Students Love Grammar! So Why Do Teachers Hate It?

23 September, 2015

Today we have a special guest. Betty Azar is the most successful writer of grammar textbooks in the world. Generations of English learners will recognize her best-selling book Understanding and Using English Grammar. The famous blue grammar book, now in its fourth edition, is in use at language schools across the world. Ms. Azar also supports research and professional development in the English language teaching field. Today Ms. Azar will offer some advice on how to teach grammar.

Have you ever heard an English teacher say, "Teaching grammar is boring!" Betty Azar has, and she strongly disagrees.

"For me teaching grammar is the most fun class of all. I think that is a misconception -- that teaching grammar is a boring thing to do -- when teaching grammar, for me, always was the class I looked forward to the most because grammar was just the foundation. It was where you started. Grammar is just the starting point."

Betty Azar is a world famous expert on teaching English grammar. She talked with VOA about how teachers can move from grammar to communication experiences.

"From there you do conversations, you do games, you do communicative interaction, you do all of the wonderful things you do in a second language classroom, but you do it in combination with having a solid foundation of the structures that they are using."

Why do students need to learn grammar?

Michael Swan is a co-author of the Oxford English Grammar Course. He writes that when teachers are deciding which grammar points to teach, they should first ask two questions. First, will understanding the point help students be understood – will it help them understand better? Next, if that is true, will learning the grammar point help learners be acceptable as English speakers?

The common misunderstanding that Ms. Azar sees is that grammar can be taught as a subject, like history or math. Teachers try to get students to memorize rules. Grammar is not just learning rules. It is a way to help students along the way to communication.

Betty Azar and Michael Swan, grammar teaching experts
Betty Azar and Michael Swan, grammar teaching experts

"If you have a class named 'grammar,' it doesn't mean you're teaching rules that the students have to learn. It just means, ‘grammar is where we're going to start, and then we're going to have a lot of fun with it, and practice, and do a lot of interesting things, and, most importantly, have successful communication experiences.' Those are the building blocks of learning a second language."

Another piece of advice for teachers is that students do not all learn in the same way. Each may have a different learning style when it comes to learning grammar. Some may see a pattern and understand the rule. Others need explanations and more practice.

"But to teach grammar as a subject matter and test it as though you were testing the memorization of dates in history is sure to bore everybody and not reach the goals that you are trying to reach - successful communication experiences."

Why do some teachers hate teaching grammar?

Because grammar was removed from the regular course of study in the U.S. and U.K. in the 1960s, most native speakers of English did not learn it in school. Ms. Azar imagines that many teachers are not comfortable teaching grammar because they do not know how to answer their students' questions.

"We now have an entire pool of possible teachers who don't know the grammar of their own language. If you don't know any grammar of your own language, and then you are asked to teach it, you walk into a class; very likely your students may know more grammar than you know, and you cannot answer their questions. You're going to have hostility towards teaching grammar."

What does the research show about teaching grammar?

Michael Swan says that teachers should apply modern research on language to teach the most frequent grammar points before they spend time on those that are not often used. He wants teachers to understand their students' language backgrounds, too. If the students have a native language with a similar grammar rule, they do not need to spend time practicing it in English.

The worst situation, Mr. Swan says, is when teachers try to make their students "perfect" English speakers by teaching too much grammar. This approach makes students afraid to speak, because they do not want to make any mistakes.

An organization called The International Research Foundation for English Language Education (TIRF) has been doing long-term studies of ESL students. TIRF's research reports that teaching grammar along with communication is effective.

"There have been a number of research studies that show the combination of having a grammar component in a communicative program allows students to progress faster and better than if there were no grammar component."

Can teaching grammar really be fun?

Betty Azar hopes that her textbooks help teachers learn to make the teaching of grammar fun. She says that her students enjoy learning grammar as much as she enjoys teaching it.

"Students in my experience, love it. ... I think grammar is absolutely fascinating, endlessly fascinating. It is the glue that holds language together. It is a many-colored interwoven fabric that is really beautiful when you get to know it. Grammar is quite a remarkable thing."

For the VOA Learning English Education Report, I'm Jill Robbins.

Dr. Jill Robbins reported this story for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.


Words in This Story

misconception n. a wrong or mistaken idea

building blocksn. an important part that is grouped together with many other similar things to form something larger — usually plural — usually + of

communicative language teachingn. an approach to language teaching that emphasizes interaction as both the means and the ultimate goal of study

learning style n. an individual's unique approach to learning based on strengths, weaknesses, and preferences.

memorizationn. the act of learning something so well that you are able to remember it perfectly

hostilityn. an unfriendly or hostile state, attitude, or action

frequentadj. happening often

componentn. an important piece of something

Now it's your turn. If you are an English teacher, how do you feel about teaching grammar? If you are a student, how do you feel about learning grammar? Write to us in the comments section.