Archive for Tag: articles

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Teaching Articles: A Listening Activity

By Anthea Tillyer
City University of New York

Founder, TESL-L Electronic Discussion Forum

Ah, articles. I love ’em! We should all love them because they keep us in business (along with prepositions, of course).

I have lost faith in teaching articles through reading, partly because if someone is reading well and fluently, they are not actually reading the articles (or most prepositions or other non-content words).

I think that listening is the best way to learn/teach articles. I mean, listening to native speakers in movies or shows or even speeches. One activity that is very popular (and successful) is with a piece of video – a very short piece, perhaps a commercial or two.

Before class, first make/get a transcript of the video; then remove all the articles and replace them with spaces or lines or whatever. Next, put some additional spaces before some of the plural nouns or non-count nouns where no article is needed, and then a few additional spaces or lines at random throughout the text. These latter ones are the “decoys” and that’s where most of the fun is.

In class, put the students in groups and invite them to insert A, AN, or THE in the appropriate places or leave the blanks blank. Of course, you have to explain that some of the blanks are just there as decoys. If the students are in groups of three, they can assign roles: one is the writer (of the group’s decisions about answers), one is the speaker (when it is time to share answers with the rest of the class), and one is the “explainer” (who will explain the rationale behind the group’s choices).

When all the groups have finished this activity, play the video and invite the students to check the choices they made for the blanks in the text against what they hear on the video. Then they can consult again. Finally, as a plenary activity, the class can go over the text and get the right answers.

You can also switch the order and play the video first and then have the students try to decide where the articles should go in the transcript.

Also, sometimes it is good to give the same text a week or so later, as a surprise follow-up, just to see if the knowledge “stuck”.

(Originally published by Anthea Tillyer as part of a TESL-L

Friday, March 28, 2008

I Indefinitely Get It

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

It’s more than likely that at one time or another you’ve heard that old philosophical question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” So now I ask you, which came first, a or an? Here’s about as basic an element of English as you can get, and yet I can’t figure out the answer to that question. I know, I know; people usually teach that the indefinite article is a and that it becomes an if the noun that follows begins with a vowel sound. Well, can’t the reverse be possible? Can’t it be that the indefinite article is an and that it becomes a if the noun that follows begins with a consonant sound? I wonder . . .

I also wonder about the term “the indefinite article.” I don’t think that’s right. I think it should be “the indefinite articles.” I don’t know about you, but I see two articles, an and a. Why do grammarians and teachers keep saying there’s only one indefinite article? I don’t get it.

Well, this has really bothered me from time to time, so now with all this modern technology and the “information highway” that we call the Web, I figured it might be fun to google an and a (I just love this new verb!) and see what I could come up with as far as whether or not there’s one indefinite article or two. Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. What did I find? There are grammarians who say there are three indefinite articles! Not one, not two ― but three! (Am I being ambushed again?)

I found lots of hits on for “English indefinite article” (3,010) and more hits than I had expected for “English indefinite articles” (659), and among the links for the latter, I came across grammarians who consider some as an indefinite article, the plural equivalent of an and a. Now I’ve always considered that to be a determiner, and one link actually says that most people view it that way, but that didn’t stop the author from saying that he still feels some should be categorized as an indefinite article since it represents the plural form of an and a as in I have an onion. / I have some onions. I think using some in this sentence is more natural sounding than simply saying I have onions. Gee, I can see his point about considering some as an indefinite article. Can you?

But I’ve wondered about something else as well: How do we pronounce a? For me there’s only one pronunciation, the schwa sound [Ə], the same sound as the initial vowel in applaud. But then I know there are people who say [e] as in aim. Do they always say [e], or do they waffle between [Ə] and [e]? There may be times when some people say [e] with a noun just to emphasize it for one reason or another, but I’m not one of them ― at least I don’t think I am. Are you? So how do we teach the pronunciation of a to our students? Thank goodness we don’t have this conundrum with an or some ― if you go along with considering some an indefinite article rather than a determiner.

And did you know that because native speakers got mixed up between a and an at some point in the history of English that they actually changed at least a couple of nouns accidentally? Here’s how those words would be today if that confusion hadn’t screwed them up:

A: Hey, Milt, are we on for the softball game this coming Saturday?
B: Well, I hope so, but we have to find somebody to be a numpire. Gus has the flu.

A: Chloe, you’re going to the supermarket later today, right?
B: Yes, that’s right. Do you need something?
A: Can you go to the housewares aisle and pick me up a napron?
B: Sure thing, Phyllis.

Yep, believe it or not, the original words were numpire and napron, not umpire and apron! Somewhere along the line, people attached the [n] to the wrong word through a phenomenon called juncture loss. How weird is that!

So what have I come away with after wondering about an and a and the chicken-vs.-egg question? I’ve come away with realizing more than ever how complex even the so-called simplest elements of a language can be. I’ve also come away with a greater appreciation for how interesting it is to delve into an item of the English language that I would otherwise have considered pretty banal. Banal? Not by a long shot! I don’t say that I accept the idea that we have three indefinite articles in English even though I can see that point of view. I may not completely be a traditionalist, but I do hold on to some traditions I find hard to break, like only thinking of an and a as the indefinite articles in English. And yes, I do feel we have two indefinite articles ― even though I’m not quite sure how to teach the pronunciation of one of them. What’s your take on all of this?