Archive for Tag: Betty Azar

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Error Correction and Fossilization

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series
betty@azargrammar.com

I recently received an email from a teacher concerned that exposing students to incorrect language usage in error correction exercises will lead to fossilization of the incorrect usage.  Below  is my response to him, which I thought might be of interest to others as well.

“Fossilization” means that usage errors have become embedded (i.e., habitual) in L2 learners’ language production.  It occurs when learners get no corrective feedback.  In some cases, L2 learners with fossilized language patterns are able to communicate successfully enough for their immediate purposes and thus have no immediate motivation to change.   Other times, L2s have no resources available to help them improve their English usage.

L2 learners who come to our classes, however, do not want to emerge with fossilized language.  That’s why they are in our classes, trusting us to move them forward during their interlanguage period as they reach toward a higher level of communicative competence.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sneaked vs. Snuck: What Ngram Tells Us

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series
betty@azargrammar.com

I have just discovered an online tool that I think will be fun and useful for all of us who are fascinated by English language usage. It is Google Labs Ngram Viewer, released by Google in December, 2010.

The Ngram Viewer graphs usage frequency from 1800 to 2000, based on the corpus of millions of books that Google has thus far scanned.

The first word I looked up was snuck. Through my years of writing textbooks, I debated whether to include snuck in an advanced-level reference chart of irregular

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Program Director’s Dilemma: Too Much Grammar? Part 2

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

betty@azargrammar.com

Last week I posted a letter I received from an IEP program director requesting guidance about changing a grammar-heavy curriculum to a more balanced approach. I referred the request to my friend and colleague, Barbara Matthies. Barbara is an ESL/EFL teacher, administrator and consultant (now retired) who also was my co-author on the teacher’s guides for the grammar series. She’s written an excellent response:

Dear Margaret,

Your struggles with the role of grammar in a language course are familiar to anyone who has dealt with matters of curriculum design, textbook use, and proficiency training. Theories of language learning clash with the constraints of time, available materials, and measurement techniques. Students and instructors bring varied biases and motivations to the classroom based on prior experiences with language learning and teaching. The program director is expected to demonstrate success by means of objective test scores on skills that are not really indicative of effective communication ability. What to do?

First, especially in a foreign (not second) language environment, one must deal with the fact that students have had K-12 English teachers who were probably not native speakers of English and thus were more comfortable teaching grammar and vocabulary than larger chunks of discourse. And what they taught, they tested. So, students learned to perform well on grammar and vocabulary tests. You have seen this reflected on your own placement tests.

Secondly, your description of the IEP curriculum and materials shows them continuing this emphasis: “The lab is equipped with interactive online grammar program and vocabulary builder software. The reading and writing courses use a grammar correction text and the listening and speaking use either the black, red, or blue Azar.” And further you state: “Some of the instructors hold fast to the notion they must complete every grammar exercise in the book in order for the students to acquire and learn English language.” Of course, the curriculum does include reading, writing, listening, and speaking, but how do the learners integrate these separate foci into a developing proficiency? (That is a somewhat rhetorical question for researchers to ponder.)

Thirdly, if we want course outcomes to show measurable improvement in learners’ overall proficiency, then we have to design/find tests that do indeed measure that proficiency. The ability to understand and use a language is not the same as the ability to score well on an objective test. And a test used for diagnostic purposes is very different from a test of outcomes. But who has time or resources to develop appropriate tests? (Some excellent ones do exist, but they are proprietary and very expensive or even impossible to obtain.)

What to do? An ongoing series of in-service or professional development workshops for instructors is always productive, especially if they are paid for their time and contributions to its usefulness. Topics could deal with effective use of grammar textbooks, integrating the content of courses across the curriculum, developing alternative ways to report outcomes, etc. Often the stated goals are not immediately achieved, but seeds are planted that can produce some changes of focus or emphasis in individual classrooms or the program as a whole. The best strategy is for the program director to solicit input about the topics, set up the schedule, designate a recorder for each session (with ground rules about how much detail to report), then step aside to encourage interaction among the instructors, and read their report carefully. Follow up on good ideas by finding ways to release instructors’ time to develop solutions—microteaching demos, revised course outlines, supplementary materials, new types of test items to pilot, etc.

