Tag Archives: english grammar in use

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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Always judge a book by its cover?

17 Mar

You may not realise it from looking at what’s on offer, but ELT publishers really care about the covers of their books. And why are covers so important? Well, let’s start with the wider world of books, films and music. From a personal point of view, I feel that great pieces of work deserve to be wrapped with care and style, be that London Calling or Call of the Wild, and in fact, the exterior artwork is as much a part of that work as the inner content.

londoncalling

I miss the days of looking through artwork and reading lyrics that have been carefully put together as part of a double LP that I’ve had to hunt down by spending hours digging around in record shops (really showing my age now!). Similarly with books, if I’m going to be reading something over a course of time, and it’s going to be sitting up on my bookshelf, then I want to enjoy looking at it. Or at the every least, have a cover that does justice to the content. The fuss made over Faber’s recent anniversary cover of Plath’s The Bell Jar illustrates just how protective people are of works of literature that they love, and how misjudging the artwork on the cover of your book can seriously backfire.

belljar

Now I’m not suggesting that English in Mind is to Cambridge University Press what Nevermind is to Nirvana. Let’s be honest, you might love your faithful old copy of Oxford’s Advanced Learner’s Dictionary or Cambridge’s English Grammar in Use,  but would you feel compelled to fire off an email of complaint if the covers of these titles were to be substantially changed?

EGiU fourth edition

So if we agree that ELT products are never likely to sit alongside the film, literature and music that we love and cherish, do the covers matter at all? Essentially these are learning tools, so if we were to go down the route of what’s being planned for cigarette packets in the UK  (by which I mean blank packaging, not images of rotting lungs) would it matter?

Yes, it probably would matter. For a few reasons.

1. The flick factor. Whether you’re a language teacher looking for a new course book or a student hunting out some supplementary self-study materials, you have a lot of choice. Too much choice perhaps. So publishers are fighting for your attention, and whether that’s online or in a bookshop, the front cover is one of the first things you’ll notice. If it fails to catch your attention, you’ll never get as far as flicking through the content (which, incidentally, also needs to be attractively designed and well laid out). Many people do judge books by covers.

2. You’ve got to live with this book. It may not be as close to your heart as Pride and Prejudice, but as a teacher you’re going to have to live with certain books day in, day out, possibly for months, maybe even for years. You could also be the person presenting a new set of course books to your students, and ideally you want them to be pleased with your choice. Rightly or wrongly, the front cover of a book can be the first step in engaging students in the content.

3. Good covers show the publisher cares. Well, sometimes. If a publisher has given little thought to the front cover, or even if a lot of thought has been given but the end result is awful, what does that say about the actual content of the book? To be fair, those who designed the covers are unlikely to be the same people who wrote and edited the content, but a shoddy front cover or typos on the back cover are often an indication of  standards inside the book as well. Conversely, beware of books where all of the investment has been thrown at design. The same is true online, where slick websites are all too often masking the fact that the learning materials are dull and uninspiring. Particularly for course books, get samples and trial before you invest!

In short, book covers are important, and ELT publishers know this. As we move towards more digital content, those who are really on the ball will be adapting new covers accordingly. Where once the spine of the book was important because that’s the first thing many people would see in bookshops, now it’s key to ensure that the covers work well as thumbnail images. Increasingly, designs will also need to be optimised for tablets (no matter what way up you’re holding the device) and the covers themselves may soon become animated, interactive and/or customisable.

So, does a bad cover mean a bad book? Well, no, not necessarily. Does a good cover mean a good book? Definitely not. It is an indication though and I don’t think anyone’s going to stop judging books their covers any time soon.

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