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Teaching the Article to EFL Learners with No Article in their L1

Teaching the Article to EFL Learners with No L1

Articles occur more frequently than any other word in the English language (“Word Frequency Data”). Unfortunately, however, they remain a persistent source of difficulty, especially for L2 learners with no mother tongue equivalent (Berry, 1991). In fact, article use has even been described as “one of the most formidable problems to overcome in teaching English to foreigners” (Whitman, 1974: 253). 43 years following Whitman’s publication, the article continues to cause difficulty for L2 learners of English.

Having taught in South Korea and now China, I have observed frequent misuse of articles, even from advanced speakers of English. The following article will examine why Korean learners make article errors and it will also propose some pedagogical approaches aimed at promoting and developing article use. Before focusing on Korea specifically, we first need to understand what the article is and how it functions in its various forms. This will be the goal of Section 1.

Section 1 – How Is The Article Used In English?

The article system in English consists of three essential components: the definite article (the), the indefinite article (a/an) and the absence of any article (the zero article). Articles function as central determiners in a noun phrase. That is to say, they help to “‘determine’ the number and definiteness of the noun phrase” (Crystal, 2004: 136). Take, for example, the noun phrase, “Bill bought a cat from the farmer”. There are two articles in this noun phrase – the indefinite article and the definite article. The indefinite article (“a cat”) and the definite article (“the farmer”) provide precise information about the number of cats he bought (“a cat” – therefore, one cat) and the number of farmers involved in the transaction (“the farmer” – so again, one). They also help us to determine the level of familiarity between the speaker and the listener, or the writer and the reader. “A cat” implies that we have yet to encounter any prior information about the cat in question, which makes it indefinite. If, on the other hand, we had already received information about the cat, it would be grammatically appropriate to say “the cat”. We would know which cat we were referring to, and this would make it definite, or defining. Essentially, articles provide the listener or reader with more detailed information about the components within a noun phrase. To deepen our analysis, we can start by taking a closer look at the role of the definite article.

The Definite Article

According to DeCarrico (2000: 23), a “rather general rule of thumb for article usage is that the definite article is used when the speaker knows specifically what is being talked about and assumes that this knowledge is shared by the reader.” In the sentence above, “Bill bought a cat from the farmer”, the speaker assumes that his knowledge of the farmer is shared by the listener, which is why he/she uses the definite article – “the” – to describe the farmer. The speaker must have already mentioned the farmer earlier in this hypothetical conversation, which is why he can say “the farmer” and not “a farmer”.

Let us assume that the first sentence in the conversation was, “Bill visited a farmer last week”. This is the first time the speaker mentions the farmer, so he refers to him as “a” farmer. Because “farmer” has already been mentioned once, the speaker can assume that the listener now shares this knowledge of the farmer, which is why, on second mention, the farmer is referred to as “the” farmer. This is known as an anaphoric reference, whereby “The” is used to refer back to an earlier noun. There is also indirect anaphoric use (Quirk et al., 1985: 267) which refers to a noun that is associated with the first-mentioned noun – for example, “I bought a book yesterday. The main character is very likeable.” In this example, “the main character” is associated with the first-mentioned noun – namely, “a book”.

The definite article can also function as a cataphoric reference, where “the” refers forward to the words following the head noun, such as in the following sentence: “I’ve always liked the wines of Germany.” (Crystal, 2004: 138). It is also commonly used as a sporadic reference (Quirk et al., 1985: 269) to refer to human institutions that most of us are familiar with – the news; the weather; the cinema; the beach; the theatre, etc – or to certain adjectives, like “same”, “only” or “worst”. Hawkins (1978) identifies another use of the definite article – pre-emptive use – which immediately uses the definite article to refer to a noun, implying the noun’s significance within the story. As an example, consider the opening sentence to Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses: “The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.” (Berrett, 2008) This is a literary device that seems to be reserved solely for literature.

The Indefinite Article

The indefinite article, like the definite article, is one “of the most important determiners” (Huddleston, 1984: 248) in the English language. Huddleston writes that the function of the indefinite article is to let the learner know that the “description is not presented as defining” (1984: 251). By “defining”, Huddleston is referring to that which makes the noun phrase unique. In the sentence he uses as an example, “the first man to run the mile in under four minutes” (1984: 249), the definite article preceding “first man” can be considered defining because it establishes the uniqueness of the referent – that is, “the first man”. He is unique because there can be no other “first man” to have run the four-minute mile.

The indefinite article signifies that the description is not unique – or at least, not yet unique. We use it when the “content fails to provide the further implicit information that would supplement it to the point of uniqueness” (Huddleston, 1984: 253). An indefinite article can graduate to definite status, but this is dependent on an ensuing anaphoric reference. Recall the earlier sentence, “Bill visited a farmer last week”, which was followed by “Bill bought a cat from the farmer”. On first mention, the farmer is not unique – hence, he is “a farmer” – but by the second mention he can be considered unique because we now know that the writer is referring to a specific farmer that he has done business with. The listener will also have formed an image of a specific farmer in his/her mind by the time the second sentence has been uttered.

