Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

From rules to reasons

At this year’s IATEFL conference, I bought a copy of From Rules to Reasons by Danny Norrington-Davies. I can only afford to buy a couple of books at each conference, so I have to choose carefully. I went for Danny’s this time because:

  • I’m interested in alternative ways of thinking about grammar teaching, as I don’t feel the coursebook-led way we teach reflects the way I know I learn, and I’ve been led to believe it doesn’t reflect Second Language Acquisition theory either (I can’t comment on this as I’ve never read any SLA theory myself!)
  • Grammar lessons can be downright boring if students feel they know it all already, but they often can’t then apply their knowledge to their own language production.
  • I’ve seen Danny present a few times, including at this year’s conference, and I’ve always found his ideas to be very interesting, though I’m not very good at applying them (or any ideas I get from conferences!), so having them in a book might make me more likely to experiment with them.
  • It’s Danny’s first book, and I like being able to support friends 🙂

I finished reading it last week, and found Danny’s suggested alternative approach intriguing. In a (very small!) nutshell, we should encourage our students to think about the reasons why a particular writer or speaker is using particular language in a particular text at a particular time. The emphasis is on how the language is being used in that context by that person. Danny gives some theoretical background for this at the beginning of the book, including arguing why it can be more useful for students to consider reasons than rules, and examples of possible follow-up (replication) tasks that are based on them using the language in a similar context if possible, or in a different but related context (transformation, I think – I haven’t got the book in front of me now!)

In his book, Danny includes 18 lesson plans, some text-based and others task-based, which serve as models for anyone wanting to experiment with his ideas. Each plan includes examples of reasons formulated by students working with the same plan in the best. This practical thread of the book gave me a much better idea of how it might work in the classroom, and gave me the impetus I needed to try it out with my own students, so last Wednesday I experimented with an upper intermediate class.

We were looking at a report in a coursebook about places to eat in London, which would be followed by them writing their own report about Bydgoszcz, the city we live in. To get them to think about some of the language in the text, I pulled out a few phrases and put them on PowerPoint slides along with an alternative sentence that could be used instead. Students walked around the room writing the reasons they thought were behind the writer’s choice of phrasing. They then folded them under so others couldn’t see what they’d written. Hopefully you can read some of them below, but here are a few of them:

  • More formal (by far the most common!)
  • Offensive language (if you are poor)
  • It’s opened to all of readers (There are many options)

Why this phrase? - four examples Why this phrase? - four examples

Some of the comments were from the point of view of an exam marker, rather than a real-life reader:

  • It makes reader think writer has bigger word list.
  • Writer wants to show off his range of vocabulary.
  • Range of words.

For me, this backs up one of the arguments in Danny’s book that most speaks for looking at reasons and not rules: (my wording!) reasons treat the language as language, and not as a means to passing an exam.

After the students had looked at their own reasons, I gave mine, which went something like this:

  • Generally speaking, – emphasising the generalisation by putting it at the start. Varying sentence patterns, so not just S-V-O.
  • if you have a limited budget – more polite than if you are poor
  • has to offer – more open than has, it implies you have access to it and London is inviting you in, not just that these restaurants exist
  • relatively inexpensive – a more positive connotation than cheap, and therefore more attractive, as you’re more likely to buy/pay for something relatively inexpensive than something cheap which may also be poor quality
  • The majority of – more formal, seems more scientific (or at least, it does to me!)
  • nearly always means – more impersonal, varies the sentence structures used
  • tend to be, a bit – varies the language, and varied language makes something more interesting to read. tend to be also shows that it’s not always true, in contrast to the factual nature of are – the writer is saying they might be wrong, and giving themselves a get-out clause if they are!
  • There are many options – more impersonal, and therefore more formal. Again, varies the sentence patterns in the text.
  • serve high-quality food – ‘advertising speak’ – you’re more likely to choose high-quality food over great food. It’s also specific about what makes it great – the quality as opposed to e.g. the presentation or the price.

Having gone through these reasons briefly with the group, followed by a quick look at the assessment criteria (it was a continual assessment text), they then wrote their own reviews. Marking them, I noticed the students had used a lot of the phrases we’d looked at, possibly because we’d spent more time on them, possibly because I said they needed to when we looked at the criteria, but maybe, just maybe, it was because they understand the reasons behind why a writer might choose to use this language.

In short, I would encourage you to get a copy of From Rules to Reasons by Danny Norrington-Davies, and try out his ideas in your own classroom.

(You can also read a review of the book by Chris Ożóg in the June 2017 issue of the IH Journal.)

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Comments on: "From rules to reasons" (2)

  1. Thanks for sharing this and for the positive comments about the book. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it so far. I like the way you got the students to walk around the room writing their reasons on the slips of paper. This is a nice way of doing it. I think it was also interesting to see the technique used with lexical phrases rather than a specific area of grammar. I do this too but it wasn’t really explored much in the book beyond a bit in chapter 3. I think it’s interesting that the notion of connotation and register came up. This is quite common and is a big part of writer choice. I also thought it was interesting that some students thought of the reader as the marker. That makes sense I guess, especially if it helped with the replication task you did at the end. However, the activity should help them start thinking beyond that so hopefully it was useful. Thanks again for sharing. Danny

    Liked by 1 person

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