my favourite bits of “grammar” by Scott Thornbury

Cover of "Grammar (Resource Books for Tea...

Cover of Grammar (Resource Books for Teachers)

UPD: The review is finally complete!

a couple of months ago I went to a bookshop, where, after spending quite a considerable amount of time and money, I bought, among other titles, Scott Thornbury’s “Grammar”. At the time, I was too taken up by some other things – lessons to plan, teachers to observe, some paperwork, and I only managed to flick through the pages and to make a mental note for myself to come back to it. There was only one task I used at my lesson at once, and it was called ” ‘grammaring’ sentences”. But more on that later…

Now I can finally take my time with all the books I’ve brought with me to our country house, so at the moment I am reading 3 different books (one of them being fiction) and listening to one more book, too.

Therefore, in order not to forget some simple but brilliant ideas and approaches offered in the book, what I am going to do is to share my most favourite bits of “Grammar” here. I’ll try to keep it in the form of a book review.

Before we proceed to the activities, I’d like to dwell on the way the book is organised. It is broken down into 3 main parts: word grammar, sentence grammar and text grammar. So here you won’t find traditional grammar areas in the contents – everything is based on how grammar works in a context, not just in some particular grammar phenomenon.

One of the things that made me warm to the book is mentioned in “how to use this book” section. The author talks about how to choose the activities for your classes and says that a better approach is “to skim through the list of activity titles until you ‘light’ on something that ‘feels right’ for the class you have in mind” – and this is what made me trust the book (not that was having doubts about this author, but still…), as this is very often the way I prefer to choose things and activities for my classes.

As we are moving to the activities, let me say that almost everything mentioned and described in “Grammar” seems to me interesting and worth a try. However, I am going to write only about the activities that were new for me and/or bear some connection with my own classes. There is a number of other great things, like Dictogloss, but, as it is a fairly well known type of a task, I won’t write about it here.

The first part of the book is devoted to the word grammar. When starting work with the words grammar, it is a good idea to show your students a distinction between grammar words and content words.  This is what the task 1.4 “Content or grammar words?” does very well. The idea is to give 2 versions of the same text, one only containing grammar words, and the other – only content words, so that the students try to recreate (or at least understand) the text and to see what importance both of the word groups bear. When I was reading the description of the task, I remembered one of my students (a business executive, a very nice and talkative guy, whose grammar was usually a mess..and who said “oh, be and is and to are just little words”)

1.6. “Dictionary grammar” is my dream fullfilled. I’ve always wanted to encourage my students to work with dictionaries, both in class and out, as much as possible, but in reallity I can remember only several occasions when it really worked. In most cases my students ended up being trapped in all the dictionary entries, very long and boring, so I usually became the first person to want to finish the task and proceed to something more involving (although the idea of the task sounded pretty exciting!). What Thornbury offers here is to write out of a dictionary a number of sentences incorporating the same grammar word or high-frequency content word, leaving a gap instead of the word and to ask the students to guess what the gap holds. Then the students can make such “gap-fills” themselves for their classmates using dictinaries too!

1.8. “Keyword stories” is a nice and fresh variation of good, but still a bit worn-out diagram (mindmap) way to represent word families, high frequency words and phrasal verbs. Here, you give your students a story that contains the keyword used an many different senses and ways, most of which are not (well) known to the class. Students then work with the dictionaries, discover all the meanings of the keyword and substitute it with the synonyms in the story, thus gradually rewriting the story. The keywords could be get, take, thing, etc.

2.5. “the sentence-making machine”. I personally love substitution tables, especially at low levels, though making them can be tricky at times. Thornbury offers here different variations of working with such tables, including producing right and wrong sentences for the students to sort out, showing the table only for a short time and then getting the students to reproduce them, etc. To be honest, the only thing I did try was producing the table and getting the students to form as many sentences as possible. So next time I’ll try to be a little more resourceful! Oh actually, I remember my favourite Elementary German group to be unexpectedly resourceful with a substitution table, when they managed to make up some funny (even though not very realistic) sentences out of a usual and boring material)

2.32 “Grammaring sentences” was the first thing I tried with one of my groups just as I bought the book, and it is still my absolute favourite! The idea is, as almost everything in “Grammar” very simple and very forceful at the same time: reduce a sentence to content words only and offer your students to create as many full sentences (with different time reference, etc) as they can. For instance, how many sentences can you make out of: Mister N buy present relatives? It worked perfectly for my group, as the task was both exciting and challenging –  in this case focusing on different grammar aspects. With my group,  along with other sentences I offered some based on my students’ errors from the previous classes. It made them think about what they had wanted to say and how it could be done in the best way. I suppose this idea might also work well at a grammar presentation stage, when one of the options expected from the students would be the grammar in question..

2.35 “Internet hunt” should be great when you need to show the students some grammar point ‘is really used’. I remember having trouble when trying to find ‘real’ examples of how tag questions are used. I had to watch a lot of videos and to listen to loads of podcasts to find more or less “live” examples. What I had to do was just to Google for them! So the idea the author suggests is to use a search engine to find how some (high-frequency) lexical chunk is used and to make some conclusions based on the search – like what tense usually goes after it,  or what pronoun is typical for the phrase. The example Scott Thornbury uses is “wouldn’t it be great if..” and I have to admit the search gives some worthy results. Though sadly, when I tried to find something good for tag questions (I tried isn’t it and do you), it was not that impressive. So probably tag questions are tricky enough even for “Grammar” and for Google. (What I had ended up doing in that case when I was looking for real examples of tag questions was to record (secretly) a native teacher speculating about tag questions and giving some examples…)

and 3.12 “Spoken grammar” can be helpful for answering all those students’ questions about “spoken English vs written English”, “can I say this”, “can I say that..”, or at least to show how the distinction works. To carry out an activity, you need 2 versions of 1 dialogue, demonstrating the features of spoken and written grammar respectively. Show both versions and encourage your students to discover the differences. Alternatively, to make the activity more involving, you can cut up both of the dialogues into the lines and then get the students to restore 2 full dialogues from them. This is what Variation 2 offers.

And, while we are on the subject of variations, the book offers a  number of them for almost every activity, along with very comprehensible examples, commentaries and possible follow-ups, which makes a reader an even better and more flexible and resourceful teacher.


About Svetlana Urisman (Englishteachingnotes)

I am an ADOS and an English teacher (and materials writer) in a language school in Moscow. I have been an ADOS and a teacher trainer for almost a year now and a teacher for about 5 years. I am keen to share some ideas and materials I've developed in order to take them further and not to forget or lose them You are welcome to use any materials represented in this blog, and I will be happy to get your feedback afterwards if you take them to your classroom! ;-)
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2 Responses to my favourite bits of “grammar” by Scott Thornbury

  1. juliemizrahi says:

    Just wanted to let you know that your blog is one of my current favourites…..keep posting!

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