The article first appeared in a special issue of the ETAI Forum 2013, celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Lexical Approach.
Making the Leap From Grammar to Lexis
Hugh Dellar, UK
Hugh Dellar is a teacher and teacher trainer at University of Westminster in London. He has been teaching since 1993, predominantly in the UK, but spent three years in Jakarta, Indonesia. He gives teacher training and development talks all over the world. He is the co-author of the Outcomes and Innovations series and the online teacher development course, Teaching Lexically. He blogs at www.hughdellar.wordpress.com and runs a facebook site at: www.facebook.com/hughdellarandrewwalkley. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The seductions of grammar
The rot sets in
Into the unknown
1 Examples are more useful than explanations
Less is not more
Teaching lexically means better grammar teaching
Learning language from language
2 Ask questions about language as you're going through answers
The power of a well-honed question
Questions breed questions
Real (language) teacher development
Don't go there!
Teaching grammar as lexis
Practice makes perfect
I started teaching back in 1993 following a four-week CTEFLA course at Westminster College in London, the bulk of which was taken up with trying to instill into us trainees the basic tenets of the English grammar system. Day after day, we did language input sessions on modal verbs, passives, the perfect aspect and so on and - like many of you, perhaps - we consoled ourselves after class by moaning about how little grammar they had taught us at school. "Obviously I don't have any problems USING grammar", we'd tell ourselves, "it's just I don't know WHY. How am I going to be able to explain it all when the students start to ask me?" Almost from Day 1, I was primed to believe that what was really going to make or break me as a teacher was my ability to show grammar forms and to explain grammar meanings - as well as difference in meanings between different forms.
Of course, once I actually started teaching - first in the UK, at St. Giles, London - and then later on in Jakarta in Indonesia - the books I was given to use with my classes simply reinforced these notions. It is a depressing fact that even now, almost twenty years down the line, the vast majority of second-language courses still organize themselves around the gradual introduction and practice of tenses - the present simple, the present continuous (referring to activities around now), the past simple form of the verb to be, regular past simple forms and so on. My students in the early 90s seemed to very much expect this to be the way that things should be and so I spent the first year or so of my career parrot-learning all the explanations given at the back of the coursebooks I was using (and as these included Headway, some of the grammar notes were pretty copious and tricky to get your head round, even for me - so God only knows how the students must've handled them!) and then doing a bit of extra studying from things like Leech's A-Z of English Grammar & Usage. I memorized all the different concept questions I was supposed to ask each time I did one of my carefully planned and sequenced present-practice-produce lessons. "When is the sentence talking about - the past, present or future?" I would ask. "That's right. And do you know WHEN in the past? No. OK. So we use the present perfect simple to talk about actions in the indefinite past", I'd inform my class. A timeline would invariably follow, some drilling of weak forms and then some tightly controlled practice from Penny Ur's Grammar Practice Activities followed by some form-focused error correction.
Once I'd mastered all of this, that was basically my first two or three years of teaching sorted - and strangely reassuring it all was, too. Rules themselves are satisfying - and even when students started pointing out exceptions, I could console myself that at least I was teaching 'useful generalisations', even if they weren't actually hard and fast rules. The notion of learning being made up of discrete blocks of information, which could be easily mastered one after another, helped me to feel I was keeping the tides of chaos at bay and brining order to an unruly world. The illusion that learning how to use one grammar structure through a present-practice-produce (PPP) lesson would then enable students to utilize this structure in whatever kind of conversation they needed to use it in was a comforting one.
The numerous recipe books and supplementary materials available in the staffrooms I frequented also had their allure. I could go over that grammar point my students still seemed to be struggling with yet again, but in a new and creative kind of way. Of course, on top of all of this, I also did skills lessons and went through comprehension questions and did some pronunciation work and taught lots of words. And when I say words, I mean words! Gradually, though, I settled into a grammar-heavy rhythm and there seemed little reason to change.
