1 Lexis is more important than grammar

Absolutely central to lexical teaching is a view of language. A starting point on the road towards understanding this view is the commonly stated observation that without grammar you can say little, but without vocabulary you can say nothing. Take the following sequence of words. What do you think is being communicated?

want see film ages

film want see ages

see ages want film

ages film see want

Uttered by a language student, these words are far more likely to get closer to communicative success than the unlikely scenario of them producing only the grammar:

I have been -ing that for . . .

Indeed, the very fact that we cannot really imagine the second scenario should tell us that it is words that drive communication. Words drive language development too as knowing more words allows students to access more texts. This may then enable students to employ more of  the reading and listening skills (1) they have in their own language and in turn to acquire more language.

The learning of lexis is a much bigger task than learning grammar. A native speaker university student is estimated to recognise around 20,000 word families (2). Even taken as single words, that means far more items than there are grammar rules presented over a typical series of coursebooks.  And that’s before we even consider lexis as being beyond single words or as varied forms of one root lemma.

We should be very clear from the start that none of the above is to say that lexical teaching means never teaching grammar rules or that we should only teach words. Far from it – as we shall see when we develop our principles and beliefs further. What it DOES mean, however, is changing the priority of many courses.

Applications of this principle

– Make students aware of the huge amount of lexis required if fluency is their goal.

– Ensure they are exposed to and have the chance to acquire sufficient vocabulary.

– Make teaching vocabulary a central part of every lesson or homework activity.

(1) See studies cited by Catherine Walter:

https://www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/1420

( 2) See studies cited by Nation and Waring:

http://www.fltr.ucl.ac.be/fltr/germ/etan/bibs/vocab/cup.html

  • Geoffrey Jordan

    Hi lads,
    Here I am, then Hugh, accepting your invitation. Let’s see:
    After the bizarre assertion that if a student says “see ages want film”,
    this is more likely to achieve communicative success than if the student says “I have been -ing that for . . .”, we arrive at the argument, which is that words drive communication and language development.

    We’re then given 3 “applications” of this “principle” which :
    – Make students aware of the tasks that learning require (sic).
    – Ensure they are exposed to and have the
    chance to acquire sufficient vocabulary.

    – Make teaching vocabulary a central part
    of every lesson or homework activity.

    Unless you say something about the organisation of words, your
    first principle of “lexical teaching” has no
    interesting content. You have to articulate how you think language works, why
    some combinations of words are OK and others are not, and what rules or
    patterns learners need to acquire.

    I think what you, Hugh (with your course on grammar
    especially), seem to moving towards is close to what Widdowson (1989) argued
    for. He said: “Communicative competence is a matter of knowing a stock of
    partially pre-assembled patterns, formulaic frameworks, and a kit of rules, so
    to speak, and being able to apply the rules to make whatever adjustments are
    necessary according to contextual demands. Communicative competence is a matter
    of adaption, and rules are not generative but regulative and subservient.” I quoted this from a post I did on lexical chunks a while back,
    and I think it’s what you’re saying too. If we agree with Widdowson
    that teachers should provide the patterns of lexical co-occurrence which rules operate
    on so that they are suitably adjusted to the communicative purpose required of
    the context, then exposure to and practice of sequences of lexical phrases plays
    a key role in teaching. Nattinger and
    DeCarrico’s language teaching programme is, as you know, based on the
    lexical phrase and attempts to lead students to use prefabricated language in a
    similar way as first language speakers do, but without ignoring grammar. “Though
    the focus is on appropriate language use, the analysis of regular rules of
    syntax is not neglected” (Nattinger and DeCarrico, 1992).

    • Lexicallab

      Hi Geoff –
      Nice to see you here and thanks for taking the time to share some of your thoughts. There’s a lot to get through here, so I’ll take things one at a time.

