Teaching grammar lexically

A week or so ago, I posted up my first experiment with narrating Powerpoint presentations, as i tried to run through a talk I did at our inaugural University of Westminster Lexical Conference. As promised back then, I’ve managed to make another similar kind of thing, this time using Camtasia and then uploading it directly onto YouTube, which this blogging platform then allows me to embed here!

Anyway, this was the closing plenary to the one-day conference, and is really a condensation of many of the thoughts I’ve had over the last twelve to fifteen years about why the way I was taught to teach grammar isn’t particularly useful or efficient – and how we might start to redress this and do things better henceforth.

It seems stupid to spend too long giving much of a preamble to a video where I get to talk for myself at, I’m sure some might say, considerable length, so I’ll cut to the chase and leave you to watch this yourselves. Hope you enjoy it – and I look forward to reading your thoughts and comments.


27 responses

  1. […] Hugh Dellar has put up a screencast of his closing plenary on Teaching grammar lexically. […]

  2. […] A week or so ago, I posted up my first experiment with narrating Powerpoint presentations, as i tried to run through a talk I did at our inaugural University of Westminster Lexical Conference. As p…  […]

  3. Very interesting, as usual, Hugh. Once again you demonstrate all the best qualities of a teacher!

    A few comments:

    Chomsky’s Universal grammar has nothing to do with pedagogical grammar, nothing to do with any ELT methodology, and certainly nothing to do with Structuralism. NOTHING!!! Chomsky thought that Ferdinand de Saussure (the founder of Structuralism) was an interesting anthropologist, but that his “theory” of linguistics was totally wrong, and if you look at Chomsky’s generative grammar, its basic premises completely contradict those of Structuralism, which itself has nothing to do with PPP or any existing ELT methodology I know of.

    Michael Lewis, in my opinion, makes a complete dog’s dinner of what lexical chunks are, how they work, and how they are acquired. He makes far too strong a case for the pedagogical implications of the hardly novel (Pawley and Syder are the real pioneers) realisation of how “chunks”, of prefabricated bits of language, work. Nattinger and Carrico’s “Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching”, written in 1992, is, in my opinion, MUCH better, and Pawley and Syder’s “Two Puzzles..” article (1983!!!) is the best thing I’ve ever read in applied linguistics.

    Your enthusiasm is infectious, but, despite your appreciation of how important lexis is to ELT, you still sound very “teacherly”. There’s a lot of “first teach them this and then teach them that” in what you say, which flies in the face of the evidence that no synthetic syllabus is worth its salt, however it’s organised. I’ve just put a post on my blog, which you were kind enough to put on your blogroll, outlining Long’s eloquent arguments for this view.

    Still, these are minor quibbles. I agree with you that we should abandon the “safe net” of PPP, that we should pay much more attention to lexis and to lexical chunks, that grammar should be seen as a way of expressing functions, and that we should teach what is most useful.

    Sounded like that was a good cup of tea 🙂

    1. Hi again Geoff –
      Good to have you back again to keep me on my toes.
      I’ll try and respond to the points you raise as best as I can.

      I appreciate that Chomsky’s universal grammar theory was not written or intended to be in any way a pedagogical grammar.
      I don’t think I referred explicitly to the UG theory, did I?
      I’ve always understood that to be more to do with the fact that humans somehow come hard-wired with an innate capability to acquire and produce grammatical ‘correct’ – or socially sanctioned – sentences, and that all languages share certain innate features such as the existence of verbs and nouns, etc.

      That said, I thought there was a link to Structuralism in that Chomsky was building on the work of Bloomfield, who came out of Structuralism. Bloomfield’s decision that semantics was essentially uninteresting or unimportant paved the way for Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance. So i do see some link there myself.

