Clear Grammar

November 1999 — Volume 4, Number 2

Clear Grammar 1

Keith S. Folse (1998)
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xiii + 194 (plus tear-outs)
ISBN 0-472-08371-6 (paper)
US $15.95

Clear Grammar 2

Keith S. Folse (1998)
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xiii + 173 (plus tear-outs)
ISBN 0-472-08372-4 (paper)
US $15.95

I opened the pages of these books with high expectations. Based on Keith Folse’s kind and clear guidance in messages to others over the TESL-L and TESLMW-L electronic discussion lists, I was sure his books would be clearly focussed, with cogent descriptions, wonderful examples, and an obvious student-centeredness. I was mostly right.

To be fair, my expectations were probably unreasonable. Furthermore, I became aware as I worked through the books that his student audience was not the same as I had imagined. The description of “who this is for” is probably the first item to be critiqued. The back cover states “Clear Grammar is a three-book grammar series for students at the beginning, high-beginning, and low-intermediate levels.” What is perhaps missing is the information that this series apparently targets students in adult ESL programs who are both literate in the Roman alphabet and already possess a broad vocabulary. Those who have low litereacy levels or very limited vocabulary would not be well served by this series.

Presented in an 8.5 x 11 inch workbook format, the books are subtitled Activities for Spoken and Written Communication. The pages are airy, bright, and easy to work through. Their design generally consists of fill-in-the-blanks and circle-the-items exercises interspersed with presentation boxes of materials. These gray and blue boxes of presentation material are welcome visual stimuli on what are otherwise visually unexciting pages, with only occasional simple line drawings or clip art inserted here and there.

New materials are presented in delightful blue boxes. The explanations are generally made through models and short sentence descriptions that are quite reader-friendly. These are often followed by gray boxes entitled “CAREFUL! Watch out for these common mistakes.” These models of mistakes are often more voluminous than the rules before them. I leave it to individual teachers to analyze the benefits of negative modeling, but this bold step deserves recognition.

Book 1 starts with a pre-unit which introduces the three basic grammar terms for the book: noun, verb, and adjective. Book 1 offers 12 units, Book 2, 13. The final unit in each book is a review, and the first unit of Book 2 is a review of Book 1. [-1-]

The content of the books clearly reflects the belief that students need extensive drilling practice to perfect grammar. The books contain from 120 to 140 exercises each. “To the Teacher” points out that “Teachers and students want a large number of written exercises to allow for ample practice of the newly learned structure” (p. ix). There is a healthy diversity in the types of exercises within each unit, and considering that the units are 17-22 pages on average, with roughly 10-12 exercises per unit, that’s a good thing. Unit lengths vary widely, from 8 pages for demonstrative pronouns and adjectives (Book 1, unit 3) to the 33 pages on modals in Book 2’s unit 11, or even the 25 pages for past tense of regular and irregular verbs (Book 1, unit 6). This unit is particularly troublesome not only because the final 9 pages on irregular verbs could have been easily broken out to a separate chapter, but more critically, because most of the activities and instructions in those final pages are faithfully produced in unit 4 of Book 2.

The most delightful aspect of these books are the Challenge Boxes. First encountered on pages 53 and 54 of Book 1, these boxes point out likely wrong answers in the preceding exercises, and ask the students to explain the correct answer. This kind of student self-discovery of nuances in grammar should be introduced earlier and more regularly throughout the series. Many more are found in Book 2, so perhaps the author feels they are inappropriate for the lowest level students.

Further back in Book 1 is a nice subsection to unit 7: “For more advanced students.” After 8 pages of discussion and exercises on Wh questions, this subsection offers further studies and is then followed by an Optional Section. However, we have not yet finished half of this unit. It is unclear when the Optional Section ends and we return to the main section of the unit, if ever. The “For more advanced students” subsection returns on page 141 at the conclusion of unit 9, and feels comfortable there.

The Discover Grammar boxes, similarly to the Challenge Boxes, offer an opportunity for the students to practice inductive-learning methods. Offered in units 2, 6, and 9 of Book 1, they are missed in the other units of Books 1 and 2.

The few oral activities of Book 1 are seldom similar to the types of communication students would enjoy doing, or even pay much attention to as they perform them: Do the grammar work on the paper . . . , Now drill your partner orally by reading the drill question you’ve just completed, and confirm that your partner offers the correct answer (assuming you yourself answered it correctly!). The section “To the Teacher” (pages ix-xiii, both books) indicates that 20% of the activities are spoken. While perhaps true, many of these are not the communicative activities most teachers are looking for. The first authentically communicative task for Book 1 appears on page 138. The speaking activities in Book 2, however, are far superior to those of Book 1. Interestingly, they also have a logo to point them out which the first book doesn’t use. [-2-]

The final substantive lesson, unit 12 in Book 2, will be joyfully welcomed by teachers who may wonder why the best unit was saved for last.

These workbooks offer an amazingly broad array of exercises, and the tear-out diagnostic tests and final tests will be useful to teachers first entering this area. The answer key for book questions seems consistent with my perception that Mr. Folse truly supports the concepts of learning empowerment. In the end, however, but I am left with the feeling that these books were prepared between semesters, or produced from classroom handouts, without careful attention to internal consistency.

Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, South Korea

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