – The group must ask at least one question about each item.


Where did you get the key chain?

Does the business card have an e-mail address?

Does the pen work?

Student Stumper 19: Americans vs. The Americans

March 8, 2010

QUESTION: My grammar book says I should use the before nationalities and gives the Americans as an example. But when I listen to people talk, I often hear Americans with no article. Which way is right?

ANSWER: This question was posted in the comment section on my YouTube channel, and the current monthly poll on my website is showing a strong interest in a lesson on articles. I suppose the time has finally come to tackle this broad and commonly confusing topic. I’ll most certainly have to create a series of lessons to do the topic justice, and one of the lessons will have to address the use of articles with languages and nationalities.

I sent an initial reply to this viewer explaining use of the zero article versus use of the definite article. I feel that we can talk about Americans (zero article + plural noun) when referring to the general population in the U.S., as in Americans recognize cultural differences which are related to geographical regions within the U.S. In contrast, we say the Americans when we are referring to a specific group of U.S. citizens. For example: The Americans did well at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. = Not all Americans, just the U.S. athletes who participated in those events.

When I began to look for confirmation of my explanation, I accumulated questions rather than answers. A copy of a grammar handbook by Greenbaum and Quirk lists that one use of the definite article is for plural nouns used generically, as in the Russians: “The Russians are a deeply patriotic people.”[1]  Hmm, but isn’t it also correct to say Russians are deeply patriotic? I think so. Can we interchange the two subjects? Russians are a deeply patriotic people. / The Russians are deeply patriotic. I’m not so sure. Can we classify people the same way we would animals? For example, we can say either the whale is a mammal or whales are mammals. Which subject is more appropriate for classification: Russians or the Russians? Are both acceptable?

Look at my examples below. Do all three sentences classify Americans?

(1)The Americans are also a deeply patriotic people.

(2) The Americans are a proud nation.

(3) Americans take pride in their country.

I might argue that sentences 1 and 2 are classifying Americans (naming a specific people or nation), but sentence 3 is simply making a comment about Americans in general, i.e., the purpose isn’t to classify but to describe. Does that make sense?

Of course, there’s also the group of nationalities that must always be used with a definite article: the French, the Finnish, the Swiss, etc. With these nationalities, we’d have to use the + nationality in all three model sentences, correct?

(1)The French are also a deeply patriotic people.

(2) The French are a proud nation.

(3) The French take pride in their country.

As I move ahead with plans to create a video series on articles, your comments are most welcome! Thank you.

[1] Greenbaum, Sidney and Randolph Quirk.  A Student’s Grammar of the English Language. Longman, 1990.


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