      Anyway, I think that where Chomsky’s influence has seeped into ELT is via ideas like those propagated in SYNTACTIC STRUCTURES, with its infamous Colorless green ideas sleep furiously example. This – along with his work on Generative Grammar – leads to the notion that if students are to be creative then what they need to propel them towards this creativity is a solid grounding in structural grammar, and that these are then to be unpacked one by one for students’ digestion. Admittedly, this is not the fault of Chomsky per se, but much as Wagner ends up tainted by association with the Nazis, so too has Chomsky become a byword for the kind of PPP paradigm that emerged out of this era of the forging of Applied Linguistics as a serious academic discipline, and that was used to provide ballast for what followed.

      However, I admit that I perhaps should maybe have said Structuralist – or Structural Grammar – instead of STRUCTURALISM!
      That was certainly closer to what I was driving at.

      What else? Yes, I know both the Nattinger and Carrico and Pawley and Syder, but came to them later, having first read Lewis.
      Obviously, in retrospect, I can see more clearly the long trail of influences that Michael Lewis was building his work on, and agree that the whole thorny issue of what chunks actually are is dealt with in a more rigorous and academic manner in other places than in the Lexical Approach itself. That said, I don’t really think that matters as what the LA served as for myself, and for many other teachers of my generation, was a kind of gateway. It condensed a lot of what had gone before and packaged it in such a way that it was accessible to teachers, for which I’m eternally grateful.

      As for sounding very ‘teacherly’, well there’s a reason for that!
      As I always say, I am first and foremost still a teacher, albeit one that tries in my own humble way to keep in touch with theory and contemplate how it might impact on the classroom.

      I also don’t think i was actually saying FIRST teach this, THEN teach this, was I?
      I was simply suggesting more than some things can be taught earlier than perhaps they have been, and that at higher levels, we could maybe refocus what we do when we look at grammar, and focus more on lexis.

      I’m curious about the concept of the SYNTHETIC syllabus. Isn’t it a slightly redundant phrase in that all all syllabi are by their nature SYNTHETIC, aren’t they? Anyway, not quite sure how you define “worth its salt” or how one would quantify or measure the degree to which any particular syllabus ‘works’ better than others in a scientific way, BUT there are clearly arguments to be put forward for why one believes one particular collection of classroom content might have a more profound impact on students than another.

      At least i think there are.

      And indeed these kinds of decisions are ones that teachers / administrators have to make all the time, irrespective of the research.
      So I’ll continue to fight my corner on that and enthuse over what I see as more fruitful and worthy possible paths.
      ASs well, of course, as commenting on paths that I feel lead nowhere particularly useful!

    2. Hi there,

      You are packing quite a lot into those initial paragraphs. I wonder if the nothings can be that categorical as you make them to be. If, “nothing to do with” means that one did not intentionally cause the other, ok. But there are certainly many threads that lead from LADs and UGs to teaching practice. I do not know if Krashen would have been possible without Chomsky. At least I get the impression that Krashen seeks backing with the innate view of language genesis. And, since mentioned, consider Nattinger & Carrico’s preface to ‘Lexical Phrases…’ “For many years, it was common place for teachers to turn to linguistic theory for grammars of what to teach in their language classes” and “…the third sort of grammar (descriptions of abstract systems)…remains a powerful influence and continues to help shape classroom activity” (xiii). Which makes me think that Lewis, on the other hand, though schmoozing with Krashen, does not seem to offer a theory of chunks acquisition or SLA in general. And to the contrary, I would suggest, Lewis is not radical enough with his pedagogy precisely because he is influenced by the innate paradigm. (that’s why I think Hoey’s priming is the perfect match for lexical teaching*). Consider, doing lexical teaching one stresses the concrete artifact over abstract rules which, to me, suggests a nurture over nature account for SLA is closer to what is really happing when people find themselves acquiring language.
      *would have been interesting to hear Lewis comment on priming and whether it provides a acceptable SLA theory for a lexical approach when they celebrated 20 years of Lexical Approach.

      1. Hi Thomas,

        Very good points, and I agree that (as so often) I didn’t measure my words carefully enough.

        1. I think Krashen and Tarrell very definitely were influenced by Chomsky, as were all those in SLA who rejected behaviourism, but it’s particularly evident in Krashen, because he wants to say that SLA has so much in common with L1A .

