Betty Azar, 'Rock Star' of English Grammar
It all started with a question from a student. The year was 1965. Betty
Azar was teaching her first English as a Second Language class at Iowa
A student from the Middle East asked Ms. Azar, “Why can’t I put a in
front of water?’ As in ‘I drank a water.’”
Ms. Azar did not know the answer.
“I had never thought about it. I thought it was an absolutely wonderful
question and from there on out, I wanted to know the answers to the
questions that second language learners had about English. I went home
and I looked in reference books. I found the answer. And the next day I
went to class and I gave him an answer about count and non-count nouns,
which I had never heard of. That’s how I started my grammar-teaching
Fifty years and 10 million book sales later, Betty Azar has become a
legend in the world of TESOL, or Teaching English to Speakers of Other
Languages. Some call her “the Mick Jagger of grammar,” comparing her to
the lead singer of the British rock band The Rolling Stones. Generations
of English teachers and learners have come to love her classic book,
Understanding and Using English Grammar. The blue grammar guide can be
found in language schools throughout the world. No American has sold
more grammar books than Ms. Azar.
Ms. Azar never expected to become a star in the TESOL field. She studied
European literature in college. She started her career teaching writing
courses for first-year American college students. One morning, her boss
asked her to teach an English class for foreign students. She knew
nothing about TESOL, but she did not want to disappoint her supervisor.
She taught her first course later that same day.
“I have no background in linguistics or no degrees in teaching English
as a Second Language. This all happened on the job. I learned as I went.
I learned from the students and went on from there.”
TESOL was just beginning as an academic field in the 1960s. It was not
yet a college major and there were few study materials available.
“The books available for teaching English were few and far between,
maybe two bookshelves’ worth… Just like so many other ESL (English as a
Second Language) teachers, I made up my own lessons. I started writing
for my own classes and it turned into a book.”
In 1978, a representative from a publishing company stopped by her
office. He asked if she wrote material for her own classes.
“And I said, ‘Yes.’
And he said, ‘Well, would you like to write a book?’
And I said, ‘Who? Me? I’m just a teacher.’
And he said, ‘That’s who writes books.’”
Ms. Azar agreed to write a book. She had to throw out everything she had
written for her classes because it might have come from other books. She
made a series of note cards with examples and explanations of grammar
structures that interested her. Over several years, Ms. Azar turned her
notes into a book.
The book, called Understanding and Using English Grammar, was first
published in 1981.
“I was hoping that I would make enough money from the book that I could
get a new sofa and a new carpet for my living room."
English teachers loved the grammar textbook. However, many in the
academic world thought that teaching grammar was old-fashioned. There is
still much debate among educators about whether it is important to teach
grammar. Today, most native speakers learn very little about English
grammar in school.
“. . . The whole notion of not teaching grammar that started back in the
60s in the U.K. and the U.S. has, I think, been deleterious, not good,
not only for non-native speakers learning the language, because they do
learn faster and better with a grammar component, but I think it has
also harmed native speakers…The research will show that an understanding
of your own language, its own grammar allows you to…use the language
Azar’s book was a major success. She was able to buy more than a new
sofa and carpet for her living room. In the following years, she wrote
two more grammar books for lower-level English learners. The blue book,
Understanding and Using English Grammar is now in its fourth edition.
Written with co-author Stacy Hagen, the fourth edition includes
listening and more interactive classroom exercises.
Even with her success as an author, Ms. Azar still considers herself a
teacher and practitioner, not a researcher or academic. But she wants to
build a bridge to connect the practical and the academic sides of the
“To bring the two sides together can only be a good thing for our
students as we move the teaching of language forward. We don’t have all
the answers yet, by any stretch of the imagination, about how language
is acquired and second language in particular. We’ve got a lot to learn
Betty Azar is mostly retired now, but she still speaks at conferences
and sponsors research and professional development. She lives with her
husband in the state of Washington.
Ms. Azar and Ms. Hagen are currently working on the fifth edition of
Understanding and Using English Grammar.
Ms. Azar has some simple advice for English learners.
“Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes are a natural part of
learning a second language… Don’t let the fear of making mistakes
interfere with practicing your English and communicating what you’re
trying to communicate.”