Book Review: ‘From Rules to Reasons’ by Danny Norrington-Davies
Jason has over 20 years of experience helping teachers across the world. He is an award-winning and bestselling author, as well as a leading consultant and teacher educator.
From Rules to Reasons is an invaluable resource for teachers and teacher educators interested in the perennial question of how best to work with grammar in the English language classroom. It engages the reader with a critical perspective on traditional approaches to teaching grammar, and provides an original, ingenious alternative, based on the author’s extensive experience both as a teacher and teacher educator.
Central to the book is the argument that giving learners pre-formulated grammar rules is less useful than getting learners to work it out for themselves - i.e. inductive learning. However, the originality of Norrington-Davies’ message lies in his conviction that by helping learners to focus on the creator, genre and context(s) of a text, we can enable them to see why a writer or speaker is using a specific language feature in a specific instance, thereby both helping them to understand the text, and helping them to understand the role of the grammar feature itself.
Norrington-Davies is careful to distinguish the generic, didactic use of the present simple often used in language rules (e.g. ‘We use the passive to…’) from the more contextualised and temporal use of the present continuous that he recommends we encourage learners to use to describe reasons; ‘The journalist is using the passive because…’. As such, his distinction mirrors Widdowson’s distinction between usage (generic and competence-oriented) and use (specific and performance-influenced), and he provides clear, detailed and well exemplified guidelines for how we can sensitise learners to use without necessarily discarding usage.
The book is divided into three sections, the first of which looks at the pros and cons of focusing explicitly on grammar in the classroom, and then compares the use of grammar rules with the use of reasons, showing how both text-based and task-based lessons can be used effectively both to raise learners’ awareness of grammar reasons, and to get them to use grammatical features in meaningful, communicative activities. The second section includes 18 lessons, including materials, to demonstrate the principles described, while also providing useful teaching tips and reflective tasks for teachers to consider. It also includes a section on creating your own resources, designed to help both experienced and novice teachers develop materials appropriate to their context based on the principles put forward by the author. The third section discusses potential challenges and questions that you may have when trying out his ideas in your own classroom or training room.
Norrington-Davies provides real examples of rules formulated by real learners that are often clearer and truer (at least for the creators and the context) than those typically provided in global coursebooks. Two memorable examples of these are a description by B1 learners of the reasons for a restaurant reviewer using present simple, past simple and present perfect in one text:
“Past simple for one visit, present simple for always. Present perfect for all her visits in the past to now.”
And another, created by a group of learners, to make sense of the use by a writer of so-called ‘non-defining relative clauses’ in one instance:
“We don’t need to know this information but now we know more about her character and history.”
Among the many originalities in the book, three particularly stood out to me. Norrington-Davies recommends that rather than providing learners with traditional comprehension questions before grammar analysis, we instead motivate learners to engage meaningfully and personally with texts, which, when done skilfully, can enable us to understand much more about what they have understood and what they feel than typical ‘remember-and-regurgitate’ type questions. He also offers two useful alternatives to the standard controlled practice activities common in global coursebooks; replication tasks and transposition tasks, both of which succeed in getting learners to think carefully about their language choices while nonetheless using language meaningfully. And finally, I was very interested in his idea of using learner-generated language to study grammar through the analysis of language produced by learners during communicative tasks. As well as helping students to see that they can learn from their own, and their classmates’ language, such an approach helps to raise their awareness that they are the source of the language they need to express their meanings, thereby potentially increasing self-confidence and autonomy simultaneously.
Thoroughly recommended reading!
You can purchase Teaching Grammar: From Rules to Reasons here.
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