Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Explaining grammar

By Betty Azar

In reference to recent discussions: Keith Folse, Karen Stanley, and Michael Swan understand what it means to "teach grammar" -- a concept that too often seems to get twisted to mean something other than what we who teach grammar mean when we talk about it.

When students ask "Why?" they are really asking "How does this work?" -- and they deserve an answer if they feel that this grammar information will help them. Teachers can either lead students to discover this information or provide this information through explanation, or both (as is usually the case in real classrooms).

I've often wondered what teachers who refuse any kind of grammar component in their classes say to students when students ask questions about grammar.

My students were always full of questions, really good questions -- I can't imagine saying to them: "Oh, you don't need to know that" or "There's really no answer to that" or "That's just the way it is, so don't worry about it."

What a disservice to students. And how disrespectful of their learning strategies. Like Michael Swan, I'd go find a different mechanic/doctor/piano teacher/what-have-you. Like Keith Folse, I'd fire that teacher. Like Karen Stanley, I'd answer the question by showing how grammar patterns convey meaning.

There is nothing more natural than for adult students to ask questions about how English works. Somehow the naturalist movement in language teaching made what is completely natural -- students asking questions about grammar and finding it helpful to figure out how patterns work -- seem misguided or irrelevant or somehow "not natural." Fortunately for students, the naturalist movement is now a passing bandwagon. Today grammar teaching and communicative teaching are becoming more and more integrated in a variety of innovative and effective ways.

Betty Azar is a teacher and the author of several English grammar workbooks that are a staple in the ESL teaching industry.

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