The Reading Matrix
Vol. 5, No. 1, April 2005

Advanced Grammar: A Manual for Students
Dorothy Disterheft
Pearson Education : New Jersey , 2003
ISBN: 0130488208
480 pages

Cost: $81.00
Reviewed by Brendan Moloney
Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto

 

Many native English teachers in Japan, particularly in English as a Foreign Language (EFL), view any explicit instruction of grammar in the classes as pedagogically suspect, if not completely unnecessary. In TESOL publications, they frequently complain that teaching grammar is not only boring for students but, even worse, it does not result in learning at all. The following typifies such an anti-grammar stance:

Easy as grammar is to teach, a full bag of it does not empower a student to speak a language. As a result, we have … overworked teachers and their bosses taking refuge in their daily fix of grammar. On the other hand, an exasperated minority of teachers and administrators has increasingly recognized grammar for what it is: an attractive nuisance. (Childs, 2004, p.20)

While this view is not uncommon, depicting grammar-knowledge as an impediment to learning disparages teachers’ and students’ attempts to view language in analytical and descriptive ways. I believe that rather than being an “attractive nuisance,” grammar-knowledge is empowering intellectually and educationally. Not only does it distinguish teachers as experts on language, it facilitates second language learning and generally leads to clearer and better written and spoken expression.

As an educational reference for ESL teachers (the audience I have in mind in writing this review), I highly recommend Dorothy Disterheft’s Advanced Grammar: A Manual for Students. Although the book is written for undergraduate students, linguistics and non-linguistics majors alike, I think English teachers also stand to benefit greatly from this textbook. In defending grammar pegagogy, Disterheft points out that, lamentably, many English teachers “attempt to discuss problems in written structure with their students, [but] don’t have the necessary metalanguage and analytical skills to convey what the precise problem is and how it should be corrected” (p.22). I feel this is especially true in the TESOL world, where rational analysis and description of English grammar tends to be the exception rather than the norm.

Disterheft follows a traditional university style teaching methodology of explanation, exemplification and review. She divides the textbook up into three interesting sections: “Basic Sentence Structure,” “Verb Structure and Semantics,” and “Transforming Basic Sentences.” Furthermore, each section has detailed chapters. For instance, in Section One (Sentence Structure), there is discussion of noun phrases and auxiliaries; in Section Two (verb structure and semantics) among other things, analysis of tense and aspect, and transitive and stative verbs; and in Section Three (Transforming Basic Sentences), “Information Flow, Topics and Conjoined Sentences.” Two major review sections follow the first two sections (but for some reason not the third). Finally, there is also a reference section, outlining word classes and punctuation.

Rather than follow a basic chapter by chapter breakdown which would not result in a particular insightful review (I recommend buying the book), I would like to review the book in reference to the benefits ESL teachers are likely to gain from studying it closely: simple explanations of complex grammar, a reference to answer student-related grammar questions, a guide to the profession’s metalanguage, and great revision exercises.

In my experience, many ESL students have problems in paraphrasing, summarizing and critically evaluating what they read. It is very hard to complete these advanced tasks without knowledge of the constituent parts of a sentence. Throughout the textbook, concise and interesting explanations on word classes (like nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc.) and sentence structure are given. Moreover, diagrams invariably provide a solid structure for teachers to teach grammar. In using tree diagrams, Disterheft establishes without equivocation that these are important tools in teaching formal English:

Tree diagrams have the advantage over traditional types in that they are completely specified and predict which phrases will be grammatical and which ones will not … if you violate any of these rules by drawing a diagram differently, your phrase or sentence will be ungrammatical. (p.49)

It is likely that the reader will have to linger in Section One, paying attention to the ways in which diagrams work, before moving on to later chapters which focus on more complex discussion and analysis. A further benefit in understanding the tree diagrams is that teachers can incorporate them into giving feedback to students: for instance, in identifying problems in writing (and to a lesser extent in speech) and suggesting strategies for varying complexity in English.

Advanced-Grammar: A Manual for Students is also a useful reference for teachers to answer students’ grammar related questions. In my experience, many students do want and expect their teachers to enlighten them about grammar, yet their teachers explain away legitimate grammar-related questions with conveniently trite explanations - “because that’s just what we say”. This situation leaves both teachers and students in darkness. Teachers lose credibility, and students are left to fend for themselves with grammar practice books (exercises but no explanations). In be able to explain grammar more clearly, teaches could do much worse than consult Disterheft’s textbook. Her analysis of verbs, for instance, is the best to date that I have seen. In a simple way, she explains why “perfect tenses” are not really tenses (but aspects, showing a speaker’s perception, rather than time-referenced tenses) and what not only are the syntactic differences between transitive and intransitive verbs – concepts reasonably easy to grasp – but also differences in semantics. Readers are encouraged to note the subtle differences in usage and so, from a practical perspective, it would be hard to see how teaching students would not be enhanced by such descriptive knowledge.

As in all specializations, there are concepts particular to it; linguistics and English language education are no different. A further benefit for ESL teachers is that Disterheft speaks in the profession’s language (which generalist books frequently do not). Section Three most clearly exemplifies the conceptual complexities involved in English language expertise. In “Transforming Basic Sentences,” for instance, readers learn about complex grammar derivations. Specifically, she discusses concepts like Affix Hopping, Spell-Out, Negative Insertion, the Do-Assertion, Negative Contraction Rule, Wh-movement and the like Subject-Auxiliary Inversion. In all, there are 28 review items listed and I am sure that if readers understood all of them, then they would see vast improvement in their ability to explain Advanced Grammar to students.

Often lacking in textbooks are helpful and knowledge-consolidating review exercises. The book provides students with ample opportunities to practice (at the end of each major section). eaders are asked to draw diagrams, parse sentences, and provide semantic justifications for usage. And, as previously mentioned, there are two comprehensive review chapters.

Despite these strengths, I have two main criticisms. Firstly, there are some editing problems. I looked for several concepts and found that several were not present in the text, or worse, were wrongly entered in the subject index, (for example, affixes in Chapter One). Secondly, I could not access the accompanying website. I am unaware what is actually on the website, but I feel that for future publications, independent learners would benefit greatly from on-line exercises or perhaps detailed answers to particularly difficult exercises. This is a small point, however, as the textbook was written for an undergraduate audience and presumably teachers will guide tudents.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Dorothy Disterheft`s Advanced Grammar: A Manual for Students. The texts helps students learn using a number of tried and true pedagogical formulas – concise explanations of syntax and semantics, exercises to re-enforce this knowledge, and end of chapter review exercises and concept checking.

Although the textbook is written primarily for an undergraduate audience, a wider audience should read it – especially English language teachers.

Reference

Childs, M. R. (2004). Bright future for pragmatics in language teaching. The Language Teacher, 28(11), 19-21.

 

Mr. Brendan Moloney is an English teacher and curriculum writer. He has worked as a curriculum writer and English language teacher. His research interests are curriculum and materials development for ESL learners, assessment, and literacy. He completed his Masters thesis on reading assessment at Melbourne University. He will start working