The Grammar Gods Must be Crazy

To many, Betty Azar’s English Grammar coursebook series is the book for grammar instruction. People even know the books by their nicknames: blue, black, and gray. Betty Azar herself, a nice woman whom I briefly met once, is often considered a guru of grammar – a grammar god, if you will – by many. I have even heard some sing her and her books’ praise: “We get to teach with Azar!”. I don’t get it. If Azar is a god and her books the holy word, I am an atheist, and this post is iconoclastic. As you’ll see, I don’t like her books and I don’t believe in their method. But, the great irony is… I use Azar. I use it because it’s there – all 300+ pages of it. I was given it. My students were given it. I don’t like to waste paper. It is used as part of a discrete skills grammar class, a type of class that is very common in intensive English programs (this deserves a separate post). A book like this usually is the syllabus for such a class. But not for mine. This post is going to briefly outline how I take Azar’s book, which to me seems like a glorified workbook paraded as a coursebook, and turn what could be quite a boring and unprofitable class into one that I think meets students need, both functionally and grammatically.

But first, a rant.

I have used several different version of Azar and have found a lot of issues. I have heard the most recent editions are quite good, but I guess I have not used them. As far as I can recall, I am on the fourth edition. Here are my issues. First, they offer no contextualization of grammar or real-world functional examples. Instead, they offer charts. Charts, charts, charts! Oh, how these books love their charts. Rule presentation is up front and foremost in these books. One of the basic principles in language instruction is that language should be embedded in context. Why are these books violating this principle? In addition, for those who can accept rule charts as an effective way to introduce grammar, how do you get students interested in learning a grammar point when their first exposure to the lesson is a chart! That does not sound very engaging.

Some of the books, or some of the chapters in some of the books, do have context at or near the beginning of a chapter. These come in the form of “academic” reading. However, these readings require so much vocabulary work that it renders the context useless for the purposes of teaching/showing/noticing how the grammar works. It becomes more of a reading lesson than a grammar lesson. If you want students to understand how grammar works through context, then that context must be comprehensible. In fact, I would argue that it should be quite simple (in language, not content) so that students are not cognitively overloaded by vocabulary and can therefore focus on the grammar (you know, the purpose of the book) and understanding new or vaguely familiar constructions.

Third, the practice exercises, while offering good practice in the brute mechanics of the grammar, seem to think these activities should be based on the most random topics. From exercise 9.1 to 9.5 you may have talked about school, work, your grammar class/book and effective leaders of countries. If there is a reading at the beginning of the unit, you cannot expect the practice exercises to be of the same theme. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the practice content. It seems meaningless in that they hold very little meaningful purpose for students other than to get through the exercises. I will say the Azar Grammar website has some decent, teacher-made supplementary material.

Finally, there are also listening activities, some of which are good practice for distinguishing meanings, others seem like good practice for the TOEFL, while others are just gap-fills that seem not to test grammar but listening.

These are, of course, my observations and opinions. Other teachers may view these books differently or may be working with completely different versions which seem more aligned with good teaching. Nevertheless, my experiences with this tome have shaped my method to using the madness that is “English Grammar”

How I Use Azar

I recognize “English Grammar” for what it is – a workbook. And I use it as such. I use the exercises to practice, reinforce, and produce the grammar that we discuss in class. This grammar practice is not doled out based on the sequence of chapters the book has presented but rather by a needs analysis and a grammar diagnostic.

1. Needs Analysis

On the first day of class, after icebreakers and introducing our course, I give students this chart to fill out and ask them to think about what they need to do in English now and what they may have to do with English in the future. I ask students to think about academic, professional, and social tasks that they may need English for. I try to make it a bit more specific by asking them to divide these tasks into speaking and writing. The purpose of this activity is to build a list of tasks that students need/want to learn, and in this way, students are actually creating the contexts for what I will teach. I pool all the responses and look for the most common ones. Typically, these are:

  1. Write emails
  2. Write a resume
  3. Write essays
  4. Make presentations
  5. Use language at a restaurant
  6. Make appointments
  7. Send messages and texts
  8. TOEFL

2. Grammar Diagnostic

I make a grammar diagnostic that pulls questions based on each chapter of the book. Students take the quiz online (via Google Forms) and I look at the average scores for each chapter. I sort these from lowest to highest. This gives me a rough estimate of the class’ weakest and strongest skills.