      Firstly, I notice the old rhetorical trick of selective quoting at play when you extracted ‘see ages want film’, which was presented above as a tongue-in-cheek variant of the more probable Elementary-level student utterance of something along the lines of ‘I want see film ages’. Admittedly, whilst I HAVE often heard students say things like this, I’ve yet to head a student come up with the word order jumble of something like ‘see ages want film’. As such, it’s fair to say that perhaps the more extreme possible utterance is a bit of a red herring here, though even with this, I’d stand by the claim that they’re more likely to be understood than ‘I have been -ing for ages’.

      The point here really (and I suspect you know this already) is not to suggest that students really do say ‘I have been -ing for ages’ (or ‘see ages want film’, but rather to suggest that second-language learner communication, particularly at low levels, is driven by words and that this allows a degree of communication to occur despite the absence of any real grammar. Development then often occurs as learners learn how to ‘grammar’ the words they’re using.

      To put it another way, when we’re teaching grammar structures on their own, we’re not teaching much of immediate communicative utility and that it’s only when we consider the ways in which they interact with lexis and operate in discourse that we start to get nearer something that students can use to message with.

    • Lexicallab

      Your next point is that somehow this post is not valid until we have laid out a whole theory of language and naturalness, why some combinations of words are OK and others are not and what patterns or rules need to acquire . . . right?

      Well, one thing at a time would be my feeling. This is very much intended to be a short series of ongoing posts that will cover all manner of beliefs and principles. We want them to be useful to the average classroom practitioner and to be bite-sized rather than manifesto-length.

      The fact we have both written coursebooks rooted in our ideas shows we have (evolving) ideas about how language can be organised for study at different levels, and what kind of language we feel might be useful and appropriate to study at different levels. You are, of course, free to disagree with some or even all of the choices we’ve made there, as are teachers, but there is then an onus on one to suggest what else you feel would be more useful in each case – and to argue why.

      In terms of articulating WHY some combinations are OK and others are not, I’d disagree that this is useful or even necessarily possible. For instance, do students or teachers really need to know WHY it is that in English we tend not to say BIG RAIN, but instead opt for HEAVY? I don’t think so. I think it’s enough to simply know that this is the way it is.

      • Geoffrey Jordan

        1. There’s a difference between “one thing at a time” and saying absolutely nothing of any value in your very first post on core principles. .

        2. The last paragraph in your reply, starting “In terms of articulating “… is breathtakingly dumb. To say that asking why some combinations of words are OK and others are not is neither useful or “necessarily possible” is quite enough to cause me to beat a hasty retreat. I don’t think I’ll come back here again.

        • hugh dellar

          For someone so keen on a rigorous and academic approach, Geoff, you seem worryingly quick to resort to sweeping insults of the “breathtakingly dumb” variety. I’m not convinced they do much to bolster your point.

          Perhaps instead of resorting to insults, you could try to explain why you feel it’s so vital to articulate WHY, for instance, heavy rain is preferred to big rain; what you feel it might be useful to tell students other than “these words go together in English” – and what possible underlying rules you believe might underpin such lexical choices. I realise this is harder to do than diamissing things out of hand, but you seem to be a smart bloke ….

          • Geoff

            It’s extraordinary that you can’t see the implications of what you write. Do I really have to spell it out? Colocations are not the only consideration when looking at how words are organised; there’s also syntax. While it’s often enough to say that “heavy” collocates with “rain” and “big” doesn’t, it is useful to point out that adjectives usually go before nouns, that the usual word order in English is SVO, that we can’t drop pronouns, and so on and so on. Hence, the claim that there’s no good reason to ask why some combinations of words are OK and others are not is, IMHO, breathtakingly dumb.

        • hugh dellar

          As for whether or not anything we’ve posted is “of value” … well, that’s not really for us to day, is it. The whole notion of ‘value’ is highly subjective. I’m quite prepared to accept there was nothing there that yourself valued, but the issue of whether anyone else extracts anything of value to them from it is beyond the control of either of us.

          I do know, though, that when I first encountered the idea that lexis conveyed more than grammar it was incredibly useful to me and helped me reorient my teaching in ways I’ve benefitted immensely from.

