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October 1, 2008

New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms

How New is New?
While the teaching of grammar is acknowledged to be one of the older forms of language teaching, there is also much that is new. In the past 40 years we have seen a pendulum swing in grammar teaching, from the well-established Grammar-Translation Method and its many variants, to pure meaning-based language teaching during the 1980s; and the pendulum is now on its return swing. The 1990s brought in new approaches for grammar instruction, with competing themes, and this collection of chapters by well known scholars captures the essence of the contemporary discussions on teaching grammar.

This collection of chapters by well known scholars captures the essence of the contemporary discussions on teaching grammar

Perspectives on Grammar Pedagogy
There are perhaps three major perspectives on the teaching of grammar in second/foreign language classrooms: Error Avoidance, Grammar Avoidance, and Contextualized Grammar. (I'm deliberately avoiding terms of art here, because few teachers really fit into those idealized theoretical frameworks.) Teachers who feel that the explicit teaching of grammar should be avoided, that grammar comes along through acquisition activities such as reading and listening, will probably be quite uncomfortable with this book. Others, who believe that grammar must be mastered early in order to avoid later problems, may find much to agree with in the discussions here, although the approach certainly doesn't fall in with the more traditional teaching methods. In fact, New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms has a rather clear mission, to encourage and support the teaching of contextualized grammar.

The editors are not arguing for "one true method." In fact, the discussions present a number of variations with quite different classroom techniques befitting different types of learners, teachers, and language-learning goals. Indeed, contributors disagree on the definition of grammar, with McCarthy and Carter setting out ten criteria for defining a spoken grammar. Instead, editors Hinkel and Fotos suggest that an eclectic approach might be most appropriate in teaching grammar. Contributors Marianne Celce-Murcia, Rod Ellis, Diane Larsen-Freeman, Peter Master, Mike McCarthy and Ronald Carter, Martha Pennington, Jack Richards, and Eli Hinkel and Sandra Fotos themselves each offer their own angles.

Setting the Stage
After the inevitable history of grammar teaching, the book sets out to discuss how grammar teaching fits within the syllabuses of books, teachers, and language courses (and how these often mismatch). Ellis' initial discussion sets the stage well: when should grammar be taught, considering the learner's growth phases and a given course itself? This chapter is critical to understand later contributions if one hasn't already thought through the issues of noticing, input, intake, consciousness-raising, explicit knowledge, implicit knowledge, learning, acquisition, output, and so forth. Richards follows this with a review of the common critiques of meaning-based learning, focussing particularly on task-based learning, and how fluency and accuracy can work together.

Developing a Pedagogy
The second part of the book attacks the issue of classroom approaches to the teaching of grammar. Larsen-Freeman's chapter here is much like her book Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring (reviewed previously on this site), but this chapter doesn't really provide much in the way of classroom help--I wonder why it's in this part of the book? The other chapters here wander between theory and more practical concepts, but there isn't much that a teacher could lift out and immediately apply in their own classroom. It's the type of material developing teachers should be looking for, to counter-balance and support the techniques they gather from peers and workshops.

Research Supports for the Approach?
The final section, research on Grammatical Structures, seems out of place. There are 60 pages split between these two chapters -- the longest two chapters, by far -- under the whimsical criterion "two examples of grammar teaching based on practical findings and recommendations of research." Yes, but wouldn't most every grammar textbook argue that it too is based on recommendations of research? And many nowadays are based on corpus research that also qualifies as practical findings. These are a tough read, and seem totally unnecessary.

Final Comments
While each chapter has excellent references, these contributions feel more like journal articles than teacher training materials: they reference more than they explain. There is no glossary or cumulative list of citations, and the subject index is weak (there is a separate author index). Clearly this is a book for second language grammar pedagogy courses; it could be a frustrating read for the independent learner and not much use as a reference to practicing teachers. Consider New Perspectives as a partner to conferences and monthly workshops, a chance for all those loose "good ideas" to be carefully considered and arranged in one's own mind. Each chapter can stand alone, can be read in any sequence, and each merits a good deal of reflection.

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