3. Matching Grammar with Tasks

I use all this information to decide what tasks should be taught with which grammar points. I look at the weakest grammar skills and see if they are a part of the common tasks. For example, this term, I noticed parallel structure and coordinating/correlating conjunction skills were very low. I also noticed many students wanted to learn how to write a resume. What do resumes use a lot of? Bullet points. Bullet points require parallel structure. I saw this as the perfect way to embed grammar in a real-world need and have students learn resume writing skills while expanding their grammar skills. I also showed students how correlative conjunctions such as not only…but also can be used in writing to transition between paragraphs or introduce related ideas within paragraphs. This allowed me to address (briefly and not for the last time) another task they indicated. Thus, I showed them real-world purposes (and gave them real-world practice) for the grammar in the book

As another example, I am currently teaching modal verbs (for politeness and requests) through email writing. I will use this to branch off into noun clauses for asking polite questions in email. And then I will show how these modals and noun clauses can be used in writing. I will then look at how this grammar can be used for appointments, hotels, restaurants, and other social situations students indicated. I will then transition from modal verbs to causative verbs and how they can be used in social messages/conversation (students wanted to know how to write better text messages and they scored very low here, so I thought they went together well).

This is how I plan the direction of the class. I match tasks to grammar and try to use that grammar to either reinforce or transition to other tasks. I do not have the entire class laid out, as I like to leave room for other issues/ideas that come up. However, I have a rough plan that I feel is better suited to the students and their wants/needs.

4. Instructional Sequence, Materials Creation, and Using Azar

I don’t have an exact sequence, per se. Each task requires a different approach. However, I try to embed the language in the task, and I try to give meaningful practice with the task. This requires carefully scaffolding the task, making materials, and using Azar for explicit grammar practice. Here is an example instructional sequence I have recently used with emails and modals:

  1. Introduce the topic of emails
  2. Show examples of a good and bad email and discuss.
  3. Explore good and bad subject lines.
  4. Explore and generate appropriate greetings.
  5. Explore good and bad introduction lines (My name is xxx. I am writing to…)
  6. Practice brief emails based on realistic of humorous situations.
  7. Analyze two emails and make a list of dos and don’ts. (In the good email, I have embedded a number of different modals).
  8. Analyze the sentences with the grammar points related to polite requests.
  9. Look at other examples with these modals.
  10. Do some practice with these modals from Azar. Give feedback one on one and in class.
  11. Do some speaking practice with these modals (based on the book or my own activity).
  12. Complete a brief email writing activity and incorporate these modals.
  13. Look at the original email and analyze other sentences.
  14. Repeat….

5. Conclusion

Is all of this a lot of extra work? No, not really. I can only assume adaptation and supplementation of Azar must be the norm, as any slavish use of the books likely make for a mind-numbingly dull and ineffective course. So, my approach probably doesn’t take any longer than it would to otherwise find or create materials for this book.

I cannot claim that I have transformed Azar’s dense workbook into a miraculous tool to facilitate task-based language teaching. All I have done is find a way to embed grammar and book-based grammar practice into real-world tasks that meet students’ wants and needs.

2 thoughts on “The Grammar Gods Must be Crazy

  1. Ah, Anthony, I see we are on the same (Azar) page. Couldn’t agree with you more that if anyone used Red, Black, Blue slavishly as a course book it would kill their joy of English. Her books presents themselves as GRAMMAR books – not an everything course book hence the issue with the randomness and often lack of relevancy of the texts. It is not divided into themes,topics, sub-topics. She does take the stance that grammar is the starting point of all the other skills – but I conveniently ignore that! As a GRAMMAR book I think she accomplishes two goals – she does present the form and structure clearly -the “Understanding” part (e.g. Question forms; spelling rules for -ing and -ed) and she has has found a way to create (communicative) “Using” practice that is not entirely mind-numbing.
    I get frustrated that some fill in blank exercises with looong sentences and one word fill in don’t give much bang for the buck – which is why I supplement with elements from Murohy, Swan or others for more ( mind-numbing) practice if needed.
    The “pair and group work” parts give communicative oral practice – an innovation thirty years ago. For many in my class this is the first time they are asked to practice in pairs and groups and it helps to get them used to the idea you are supposed to TALK in class! (Even if sometimes the questions are hokey or “class” bound – “What will you have been doing before (the teacher) walks in” ) Some are a little unsophisticated and too “controlled” using today’s criteria -but they are still useful. Like you I cherry pick – use self chosen elements for evaluation, review, filing in gaps in knowledge, some initial presentation. I teach LINC Level 6/7 – high intermediate/beginner advanced.. but not EAP so there is always new grammar to be introduced AND usually lots of gaps to fill. Thanks to your Twitter convo and Matthew Noble’s information I learned there is a 5th edition with Stacey Hagen. I’m looking forward to seeing it. Like you I have the 4th edition so my “Azar” then might not be “Azar” now….

    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      Thanks for reading and responding. I’m glad we are mostly on the same page. I suppose if it is seen/used as a resource book – a worksheet bank – and not a coursebook, then it is not so bad, even though there is the issue with the random nature of the questions. Still, I think many do use it as a coursebook – I know my program does (when it is in rotation) and I think doing so then requires some approach like above.

      I do wonder what the 5th edition is like. I received an email promo from the publisher, but deleted it because the fourth edition left such a bad taste in my mouth that I didn’t want to both looking at the new edition.

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