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''Can anyone suggest a good German grammar?'': An analysis of a popular North American German grammar

John L. Plews
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In 2004 a colleague posted an inquiry about German grammar textbooks to the electronic mailing list of the Canadian Association of University Teachers of German (CAUTG). She asked,

In 2004 a colleague posted an inquiry about German grammar textbooks to the electronic mailing list of the Canadian Association of University Teachers of German (CAUTG). She asked, “Can anyone suggest a good German grammar?” (Kennedy, 2004). She sought a book that her intermediate-level students could use for reference and practice to supplement their in-class learning; they particularly wanted lists of simple past forms and past participles of verbs that would be easy to use and effective for learning. Of the ten books (see below) suggested, the most frequently recommended was Rankin and Wells’ Handbuch zur deutschen Grammatik (2004; henceforth Handbuch). I too recommended this book, albeit without having undertaken any formal examination of its effectiveness. Given that Handbuch remains a popular choice among German programs across Canada1 and that I too have recently been looking for a German grammar reference book for a third-year university course, this article represents my attempt (after the fact) to examine the effectiveness of Handbuch with regard to its presentation of grammar explanations and the nature of its practice activities. For my purposes, I refer to the latest, fifth edition of Handbuch (2011).


In the following, I first report on the responses to my colleague’s informal inquiry. Then, following a brief discussion of grammar textbook analysis, I provide a grounded content analysis of Handbuch. This begins with a general descriptive overview of the work, followed by a quantitative content analysis of the layout and content of the grammar explanations and the kinds of grammar practice activities contained in the book. This analysis categorizes aspects of the book in order to provide a more detailed view of its pedagogical components. Such an analysis may serve as a starting point for instructors wishing to investigate and compare other grammar or language course textbooks. Next, I analyze and interpret two sample chapters: Chapter 1, because this chapter gives the book’s first impression, and Chapter 8, because it deals with the simple past, the grammar point that initiated my colleague’s inquiry. Here I reconstruct the chapters with consideration for English first language (L1) learners of German. Finally, I critically evaluate my findings by considering them in light of second language teaching and learning theories and conclude with a discussion of the validity of recommending this book; I also reflect briefly on the trustworthiness and authenticity of grammar textbook analysis.

1. The informal inquiry

The nine respondents to my colleague’s inquiry were affiliated with nine different institutions across all regions of Canada. Their recommendations included ten books in total, though not all were specifically grammar textbooks. Three were German grammar textbooks: Handbuch (2004), German in review (Sparks & Vail, 2004), and Lehr- und Übungsbuch der deutschen Grammatik (Dreyer & Schmitt, 2000). There was one comparative reference book: English grammar for students of German (Zorach & Melin, 2001). There was a grammar reference and style manual: Hammer’s German grammar and usage (Durrell, 2002). There were three German language course textbooks: Kaleidoskop (Moeller et al., 2001), Neue Horizonte (Dol-lenmayer & Hansen, 2003), and Treffpunkt Deutsch (Widmaier & Widmaier, 2003). Finally, there were two verb learning books: Starke Verben (Reimann, 2003) and 501 German verbs (Strutz, 1998). Only two books were recommended by more than one respondent: German in review was named twice and Handbuch was named five times, making it the clear favorite. One inquiry respondent writing of Handbuch indi-cated that her/his students had liked it but that s/he had “found a number of angli-cisms and ‘usage’ issues in it” (personal communication). By “usage issues,” s/he meant uncertainty as to how best to access or practice the content knowledge. Con-sidering the fundamental role of grammar in foreign language teaching and learning, even in communicative approaches, it is important for teachers to know whether, and understand how, the selected textbook optimally assists the development of learners’ knowledge of the target linguistic system and promotes their ability to apply it meaningfully. Hence, using a grounded approach, this study sets out to examine whether the grammar explanations in Handbuch are easy to use and useful to English L1 learners of German and whether the practice exercises are designed to most effectively develop their knowledge of the linguistic system as well as their skill in using it.

2. On textbook analysis

Scholarly literature on textbooks has addressed various questions within two princi-ple directions. An initial concern is textbook production and especially their readability (e.g., Mikk, 2000) or design (e.g., Hartley, 1994; LaSpina, 1998). While such works primarily assist the development of new textbooks, they also serve as sources of criteria for analyzing the accessibility of the content knowledge of existing textbooks. A second direction concerns the analysis of the finished product. This research includes analyses of the sociohistorical and sociopolitical conditions of production and use (e.g., Apple, 1986; Apple & Christian-Smith, 1991), inherent cultural and ideological biases (e.g., Graci, 1989; Ilett, 2009; Kramsch, 1987; Petneki, 1999; Vandergriff, Barry, & Mueller, 2008), the relation between teacher, textbook, and student in learning (e.g., Allwright, 1981; Crawford, 2002; Koenig, 1996, 2002; Olsen, 2000; Schmenk, 2013; Stodolsky, 1989; Waychert, Kamei, & Akaki, 2007), and aspects of layout (e.g., Lesikin, 2000; Levin & Mayer, 1993; Rieger, 1999; Woodward, 1993) or content knowledge and exercises or activities in relation to learning or linguistic theories (e.g., Di Meola, 2011; Dykstra-Pruim, 2003; Funk & Kuhn, 2007; Lipinski, 2010; Rieger, 2007; Rösler, 2013; Schütze, 2011 ; Snider, 2005; Strzelczyk, 1994; Vilar Sánchez, 2001).

Research on textbook analysis has also discussed analytical criteria (Funk, 2004; Kast & Neuner, 1994; Mikk, 2000). Kast and Neuner (1994) remark that—in the interest of purported objectivity, transparency, and understanding—criteria for analyzing textbooks are constantly being suggested. For course textbooks in Ger-man as a foreign language, Kast and Neuner point to the Mannheimer Gutachten (Engel, Krumm, & Wierlacher, 1977-1979) as the most extensive criteria and outline further sets by Krumm and Funk (Kast & Neuner, pp. 100-108). These sets of criteria propose a series of general categories relating to various aspects of the textbook that are further subdivided into a checklist of descriptive-analytical and evaluative statements or questions. The general categories include the format and nature of materials that comprise or accompany the textbook, its layout by chapter or page, curricular compatibility, cultural or thematic content, types of text, language, gram-mar, types of exercises and activities, consideration of student perspective, and di-rections for the teacher. I have synthesized the criteria reproduced in Kast and Neuner with additional criteria suggested by Hartley (1994)2 for analyzing layout in Tables 1 and 23, grammar sections in Tables 3 and 4, and exercises and activities in Tables 5 and 6. I have separated criteria that concern empirical observation and ob-jective description (Tables 1, 3, & 5) from those that are more subjective, evaluative, or interpretive (Tables 2, 4, & 6) in order to facilitate a clearer analytical process.

