Teaching grammar basics: what are determiners?

By Natilly Macartney

06 Feb 2023

Students writing in the classroom

What is a determiner?

Determiners are grammatical words that appear before nouns and modify them in various ways. They can indicate how much or how many there are of an item, whether a noun refers to something general or specific, and who an object belongs to. Language specialists and teachers are likely more familiar with the technical terms – quantifiers, articles, and possessive adjectives (my, your, etc).

In this post, we’re going to explore the most common category of determiner in English, known as articles; these include the words “the” and “a / an”.

Definite and indefinite articles

Let’s begin with “the”, which is termed the ‘definite’ article.

In its most general sense, the is used when a noun phrase refers to something that’s been mentioned earlier or can be assumed from context. For example, if someone says, ‘I saw the teacher yesterday,’ then only one teacher is being referred to, and both the speaker and hearer know which one. The definite article can be used with both singular and plural nouns.

The other articles, “a” and “an”, are called ‘indefinite’ articles. This is because they introduce a noun that neither the speaker nor the hearer has mentioned recently or can be identified from context. When a person says, ‘I have a new car,’ then it can be assumed that this is the first time the car has been mentioned, at least in the current conversation. In contrast to the definite article, “a” and “an” are only used with singular nouns.

In brief, the function of articles is to determine whether the information is new or familiar, and provide detail about quantity. The choice of an article is dependent on quantity, and whether a speaker or listener knows the exact reference of a noun.


Nouns can be divided into two main categories - proper nouns and common nouns. In general, articles are not used with proper nouns; however, they are used with common nouns.

It’s important to understand the condition of countability - whether a noun is classified as ‘count’ or ‘non-count’ – because this applies to all common nouns. Whereas a count noun can be separated into individual units and counted (such as cows or apples), a non-count noun only exists as a mass (such as water or flour) or an abstract quantity (such as air or knowledge). We need to know whether a noun is countable or uncountable because this determines whether it’s used with an article, and if so, which one.

When it comes to countability, there are exceptions. Some non-count nouns also exist in a countable form; Yule (2004) refers to these as ‘double nouns.’ When double nouns have a non-count meaning, they refer to the whole idea or quantity; however, in their count form, they provide a specific example or type. Let’s look at the example of the word ‘language’ being used below. In sentence one, it’s used in its non-count form, and in sentence two, it’s used in its count form.

  1. Children acquire language at a young age.
  2. English is a widely spoken language.

Three challenges learners face when using articles

1. Translating uncountable nouns

Some nouns which are normally uncountable in English may have translation equivalents in other languages which are countable. This can be especially confusing with cognates - words that have the same form and meaning in different languages.

The word ‘information’ is an example of a cognate in German and English. The difference between usage is that in German, information is a count noun and is used with an article. However, in English it’s non-count, so a sentence such as, ‘Can you give me an information please?’ is grammatically incorrect. This can make learning countable and uncountable nouns more challenging for some EAL learners.

2. Languages without articles

There are many languages which do not have an article system equivalent to English. Speakers of these languages often find acquiring and using articles challenging. Widely spoken languages without definite and indefinite articles include Russian and Arabic.

Although any mistakes these learners make concerning articles would rarely lead to serious misunderstandings, readers or listeners do have to work much harder to process these learners’ writing and/or speech.

3. Weak articles when spoken aloud

In speech, we often pronounce articles in their weak form.

Try saying out loud the question, ‘Can you pass me a glass?’ Can you hear that you barely pronounce the ‘a’ in this sentence?

Learners who listen to a lot of spoken English but do not read regularly in English may fail to recognise the use of articles, particularly the indefinite article. This is because articles are not a salient feature of language; they’re difficult to hear and have an abstract meaning.

Four fun ways to learn articles

Noticing activities and transcription

We can help learners by drawing their attention to articles and their functions. This can be done by analysing written texts and discussing where and why articles have and haven’t been used.

We can also guide learners to distinguish articles in their weakened forms in rapidly spoken English. A simple but useful activity is to have learners transcribe sentences, then mark and correct their peers’ work.

Listening to songs

Learners can listen to popular songs and clap their hands or stand up every time they hear an article being used; this is a fun activity for very young learners. To engage them further, you can let them decide on the songs to which they listen.

Sentence completion

Give learners a whole text or individual sentences where the articles have been removed, then fill in the gaps. To motivate learners, you could use authentic texts, such as stories they’re currently reading in class. For learners who find articles particularly challenging, you could simplify the task by making it a multiple-choice activity.


It can be particularly difficult for learners to recognise the use of articles in spoken English. Exposing learners to written English by giving them lots of opportunities to read will help them notice articles and discover their conditions. It’s useful to have learners read out loud as some learners skim over articles when reading.

How Bedrock teaches articles

Bedrock’s digital literacy curricula provide opportunities for learners to encounter, understand and master articles through engaging videos and authentic texts.

With each unit in Bedrock’s grammar curriculum, students explicitly learn about English grammar, including determiners, through reading texts, watching videos, and completing writing tasks. Recap activities and mastery tasks check for deep understanding and long-term retention.

Bedrock’s literacy curriculum is accessible to learners with English as a first or additional language and is personalised for learners aged 6 to 16.

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