        2. I don’t think Nattinger & Carrico’s preface to ‘Lexical Phrases’ was referring to Chomsky’s early work.

        3. I agree with your remarks on Lewis, but I think (as you’d probably agree) that he didn’t – and doesn’t – appreciate the arguments in what you call the innate paradigm. The innate paradigm is best explored by the likes of White and Gregg, who would not wrongly extrapolate (Krashen-wise) to assumptions about SLA. White and other nativists argue that UG is available for SLA, to varying degrees, but that doesn’t extend to the acquisition of lexical stems, etc.

        4. Hugh, you and I all seem to agree that Hoey has the best approach to lexical chunks, although I’m not sure the implication is that “a nurture over nature account for SLA is closer to what is really happening when people find themselves acquiring language.” I repeat: I’m not sure about the implication.

      2. I think you’re still underestimating Chomsky’s influence, personally, and was pleased Thomas picked up on the fact that simply because Chomsky himself had no interest in ELT it’s not entirely accurate to suggest that as a result he had “nothing” to do with it! In essence, Chomsky’s theories have provided the theoretical bedrock for much of what’s gone on over the last fifty years. Hoey has really shattered that whole paradigm, to my mind, and by rights should be forming the foundation of ELT teacher training and development courses.

        I share some of your doubts about Thomas’s reading of the implications, though. Priming obviously operates over time and relies on tons of input, which I guess is what you might dub the “nature” part, but teaching can also shortcut much of what happens over a much longer period of time with L1 learners by honing the input, ensuring recycling within shorter periods of time, which is more “nurture”. So typically I’ll hedge my bets and suggest that if L2 learners are to seriously get primed to any proper degree, they need both! And the taught part can obviously aid, focus and assist the more naturally acquired part too.

      3. Hi again. Hugh, I am convinced that teaching can be effective if it takes advantage of the brains priming mechanism. To me that is the nurture side. It outweighs the nature half, which I take elegantly for granted (!)

        (On nature, one observes that the brain is inclined to pattern impressions. I believe Chomsky went too far by making this a language acquisition device (I am not an expert on Chomsky). I also think this is probably an early rendition of Chomsky as the later writings seem to be mellowing out into more general concepts. In the end, I got the impression that we are close to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The mind needs a priori knowledge to make sense of non-sense empirical data/ impression. SLA debates easily slip into corners with some really hard nuts to crack, i.e. mind versus matter, problem of qualia. As with consciousness, everybody can easily test the priming claims: we can all be assured that we are…(since we are wondering about it), and we can test students with popular lyrics to see whether words that do NOT occur naturally together pop up instantly, ie. I told my students to complete the following line: “We will, we will __ __” Nobody ever suggested to me “..go shopping”. As a teacher I am pushing the Nurture side.)

        Hi Geoff,

        (I visited your blog after posting my comments. Oh dear, I had no idea what I was getting into.)
        On Lewis, I cannot form a clear picture about his stand on the innate view of language. I’d like to know. What I remember is that he does some kind of contrastive analysis showing where he and Krashen part ways. But Lewis does not discredit Krashen’s basic paradigm. Given that these texts came out roughly a decade apart (Natural Approach, Lexical Approach, Lexical Priming), I’d be interested to know how Lewis incorporates or interprets Hoey’s Lexical Priming. I think if he were to write the second edition of the Lexical Approach he could present a good case for a different theory of SLA.



      4. Hi again Thomas –
        I think something Geoff said in his guest post that I’ve just put up sums things up quite nicely.
        He talks about the idea that explicit learning can aid and assist implicit learning.
        In other words, nurture aids nature.

        I had a student at Upper-Int level a few years back who said to me near the end of the course that the best thing she’d learned was anew way of thinking about – and looking at – language.
        The slow war of attrition that I wage on student’s grammar rules plus single words way of thinking may well be the biggest single thing that aids learning, above and beyond the actual items acquired during the course.

