Vol. 6. No. 1 R-1 June 2002
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New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms

Eli Hinkel & Sandra Fotos (Eds.) (2002)
Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
ISBN 0-8058-3955-0
Pp. 288
US $29.95 (paper)

Our ESL department has been recently trying to write new/revised course objectives for its three grammar elective classes. What we initially thought to be a routine task turned into an extended and often spirited debate about the role of grammar in ESL programs, what sorts of structures should/should not be taught at certain levels, why students can't seem to use grammar effectively in writing even when they've studied it very diligently, why so few grammar books provide enough contextualized analysis of "real usage" in spoken and written discourse, etc.

New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms is a welcome addition to the ongoing discussion of how to best teach grammar in ESL/EFL contexts. The anthology is divided into three sections: the role of grammar in language teaching, specific practices in the grammar classroom and some current research on grammar structures. The authors, including such well-known lights in the field as Jack Richards, Sandra Fotos, Diane Larsen-Freeman, Peter Master, come from a range of perspectives and backgrounds, reinforcing the variety of teaching theory and practice in play today.

A common theme throughout is the importance of second language acquisition research on how grammar is perceived and taught. The traditional notion of grammar as some idealized set of principles to master contradicts a more organic, language-as-unique-human-behavior view where the "givenness" of grammar -- how it is actually used in spoken and written discourse -- should take precedence over the "logic" of grammar with its emphasis on isolated rules, definitions, hierarchies and strictures. Another idea with strong currency here is the role of the learner in second language grammar acquisition and how he gains awareness of usage through self-analysis, positive feedback, contextualized practice and what Rod Ellis ("Methodological Options in Grammar Teaching Materials") refers to as the learner's "inbuilt syllabus."

Despite the prevalence of the "communicative competency" model and learner-centered, task-based teaching methods, many grammar texts are still "drill and kill," "fill-in-the-blanks" oriented with little contextualized practice. The approach is mostly one of presenting and explaining grammar points followed by controlled production practice. And while many grammar books pay lip service to "free production" or learner-generated use of certain structures, they rarely give enough examples of how the spoken and written language is actually used so that student production can be truly creative.

In "Teaching Grammar in Writing Classes: Tenses and Cohesion," Eli Hinkel offers an excerpt from a newspaper article in which the writer moves among an array of tenses -- present, simple past, present perfect, passive -- using adverbials to give cohesion and coherence to the text overall. Hinkel stresses that in much academic/professional writing verb tenses change within a single paragraph and second language learners need to see and analyze different examples of shifting tenses rather than studying them in isolation: "One of the reasons that many practicing EFL and ESL teachers often become disenchanted with grammar book learning is that pedagogical grammar rules are frequently simplistic and do not account for the large number of cases or examples that learners come across in real life." (p. 196)

In her article "Grammar and Communication: New Directions in Theory and Practice," Martha C. Pennington posits a grammar teaching model based on collocation (the importance of word order), constructivity (the building of grammar complexity from simpler forms to produce "discourse-level chains"), contextuality (the focus on written and spoken discourse in presenting grammar points), and contrastivity (using the native language to point out differences and similarities with the target language). Pennington refers to her model as "a realistic grammar in the sense of reflecting language acquisition and use." (p. 96)

Because of crowded teaching schedules, lack of preparation time and students' comfort level with filling in tedious grammar exercises as a measure of learning something, teachers turn to texts they often find boring and contrived. The challenge for ESL/EFL teachers (as well as publishers who do need to hear it) is to make the materials being taught relevant which means, as one of my colleagues said after our grammar debate, "Supplement, supplement, supplement." In other words, expose students to a variety of spoken and written language they aren't going to find, by and large, in most current grammar texts.

Craig M. Machado
Norwalk Community College

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