Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Grammar Teacher’s Rant

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

I had a disturbing conversation with another teacher a few days ago, and it’s been bouncing around in my head ever since. It’s been a bit frustrating because, at the time, I just couldn’t think of a diplomatic way of responding to her. So I just nodded and smiled like an idiot, while inside my head I was screaming and tearing out my hair. Maybe you’ve had a similar kind of experience?

The Wind Blow or Blows?

Anyway, when this conversation happened, I was delivering a professional development session for some local teachers. In the session, I provided the participants with a variety of scenarios containing excessive teacher talk time (TTT) and asked them to come up with suggestions for reducing the TTT. (Incidentally, when I was doing research on reducing TTT, I came across some interesting theories and teaching tips that I hope to share in a future blog post. Stay tuned!)

One of the situations contained this long, complex grammar explanation based on a real question I was asked by a TOEFL Prep student several years ago.


After we read the explanation, the session participants were supposed to break into groups and discuss positive and negative aspects of the teacher talk and then make suggestions about how the “teacher” in the scenario could reduce her TTT while arriving at the same results.

She Said What?

As I was circulating, I engaged in a short conversation with one of the session participants. She said that she didn’t really even understand the grammar explanation in this slide and that she avoids a lot of complicated grammar instruction in her lessons. To her, understanding a lot of complex grammar rules isn’t an important part of learning English. She then went on to utter my least favorite teacher words, “It just sounds right.”


As I said, I just nodded and smiled, but inside my head I was throwing a tantrum worthy of the most obnoxious three year old. As an instructor who has worked very hard to learn how to break down and make accessible the intricacies and contradictions of English grammar, I absolutely hate those words. Yet, sadly, that is not the first time I have ever heard teachers say them.

Can you imagine them working in any other field? I mean, would you hire a plumber who said, “Well, I don’t really know much about why these pipes are supposed to fit together. If I weld them and they look right to me, I just go with that.” Would you visit a doctor who said, “I don’t really understand much about the human body, but if everything feels good, it’s probably fine.” I don’t know about you, but I would hustle that plumber out from under my sink and leap off that doctor’s table lickety-split! So, why is it acceptable, then, for professional teachers to say things like, “Don’t worry about the rules. Just go with what sounds right.”?

Besides, and this is the real kicker, it NEVER just sounds right to ESL and EFL students. Nothing just sounds right because it ALL sounds foreign and weird, and it probably breaks a bunch of grammar rules in their L1s. In my experience, adult learners need clear and explicit grammar explanations in order for anything to begin to sound right. If Krashen (1985) really had been right all those years ago when he said that all students needed was i+1 and they would start to acquire language out the wazoo, then as Folse put it, there would have been a “cataclysmic change in learning outcomes or results” (Folse, 2006, 11). But, there hasn’t been.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I just think that learning as much about how English grammar works and finding clear ways to explain it to students is part of my job as a teacher.  When I was new to the profession, I had a lot to learn and there were many times I simply had to admit to students that I didn’t know the answer on the spot.  However, the questions students asked pushed me to find out the answer.  Little by little, over the past 20 some years, I got better about anticipating student trouble spots and found that I had to tell them that I would get the answer for them tomorrow less and less frequently.

But, I suspect you already know all this. You may even be nodding and pumping your fist in the air right now. After all, you are reading a blog associated with the grammar guru Betty Azar, so I am most likely preaching to the choir. So, my question to you is: What do you say when you hear the hated sentence, “It just sounds right”?


Folse, K. (2006) The Art of Teaching Speaking. Ann Arbor:  The University of Michigan Press.
Krashen, S.D. (1985). The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. New York: Longman.


Comment from Ryan
December 17, 2015 at 2:27 am

After several deep breaths, I ask if they approach teaching spelling the same way, as long as it “just luks rite”.

Comment from Tamara Jones
December 17, 2015 at 6:23 am

Ha ha ha! I LOVE it!

Comment from Raquel
December 23, 2015 at 2:47 pm

Thanks for sharing your experience. I´m a English teacher (and a Spanish native speaker) and I love to understand and explain grammar. I agree with you. I don´t like the “sounds right”…and I prefer to study and look for further info to answer my students´specific grammar questions.
I usually work with adults, and yes, they need grammar explanations. Thanks!

Comment from Tamara Jones
January 4, 2016 at 6:11 am

Thanks for sharing your opinion, Raquel. I agree that teachers of adults need to be especially conscientious about answering grammar questions.

Comment from Tatiana
January 4, 2016 at 6:25 pm

Hi. I’m from Brazil. I had studied English for 7 years at the course. I have been teaching English at courses in Brazil for almost five years. I know I have many things to learn. If a student asks me something that I don’t know well, I tell him/her I will explain next class. Then, I keep the promise and study a lot at home. I do love English, and if I could I would be American.(LOL) The most difficult part of teaching a foreign language for me is that I don’t know many vocabularies they ask me. I know we don’t have the obligation of being a dictionary all the time. Although I say it, I feel terrible. I started reading more ing English, and now I am used to buying many books on the internet. I hope my English will brush up soon. I loved this website. I’ll come here more often.

Comment from Tamara Jones
January 5, 2016 at 6:04 am

This kind of message makes me me so happy! I love to think of teachers all over the world learning more about English grammar and vocabulary. I have to say, too, I think this is where non native English speaking teachers have a great advantage over native English speaking teachers. You guys had to learn grammar explicitly; whereas, I am of a generation for whom grammar classes didn’t exist in my school. I’ve found time and time again that non native English speaking teachers know English grammar a lot better than many people who have been speaking English all their lives.

Comment from PronunciationDoctor
January 7, 2016 at 4:29 pm

Everything is easy to do when you know how to do it but may be hard while you’re learning. It sounds right only when you’ve heard it all your life. Our task as language teachers is to analyze a particular aspect of language, break it down in manageable pieces for our learners to absorb, and explain and exemplify it step by step. Your analogies are spot on!

Comment from Tamara Jones
January 13, 2016 at 11:37 am

You summed it up perfectly – “Everything is easy to do when you know how to do it.” Exactly! Thanks for your comment.

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