          • Geoff

            You encountered the idea that lexis conveyed more than grammar in M. Lewis’ The Lexical Approach. Lewis managed to put his case a lot better than you have done so far. To say that you have no way of judging the value of your first post on core principles for others is simply to duck the issue. Tell us: What’s the value of saying that

          • hugh dellar

            What I was actually saying Geoff is that claiming the post has “no value” is merely a statement of your own subjective position. As with beauty, value is in the eye of the beholder. To me, the value of stating the above is (a) because I believe it to be true and (b) because I believe other teachers out there may find it helps them develop their own thinking about language, and thus about what to prioritise within their own teaching. As I said before, whether it does or not is beyond the control of either of us. This seems so obvious as to not merit any further argument on the matter.

          • hugh dellar

            Thanks for taking the time to clarify what you meant earlier, Geoff. I don’t think we’ve only said that there’s no value in pointing out things like adjectives usually coming before nouns, or that English is generally a subject-verb-object language. If that’s what you meant – and it certainly wasn’t clear that it was – then you’re picking a fight with us where this is none.

            However, at the same time, there’s much about natural usage that defies any attempt to rule it into submission. This large area includes not only things like collocation, but why, for instance, certain things that seem like they should be possible aren’t. Why, for instance, can we say THERE’S NO PLEASING SOME PEOPLE, but not THERE’S NO ANGERING THEM, when both are grammatically possible? Indeed, why do we say THERE’S NO PLEASING SOME PEOPLE and not something like MAKING SOME PEOPLE PLEASED AT ALL TIMES IS NOT POSSIBLE,

            It’s this area of usage that lies beyond any general – and useful – rules about syntax that tou might want to impart to learners, and that makes fluency so problematic and tough to achieve.

          • Geoff

            You don’t have to explain this to me, Hugh, tell your co-author. In reply to my saying “You have to articulate how you think language works, why some combinations of words are OK and others are not, and what rules or patterns learners need to acquire”, he replied “In terms of articulating WHY some combinations are OK and others are not, I’d disagree that this is useful or even necessarily possible”. That’s what he said.

            I didn’t pick a fight with anybody, I simply pointed out that what he said was very stupid. I didn’t think I’d have to explain why, because I thought he (and you) would realise that questions about why some combinations of words are OK and others are not are not questions about collocation, they’re questions about sentence structure, grammar, syntax for God’s sake.
            I stick to my assessment of your attempts to explain your core principles and regret my attempt to discuss the work of real scholars with you two.

          • Lexicallab

            Hi again Geoff –
            In your rush to get a few insults in, you’ve actually done Andrew a disservice as the whole discussion above has actually been with me – Hugh – simply logging in from different devices as I was out and about.

            Whilst you make grand pronouncements about your own erudition – and our lack thereof – you’ve still not really answered any of the Big Questions you tasked us with at the start of all of this.

            Once you’d made it clear that when you were talking about “why some combinations of words are OK and others are OK”, you meant things like adjective before noun or S-V-O, naturally we agreed. These are basic and fundamental generalisations that frequently hold true about the language.

            Once you’ve accepted that, though, the truth remains that simply knowing these things helps you say absolutely nothing until you add lexis! And as soon as you do, you get into areas that are not explicable with tidy general rules – and that defy logical explanation. In a sense, if you’re still looking for ‘value’ in the post, this may well be where it lies – in stressing that (beyond certain basic organisational principles) much of everyday language use is NOT amendable to explanation. There remains no reason “why some combinations of words are OK and others are not.” It’s just the way things are.

            Just yesterday in class, the collocation THEY’RE STEPPING UP THEIR CAMPAIGN came up and a student asked first WHY we use STEP UP here (“We just do!”) and then if you could say instead INCREASING THEIR CAMPAIGN (“Not really, and nit in the context of a terrorist or separatist group. but you can talk about political parties increasing campaign spending”).

            Perhaps your grasp of scholarly literature can enlighten me as to what ‘rules’ could have eased the students’ pain here?

