English Articles and Headway

by Ts. Enkhmaa
Enkhmaa Tsegmid is an English and British Studies lecturer and teacher. She teaches both Mongolian English and English Mongolian Translation as well as British studies and Methodology. She received her MEd TEFL from Exeter University in the UK in 2003.

    In this article, I will analyze the teaching and uses of articles in unit four of the course book Headway, pre-intermediate level (John & Liz Soars, 1991), which I have been using for four years with my university level students
    First, I will explain how articles are dealt with, including the basic grammatical features, grammatical points, simplification, and aspects of the area of articles. Second, I will discuss the relevance of articles to the Mongolian context.  Finally, I will discuss the difficulties Mongolian students have in learning articles, and I will suggest the most appropriate pedagogical ways of presenting articles in my context, the university classroom.

Basic grammatical features
     Headway’s pre-intermediate course book is the second in the series from elementary to advanced level. The grammar reference on articles for unit four of the course book gives more information than the others in the series. Basic grammatical features of articles are described systematically and some important notes about exceptions are given. Generally the rules of articles are described from easier to more difficult with examples. Here is an example.

The indefinite article (IA) is used with professions.
  • I am a teacher.
  • She is an architect.
    But this rule for using IA with professions might be very confusing and lead students to misuse articles. Students will have to face article uses like the hairdresser, the teacher, and the actor and here the teacher should give very careful explanation.   Swan (1993) suggests a better idea for IA usage with professions. He says,
1. A noun like house, engineer, girl, or name refers to a whole group of people or things. We use a/an with a noun to talk about just one member of that group. (A/an means one.)
  • She lives in a nice big house.
  • My father is an engineer. (Not, My father is engineer.)
2. We use a/an when we define or describe people or things (when we say what class or kind they belong to).
  • He’s a doctor. She’s a beautiful woman.
  • What’s this? It’s a calculator.
3. The definite article (DA) is used when talking about something specific, or when there is only one.  We do not usually use articles with parts of the body. We use pronouns such as my, her, and so on.
  • The red jacket, the sun, the British Queen
  • He broke his leg.
Now I will analyze the tasks on articles from unit four. There are four tasks on articles.
  1. A small introductory text designed to challenge students to discover the basic rules of articles through examples.  Here learners should find examples showing the difference between definite and indefinite articles.  For example, learners may observe that the indefinite article a goes with singular nouns beginning with a consonant but an comes before nouns beginning with vowels. Also, learners are expected to observe the use of the definite article the.  An example is nouns that are repeated or familiar to speakers and listeners take not a/an but the.  Through reading the text, learners can raise their awareness of basic article usage. Learners then have to look at the grammar reference that gives rules about the use of definite, indefinite, and zero articles, and apply the rules to the text to test their new knowledge.
    For example:
    • He has a shop in a small village.
    • The shop sells clothes and shoes.
  2. An exercise following the text, which is designed to let learners practice their understanding of the articles and to make the learners aware of some exceptions to the rules of article usage. 
    For example:
    • ...so he has breakfast…
    • ...go to the theatre in the evening…
  3. A fill-in-the-gap exercise that requires learners to practice the articles through writing.
  4. A translation task which can be used both for review and to explain the zero articles and exceptions to basic rules.
Simplification or reduced grammar of articles
    Making grammar easier and giving basic rules in order to make it learnable is one of the important factors of teaching grammar. According to Arndt et al, (1999), “Language has to be ‘reduced’ in some form or other to be more accessible for learners to understand and acquire it.” Especially for lower level students who have problems with articles, it is useful to use reduced or simplified forms of language.  Teachers can teach language ‘as parts of a whole,’ rather than teaching language as bits of knowledge which are acquired through the ‘step by step method’ (Thornbury, 1999).
    As language is not only a set of grammar rules but also a communicative tool, learners should be provided with sufficient knowledge of English language features. ‘Standard’ and ‘non-standard’ varieties of English language teaching could be very helpful for learners and make them aware of language grammar. Sometimes simplified or reduced grammar is important in helping learners be introduced to the real language. The course book Headway has some examples of simplification as follows:
  1. It seems that the authors of Headway did not choose the whole aspects of grammar reference, which are available in most grammar reference books. They chose certain aspects of articles according to the level of students.
  2. Liz and John Soars arranged articles from easier to more difficult, beginning with a/an, followed by the indefinite article, and finishing with zero articles.  Most grammar reference books and course books do this to simplify teaching and understanding of articles for teachers and learners.  Students may not need many complicated rules but only the most basic and important rules that are most frequently used, e.g., the main difference of articles a/an and the is given through exercises and examples.
Swan (1991) suggests three ‘golden’ simplified rules for articles:
  1. Do not use the (with plural and uncountable nouns) to talk about things in general.
    • Life is hard. (Not, “The life is hard”) 
  2. Do not use singular countable nouns without articles
    • the car, a car (but not, “car”)
  3. Use a/an to say what people’s professions or jobs are.
    • She is a bank manager. (Not, “She is bank manager”)
All these examples are given in the course book. In addition, the book has several examples of simplified forms of articles such as when a DA is used with a superlative adjective.
  • He’s the richest man in the world.
There is no article before plural and uncountable nouns when talking about things in general.
  • I like potatoes.
    Also, some grammatical points are given as lexical bundles (a pair of shoes), chunks (what a pity), and expressions which help students to use articles. Problems arise if students don’t know fixed expressions or relevant “sub rules.” (Thornbury 1999: 52).  Some examples of incorrect article use are:
  • “I didn’t have a lunch yesterday.” (Which should be I didn’t have lunch yesterday.)
  • “I watched a television.” (Which should be I watched television.)
Are all aspects of grammar covered?