And yet change I did - and quite dramatically, looking back on it. Partly this was due to my own experience of trying to learn a foreign language - Indonesian - that ran in parallel with my development at as a teacher. To begin with, I memorized endless lists of single words and studied all the grammar forms and meanings in a grammar book, in the process getting to manipulate such memorable sentences as Anjing itu menggonggong – the dog is barking – but when push came to shove, I always struggled to find the easiest, most natural, normal way of saying things. Coupled with this was a slow nagging feeling that not only were my students having similar problems with their English, but that my own enthusiasm for the classroom was starting to wane. Surely, I thought, there must be more to life than asking students to discuss the difference between Mary left when Bill arrived and Mary had left when Bill arrived or Michael only spoke to Helen and Only Michael spoke to Helen. I'd started to tire of texts which were contrived to contain as many of one structure as possible, I'd lost the will to endlessly mime and elicit You're playing the guitar or You're running and I'd started to feel that perhaps The dog is barking wasn't a very good example of the way that either the present continuous way generally used or the verb 'bark' was used. Or, in fact, even the word dog!
The two crunch moments came soon afterwards. Firstly, as part of my DTEFLA, back in London, I had to read The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis, where I came across the claim that "language is not lexicalized grammar; rather, it is grammaticalised lexis". I didn't fully understand this to begin with, but the idea that there was more to language than simply a bunch of structures which you just dropped the appropriate words into rang bells for me. Then, one day I was standing on the third floor at work, waiting for the lift up to the fifth and next to me was one of my Intermediate students, a Korean woman called Hye-Jung. The lift stopped, the doors opened and rather than getting in, Hye-Jung stood there, mouthing silently to herself and looking frustrated. I was quite intrigued by this, so I passed on the lift and asked her what was up. "I didn't know what to say", she confessed. "I know the present continuous: I am + -ing, You are + -ing, It is + -ing. I know the question forms: Are you + -ing? Is it + -ing? I know the word lift. I know the verbs to go up, to go down, but what to say when the doors open?
"Are you going up?" I said – at which point she looked aghast and said "Oh! So easy when you know!" Which of course it is. At this moment, I suddenly had an insight into what a ridiculously large task I'd inadvertently been forcing on my students for so long - teaching them grammar forms and meanings in one class, words in another, often with scant regard for how to actually say things in the real world, and then expecting them to somehow magically put the two together every minute of their English-language using lives.
From this point on, I resolved to stop thinking about language in this way and to try to ensure that in my classes I taught grammar in normal, everyday contexts with the lexis it's most often used with - and at the same time, I taught no more single words, but rather taught vocabulary in the contexts - and with the co-text – which students may want to use it and would hear it used. Context became far more central to what I did in class and out of this, what I've come to term Lexical Teaching emerged.
The first thing to say about this is that in some ways making the move from teaching grammatically to teaching lexically is a leap - a leap of faith for some, perhaps; a leap in the dark for others, I'm sure - and like all major moves in life, it can be quite traumatic. All the things we find so reassuring about teaching grammar get pulled out from under us when start to consider the lexis of the language as being the thing we should be spending most of our classroom time looking at. The average lexicon is far bigger, for starters. Even a modest Learner's Dictionary dwarfs the volumes of English Grammar In Use! The lexis of English is a vast, messy area. To tackle it, we're forced into honing our explanations of things that often seem inexplicable to us. We're thrown into a world of arbitrary collocations and expressions and usages, a world where the safety of rules seems a distant memory - and I'd be lying if I tried to tell you that walking in woods like these isn't tricky at times!
Yet walk we must, not only for reasons I've already outlined, but also - to be blunt - because when we're mainly teaching grammar, we're not actually teaching very much! Perfect tenses, for instance, essentially carry the meaning of before - before now (the present perfect), before another time in the past (past perfect) or before a point in time in the future (the future perfect). Continuous forms essentially signify that something is or was unfinished. Yet consider how much time we spend teaching these tenses relative to their communicative worth in terms of meaning. We certainly wouldn't spend that much time teaching the words 'before' or 'unfinished'. Yet what is trickiest of all about grammar is not the meanings or the forms. Rather, it's the myriad number of ways in which each structure can be lexicalized. Just as Hye-Jung struggled with 'Are you going up?', so you can be sure she'd also struggle with 'Prices are plummeting all across the Asian markets', 'I just feel like he's always trying to undermine my confidence' and 'It's absolutely bucketing down outside!'
It's to help all of our Hye-Jungs find what they want to say more easily than I'd like to suggest some basic principles that should help smooth your transition from grammar to lexis!