          • Geoff

            You sound like a second-rate politician Hugh. I didn’t rush to get any insults in; I made one specific response to a stupid remark. You, in your apparent obsession with collocation, couldn’t see that when I referred to why some combinations of words were OK while others weren’t, I was referring to grammar. Instead of taking the opportunity to bore us with even more snippets of “real language” and asking me to solve another non-problem of your own invention, why don’t you just admit that you misunderstood what I said?

            You prefer to accuse me of resorting to “sweeping insults” than to admit your mistake and engage in a discussion about how you might put a bit of flesh on the dry bones of the statements that words drive language and words drive language development.
            The culmination of all your hopelessly evasive replies to my comments is this:
            “Whilst you make grand pronouncements about your own erudition – and our lack thereof – you’ve still not really answered any of the Big Questions you tasked us with at the start of all of this.”
            No I haven’t Hugh. Just in case a new misunderstanding is brewing, let me explain. I ask you a question, and you answer it. Got it?

          • Lexicallab

            Hi again Geoff –
            I’m not convinced that saying people sound like “second-rate politicians” really does much to bolster your arguments, to be honest, but as the kids say . . . whatever!

            Just to be clear, though: (1) this is THE FIRST POST in what will be an ongoing series, wherein we will be fleshing these things out and exploring them in more detail and (2) we did say very clearly at the end of the post above that “none of the above is to say
            that lexical teaching means never teaching grammar rules or that we
            should only teach words. Far from it.”

            As for how I would explain things like why we say HEAVY RAIN – not BIG or STEP UP A CAMPAIGN – not INCREASE it. Well, for pedagogical and writing purposes, I wouldn’t. We just do – and that’s all teachers and students need to know in order to be able to start tackling items in class.

          • Geoff

            Here’s my summary of our exchange, with all
            my “insults” and your reactions to them removed.

            Me: The substance of your Core Principle No. 1 is: “words drive communication and language
            development”. The 3 “applications” of this “principle” are so bland that they fail to distinguish lexical teaching from any other approach. So I think the post is devoid of interesting content. For the post to have content you need to say how you think language works, why some combinations of words are OK and others are not, and what rules or patterns learners need to acquire.

            2 strands then develop. The first is your reply to my criticism that the post says nothing substantial.

            You: One thing at a time. This is intended to be a
            short series of ongoing posts. We want them to be bite-sized rather than manifesto-length.

            Me: But you say nothing here.

            You: That’s your opinion.

            Me: So, what’s the value of asserting that “words drive communication and language development too? if you don’t say SOMETHING about what this entails?

            You: I can’t say what value it has for others.

            The second strand is about combinations of words.

            You: In terms of articulating WHY some combinations are OK and others are not, I’d disagree that this is useful or even necessarily possible.

            Me: That’s a very stupid thing to say.

            You: Why?

            Me: Because talking about grammar, which
            articulates why some combinations of words are OK and others are not, is useful and possible.

            You: You didn’t make it clear that you were
            talking about grammar.

            Me: I shouldn’t have to. Why don’t you address the issues I raised?

            You: I recognise that grammar has its place. But for some parts of language, “Why?” is not the best queston.

            Me: Nobody’s disputing that. Why don’t you address the issues I raised?

            You: This is THE FIRST POST in what will be an
            ongoing series.

            That’s it. Let readers judge for themselves how well you’ve dealt with the my original criticism that your account of Core Principle No. 1 is devoid of interesting content.

          • Lexicallab

            You’re assuming there are actually readers of this, Geoff! It’s a brave and hardy person that’s made it this far is all I can say.

            Let’s leave this where it is for now, as we do seem to be going round in circles.

            As Paul Cezanne astutely noted, “the view contains the viewer” – and perhaps you came here already having decided what you wanted to see and what you believed we believe, and that this is part of what may be hindering further progress.

            There’ll be more coming soon in this section of the site that will explore our ideas in more depth.

