Betty Schrampfer Azar is the name we've all seen
on the classic blue "Understanding and Using
English Grammar" textbook for years. ESL MiniConference
Online is pleased to share her interview with you.
Some Betty Azar links:
The Azar Grammar Exchange on Longman.com
Understanding and Using English Grammar, 3rd Edition (Blue)
Fundamentals of English Grammar, 2nd Edition (Black)
Basic English Grammar, 2nd Edition (Red)
An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Betty Schrampfer Azar:
What is your main ESL activity now? What are your
principal projects, and what is on the back burner?
I am a teacher become materials writer. The first half of my career was
spent in the ESL classroom and the second half at a keyboard (beginning with
a Smith-Corona portable typewriter--with manuscript submissions in carbon
copy! -- to my present amazing Mac).
So my main ESL activity now is materials production. I call all my
books "my works in progress," for I rework and change them with every new
edition as I learn more about pedagogy, am influenced by currents in the
field, and hone my craft. Writing materials for the ESL classroom is a
great job. I love it. A revised edition, at least the way I do it, demands
practically as much time and effort as an original edition, but luckily I
work with a great team of professionals who make my job easy and fun.
At present, we are finishing up the third edition (the swallow edition)
of Fundamentals of English Grammar (black), which will be published this
Next on my schedule comes the third edition of Basic English Grammar
Also in the works is a new CD-ROM. The old one, Azar Interactive, had
some unfixable technical glitches and needed pedagogical improvement.
In addition, we're working on our ever-evolving Azar Web site, trying
to work out how to best use this new communication medium to provide
substance and support for ESL teachers.
How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced
your decision? What were some important formative
experiences in the early stages of your development?
I got into ESL by serendipity. I was in my first year of teaching
freshman composition in the English Department at Iowa State University.
One morning between classes I was with a colleague who taught the only ESL
course offered at the university at that time (1965). As she and I were
walking down the hall of the classroom building, we ran into the head of the
English Department, who said to my colleague, "We need to open another
section of the English for Foreign Students class. Who can we get to teach
it?" Then he turned to me and said, "How about you, Betty?" And I said,
"Sure." I had no idea what it was all about, but as a young instructor I
knew not to refuse a request from my department chair!
That very afternoon at 1:10 p.m., I walked into my first ESL class. I
returned compositions that the other instructor had corrected before the
sections were divided and walked around the class answering questions. One
student, a tall, thin, balding man from Colombia, had a question. He had
written "waters" (as in "I was thirsty, so I drank some waters"), and it had
been marked incorrect. He wanted to know why "waters" was incorrect. I
gulped. I had no idea. Absolutely no idea. But I said to myself, "Wow,
what an interesting question!" and told him I would find the answer and tell
him tomorrow. That was my introduction to ESL. And the next day, after
some somewhat frantic scrambling, I came back to class with a handout of
explanations and exercises on count vs. mass nouns (which prior to that I
had never even heard of).
My ESL career has been largely focused on the creation of grammar-based
materials, and that started the first day I taught. A pattern began that
first week of teaching that continued: I found out what my students wanted
from their English class and provided materials and activities to meet their
needs as best I could.
I have always said that I am most indebted of all to my students, that
they had the greatest influence on my development as a teacher and a writer.
I was constantly in search of what it was they needed from me to help them
achieve their goals. And I was constantly inventing materials, as many ESL
Your younger audience might not quite know what it was like teaching
ESL at a university in the mid-60s. The available teaching materials in
total could fit on two medium-length bookshelves. (Compare that to the
publisher's display at TESOL these days!) Forty years ago ESL was just
beginning to develop as a professional field. Publishers were not paying
much attention to ESL.
In those early days, I was influenced most by text writers, in
€ Thomas Crowell (Index to Modern English, McGraw-Hill, 1964 -- my bible in
the early days);
€ Grant Taylor (several McGraw-Hill exercise books and readers written in
€ Rebecca Hayden, Dorothy Pilgrim, and Aurora Haggard (Mastering American
English, Prentice-Hall, 1956);
€ Gladys Doty and Janet Ross (Language and Life in the U.S.A., Harper &
Row, 1960; Writing English, Harper & Row, 1965); and later on,
€ Marcella Frank (Modern English, Prentice-Hall, 1972).