While these checklists are still by no means exhaustive, they do encourage a thorough analysis of the layout, explanations, and exercises of a grammar textbook. However, if applied to an entire work or if researchers respond with more than a simple description, number, or yes/no answer, such lists would make the task of analysis onerous or impractical. Certainly, some criteria and categories are overlap-ping, repetitive, contradictory, and open to interpretation; they may vary according to the teaching/learning context and could be difficult to gauge realistically from an instructor’s perspective. In some instances, criteria reflect particular developments in the history of second language acquisition theories that with time may have become contentious. Clearly, researchers or instructors need to select criteria in order to fo-cus on aspects that are most significant to them or, rather, their students.

Kast and Neuner (1994) draw attention to the problems of developing and ap-plying a priori criteria to analyze textbooks: They can be unchanging and become canonical, claim to be scientific, and appear objective (when they are not). The au-thors maintain that all criteria are relative and that their design and application de-pend on a researcher’s/instructor’s subjective understandings of the material circumstances of the learning context. They suggest researchers/instructors amend given criteria to suit their own purposes. However, this may set any investigation up for disappointment, since textbooks are never produced with highly specific circum-stances in mind. Indeed, Kast and Neuner remark how second language textbook analysis necessarily results in negative criticism of the textbook as methodologically lacking or outdated. They explain that such analyses are driven by researchers’ awareness of ongoing developments in teaching methodologies or changes in society: Negative criticism is assured since the time it takes to conceive, develop, publish, and popularize a textbook is exponentially longer than the time needed by researchers to circulate new ideas on language learning or for society to change. The authors see this predetermined negative analysis as a positive outcome since it reflects researchers’ new critical perspective and so measures the progress made since the textbook was written.

In order to elicit data that is representative of a grammar textbook, research-ers/instructors may wish to avail themselves of criteria and checklists but avoid rigid-ly imposing them. Such lists are useful for raising awareness of pertinent factors, but they remain constructs. Researchers/instructors could first describe the content so that categories would emerge from the work itself. Once having established a general picture, they could use the emergent categories and corresponding results to evaluate the book’s effectiveness in assisting learners. This they could do by comparing the results with the assertions of the second language acquisition theories they espouse—albeit in the knowledge that, if those theories are new, the textbook may not be based on them. Such a grounded approach enables research-ers/instructors to observe the textbook as a whole, identify how it contributes to the development of students’ understanding and use of the linguistic system, and draw attention to areas where interventions are necessary or future editors should make alterations.

3. A grounded approach to Handbuch

Content analysis

General descriptive overview

Handbuch (2011) is 524 pages long and contains 24 “regular chapters” (p. xiv) with explanations and exercises and six “Reference Chapters” with only explanations in 452 pages. Its 24-page front section includes the 7-page table of contents, a “Chap-ter Preview,” and remarks “To the instructor.” These sections repeatedly introduce the book’s organization and describe teaching and learning techniques that may be beneficial when using the book. Handbuch also includes a 47-page “Reference Section” at the end, comprised of three grammatical appendices, a German-English vocabulary list, a grammatical index, and credits. Each of the 24 regular chapters is divided into up to seven sections: “zum Beispiel” (“For Example”), “Grammatik” (“Grammar”), “Wortschatz” (“Vocabulary”), “Übungen” (“Exercises”), “Anwendung” (“Use”), “Schriftliche Themen” (“Writing Topics”), and “Zusammenfassung” (“Sum-mary”). The organization of the six “Reference Chapters” corresponds with the “Grammatik” and “Zusammenfassung” sections of the regular chapters, although the former subtitle is dropped and the latter is replaced with “Übersicht” (“Overview”). All chapters are written in black or bluish type on white paper or black and white on blue shading. They make use of various font sizes and styles for chapter titles, running heads, and the many section and subsection titles. Other page-level items include justification, indenting, footnotes, and an assortment of graphic devices or visuals.

The “zum Beispiel” section appears at the beginning of only 9 chapters and is supposed to “present a cultural theme or focus that serves as the basis for discus-sion of each chapter’s grammar point(s)” (Handbuch, p. xiii). More precisely, it is a textual or pictorial cultural feature that operates as an impetus for the vocabulary used for examples following grammar explanations and sometimes for the stimuli in the accompanying exercises. The cultural artifacts include a pop song (Ch. 1), TV stills with an explanatory paragraph in German (Ch. 3) or a footnote in English (Ch. 18), a movie still with an English plot summary provided in a footnote (Ch. 5), an ex-cerpt from an opera libretto and a reproduction of its original announcement (Ch. 8), a photo of an unidentified German national soccer player4 and the words of a Loriot skit (Ch. 11), poems (Ch.15 & Ch. 24), and a movie poster (Ch. 22).

Grammar explanation is provided in three sections—“Grammatik,” “Wortschatz,” and “Zusammenfassung” (or “Übersicht”)—as well as sometimes in the subsection “Tipps zum Schreiben” (“Tips for Writing”) of “Schriftliche Themen.” “Grammatik” usually focuses on one particular grammar structure, treating it system-atically and comprehensively with detailed explanations of rules in English. These explanations treat grammatical form, semantic meaning (sentence use), and some aspects of textual or sociolinguistic use. They draw on formal and common English-language terminology, which are occasionally elaborated, and are followed by Ger-man examples with English translations. Titles, subtitles, enumeration, and alphabetization are used to distinguish different points of a grammatical structure. Additional information or related points are relayed in footnotes or indicated by cross-references. Numerous typographical cues and visual supports are drawn upon, including bold and italic type, small capitals, blue script, underlining, square bullets, other graphic and rhetorical forms (asterisks, ellipsis, speech marks, paren-thesis, square brackets, m-lines, arrows, checkmarks, squares, abbreviations, “x,” “y,” “+,” and “=”), lists, captions or slogans, tables or charts, and diagrams or formulae. “Wortschatz” introduces lexical items that raise additional learning concerns regarding grammatical meaning and usage (with the exception of the instructional vocabulary provided in Ch. 1). The “Tipps zum Schreiben” notes about “process-oriented writing strategies” (Handbuch, p. xvii) frequently apply grammar principles to written production. Each chapter ends with the “Zusammenfassung” recapitulating the main points of that chapter’s “Grammatik” in English in point form and/or in a chart or diagram. “Wortschatz” and “Zusammenfassung” draw on many of the same layout and typographical or visual features as “Grammatik.”

“Übungen,” “Anwendung,” and “Schriftliche Themen” provide 336 exercises and activities for grammar practice. The authors claim that these sections are de-signed to “foster [students’] communicative proficiency” (p. xvi), enable them to apply and enhance their communicative skills” (p. xvi), and encourage their “competence in written expression” (p. xvii). They also state that the exercises and activities “call for creativity and spontaneous interaction” (p. xvi), “are based on contextualized real-world topics” (p. xvi), and are “conducive to real communication and can be used to facilitate a genuine exchange of students’ ideas, experiences, views, and knowledge” (p. xx). The exercises and activities sections draw on the same layout, typographical, and visual techniques as the grammar explanation sections. In contrast to the explanations, instructions are given entirely in German; English appears only in “Tipps zum Schreiben” (which, as noted, is a further instance of explanation). The number and type of exercises vary from section to section and chapter to chapter. Chapter 1 (on word order) has the fewest with seven exercises and chapters 13 (on adjectives) and 21 (on the subjunctive II) have the most with 22 each. The median number of exercises is 14. The exercises are designed primarily to practice writing and speaking, though may involve some reading and listening skills development5. They include both controlled and open-ended varieties and individual, pair, and group activities are all present. Where the exercises are not cue-response style, vocabulary and phrases are often supplied. Where possible, the cues and suggested vocabulary draw on the cultural impetus in “zum Beispiel.”

