Archive for Tag: metalanguage

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.

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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.

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.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Language of Language Learning

By Tamara Jones
EFL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

The holidays can be a lonely time to be away from one’s family, so for our first Christmas in Belgium, my husband and I were delighted to host a small dinner party. The guests included a TESOL professional and friend on vacation from the USA, my French instructor, Sandy, and her English partner, Paul. As we finished up the ham, Paul initiated an interesting conversation about the language of language learning.

Voice? Tense? Adverb Phrase? Huh?

Paul had recently started studying in one of Sandy’s classes, and he said that he found her use of grammatical terms intimidating. In a previous blog, I mentioned that Sandy occasionally resorts to English to give precise definitions of vocabulary and for descriptions of complex grammatical concepts. However, for Paul, Sandy’s use of terms like infinitive, passive, and the past progressive actually clouds the issue more than it clarifies it.

I was surprised to learn that, in spite of all I had believed about the traditional nature of the British education system, Paul had never learned to diagram a sentence. In fact, as we went around the table, only Sandy, who had been educated in France, and my husband, a product of the public school system in South Dakota, USA, had ever been exposed in a meaningful way to the nitty gritty of English grammar.

Where IS my verb?

After our conversation, though, I wondered how many of my fellow French students felt the same way as Paul. More importantly, I wondered how many of my EFL students were mystified by my use of grammar terms. When I ask them, Where is your verb? do they wonder what I am talking about? Have we made things much more complicated for our students by forcing them to learn a separate set of vocabulary useful only when dissecting sentences?

Several language teachers believe that, indeed, we should avoid confusing metalanguage. On Debra Garcia’s blog, Teaching ESL to Adults, she cautions us against using metalanguage, suggesting that we “go directly to the target language.” (Garcia, 2008). In an intriguing strand on Dave Sperling’s forum for teachers, several language teachers agree that they prefer to steer clear of grammar terminology so as not to “burden [students] with unnecessary vocabulary and bamboozle them.” Furthermore, at a recent Maryland TESOL conference, a speaker referred to grammar metalanguage as “bombastic and misleading.” (Nelson, J. , Making Grammar a Tool, not a Topic, Presented at the Maryland TESOL Conference, 2007)

Use What Works

However, in my experience teaching both ESL and EFL, most students actually seem to appreciate a quick, metalanguage-heavy explanation to a longer, roundabout one. My students from Asia, South America, and Europe seem to have a much better background in grammar terminology than the average North American or Brit, so why not use what works for them? In fact, recently when working with an Italian couple during their private lesson, I kept referring to the -ing form. The students were totally confused until the wife said, “Oh, you mean the present participle!”

My conclusion, based on nothing more scientific than personal observation, is that most international students are much better equipped to deal with grammar terms than native English speakers. I will continue to do what appears to work best for my students and fling grammar metalangauge about in the classroom. Although I need to pay careful attention for the “deer-caught-in-headlights” stares of students who just aren’t getting it, I don’t want to underestimate my students either.

Having said all of that, I hardly consider myself an expert on this topic. I would be very interested to hear what others’ opinions are. Post a comment to agree, disagree or share your experience.