Grammar Books

When I began teaching ESL in Korea in the late summer of 2007, I was new to teaching and unable to properly evaluate the quality of a textbook, especially a grammar textbook. I, like most new teachers, I imagine, figured the books were perfect and the material and methods were sound. With experience, I have discovered that in fact most grammar textbooks are terrible.

Often grammar texts are confusing, and make grave errors about learning, such as assuming that a particular skill is mastered because it has been taught in previous chapters. The book that [I currently use] is only just okay because it falls into this very trap.

Typical grammar texts also focus on the identification of a particular feature and less on the usage of that feature. For example, many books ask students to underline a verb, and note how it is used. Then they provide a sentence with a blank line in it for students to add the appropriate form. This is called a [cloze test] and it dates back to the early 50s, or what I like to refer to as the dark ages of ESL. Rarely, however, does a textbook focus on the pragmatic application of the form.

For ESL students to truly absorb to material, they must not only be able to identify the form in question, but they must also use that form correctly within a context. Isolation, like that in a cloze test, hurts students. For years, I have seen students master a grammar test, then turn around and make an error of that very type in an essay or paragraph. It happens with nearly every student, academically talented or not. Why?

Isolation kills. Context is everything. And most grammar texts remove context completely. I aim to fix this.

I am writing a grammar textbook.

In my grammar textbook, things will be different. First off, the students will receive information about not only how to make a particular construction, or what construction is correct, but why it is correct. This contextual information will help the student conceptualize the reasons for such forms. That is really not the innovation I am most proud of, though. The innovation I am most proud of is the very format of the book.

My grammar textbook will be layered according to skill level. The first layer of the book will hold fundamental information that will allow the student to build basic skills without being expected to master anything. The second layer of the book will cover the same topics in the same order, but at a deeper level, which the now-experienced student can better comprehend. And finally, the third level will provide the most depth for the student, again with the same skills and order.

This format has many advantages. First off, the students will not be expected to learn all the verb types in one chapter, for example. In the basic level, the simple past, present, and future will be covered. Later, as the student advances, they can build on the simple, with progressive and perfect aspects being added. This format means the students will not be inundated with massive verbs charts, nor will the student be confused comparing aspects, since comparison can be confusing to lower level students.

In addition to embracing the idea of [u-shaped learning]--the idea that students make mistakes and stumble before mastery has occurred--the problems, as they are called, will be less about finding the correct form, and more about writing a sentence which utilizes the form, or application.

This means that the book must have simple, targeted explanations of the form in question, and then activities that foster the creation of natural language with said targets. Currently, textbooks look like this and this.

Overwhelming and intimidating to students.
Not good. We can do better than this, and that is my goal. Wish me luck.