Category Archives: articles

Using “the” for second reference and specific reference

Knowing when to use “a,” “an,” and “the” is hard  for students learning English as a second language.  This is especially true for Asian students who have no articles in their native languages.  For Europeans it is easier because they are used to articles, though sometimes not used in the same way as in English.

To review what we said in recent blogs:

  • “A” or “an” is used before singular nouns (A dog licked an object).
  • No article is used before noncount singular nouns and before plural nouns. (I like rice and bananas.)
  • “The” is used before one-of-a-kind nouns but not before names. (The Statue of Liberty seemed big to Molly.)
  • “The” is used before titles to describe roles when the name is not included. (The senator spoke.)

Here are some other rules.

  • “The” is used for singular, plural and noncount nouns when the nouns are mentioned for the second time. “I saw a girl today.  The girl wore a head scarf.”  In the first sentence, girl is singular and is mentioned for the first time, so “a” is used.  “The” is used at the second reference to mean the girl just talked about.

One way to teach this concept is by using cartoons which show objects for the first time in one frame and then repeated in a later frame.  “Snoopy is asleep on a dog house.  He jumps off the dog house to chase a ball.  The ball stops next to Charlie Brown.”  Ask students to create sentences about the action.

Another way is with picture books.  “A cat wearing a hat came into a house.  Two children watched.  The cat talked to the children in the house.”

  • “The” is used when we refer to a singular object which is specific to the speaker or character. If a child says, “I will take the bus to school tomorrow,” we know he means the particular bus which he always takes, the one which stops near his house.  When someone says, “I need to go to the dentist later today,” the speaker means she needs to visit the dentist whom she always sees, not just any dentist.  To the speakers, the bus and the dentist are specific and one-of-a-kind.  So “the” is appropriate.


  • In the US we use “the” when we say particular phrases like “the hospital.” Americans say “He went to the hospital” but British people say “He went to hospital.”


  • When a singular or plural noun is preceded by a possessive noun or pronoun, no article is needed. (Our coats are near Mary’s purse.)


  • When a singular or plural noun is preceded by a number, no article is needed. (The principal needs 10 teachers to proctor the exam for 300 students.)


  • The United States or the US is always preceded by “the.”  So are the Philippines and the Netherlands.


  • Homework is noncount.  It is wrong to say “a homework” or “two homework.”  To show amounts of homework, use the word “assignments” after “homework.”  I have three homework assignments.

Teaching “the,” part one

Once students have learned that “a” or “an” must precede a singular count word, and that no article precedes a singular noncount word, it is time to teach how to use the article “the” with proper nouns.


Cut out pictures of one-of-a-kind monuments or natural landmarks, such as the Grand Canyon, White House, Niagara Falls, and Statue of Liberty.  Also cut out pictures of a few famous people like Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama, and pictures of places that the student knows or visits like the church, school and library he attends.  Cut out pictures of a few cities or towns, rivers and mountains.  Under each, write its name without any article.

Explain to students that the article “the” is used in front of one-of-a-kind nouns.  So even though “a” would be used in front of “statue,” because the Statue of Liberty is the only one like it, we use “the,” not “a,” in front of that name.  Let the students mimic you saying “the White House” and “the Eiffel Tower.”

Explain that “the” is not used in front of people’s names.  So we do not say “the George Washington.”  We do not use articles of any kind in front of people’s names.  Show pictures of people whose names the student would know.  Under the picture, write the name without any article.  Ask the student whether an article should be said, and if so, which one.

If we use a title without a name, we do use “the.”  So we say “The President boarded the helicopter.”  “The teacher called on me.”

We do not use “the” in front of the names of most businesses or institutions.  We say, “I attend Simpson Elementary School,” not “I attend the Simpson Elementary School.”  Or “My mother works at St. Peter’s Hospital,” not “My mother works at the St. Peter’s Hospital.”

Remembering these distinctions is hard and takes time.  Take the first five minutes of every lesson to review.  Each time you teach a new concept, add it to the “deck” of cards the student has already learned.  Don’t move on until the student can figure out when to use or not use an article, and which article to use.

Next:  Using “the” for a second reference


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.”