The hazy line between lexis and grammar

This post is a short account of two lessons I taught in 2002 which helped me to make sense of something I’d read about in the late 90s, but couldn’t get my head around. Not until then anyway.

If you’ve been following me for some time, you know that I’m a big believer in experiential learning (i.e., moving from concrete experience to abstract conceptualization rather than the other way around), so let me begin by describing the lessons first. That way you’ll be better able to grasp the theory underlying my anecdotes.

In August 2002, I taught a two-month course called “Advanced Grammar 2″, which, as the name suggests, was basically a grammar course, based on a (very good) grammar book. As part of the syllabus, I was expected to teach students how to use gerunds in formal sentences such as “I objected to his going…” and “Her having said that…”, which, to be honest, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to.

The big day finally came and the lesson was a train wreck, from start to finish. It was one of those classes you walk out of wondering whether you’re on the right career path. The poor students, hard as they tried, couldn’t make heads or tails of the new language and needed a great deal of remedial work in the following weeks. I can still recall their less-than-glowing feedback at the end of the lesson:

“This stuff is way too abstract. When am I ever going to use this in real life?”

Cut to October 2002. Most of the students – against all odds – signed up for the next level and, to their despair, I was their teacher again. But the next course was different. It was called “Current Events” and it focused on conversation, listening and vocabulary. There was no coursebook (for obvious reasons), so the more laissez-faire nature of the course meant that I was free to build up the syllabus as we went along, dealing with emergent language and extracting useful lexis from newspapers, magazines and video clips. I am using lexis here in the broadest possible sense, to encompass words, collocations, fixed/semi-fixed expressions and formulaic language.

In one particular lesson, we watched a CNN clip and after the usual true or false activities, I drew their attention to two sentences containing the phrase “the odds”. If I remember correctly, one of them was “The odds of his winning (whatever it was) are pretty slim.” I devised a quick noticing task, concept checked the sentence and briefly highlighted the use of pronoun + gerund, which was exactly the language I’d tried to teach them a few months before.

As fate would have it, the CNN lesson was far, far more successful. Students were able to express a wide range of ideas using the chunk “The odds of (noun or pronoun) (verb + ing) are (adjective) because…” with a good degree of confidence, accuracy and fluency – and by fluency I mean fast retrieval and chunking. They left the lesson with a palpable sense of achievement (“I was able to understand the new language and use it in class”), purpose (“I know what I can do with this piece of language in real life”) and ownership ( “I can make this piece of language work for me”). Interestingly, but in hindsight not surprisingly, only one student saw the connection between “the odds…” and the grammar they’d been exposed to in the previous course. When prompted, the other students responded with empty gazes, signaling that maybe – and I say maybe – they’d kept “gerunds” and “the CNN sentence” in two completely separate mental files.

At the time, I was puzzled by the lack of interface between the August and the October lessons, but after a few months all the pieces came together: It might have made more sense to move from lexis (“the odds of + ing are…”) to grammar than the other way around. In other words, to engage students in slightly more naturalistic acquisitional processes, I should have presented and practiced the new language formulaically first and then, in the following class or week, helped them break the chunk down and analyze the underlying grammar.

An obvious parallel: When we teach beginners to ask “What do you do?” formulaically (=lexically), we rarely engage them in any sort of overt grammar analysis straight away. Instead, we expose students to lots and lots of unanalyzed “do you…” sentences and gradually help them unpack and internalize the target patterns within the chunks, which will, to use Scott Thornbury’s words, act as templates for the later development of a more systematic grammar when they’re ready. The same applies to “Can I help you?” (no need to tackle modals straight away), “If I were you, I’d…” (which students can learn how to use long before they’re formally exposed to the second conditional) and so on and so forth.

This might seem obvious, I know, but in recent years ELT has paid relatively scant attention to the priming role of functional/formulaic language, which is a shame.

So I’d like to suggest that it makes sense to try to move:

From lexis (in the broadest possible sense of the word) to grammar rather than the other way around.
From concrete to abstract.
From synthesis to analysis.

Or, to borrow Michael Lewis’ terminology:

First, grammaticized lexis, then lexicalized grammar.

This is easier to pull off, of course, when you teach one to one and can devise your own materials or adapt your existing coursebook at will. But even if you operate within the constraints of a language institute, there are a number of small changes you can make to your lesson planning that – trust me – might surprise you.

Thanks for reading.

Luis Otávio Barros

Luiz Otávio Barros (MA in Applied Linguistics, Lancaster University) has been teaching, training teachers, designing language courses and writing ELT materials since 1992. Formerly academic coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo (where he was responsible for the advanced levels, as well as COTE, DOTE and DELTA tuition), head of research and development at Associação Alumni São Paulo (where he was in charge of the adult segment) and BRAZ-TESOL’s second vice president, Luiz Otávio is co-author of Richmond’s English ID / Identities, Personal Best, and series editor of Access.

  • Alessandra Caixeta
    Posted at 13:13h, 11 agosto Responder

    Could’t agree more, Luiz! The same goes with inversions, for instance. Students tend to consider them too formal,, when exposed to them from a grammatical point of view,. Then they get “shocked” to realize how colloquial they are …it’s all a matter of finding relevance in what we teach, right? Abs!!

    • Luiz Otávio Barros
      Luiz Otávio Barros
      Posted at 10:42h, 12 agosto Responder

      Exactly, Alessandra. Certain types of negative inversion are used much more widely than we give them credit for. And unless we show students that people actually do say things like “Not only did I…”, “Had you not…”, “Under no circumstances should you…”, it’s hard to convince them that all this stuff is worth learning. Um beijo, thanks for stopping by.

  • Damian Williams
    Damian Williams
    Posted at 18:19h, 11 agosto Responder

    Another excellent post. Thanks Luiz, I look forward to your post each month.

