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Raising Japanese Students' Consciousness of English Article Usage: A Practical View

Robert W. Norris

1992. In Fukuoka Women's Junior College Studies Vol. 44: 95-104


One of the most difficult problems facing Japanese junior college and university students of English is the use of the articles "a" and "the." These students often can formulate grammatical definitions for definite and indefinite articles, as well as cite a few rules governing their usage, but when it comes to actual production of these two troublesome words in speech or in writing, the students seem to all but throw up their hands in despair.

This paper offers teachers a possible solution for helping students overcome their difficulties in acquiring a working knowledge of "a" and "the." This solution is divided into four parts: (1) understanding why articles are so difficult for the students, (2) understanding the type of grammatical knowledge the students possess, (3) raising students' cognitive consciousness through simple extended descriptions, and (4) using visuals for promoting meaningful learning in production exercises.

Why are Articles So Difficult?

One reason English articles present so much difficulty to ESL/EFL (English as a second/foreign language) students is the vastness and complexity of the rules and exceptions governing article usage. Cromwell (1964: 38) writes, "Every student of English has my sympathy in his struggles with the articles 'a,' 'an,' and 'the.'" then goes on to detail 16 pages of rules and exceptions. In one ESL text, Robinson (1967) lists 44 separate rules. Quirk, et al. (1985) go even further, spending 32 pages on article usage.

In addition to the many rules and exceptions of the English article system, the Japanese student of English is also burdened by the fact that there is no grammatical equivalent to articles in her own native language. In an analytical study of structural errors found in 632 English compositions written by Japanese students in American high schools and junior colleges, Kimizuka (1967) found more mistakes in article usage than in any other structural category. Kimizuka (1967: 78-79) explains this phenomenon:

    Japanese has no part of speech equivalent of English articles....That article usage constitutes one of the greatest problems for the Japanese learner is vividly revealed in the high frequency of mistakes, the highest of all the structural items. The Japanese student must not only learn the numerous rules for the usage with as many exceptions, but he must also practice them by drill. It is comparatively simple to learn the rules, but it is not equally simple to apply the rules to actual situations.
With such seemingly impossible barriers to overcome, what are teachers of Japanese students to do? For starters, we must reevaluate the methods we have been using to teach article usage, as well as what activities we have been using to give students practice in production of articles. To do this, we first must have an awareness of what kind of knowledge the students possess, what their learning habits are, and what their motivation level is.

What Do the Students Know?

Japanese students at the junior college and university level bring with them a great deal of passive knowledge and little experience in applying that knowledge to anything outside of discrete-point grammar test questions. Dissosway (1989: 13) elaborates on this background:

    [Japanese students have] spent hours learning prescriptive grammar within the grammar-translation framework of junior and senior high school English classes. At that time, the role of English grammar teaching was almost exclusively enabling students to handle short-answer, discrete-item questions, like those found in university entrance examinations. Examination preparation was the motivating force for administrators, teachers, and students alike.
The results of this early exposure to English through prescriptive grammar instruction are not always positive. Dissosway (1989: 14) explains:
    While a great deal of English has been crammed into heads throughout the high school years, the perceivable results are depressing to many students. First, communication skills, not an object of high school study, are weak. Second, cramming of vocabulary and grammar rules in the absence of meaningful context or in teaching situations where available context is ignored does not produce long-term knowledge. Much painfully acquired information is quickly forgotten, leaving the students wondering exactly what they have learned, or how much English they know....Memorization of discrete items, heavy reliance on dictionaries, passive acceptance of teachers' instruction,...and passive classroom behavior are likely to characterize university classes, unless teachers and students work actively to change those habits.
What clearly needs to be done at the junior college and university level is to build on students' passive knowledge and work to motivate the students in making the transition to active production through meaningful learning. The author proposes doing this by using grammar consciousness-raising (CR) techniques and visuals in production exercises.

Consciousness-Raising and Meaningful Learning

Before describing the author's lesson plans for teaching "a" and "the," it is important to first have an understanding of what is meant by grammatical consciousness-raising. Rutherford and Smith (1988: 3) say:

    CR is intended to embrace a continuum ranging from intensive promotion of conscious awareness through pedagogical role articulation on the one end, to the mere exposure of the learner to specific grammatical phenomena on the other....What is important...are possible answers to questions having to do with what we choose to bring to consciousness, what motivates the choice, when and how (i.e., by what means) we raise something to consciousness, how often we call attention to it, how detailed is the information revealed in the exemplars, and what effect on learner behavior the information is intended to have.
Meaningful exploration of questions such as these carries the assumption that CR is not an end in itself. Corder (1988: 130) states:
    Pedagogical descriptions of the target language must be devised to help the learner learn whatever it is he learns, but are not necessarily what he learns. Pedagogical descriptions are aids to learning, not the object of learning.
Herein lies the difference between the type of teaching most Japanese junior college and university students have been exposed to in their junior and senior high school days and the point of transition they need to cross in order to apply practically what they have learned. During their earlier exposure to English these students have been instructed through what Smith (1977) calls "concentrated descriptions," that is, metalinguistic statements or observations exclusive of learner variables. Rote learning is a by-product of concentrated descriptions of grammar rules. The use of Smith's (1977) "extended descriptions" (i.e., on-line grammatical information tailored to the exigencies of particular learning situations) is more specifically linked with a practice component, and in turn to Ausubel's (1968) "meaningful learning" (i.e., processing new information within the context of old).

In other words, teachers of Japanese junior college and university students should use the students' passive knowledge as both a starting point and a springboard for giving extended descriptions and meaningful practice of the structures the students are in the process of acquiring.

Visuals and Imagery

Psychological and psychologically-oriented experimental research seems to indicate that for all types of learners the maximum use of extra visual devices is necessary for unimpeded effective learning to take place (Smith, 1988). Maximizing visual representations to accompany, illustrate, and explain linguistic items may well improve learning a great deal, especially where the content is too abstract to expect the learner to grasp a verbal explanation of a grammatical item.

Stevick (1986: 50-51) extends this importance of visuals to his usage of the word "image":

    An image is not merely visual. It may include any dimension--sight, hearing, texture, weight, temperature, motion, time, purpose, emotion, and many others--and commonly includes more than one of these dimensions at the same time....Images are not to be valued in language study for their own sake. They are valuable because the process of generating them involves activating nexuses and establishing new ones among networks of items which will be needed for generating images--both nonverbal and verbal--on future occasions; and because rewards that come from having generated them strengthen the nexuses and make the networks more solid, more complete, and more usable.
A Rod Lesson

Keeping in mind the background of the students we are teaching, the passive knowledge they possess, the basic principles of CR and extended descriptions, and the effectiveness of using visuals and imagery to enhance learning, we now turn to some plans for teaching the rudiments of the articles "a" and "the." This first plan involves using a box of cuisenaire rods. For this particular lesson plan, the rods serve four main purposes:

  1. They appeal to the senses. Therefore, they attract and hold students' attention.
  2. They are simple in shape and color. Therefore, they concentrate students' attention.
  3. They have no unnecessary markings or details of shape. Therefore, they present an open field for the students' imagination. They are like concrete abstractions which can be put to a wide range of uses.
  4. They let students see and handle some of the abstractions that may be hard to follow in an explanation that consists only of words. (Stevick, 1986: 143-144)
The teacher writes the words "a," "the," "another," and "the other(s)" on the board. He also writes "Take _____ rod." He puts several rods of the same color in a shallow box. He walks up to a student, motions for her to take a rod, says the word "take," and points to the board, indicating that the student must select the correct word to fill the blank between "take" and "rod." After eliciting "a," the teacher says "Take one more rod," points again to the board, and elicits "another." This elicitation of "another" continues until there is one rod remaining, at which time "the other" is elicited. The teacher repeats the process with another student until there are two or three rods remaining. He tells the student to take all the remaining rods, and elicits "the others" or "the other rods."

Next, the teacher puts three rods in the box, goes to another student, and elicits "take a rod," "take another rod," and "take the other rod." He then puts two rods in the box, goes to another student, and elicits "take a rod," and "take the other rod." He puts one rod in the box, goes to a different student, and elicits "take the rod." Finally, he puts several rods in the box, goes to another student, tells her to take all the rods, and elicits, "take the rods." During this phase there is usually a lot of confusion and guessing among the students. The teacher remains nonjudgmental about their guesses. He simply refuses to allow them to take the rods until the correct answer is forthcoming.

The teacher goes to the board and writes the following extended descriptions:

  • "a"-the first of two or more
  • "the"-the only one
  • "another"-one more
  • "the other(s)"-the remaining one(s)
Next, the teacher takes a rod, puts it in the center of the box, and asks, "Where is the rod?" He writes all the answers the students give on the bard until "It is in the center of the box" is agreed upon as the correct answer. He underlines both "the's" and asks why we must use "the" in front of "center" and "box." If no answer is forthcoming, he refers the students to the extended descriptions until someone answers that there is only one center and one box.