Just now getting those books off my shelf to look up copyright dates was
like having a reunion with old, old friends.
In addition, I suppose you could count as influences the texts and
approaches that I found ineffectual or unsuitable for my students. One that
I might mention is the Lado-Fries series. In the summer of my first year of
teaching, I got a job at a brand-new intensive program at the university
with a brand-new director who had just graduated from the University of
Michigan and instituted the Lado-Fries program. My role was to teach the
Pattern Practice classes (that was their red book, for those who recall).
Both my students and I found it deadly -- so I let my students ask questions
about the patterns (that was not permitted in this class) and I prepared
handouts and other activities. The director visited my class one day, saw
that I wasn't following the program, and objected. We had to return to the
oral drill book. I knew how much my students appreciated the grammar
handouts and activities, so I asked him if I could teach a tutorial after
institute hours. He agreed. To make a long story short, practically every
student in the program ended up in "Mrs. Azar's tutorial" -- after hours,
for no credit, to meet no requirements. One day as I looked about the room
full of these students, I said to myself, "Hmmm. I must be doing something
right. The students certainly think what I'm doing is helpful." So I
continued to do it, and indeed as a materials writer to this day am still
Materials writers, I feel, have a tremendous (and possibly somewhat
under-recognized?) influence on how our profession goes about its daily
business in classrooms and the directions in which our field moves.
Certainly in my own experience I can see how various textbooks I used shaped
my approaches and my teaching. In addition to teaching students, textbooks
often teach teachers, too -- by introducing new or variations in
methodologies or refining their understandings of content. For example, the
new editions of my texts are influenced by communicative methodologies.
I've included much more student-centered peer work; some teachers,
especially non-native-speaker teachers abroad, will find this new to their
accustomed teaching approaches. And I know I have, through my textbooks,
taught a lot of teachers a lot about grammar in general and the teaching of
ESL grammar in particular.
In other words, material writers often function as the "middlemen"
("middlepeople"?): we create bridges between the researcher and the teacher,
between the resource and the classroom, between theory and practice. The
new corpus-based research is going to have a substantial effect on materials
developers, and this in turn will affect what teachers present in the
classroom. I can clearly see influences in my own work through the years --
from Lado-Fries Audio-Lingual (whose influence is clear in my early work,
despite my not finding their teaching program satisfactory for my particular
students) through, to mention a few that come to mind, the Silent Way, Total
Physical Response, Suggestopedia, Peer Counseling, Notional-Functional, and
Communicative theories and methodologies. And in turn, I feel my work
influences how some teachers teach and certainly the content of their
classes. That is a humbling responsibility that all materials developers
One last word on early influences: In addition to my students and
other materials writers, a third principal influence during my early days
was Earl Stevick. I believe it was at the San Francisco TESOL in the mid-
70s, around the time I was considering gathering all the many materials I'd
been writing over the years into a book. At that time (as at all times it
seems, actually), the teaching of grammar was highly and vocally disparaged
in some quarters. I was not convinced, of course; I'd found a
grammar-based approach very helpful for my academically oriented, adult ESL
students. During a presentation about competing theories and methodologies
of language teaching, Earl Stevick smiled avuncularly and suggested that we
shouldn't "throw the baby out with the bathwater," lamenting the tendency of
some in our field to claim exclusive and new solutions to the mysteries of
language acquisition. He pointed out that language teaching had been going
on for thousands of years and ventured that there really wasn't all that
much that was radically new under the sun. His validation of my own
perceptions helped tip the balance in my deciding to rev up my courage to
pursue writing a grammar textbook. Remembering Mr. Stevick's talk, I have
always, through all the many currents of change in theory and practice in
our field, tried to hang on to the baby while making improvements to the
If you had to give three pieces of advice to a
new ESL teacher, what would they be?
1. Appreciate and take advantage of the ESL teacher's unique opportunities
to engender understanding and acceptance among peoples of differing
cultures. We are indeed a positive force for change in the world.
2. Make your classroom as friendly, unstressful and non-threatening as you
possibly can, but at the same time be demanding by having high expectations
for your students. (It's a balancing act.)
3. Enjoy your classes and students. Teaching ESL is just plain a real
Interviewed by Robb Scott
2002 ESL MiniConference Online
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