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Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring

Diane Larsen-Freeman
Heinle, 2003
pp. x + 170

Reviewed by :

Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, Korea

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A bold aim
How do you review a book that calls for dramatic change in a traditional and key aspect of your profession? Only time will tell if Diane Larsen-Freeman's Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring stands among the "all-time must reads" in ELT or falls in amongst the dusty unread backroom archives. Whether you love grammar or hate it, as a language learner or as a teacher, you will no doubt come away surprised by the bold aim and multidisciplinary arguments put forth by one of ELT's better-known figures.

What is "grammaring?" If you used the present progressive voice to mean "a process of doing grammar," then you're on the right track to understanding the mission of this text.

More than Grammar
Grammar is, well, grammar, right? The rules of language use? OK, then try this. What is "grammaring?" If you used the present progressive voice to mean "a process of doing grammar" then you're on the right track to understanding the mission of this text. Larsen-Freeman claims grammaring is "the fifth skill" (alongside listening, speaking, reading, and writing), the ability to use grammar structures accurately, meaningfully, and appropriately. Grammar lessons are no longer about knowing language systems (declarative knowledge), but about knowing how to use language (procedural knowledge).

More than teaching
The subtitle From Grammar to Grammaring merely hints at the range of issues covered. Larsen-Freeman herself seems pulled in both directions, claiming that students want and need to learn the rules of grammar, but also that the rules are confusing and not complete in themselves. She further states that "In most cases students don't need to know about the language – they need to be able to use the language." There is a delicate yet unclear balancing: it is a "myth" that grammar need not be taught, yet there is "reason to question whether the interactional norms of English speakers should be adhered to at all." Larsen-Freeman admits to still seeking the answers herself, but one "teachers' voices" quote is perhaps telling:

I tell my students that they don't need to be accurate to communicate. They do need to be accurate to be respected.

There is discussion on the pros and cons of Audio-Lingualism and Communicative Language teaching in terms of grammar learning, and ultimately, we get mixed messages on what and how to teach. However, the thrust of the book is more about how we should analyze our students' problems and find ways to help them understand the issues they face, not how to teach grammar.

Science, and not just psychology, provides much of the basis for the thoughts behind Grammaring. Nucleation. Chaos/Complexity Theory. Morphogenesis. Fractals. Abduction. (Don't worry, these are explained in the book.) The book is not really about grammar, though Larsen-Freeman is grammarian enough to satisfy the grammar buffs and leave non-grammarians such as myself shaking their heads in puzzlement – prenominal adverbs? (Don't worry, there are illustrative examples.) Unfortunately, no index or glossary.

Hearing yourself think
At various points through the book I could hear Larsen-Freeman "thinking out loud" as she re-analyzes her own beliefs. While frustrating for those looking for answers, it's a refreshing change for others who grow weary of hearing about the latest miracle method. She doesn't claim to have all the answers, yet there is method within: the Three Dimensions. In simple summary, it is argued that rather than simply looking at grammatical rules, broader perspective is needed for understanding. Perspective comes from two levels, language beyond the sentence level, and reasons behind the rules. Here the concept of fractals comes into play: at whichever scale examined, the same characteristics come into play, the same three dimensions, which she labels Form, Meaning/Semantics, and Use/Pragmatics. In the contrasting perspective the reasons behind the rules give meaning that explains the exceptions and support the pie-charted three dimensions.

These concepts are a mind-bender. I could hear myself think (and so could my neighbors!).

There is some new and scary stuff in here. Teachers who are known as grammarians might be very uncomfortable with the message – teaching rules is not enough. Those who claim that CLT obviates the need for (any or much) teaching of grammar too may find it uncomfortable. Ultimately, Larsen takes a rather intermediate position by stating that there needs to be both explicit and implicit instruction, and inductive, deductive, and abductive (after the fact inferencing of why something is true) learning as well. But in keeping with the communicative approach, not too much teaching of grammar! Instead, by helping students learn how to figure out their language choices in grammar (through the three dimensions), students will be empowered to better use language.

Though it's nice that Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring is written in a personal genre, it would be more enjoyable if there weren't the annoying use of a quite extended vocabulary. I'm not sure how "useful" the book is for classroom practice, but anything that helps you question your basic assumptions about teaching is well worth the purchase price.

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