Thoughts on Rethinking Grammar

5 Nov

A few years ago I was given some sound advice from a friend who works as a bricklayer:

Never trust a tradesman who criticises the work of others.

A good tradesperson should assess a job and tell you what they need to do, how long it will take, how much it’s likely to cost and what the end result will be. If they spend most of their time criticising the work that’s been done before, they’re either lacking knowledge in how to do the job, or they’re making the problem out to be worse than it really is (with the ultimate intention of fleecing you of a bit more cash). Straight criticism is easy, coming up with practical ideas and solutions is much more difficult.

MORE THAN A FEELING

I have this advice in the back of my mind not only when I’m getting a quote for new guttering, but also in my working life. I’m not adverse to criticism, on a personal level I find constructive criticism very beneficial. And there is, of course, a place for debate in marketing, and in ELT publishing. However, if the criticism is little more than a humourless tearing apart of an idea, a piece of work and/or an individual, and it’s not equally balanced with alternative ideas and solutions, I very quickly lose interest in – and respect for – the critic.

Alarm bells therefore started ringing when a colleague forwarded the following abstract to me for an Andrew Walkley and Hugh Dellar lecture at Westminster University, London:

Traditionally, teachers have been encouraged to think of grammar as essentially meaning the official canon as laid out in such books as Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar In Use. In this provocative, challenging talk, Hugh and Andrew will suggest that this is a profoundly limited way of looking at grammar. Alternative viewpoints will be put forward, and the implications for classroom practice will be considered.

Singling out another author’s book in your abstract is not common practice in the world of academia, so I was very curious about how Walkley and Dellar were going to tackle Murphy.

Now given the preamble above, it’s probably worth making a couple of things very clear before I launch in to a summary of the lecture:

  1. Spoiler alert! I am not in any way about to suggest that Walkley and Dellar are the cowboy builders of the ELT world. In fact, far from it. I found myself nodding in agreement through much of the lecture.
  2. I work, from time to time, with Raymond Murphy. However, the views expressed in this blog, for what they’re worth, are entirely my own.

So, to the lecture itself. Split into two parts, the introduction to ‘Rethinking Grammar’ was led by Walkley who questioned how we define grammar and ‘grammatical correctness’, using Toby Young as an example of the kind of pescriptivist that many of us love to hate. Young is a soft target – have a quick look online if you’re not familiar with his (many) opinions – and the attitude to grammar that he represents (essentially an obsession with form over meaning) is not difficult to pick apart. Walkley finished the first section of the lecture with an open question:

What is grammar and how should it be taught?

MORE THAN WORDS

Dellar then took over with a review of the different ‘types’ or definitions of grammar such as words and their functions, rules and forms, tenses and verb phrases, syntax and so on. He went on to advocate a more lexical approach to learning and teaching grammar, through fixed expressions, lexical chunks, discourse, collocation, etc. None of this I disagreed with. The lexical approach is not a new idea and the practical ideas for implementation mentioned by Dellar at the end of the lecture (drills, gap fills, extensive reading, guided discovery, etc) are older than I am. What I would question is whether teachers need to turn their backs on grammar reference books like Murphy’s and course books with grammar syllabuses, in order to implement a lexical approach. Dellar was openly critical of English Grammar in Use, implying that anyone who worked their way through the book from start to finish would unlikely be able to communicate effectively in English at the end of it. But what is being forgotten here is that English Grammar in Use is a reference book. And like other grammar reference books, it was never written to be worked through from start to finish. In fact, it was written to bring grammar out of the classroom and to allow more time for communicative language teaching, as Murphy explains in this 2011 video:

I attended a conference session by Professor Namba recently, an academic in Japan who advocates a very similar approach to Murphy. You focus on meaning, and only when students start to struggle with a particular area of communication do you parachute in a grammar book and focus explicitly on form, either in class, as homework, or a combination of both.

Course books, to a lesser extent, are also materials that good (or even mediocre) teachers can pick and choose from in order to meet the specific needs of their students. Admittedly, many are designed to be worked through unit by unit, and quite often this is led by a ‘traditional’ grammar syllabus, but we’re going back to a similar point. It’s down to the teacher to use materials appropriately. If you plough through every exercise in a course book, in order, you’re as unlikely to be meeting the needs of your class as if you dumped a copy of English Grammar in Use on their desk and told them to get on with it. 