The exercises and activities in Handbuch include different kinds of drills, ex-tended writing activities, reading or telling or reporting aloud, and communicative activities (see below for definitions). Among the drills, I identified the three classes of mechanical, meaningful, and communicative drills. The most rudimentary, the mechanical drill is defined by three characteristics: The textbook (or instructor) provides a word, chunk, or sentence as a cue that is designed to elicit a completely controlled response from students; there is only one correct response; and students need not necessarily comprehend the meaning of the cue or the grammar in order to provide the correct answer (so long as they remember the form or observe a pattern) (Brown, 2001; Paulston, 1971; Richards & Schmidt, 2002; Wong & VanPatten, 2003).

A meaningful drill is defined by the same characteristics yet with one signifi-cant difference: The textbook provides a cue designed to elicit a controlled response and singularly correct response from students, except now students must under-stand the meaning of the cue and grammar structure in order to produce the correct response (Brown, 2001; Paulston, 1971; Richards & Schmidt, 2002; Wong & Van-Patten, 2003). Both mechanical and meaningful classes of drills can be further divided into different types, with the most common being substitution and transformation. Substitution drills require the addition or change of a word, phrase, or part of a word, including agreements (i.e., concords, declensions, and conjugation) according to case, gender, number, person, and tense. Transformation drills require syntactic changes. In some instances, this requires additional grammatical changes (such as agreements) and new lexical items. A distinction in type is helpful when regarding meaningful drills since exercises of this class range greatly from very simple to more elaborate manipulations of language.

A communicative drill is again a cue-response exercise, yet now the textbook controls only the grammatical structure and not the lexical items; there is a correct answer only in terms of the grammatical accuracy or appropriateness; and students not only must understand the meaning of the cue, they also provide their own new and meaningful content in their answers, that is, the content is generally anticipated but not exactly known when the cue is given (Brown, 2001; Paulston, 1971; Richards & Schmidt, 2002; Wong & VanPatten, 2003). These drills are called “communicative” because they are less about the manipulation of language for the sake of structure and analysis and more about the appropriate transfer of language according to the speaker’s—or writer’s—situation (Paulston). However, communicative drills are communicative only to a limited extent: In a textbook-based classroom context the sender of the message in a drill (i.e., the textbook or the instructor, either while marking or having students read aloud their written responses for in-class feedback) is usually concerned exclusively with the grammatical correctness and appropriateness of a student’s/receiver’s responses; if these responses were to be read out in class for checking, genuine engagement with and realistic attention to the communicative meaning of the response would depend greatly on the instructor’s mindfulness, general interest, or time available—and so might be quite rare and fleeting.

In Handbuch I noticed two types of communicative drills: the type with a series of cues or questions to answer and what I shall call “limited-cue substitution-style communicative drills.” For the latter, students provide a paragraph or list of sentences in response to a personal or cultural topic exemplified by a model sentence. While this second type may appear to be a kind of free composition since students write in response to a singular thematic stimulus and freely choose lexical information that is pertinent to them or the cultural situation, the requirement of rigidly following model sentences means that the structure of the exercise is in fact still that of a drill. Essentially, students substitute lexical items of their choosing and make any necessary agreements in order to communicate their own content meaning but are restricted by the grammatical form and syntax.

Taking notes and cued picture narratives are the other forms of controlled writing in Handbuch. Taking notes usually occurs as a transitional stage between a telling and a retelling. In cued picture narratives students provide written descriptions of sequenced images using correct and appropriate vocabulary and grammar. All other writing activities are kinds of free composition. This is when the textbook provides only a general direction as to theme and genre for a writing activity and the student is free to choose both lexical items and grammar structures. Free composition includes mostly short factual essays and reports on topics reflecting personal history, experiences, and opinions or social and cultural-historical issues, situations, and phenomena. Some activities require students to write short creative fiction. Most of the free composition themes and genre forms are likely to be familiar to students.

Like writing, speaking exercises and activities include controlled and freer ac-tivities and range in kind from mechanical to meaningful and communicative. At the most controlled end of this spectrum I have identified mostly mechanical reading aloud tasks (which are sometimes a stage in a particular written exercise), generally mechanical and occasionally meaningful reading aloud substitution drills (simply an oral version of written substitution drills), and spoken communicative drills.

More extended speaking exercises include the somewhat less controlled tell-ing and reporting/retelling and the freer interactive communication activities. Telling is a type of spoken monolog where students generate individual oral descriptions of or presentations on particular experiences or phenomena. Reporting/retelling is a responsive spoken monolog. Here, students transfer information by re-presenting other students’ telling, report on a story read previously or information gleaned earli-er from a nonfiction source, or present the results of a prior pair or group discussion to others.

The interactive communication activities in Handbuch can be divided into two broad varieties that I shall call “pseudointeractive communication” and “purposeful interactive communication” (cf. VanPatten, 1998). In pseudointeractive communica-tion students are required to ask each other (usually referential) questions on or dis-cuss a prescribed topic. They ask for and give information for the sake of asking and answering. They are not necessarily obliged to attend to the meaning of the infor-mation exchanged, except perhaps to report/retell the discussion. Such activities include question-and-answer, interviews, and discussions that lead to a pointless exchange of facts or opinions. In contrast to pseudointeractive communication, in purposeful interactive communication students are required to take a position and engage with the information exchanged in order to achieve a certain goal. Such activities tend to be characterized by a defined situation, a dilemma, a stance or side-taking, and a meaningful objective. Purposeful interactive communication activities in Handbuch include role-play, debate, collaboration and negotiation, persuasion, and interviewing or discussion as preparation for a meaningful creative task.

Listening and reading comprehension exercises are infrequent in Handbuch. I noticed only three kinds: listening orientation/recall, literal reading comprehension, and reading recognition. Listening orientation is a top-down comprehension process that is concerned with determining essential details of a spoken text (Richards & Schmidt, 2002). Literal reading comprehension is the most straightforward of the four levels of reading comprehension6 in that it concerns grasping the actual content of the text without inference, opinion, or feeling. Reading recognition is a bottom-up comprehension process where students focus on part of the linguistic code.