As part of the interview for training courses we run at University of Westminster, we often ask interviewees to do a bit of teaching and one of the things we ask them to do is imagine they're in a class where the item rush has come up in a listening or reading or vocabulary exercise. How would they deal with it? What frequently happens is candidates start running round the room like headless chickens saying "I'm late, so I'm rushing". Me and my fellow trainer, Andrew, adopt the role of the annoying student who keeps asking questions and shout out "Rush is like run?" "No, it's faster than running". "Oh, rush is sprint". "Yes, it's similar" and so on. The problems interviewees soon run into raises some interesting points, I think. The main issues here being the problems with explaining and the problems with synonyms. It's worth looking at both at these in more detail.
In a sense, of course, the attempt to deal with the word rush outlined above is getting pretty close. When we rush, it is often to do with being late and it can involve running, though that isn't central to the action. The problem comes from trying to explain the word on its own rather than starting from thinking about what we actually say using it. Following this line of thought, the starting point for teaching it - assuming this is the context in which it's been met in the exercise the students have asked about, of course - would be to work backwards from the utterance and put that into a context I could explain. It'd go something like this:
OK. It's 5 to 9. I'm in Oxford Street. My class starts at 9. I meet someone I know. They stop me and start talking. "Hi. How're you? I haven't seen you for ages". I chat for a minute or two, but keep looking at my watch, before saying, "Listen, I'd love to stop and talk, but I'm in a rush. My class starts in two minutes."
And on the board, I'd then write that whole chunk:
Listen, I'd love to stop and talk, but I'm in a rush. My class starts in two minutes.
I might even add in hurry next to rush to show it's equivalent - in this context. Despite the fact that this explanation perhaps takes a minute or two longer and there's more language on the board for students to deal with, I think this actually makes life easier for students in several key ways.
Firstly, it meets Hye-Jung's criteria of learning what to say in the situation when you want to use the word you're learning. As we've seen, this means doing far more than simply teaching meanings. In fact, I think a good dictum to teach by is that when students ask us "What does this word mean?" what they really want to know is "How can I use this word?" It also means that not only is the context clear, but so is the co-text and I guess I should explain what I mean by co-text. Co-text is simply language often found around the word we're teaching. In a sense, it's a slightly broader version of collocation. Where the collocation of rush here might be to be in a rush, the co-text is the language commonly used with that in the typical contexts it'd be used in. This is important for two reasons. The first is that writing the language up like this gives the students more support, more scaffolding, more to revise from at home. If you imagine simply writing up on the board to rush or even to be in a rush, no matter how clear your explanation of that is, what do you expect students to do with this once they get home? They'll open their notebooks, go "Oh, OK. To be in a rush. Yep, I've got it." And yet when they want to try to use, they'll have to go through the Hye-Jung process:
OK. It's now, so it should be the present continuous. That's what we use to talk about things at the moment, so I am + -ing. OK. I am being in a rush.
And that would be that. By giving the whole chunk, you allow the possibility of students actually memorizing and re-using the thing as it stands. This means that teaching lexically places a much higher stress of the importance of memorizing. In a sense, I think we need to be honest and unashamed about admitting the fact that learning to speak a foreign language well requires a huge amount of memorization. There's simply no way round that, no short cut. Of course, not all students will remember the whole chunk wholesale. Some will remember 80%, some 60%, some only a couple of words of it. This isn't an argument for going back to teaching less. Teaching more language gives better students the possibility of learning the whole thing - and for those that don't, well 50% is better than nothing!
On top of this, there's one of the great ironies of teaching lexically, which is that this kind of teaching actually means students get more exposure to grammar and thus have more chance of slowly honing their accuracy. Traditionally, the idea has been that you do one big block of a structure in one lesson and that out of this, you're then somehow magically able to lexicalise the structure in all the different kinds of ways needed to help you talk about whatever you want. The problem being not only that this clearly doesn't happen, but also that there's a kind of blink-and-you-miss-it mentality to grammar. If you don't get the structure embedded in your brain in that one session, tough! That's it on that for the next hundred hours. Teaching lexically, however, means that because you're dealing with whole language, the most common structures come up time and time again, in each and every class. This can only be a good thing. One final point to make here is that this kind of exposure in class should aid students' receptive understanding of English. By showing them the words that go together, we're helping them at least to notice this stuff when they encounter it outside the classroom.
