When to use “a” and “an”

For most native speakers of English, using “a,” and “an,” pose no problem.  We don’t forget to use them, and we use them properly.

child playing card memory game

But if I ask you what are the rules for using articles, could you explain them?  Probably not.  We use articles—or not—based on whether what we say sounds right with or without them.

Nonnative speakers of English can’t rely on what sounds right because they don’t know what sounds right.  So how can we teach articles to children learning English as a second language?  We need to teach rules.

Here is my suggestion.

Find pictures of common items which are often found grouped together.  Find pictures of one of those items, such as one banana, one egg, one leaf, and one envelope.  Also find pictures of the same items grouped with others, such as a bunch of bananas, several leaves, a carton of eggs, and several envelopes.  Make sure some of the items begin with vowel sounds (eggs, envelopes, alligators, and olives, for example).

Find pictures of common items which cannot be counted, such as sand, rice, sugar and water.

Tape each picture to an index card, and under each write the name of the item or items without any article.  Then under the name of the item write the same word with an adjective in front of it.  So you might write “car” and under it write “old car,” or “rice” and “hot rice,” or “alligators” and “scary alligators.”

Start the lesson by showing the student a single common item which can be counted, such as a car.  Explain that when we have one of a common noun, the first time we mention it we say “a” or “an” in front of it.  Ask the child to repeat what you say:  “I see a leaf.  The boy holds an umbrella.  An ostrich looks at me.”

Explain that even if we put a describing word in front of the common noun, we still need “a” or “an.”  Let the child practice mimicking you with “A black horse trots.  A white egg is on a plate.  An orange pumpkin grows.”

When the student seems to understand that concept (after days of practice) explain that we have some words in English which cannot be counted.  Show a picture of someone playing a musical instrument with the words “music” and “loud music” under the picture.  Because music cannot be counted, it never has an “a” or “an” in front of it.  Ask the student to repeat what you say:  “I eat hot rice.  Clean water tastes good.  Loud music comes from the radio.”

Shuffle the pictures of the singular items which can be counted (a car, a banana) with the pictures of the noncount items (music, rice).  Practice putting or not putting an article in front of them for several days until the student realizes that singular items which can be counted are preceded by “a” or “an” and noncount items are not.

Next:  Adding plurals to the mix.  Then, adding proper nouns to the mix.  Later, using “the.”



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