WE WILL ROCK YOU

So whilst I’m in full agreement with the approach to grammar Walkley and Dellar are advocating, and I appreciate the time constraints of public speaking, I’d like to have heard a lot more about new approaches and practical solutions, and much less bashing of Murphy,  Young and traditional course books. Perhaps some time spent looking at modern, blended, corpus-informed course books would also have added a little more balance, rather than just picking the worst examples from old publications. Telling us ‘the road is long’ and then trotting out a list of techniques anyone on a CELTA course could quote is not particularly inspiring and doesn’t really do justice to the extensive research and experience that I’ve no doubt underpins Walkley and Dellar’s work. I have huge respect for anyone who risks shaking things up a bit and challenging the status quo, but from the content of the lecture I saw, this is less punk and more soft rock.

 

I’d welcome comments and debate on any of this and you can see Walkley and Dellar’s presentation slides for yourself here:

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4 Responses to “Thoughts on Rethinking Grammar”

  1. eflnotes November 11, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

    you make a good point – what students do with a tool can’t really be blamed on the tool.

    hugh dellar does give some ways to use self study materials in his latest series of blog posts

    ta
    mura

  2. Andrew Walkley November 11, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

    I think you are very fair here. Obviously we have tried to give a more positive version through our own writing of more lexically driven courses (maybe unsuccessfully!) such as Innovations, and there have been other attempts which I mention here: http://blog.westminster.ac.uk/celt/2013/11/11/no-lexical-syllabus-part-2/. I guess what I would say is that why we think there remains a place for something more rant-like from time to time is because we continue to fight a very uphill battle as discourses about the centrality of grammar are so prevalent in wider society (as seen by Toby Young). I hope to outline something more on what a lexical syllabus might be like, but in the meantime I’d recommend George Woolard’s e-book ‘Messaging’ as a really intersting (though I fear also never-to-see-the-light-of-day alternative.

  3. hughdellar November 11, 2013 at 8:17 pm #

    Hello there –
    Many thanks for bothering to write something about this talk – and for the thoughtful remarks made. Though I have to say, it’s quite weird to see yourself referred to by your surname like that. Took me back to secondary school, it did!

    Oh, and the soft rock comparisons will be neither forgotten nor forgiven!
    🙂

    I think all in all, your comments are mostly fair enough and this is a pretty accurate summary of both the strengths and the weaknesses of the talk you saw.

    I guess it’s worth me adding a few bits and pieces on top, though.

    You may well be right that the talk relied too heavily on knocking down a straw man. It’s certainly something we’ve been accused of in the past! All I’d say in our defence with regard to those charges is that whether you like it or not, Murphy’s has become the default setting in terms of the way most teachers (and students) conceptualise grammar. The Headway + Murphy’s for homework paradigm is so dominant globally that we both feel it’s still something that needs to be critiqued and challenged and that you can’t really get far when it comes to laying out alternative visions of how things could be until you start to unpick the dominant models – and this involves explaining (what we see as) their flaws.

    I totally take your point that Murphy never intended what he saw as a reference book (and thanks for the link to the video. I’d never seen that before) to become the behemoth it has become, but in a sense that’s beside the point. If Murphy’s idea was to provide something that would take grammar out of the classroom and allow more time for more communicative teaching and practice (a kind of pre-Internet ‘flipping’ I suppose), then he failed abjectly. In reality, the book became the cornerstone of the new grammar-driven orthodoxy and provided its canon, as we said. And we’d argue this has led to a limiting of the way we all think about language as a whole. So yes, perhaps our true beef is with the way the book has been used, what it has come to mean, the power it has come to have, as well as the lack of seriously viable alternatives (though things like Ken Paterson’s recent SPOKEN GRAMMAR do offer small steps towards other destinations), but in 50 minutes, as you note, a kind of shorthand comes into play and complexity does sometimes go out of the window, especially as the adrenalin of the performance kicks in.

    Incidentally, Toby Young may also be a soft target (as well as vile man, from my perspective!), but he’s also a soft target with huge social cachet and power as he has the favour of Michael Gove at present!

    You ask whether teachers need to turn their backs on grammar books and grammar-driven courses to implement a lexical approach. I’d suggest that they don’t HAVE TO, but it sure does make their lives easier if they do! Lexically-oriented material places the emphasis on different things to the Headway / English File books and if you perceive language in a lexical way, I just can’t see why you would stick with material not sympathetic to your worldview. It’s not impossible to teach lexically, but it doesn’t make it easy for you to o so either.

    In terms, finally, of new approaches, for us it’s much more to do with a shift in content and mindset with regard to what the goals of lessons / teaching in general should be than it is to do with new pedagogical tricks or techniques.

    And as writers, we’d obviously suggest that what we’ve tried to do with language in our books is the way we think things should be. That this seemed too much of a hard sell to delve too deeply into during a basically non-commercial talk should come as no surprise.

    Anyway, thanks again for the post and the interest.
    Hope the above clarifies a few bits and bobs – and look forward to any further discussion on this.

    Best
    Hugh

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