As already mentioned, the indefinite article (a/an), unlike the definite article, “does not assume that a noun has been mentioned already” (Crystal, 2004: 139). Therefore, when we say, “This morning, a letter arrived”, we are indicating no prior, shared knowledge of the letter between speaker and listener. The letter may be known to the speaker, but not to the listener. If, however, the letter was known to both speaker and listener, we would say, “This morning, the letter arrived.”

We also use the indefinite article to refer to quantity; for instance, “a hundred” or “a thousand”, and to less specific quantities like “a long time”, “a few”, or a little bit”. Additionally, we can use it to refer to a member of a particular group or species: “I’m studying to be a doctor”, or “I’m a man”. In both cases, we know that there are many doctors in the world, just as there are many men, so the indefinite article is appropriate in both contexts.

The Zero Article

The article, of course, is often omitted in English, mainly when we are talking of “human institutions and routines, means of transport, periods of time, meals, and illnesses” (Crystal, 2004: 139); for example, “go to bed, travel by car, at dawn, in winter, have lunch, got flu.” (Crystal, 2004: 139). It is “used to express indefinite meaning of plural count nouns and of mass nouns” (Leech and Svartvik, 2013: 250). Examples could include “some people” or “some apples” for indefinite meaning of plural nouns, and “some information” or “some furniture” for mass (or uncountable) nouns.

As mentioned earlier, we frequently use “the” when referring to institutions that everyone is aware of – such as “the” news or “the” weather. However, we often drop the article when referring to institutions and the roles associated with them. For example, we can say, “He’s in hospital” or “She’s at school”, when we wish to emphasize the referent’s current state of being within the institution. “He’s in hospital” implies that the referent is a patient in the hospital, while “She’s at school” tells us that “She” is a student. (See Quirk et al., 1985: 277). Compare this to “We’re going to the school”, in which we are not referring to anybody’s role within the institution, but rather to the specific building we are travelling to. Unsurprisingly, these distinctions can be hard for students to grasp.

Adding to the confusion, the zero article is also used to refer to appositive nouns (i.e., a noun that renames a preceding noun) in situations where the definite article would be expected. Specifically, the zero article is used when an appositive noun “names a UNIQUE ROLE or task” (Quirk et al., 1985: 276). For example: “James Gandolfini, (the) star of HBO series The Sopranos, has been found dead in his hotel room in Rome.”
Additionally, the zero article is used when referring to: people’s names; town, city and country names; languages; events; products; as well as to school and college subjects, “sports, meals, medical conditions, illnesses, (and) ways of travelling” (Scrivener, 2011: 50). Not all place names take the zero article, however, and these should be pointed out to students (the Alps, the United Kingdom, and the Atlantic Ocean, for example).

As the above paragraphs indicate, article use in English is both complex and varied. For L2 learners, there is a lot of potential confusion surrounding article choice, and this regularly manifests itself in learners’ writing assignments. The question as to why this occurs is worthy of investigation, and it is to this that we now turn.

Section 2 – Why Do Korean Learners Make Article Errors?

The fundamental reason for this is the absence of an article system in Korean. L2 learners of English tend to omit and misuse articles if their L1 does not contain them (see Butler, 2001, for a discussion on Japanese learners, and Ionin et al, 2004, for a focus on Russian and Korean learners). Korean speakers rely on the context of the sentence to determine the role of the referents in the noun phrase. Consider the following example from Kim and Lakshmanan (2008: 103) which demonstrates the lack of an article system in Korean:

Na-nun ecey tosekwan-eyse chayk-ul pilli-ess-ta.
I-TOP yesterday library-from book-OCC check out-PAST-DEC
“I checked out a/the book (or books) from a/the library (or libraries).”

According to the authors, this translates to, “Yesterday, I checked out a book from the library”. The noun “chayk”, meaning “book”, can be interpreted as an indefinite singular (a book), a definite singular (the book), a definite plural (the books) or as an indefinite plural (books). The same rule applies to the noun “tosekwon”, meaning “library”. (Kim and Lakshmanan, 2008: 103). Rather than using articles as markers of specificity and definiteness, in Korean “the definiteness of an entity is often understood implicitly from the context” (Kim and Lakshmanan, 2008: 103). In the example mentioned above, the listener would likely know that the speaker is referring to one library and not, for instance, to several libraries.
Furthermore, definite articles in Korean “can be expressed by modifiers like demonstrative pronouns, and the indefinite article by numeric modifiers” (Lee, 1999: 37). So for example, instead of saying, “Pass me the book”, a Korean speaker could say, “Pass me that book”, with the demonstrative pronoun – “that” – used to denote specificity at the expense of “the”. Also, instead of saying, “A man came in to my house today”, a Korean speaker would instead include a numeric modifier and say, “One man (han-namja) came in to my house today.” The same rule would apply in the library example above, where the speaker could say that he/she checked out “one book” from the library, rather than “a book”.

