Nominated for an Innovation in Learner Resources
award at the 2013 ELTons, the Handbook of Spoken
Grammar is written for students from intermediate level and
above looking to develop natural fluency in their speaking skills. The Handbook of Spoken Grammar is divided into 20 units, each dealing with a
spoken grammar strategy to equip students with greater native-like linguistic
Review from Modern English Teacher 21(4)
"I suppose you could say that a new idea in ELT has come of age when it makes the leap from academic articles and reference books into tailor-made collections of practice material for learners. On that basis, ‘spoken grammar’ has come of age. This book is intended primarily for self-study, and the title presupposes, presumably, that learners at the target level (intermediate to upper intermediate) will have some idea of what ‘spoken grammar’ is, and will regard it something worth studying and practising.
Of course, there’s really nothing new about spoken grammar; in fact it’s much, much older than written grammar, since humans have been speaking much longer than they’ve been writing. What is relatively new, though, is the recognition that there are grammatical patterns which are particularly characteristic of spoken language, and which should be regarded as valid in their own right, and not just as faltering, half-baked attempts to emulate the patterns of written language.
The Introduction suggests five reasons for learning spoken grammar:
to “help to create an easy-going, natural kind of English ... used at college and work ... as well as with family and friends.”
economy – eg. “Any messages?” rather than “Are there any messages?”
simplicity – eg. direct rather than indirect speech
politeness through indirectness
more choice as to how to distribute information – eg. putting the subject of a sentence in a tail
Some of the features dealt with require study and directed practice – for example, the many uses of actually, the contrasting patterns I’m afraid not and I don’t think so, or the ability to formulate “Did you?” as a response to “I went to the match”. Other features may be ones which learners already produce spontaneously in the process of expressing themselves – e.g. “It’s a dangerous place, London”; they can now learn that when they do this they’re not making a mistake, but using a ‘tail’. Similarly, they can be reassured that in answer to the question “Where’s Dundee?”, the single word “Scotland” is a perfectly good answer – a better answer, in fact, than “Dundee is in Scotland”.
There are twenty four-page units, each consisting of two pages About the Language and two pages of practice exercises. The units focus on such things as ellipsis, substitution, politeness, vague language, hyperbole, interjections, making statements function as questions, ways of reporting speech, heads and tails; exercise types include gap-filling, matching, re-ordering and rewriting.
Some of the unit titles are bit mysterious, perhaps because there is as yet no established pedagogical terminology for some of the features dealt with; for example, Improve Your Naming Skills turns out to be about ways of addressing people, while Say Less is about ellipsis, although the art of saying less involves a great deal more than this!
The subtitle Strategies for Speaking Natural English probably gives a better idea than the main title of the scope of the material, quite a lot of which is actually lexical rather than grammatical: be vague with sort of, kind of, a couple of, etc., How to use oh, ah, wow, ouch, etc., Fantastic, Brilliant, Certainly, Absolutely etc., adjective/adverb pairs such as weird and wonderful, there and then, exaggerations such as “I’ve got a million e-mails in my inbox” ... . Some useful support for incidentally-occurring lexical items is provided in the margins – e.g. Go on a bit means ‘talk too much’.
A short note To the Teacher suggests that a lot of the material can also be used in class, and that if students do circulating conversation activities such as asking each other “Did you have a good weekend?”, the teacher can ‘feed in’ features of spoken grammar. Fine if it works, though I’m sure a lot of teachers would need much more guidance than this.
The major strength of the material is that the language points covered really do capture the flavour of the conversational English spoken in Britain today. Ironically, in view of the purpose of the material (but in keeping with ELT tradition!) an element of unnaturalness creeps in, in two ways: some of the dialogue scripts are pretty unlikely (Unit 16 Practice 5 being the prime example), while the performances of the actors, although varied in quality, are mostly unconvincing.
