English grammar teaching books: old and new – Online English Lessons

A post for advanced learners, or teachers

Do you have a favourite book for helping you to learn or teach English grammar?

Several years ago I bought a copy of Pinnock’s English Grammar with Exercises, which was printed in 1830. It is a ‘comprehensive grammar of the English language, intended for the use of schools and private tuition’.

A few days ago I ‘rediscovered’ it on my book shelf and I found the similarities and differences between books written to help English language teachers in 1830 and today, very interesting.

This is what Pinnock had to say about grammar in 1830:

Grammar is the art of speaking and writing correctly….because excellence in writing and speaking is founded on grammatical knowledge.

Since the days of Chaucer many attempts have been made to fix grammatical rules, and to refine the modes of expression, of the English language; and, to a very great degree this object has been accomplished.

Pinnock’s explanations of English grammar are very much as a learner or teacher of English today would expect to find in any grammar book, although some aspects of Pinnock’s book, such as the following example of conjugation of ‘to be’, would be unfamiliar:

  • thou art – (you are)
  • thou wast – (you were)
  • thou hast been – (you have been)
  • thou hadst been – (you had been)
  • thou shalt or wilt be – (you shall or will be)
  • thou wilt have been – (you will have been)

Isn’t it interesting how language changes over time?

However, the biggest difference between the old and new grammar books lies in their different approaches to actually teaching, practising and testing grammar in the classroom.

This is Pinnock’s recommended method for practising grammar in 1830:

  • the teacher dictates a question to the class. For example ‘Which are the pronouns in this sentence: “My brother has lent me his book.” What kind of pronouns are they?’.
  • the students say the answers or write their answers on their slates (students used to write on tablets of slate or similar material, and not on paper)

Pinnnock’s book is serious and academic, and his approach, like others’ of his time, is based very much on dictation, memorization and mechanical repetition – an approach which remained popular until the 1960s / 70s when approaches based on meaning, and fluency in real-life contexts, became more influential.

One of the most useful books I have for teaching English grammar is ‘Teaching Grammar Creatively’ by Gerngross, Puchta and Thornbury (2006) and, in contrast to Pinnock, Gerngross et al’s book is full of engaging and imaginative ideas and lesson plans.

The introductory chapter to the book explains some of the research into learning grammar that has influenced the book’s content and approach. The authors suggest that content and emotional depth of experience are crucial factors in the acquisition of grammar and, accordingly, they have tried to incorporate into their model texts ‘as much wit, metaphor, humour, fancy, absurdity and other imaginative devices as possible.’

As well as helping teachers to teach the rules of grammar, it provides them with activities that appeal to a variety of learning styles, and different stages of language awareness. There are lots of activities based on small group work and interaction with others, and much use is made of ‘real-life’ texts and contexts.

I use Gerngross et al’s book often in my lessons and my students and I enjoy the activities and find them effective.

I also like Pinnock’s grammar for its detailed but clear explanations of English grammar and, while I wouldn’t solely use his method of dictation, memorization and repetition in my lessons, I feel there is a place for an element of this approach (and some students like and expect it) and I suspect that Pinnock’s students probably had a very good understanding of English grammar – even if they found their lessons rather boring!

What do you think?