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(An) amazing article?

Articles are one of those areas of English that have so many rules that my students often give up. As a Slavic language, Czech doesn’t use articles and many students don’t see the point of them. This is especially true for my intermediate-level teenage class. I prepared this lesson to give them a bit of practice and try to have some fun along the way.

Inspired by Ceri’s post where she practised the use of ‘it’ with her Spanish students, I wrote a text about my film and TV preferences and removed all of the articles. The fastest way I found to do this was to write the text normally, highlight the articles (giving me an answer sheet) then copy and paste the text and delete the highlighted words. This was what the students saw:

I’m teacher, but in my free time I love watching films. I go to cinema three or four times month, normally on Friday evening. Next week, I want to see King’s Speech because everybody says it’s great.

I’ve got huge collection of DVDs, many of which I got in Czech Republic. DVDs I bought here are good because they have Czech subtitles, so I can practise language while I’m relaxing at home. I normally learn one or two new words every time I watch film. Normally I watch English or American films with subtitles on, but sometimes I watch Czech films too. Czech ones are difficult if I don’t know story before I watch them.

I have also bought lots of British TV programmes on DVD here. One of my favourites is Red Dwarf. Series was filmed in 1980s, but is still very funny today. In first episode deadly illness arrives on spaceship and kills everybody except for cat and human called Lister, who was frozen because he had insulted captain. After three million years, Lister wakes up to discover he is only human on spaceship. Only other living thing is Cat, who has evolved from original cat, but now looks like human. Third member of crew is Rimmer, hologram of human, who is very annoying to Lister. In second series, crew finds robot called Kryton. I think you should watch it!

What is your favourite film or TV programme? Who are characters? What do they do? What happens in story?

I challenged the students to spot the problem with the text. Once they’d identified the lack of articles, they then had to go through individually and put them back in. They compared their answers with other students. The final part of this stage was a list of numbers: 4, 8, 21, 2. I told them that this is how many articles should be in each paragraph. They were a long way short in the third paragraph, so this motivated them to look at the rules with me.

I used the set of rules from the Grammar Bank at the back of New English File Intermediate which I had typed up and cut into strips. The students stuck them to the board under the correct heading (a/an, the, no article):

the first time you mention a thing/person: I saw ___ old man with ____ dog
when you say what something is: It’s ____ nice house.
when you say what somebody does: She’s ______ lawyer.
in exclamations with What…! : What _____ awful day!
in expressions like… : three times _____ week
when we talk about something we’ve already mentioned: I saw an old man with a dog and _____ dog was barking.
when there’s only one of something: ____ moon goes round ____ Earth.
when it’s clear what you’re referring to: He opened ____ door.
with places in a town, e.g. cinema and theatre
with superlatives:  It’s ____ best restaurant in town.
when you are speaking in general (with plural and uncountable nouns):  ____ women talk more than ­­­­­­­______ men
with some nouns (e.g. home, work, school, church) after at/to/from: She’s not at _____ home today. I get back from _____ work at 5:30.
before meals, days, and months: I never have ____ breakfast on ___ Sunday.
before next/last + days, week etc.: See you _____ next Friday.

We also added the rule “before the names of people and places: ____ Jana, ____ London” under the ‘no article’ heading, as this did not appear in my original rules.

The students then returned to the text and tried to check and correct the articles they had written in. They then compared it to my original text and we discussed any problems they had:

I’m a teacher, but in my free time I love watching films. I go to the cinema three or four times a month, normally on Friday evening. Next week, I want to see The King’s Speech because everybody says it’s great.

I’ve got a huge collection of DVDs, many of which I got in the Czech Republic. The DVDs I bought here are good because they have Czech subtitles, so I can practise the language while I’m relaxing at home. I normally learn one or two new words every time I watch a film. Normally I watch English or American films with the subtitles on, but sometimes I watch Czech films too. The Czech ones are difficult if I don’t know the story before I watch them.

I have also bought lots of British TV programmes on DVD here. One of my favourites is Red Dwarf. The series was filmed in the 1980s, but is still very funny today. In the first episode a deadly illness arrives on a spaceship and kills everybody except for a cat and a human called Lister, who was frozen because he had insulted the captain. After three million years, Lister wakes up to discover he is the only human on the spaceship. The only other living thing is the Cat, who has evolved from the original cat, but now looks like a human. The third member of the crew is Rimmer, a hologram of a human, who is very annoying to Lister. In the second series, the crew finds a robot called Kryton. I think you should watch it!

What is your favourite film or TV programme? Who are the characters? What do they do? What happens in the story?

I did another set of practice at this point (which I will describe below), but in retrospect I should have got the students to write their own texts and used these for analysis. They did enjoy the other activities, but it probably did not benefit them as much as their own texts would have done.

The next stage was a running dictation. I had the first two paragraphs of a story with spaces for potential articles stuck on the wall. Students worked in pairs to get the story onto their paper 5 words at a time. They could choose whether to complete the articles as they went a long or copy the paragraph and then do all of the articles at the end. The text was given to me by a colleague. I know it came from a book, but I’m not sure which one – please let me know if you do.