I did an embryonic version of this talk at a college in London in the summer and at the end, someone asked me "So what's the difference between lexical teaching and just teaching words in context?" It was a good question, I thought, and in a sense the answer is basically nothing! On a deeper level, though, I guess teaching lexically means a switch to doing this kind of thing all the time, seeing this as the main thing we should be doing as language teachers in a language classroom. It also, I think, has considerable implications for classroom materials. Firstly, it means that we really ought to start using exercises that give students more support and scaffolding, more co-text. This may mean that pages look denser than perhaps some teachers are used to. This is simply because students learn language from language - not from pretty pictures or from empty, white spaces.
I also think it means more use of gap-fill exercises. They seem to be the best way both of showing students typical co-text, and also of testing that words have been understood. Asking students to guess meanings isn't actually doing much teaching; giving students synonyms to match to new words operates on the assumption that words actually have direct equivalents which work in the same way, which of course they don't; giving single words or collocations is fine, but again only goes part of the way towards giving students what they want to say - they'll still have to do the hard part - the grammaticalisation - themselves! In contrast to all of this, a gap-fill, say this one, for example:
Listen, I'd love to stop and talk, but I'm in a .............. . My class starts in two minutes.
is a pretty solid test of memory and understanding, whilst it also consolidates awareness of co-text, context and grammar that goes with the word. So - long live the gap-fill!
Of course, if all we do with gap-fills is simply give them to students to do, let them compare in pairs and then run through the answers, classes can get pretty dull, which brings us to another golden rule of sorts:
Once we've explained what new language means and given students examples on the board, we can then use the class to expand on this. Learning how to ask questions about the language we're teaching in order to generate co-text is one of the things that has kept me interested in my job for this is one of the occasions where students get to bring their lives and experiences and countries into the English classroom. To look at how this works, let's start by taking the example of rush again. Once I'd got my model example sentences up on the board, I'd then just simply ask the class "Any other reasons why maybe I'm in a rush?" It's a great concept check, this, because if you haven't explained the expression well enough, they'll be stumped! Of course, what may start happening is they grasp the idea, but aren't that great at expressing them in English, so they'll shout out things like "I have appointment my girlfriend" or "I don't want lose my train". This is absolutely fine. It shows they've got the idea - and it allows you to do some more teaching. Out of this, you might then end up with something like the following on the board:
Listen, I'd love to stop and talk, but I'm in a .............. .
My class starts in two minutes.
I'm meeting my girlfriend in ten minutes.
some friends in a bit.
I've got a train to catch. / I don't want to miss my train.
Students appreciate you helping them to say what they're to say in better English. And the fact that they've come up with the meanings mean that side of things is already understood and instead, they're freer to focus on form. Where the comedy comes in is when one student adds "If I'm late" – and then mimes cutting his throat or "But is not important. Is only English class. Let's go for coffee".
In the same way, certain language-generating questions about certain bits of language can lead to some amazing stories. For instance, in an Upper-Intermediate class, the phrase turn a blind eye came up. I explained it, gave the example of the police here in London often turning a blind eye to cannabis use and asked anything else people could turn a blind eye to. One of my Chinese students, Fang-Li, launched into an impassioned retelling of the time him and three friends took on the school bullies when he was 16 - with knives and baseball bats! The teachers apparently not only turned a blind eye, but literally left the playground to avoid the carnage. Fang-Li's lot won, but he still has some tasty knife-slash scars on his forearm, which he showed the group. And to think, before then, we'd always thought he was such a nice boy!
Asking questions about the language you're teaching in order to generate co-text obviously involves a bit more Teacher Talking Time, but this is no bad thing. If students don't get this from us in the classroom, where are they going to get it from? I think it's time we reclaimed the dreaded TTT and realize than when we put it to good use, it's actually just called teaching! I think an interesting corollary here is that actually more of this kind of focused TTT also leads to more Student Talking Time and more whole-class involvement in the learning process.
