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Robert Poole, University of Alabama, USA

Conrad, S., & Biber, D. (2009). Real grammar: A corpus-based approach to English. New York: Pearson ESL. 160 pp., paperback.

Susan Conrad and Douglas Biber’s Real Grammar: A Corpus-Based Approach to English instructs students on the appropriate uses of grammar for varying registers with an emphasis on academic and informational writing. The corpus-based approach highlights differences in grammar usage between conversation and academic writing as it focuses students’ attention on the grammar of academic writing. Certainly, texts have been informed by corpus information before, but few instructional grammar texts have integrated corpus data into their design, layout, and activities to the extent of Conrad and Biber’s text. An extension of the foundational work of Sinclair’s COBUILD texts (Goodale, 1995), Biber and Conrad’s book requires no knowledge of corpus linguistics or prior training with corpus consultation, thereby enabling further integration of corpora into mainstream language-teaching practice. Biber and Conrad’s corpus-based approach can potentially increase the efficiency of second-language writing instruction by exposing learners to frequent patterns and authentic language use from different registers of language use. The textbook presents key language patterns from four registers (i.e., conversation, news reporting, fiction writing, and academic writing) and two dialects of English (i.e., British and American English).

Real Grammar, as noted by the authors in the introduction, is designed for language learners seeking more specific information who have received prior grammar instruction in likely a more traditional format and are at an upper-intermediate or advanced level of proficiency. The authors intend for this book to serve as a supplemental resource for students and aim not to replace existing materials but to enhance current pedagogy through their informative corpus-based approach. The book displays the grammar that native speakers actually use in an effort to better enable learners to efficiently make appropriate linguistic decisions in the various contexts they are likely to encounter. The corpus extracts are modified―that is, vocabulary simplified and sentences shortened―to ensure comprehension and retain authenticity while focusing students’ attention on the structure being practiced in each lesson. However beneficial this approach to grammar may be, metalanguage used in the text may prove problematic for some learners. For example, the characteristics of the progressive verb are given as (a) the subject of the verb actively controls the action or state and (b) the verb describes an action or state that happens over an extended period of time. Though this explanation may be difficult for some to understand, the authors clearly state that the text is intended for more proficient users and should not be used for lower-proficiency levels.

Corpus-based approaches to instruction certainly offer some exciting possibilities for the language classroom. In the introduction, the authors quite effectively introduce both learners and teachers to their corpus-based method, the benefits of their approach, and the text’s use of corpus data to further language learning. Effective use of the text does not require knowledge of corpus linguistics or training on how to use corpus data. Biber and Conrad provide a concise, informative, and anxiety-reducing introduction for both teachers and learners that helps guide users. The definitions provided for the terms corpus, register, discourse, and text among others are quite helpful for learners as they encounter a corpus-based approach for likely their first time. These easy-to-understand definitions benefit the learner and make the corpus information presented in the text more comprehensible and accessible.

The text is divided into 50 units and 11 sections in a coherent and logical manner that showcases register differences (i.e., how the language patterns studied in each unit are used in conversation, news reporting, fiction writing, and academic writing). The lessons address how the grammar topic is typically treated in a traditional grammar book and then present how the structures are actually used in spoken and written discourse. For example, Unit 1 is titled “Did you want more coffee?” and presents corpus information showing the use of the simple past tense for polite offers, whereas Unit 3 instructs learners on the special uses of discovery and existence verbs in academic writing. The activities within each lesson are excellent in their design and sequence. The first activity of each lesson asks students to analyze authentic language extracted from the corpus of the target form in use. Learners then do exercises intended to reinforce the lesson followed by an application activity in which students complete a writing activity employing the new form. The subsequent lessons progress similarly as corpus information is employed to teach learners grammar that is often not presented in traditional texts.

The text also contains sections on adjectives and adverbs, noun modification, and gerunds and infinitives, with nearly all sections including writing activities. Both the presentation of grammatical information and the exercises identify the registers from which the utterances come, thus allowing learners to see (and hopefully learn) how language patterns typically appear and often differ in speech versus writing. This feature of the book can be particularly useful in helping learners recognize and integrate the conventions and standards of academic writing. At the same time, it is important to note that the units are not instructed in the traditional prescriptive manner, as the corpus data is used by the authors to inform and guide each lesson with special attention to the grammar of writing.

A corpus-based approach to language teaching and learning is a long-awaited and needed alternative to traditional grammar instruction originally written by a Catholic bishop, based on Latin grammar, and intended to distinguish social classes in 18th-century England (Aitchison, 2001, pp. 8-13). More texts will hopefully soon employ a similar approach to Conrad and Biber’s Real Grammar, allowing learners to finally be taught the grammar native speakers use [1]. With its nontraditional approach to the grammar lessons, the inclusion of nontraditional topics (e.g., nonsexist language choices, imprecise noun phrases, amplifiers and downtoners), and excellent design and sequence of activities, Real Grammar engages students as it presents information possibly never encountered by many language learners.

[1] See, for example, Smith’s (in press) Steps to Professional Reading and Writing, a corpus-based introduction to academic writing; Burdine and Barlow’s (2008) Business Phrasal Verbs (2008), part of a series of corpus-based books on different communication contexts; and McCarthy and O’Dell’s (2008) Academic Vocabulary in Use, part of a series of corpus-based books on vocabulary and different grammatical topics.


Aitchison, J. (2001). Language change: Progress or decay? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burdine, S., & M. Barlow. (2008). Business phrasal verbs. Houston, TX: Athelstan.

Goodale, M. (1995). COBUILD Concordance Samplers 4: Tenses. London: Harper Collins.

McCarthy, M., & F. O’Dell. (2008). Academic vocabulary in use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, C. (In press). Steps to professional reading and writing. Houston, TX: Athelstan.

Robert Poole,, is a MA-TESOL student at the University of Alabama where he teaches composition for nonnative speakers of English. He has taught EFL in Nicaragua and South Korea and was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guyana.

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