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ESL MiniConference Online!

Achievement Profile: Betty Azar
Developing Materials to Help Students Reach Their Goals

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
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:

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 summer (2002).

Next on my schedule comes the third edition of Basic English Grammar (red).

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 teachers do.

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 particular:

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 the 1950s);
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 doing it.

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 understand.

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 bath water.

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 kick!

Interviewed by Robb Scott

2002 ESL MiniConference Online

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