Six top grammar reads

If you are a grammar geek searching for summer reading, look no further – our columnists have compiled a handy list

Mark Brenchley & Ian Cushing

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So, the end of term is finally here, and you're looking forward to a much-deserved break after another Herculean school year. Your flights are (hopefully) booked and your bags all but packed. Yet that one vital question remains: “Just what grammar book should I take with me to the beach?!”

Well, fret no longer: we've ransacked our own personal libraries, and picked out the six summer sizzlers we think will make the perfect grammatical companion. Most importantly, of course, whether any of these take your fancy or not, we wish you a very enjoyable summer break.

1. Knowing About Language: linguistics and the secondary English classroom, edited by Marcello Giovanelli and Dan Clayton (2016)

Simply the best, up-to-date edited collection of chapters about language and education, all of which are highly relevant for teachers. Written in an accessible way, these 17 short chapters cover theoretical and historical accounts of the relationship between language and school teaching, linguistic subject knowledge, and practical ways of applying linguistics in the classroom.

The chapters don’t dwell on old, tired arguments but look ahead to how contemporary research findings and debates in linguistics can contribute to our understanding of language in schools. The fact that it was published after the introduction of the 2014 National Curriculum makes it all the more relevant. If you haven’t studied language or linguistics before, but want to know more – and how to apply that knowledge – then this is an excellent place to start.

2. Style in Fiction, Geoffrey Leech and Mick Short (1981)

Few books better challenge the idea that grammar has nothing to offer the student of literature. Starting with the premise that “the smallest detail of language can unlock the ‘soul’ of a literary work”, this is all about how linguistics enables a deeper engagement with the kind of writing that should be at the heart of every English classroom. Inside, the authors establish and explicate a grammatical framework for literary analysis.

Best of all, they support this framework with rich, detailed examples of how it works in practice, leaving you with renewed admiration for such luminaries as Conrad, James, Lawrence and Mansfield. Exactly like the summer blockbusters that leave you immediately re-enacting all the best scenes, we pretty much guarantee you'll finish Style in Fiction and immediately want to put its ideas into practice.

3. Cohesion in English, Michael Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan (1976)

"Cohesion" is perhaps the most important linguistic concept there is, essentially comprising how the linguistic features of a piece of writing combine to make it what it is: a unified orchestration of meaning. Originally published in 1976, Halliday and Hasan's groundbreaking work remains the standard textbook for this topic. Put simply, it is jam-packed with detailed, concrete discussions of all the different resources English has for making sure each piece of writing hangs together.

You won't want to read it all in one go, but the opening and closing chapters are the best introduction you'll find, and in between are any number of features that will give you a deeper appreciation of the linguistic intricacies we weave.

4. School Discourse, Frances Christie and Beverly Derewianka (2008)

What it says on the tin. Here, you'll find an extensive, systematic exploration of the kinds of writing children produce during school, along with their characteristic linguistic features. Encompassing English, history, and science writing, this is the best text to date for getting a clearer sense, not just of how fundamentally linguistic writing development is but how intimately these features vary owing to the kinds of writing children are expected to produce. It isn't flawless and it is grounded in an Australian context, but these are minor quibbles. This book is invaluable for planning a substantive, genuinely cross-curricular approach to student language.

5. Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking: a sociocultural approach, Neil Mercer and Karen Littleton (2007)

Dialogue, talk and interaction have always been key characteristics of English teaching and, in our eyes, should be something that happens across all subjects. This book makes a strong theoretical and empirical claim for the purpose dialogue plays in thinking.

Based on research spanning a number of years and a number of international settings, Mercer and Littleton’s work has consistently demonstrated how high-quality talk in the classroom is key to socio- and cognitive development. Their term “interthinking” – or “using language to think together” – has become a popular and powerful way of describing different types of classroom discourse.

It’s a fairly dense piece of academic prose at times but is well-worth investing some time in – especially in reflecting on your own use of language as a teacher, and how language plays a role in your classroom, whatever subject you teach.

6. Language and World Creation in Poems and Other Texts, Elena Semino (1997)

When we read, we build fictional worlds in our minds that help us to understand and appreciate literary texts. In this book, Semino talks through how this happens by applying the notion of “world-building” to a wide-range of literary fiction. She convincingly demonstrates how fictional worlds are made of two things: linguistic content, and our own idiosyncratic personalities and background knowledge that we each bring to a text.

As such, this book offers a wide range of analyses, strategies and concepts for teaching about grammar in a highly contextualised and reader-response-driven way. Reading it won’t just require you to reflect on what happens when you read but will also likely make you think about what happens in students’ minds as they read in the classroom.

Ian Cushing teaches English linguistics at University College London and is a doctoral researcher in applied linguistics at Aston University, working on grammar teaching at secondary school level. Mark Brenchley is an associate research fellow at the Centre for Research in Writing at the University of Exeter. He works on the Growth in Grammar project, which is seeking to understand what grammatical development in student writing actually looks like

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Mark Brenchley & Ian Cushing

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