How do you teach the difference between “a” and “the” during conversation class?

Helping English language learners distinguish articles remains important in advanced ESL and English conversation classes

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”

―Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) Dutch painter

Does it make sense to emphasize the difference between articles (a, an, the) in an English conversation class? Perhaps. Context matters.

Conversation class should encourage English students to express their ideas, practice familiar words and syntax and develop greater confidence in effectively communicating in English. In this regard, content remains king. Given how little most of our ESL students speak English outside of classes, we as teachers need to provide many speaking opportunities for them to develop greater fluency.

Sometimes there is tension between teaching grammar and encouraging students to speak. If we monitor and correct each and every grammar error, many ESL students may feel intimidated or discouraged. Some will choose to remain silent or reduce their participation. English teachers working in many Asian classrooms have often experienced students embracing this face-saving technique. Therefore, in a conversation class, I usually tilt much more toward fluency than grammatical accuracy.

INDIRECT CORRECTION SOMETIMES WORKS BEST

I generally prefer indirect correction of student errors during conversation class. I often circle around a class, listen in, join small discussion groups and make a few notes. If I hear some grammatical error, I usually demonstrate correct use of language – but without explicitly or publicly correcting the student. These “good mistakes” provide authentic examples that all students can benefit from reviewing.

This indirect correction – which models the correct syntax – seems especially important when teaching adult students with limited academic backgrounds. I prefer encouraging these sometimes reluctant, shy or insecure students rather than insisting on perfect grammar.

THE PESKY ARTICLE PROBLEM

Yet article errors matter in English, and often convey significant information. Just as some languages divide nouns or adjectives into masculine and feminine, English highlights the difference between a definite (or known) member of a group and an indefinite (or unknown) member of a group. Article errors are also very common among English language learners– both international graduate students and wealthy immigrants who have lived in the United States for 20 years.

So how do you teach the difference between “a” and “the” in a conversation class? After recording and writing down student errors I overhear during conversation lessons, I tend to pick one “good mistake” and give several examples when the class comes back for a general discussion. It is here, more for college students and future college students, that I remind students of the differences between articles “a”, “an” and “the”. Because I teach in the United States, I often pick examples from current events to make the general grammar point before focusing on the precise errors made in class.

One example that I often use comes from the on-going political chaos (with frequent bombings) following the second American invasion of Iraq. Some Iraqi citizens believe Islam be a source – one of many sources – for Iraq’s laws and constitution. Other Iraqi citizens believe Islam should it be the one and only source for Iraq’s laws and constitution. Another group of Iraqi citizens, and apparently a small minority, believe Islam should play no official role in Iraq’s laws and constitution. Likewise, some Iraqi believe there should be a single country called Iraq where the national government rules while some favor greater autonomy for different provinces or breaking the nation up. This explanation helps students understand the importance of and distinctions between “a” and “the,” connect a grammar lesson to current events, and provides memorable examples.

Finally, I’m also far more likely to spend precious class time on this advanced grammar point with current college students or academic ESL classes than with typical adult education or community college classes. Students planning to take standardized exams like the TOEFL or TOEIC have far more need for this type of focused attention on grammar. Tailor my approach to error correction, in both conversation and writing classes, to student needs seems natural and sensible. Minimum wage workers, street vendors, and elderly immigrants learning English in their spare time have less immediate need for extended grammar points in a conversation class. They need to focus more on simply getting their ideas across, and often need more encouragement. On the other hand, international graduate students planning to present at a professional conference face far higher professional expectations for their speaking skills in English.

Context, as so often in teaching English, matters.

Do you teach articles in your English class? How do you handle student errors during speaking exercises?

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