Quantitative content analysis

The above general description has revealed a number of categories by which Hand-buch can be analyzed and evaluated. Since I am concerned with assessing the book’s facilitation of learners’ access to and development of meaningful and accu-rate use of the target language, I refer to categories governing the layout and content of the grammar explanations and the kinds of practice exercises and activities. For the layout and content of the grammar explanations, the categories that emerged from the general description include the use of color shading, titles, subtitles, enumeration, alphabetization, examples, footnotes, cross-references, bold type, italics, small capitals, blue script, underlining, square brackets, other graphic and rhetorical forms, lists, captions or slogans, tables or charts, diagrams and formulae, a contextualizing cultural feature, and the inclusion of the grammatical elements of form, semantic meaning (sentence use), and textual and sociolinguistic use. The categories that emerged from the general description regarding the kinds of practice exercises and activities include writing, speaking, reading, and listening exercises. Writing exercises and activities are further distinguishable as mechanical drills, substitution-style meaningful drills, transformation-style meaningful drills, communicative drills, limited-cue substitution-style communicative drills, taking notes, picture stories, free composition on familiar topics, and free composition on unfamiliar topics. Speaking exercises and activities can be categorized as mechanical/meaningful reading aloud, mechanical/meaningful reading aloud substitution drills, spoken communicative drills, telling, reporting/retelling, and pseudointeractive and purposeful interactive communication. Further, I identify top-down listening orientation, top-down literal reading comprehension, and bottom-up reading recognition (or grammar discovery) exercises.

Findings and discussion of the quantitative content analysis of the layout and content of the grammar explanations

Table 7 shows the presence and frequency of the abovementioned items for “Grammatik” and the first untitled sections of the reference chapters (henceforth as-sumed under “Grammatik”). Table 8 shows the same for “Zusammenfassung” and “Übersicht.” I have selected these sections for analysis since they present and sum-marize the principle grammar structure of each chapter. The symbol “” indicates the presence and a blank box the absence of an item.

Table 7 shows that the principle layout features of Handbuch are consistent across “Grammatik.” Color shading, titles, and enumeration are used in all 30 sec-tions and subtitles and alphabetization are present in all but one. It seems students should be able to navigate the general content of “Grammatik” easily, making distinctions between points and transitions from point to point with signage that is routinized and will quickly become familiar.

The varied typography, graphic or rhetorical cues, and visual supports are al-so relatively consistent. Bold type and italics are used in all “Grammatik” sections, while small capitals and blue script are found in 28. Underlining and blue square bullets are used in half (including checkmark bullets in Ch. 15). At least one of the abovementioned graphic and rhetorical cues is used in every “Grammatik.” Lists and tables are used in 22 of the sections each. Diagrams and formulae occur in eight sections. The least used feature is captions or slogans, which appear in 37 “Gram-matik”—yet none are integrated into the text. From the largely consistent variety of these supports, it seems that every effort has been made to assist students in ac-cessing the content of the grammar presented—at least insofar as it appears on the page—and especially to draw their attention to particular aspects, essential forms, and important rules.

The thorough attention to content detail is also evident in the use of linguistic and academic supports. Examples and cross-references to related grammar points elsewhere in the same chapter or in other chapters are found in every “Grammatik.” Footnotes providing further information are present in 26. Contextualization is less consistent, for cultural features—supposedly evoked initially in “zum Beispiel” to stimulate discussion and “[engage] students’ interest and [focus] their attention” (Handbuch, p. xiii)—are extended across only 11 “Grammatik” sections. While this feature may provide vocabulary for examples, it does not illuminate the explanations.

Regarding the content of the grammar, there is a clear emphasis on struc-tures and semantics and less attention given to pragmatics. Grammatical form is treated in every “Grammatik.” Meaning is explained in all but one: Chapter 15 on comparatives and superlatives in German presents how they are formed but omits stating what they mean grammatically. Even though the semantic meaning (sen-tence use) of a grammar structure is consistently given, the extent of the explanation varies and at times is minimal or lacks clarity. For example, in Chapter 6 on German prepositions the following single, technical sentence is offered as an explanation of the “Use” of accusative prepositions: “An accusative preposition is followed by an object noun or pronoun in the accusative case” (Handbuch, p. 86). This sentence does not explain what a preposition is or what it means to be accusative. Similarly, Chapter 11 on German infinitives provides the barest explanation: “German infinitive structures sometimes translate into English with to___, and sometimes with an -ing construction” (p. 174). This comparative definition does not explain what a German infinitive means grammatically—or for that matter either a to- infinitive or an -ing form verb phrase in English.

Grammatical usage—the sociolinguistic or textual context of a structure’s use—forms a part of the overall grammar explanation in 19—or less than two thirds of the—“Grammatik” sections. Even here the amount and depth of explanation of grammatical usage is minimal and seems to be mentioned primarily in specific in-stances of idiomatic expressions, formal or polite discourse, or colloquial usage. For example, Reference Chapter 5 on German verb prefixes briefly explains the collo-quial usage of “her” (Handbuch, p. 436) and comments no further on pragmatics. The linguistic knowledge that Handbuch encourages in students is concerned more with the how and what of German structures than with the when and why.

As Table 8 indicates, most of the layout features found in “Grammatik” are present in the “Zusammenfassung” and “Übersicht” sections. However, overall, fewer features are used consistently here and the more consistent ones are not necessarily the same as those in “Grammatik.” For example, color shading and titles are again used in all 30 sections, but enumeration appears in 24 and subtitles and alphabetization are present in only three sections each. Clearly, many distinctions between points within a given structure are dropped in the summaries, which therefore require less subdivision, while emphasis is put on grouping together the most salient linguistic facts.

A similar reduction occurs with typographical, graphic or rhetorical, and visual features in “Zusammenfassung” and “Übersicht.” Bold type is again used in all of these sections, but italics are used in 22, blue script in 15, and small capitals in only five. Underlining declines to five sections and blue square bullets to only one. The various graphic and rhetorical cues are used consistently in all but one of the summaries, lists are used in 16, and tables now appear in every section. While captions do not appear at all in these sections, diagrams and formulae at 17 are more than twice as likely to feature here than in “Grammatik.” Also, examples feature in all but two sections. However, they are usually isolated morphemes or single lexical items and rarely in chunks or at sentence level. There is only one footnote and cross-references are reduced to three instances in these sections.

Even though the consistency of the full range of supports is less in “Zusam-menfassung” than in “Grammatik,” there is nonetheless an effort to guide learners’ attention toward the most salient parts of the grammatical content knowledge. This effort depends more on broad categories (titles), isolated points (predominance of bold type and of examples at the level of words or parts of words), and synthesizing (tables) or reductive models (diagrams and formulae). It depends less on extensive categorization (fewer subtitles and less alphabetization), detail (fewer instances of italics, small capitals, underlining, and square bullets), and the connectedness of grammar structures either internally within the system (few footnotes or cross-references) or externally with the world (absence of sentence-level examples and contextualization).