As well as this, there are various errors, mismatches and oddities, including typographical inconsistencies and keys which don’t give possible alternative answers. Unit 6 Practice 3 item 2 is impossible, and the key gives an answer that doesn’t fit. Unit 6 Practice 4 (gap-filling) requires two instances of done and one of does; the instructions say the opposite. Unit 13 section 3 includes the item “Actually, I’m free at from seven”; strangely, this is followed by the response “Then you’ll join us for lunch?” Unit 4 Practice 2 asks you to choose a ‘suitable title’ for, among other types of people, a man over the age of eighteen, and the answer is sir. The previous page tells us that sir and madam are used “by shopkeepers, waiters and officials, but not normally by people in general”, so in what sense is sir a suitable title?
But in view of the focus on spoken language, the most serious shortcomings concern the treatment of pronunciation.
In Unit 3 Practice 1 you hear speakers using of course and really, and you have to decide whether they sound friendly or unfriendly, prompted by the advice that “If the speaker’s voice goes up during the utterance [here there’s an upward-pointing arrow], they sound much more polite and friendly. If the intonation goes down [downward-pointing arrow], they sound impolite or uninterested.” This is not valid as a generalisation, and in fact careless use of of course with rising intonation can sound extremely impolite. The key to this exercise tells you that the first three speakers are friendly, and use rising intonation, and that the last three are unfriendly, and use falling intonation. On the recording, however, speakers 1 to 3 use a high fall, speaker 4 uses a low fall, speaker 5 uses a low rise and speaker 6 uses a low fall-rise.
Unit 18 Practice 1 asks you to “notice the ‘up-down’ intonation” in eight short responses; in fact, seven of these responses are spoken with a fall, and the other with a rise. Elsewhere, too, there are generalisations about intonation which are neither valid nor borne out by the recordings. In Unit 10, on the other hand, the example question tags, and those in Practice 2, need contrasting intonation patterns: one rising and one falling, but this isn’t mentioned. Unit 13 section 2 asks you to decide what ‘meaning’ (why the quotation marks?) a speaker expresses in a series of questions; I disagreed with some of the answers, and felt that there were no clear answers to others.
One of the Listen to Check steps in Unit 1 asks learners to “Notice how the word about is always in its weak form.” But this word doesn’t have strong and weak forms; it only has a single pronunciation (unless you allow for the elision of the first syllable (‘bout), but this is not what happens on the recording).
There are a lot of other instructions to listen and ‘notice’, ‘pay attention to’, or ‘focus on’ features of intonation and stress, but no guidance about what exactly you should be able to notice, or what is significant.
I could go on. I have gone on, in fact. But where relationships and politeness are at stake, it’s so easy to give offence if you don’t get pitch range, stress, intonation, pausing, etc. exactly right.
Returning to the subtitle, who wouldn’t want to speak ‘natural English’ – the alternative, presumably, being unnatural English or artificial English? A clear choice? Well, sort of ... So our teacher, she comes into the classroom yesterday and she goes “Right. Fancy learning some more natural English today, then?” and I’m like “Wow! Absolutely! But hang on, love. Not such a simple concept, is it, natural English? I mean, it’s brilliant, this stuff, for when I’m talking to my English mates here, but ...”
But what’s natural in London isn’t necessarily natural in the educational systems – and oral exams! – of other countries, or in international business dealings. There certainly is ‘stuff’ here that would be of use to any learner of English, but there are also things with more restricted currency. Many of the units would be most relevant to learners who are in Britain (Unit 2 says “If you listen to English people talking, you’ll soon notice ...”, but the accents on the recordings include Welsh and Scottish, among others!) and who have some degree of integrative motivation or at least want to understand more about how the natives speak. Even so, and in spite of the book being intended for self-study, they would still benefit from teacher guidance concerning appropriacy and pronunciation.
And even then, naturalness is perhaps something that can only be acquired, not learned. But this book, in spite of its shortcomings, will certainly be of great help to learners who aspire to acquire the kind of naturalness it describes."