Zhao & MacWhinney - Learning the English Article

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English Article Usage

Summary Table


Documentation of this study is currently in progress.

Background and Significance

The current project focuses on the development of a cognitive tutoring system for the teaching of English articles – one of the most difficult grammatical forms for second language learners to learn and master. Articles are particularly difficult for learners whose first language (e.g., Chinese and Japanese) does not use articles. There are three factors that make this a difficult target structure: (1) there are dozens of difficult and conflicting rules determining article choice; (2) misuses of the articles usually do not cause miscommunication and therefore learners tend to ignore these errors; and (3) classroom instruction does not provide enough opportunities for learning many of the functions and cues that determine article choice. Cognitive tutoring systems can provide address each of these problems by giving simple illustrations of relevant cues, providing consistent feedback, and sampling across a wide range of genre types and usages.

The research goal of the article tutor project is to promote robust learning and mastery of the English articles among Chinese EFL learners illuminated by principles from: (1) Experimental Psychology: Practices make perfect; Feedback promotes learning; (2) Developmental Psycholinguistics: Language is learned in context; Cue conflicts are crucial for learning; (3) Human-Computer Interaction: rule-based and exemplar-based instruction promotes learning in different ways; and (4) Second Language Acquisition: explicit types of instruction is in general more effective than implicit types of instruction; accurate metalinguistic knowledge representation is important. Synthesizing the above principles, the Cognitive Article Tutor designs exercise with nine genres of texts with rich article usages and provides explicit instruction in the form of explicit feedback.


Explicit versus implicit instruction:

There is a major distinction between explicit and implicit instruction in second language teaching and learning. This distinction is often operationalized in terms of explicit and implicit feedback given to students in the instructional settings. Following Dekeyser (1995), explicit instruction consists of explicit deduction (explicit rule presentation) or explicit induction (instructions to orient learner attention to forms or to induce metalinguistic hypotheses); implicit instruction indicated that no explicit rule statement took place in the treatment and no instructions attending to particular forms or formulating metalinguistic hypothesis were given to learners. Norris & Ortega (2000) did a meta-analysis study and examined the effectiveness of instruction methods in different instructional settings. They concluded that, in general, explicit types of instruction are more effective than implicit types of instruction.

Similar to the general findings of L2 instructional studies, the available intelligent computer assisted language learning studies also suggested that explicit feedback is superior to implicit feedback especially when the learning task involves relatively complex structures whose grammatical rules are not salient in light of the examples. The most effective iCALL feedback is to “to respond to errors by giving a metalinguistic explanation in the form of a rule” (Hanson, p. 49) This general finding gives strength to the potential benefit of using cognitive tutor to teach the English articles, which is a complex and non-salient grammatical category.

Research Questions

Does the Cognitive Article Tutor that provides practice with corresponding explicit feedback increase L2 learners' performance of article usage in written production?

Study One


The Cognitive Article Tutor that provides practice with corresponding explicit feedback helps to increase L2 learners' performance of article usage in written production.

Independent Variables

Dependent Variables



Connections to Other Studies


Future Plans