This shift in the layout of the grammar presentation in “Zusammenfassung” and “Übersicht” is accompanied by increased attention to grammatical form and de-creased interest in meaning or usage. Form is mentioned in all 30 “Zusammenfas-sung” sections, meaning is treated in 21, and usage in six. As noted for “Grammatik,” the explanations of meaning and usage are sometimes quite minimal. For example, the “Zusammenfassung” of Chapter 9 on modal verbs summarizes one aspect of usage evasively: “German speakers use the simple past tense of mo-dals more often than the present perfect” (Handbuch, p. 155). Interestingly, the explanation of the same point in this chapter’s more expansive “Grammatik” sheds no further light on why and exactly when this “much more common” (p. 147) occurrence is so. Clearly, to an even greater extent than in “Grammatik,” the “Zusammenfassung” and “Übersicht” sections are more concerned with structure than semantics or pragmatics.

Findings and discussion of the quantitative content analysis of the exercises and activities

Table 9 reproduces the number of exercises and activities in “Übungen,” “Anwen-dung,” and “Schriftliche Themen” based on the four principle language skills: writing, speaking, reading, and listening. I have not looked for the skills of cultural knowledge and intercultural competence since these are not the primary purview of grammar books, although pragmatics and intercultural competence may overlap. The total of 336 exercises across the chapters can be counted as 376 activities, meaning that some exercises are counted twice or three times if their learning focus is the development of more than one skill or if they develop a skill by requesting more than one activity. Of the 376 activities, 270 (72%) are intended to develop the ability to apply grammar knowledge in writing. This figure by far exceeds the 93 (25%) for applying grammar knowledge in speaking, the 8 (2%) using reading, and 5 (1%) involving listening.

Table 10 breaks down the above figures on skills development exercises and activities into classes and types of exercise. Of the 270 writing exercises, 212 are drills, thus accounting for almost four fifths (79%) of all writing exercises and over half (56%) of the total. Of these drills, 39 are mechanical (14% of writing exercises & 10% of all). 76 are meaningful drills (28% of writing exercises & 20% of all): 50 are substitution-style meaningful drills (19% of writing exercises); 26 are transformation-style meaningful drills (10% of writing exercises). There are 97 communicative drills (36% of writing exercises & 26% of all): 54 are the more familiar multi-cue kind (20% of writing exercises); 43 are the limited-cue kind (16% of writing exercises). By add-ing the two reading aloud substitution drills and the 11 spoken communicative drills to the number of writing drills, we can see that drills per se account for 225 or three fifths (60%) of all exercises in Handbuch.

The remaining writing exercises include one explicit request to take written notes, four picture stories, and 52 free composition activities, of which all but three are on a topic or takes a genre form that would be familiar to adult students. One “other” exercise involves writing but does not contribute to the development of writing skills: It is a series of questions on pragmatics requiring one-word answers. Thus, in the final count of writing exercises, 52 (19%) are free writing practice and 218 (81%) are controlled writing practice. Put another way, 14% of all exercises are free writing practice and 58% are controlled writing practice.

Of the 93 speaking exercises, 3 or 3% (or less than 1% of all exercises) re-quire reading aloud, 2 or 2% (or 0.5% of all) are reading aloud substitution drills, 11 or 12% (or 4% of all) are spoken communicative drills, 29 or 31% (or 8% of all) are telling, and 13 or 14% (or 3% of all) are retelling. Thus combined, 58 or 62% of speaking exercises require no or minimal and unengaging interaction (i.e., one-way speaking to rather than two-way speaking with). Of the 35 remaining interactive speaking exercises (38% of speaking exercises), 25 concern pointless information exchange and so are more pseudo-communicative than genuinely communicative. This leaves only 10 exercises or 11% of speaking exercises and 3% of all as having a communicative purpose.

Of the remaining 13 exercises, all five listening exercises are orientation types, while six of the reading exercises are recognition types and one is a literal comprehension; the remaining “other” is a matching pair exercise, which does not fully focus on the grammar.

In sum, 44 or 12% of all exercises are more or less mechanical, 270 or 72% are meaningful or communicative in the sense that students provide their own infor-mation albeit still in a controlled manner, and 52 or 14% are free writing practice, which implies no teacher control but also no interaction. As just mentioned, only 10 or 3% are genuinely, that is, purposefully communicative.

Interpretive analysis of two sample chapters

I now review two sample chapters with consideration for the English L1 student of German. Chapter 1 begins with some of the lyrics of the pop song “Deutschland” by the German band Die Prinzen. Without an image of the band or of sheet music, or some explicit introductory remark, this opener could first appear to the student of German grammar as a poem and even as a somewhat jumbled set of perhaps un-known words. There is no indication as to what the student should do with these words and only the slightest and easily missed indication that they are in fact song lyrics—the author and band name appear in small print below the text. I imagine that most students, especially if working independently, would skip this item in order to go to the grammar explanation proper. I imagine most instructors would do the same. But if they were to make use of the lyrics the primary focus would surely simply be the grammar structure of word order and not the meaning of the cultural item. In fact, the excerpt as it stands completely misses, or even inverts, the point of the song: The book provides only the apparently innocuous, self-congratulatory beginning of a song expressing contemporary German national pride, leaving out the more comical, critical, occasionally crass, and potentially controversial remaining lyrics that draw attention to the naïveté of and—in conjunction with continued affected or inane and ever more obvious vocal and musical devices— ironize the superficiality of the beginning.

Chapter 8 also starts with a supposedly contextualizing cultural feature: an excerpt from the libretto of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) in the original German and English translation. This is accompanied by a reprint of the original announce-ment. This image has no caption explaining what it is and is so small that it is difficult to read. The fact that this cultural feature contains not a single verb in the simple past or the past perfect tense, that is, the grammatical subject matter of the chapter, could be explained by the authors’ particular stance on the relevance and use of cultural text in regard to grammar instruction, which they outlined in the front materials of the fourth edition of the book but cut from the fifth. On the previous edition, they acknowledge the importance of “providing context for grammar” and of “demonstrating how particular grammar structures are used in context to convey certain meanings, and how various tasks or texts make use of grammar to get their point across” (Handbuch, 2004, p. xxi). They also state there that they want to avoid the tendency of “placing texts in service of grammar” and instead enable the use of “grammar on behalf of the texts, by showing how students can use various structures and vocabulary to express plot details or commentary.” Clearly, the pop lyrics and the libretto contextualize the grammar structures of word order and simple past and past perfect tenses only insofar as they provide something to talk about using the grammar points. This is a window-dressing setting for learning and using grammar. This is not contextualization of grammar in the sense that the (cultural) context is such that knowing the grammar is crucial for understanding the context and/or the expression of the context, thus requiring the grammar to be taught.

Indeed, as only the preceding edition explains, “the zum Beispiel sources were not chosen on the basis of some grammatical feature, but for their variety and narrative interest” (Handbuch, 2004, pp. xxi-xxii). While supposedly contextualizing the gram-mar through its casual application in cultural discussions, the explicit focus of the lesson is taken off necessary grammar and put on cultural interpretation. This is an odd intention of a specifically grammar textbook. It loses sight of the fact that rules and their use are intrinsic and essential to the creation of the texts or situations the students are required artificially to analyze. The kind of contextualization that Hand-buch employs (in just over a third of the chapters in the fifth edition) is ultimately that of grammar in service to a traditional postsecondary curriculum, whose principle goal is literary analysis and not communication or the breadth of sociolinguistic reality. However, it is doubtful whether Handbuch is at all successful in its attempt to apply “grammar on behalf of the texts” (2004, p. xxi) since, remarkably, at no point either in Chapter 1 or in Chapter 8 is there explicit instruction to discuss the themes using the grammar structures taught.

