December 2003 — Volume 7, Number 3
Oxford Basics: Teaching Grammar
Jim Scrivener (2003)
Oxford: Oxford University Press
Pp. vi + 65
ISBN 0-19-442179-1 (paper)
Oxford Basics: Teaching Grammar is part of a series that also includes books on teaching the four skills, on presenting new language, and on intercultural activities. What this book has in common with the other volumes in the series is that it provides a hands-on guide to communicative methodology, giving recipes for classroom activities that exemplify different techniques used in communicative teaching.
Starting from the principle that grammar is “a living resource that gives us the ability to communicate our ideas and feelings and to understand what other people say or write to us”, this book’s introduction is an admirably brief mission statement for the communicative approach to grammar teaching. It tells us that the classroom ideas in this book are built around the notion that learners have to pass through four stages if they are to master a new grammar item successfully. Learners must first notice the item. Secondly they must begin to understand it in terms of form, meaning and use. In third place, they need to try it out within a controlled environment, so that they can make mistakes and receive support. Finally, they need opportunities to use the new language in different situations. The classroom recipes in the book are lesson plans which each demonstrate how a particular technique can be used to help students to learn a particular item of grammar, but they are also intended as a source of inspiration, so that the techniques, once tested, should be applicable to the teaching of other grammar points.
The book is structured in such a way that each of the 25 units focuses on a different grammar point and also embodies a different communicative teaching technique. Information gap activities, role plays and story-telling alternate with activities involving mime, flash cards and bags of real objects. The material is not photocopiable, but where visual aids are needed, simple, copiable models are provided.
One attractive example suffices to give a feel of what this book has to offer. The unit entitled “Turning lessons upside-down” sets out to lead elementary-level students gently into using comparatives. Using a simple, whiteboard-copiable set of animal pictures, students begin to follow the teacher’s example to produce sentences such as “lions are bigger than rabbits”, before the language has been formally “taught”. The teacher guides the students into forming correct sentences, thereby scaffolding the “noticing” process. This opens up the way for more formal grammar analysis, and so students are then encouraged to formulate the rules concerning comparative sentences for themselves. After consolidation of the basic rules on the whiteboard, the teacher should invite students to take part in controlled practice, in the form of a “guess the animal” game in which the clues are provided by comparative sentences such as “my animal is stronger than a horse”, “my animal is taller than an elephant”, and so on. [-1-]
It might be argued that books of this kind are superfluous if teachers follow a good coursebook. However, it is also true that many coursebooks have gaps, and that many language schools rely heavily on teachers’ initiative to vary the course material, create interesting and entertaining lessons, and mend the cracks in students’ background knowledge. Books like Teaching Grammar help to build up the teacher’s repertoire, and can therefore be particularly useful for people at the start of their professional life.
One final point is that the book itself is specific about the level of language competence for which each unit of the book is designed, most being for elementary, lower intermediate and intermediate level students. However, it is not as specific as one might wish about the type of student for which such activities are intended. It is up to the individual teacher to decide on the applicability of each activity in the particular institutional and cultural setting where she or he works. As with many books located firmly within the communicative tradition, this one puts together a blend of activities which are at once visual, aural and kinaesthetic, in order to involve students holistically in the language learning process. It remains for teachers to develop that sixth sense of teaching that allows them to decide what is useful in their own setting, with their own students.
In short, this is a useful book with plenty of good classroom ideas that demonstrate how the principles of communicative grammar teaching can be put into practice.
Universidad de Navarra
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