    I know it’s not exactly in tune with the main thrust of your post, but reading the first part instantly brought the idea of future forms to mind for me. I think this is one area of English which gets mystified far too much by looking at abstract rules of when and how different forms are used. True, it’s a huge area of English, but not so complicated when we start to look at it through concrete experience.

    So for example we don’t always select a form by how it’s supposed to be used, but rather how we want it to be perceived by others, so turning down an invitation to something you don’t want to go to, you’d more like use the present continuous (sorry, I can’t I’m meeting someone) rather than be going to, as an arrangement seems harder to get out of.

    Concrete examples like this are much easier to help learners understand and use them appropriately I think (I once had a trainer who made us try this out over the course of a week and report our findings 🙂 ).

    Another point about future forms is that very often we refer to the future lexically, using verbs like hope, expect, promise, etc., so once again the line between grammar and lexis gets blurred.

    Anyway, I’m rambling now so I’ll stop. Thanks again for a thought-provoking post!

    • Luiz Otávio Barros
      Luiz Otávio Barros
      Posted at 10:52h, 12 agosto Responder

      Thank you for your kind words and your support, Damina.
      Couldn’t agree more. As far as future forms are concerned, we tend to make them things much more complicated than they need to be. Plus, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard and watched “non orthodox” uses of the future, which fly in the face of what we usually tell students. A few years ago I actually remember being challenged by a brilliant B2 student in the middle of a video-based activity:
      “If we usually use will for instant decisions, why did the woman say “I’m having the salmon” after looking at the menu and making up her mind?”
      How does one get out of that? 🙁
      Thanks for stopping by.

      • Damian Williams
        Damian Williams
        Posted at 11:02h, 12 agosto Responder

        Haha you just reminded me of a student who once said to me ‘but I NEVER make a decision at the time of speaking. I have to think it before I say it’ 🙂

        • Luiz Otávio Barros
          Luiz Otávio Barros
          Posted at 12:24h, 12 agosto Responder

          Which reminded me of another one… Once I showed a one-to-onoe student a video of a famous astrologer and her forecast for 2010 or whenever it was. In the second viewing, for whatever reason, she counted the number of “going to” vs. “will” examples. Turns out there were five as many “going tos”. Next logical question:
          “But didn’t we learn that we use going to when there’s some concrete evidence that something will happen? What sort of evidence does she have? Her charts?”

  • Marco Rodrigo Alves Ferreira
    Posted at 14:40h, 12 agosto Responder

    I would be willing to pay for posts like this one !! So helpful !! Thank you !!

  • Teresa Aranda
    Posted at 21:12h, 13 agosto Responder

    Brilliantly written, Luiz! How stimulating it is to be taken back to a time and place where my mind would entertain similar issues. In my current context, this is rarely the case. As much as I appreciate the new challenges, I miss discussing language at this level. Thank you for sharing your experience and relevant reflections on it.

    Terry 😉

    • Luiz Otávio Barros
      Luiz Otávio Barros
      Posted at 23:14h, 14 agosto Responder

      Thanks, Terry. I bet this post – and the courses it described – struck a chord with you, uh? 😉

  • Isabel Rimmer
    Posted at 12:19h, 15 agosto Responder

    It is never to late to discuss a learning process that works and makes sense to learners. Thanks for bringing these extremely relevant points to attention, Luiz Otavio. I think this is crucial to every “lesson” we teach. The concrete experience not only helps put language into context, it also, and very importantly, validates everything students will do afterwards. Someone also mentioned relevance to learners. What the article highlights is exactly the value of making language items relevant. Brilliant and thought-provoking writing. Beijo.

    • Luiz Otávio Barros
      Luiz Otávio Barros
      Posted at 12:32h, 15 agosto Responder

      Thanks, Isabel. Yeah, “concrete experience” does strike a chord with the two of us, doesn’t it? Imho, it’s relatively easier to do it via lexis (=formulaic, chunky language) followed by grammar analysis rather than the other way round.

  • Seb Pearce
    Posted at 19:53h, 26 agosto Responder

    Luiz, I wish I could paste this article on the staffroom wall of every English school, and get it translated into students’ L1s to show them how to approach grammar. You’ve nailed it.

    I think teachers do themselves a great disservice by not paying attention to non-native speakers who’ve achieved a near-native level of English. Almost invariably, they acquired it through the process you’re describing (unanalysed lexis first) — not to mention native speakers!

    It’s almost cruel how we start off beginners this way, which gets them excited about English and making good progress, and then once they get closer to Intermediate we heap a lot of abstract, alien grammar concepts at them before they’ve encountered them in real life. It’s like trying to teach someone how to play soccer before they’ve even watched a game.

    I blogged about this from a slightly alternative perspective (cognitive psychology) but I think we’ve reached the same conclusions:

    Your posts always get me thinking! Thank you.

    • Luiz Otávio Barros
      Luiz Otávio Barros
      Posted at 02:48h, 27 agosto Responder

      Hi, Seb
      Thanks for stopping by and for your kind words.
      Great article you wrote too – very thought-provoking.
      As I read it, I kept wondering how the interface between systems 1 and 2 might impact coursebook writing – which for obvious reasons is something I take a keen interest in.
      Could it be – and this is more of a genuine than a rethorical question – that a PPP-based model (which ultimately all coursebooks are, really) might be more conducive to the learning processes / outcomes you describe if the example sentences are more lexical, “chunky” in nature? In other words, when teaching modal perfects, for example, if we use sentences like “I left it right here – you must’ve seen it” or “There’s something I might’ve forgotten to tell you” rather than “dinosaurs might’ve become extinct because…”, could it be that the kind of proceduralization we describe could happen more easily?

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