DaRT: A CALL System to Help Students Practice and Develop Reasoning Skills in Choosing English Articles

Rika Yoshii
Alastair Milne
California State University, San Marcos

DaRT is a Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) system for helping English as a Second/Foreign Language students master English articles. The system uses a diagrammatic reasoning tool described in previous studies (Yoshii, 1997, 1998) to present communicative contexts for exercises in choosing appropriate articles. These diagrams make explicit the "intent-assumption" factors involved in article choice for many situations and permit students and teachers to discuss these factors without relying on English language explanations which depend on concepts foreign to most Asian students. DaRT can generate numerous exercise sentences, provide help based on student interactions, and choose the next exercise based on student performance. DaRT functions, therefore, as a tutorial to help students acquire the skills necessary for analyzing and applying the "intent-assumption" factors in choosing English articles. This article describes the major stages of the project, provides details of the system components, and concludes with the results of an evaluation of the system by Japanese students.


English as a Second/Foreign Language, Articles, Diagrams, Reasoning Tool, Pascal, LISP


Many researchers and teachers declare that English articles (THE and A(N) and zero) are one of the most difficult aspects of English for English


as a Foreign/Second Language (ESL/ESL) students to learn, regardless of the student's native language or experience with English (e.g., Covitt, 1976; Little, 1980; Dulay, Burt, & Krashen, 1982; Rinnert & Hansen, 1986; Master, 1990).1 Yet article misuse in formal situations can cause serious misunderstandings and stigmatize the speaker or author. This problem is particularly acute for Asian students since the concept of articles does not exist in Asian languages such as Japanese, Korean, or Chinese. Observing these problems led us first to find out what the Asian students' difficulties with articles actually are, then to design a reasoning tool to help them work out article choices, and finally to develop a Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) system, entitled DaRT (Diagrammatic Reasoning Tool), to help them use the tool to develop their reasoning skills.


Review of the Literature

Master (1990) and Rinnert and Hansen (1986) stated that because articles are unstressed when spoken, are often omitted in certain styles, and the zero article is invisible in any case, it is difficult for students to acquire the system from simple exposure to the language or to realize the importance of using articles appropriately. The researchers also stated that very few ESL/EFL textbooks present systematic approaches or coherent grammars for teaching the article system. Covitt (1976), too, stated that the article system is not explained well in most textbooks and pointed out that teaching the system requires many contextualized examples. Our own survey of 16 randomly selected recent textbooks revealed no changes; all of the 16 textbooks devoted only a few pages to the article system, relied on grammatical terms such as "definite," "specific," and "identified," and gave very few examples. Sugamoto (1976) noted that students often choose articles based on the "viewpoint" of their native language. Little (1980) found in an oral survey that nearly all the students enrolled in the Intensive English Program at the University of California, Riverside, said they had received little or inadequate instruction and claimed that their teachers (both nonnative and native speakers) obviously had not really understood the article system very well.

Interviews and Questionnaires

The ESL instructors we interviewed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and California State University, San Marcos (CSUSM) reported that they do not have enough time to teach and practice the article system,


with its heavy dependence on context, in class. They complained that they must let the students graduate from their programs knowing that they will need many more realistic examples to be able to understand the system. A tool which would present many examples of many different situations would clearly help augment classroom instruction.

These teachers also complained that, when correcting article usage in student papers, they are obliged to rely on their own immediate assumptions of what students intended to say when they used articles without any knowledge of implicit context on which to rely. The teachers said they risk miscorrecting article usage and altering the meaning of the message that students intended to convey. Miscorrection of usage can only heighten student confusion and reinforce the impression that the teachers themselves do not understand the article system. The UCI instructors we interviewed mentioned that for these reasons the students refute the teachers' corrections with the result that the teachers feel that at least 25% of students' errors will never be eliminated. Here again, a tool which would help students and teachers discuss article choices unambiguously would facilitate student-teacher communication.

We also visited two ESL classes at UCI to interview the students about their experiences in learning the English article system. These students, the majority of whom were Asian, were regular students fulfilling their ESL requirements at the university. Our findings include the following:

1. The students stated that their teachers often explain their corrections as "it just sounds better that way" or "sometimes that would be OK" without listing any factors involved in their decisions.

2. All the students stated that it is easy to memorize the rules but difficult to decide which rule(s) to use and to explain their choice of a rule for each situation. They feel that rules with expressions such as "definite," "specific one," and "when identified" used to describe article-related concepts are too foreign to them, too ambiguous to be useful, and too vague to be applied to real-life situations.

3. Almost all the Japanese and Chinese students stated that since they do not have articles in their languages, they usually do not pay close attention to the articles in English and, thus, cannot accurately reproduce them from sentences they hear.