        I know from my own experience of learning Indonesian that unless I make a conscious effort to actually seek out and take on board new items not much ever actually gets added to my repertoire.
        I can sit and listen to – and participate in – comprehensible discourse all day long, but nature alone leads me to simply re-use what I already have in the main.
        Building on that takes real graft and concerted effort!

        Incidentally, Michael is basically now retired and more or less out of the game, so I don’t think he’s really interested in incorporating Lexical priming in any real way, but he was asked about Michael Hoey’s work at our recent lexical conference. He said that Michael Hoey had taken the ideas far further than he ever could’ve and had established a far more rigorous and solid framework, though one which the LA was in line with in essence.

      5. Thanks Hugh,
        Interested to hear your last comment on Lewis on Hoey!

      6. You’re welcome.
        Have you been following Andrew’s comments on the whole conference over on his blog?

  4. Food for thought!
    Moving forward.
    Tkx Hugh 🙂

    1. Glad you found it thought-provoking Crislei.
      Feel free to come back to me with any further thoughts or questions.

  5. Hi Hugh,

    Yes, it’s all very confusing but I think it’s important to insist that Chomsky had (and has) no interest in ELT, and that his grammar has nothing to do with the the kind of grammar we teach (or avoids teaching) with EFL / ESL students. The famous “Coulourless green ideas..” sentence was part of his work on grammaticality judgements, again, not intended to have any pedagogical implications. And Chomsky’s distinction between performance and competence is one of the most misunderstood parts of his theory, but let’s leave that.

    As for Bloomfield, he was not a follower of Saussure, and was associated with one group of structuralists who totally contradicted Sausure, and who lasted less than 10 yesrs. Bloomfield’s legacy is I think behaviourism, which is precisely the dominant paradigm that Chomsky challenged so successfully. Chomsky is responsible for the development of a cognitive approach to SLA.

    You are I’m sure a great teacher, and I bet your students love you. In the end, as we always end up saying, nobody knows the best way to teach, but we do know how important motivation and teacher – learner rapport is, departments where my guess is that you score very highly.

    As for synthetic syllabuses, here’s (part of) what Long says (reproduced from the blog post I mentioned): The results of SLA research are simply incompatible with the use of a synthetic syllabus, where syllabus content consists of a pre-set list of linguistic (phonological, morphological, syntactic, lexical or collocational) forms and functions. A synthetic syllabus will almost always have been written without reference to students’ present or future communicative needs, as identified via a thorough needs analysis, and so is inefficient. It risks teaching more skills, vocabulary, genres, etc., than students can use, but also less, through not teaching language abilities they do or will need. It will also almost always have been prepared in ignorance of any particular group of students’ current developmental stages, especially if enshrined in commercially published textbook materials. Moreover, as any experienced teacher knows, and as shown, e.g., by the Pienemann (1984) study, learners within a group will often be at different developmental stages, even when labeled as having attained X or Y level of proficiency or having scored within a specified range on a placement test.

    The research clearly shows that attempting to impose a pre-set series of linguistic forms (pronunciation contrasts, grammatical structures, notions, functions, lexical items, collocations, etc.) is largely futile and counter-productive. It is largely futile because it only works if a form coincidentally happens to be learnable (by some students in a class), and so teachable, at the time it is presented. It is counter-productive for two reasons. First, attempts to teach forms that are unlearnable when introduced lead to frustration and failure on the part of teachers and students, alike. Second, the inappropriate focus, typically instantiated through presentation of isolated model sentences intended to provide minimal contexts for the target forms, results in impoverished input and output opportunities and means that richer input that would have been appropriate is not provided. So-called spiral, or cyclical, grammatical syllabi, which systematically revisit previously presented forms increase the chances of ‘hits,’ but are still inefficient because they attempt to work independently of the internal learner syllabus. By focusing on full native forms, typically with early forced production, followed by “correction” of the inevitable errors, synthetic approaches also implicitly assume that learners can move from no knowledge of a form to native-like mastery in one step, which the research shows almost never happens. They also assume that discrete forms and structures can be learned in isolation from one another, whereas the reality is far more complex.