The more the instructors have “ownership” of the curriculum, the better they and the director can shape it to the needs of the students. This is an ongoing process—one that should never be considered complete—just like learning a language.

I hope my responses prove helpful.

Sincerely,
Barbara Matthies

The only thing I might add to this sound advice is to repeat what I’ve been saying for years and years: teaching grammar is not an end in itself. It’s only a little help along the way. Adult (and young adult) students usually find it helpful to see how English works, how the patterns fit together to create meaning. Terminology is just a temporary tool to aid student-teacher communication. It should be kept to an absolute minimum and never tested.

I would hope the teachers in this IEP program might get a clearer view of the role of grammar in second language teaching by reading my explanation of Grammar-Based Teaching on the website.

From Margaret’s letter, I would say in simplest terms that the students seem to have too much book learning and not enough experiential learning. Getting students and teachers into new pedagogical patterns can indeed be difficult. Some teachers approach L2 teaching as though they were drilling multiplication tables or teaching subject matter such as history. Some students think they’re wasting their time if they’re just sitting around in groups talking and problem-solving.

I suggested Margaret discuss with her teachers how teaching/learning a second language is different from any other kind of teaching and can’t be approached as an academic area of study. For students, gaining communicative experience with a new language is much more crucial than learning something a book says.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Program Director’s Dilemma: Too Much Grammar? Part 1

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series
betty@azargrammar.com

I’ve been contacted by an IEP program director outside the U.S. with an all-too-familiar dilemma: how to change entrenched ideas about the role of grammar in the curriculum. She is looking for guidance on how to help her faculty members find the right balance of direct grammar instruction and experiential teaching to meet students’ needs. She writes:

Dear Ms. Azar,

I am currently the Director of an IEP program, but I was an ESL instructor for many years. I have a dilemma and request guidance.

Our IEP is located outside the United States; therefore, most of the students are exposed to English within the classroom and not in the community. All of the students in our program have had English grammar in the public government or private schools. On the initial placement exam prior to admission and in the diagnostics test administered the first week of class, the students fare better in the grammar skills test than in writing, reading, or listening skills tests, substantially better. For example, a typical grammar skills test score for the lowest level course on placement is 65% and in the diagnostic test is 68-70%. On the writing skills test, the students will score 48% on the placement test and 25% on the diagnostic tests. The students have the same placement and diagnostic results in reading and listening as in the writing. The results of the testing appear to indicate the students are aware of grammar rules and patterns but cannot apply the rules and patterns to their productions in writing.

Students attend 20 hours a week, four hours a day, of classroom instruction in reading, writing, listening, speaking, vocabulary and grammar. Additionally, the students are required to attend one hour of lab daily. The lab is equipped with interactive online grammar program and vocabulary builder software. The reading and writing courses use a grammar correction text and the listening and speaking use either the black, red, or blue Azar.

All of the faculty have at minimum a masters in TESOL or a related discipline. I attended the 2008 TESOL convention in New York and I attended the panel discussion with Azar, Swan, and Folse. I shared the panel’s comments on grammar teaching in relation to communicative teaching and grammar teaching in general (the communicative approach is only one of several methodologies used in our classrooms). Some of the instructors hold fast to the notion they must complete every grammar exercise in the book in order for the students to acquire and learn English language. While I recognize the need for grammar instruction to enhance student learning of English through the use of structure and patterns, I have not been able to convince some of the faculty that 300 plus pages of fill-in-the-blank practices does not result in student learning how to apply the grammar to speaking or writing. What I have been unable to instill in the instructors is the need to prioritize the grammar skills needed within their classroom for their student population and disregard exercises that are not essential. I have not been able to persuade some of the instructors that grammar terminology is not an outcome of the course; therefore, terminology is not a tested skill.

