Book Review: From Rules to Reasons, Danny Norrington-Davies

by Chris Ozog

In From Rules to Reasons, Danny Norrington-Davies presents an alternative way of looking at grammar in class. Instead of focusing on narrow, potentially limiting rules, he suggests that teachers can look at the underlying reasons behind a speaker or writer’s grammar choices. There are text and task-based lessons included to try in class and various discussions to exemplify points made. But what’s wrong with rules? And why do we need to reconsider their use?

Talking About Language Rules

To illustrate, consider the following genuine extract from a discussion between me and a teacher on a recent CELTA course. I was helping the teacher with lesson planning and the target language for the lesson was used to + V1.

Me: I used to live in Kobe, but I was away for a while.

Candidate: So that’s an example of a past routine or state, living in Kobe?

Me: Yes, but where do I live now?

Candidate: Kobe

Me: Yes, I live in Kobe now. So why can I say used to if I live here now? It’s not the past.

Candidate: urgh, you always do this!

The candidate’s frustration is understandable. Here’s what he found when he looked up the rule in a very successful ELT grammar reference:

We use used to + infinitive to talk about past habits and states which are now finished (Swan, 2005: 595)

Having done his research and looked up the rule, it is then immediately broken by my point about living Kobe now. Following the rule to the letter, I cannot say that I used to live in Kobe in this situation, as my living here has clearly not finished. Yet, I did say it and can say it with impunity, but how?

What’s Going On?

Norrington-Davies uses the first section of the book to explain. Chapter one briefly outlines some reasons and techniques for focusing on grammar in the classroom, before chapter two deconstructs pedagogic grammar rules like the ‘used to’ one above, looking at how they are written, problems this poses and resulting implications. Stating that “…many language teachers are taught to believe or come to accept that that pedagogic grammar rules must be true…” (37), Norrington-Davies goes on to convincingly show how these rules focus too much on sentence-level grammar, are often derived from inauthentic examples, and how learners will progress to “come across what teachers and coursebooks have hidden from them or told them was not possible” (39), i.e. authentic language use which breaks the rules, as in our opening conversation.

Chapter three brings in the concept of reasons to explain why rules can be broken. Indeed, “…reasons… do not relate to accuracy. Instead, they tell us why we might use a certain form” (48). This is a key focus of the book. In thinking about why a form is used, rather than whether a form is possible and accurate, we are forced to consider the wider context of the utterance. Who was speaking/writing? To whom? Why? In what medium? There is much in common with more functional approaches to grammar here, with context and situation key. This involves working with whole texts and thinking about genre, purpose, audience and effect, all points that are excluded with a narrow

sentence-level rules-focused approach. The speaker or writer’s communicative intentions are also paramount: my choice of ‘used to’, for example, was telling you something that the rule does not permit.

So why did I choose it? In short, I left Kobe for a while and then returned. I was also speaking in a relatively informal situation. While the rule does not permit me to say ‘used to’ here, the reason given in section 2 of the book does:

“it [used to] is always used to describe something that has changed between the past and the present, whether the action stopes completely, is reduced or increased or, in some instances, continues under different circumstances” (45).

With this in mind, the reason I chose ‘used to’ is because I am telling you that something changed between my first time living in Kobe and this time. The reason is clear, the rule subverted.

Further Implications

Beyond the shift in focus from rules to reasons, Norrington-Davies also proposes some other changes to how grammar is taught. Instead of presenting rules, reasons should be uncovered by learners themselves. This fits well with text and task-based lessons, though with some necessary alterations to standard procedures. Learners must consider a text’s genre and purpose to gain a deeper understanding of the context and these texts should be encountered as they would be in real-life. Gone are standard reading comprehension questions, replaced with questions such as ‘how does this article make you feel?’ in order that learners engage more with the text. Rules are then replaced with reasons in the ‘uncovering’ stage, with learners prompted to think about why the writer/speaker has chosen a specific grammar form, rather than what a prescribed rule is.

Practice is another area in which changes are suggested. Gap-fills and the like may be standard controlled practices, but they are not meaningful or related to real-life language use, according to Norrington-Davies. Instead, teachers are encouraged to use replication and transposition tasks. Replication tasks are those in which learners recreate texts similar to those just read/heard; transposition tasks, on the other hand, involve communicating the same meanings in a different medium, e.g. turning a newspaper report on a crime into a dialogue between the criminal and police. Feedback on learner output then follows, focused on the initial reasons the learners uncovered, as well as their performance with the target forms in the practices.

Practical Lesson Ideas

Having laid out the book’s thesis, section two chapter one provides 18 lessons based on a reasons-focused approach to grammar. The lessons range from A2+ to B2+ and focus on a range of forms, from conditionals to the passive. They are written mainly with those studying in the UK in mind, though adapting them to other contexts should not present many problems. Each lesson comes with ideas for lead-ins, texts or tasks, sections on uncovering and discussing reasons, as well as suggestions for replication and/or transposition tasks. There is also advice on how to give feedback and explore learner output, with teacher’s notes included. Chapter two provides criteria for choosing texts, help with designing lead-ins, suggestions for how to encourage learners to process texts for deeper meaning, and a useful planning template (based on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Thinking Skills).

The section is undoubtedly useful. The lessons are engaging, practical and very clearly laid out. The procedure notes with each are clear and help make more concrete the background from the preceding

section. Newer teachers will certainly benefit from the advice about choosing texts and creating lead-ins, while more experienced teachers should enjoy experimenting with the lesson ideas. Brief ‘think about’ sections with each lesson also supply some teaching tips and points to consider before and during classes.

Some Questions

The final section of the book answers some questions that might arise when reading the preceding chapters. Some of these did indeed answer questions I had. These included questions of learners’ level, teacher training contexts and the use of controlled practices. Some questions did remain, however, most notably about the usefulness of transposition tasks which do not involve learners manipulating the target language being taught. While the point about communicating the same meanings in different ways in different contexts is clearly valuable, the lack of actual practice, creative or otherwise, with given target forms seems to give a lesson more of an awareness-raising feel, rather than a focused chance to experiment with a form. The shift to meaningful practice tasks, however, is certainly overdue.


From Rules to Reasons is a stimulating and welcome addition to ELT’s burgeoning collection of grammar books. It is clear, informative and provides much to think about for new and experienced teachers alike. The practical lesson ideas and discussion are stimulating and would allow busy teachers to experiment in class without having to spend hours preparing materials. Delta Module Two candidates might find taking a reason-based approach to grammar teaching something worth exploring for their own Experimental Practice Assignment. Ideas in the book could also certainly be used in initial and more advanced teacher training courses to help participants upgrade their language awareness. And as someone about to start some new classes in a few weeks, I’ll be excited to try some of the lesson ideas myself.

Author’s Bio: Chris Ożóg is a teacher, teacher trainer, and writer, based in Kobe, Japan. He works on various teacher training projects, CELTA and Delta courses, and collaborates with a number of different international ELT organisations, including Bell, Distance Delta, IHWO and CUP. He is also Editor of the IH Journal. His principle ELT interests are in the observation and feedback cycle in teacher development.
From Rules to Reasons, by Danny Norrington-Davies
Pavilion Publishing, 2016, £29.95.