The results of the UCI interviews are echoed in the responses to a survey we conducted with 14 Japanese students studying at CSUSM and at surrounding community colleges. Eight of these students had been in the


US for more than a year and were taking regular university courses. The other six had been in the country less than six months and were enrolled in an ESL program. It should be pointed out here that the Japanese educational system starts teaching English, at the latest, in the seventh grade. All of these students had had at least six years of English instruction. The survey items and students' answers are listed below:

Item 1

You find the article system to be difficult (0 [no] -10 [yes] scale)

The mean of students' answers was 7.0, with 10 students choosing 7 or above. The mean among the newer students was 6.3. We speculate that this lower figure indicates an underestimation of the true difficulty of the system caused in part by a general lack of knowledge.

Item 2

Circle all that apply

a) It is difficult to memorize the rules circled by 4 students (2 older, 2 newer) b) It is difficult to apply the rules circled by 12 students (7 older, 5 newer) c) I don't understand why we really need the articles circled by 4 students (1 older, 3 newer) d) It takes time and thinking to select articles circled by 11 students (5 older, 6 newer) e) I have little or no trouble with articles not circled by any students

Item 3

For A versus THE: when/why is it difficult? Describe or explain. Student's verbatim answers follow. Please note that some of the responses are difficult to interpret.

How specific does it need to be to use THE is not clear. (older student)

example: "[] teacher who teaches computer classes also teaches English." (older student)

example: "[] dog which lives in my neighborhood" where "dog" was never mentioned before. (newer student)

When repeating the same noun; the difference between personal and public items. (newer student)

example: "a system of politics" vs. "the system of politics" what's the difference? (older student)

When to use THE is not clear at all (newer student)


Some nouns always take THE but others do not. Why? (older student)

It appears that the students do not yet understand even the simplest differences between A and THE. It is important to notice that the students did not provide enough context for their examples to make it possible to determine the correct articles. This situation could be due to their lack of understanding of what information is needed to make the choice and lead us to believe that they indeed memorized the rules but did not understand them.

Item 4

When you listen to a native speaker of English, do you pay attention to articles? (0 [no] -10 [yes] scale)

The mean of students' responses was 2.4 with 11 students choosing 2 or less. It is interesting to observe that although the newer students gave a lower rating on how difficult articles are; the mean of their responses was 1.6. Whether due to a lack of understanding of the article system or to the habits ingrained by their native language, the students virtually ignore the articles they hear in everyday conversations around them.

Based on the remarks from both the UCI and CSUSM students, we concluded that the reasons for article choices need to be made more explicit while, at the same time, avoiding explanations that assume that students already know what an article system is. We believed that by doing so, the articles themselves will be put into prominence.


Following the review of the literature, the questionnaire, and the interview results above, we decided to develop a reasoning tool that would

1. make article-selecting factors explicit and accessible;

2. avoid using terms such as "definite," "specific," and "identified;" and

3. allow teachers and students to discuss article choices unambiguously.

To reach the first objective, we started with the speaker-listener dyad described by Brown (1973) and used by Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1983).


To reach the second and third objectives, we decided to use schematic diagrams to present article-choice factors when providing the context for choosing correct articles. The article-choice factors in the speaker-listener dyad are a combination of the speaker's intent when referring to a referent and the speaker's assumptions about whether the listener will be able to identify that referent. The dyad therefore explains the concepts that terms such as "definite" and "specific" are meant to describe. We extended the dyad to cover plural nouns, generics, and nonspecifics and included as many speaker's intentions as we could identify from various textbooks and examples of actual English usage. Additional cases of speaker intent were based on analyses found in Burton- Roberts (1976), Master (1987, 1988b), and Celce-Murcia and Larsen- Freeman (1983). These "intent-assumption" factors provided a point of departure from which we could move on to cover other article-choice factors.

We then developed the DaRT system to allow the student to practice article selection using these diagrams. DaRT is designed to give students exposure to many different situations, individualized attention, and individually adapted sequences of exercises. Our goal was to enable students to develop skills for analyzing article-selection factors and thereby decrease their feeling that articles are vague or foreign to them.


In describing the diagrams, we will refer to the speaker as Speaker and to the listener as Listener. The basic framework of the diagram consists of Speaker's head and Listener's head, nodes in a schematic display, and Speaker's sentence. Figure 1 shows the basic framework of the diagram.

Figure 1

Basic Speaker/Listener Framework

0x01 graphic


The diagram contains a larger Speaker's head with his/her view of a smaller Listener's head. Speaker's view of Listener is emphasized by placing Listener's head within Speaker's head. Within the heads, a graph of nodes with arrows connects the nodes to the noun phrase in Speaker's sentence displayed in a box below Speaker's head. (Figures 4 -9 below illustrate complete diagrams.)

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