In addition to the grammatical differences between Korean and English, students are given a generalized description of article use in school that does not reflect “the wide array of environments where article use is variable” (Lee: 37). Students have few opportunities to listen to native English speech, and thus they receive little input showcasing the variety of article usage. I propose in the next section, however, that there is a possible remedy for this, and it involves the application of Richard Schmidt’s “Noticing” Hypothesis.

Section 3 – Teaching Strategies to Develop Article Use

The “Noticing” Hypothesis
In 1990 Schmidt published an article which posited that learners “could not begin to acquire a language feature until they had become aware of it in the input” (Lightbown and Spada, 2013: 115). Schmidt drew on his own experience as an L2 learner of Portuguese, claiming that he never internalized any aspect of Portuguese until he became aware of it in the input. He had to “notice” the language feature in order to become aware of its role in written or spoken discourse.

In support of the Noticing Hypothesis, Skehan (1998) argues that many linguistic features may go unnoticed by the learner when their attention is being focused on several different areas at once. Therefore, having identified the areas that may have escaped students’ attention, the teacher could then take measures to refocus attention on them. Initially, this could be done in an exercise where the input matches, or even falls below, the level of the students, thereby allowing students to concentrate on the language form – namely, the article. In normal English conversation, articles are rarely stressed. This could be one of the reasons why even advanced Korean speakers of English continue to misuse them. “It stands to reason, therefore, that the less salient a form, the less likely it is to be noticed…” (Cross, 2002: 3). So what can we do about this?

How Articles Can Be Noticed

Before initiating any activities to promote article awareness, the teacher would need to give students a firm grounding in several aspects of article use. It may be helpful to first provide students with a list of situations where article use varies, and for students to consult this when they are carrying out any article-related activities. One possibility to develop noticing would be to play students a recorded text, and have them count the number of times the article is used. This is an idea supported by Scott Thornbury, who has written that noticing activities develop students’ “selective attention” (1997: 333) and essentially trains them to become more cognizant of the language feature the next time they hear it. The teacher could then play the recording a second time, this time asking the students to select 4 or 5 instances of article use and write down the noun phrase that follows the article. After playing the recording 2-3 times, the teacher could then ask pairs to compare article usages and explain, with the help of their list, why the speaker chose the articles he/she did. The pairs could then report their findings to the class. This would help to train the learners to become more aware of article use in subsequent exchanges.

Another possibility would be to ask students to record their own conversation with a native speaker, and, as a homework assignment, transcribe some of the instances of article use, followed by a short presentation to the class explaining their findings. In support of this, Larsen-Freeman and DeCarrico have stressed the importance of “input enhancement” (2010: 29), whereby students are given much greater exposure to the target structure. In the same article, the authors also emphasize the value of “consciousness-raising tasks” (29), in which students are asked to analyse a text and “discover the grammatical generalizations for themselves” (29).

In the above-mentioned activity, students would have to not only notice the appearance of articles but also analyse their usage (Fotos and Ellis, 1991 would also support such a strategy). They would then be asked to “engage in a communicative task where it is necessary to use certain structures to complete it” (Larsen-Freeman and DeCarrico, 2010: 29). A possible solution for this would be to devise a gap-fill role-play, where students would need to select the appropriate article to complete the dialogue, before then discussing the reasons for their choices. This would enable them to comprehend article use through meaning-based communicative. The prescriptive means by which article use is taught in Korean schools leaves almost no room for comprehension through interaction, which Larsen-Freeman and DeCarrico (2010) regard as essential in the acquisition of any target structure.


Article use in English is complex and multifaceted, especially for learners (such as Koreans) who lack an L1 equivalent. Korean uses other means of expressing definiteness and specificity, and therefore Korean learners of English find article rules difficult to internalize.

Given the vast range of grammar that students have to learn, it is unsurprising that article teaching is under-represented in school curricula. In order to increase understanding of article use, the instructor would need to devote time to teaching the article by drawing attention to the variety of article instances in English and then asking learners to apply these rules in more meaning-based communicative situations. Of course, a thorough investigation is needed to determine the effectiveness of the proposed solutions. Even if the activities prove to be a success, it is possible, even likely, that students will continue to make article-related errors (see Whitman, 1974: 261). Nevertheless, a greater variety of instruction would stand a reasonable chance of leading students towards a deeper understanding of article use.


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