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Review of  The Teacher's Grammar Book

Reviewer: Tim Hadley
Book Title: The Teacher's Grammar Book
Book Author: James D. Williams
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Book Announcement: 17.580

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Date: Sun, 19 Feb 2006 15:06:39 -0600
From: Tim Hadley <>
Subject: The Teacher's Grammar Book

AUTHOR: Williams, James D.
TITLE: The Teacher's Grammar Book
SUBTITLE: 2nd edition
PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
YEAR: 2005

Tim Hadley, Department of English, Texas Tech University


According to its own Preface, The Teacher's Grammar Book ''is
designed for students who are preparing to become English or
language arts teachers, as well as for credentialed teachers who want
to know more about grammar'' (ix). In this regard it would also be of
benefit to anyone else who wants a general overview (or review) of
traditional English grammar and a few other contemporary
approaches to grammar.

Williams divides his content into three logical sections. The first
section, containing chapters 1 and 2, provides what Williams calls ''a
short history of grammar'' (a more precise title might be ''a short
history of the background and study of English grammar'') and an
introduction to teaching grammar. Section two, chapters 3-6, contains
a survey and discussion of four prominent types of grammar that
teachers are likely to face and/or use in the classroom: traditional
grammar (chapter 3), phrase structure grammar (chapter 4),
transformational-generative/Chomskyan grammar (chapter 5), and
cognitive grammar (chapter 6). The final section, chapter 7, discusses
dialects, especially Black English and Chicano English, their impact on
students' writing, and how teachers can be better prepared to deal
with these issues in their classrooms.

The second edition differs from the first in several ways. Chapters 1 (A
Short History of Grammar) and 2 (Teaching Grammar) are new,
providing more background and a better connection with pedagogical
issues than before. The chapters on phrase structure grammar,
transformational-generative grammar, and cognitive grammar have all
undergone significant revision, primarily in the direction of making
them both more simplified and also in connecting them more closely to
writing pedagogy. Williams has also expanded the discussion of
Chicano English in the chapter on dialects, and has added a brief
exploration of code switching. Chapters are also sprinkled liberally
with ''Teaching Tips,'' ''Applying Key Ideas,'' and ''Suggested Activities''
to help teachers transfer the lessons from the passive book page to
the students' active learning involvement and assimilation. The result
is a more up-to-date, detailed treatment of historical and pedagogical
issues, packaged in a practical, usable textbook that will speak to the
concerns of teachers in the 21st century.


There are a number of good things about the way Williams
approaches his task. First, his survey of the history of the study and
teaching of Greek and Latin grammar, offered as a background and
prelude to a proper understanding of English grammar, serves a
valuable purpose both in providing needed information and in making
an important philosophical statement: The basis of our language and
our understanding of its grammar--indeed of our entire intellectual
tradition--lies first and foremost with the Greeks and the Romans.
Though Williams will later, correctly, move away from Latin grammar
as the basis for a correct understanding of English grammar, he wisely
here, at the first, provides teachers with a solid grounding in the
ancient facts about our linguistic roots.

A second strength of this book is Williams' insistence that prospective
English or language arts teachers must know as much about grammar
as possible. This is evident both in his chapter on teaching grammar
(chapter 2) and in his coverage (chapters 3-6) of four major types of
grammar that teachers need to be familiar with to properly instruct
students in the 21st-century classroom. Though he later softens his
emphasis somewhat confusingly and even perhaps contradictorily
(see below), he is nevertheless correct to criticize English degree
programs that focus on literature to the near exclusion of grammar,
and even some English education degrees that require only one
college-level grammar course of future teachers who will be expected
to guide students through the maze of the English language. It is no
wonder that Williams' book has found a ready audience, and thus the
need for a second edition, among such under-prepared teachers.

A third major value in Williams' approach is his actual presentation of
the four major types of grammar--traditional, phrase structure,
transformational-generative, and cognitive--that he thinks teachers
should know to be effective in the language arts or writing classrooms
of today. In chapters ranging from 32-64 pages in length, he reviews
the salient features of these grammars in ways that can be valuable
introductions for those who have not studied a topic (say, e.g.,
Chomsky's transformational-generative grammar, chapter 5) or helpful
reviews of topics that are more familiar (such as traditional grammar,
chapter 3). I don't know of many teachers, at least among those who
are not professional linguists, who would not benefit from reading
Williams' excellent review of traditional grammar. Since English is, for
most of us, our native language, we tend to internalize the grammar
and be actually less familiar with the structure, terminology, and rules
than we need to be to explain the concepts to learners. Reading and
reviewing an excellent short review like Williams has provided will
expose the gaps in our knowledge and help us to rid ourselves of silly
myths like ''Put a comma where there is a natural pause in the
sentence.'' Williams does an excellent job of exposing and slaying
many of these old nonsensical usage dragons.