The teacher repeats the "Where is the rod?" questioning for each of the four corners, making sure the students understand the use of "the" in "in the top right corner," "in the bottom left corner," etc.

Next, the class is divided into groups of four or five students. A shoebox lid is placed upside down before each group. This is preferable to a book or piece of paper in order to prevent confusion about the use of "in" (as opposed to "on"). Each student is assigned a role with in her group: "action person," "___ing question person," "___ing answer person," "past-tense question person," and "past-tense answer person." In groups of four, the "action person" can also take the role of "past-tense answer person." Each group is given ten rods (two red, two blue, two green, one yellow, and three white).

The lesson now turns into a Total Physical Response (TPR) exercise with students carrying out the following five commands:

  1. Take a red rod and put it in the center of the box.
  2. Take the other red rod and put it in top right corner of the box.
  3. Take a white rod and put it in the bottom right corner of the box.
  4. Take another white rod and put it in the bottom left corner of the box.
  5. Take the other white rod and put it in the top left corner of the box.
After each command, while the "action person" is carrying out the command, the "___ing question person" asks, "What is she doing?" The "___ing answer person" responds. Then the "past-tense question person" asks, "What did she/you do?" The "past-tense answer person" responds. The students are encouraged to help each other in formulating their questions and answers. Before each new command, the students rotate roles.

After these five commands and the questioning and answering have been completed, the teacher points to each of the five rods and asks, "Which rod is this?" The students are guided to use relative clauses in answering "It is the rod which is in the center/top right corner/etc. of the box." The teacher asks why "the" is used in front of "rod." After eliciting "the only one in the center/top right corner/etc.," the teacher adds "the one(s) that exist in a particular space" to the extended description of "the" written earlier on the board.

After some review of locative prepositions and making sentences such as "It is to the right of the rod which is in the bottom left corner of the box," the teacher continues the TPR lesson with these new commands:

    6. Take a green rod and put it above the rod which is in the center of the box.

    7. Take the other green rod and put it under the rod which is in the top right corner of the box.

    8. Take a blue rod and put it to the left of the rod which is in the bottom right corner of the box.

    9. Take the other blue rod and put it to the right of the rod which is in the bottom left corner of the box.

    10. Take the yellow rod and put it under the rod which is in the center of the box.

The teacher draws this figure on the board:

rods in box image

The teacher also writes the words "first," "next," and "finally" on the board. The students are told to tell the story chorally of what they have done. For example, "First we put a red rod in the center of the box. Next, we...." When finished, the students write the ten steps. The teacher collects the papers, corrects any mistakes, and hands them back in the next class.

Picture Lessons

In following classes, the teacher reviews the extended descriptions for "a" and "the," hands out copies of pictures, and has the students write sentences about the pictures. One possibility is using picture differences. Working in groups, the students must find the differences and write sentences describing the differences. For example, "In the first picture the man who is in the top left side has long hair, but in the second picture he has short hair."

In this picture difference lesson, the teacher walks around giving personal assistance where necessary. Various grammatical problems invariably arise, but the fundamental focus should be on the students' article usage, with the teacher guiding the students to use their own knowledge, to test out their own hypotheses, and to make their own discoveries.

Another picture lesson uses one "before" picture (showing a dirty room) and one "after" picture (showing the same room after it has been cleaned). The teacher reviews the extended descriptions of "a" and "the," then adds this new criteria:

  • "a"--a thing or person which the reader or listener does not know. Perhaps he will know soon, but at this moment he does not know. The writer or speaker uses "a" for the first reference to new information.
  • "the"--the thing(s) or person(s) which the writer or speaker has been talking about and which the reader or and listener knows. In other words, old information both writer and reader (or speaker and listener) know about. New information becomes old information the second time it is used.
The teacher gives the students the "before" picture and has them write sentences about what has to be done to the room. The teacher refers back to steps 6-10 in the rod lesson and the usage of "the" when talking about the existence of things in a particular space (e.g., "the rod which is in the center of the box."). The teacher writes these sample sentences on the board: "The window which is in the top left corner of the picture has to be opened." "The window which is in the room has to be opened." "The window which you and I know about has to be opened." The teacher then erases all the relative clauses and explains that they are not necessary because both he and the students know which window is being talked about. The sample sentence now becomes "The window has to be opened."

After the students complete about ten sentences, each beginning with "The (window/bed/books/etc.)," they are given the "after" picture, which should contain at least two new items that were not in the "before" picture. The students are told to write sentences about what has been done to the room. The teacher gives one sample sentence: "The window has been opened." The teacher makes no further reference to the new criteria for using articles, but does tell the students he knows nothing about the second picture. He has information about just the first picture.