One thing that starts happening much more in your classes when you teach more lexically is that students start asking you more questions about language too. One of the most common kinds of questions comes during the explanation stage. You'll often be in the middle of trying to explain and give examples for, say, subsidy and a student will shout out "It's like a grant?" Now, it's tempting just to gloss over these questions as they can be quite scary and can really put you on the spot - and when I first started my teaching career, that's exactly what I used to do. "Yes," I'd say, "it is a bit like a grant" and then move swiftly on. However, now I've come to realize that one of the core components of meaning is actually differential meaning and that what students are doing when they ask questions like is basically saying "Yes, I get the general idea, but could you explain to me exactly what the difference between a subsidy and a grant is, please?" As such, I think we'd do well to take the time to answer these questions quite thoroughly. In this instance, I ended up with the following on the board:
The UK is angry about the subsidies French farmers get from the EU.
They've cut state subsidies to public transport.
The government still subsidies the mining industry fairly heavily.
The whole industry is still quite heavily subsidised.
I got a special grant from the university to encourage me to do research.
They've thinking of cutting student grants.
Now, of course, you could just explain that "a subsidy is an amount of money paid by the government or another authority to help an industry or business or to pay for a public service, whereas a grant is an amount of money a government or another institution gives to an individual or organization for a particular purpose such as education or home improvement", but actually the examples more or less do that for you - though you could obviously still mention subsidies are usually to industries, grants to individuals – and of course they give that little bit extra too.
Taking the time to answer these kinds of questions may mean you don't always get everything you planned to do in class done - but it also means that you're teaching your class first and foremost and the material second - a much better way of doing things than vice versa! Obviously, being able to access the kind of information about collocation / usage needed to deal with these kinds of questions is an acquired skill and one that needs working on. If it's any consolation, I still have questions which stump me and which I can't answer on the spot - and probably always will! It helps keeps the brain sharp and alive to language and to the way our students perceive it. I think perhaps the best way we can train ourselves to get better at explaining language is to use a dictionary as part of our preparation - or retrospectively to look up things that puzzled us - and not just to check meaning, but to get ideas about good examples of use as well. One thing we have to watch out at this stage is the difference between what things do and what we say about them. For instance, balloons go up, but we very rarely talk about them going up! The balloon went up isn't a good example of either balloon or go up. Far better would be something like Can you help me blow up these balloons? or Prices have gone up a lot this year. Dictionaries help us find these kinds of examples.
In the same way, perhaps the best and most developmental conversations we can have with our colleagues are those about the kinds of questions we get asked in class. Discussing the difference between, say, oily and greasy in the staffroom is more likely to lead to your long-term development than exchanging tips on great activities for revising the present perfect or new recipes for a wet Friday afternoon!
At the same time, though, I also feel that dictionaries are best kept out of the classroom generally. I'm not saying that there's not a place, early on in a course perhaps, for a ten- or fifteen-minute slot where we run students through how to use them, how to look for collocations and examples, what the abbreviations mean and so on. It's just that I don't think students pay to come to class in order to then sit and be told to look things up themselves. They can do that at home - for free! I think that as teachers we have to believe we can give better, more meaningful explanations and examples than dictionaries can - and that we can use the class more whilst doing so.
Right - after a few Dos, some Don'ts! I think one thing we need to be wary of when teaching lexis is trying to teach every meaning of words all at once. Students will have enough problems trying to remember the first meaning you tackle. If you've gone for Listen, I'd love to stop and talk, but I'm in a rush, it's quite enough to explore extra reasons for why you're in a rush - without then saying "Oh, and then there's rush hour - but that's when everyone travels really slowly because they're all trying to get to work . . . Oh, and sometimes people who've taken ecstasy might say I'm rushing because the drug is starting to work . . . and you can watch the rushes of a film, before the director has changed the first photographed scenes in any way!!" Stop! A basic rule of thumb would be to simply teach the words in the context they're present in - unless students themselves ask about other usages, in which case I think it's then fine to compare and contrast.
