A Systematic, Realistic, No-Worksheet Approach to Teaching Articles (a, an, the) to ELLs

In this post, I share with you the slides I use to teach a mini grammar unit on the usage of articles (a, an, the) to English Language Learners (ELLs).

Articles are one of the most confusing aspects of ELLs. They don’t seem to carry much meaning for a beginner in English. Many ELLs I know just skip articles while reading, and make guesses about which ones to use while writing.

Every class I have taught has had students who used articles incorrectly. In the beginning, it felt like one of the easiest grammar topics to teach. Use ‘a’ before consonants and ‘an’ before vowels. An easy 15-minute mini lesson, right? In reality, however, even after the lesson went very well, the learning didn’t transfer to students’ writing.

In a previous post, I make the case for not limiting the teaching of conventions to single mini lessons. Some lessons can be taught in a day, while some need a worthwhile investment of a week or more. Some lesson series are best taught back to back, while some are best to return to once a week, allowing students to process and assimilate small chunks of knowledge slowly. Knowing which is which makes all the difference.

The second futile aspect of my earlier lessons was practice worksheets. Even when students were able to do the exercises in the worksheets flawlessly, the article errors returned immediately after they went back to Independent Writing. It was clearly a waste of time.

The unit I share here cannot be taught in a day. I will not make recommendations on how long it must typically take because each teacher, classroom, and student is different. The unit aims to slowly build a student’s working knowledge of English articles over time. It presents a framework (represented as a simple table) that can be displayed on the classroom wall and/or carried by students as an easy reference until it becomes second nature to them.

My favourite part of this unit is that it doesn’t use worksheets. Instead, it uses oral games modelled on the oral classroom exercises from the English Sentence Structure by Robert Krohn. I love oral games because they are fun, fast, and don’t leave a paper trail I then have to struggle with. They provide instant feedback to students. They force students to think on their feet which mimics real-life language use rather than slowly thinking through whether to fill a blank with ‘a’ or ‘an.’ They are as useful regardless of whether they are used in 1-1, small group or large group settings. You can also tweak them to suit your students’ needs.

You can, of course, supplement oral games with worksheets. Worksheets on articles are available in plenty. Instead of replicating such work, this ready-to-use unit aims to provide a framework for the student to systematically learn and use articles in their spoken and written English.

Even if this isn’t the right time for your students to prioritise learning article usage, the unit provides a framework to teach a grammar topic using a systematic, realistic, no-worksheet approach that can be easily adapted to the other pressing grammar needs of your class.

Here is the link to the published slides. You can use this as a presentation directly from your browser.

Here is the direct link to the slides that allows you to download the slides as a presentation or a PDF. Please do write to me with your feedback.

How do you approach nagging grammar errors in your ELLs’ writing and speaking?

You can connect with me on Twitter @teachingtenets or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.

– Aishwarya

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  1. Plural is NOT more than one? It is zero or many. Ofcourse the entire lesson is beautiful, but this part is one of those “lessons within a lesson” that one can always find in your slides. I now know I am going to be using more correct language from now on. Thanks to you again.

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