The object of this lesson is to guide the students toward discovering on their own that they must use "a" for the new items (i.e., new information) in the second picture, as in "A painting has been hung on the wall" and "A tablecloth has been put on the table." It is crucial the teacher not explicitly explain the correct answers. The students must be allowed to produce them on their own. This is in keeping with the concept of meaningful learning as opposed to rote learning.

A Composition Lesson

After two or three lessons using pictures, the students can next be asked to apply their knowledge in a two- or three-page story. The author has found that providing a simple list of writing guidelines and the first paragraph both focuses the students' grammatical consciousness and stimulates their imagination. The writing guidelines and lead paragraph the author has used most often in his eisakubun (writing) classes are listed below:

  1. Stop before every noun you use and ask yourself, "Do I need to use 'a,' or 'the' here?"
  2. Use paragraphs. Indent the first line of each paragraph.
  3. Verbs should be mainly in the past tense.
  4. First paragraph: It was getting dark. Tony and Alice were lying together on the beach. Except for them the beach was deserted. Everything was quiet and peaceful except for the sound of the sea. Suddenly, they saw something moving in the water.
It is recommended to allow the students to work on their stories in small groups. Bailey and Celce-Murcia (1979: 321) say that students can benefit from collaborating on written work as "pairs or groups of students writing a paper together can share ideas, suggest vocabulary, and correct one another's grammar problems."

After the rough drafts are completed, students exchange papers and check for errors based on the writing guidelines they have been given. Final drafts are then written and handed in to the teacher.


This paper has examined why English article usage is so difficult for Japanese students, the type of grammatical knowledge they possess at the junior college and university level, and a plan for raising students' grammatical consciousness of articles through extended descriptions, meaningful learning, and the use of visuals and imagery in structural and composition practice.

The author has found that it is also possible to use CR techniques for several grammatical problem areas simultaneously within a single lesson. For example, in the rod lesson not only can practice of articles be accomplished, but also practice of locative prepositions, relative clauses, transitive verbs, and object pronouns. It is simply up to the teacher to establish the focal areas and the depth of the extended descriptions he chooses to use. Since the author began incorporating CR techniques into his eisakubun classes, he has seen a marked improvement in all grammatical areas covered, including the troublesome "be" verb.

As was pointed out previously, the use of CR techniques is meant to be a means to an end rather than an end itself. It is intended to facilitate the acquisition of target language grammatical competence. The lessons and extended descriptions discussed in this paper are merely an introduction to the complexity of English article usage. Further refinements and new descriptions can be introduced step by step as students continue to make progress. When designing practice activities, the teacher should always be conscious of leading the students toward self-discovery and active application of the structures being learned. As long as decisions are involved, even if they are only semantic or concerned with syntactic processes already supposed to be known, then the students are forced, to some degree, to understand what they are doing, and in the process discover something about the structure in question.

In using CR techniques to teach English article usage or any grammatical structure, a teacher needs to make a leap of faith to what Corder (1985) calls "a guided inductive approach." Corder (1985: 133) defines this phrase:

    Learning is seen as fundamentally an inductive process, but one which can be controlled and facilitated by descriptions and explanations given at the appropriate moment and formulated in a way which is appropriate to the maturity, knowledge, and sophistication of the learner. In a sense, teaching is a matter of providing the learner with the right data at the right time and teaching him how to learn, that is, developing in him appropriate learning strategies and means of testing his hypotheses. The old controversy about whether one should provide the rule first and then the examples, or vice versa, is now seen to be merely a matter of tactics to which no categorical answer can be given. Giving a rule or description first means no more than directing the learner's attention to the problem or, in psychological terms, establishing a "set" toward, or readiness for, the task; giving the examples or the data first means encouraging the learner to develop his own mental set of strategies for dealing with the task.
In the final analysis, students must have data on which to base their hypotheses about the semantic or syntactic function of each new item or structure they learn. They may or may not benefit from descriptions and explanations about how the items or structures work, but they must, in any case, develop hypotheses and be given the opportunity to test the correctness of these hypotheses. This means students must be given the chance to make decisions and consequently run the risk of errors. The function of the teacher is to provide data and examples, and, where necessary, to offer explanations, descriptions, and verification of the students' hypotheses. To this end, the author has made the leap of faith to using CR techniques in a guided inductive approach. Thus far the results have been encouraging.


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Copyright (c) 1992, 1998-2010 Robert W. Norris. All Rights Reserved