This is ____ true story. It’s about ____ politician. He was ____  Member of ____  Parliament (MP) in Britain. ____  story happened back in the 1980s, and ____  MP was called Richard Alexander. At that time, ____  Irish Republican Army was conducting ____  bombing campaign in ____  Britain. A few days earlier, ____  parcel bomb had been sent to ____  government minister. So ____  politicians were warned to be extra careful about opening parcels.

One day ____  parcel was delivered to ____  Mr Alexander’s office at Redford, in ____  English Midlands. ____  MP thought he heard ____  sound of ____  ticking clock inside ____  parcel, so thinking it might be ____  bomb, he rang ____  local police station. Soon ____  squad of army bomb specialists arrived at ____  office and x-rayed ____  parcel.

I then gave the students a fictional 500 Czech crowns to ‘spend’ on deciding which articles were correct. They could bet a maximum of 50 crowns on any one space. Once they had written their bets, we went through the text and checked the answers. For a correct answer we added the amount they had bet (if any); for an incorrect one, we deleted it. They became very competitive at this point, and if the answers differed they had to explain why before they could get the points. (Another retrospective note: I could have given them extra ‘money’ for correct explanations) The score was very close, and they really enjoyed the activity.

We didn’t have time to do any more than a quick discussion about the end of the story, but the plan was then:

  • discuss what they think happened next.
  • read the remaining paragraphs and find out if they were right.
  • complete the paragraphs with the correct articles.

They saw that what Mr Alexander could hear was indeed ____  timing mechanism. Obviously, ____  only safe thing to do was to blow it up which they did. ____  squad then pieced together ____  contents of ____  parcel. It had contained ____  pyjamas, ____  toothbrush and ____  small alarm clock. ____  MP had recently stayed at ____  hotel after making ____  speech one evening, and ____  hotel had kindly sent on his belongings after he had accidentally left them there. ____  clock had been ____  present from his wife.

They saw that what Mr Alexander could hear was indeed ____  timing mechanism. Obviously, ____  only safe thing to do was to blow it up which they did. ____  squad then pieced together ____  contents of ____  parcel. It had contained ____  pyjamas, ____  toothbrush and ____  small alarm clock. ____  MP had recently stayed at ____  hotel after making ____  speech one evening, and ____  hotel had kindly sent on his belongings after he had accidentally left them there. ____  clock had been ____  present from his wife.

They saw that what Mr Alexander could hear was indeed ____  timing mechanism. Obviously, ____  only safe thing to do was to blow it up which they did. ____  squad then pieced together ____  contents of ____  parcel. It had contained ____  pyjamas, ____  toothbrush and ____  small alarm clock. ____  MP had recently stayed at ____  hotel after making ____  speech one evening, and ____  hotel had kindly sent on his belongings after he had accidentally left them there. ____  clock had been ____  present from his wife.

I probably should have done something more productive at this point – the use of the second ‘controlled practice’ activity wasn’t vital with this group, as they understood most of the rules. However, they only got about half of the answers right, so perhaps it was justified, with more ‘freer’ practice coming in later lessons.

What do you think? How do you go about teaching articles? Are they a problem for your students?

By the way, feel free to take these materials and use them however you will.

Enjoy!

Update: I have created an articles flowchart and worksheet which you might like to use in class with these activities.

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Comments on: "(An) amazing article?" (9)

  1. A good post, Sandy. Personally, with speakers of languages that use no articles, I often find it important to establish their need by writing out a text without articles, much like the one you did, and asking questions for which the articles would clarify the answer (ie. Is “teacher” my name or my job?). When students answer incorrectly or are unable, I show how an article would help.

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    • Hi Tyson,
      Thanks for the advice. I always difficult to demonstrate this need to students and this technique is useful. I also compare sentences where an article changes the meaning completely, especially if it makes no sense!
      “I saw Queen in concert.” v. “I saw the Queen in concert.” was one example based on a student’s mistake in a colleague’s class.
      Sandy

      Like

  2. Sandy – Great work!! This brings back memories of when I was teaching in Prague in my very first teaching job and tried for ages to convey the idea… This is excellent.

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  3. My Hebrew speaking students also have a problem with the articles. Especially the ones who use sign language which not only doesn’t ahve articles but doesn’t use prepostions either!
    I like the idea of having them create their own story patterend after yours. Perhaps then we could use the disappearing text method as a means to reviewing the story beofre writing their own.
    I think my teenagers (especially the boys) would love the idea of fictional money to bet on the answers!
    Thanks!

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    • Hi Naomi,
      It’s great to see ideas develop – I didn’t think about using disappearing text, but I definitely think that would help them. I’ll try to incorporate it next time I teach articles 🙂
      Let me know how it goes,
      Sandy

      Like

  4. […] hence the large ‘rods’ and ‘one’, the latter of which also comes from the articles post. I didn’t realise how much I’d used the word ‘one’ until it appeared here! […]

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  5. […] let me know. I would be interested to know how you use the sheets. I also wrote a post with an articles lesson plan which you might like to look […]

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  6. […] Flowchart: … on Articles Flowchart: Second…Articles flowchart: … on (An) amazing article?Articles flowchart: … on Articles Flowchart: First…Naomi Epstein on Articles […]

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