Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why I Teach the Parts of Speech

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

Actually, I wanted to write about phrases and clauses and about teaching them as adjectives and adverbs. However, that reminded me how many teachers I’ve run into over the years who disagree that the names of parts of speech should be taught to students. I argued with a publisher over this for at least three years, actually, before being “allowed” to teach the parts of speech in a textbook for lower-level students. So let me take a brief diversion to defend this position.

The arguments against teaching the names of the parts of speech are mainly that the terms are too difficult for students to learn, and further, that they aren’t helpful. I disagree with both of these arguments.

Minimally, I think students should know noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, and article. With advanced students I might add in determiner. OK, that’s seven words. Is that too high a vocabulary load, especially when most of those concepts exist in the learner’s native language? I think if they can learn seven objects in the classroom, or seven modes of transportation, or seven irregular verbs, then seven parts of speech isn’t going to short out the brain.

A larger issue is whether they’re helpful. This depends, of course, on whether the teacher uses the labels. I use them all the time. I use them to talk about

  • different word forms (accept is a verb, acceptance is the noun form of that verb);
  • the placement of different parts of speech (Your sentence “Is late again,” is missing a noun or a pronoun as the subject); and
  • the functions of subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases and so on.

And now I’m back to where I wanted to be . . .

It seems to me that one of the challenges of forming correct and elegant sentences in English is in knowing where to put the different elements. Where does the subject go? Where does the verb go? How about the direct object? And those are the easier things to teach.

Where my more advanced students trip up is in knowing where to put longer elements, such as

  • in the morning,
  • running for the bus,
  • while on his way to the bakery, or
  • on the corner.

The problem is that students don’t know what these elements are—that is, how they function. Therefore, they can’t place them correctly in a sentence.

Pretty much, they’re adjectives and adverbs—more correctly called adjectivals and adverbials, but I use adjective phrase and adverb phrase with my students at first, and then just adjective and adverb, once we’re all on the same page.

Suppose we have a simple sentence:

  • He fell.

Even lower-level students have probably seen the structure subject + verb + adverb, and might be able to write a sentence such as

  • He fell slowly.

However, the most common adverbs are actually NOT the one-word ones that end with ~ly, even though those are the easiest ones to identify. An adverb tells us where, when, why, or how. If students know that phrases can be used to talk about when, where, why, or how, then they can write

  • He fell to the ground.
  • He fell when he tripped.
  • He fell as soon as he tried to stand up.
  • He fell with a strange choking sound.

The trick is in knowing that to the ground (where?) functions as an adverb, as do when he tripped (when?) and as soon as he tried to stand up (both when? and why?) and with a strange choking sound (how?). English allows (and even encourages!) one to combine adverb phrases and clauses, as in

  • He fell to the ground with a strange choking sound as soon as he tried to stand up.

Getting this concept down is huge. It doesn’t bother me terribly much if a student writes

  • *He fell at the ground.


  • *He fell as soon as tried to stand up.

Those sentences contain errors, of course, but the basic pattern of subject + verb + adverb is still there.

Adverbs are movable elements, more so than most others. But students need to know that adverb clauses and phrases move as units, and where they move to—for instance, to the beginning of a sentence:

  • As soon as he tried to stand up, he fell.

To take another example: A student who is writing short, careful, simple sentences and wishes to expand them might wish to add some adjectives. Students are usually taught simple one-word adjectives (that answer the question What kind of? or Which?) that come before a noun.

  • She went to the bakery.
  • She went to the new bakery.

But how much more interesting if we can describe the
bakery with some prepositional phrases; note that these come after the noun:

  • She went to the bakery on the corner.
  • She went to the bakery with the jumbo strawberry creampuffs.

Again, an error in choosing the correct preposition doesn’t bother me if the student is able to modify the noun with a phrase.

This is the way I like to address syntax, especially in reading and writing, with at least intermediate and advanced students—and some beginners as well. And that is why my very lowest level students learn the names of the parts of speech—so that we can talk about what the parts of speech are and how they function.


Comment from Ismael Tohari
August 9, 2009 at 3:48 am

You hit the nail on the head.

Comment from Dorothy Zemach
August 12, 2009 at 1:25 am

Oh, thank you. I really do think it's helpful for learners to see whole chunks of language as having one function… I think it makes more sense than trying to figure out what "of" means here and what "as" is doing over there.

Comment from mable canty
June 1, 2011 at 7:54 pm

I so much agree with you. This is as important as developing a basic writer from a prolific one. A student can get by without intense instruction of the parts of speech, but oh how it enhances and animates a piece when he takes it to heart. I don’t agree that it should be taught in isolation–integrate as often as possible/appropriate. You cannot put it in a concrete meaning as to why we should teach 8 POS; however, it becomes an end product(summative). It’s almost like osmosis!

Comment from Dorothy Zemach
June 1, 2011 at 10:19 pm

I think you’re right, Mable. Teaching something like “parts of speech” in isolation makes no sense… because a word only has a function in some sort of a context. What part of speech is “tree”? Well, it can be a noun, a verb, an adjective… we need to see it in a sentence to know. I like what you said about “as often as possible/appropriate” as well.

Comment from Liz Sissell
January 13, 2013 at 9:08 pm

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Comment from Dorothy
January 13, 2013 at 9:24 pm

You called on security guards to teach the parts of speech? That’s a bit more militant than my approach, but to each her own.

Comment from admin
January 14, 2013 at 3:28 pm


Comment from Kevin Rahe
June 7, 2016 at 7:43 pm

I’ve written a lot and I believe I write rather well, but beyond nouns, verbs and adjectives, I’ve never found knowing the parts of speech to be an asset. I’ve never found myself hitting a wall halfway through a paragraph because I forgot what a preposition is or that a particular phrase comprises an adverb. It’s not that I think no one should ever learn such things, but that with children expected to learn more and more at ever younger ages, something has to give, and this seems to me to be rather low-hanging fruit.

Comment from Ashish
April 11, 2017 at 3:03 am

By reading this article, I cleared my some doubts. thank you.

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