There’s more to grammar than sets of rules

A New Grammar Companion for Teachers
The ‘New Grammar Companion’ by Beverly Derewianka

What are the first thoughts that pop into your mind when you see the word ‘grammar’? If you thought of things like , ‘nouns, ‘verbs’, ‘adjectives’, ‘phrases’, ‘tense’, ‘syntax’ …. you are probably with the majority of the people who have been to school. I’ll wager that you didn’t think about grammar involving ‘the context of the situation’.

This week, one of the first questions that Jo Rossbridge from PETAA asked us when we began our ‘Grammar and Teaching’ course on Wednesday was “what is grammar”? We, the participants, suggested things like: a set of rules that describe how language works, the parts of language and how it hangs together, rules for making meaning, a tool for writing for meaning …

Jo referred us to Beverly Derewianka’s “A New Grammar Companion for Teachers” where she defines grammar as “a way of describing how language works to make meaning.”

But wait … there’s more. Curiously,  a phrase that was in the first edition was accidentally left off … Apparently it used to say … “within a particular culture”.

‘Grammar is a way of describing how a language works to make meaning within a particular culture’.

This, ‘within a particular culture’ involves the social purpose – the language choices we make for interacting with different people in differing circumstances. As it happens the context of our communications and language choices that we make turn out to be just as significant as knowing how various grammatical features are structured.

We had fun looking at the field, tenor and mode of three different texts based on a similar concept, the surf. The first included abbreviations, colloquialisms, ‘surf talk’, shorthand text spellings and no capital letters. The second contained a greeting, technical language and information for a specific audience. And finally, the third was lexically denser and written in the passive voice with thought given to carefully crafted and well constructed sentences.

With the field (topic/subject matter) we asked ourselves – What is the text about? Is the language commonsense or specialised? Who or what is it about, what is going on and under what circumstances?

The tenor (relationship between speaker/listener or reader/writer) involved us asking – Who is taking part and what is their relationship? Is the power equal or unequal? Are the choices personal or impersonal, formal or informal?

Mode (the nature of the text) – How is the language used? Is the language spoken like or written like, planned or spontaneous, language as action or reflection, interactive or monologic?

Did you guess?  … The first was an email from one surfie to another, the second was a surf report and the last read like an explanation of the sea and waves. The best part of the discussions involved playing detectives and guessing the ages of the authors and their purposes for writing.

These three aspects (field, tenor and mode) of the contexts in which language is used are called registers. They vary from the commonsense to the specialised, the informal to the formal and the spoken or ‘spoken-like’ to the written.

Hopefully as the course goes on, by gaining a better knowledge of English grammar, I will be able to share this with our students in order to be of greater use to them with the development of their spoken and written language.

One week down, eleven to go … if you  want to learn along with me I will be reflecting after each session. Please feel free to question or comment.

4 thoughts on “There’s more to grammar than sets of rules

  1. ‘Great reflection, Miss Anne! AND a great summary of our first session, too. Yes, ‘grammar’ is definitely more than just learning about ‘rules’. The challenge for our EAL/D learners is not only to learn these ‘rules’, but also have a better understanding of the purpose and audience of various types of texts that exist. Knowledge of ‘grammar’ is very much ‘culture-bound’. Hence, the learning and teaching needs to be taught ‘in context’, with a focus on ‘meaning’ for our EAL/D learners. Another implication: moving our EAL/D learners along the mode continuum! How do we effectively move them from ‘everyday’ talk to ‘academic’ talk? ‘Move them along ‘spoken-like’ to ‘written-like’? What guided, communicative learning experiences could we provide them with? How do we ‘scaffold’ such learning? Afterall, our EAL/D learners are learning about, learning in and learning through English! AND for most, learning new concepts all at the same time! ‘Lots to consider for both mainstream and EAL/D specialist teachers during planning & programming!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes look at how challenging we as English speaking adults find this learning. Interesting that some participants had never thought about speaking and writing as being very different before. New insights for all of us.


  2. Along with spelling, ‘teachimg’ grammar can be such a challenge. So much more than a worksheet. I always feel that when students are told to write an essay for this or that, the bigger challenge seems like the field and the tenor.


    1. Which is why I’m taking this course field, tenor and mode are integral to the whole process. Jo says that we will be referring to them and their parts throughout the course.
      Thanks for reading and commenting Aaron.


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