    • Lexicallab

      To respond to your third point above . . . I have a fair degree of sympathy with that Widdowson quote, yes, though would perhaps moderate it firstly by saying that I think communicative competence is level-dependent and that how one might define competent communication in an Elementary student is obviously different from how one would define it in an Intermediate or Advanced student. At any level, though, being able to function proficiently in any given context or conversation depends on knowing plenty of language – meaning language in the fullest sense of the word, wherein vocabulary and grammar is utilized in combination. The higher the level of the student,m the broader the range of expressions they’ll possess and the more formulaic / pre-fabricated chunks they’ll be adept at using.

      You say that if we accept premise of Widdowson’s quote then “exposure to and practice of sequences of lexical phrases plays
      a key role in teaching”. We’d agree absolutely, of course and as anyone who’s bothered to look at the material we’ve produced for classroom use would know, this is very much part of what we’ve tried to do as writers (as well as teachers, naturally) and at no point have we ever said that regular rules of syntax should be neglected. Indeed, as Nattinger and DeCarrico pointed out, pursuit of appropriate language use goes hand in hand with an awareness and development of grammar.

      All I’d add to this is that sadly the reverse is not always true – and far too many curses still pursue analysis of the regular rules of syntax with a shocking disregard for the norms of fluent language use.

      It has always been this that we’ve been struggling against as writers, teachers and trainers.

      • pat g

        I’ve been reading Geoff’s comments and they remind why i avoided doing postgraduate study: academia is full of ivory tower pendants who are grossly out of touch with life’s practicalities.Teachers want and need practical guidance: not confabulated nonsense that’s esoteric, provocative and self serving. Such diatribe is best circulated in “peer reviewed” journals that nobody will ever read.Then again, “homo academicus” needs a purpose in life.

        • Andrew Walkley

          Thanks for your comments. I think you are right in that we can disappear into a dark place arguing about whether something is interesting or not and academic life certainly goes that way for some. Having said that, academia does also have a lot to offer and indeed so does Geoff from what I have read on his blog (although of course Geoff’s is not academic writing – it’s essentially a blog for polemics, which is at times quite entertaining and deliberately bitchy). We would definitely say there’s a value in study and have both done post-graduate courses of one sort or another, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also find a route to understanding and development in teaching by other means. However, we want to keep our sights firmly on the practice, which I take from you comment, that you feel we do. Thanks.

        • Lexicallab

          Thanks for the comment Pat.

          It’s a real shame that Geoff wasn’t more able to interact in a constructive manner with what we’re talking about here, as I believe he’s a smart guy with a lot to offer, but for a scholar / applied linguist to have relevance to those lower down the food chain, as it were, there does have to be a desire to listen to – and understand – the realities of classroom practitioners.

          It all ended up as a bit of a pissing context, which of course I may well have been guilty of participating in, but there’s little there that would aid or assist the average teacher or help to refocus their minds ahead of the next class.

          That said, his blog is still always worth a read, so long as you go prepared for some vitriol and bitterness served on the side with the thoughtful insight.

  • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

    Hello, here another brave and hardy reader…who reads to the end. Very early on, somebody got offended, and then… Criticism may be the premise for improved discourse, but rage?! This seems to be the pristine environment of professionals with a valuable hands-on contribution to the motivations of language teaching. I am sure you don’t mean to have a cock-fight on page one of the issues of language teaching, although the emotion had me momentarily mesmerized.

    My contribution/two cents’?
    I believe that grammar is a fine tool to support lexis, but grammar rules become subservient to exposure to the (less-explainable) gardens of collocation and usage, as students’ needs for true communicative proficiency become greater (not the case at high school here in the Netherlands, unfortunately, so I’m stuck with the basic rules of past simple vs present perfect…) – so, choices are much dictated by needs.
    But, to us teachers at any rate, usage is of course far more interesting than grammar, in that it is constantly subject to change, and historical/cultural influences. Usage is regularly adjusted and wrestled with to create unique, new usage, time again. Like Americans saying “my bad” – we can certainly make an heroic attempt to explain some of that usage with ped-grammar, but why indeed would you? Nor do I find it problematic to say: “It ain’t never been this bad” – which from a grammar point of view might be considered unacceptable, but to me is just evokes a curiosity for how language changes and how many forms are acceptable for cultural reasons. That I like the way Uncle Remus talks about Brer Rabbit is my own business. Observation invites understanding and growth, judgement thwarts everything. And it certainly to my mind is acceptable to say: “because it just IS that way!” in as many cases as you can get away with.
    Keep up the good work. We’ll be watching.