Regarding the layout of Chapters 1 and 8, large bluish script is used to distin-guish between sections and bluish shaded bars, numbers, letters, and capitalized and bolded titles divide the page up according to grammar point or activity. There is a one-and-three-quarter inch left margin, possibly for notes, and explanatory para-graphs, examples, and exercise instructions with cues set a further quarter inch from the section numbers and letters. This justification is generally consistent, varying slightly when bullets introduce a further point or when examples are long enough to require a hanging indent. The five blue-shaded tables in Chapter 8 are also justified to this line. However, the bluish shading is the only color and its use is sparing. Also, the consistency of the left justification, combined with further right justification, unchanging line spacing, an invariable font size for explanations, instructions, and cues, limited white space, and lack of illustration, causes the paragraphs, examples, instructions, and questions to merge visually on the page. For example, pages 3 through 7 of Chapter 1 or page 125 of Chapter 8 are without any blue bars or major section transitions and so appear gray. Thus while the headings, enumeration, and alphabetization make the chapters seem navigable, the text appears dull, dense, and wordy. In short, the layout of Chapters 1 and 8 is not appealing.

The density of words on a page is matched by the comprehensiveness of the treatment of the grammar structures. In Chapter 1, point after point on German word order is presented, each with one or more examples. In the “Grammatik” of this chapter I counted 58 points or rules (though not all were separately enumerated), 15 cross-references to other chapters, 3 cross-references to points elsewhere in the same chapter, and 2 footnotes (one of which supplies extra cultural information). Likewise, in Chapter 8 I counted 32 points or rules—also not separately enumerat-ed—11 cross-references to points in other chapters, and 2 footnotes. Remarkably, one of these footnotes is a cross-reference to a footnote in another chapter. Of the 58 points in Chapter 1, 43 discuss form, nine concern semantic meaning, and six indicate usage/pragmatics. Of the 32 points in Chapter 8, 16 explain form, seven concern semantics, and nine discuss pragmatics. In Chapter 1, explanations in general are driven by components of form while semantics and pragmatics are introduced more randomly. There is little attention given to introducing easier concepts or more overriding rules before harder concepts or details, exceptions, and variations. In Chapter 8, however, a graduated development of grammar explanation from points that students are likely to grasp easily to those that require more attention is in evidence. Here, the explanation moves from the formation of the simple past in weak verbs to strong verbs, to irregular (or mixed) verbs, to semantic meaning and comparison with the present perfect tense, to more pragmatic considerations.

Also, the language used tends to rely almost entirely on formal technical ter-minology and often sentences remain cryptic or impenetrable. This makes the explanations difficult to grasp. For example, in Chapter 1, the explanation of the position of the subject when it does not appear at the beginning of the sentence is unclear, complicated, and evasive:

If the subject of the main clause is not the first element, it usually appears at (or near) the beginning of the middle field. Subject pronouns must stand di-rectly after V1. Subject nouns can be preceded by unstressed personal pro-nouns or, if the subject is to be emphasized, by other elements as well. (Handbuch, 2011, p. 5)

Likewise, with its blending cross-references and formulaic shorthand, the explanation of the position of verbal complements reads as if written for those who already possess expertise in the matter and not for those developing that knowledge:

Information that is required to “complete” the meaning of certain verbs (as in the examples in point 5 above) appears as the very end of the middle field. These verbal complements immediately precede V2 (see D.1 below) or stand as the final element in a main clause with no V2. (p. 6).

Similarly, in Chapter 8, the opening sentence of the explanation of the formation of the simple past of weak verbs has nothing to do with formation or explaining gram-mar: “The simple past (das Präteritum) is the second principle part of the verb” (Handbuch, 2011, p. 123). The word “function” in the later explanation of the for-mation of the simple past of separable prefix verbs is especially confusing or mis-leading: “In the past tense, all verbs with separable prefixes function as they do in the present tense” (p. 124). The preference of the simple past usage for “haben,” “sein,” and modals is indicated but not exactly explained: “The simple past tense of haben, sein, and the modal verbs (see 9.1) is preferred over the present perfect tense, even in conversation (see 3.2.C)” (p. 125). The reason for this preference is not given in either of the two cross-references provided in this sentence. In fact, 3.2.C merely refers back to 8.1.B, which is frustrating. Further issues of past tense pragmatics supplied in this chapter are also given no explanation and remain nebu-lous, thus leaving students to guess as to when to say one thing or another: “In actual practice, spoken German is usually a mixture of the two tenses—past and present perfect—dictated by a sense of rhythm and style” (p. 126); “With the exception of haben, sein, and the model verbs, the second-person singular and plural forms (du, ihr) seldom occur in the simple past.”

Especially Chapter 1 emphasizes comprehensive coverage in the presenta-tion of grammar over comprehendible presentation. There is more linguistic knowledge present than an intermediate student is likely to want to access, but pre-cisely accessing that knowledge here is a complicated task. The thickly worded page, the sheer number of points, the intervening cross-references, the prevalence of “expertese,” and the frequently longwinded sentences would all hinder rather than help students. In contrast, Chapter 8 is generally more succinct. But here the problem is one of neglect: There is insufficient explanation of the formation of the simple past of strong verbs, a serious learning issue for L2 students—and, indeed, the very issue that motivated the colleague’s inquiry that ultimately prompted this essay. Chapter 8 provides three example verbs to explain simple past forms for strong verbs and otherwise defers to “Appendix 3” by a cross-reference. Appendix 3 is a five-page list of strong and irregular verbs. No attempt is made in the chapter explanation to indicate the various and common patterns in stem-vowel changes in the simple past forms of strong verbs, although this is important and useful information for acquisition and accuracy. Instead, the full range of strong verb simple past forms are unhelpfully banished to the back of the book where they lurk as a stultifying list to memorize, or not.

The seven exercises in Chapter 1 and the 15 in Chapter 8—despite the sub-section titles—follow no particular system or sequence except that writing activities sandwich speaking activities. In Chapter 1, “Übungen” begins with a mechanical drill, followed by a communicative drill, a meaningful transformation-style drill, and a meaningful substitution-style drill. In “Anwendung” a communicative spoken drill is followed by a report/retell that also involves explicit listening orientation. The one exercise of “Schriftliche Themen” is a meaningful transformation drill. In Chapter 8, “Übungen” contains a bottom-up reading recognition or grammar discovery that quadruples as two mechanical drills and a free composition, followed by a communicative drill, another mechanical drill that doubles as another communicative drill, a meaningful substitution-style drill, another free composition, a fourth mechanical drill, and three more meaningful substitution-style drills. “Anwendung” includes a telling, a report/retell, another telling, and another report/retell. The two exercises of “Schriftliche Themen” are a picture story and a free composition. The mixed order of classes and types of exercises reveal that graduated practice is not part of the design of either chapter.