    Onward thru the fog!



  6. Hello Hugh,

    Thank you so much for such a brilliant talk. As I completely agree with you that teaching grammar lexically is much more useful for students than PPP, I enjoyed every minute of your talk, and liked the way you sound (i like your ‘teacherly’ way of teaching)
    Looking forward to your new posts.

    All the best,

    1. Hi Ljiljana –
      Many thanks for the kind words.
      I’m really glad you enjoyed the talk.
      I’m starting to think I really need to be using screencasts and the like more from now on as they seem to be well received!
      Glad also to see that my ‘teacherly’ style didn’t put you off! 🙂

  7. Hi Hugh, thanks for your comment. I was thinking about your insight and I´m finding that students also like the tried and tested technique of PPP, specially in private classes.
    Students would normally prefer to leave the class with the (false) sensation that they have really learned something in English if they manage to get few of the sentences on Murphy´s red book right (Sad but true!) Unfortunately, when they travel abroad they understand that it did not take them so far (no real connection).
    As the whole process can take a long time, we might get back to your point about the ´whereabouts in Brazil?´ (With a wrong answer after years and years of studying). The hardest bit, I think, is the fact that we normally have about 2 hours class per week and after the class students will still have all the experiences in their mother tongue and most of the time students would give up before real progress can be made and this can be quite frustrating.
    By the way, I quite like your ´teacherly´ style and I´m glad I had the opportunity to be taught by you. I´m still leaning a lot with your blog. Thanks again!!! I am a fan 🙂

    1. Hi again –
      I have to say, I find the idea of students in a one-to-one situation wanting to work through a page of grammar exercises insanely depressing (and that’s despite – or maybe because of (!!) – the fact that I did do this myself with students when I was younger!)

      In one-to-one classes, there’s so much scope for discussion, simulation, role-play – and subsequent reformulation and recasting of student output, working from where they’re at and building on this, creating kind of phrasebooks of things they themselves want / need to say, that the idea of just doing grammar exercises, asking a few questions about the grammar and then having the answers checked is a terrible waste of potential!

      I think the bottom line here is that as a teacher you have a responsibility to explain to students why want they want maybe not be what they actually NEED.
      Especially in contexts where time is so precious, it’s vital that time is not wasted on work that will merely exacerbate existing problems and create new ones.

  8. Hi Hugh,

    Just to say that the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics / Volume / March 2012 is dedicated to Formulaic Language and has a few articles which you and your many readers might find interesting. Here’s the link to contents: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayIssue?jid=APL&volumeId=32&issueId=-1&seriesId=0

    1. Thanks for this Geoff.
      Looks really interesting.
      Wondering now how on earth I can make enough time to read through some of this myself!

    1. Thanks for the interest Paul and for spreading this about a bit.
      Appreciate it.

  9. Good stuff, Hugh!
    I learned some good things there. Thanks!

  10. […] and falling and backsliding, being reconstructed in a range of different ways chimes very much with the idea of teaching grammar as lexis at low levels. The traditional idea has always been that you learn the parts first and build up to the whole but […]

  11. […] Apart from an equally unsuccessful attempt to find out how lexical priming fitted in to Hugh’s evolving view of language and ELT, that was that. So I went and had a look at Hugh’s blog. What, I wondered, was a “pure lexical syllabus” and how can it rectify the fossilisation that results from “saying things in L2 using L1 primings, communicating meaning but not noticing the gap”? Eventually, I found a presentation where Hugh had recorded himself talking about “Teaching Grammar Lexically”. […]

  12. […] his talk Teaching Grammar Lexically, Dellar tells us about the life-changing effects that reading Michael Lewis’ The Lexical […]

  13. […] Dellar, H. (2013) Teaching Grammar Lexically. Retrieved from  https://hughdellar.wordpress.com/2013/05/28/teaching-grammar-lexically/ […]

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