    • Lexicallab

      Hi Amber –
      Well, congratulations on reading to the bitter end. No mean feat! Apologies if it turned into a bit of a pissing contest / cock fight in places. Was certainly never my intention.

      From what you’ve gone on to say, I think we’re broadly in agreement. There are lots and lots of things that defy logical explanation – and the increasingly widespread use of My bad is a good case in point. It’s certainly gone way beyond the USA now – and I find myself using it quite a lot these days. BAD used to be basically an adjective, now – in this phrase – it’s also commonly used as a noun. Simple.

      Thanks for the comments, anyway.
      Lovely to know someone is actually out there slogging through all this stuff!

      • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

        Well, the truth is I am writing a thesis on the issue of whether to teach grammar explicitly or leave it largely to implicit absorption (to avoid the term ‘acquisition’ right now) while involving learners in meaning and communicative activities. I find that the choices here are very much dictated by where you are, who your group is and what their purpose is. So, even if we can gallop the fields on horseback, we sometimes just have to lead the pony through the garden. I have quoted your (Dellar) ‘Grammar is Dead, Long Live Grammar’ article for it, thank you very much, although it’s clear that you have since then written much more on the subject. I shall have to do some more study and update with a newer article. My pleasure for the comment, and the discussion is far from over but has just begun by the looks of it. :-) Btw very nice type face on the pages – open and clear. Have a good one, and thanks again.

        • Lexicallab

          Just for the record, Amber, I’ve never said I’m against the explicit teaching of grammar. I think it can be useful, especially at lower levels, but it;’s clearly not the be-all and end-all.

          You’ve probably seen the series of posts I’ve been writing in the Opinions section about teaching grammar, so I won’t bother repeating what I’ve said there about how having a basic hook can help students to connect meanings to forms on occasion, but how there’s so much more to accuracy than simply learning forms and meanings.

          • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

            I don’t think anything about your views on explicit grammar teaching ;-)
            I do have a particular interest in how you develop your teaching materials and test them. At our school we use course books developed by Dutch authors in collaboration with an (occasional) English-native editor. These books have language errors in them and I have subsequently become wary of them. They also go from a premise of comparing their L1 (Dutch) with English from a grammar point of view, which is just simply confusing to pupils.
            This has resulted in the habit of writing all my own materials to cover the course content-goals. The fun part is testing it on my classes: does it work? How does it work? What parts helped best, and so on. I firmly believe that material should be written by Eng-L1 speakers and also regularly updated (?) to suit emerging trends and needs. How do your books do?

          • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

            Ok, I have now read that we need to spice up the traditional -focussed on tenses – canon with passives and modal auxiliaries. I suppose I’ve been steeped in coffee and wasn’t done with the lit review yet. (not to mention your views on bottom-up grammar and teaching what is easy…)
            I agree it’s not sexy to teach students about embedded object clauses and the like. (!) (In a similar way that driving is more fun than mechanics) I think much more can be achieved with upper-level students with modelling, and using chunks rather than bothering them with the pedagogical disassembly of language.

            I believe it was Mike Swan who pointed out that grammar “seemed tidy compared to the jungle of vocabulary and swamp of skills teaching”. And much so bloody difficult to define! – (it’s a pity I can’t quote you saying that in my document.)

          • Lexicallab

            Hi again –
            Not quite what I was saying Amber. What I meant was the traditional ELT canon has for a long time been little more than a focus on endless verb tenses with the additional spice of modals, passives and conditionals – and that little else gets much of a look in, because the way things have been shapes the way we expect things should be from hereon in.