As the director, I can mandate what is to be covered or not covered in the classroom but I do not want to micromanage the classroom instruction nor control the curriculum delivered by the instructor who is better able to judge the needs of the students within their classroom. I do need the students to meet the learning outcomes of the course and the program. Grammar terminology is not an outcome but a working ability of standard American English in essays and presentations is. Many of our students do not meet the learning outcomes in speaking, reading, and writing because of the amount of grammar taught. We use another version of the placement exam as the exit exam, and find once again the grammar skills benchmarks increase more than reading, speaking, or writing. What are your suggestions?

Thank you in advance for your attention.

Margaret Combs
Director, Intensive English Program
American University of Kuwait


I’ve consulted with a friend and longtime colleague whose areas of expertise are well suited to addressing Margaret’s quandary. I’ll post her response next week. In the meantime, I’d like to hear your thoughts. How would you advise Margaret?

Please leave a comment or email me at betty@azargrammar.com if you’d like to publish your response as a blog article.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Overcoming Fossilized Language: Difficult But Possible

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

I recently received a request from a paralegal instructor looking for a way to help a non-native student whose writing skills are inadequate to her academic goals and chosen profession. He describes her as a reasonably conversant, bright student in her twenties. She had satisfactorily completed most of the paralegal program’s sequence of classes as well as two ESL courses. He writes:

Throughout the semester, she “stumbled” with the language on her written assignments. And when it came to the drafting of the memorandum, she mauled the grammar and the syntax; she had numerous comma splices and sentence fragments; she incorrectly used punctuation. She understood the assignment and she knew what was expected, but what I read was inarticulate.

Always allowing her to write, rewrite, and rewrite again after returning an assignment, I had hoped that, after my numerous marginal comments, she’d conquer some of her problems. This was not to be. Alas, the same problems abundantly peppered her memorandum. I gave up. I told her to find a friend who was willing to spend the time to go over the mechanics of her writing. She did. I gave her a passing grade.

All of this brings me–at long last–to my point. What can I do to help this student?

What the instructor describes is typical of a second language learner who missed getting a solid foundation in grammar and mechanics during her acquisition process. Our colleges and universities are, unfortunately, full of such students today. I had many such students in my own writing courses.

Bringing her language skills to an acceptable academic level is not going to be easy for this student — but she can do it as many before her have done. It’s hard but possible.

Motivation is key

The most important ingredient is the student’s motivation. I’ve had students whose previous teachers had just passed them on and who felt their English was fine for university level — until they hit my class and I apprised them otherwise. So the first step is raising the student’s awareness of his or her poor language skills.

Next comes an understanding of the consequences of having poor language skills. In my case, I told students they could not possibly pass my course with their current language skills, and without passing my course, they could not graduate from the university. That either got their attention or undying enmity. But I could not in good conscience pass students on to my university colleagues with inadequate college-level writing skills.

Students who realized the importance of having good language skills for their academic and career aspirations were then ready to listen to me and do whatever was necessary.

No shortcuts, just lots of hard work

Since I was an ESL teacher as well as a writing teacher, I offered these students the opportunity to sit in on my ESL grammar classes and do one-on-one tutoring with me twice a week. In addition, I recommended a private tutor — often one of our part-time teachers.

The student wrote a paper for me twice a week, and then we talked about it. For each error in grammar or mechanics, we referred to a grammar book (mine, actually). I explained each problem in great thoroughness and sent the student off with homework. It’s a slow process.

For a student without a basic understanding of how English is put together, a teacher just writing notes in the margins of a student’s paper isn’t enough.