All of the exercises are closed in regard to form and all but the two communi-cative drills in Chapter 1 and the telling, report/retell, and free composition in Chapter 8 are closed regarding content. None of the exercises in Chapter 1 require creativity. The mechanical and meaningful drills require the mere manipulation or rewriting of cue sentences in order to draw attention to the rigidity or flexibility of German word order or to recall particular weak, strong, or irregular (mixed) simple past forms as well as corresponding principle parts of select verbs. The final meaningful transformation-style drill in Chapter 1 provides a short cultural history text for students to reorganize syntactically and stylistically. But this again is a sentence manipulation exercise and requires no original or personally meaningful application of the grammar point8. The first mechanical drill in Chapter 8, to recall the infinitives of verbs found in a tale in their simple past forms, is obviously completed only after students discover the simple past forms in the first place. This initial bottom-up reading recognition activity of finding grammar in context is a sim-ple and effective way to raise students’ awareness of language, therefore making the subsequent and otherwise pointless mechanical drills more relevant to learning and usage. New to the fifth edition, this is the only instance of such a way to organize exercises and learning in the book.

The written communicative drill in Chapter 1 asks for the expression of open, yet limited content in response to a series of personal questions. The communicative drills in Chapter 8 invite more elaborate content, but are still pointless. However, the picture story narration and the three free compositions concerning sequences of plot points, events, or life achievements clearly have a point to them and by their nature necessitate the grammar structure. They are also on topics that are highly familiar and relevant to students: (literary) narration, socializing, and writing a résumé.

The spoken communicative drill is the only drill exercise that allows for more elaborate content in Chapter 1, but like the other communicative drill it is concerned with the monolog-like statement of information rather than interactive communica-tion. The report/retell-listening orientation exercise may at first seem to provide the only opportunity for quality speaking practice in Chapter 1. However, this exercise again takes the form of a monolog rather than a dialog. It is also more controlled since students essentially repeat another’s words. While speaking, it is likely that students will focus less on the grammar point of word order (which may or may not have been supplied correctly by the original speaker/sender) and more on the mor-phemic adaptations necessitated by the change in speaker perspective. Likewise, the listening component is focused on remembering information and lexical items and not necessarily on practicing the grammar point. There is also little reason to think that the new speaker/sender or listener/receiver should care much about the information being exchanged since neither has a personal stake in or attachment to the words other than as a means to complete the artificial performance requested by the textbook. Thus, finally, the opportunity for students possibly to gain fluency by repeating their own personally meaningful utterances to a series of conversation partners is lost.

While somewhat more creative and designed more to necessitate the relevant grammar structure than the report/retell of Chapter 1, the tellings and report/retells of Chapter 8 raise similar issues. They are again a series of monologs that lack purpose or any meaningful interactive component: They do not address why the listener should feel obliged to attend in a meaningful way to the story being told. Also, the two report/retells of a familiar fairy-tale and a favorite story may cause students to translate rather than create.

Just as student access to the grammatical content knowledge of these chap-ters has been shown to be a dull, difficult, or elusive process, so the ways in which they attempt to help students develop their ability to apply that knowledge can be said to be limited. Five of the seven exercises in Chapter 1 focus solely on knowing the rule for the sake of the rule; the report/retell-listening orientation does not check primarily for the grammar structure in question; and the only exercise that does re-quire the application of the grammar structure for the sake of free and personal ex-pression, does so in a pointless manner. The situation in Chapter 8 improves slightly. The grammar discovery exercise clearly gets students off to a good start by raising their awareness with a real context that makes the specific grammar point relevant to, and so motivates, study and learning. Six of the 15 exercises focus on the rule for its own sake, while nine provide contexts that necessarily elicit the structure—though to varying degrees of personal relevance. Neither of these two sample chapters contains a single genuine, that is, purposeful communicative exercise. Without considerable adaptation of the exercises by instructors, the quality of skills development runs the risk of being low and not especially effective.

4. Critical evaluation of findings


While research on second language acquisition and second language teaching cannot say conclusively what works in the classroom (Mitchell, 2000), it does indicate what does not work and it also recommends some alternative actions to traditional methods. Rankin and Wells (2011) make claims about their book that are in keeping—if not entirely up-to-date (cf. Kast & Neuner, 1994)—with the most general understanding of what works in second language grammar pedagogy: The book’s chapters “provide meaningful, communicative practice” (p. xiii) and “its original conception and subsequent updates spring from a conviction that form-focused learning in a communicative context is the optimal route to second language acquisition” (p. xix). However, the authors’ claims and the reality of Handbuch are not one and the same. My analyses have revealed that the book’s explanations are not always accessible and clear and that the practice exercises often lack meaning and are rarely genuinely communicative.

Handbuch makes generally consistent use of an extensive range of layout features and typographical, graphic, visual and rhetorical items. Lesikin (2000) remarks that the presentation of second language grammar textbooks comprises noncontinuous, complex text, graphic devices, and discourse forms that are so sophisticated that they can impede students’ access to content knowledge. While some features of Handbuch—such as chapter divisions, enumeration, and examples—contribute to the navigability of the work and its content, other aspects of layout leave the grammatical content knowledge inaccessible. The scattering of grammar across four chapter sections, the sheer amount of enumerated points, the lack of white space, the minimal use and variety of color and font sizes, the overabundance and ineffectual use of cross-references and footnotes, the technical language, the frequently difficult, confusing, or evasive explanatory sentences, the relentless emphasis of form in comparison to the generally lesser and random consideration of semantic meaning and pragmatics, all indicate the book to be both overwhelming and inadequate.

The chapters in Handbuch are consistently organized according to traditional language pedagogy. Each grammar item is presented once in its respective chapter and the chapters as a whole are not necessarily designed to build on each other9. In lacking opportunities for repetition, this arrangement requires that learners grasp and bank all aspects of a grammar point at once and so does not assist graduated learning. The division of the chapters into grammar explanation (“Grammatik” and “Wortschatz”) followed by shorter and longer exercises (“Übungen,” “Anwendung,” and “Schriftliche Themen”) reflects the “Presentation-Practice-Production” (P-P-P) model of teaching. This model assumes that learning follows from explicit explanation of rules by means of controlled pattern practice and more elaborate output activities. However, Skehan (1996) points out that linguistics and psychology have shown that the instruction of form followed by practice as required by P-P-P does not lead to learning and automatization. Thus not only does the complicated grammar presentation of Handbuch limit students’ access to content knowledge, but its general approach to grammar pedagogy is also ineffective for skills development.