One of the great advantages of thinking and teaching lexically is that you realize that words always go together with other words, whether that be as part of collocations, fixed expressions or whatever. Once you get your head round this, residual fears you may have been harboring about supposedly difficult areas of the lexicon - phrasal verbs, separable and inseparable; transitive and intransitive verbs; idioms - all start melting away! These areas have traditionally been made to look and feel like even more grammar by coursebook writers, but in reality, they're no easier or harder to teach and learn that anything else. As such, don't scare students with jargon. Keep things simple and just show students the words that go together and explain what they mean. It's enough. I think it's also generally pretty unhelpful to only teach idioms or phrasal verbs together in big blocks - often as part of the run-in to FCE or CAE exams! They can come into classes much earlier on as they're part and parcel of the way we typically talk about all manner of everyday topics.
Connected to this is another don't – don't over-explain or try to explain why lexical items are the way they are. It's because that's how we say things! When students ask WHY we say I felt like a fish out of water, it's because we do. When they ask if they can say I felt like a fish in the water to mean they felt comfortable and at home, the answer is no! Why? Because we don't say it! Simple. Students generally have no problems accepting this as an explanation. Indeed, what other kind of explanation is there. Similarly, I don't think we do our students many favours by teaching them etymology or lexical history. Do students need to know the history of the girl guides to understand what He's just trying to win some brownie points means? I don't think so! Do they need to know that barbarian is derived from the Greek root barbaros meaning stranger or non-Greek? Definitely not! Let's try to keep all this cultural history and overly academic guff out of the EFL classroom and keep things simple and in plain English!
Another thing that starts happening more when you teach lexically is that you teach what you may perhaps previously have perceived as examples of grammatical structures as lexical items instead. This means students can start getting exposure to structures they were previously denied access to at a much earlier stage, thus priming them for closer encounters with them later on. An example might be the question How long've you been doing that, then? It seems to me that there's no reason why an Elementary student couldn't learn that question and some common answers - Not very long. Only a few weeks, Quite a long time. Maybe four or five years - and practise it. So long as our expectations are that we just want students to learn this question and be able to use it - at this stage - we won't be disappointed. It's unrealistic to expect greater, broader use of the present perfect continuous at this stage, though. There's plenty of time to get onto I've been meaning to do it for ages, but simply haven't got round to it yet at a later stage!
Apart from earlier - and more repeated - exposure to core structures, another advantage of teaching grammar as lexis is that you can side-step all the tricky questions students throw at you. If you correct 'It's a safety city' to 'It's a safe city' and are then asked why it was wrong, it's obviously tempting to say "Well, we don't use the noun safety before another noun, like city" but there'll always be the sharp student who says "Well, what about safety zone? And safety fears? And safety helmet?" Rather than trying to explain these 'exceptions' away and digging ourselves ever deeper into a hole in the process, simply say "Because it's wrong. We don't say safety city, we say safe city." In the same way, when a student asks why we use won't in the expression You won't have heard of it - which is talking about the past - it's because we do. It's a fixed expression!
One other thing we can do when thinking about teaching grammar as lexis is to show patterns clearly. For instance, if you're doing a lesson where you're teaching students to get better at having conversations with old friends they haven't seen for a while, you might - with a little help and some suggestions from your students - end up with something like this on the board:
Leo! Long time, no see.
> I know! I haven't seen you for ages. So what've you been upto?
Oh, I've been really busy studying for my exams.
applying to different universities.
finishing off my dissertation.
Here students get grammar and lexis combined. They get to see how to say what they might well want to be able to say!
One final do is do get students to practise. This doesn't necessarily just mean getting them to write example sentences of use. It can also mean giving them clear, simple, personally meaningful contexts in which to connect the new lexis to their own lives. This is often most simply done by simply asking them questions using the new language. These could be things such as the following:
- Which industries are most heavily subsidised in your country? How do you feel about that?
- Do students in your country get grants to study?
- Do the police in your country sometimes turn a blind eye to things? What?
- Have you ever felt like a fish out of water? When? Why?
Alternatively, some bits of vocabulary lend themselves more to a kind of role-play. Students could walk around talking to different students asking "So what've you been upto?" and giving different "I've been busy -ing" answers each time - or could cut the conversations short by saying "Listen. I'd love to stop and talk, but I've got to rush" and giving a different excuse why each time. The important thing is they get the chance to talk.
One final point to make here is that this will mean yet more opportunities for students to bring their personalities, their stories, their lives to the class - which is one more way for you to stay enthused about the job you've got!
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