Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Grammar Terminology in the ESL Classroom

GenevaGeneva Tesh is an ESL teacher, materials writer, Azar-Hagen Grammar Series contributor, and grammar enthusiast. She teaches in the Intensive English Program at Houston Community College.

Someone recently challenged me with a question. How would I define the past perfect for students if class were about to end and I had only a few minutes to jot down a definition on the board? I wrestled with the question, not because I couldn’t think of a definition, but because I couldn’t imagine writing a definition of a grammatical term on the board in an ESL classroom. What I would do instead is write a few sentences with past perfect verbs. I might write a couple more with the simple past and present perfect to illustrate how the past perfect differs from other past forms. Is it useful for students to know grammar terminology? To some extent I think it is, but in other ways I wonder if it hinders language learning.

When I think about this question, my former student Sasha comes to mind. Sasha was upset because she couldn’t understand the difference between adjective clauses and noun clauses. Oh, well that’s easy. An adjective clause describes something, whereas a noun clause acts as a noun. She shook her head in frustration, still not getting it. I carefully defined clauses, nouns, and adjectives. By this point she was exasperated, insisting that she understood the difference between a noun and an adjective, but not between a noun clause and an adjective clause. I finally came to this conclusion: it didn’t matter whether or not she could understand the terminology. She knew how to use both clauses very well in both speech and writing. We were wasting time parsing sentences and focusing on meta-language. To further illustrate my point, I asked Sasha to walk around campus and ask ten students, ideally native speakers, to explain the difference between an adjective clause and a noun clause. I suspected she would find only one or two who could do it. In fact, she found none. She talked to over a dozen native speakers, but not one could explain what adjective clauses and noun clauses were.  And yet these were native speakers who can, we assume, use a variety of complex clauses with perfect accuracy.

Of course, our students are not native English speakers. Without sufficient contact and practice, they cannot rely on their intuition about grammar. Grammar terminology is useful when we first present new structures to students. The charts in the Azar-Hagen series typically offer some sort of definition of grammar terms, but more importantly, the charts always contain examples of specific structures and highlight patterns. When discussing why the grammar charts work, Stacy Hagen points to research showing that the brain craves patterns.  It is the examples and the patterns that help students, not the definitions. Without the examples, the definitions would not carry much meaning. The exercises following the charts also focus on patterns. Through continued practice using these patterns, students eventually gain intuition.

So when is it useful for students to understand grammar terminology? It’s definitely helpful for teachers to have a way to explain a grammar point. When a student asks me why I wrote “fragment” above a sentence on her paper, I might explain that the subordinating conjunction at the beginning of the sentence makes it a dependent clause, so she needs to complete the sentence with an independent clause.  However, I could just as easily circle the word “before” and tell her she needs to finish the sentence. I could show her this chart on adverb clauses from Understanding and Using English Grammar:chart 17-1


Which part would best help the student—the information in the left column or the right? I believe the student can recognize and fix her mistake using only the information from the left column. The information on the right, though, is important for teachers. The same person who asked me to define the past perfect insists that we must understand how to define terms; otherwise, we might provide incorrect examples. I agree with this point wholeheartedly. As teachers, we should be competent grammarians with a thorough understanding of morphology and syntax. This is why not just any native speaker can pick up a textbook and start teaching ESL. An ESL teacher should have some training in linguistics. Our students, on the other hand, do not need to be grammarians in order to achieve mastery and fluency.


Comment from Brad Johnston
May 30, 2017 at 4:44 pm

WADR, you dodged the question: If a student asks, “what is the past perfect?”, what would write on the board? “I don’t know” or “You really don’t need to know” or “ask Google” or WHAT?

A good rule to follow, I’ve heard, is: “If you can’t define it, you don’t know what it is.” Do you doubt that? If you (not you personally) try to give examples of something you can’t define, the examples will likely be wrong as right. There would be no way to tell.


Comment from Adele Raemer
May 31, 2017 at 12:22 am

First of all: Brad Johnston: I absolutely do not think Geneva dodged the question! She wrote that the solution she feels would be most effective would be to give illustrative examples!

Secondly, I love it that she wrote in the end that she would give both examples AND the rule, because our learners have different learning styles and some need examples to talk about meaning, while others crave rules. Geneva is covering both.

In the end, I agree wholeheartedly with her example of native speakers not knowing these rules, because a native speaker didn’t LEARN that way. I didn’t know what the progressive and simple were until I started my EFL teacher training. And I was born in the States, and my grammar has always been excellent!

Thanks for writing this, Geneva!

Comment from Jessica Allen
June 1, 2017 at 9:35 am

Loved this! My students get confused with noun clauses and adjective clauses too. The terminology really can be a big distraction.

Comment from myo thant
February 25, 2018 at 3:54 am

Please help me.I want my daughter to teach english with Blue Azar 4th edu.

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