Having praised the excellent aspects of Williams' book, we must now
look briefly at some of the problem areas. These occur primarily in the
chapter on teaching grammar, where Williams, like too many before
him, depends too strongly on and accepts too uncritically the
questionable conclusions of Braddock et al.'s 1963 report (hereafter
referred to as Braddock) and Hillocks' 1986 meta-analysis, both of
which strongly condemned grammar as useless in improving writing.
Braddock, after all, is the report that contained the statement
that ''teaching formal [traditional] grammar has . . . a harmful effect on
the improvement of writing'' (pp. 37-38). Williams surprisingly cites this
assessment as ''strong'' (p. 27), and then later states categorically
that ''grammar instruction does not lead to improved writing'' (p. 31),
showing that he has fully accepted Braddock's view even though it
was based primarily on only one obscure British study (Harris's 1962
University of London dissertation) that was subsequently ignored in
Britain. It remains a mystery how such a work became the basis for 40
years of American K-16 policy, but to be fair, Williams is not alone in
having swallowed Braddock's conclusions without being aware of how
little lay behind them, though Tomlinson pointed these things out in
1994. The same is true for Hillocks' 1986 meta-analysis, where the
grammar section was based on only three studies. Again, most people
are probably not aware of how little foundation there was for Hillocks'
condemnation of grammar teaching, his conclusions seeming to agree
with the received wisdom of Braddock's earlier report. But Williams
presents himself as an expert, and his audience of fledgling teachers
will have even less knowledge of this historical background than he
does. Misleading them on such an important matter will seriously
handicap their budding careers.

When he sets out to explain why, as he see it, grammar instruction
does not lead to improved writing, Williams creates additional
problems. He first states that ''most of the errors we find in the writing
of native English speakers are not related to grammar'' (p. 30). This is
explained in two ways. First, he points out that in surveys of error,
such as that made by Connors and Lunsford (1988), punctuation was
cited as the most frequent error. The implication is clear (but
incorrect): punctuation has nothing to do with grammar. But it is not
possible to discuss most punctuation errors without reference to the
syntax which produced the errors in the first place. Williams, perhaps
without realizing it, falls into this trap later when he says, ''Before
students can master comma use, they need to understand clauses
and phrases'' (!) (p. 86). Then, like many others before him, Williams
creates an artificial distinction between grammar and usage when
discussing error. He says that ''the most serious errors students make
in their writing involve conventions of usage, not grammar'' (p. 31). But
it is also not possible to relegate areas that most people would clearly
identify as grammar to usage, as he does when he says agreement
between pronouns and antecedents is a usage issue rather than a
grammar issue (p. 66).

This leads him, ultimately, to make a very strange statement: ''Thus,
grammar itself does not lead to better writing, but grammar study give
us tools that allow for more effective teaching of writing'' (p. 41). But if
grammar study makes us more effective teachers of writing, would that
not then make our students better writers? That is, if we teach writing
more effectively, does that not logically imply that our students are
becoming better writers? And if it is grammar teaching that is leading
us to be more effective teachers of writing, what is it about the
teaching of grammar that is helping us to be better teachers but is not
helping our students to become better writers--indeed, is actually
harming them in the process? None of this makes one bit of sense. I
think this illustrates the difficulty one gets into when one tries to adopt
the prevailing anti-grammar dogma and still teach and believe that
grammar is important. The transparent attempt to dismiss grammar
from the writing classroom, so blatant in the work of the anti-
grammarites of the past 40 years, is surprising to find in one who
otherwise champions the value of grammar in so many ways.

One might also quibble about other minor things, such as Williams's
choice of the grammars that he reviews. There is nothing wrong with
emphasizing tradition, phrase structure, T-G, and cognitive grammar.
But one might also wonder why he does not include other worthwhile
approaches, such as Halliday's systemic functional grammar. Though
perhaps not as well known as the others, it offers at least as much
promise for systematic and analytical understanding of English,
especially from a discourse point of view.

However, none of these criticisms negates the fact that The Teacher's
Grammar Book, 2nd Edition is in most ways an excellent work of
scholarship, one that will serve and benefit English and language arts
teachers of all levels training and knowledge. As such it deserves a
wide audience.


Braddock, R., Lloyd-Jones, R., & Schoer, L. (1963). Research in
written composition. Champaign, IL: National Council of Teachers of

Connors, R., & Lunsford, A. (1988). Frequency of formal errors in
current college writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle do research. College
Composition and Communication 39, 395-409.

Halliday, M., & Matthiessen, C. (2004). An Introduction to Functional
Grammar. 3rd ed. London: Arnold.

Harris, R. (1962). An experimental inquiry to the functions and value
of formal grammar in the teaching of English, with special reference to
the teaching of correct written English to children aged twelve to
fourteen. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of London.

Hillocks, G. (1986). Research on written composition: New directions
for teaching. Urbana: IL: National Conference on Research in English.

Tomlinson, D. (1994). Errors in the research into the effectiveness of
grammar teaching. English in Education 28(1), 20-26.

Tim Hadley is a Ph.D. candidate in Technical Communication and
Rhetoric at Texas Tech University (USA), where he has taught
courses in English composition and technical writing. His research
interests include writing pedagogy and the teaching of grammar and
style in conjunction with writing.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0805852212
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 288
Prices: U.S. $ 34.50