The ideal tutor for this student would probably be a law student who has taught ESL or is thoroughly versed in English grammar. But, unfortunately, even among native speakers these days, precious few know
much about English grammar (due to an ideological misdirection taken in our field beginning in the 1960s).

Judging from my experience, I’d say it would take a year for this student’s English to advance sufficiently. But she’d have to be very motivated and find a good tutor. There are no shortcuts that I know of. And students lacking motivation and self-monitoring skills never seem to make it out of the rut of their fossilized language.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Final -S Problem: Does Teaching Grammar Help? Students Still Make Mistakes

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

I’d like to explain what I call “The Final -S Problem.” For a lot of teachers, it goes like this: “I teach my students when to use a final -s, and they can do it fine in a controlled exercise, but then when they talk or write freely, they go and make final -s errors!” Whereupon the teacher throws up his or her hands in despair and determines that teaching grammar does no good because there is no immediate transfer to internalized language.

It seems to me that those who would expect immediate mastery of grammar patterns perhaps confuse teaching language with teaching arithmetic — though, even in arithmetic, students get to make repeated mistakes without all arithmetic teaching judged to be ineffectual.

What gets missed in this equation is that grammar teaching provides a foundation for processing, for conceptual understandings of how a language works, and for developing skills — sort of the way music lessons provide a foundation for learning to play the piano. Learning a second language is far more similar to learning to play a musical instrument than it is to learning arithmetic.

In learning to play the piano, certain students — especially adults who are literate and educated — find cognitive understandings of concepts such as musical key and notation helpful to the process, despite the fact that no amount of cognitive awareness is going to make anyone able to play the piano immediately upon being given abstract information about it. Can you learn to play the piano without cognitive knowledge of musical form? Yes. But is such awareness helpful for many adult students, and does it speed the process for them? Yes, indeed.

“The Final -S Problem” is a metaphor representing the idea that students learn grammar rules and practice them, but then make mistakes using these rules in their output.

Here are the questions I ask myself about “The Final -S Problem,” and my answers.

Q: Is it harmful for students to know when a final -s is supposed to be used?
A: That seems highly doubtful.

Q: Do students want to use final -s correctly? Do they care?
A: In my experience, yes.

Q: Is grammar information about the use of final -s helpful to students?
A: Yes. On a practical level, it helps students self-monitor, understand marked errors in their writing, catch a recast (students with a grounding in grammar often show that they “get” a recast with a look that says, “Ah, right.”), use a writing handbook, and make sense of dictionary notations such as mosquito, n., pl. –toes, –tos. More importantly, attention to final -s raises students’ awareness, making them more likely to notice it in what they hear and read.

Q: Are grammar concepts such as singular and plural useful?
A: From my observations both as a language teacher and a language student, yes. If I were to undertake learning Urdu, I know that I would like to understand how singular and plural are marked. And I also know that I’d like to be able to find that explicit information without having to figure it out completely by myself.

Q: Does information about using final -s help students reach fluency and accuracy in its usage?
A: In my experience, ESL students in my freshman English class who had spent four years at an American high school with no grammar component and with fossilized ungrammaticality underperformed (in accuracy within fluency, as well as rhetorical skill in writing and ability to comprehend academic English in readings) compared with students who had had a grammar component in their home countries (as well as in our IEP prior to their enrolling in freshman English). So, in my observation, the answer to the question is yes.

Q: Are there longitudinal studies showing that students who have grammar instruction in the use of final -s develop better usage than those who do not?
A: I think longitudinal studies are very much needed in the area of eventual (not immediate) mastery of grammar structures, comparing ELLs with no grammar component in their long-term instructional program with those who do have a significant grammar component.