The most problematic aspect of Handbuch concerns the exercises and activities. There is a large disparity among the types of exercises in regard to the four traditional language skills, which also tend to be treated separately although communication is more often complexly multimodal (Nunan, 1989). Writing comprises 72% of all exercises; speaking is next with 25%. Not only is the amount of listening and reading exercises negligible, but the listening that is required does not focus on grammar knowledge. Drills are the most popular class of exercises making up 60% of the total. Mechanical writing drills make up 10% of the book’s exercises. These are significant and remarkable percentages since second language research has long discredited the use of drills (Gatbonton & Segalowitz, 1988; Lighbown, 1983; Lightbown & Malcolm, 1980; Wong & VanPatten, 2003). Wong and VanPatten have explained that particularly mechanical drills do not assist the development of fluency. They refute the use of drills as an initial or essential ingredient for internalizing the linguistic system because of the important role of input in language acquisition and the fact that drills require output before a structure has been learned through input comprehension. Wong and VanPatten also question the usefulness of meaningful and communicative drills since they do not help learners create knowledge of the linguistic system. Gatbonton and Segalowitz also criticize the use of drills that practice grammar structures, maintaining that they lead to the automatization of the structure but not to fluency since they do not focus on functional utterances and rapid effortless speech production. Even Paulston (1971), who explores the sequencing of drills, believes that mechanical and meaningful drills do not teach fluency in expression.

The overabundance of drills leaves little room in Handbuch for more effective exercises such as writing on familiar topics or interactive speaking exercises. Most of the remaining writing exercises—14% of all exercises—are free composition on themes that are familiar to students. Gernsbacher (1984) and Snellings, van Gelderen, and de Glopper (2002) point out that a subject’s greater experiential familiarity with words leads to greater or more efficient lexical retrieval or word production and that increased retrieval is necessary for fluency in writing and speaking. However, each free composition exercise, as well as each telling or report/retell, also needs to be repeated more than once if it is optimally to lead to fluency. Gatbonton and Segalowitz (1988) maintain that students need formulaic speech or the repetition of functional utterances in order to develop automaticity in a second language (see also Ellis, 1984; Peters, 1983).

Gatbonton and Segalowitz (1988) also maintain that placing students in situations where they repeatedly use target utterances as appropriate responses in genuinely communicative situations—that is, where they create their own communicative intentions to send or receive information (rather than just saying something)—leads to automaticity. Only 9% of all exercises in Handbuch require interactive speaking, yet most of these are limited and pointless. Although the authors stress that “Activities should involve genuine transfer and communication of information, knowledge, opinion, or reaction” (2011, p. xxii), less than 3% of the speaking exercises are genuinely communicative.

Contemporary second language teaching research maintains that greater attention should be paid to the way students comprehend input. Ellis (2002) points out that practice is not considered as effective for accuracy and fluency as it once was. Instead, he maintains that teachers should introduce consciousness-raising tasks to develop declarative rather than procedural knowledge of a grammar feature (see also Ellis, 1998, 1984; Ellis & Rathbone, 1987; Fotos, 1994; Fotos & Ellis, 1991; VanPatten, 1993). This is because acquisition of linguistic knowledge involves noticing, comparing, and integrating. Since consciousness-raising tasks facilitate acquisition of linguistic knowledge and not the achievement of fluency, Ellis suggests that they should be followed by formulaic and genuinely communicative activities. Similarly, since Wong and VanPatten (2003) also maintain that learner knowledge of form is dependent on input and not on practice, they propose learners better process input by attending to meaning-based language in a communicative context (see also Doughty & Williams, 1998; Ellis, Basturkmen, & Loewen, 2002; Klapper & Rees, 2003; Larsen-Freeman, 2001; Lightbown & Spada, 1990, 1999; Long, 1991; Williams, 2005). This they call Processing Instruction (PI), which entails the presentation of form via manipulated input and the presentation of negative strategy or common learner error. An example of such exercises is found in the few reading recognition exercises in Handbuch, but these would need to appear before or be interspersed with the grammar explanations to be more effective.


5. Conclusion


Clearly, my analysis casts doubt on any recommendation of Handbuch. This grammar textbook is deficient in regard to the clarity it claims and the communicative approach it espouses. But what use has this analysis been other than to find out whether a recommendation is founded or not? It concurs with prior research that grammar textbook analysis is not an exact science. It has also shown that the textbook in question predicts the criteria for its own analysis and that that analysis is necessarily a subjective process with likely negative results. I believe these negative results are useful in that they raise greater awareness of the book’s shortcomings. This is useful information for future users of the textbook so that they can adapt the exercises or compensate with other, more genuinely communicative activities. I also hope this would be useful for authors of any grammar textbook as they organize the approach, design the page, word the explanations, and consider input processing, repetitive writing and speaking tasks, and, of course, genuinely communicative activities.

Having completed a formal analysis of Handbuch, it would be difficult for me to recommend this book, despite the abundant information and potentially adaptable exercises. However, I suspect that it is also no worse than any other German grammar textbook currently on the market in North America. After all, none can ever be truly up-to-date with the latest findings of second language acquisition and teaching research (Kast & Neuner, 1994). With this in mind, it would be impossible for anyone to recommend a grammar textbook without reservation or suggestions for changes and improvements. Researchers might do better to recommend systems for adapting grammar textbooks; research in second language acquisition and teaching should, as a matter of course, integrate into its studies suggestions on how to revise existing materials in light of new findings. Ironically, the authors of Handbuch do exactly that: In the preface “To the Instructor” they offer several suggestions to instructors for adapting the exercises to make them more effective. (If only they had implemented these changes themselves between the fourth and fifth editions!) While one essential recommendation from the authors is that “Activities should be learner-based and learner-centered rather than instructor- or textbook-centered” (p. xxii), having analyzed their work, my most basic advice to future adapters is to base as many activities as possible not on a theoretical learner, but more accurately on real learners, where a mindful message-sender or speaker/writer has a real purpose in engaging in communication with an equally necessarily attentive and responsive message-receiver or audience.



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1. Fordham (2004) found in an initial survey on textbooks that Handbuch was being used as a course book in postsecondary intermediate German language classes at three of 28—or 11% of—Canadian universities and colleges that responded. This is significant for a grammar textbook: Only the language course textbook Kaleidoskop (Moeller, Adolph, Mabee, & Berger, 2001) was used by more programs for intermediate German, with 13 (46%) using this book (Fordham, 2004). In a second survey four years later, the use of Handbuch had increased to 5 of 20—or 25% of—responding programs (Fordham, 2008).

2. Hartley (1994) primarily guides textbook creation but also includes postproduction checklists for evaluating format, organization, content, typography, examples, and illustrations.

3. For all tables, see the Appendices.

4. It is Thomas Müller.

5. I categorize the exercises according to the directions in the textbook and not as they could be adapted for teaching.

6. The other three levels are interpretive or inferential, applied or evaluative, and appreciative reading comprehension.

7. I have not included any preceding “zum Beispiel” sections or the pictures, slogans, or picture story panels of the practice sections.

8. Also, an image of composer J. S. Bach accompanies this text. Since there is no caption and several people are mentioned in the text, students may not know who the portrait represents. The image serves as meaningless decoration.

9. However, Chapters 4 and 5, 13 through 16, and 21 and 22 do form sequences of closely related grammar.