    The grammar reference of unit four, in comparison to other grammar reference and practice books like Murphy (1985), Swan & Walter (1997), Biber et al, (1999), COBUILD (1999), and Parrott (2000), has the main usage and grammar points for pre-intermediate level students. However, some important areas of articles, which usually confuse students are missing.
    First, there is nothing about pronunciation of articles. I think pronunciation is quite important and can help students to use  indefinite articles correctly. Students must be aware that ‘it is the sound, not the spelling.’ (Cobuild, 1993:1). e.g. Some words begin with the letter h but do not have the sound /h/ in their pronunciation: honest,  hour, honor, etc. So we say, an hour, an honor, and an honest girl.
    According to Biber et al (1999), in some cases, the written form can be misleading. The following words begin with the letter u, but the u is pronounced /you/ before them.  An is misused before words like user, university, unique way. Instead, it should be a user, a university, and a unique way.
    The grammar reference on page 123 gives ‘little reference to key basic rules, instead providing more specific rules of thumb, particularly with regard to using a/an and the. (Parrott, 2000:48) Some learners find these helpful. In my point of view, exceptions, which learners face everywhere, must be taught to help to raise learners’ awareness of the uses of the articles. Some examples of important exceptions are:
  1. States, countries, lakes, and most mountains take no article. Texas, Oxfordshire, Normandy. But, The Czech republic, the United States, the Atlantic, the Alps (from Swan, M & C. Walter 1997). Teachers should be aware of these kinds of exceptions and make note of them to the students. The exceptions usually are seas and oceans, country names that contain nouns (The Czech Republic), and groups of objects that form a whole (The United States, The Alps).
  2. Genuine or authentic materials or real-life like usage, especially spoken dialogues, are not presented, although the authors are claiming to have covered them. Students don’t know the difference between pronunciations of the unless they practice some spoken language or listen to authentic dialogues. In written language, the has one form but in spoken language it has two pronunciations.
  3. The differences between spoken and written language is not presented. It is usually helpful to let students know that in writings such as newspaper headlines, titles in notices, posters, lists, notes, and telegrams articles are dropped.
Relevance to the Mongolian context
    Mongolian students have several difficulties with understanding and using articles.  Some of them are:
  1. There are no articles at all in the Mongolian language. Students struggle to learn to use articles, and many of them can not use articles or use them poorly. It seems learning a foreign language through grammatical structure and comparing it with one’s mother tongue (L1) helps learners to study a foreign language (L2) more systematically and efficiently. Mongolian students tend to miss articles in their speaking, or they try to use something before every noun and overuse articles in writing.
  2. English in Mongolian society is a foreign language. This leads most students to academic or written English, but not communication. Therefore, students are separated from the spoken version of the language, which makes learners poor communicators and unaware of the target language.
  3. Sometimes teachers and students perceive articles as meaningless items of grammar and ignore them. They can not understand articles or neglect the importance of them.
    (According to COBUILD (1993), articles are not only among the most common words in English, but also vital for successful communication. It is false that articles do not affect the meaning.  They can help to make meaning clearer or to distinguish between meanings.)  
  4. Since English has been taught in Mongolia as a school subject for only ten years, there are not enough qualified teachers who have sufficient knowledge in all areas of the language, especially spoken English.
  5. Learning experiences, source materials, and computer-assisted language learning facilities (CALL) are scarce and students lack opportunities for communication and real-life language use.
Most appropriate pedagogical ways of teaching articles in the university classroom
    Often grammar teaching in Mongolia has been carried out through the traditional grammar-translation method. Therefore, teaching grammar functions within ‘a deductive approach, starts with the presentation of a rule and is followed by examples in which the rule is applied.’ (Thornbury, 1999:29) Students are required to take written exams at every level and this leads teachers and students to be accurate.
    Since Mongolian EFL (English as Foreign Language) has a short history, there is usually very little communication in English classes. Especially in universities, written language is often considered better than spoken language, and classrooms are designed for a teacher-centered learning approach.
    Depending on the situation, I suggest using an inductive approach, which starts with some examples from which a rule is inferred, in other words, guided discovery learning. In order to do this, supplementary materials are very important in teaching articles. Activities to raise students’ language awareness are very important. 
    As a language teacher, one should have “both a reasonable understanding of different parts of the system and how they work in conjunction with each other, and an ability to explain what is wrong or inappropriate and how it might be corrected or improved.” (Arndt et al, 1999:113) Arndt et al, advise using computer–based tools such as Computer Assisted Language Learning materials, and on-line reference and practice facilities.  Use of the internet is very helpful in EFL. I believe that using a lot of speaking activities and authentic materials, as well as providing many activities and opportunities for natural use, will provide learners with the possibility to master article usage. The ability to use articles correctly is acquired mostly through exposure to the target language itself.  Extensive exposure will help both the teachers’ teaching and the learners’ learning.   

    As a non-native English teacher I have difficulty teaching articles and their grammatical aspects. Some people tend to think articles are less important and a meaningless area of grammar, and often neglect them in teaching and learning.  However, I find articles to be one of the most important grammatical aspects of English. Mongolian students always have difficulty in understanding and learning articles, as there is no article at all in the Mongolian language. Therefore, it is often a very difficult area of English grammar for Mongolian teachers and learners. Teaching articles requires a teacher to have a great deal of awareness of them. Giving students the basic rules presented in the course books or grammatical reference books is not enough. Raising awareness of exceptions is very important for understanding article usage in English. 
    I conclude that in teaching articles, both teachers and learners have to be aware of article usage and its nature through real-life or authentic use, including every aspect of article uses in written and spoken language. Furthermore, the guided discovery learning approach is very suitable for the teaching and learning of articles in my context, the university classroom.