Q: Is practice helpful?
A: Practice in a classroom context can instill confidence, encourage risk-taking, give students opportunities for experimentation, and lead to successful communication experiences. (A grammar base can easily lead to communicative activities. A lot of meaningful communication goes on in a grammar-based class.) But does practice guarantee mastery? No. (If it did, I wouldn’t still be hitting F-natural when I should be hitting F-sharp on the piano.) Grammar teaching simply lays the groundwork and helps speed the process in adults and young adults. Anyone learning a second language as an adult (which is different in a number of obvious ways from a child learning a first language) needs lots of input and experience using the language. Grammar-based instruction provides just a little help along the way.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Use of Terminology in Grammar Teaching, Part II

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

It’s fascinating for me, as a language teacher, to compare the use of terminology in the teaching of music with the teaching of language. The goal in both types of teaching is a kind of automaticity, with labels extraneous to actual performance ability. And both can be “acquired” without a learner knowing any terminology at all.

I’m an adult student of the piano. So why does my piano teacher teach me that a certain configuration of notes is called a mordant? Knowing the term has no automatic effect on my ability to play those notes fluently and accurately. Yet it’s through shared terminology that my teacher and I are able to communicate easily as I develop my “intermusic” — the music I play before a Bach Invention would, theoretically, become second nature, become fluent, accurate, and unconsciously produced output. (I say “theoretically” because that’s still a goal, but I’m getting closer!)

So, again, using mordant as an example — now that I know the term, my teacher can say, “Let’s work on the timing of the mordant.” Our communication is quick and easy. She could, of course, just keep correcting me by showing me how to do it (no labels), or calling the mordant “those little notes there.” The labels are not requisite. But in my experience, they are very helpful to me as an adult student and efficient for my teacher to use. There are all sorts of terms that help the two of us pedagogically, from the basic terms (measure, key, quarter rest, staccato, etc.) to the more specialized, such as mordant.

It is, of course, obvious that knowing the terms does not ever, in and of itself, translate into usage ability. (Exactly the same is true of grammar terminology.) But the terms have value as a communication tool during my “pre-acquisition” (or “interlanguage”) phase of gaining “music usage ability” as I engage in repeated practice. It seems to me there is similar pedagogical value in being able to use grammar terms with adult students in their interlanguage phase — not simply for teacher-student communication, but value in students’ cognitive understanding of the concepts (represented by terminology) of singular, plural, subject, verb, sentence, modifier, agreement, clause, subordination, coordination, to name a few examples.

What do you think? Is there a valid analogy in the pedagogical use of terminology in the teaching of music and language?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Use of Terminology in Grammar Teaching- Part I

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

Does it help a student to be able to identify subjects and verbs? To know what a clause is? To have names for verb forms, such as infinitive or modal auxiliary?

I believe that grammar terminology and grammatical analysis in the ESL/EFL classroom are only means to an end, never ends in themselves. Often the teacher finds it useful to have temporary labels (simplified grammar terminology) in order to answer students’ many questions and show students how English works.

Terminology (e.g., present perfect or noun clause) can be forgotten as soon as students leave the English class with no ill effects. These terms are just temporary teaching tools. Once students leave a program of language instruction, it seems to me they need only enough terminology to help them use a dictionary or reference book, roughly the same grammar terminology an educated native speaker of English benefits from knowing: noun, verb, adjective, sentence, comma, etc. The deeper understandings of structural patterns that help with reading comprehension and the expression of complex ideas will remain–with or without students being able to recall grammar terminology. The terminology is not what is important; what IS important is understanding the structures and the way that form conveys meaning.

The use of simplified grammar terminology in the ESL/EFL classroom is just a tool, a way of helping students understand patterns in the language. In my experience, adult students “get” patterns of form and meaning from understanding examples — how they work, what’s happening, how ideas are put together and interrelated. Explanations, which can come in many forms, are used only as needed. What we’re after is for the students to understand–deductively, inductively, or any mixture of the two–examples of usage, to “see” how they work structurally. Leveraging our adult students’ cognitive skills can be beneficial as they develop their interlanguage, but it’s just one part of a well-balanced classroom. At any rate, mastery of terminology or skill at parsing is never what we’re after.