            I think one result of this is that we all too often simply give up on teaching the more sophisticated and complex stuff – because it can be deadly dull to look at and very hard to explain, because we may have insufficient understanding of how it works ourselves (as a result of never having been forced to tackle in coursebooks), because there’s not that much material that deals with such areas, and because – well, because it’s just easier to go back and do yet more revision on the present perfect simple!

            I totally agree, though, that such complexities CAN be dealt with and that modelling them – exemplifying rather than explaining, or at least only explaining in a simple and straightforward way – is the best way of bringing them to life in the classroom and making them accessible to students.

          • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

            Hi Hugh, Mr Dellar, Sir,. :-) Well thank you for going to lengths to explain that. We have a cute little discussion going here. Of course I am going to nit pick now. I am reading more thoroughly than I was yesterday, I hope, and do I understand you correctly to be saying that we don’t teach ‘more complex stuff’ because things have been shaped such that the more sophisticated stuff does not feature in most curricula? Now, in order to define what it is that we DO need in a curriculum or course book, we would probably have to first identify the target population. I reckon that there are miles between the needs of teenagers in western Europe for example, and adult learners in Korea, for example. I wonder how you are able to make material that can adjust itself to different needs. I haven’t asked, but maybe your material is designed for a specific age group, somewhere?
            Second, what exactly do we mean by ‘complex stuff’ anyway. Complex grammar? Introducing sentences with participle clauses? Or complex structures in spoken register, or features in a writing course, thus, communicative stuff?

            The crux of my argument deals with the fact that even though communicative teaching is the nutritious and ‘thankful’ part of any curriculum, sometimes the only material pupils can process within time constraints, school pressure and teachers grappling with mixed-abilities, is a bit of the basics. That ends up being grammar. After all, you can test it. Teaching communication skills takes time. Testing them takes personal assessment per student, and is often bungled by non-native speakers who can’t deal with the ‘fuzzy’ of it.

            It is nice for me to map this out to you here, because I am in the stages of building a logical flow in argumentation and I can bounce this ever so slightly off you (okay if it’s not a volleyball?).

            Last thing: what is the difference between teachers making materials “that work” for their pupils, but ‘might not work’ for other pupils, and course book authors making materials that are supposed to work for everybody? Ha, I bet you didn’t see that coming.

          • Lexicallab

            Hi again Amber –
            Thanks for the response.

            OUTCOMES, as with most major General English courses, is designed to be used in a whole wide range of contexts, including both European teenagers and Korean adults, for example!

            Part of the way we do this is by trying ensure the material doesn’t require or rely on too much specific cultural / historical / world knowledge and instead taps into basic human interests. We also try to ensure the material is rich in language that teachers will be able to connect to their students’ lives (and in the end, it’s always the teacher that mediates (or fails to mediate!) the material and makes it relevant to their students.

            In a sense, I disagree that the needs of these different groups are actually that different. To steal something from a blog post I wrote way back when, what any student really needs to progress is essentially the following:
            – repeated exposure to as many of the most frequent words in the language, the two- and three-star words in Learner Dictionaries, as can
            be managed in the time you have with them.

            – greater understanding of how these words work with other words, and how they work with grammar.

            – advice on how best to shoulder the huge burden of having to learn this much language

            – to put this advice into practice and to take some responsibility for this learning at home, whether it be by reading graded readers,
            making revision cards, doing vocabulary self-study books or whatever

            – to read and to listen to appropriately graded texts across a wide range of social, academic and work-related topics

            – to have space to discuss their own responses to these texts – and to tell stories / anecdotes using the lexis studied – in class . . . AND then to have the teacher help them say these things better

            – to become more aware (via repeated work on this) of how language sounds when spoken: the linking, the elision, the assimilation, the weak
            forms, and so on . . . and to get the chance to hear a broad range of accents, both native and non-native.

            – to sometimes be corrected when they do make mistakes with language (including grammar) previously taught and to be made aware of why what they said / wrote was wrong

            – to spend some time either consolidating or extending what they know about how structural grammar works, but less time than they spend on lexis, as lexis is far more at the root of communicative competence than structural grammar is

            – to have a teacher confident enough to explain these needs to them, to explain why what they think they need may not actually be what’s best
            for them, and to guide them towards ways of more fruitfully using the little time they have available for the study of English in more fruitful ways

            The coursebook can aim to do a fair bit of this, but the teacher has to aim to do some parts too!

          • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

            So you’re saying I’ve got to do the work of making it fit into my pupils’ frame of reference. I’ve yet to see content that flexible.

          • Lexicallab

            I’ll be writing an OPINIONS piece about this soon, but in a sense, yes, what every teacher has to try and do is connect the language that’s present to their learners’ realities, yes. And ultimately, that’s more to do with the teacher and the teacher’s mindset than the materials – though if the material is rich in lexis, that helps.

          • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

            Well I’ll have to grab an rss feed then I reckon

          • Lexicallab

            In terms of what I meant by complex grammar, it’s particularly the kind of stuff that will make students’ writing better: dense, embedded noun phrases; lengthy participle clauses; and so on.

            As for testing, I’d argue that actually lexical items are easier to test recall and production of than structural grammar is personally. If you’ve spent one lesson looking at the present perfect simple, what’s a fair test of recall? Only recall of the contexts and phrases it was used in within that particular lesson? Or broader usage? if so, how much broader? If, on the other hand, you’ve taught, for example, IN THE RUN-UP TO the election, it’s easy to devise a test that finds out whether you remember that item or not. So I don’t buy the argument that discrete structural items are somehow easier to test.

          • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

            I highly disagree – (to use a well-worn collocation). Lexical items are bound to register and usage, whereas grammar is a nought/one delight for testing, and this is partially why grammar is central to most of what schools do. As Mike Swan puts it: grammar is teachable and testable. With this I reserve as of yet what my position is. However, to make the point somewhat more clear: you can easily teach the difference between for instance the past simple and the present perfect, carefully ensuring that pupils become familiar with adverbials. Adverbials denoting ‘clear past time’ for instance, and those denoting periods of time, connected to now. There will then become the ‘markers’ as it were, which they look at (in the sentence) and base their choice upon. I argue that this is much easier to do than to teach and test abstract lexical items.
            The moment lexis gets less abstract you are reaching into communicative language teaching. A whole other type of milkshake.

          • Lexicallab

            If lexis isn’t testable, see how you do with the following, Amber!

            Add one word in each of the gaps below.

            1 Are you sure you haven’t played this before?
            > No. Honestly. It’s just beginner’s …………. .

            2 I really wasn’t expecting it. It came completely out of the …………… .

            3 We went on a guided …………. of the old castle, which was great.

            4 How was your journey?
            > Dreadful! The …………….. on the motorway was awful.

            5 So what are the ………….. like where you work?
            > Not bad. I usually start at 9 and finish sometime around 4.

            6 I’m stuffed. Honestly, I couldn’t eat another ………….. .

            7 You didn’t tell me you’d had proper tennis coaching! That gives you an unfair ……………. .

            8 I can give you a ……….. to the station, if you want.

            How are any of these items not testable or teachable?

          • Lexicallab

            And grammar is often only testable because we cheat and play games with it. In the example you gave – the present perfect simple versus the past simple – we can test it if we add in definite past time markers like LAST YEAR or THE OTHER WEEK or ALREADY, but what’s the correct form in the following?
            1 ……… you ……… that film called ECHOES? (see)
            2 I ………….. there three times. (go)
            3 I ………… hear from him for ages. (not / hear)

            I could go on, but you get my point. Without further context – which real use doesn’t always provide – it’s impossible to choose ‘correctly’ in all instances above.

            Still convinced that it’s only lexis that’s bound to context and usage?

          • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

            This is the friendly banter of the colosseum no doubt. In regard to pedagogical explaining, I actually give them 3 reasons for using the present perfect. One of them is ‘resultative’ (with examples). But this is technical. Where did this thing start? With somebody’s statement on whether teaching lexis is in some way subservient to teaching grammar? Until now, I don’t believe I have made any statement in regard to where I am in the scheme of things, OTHER THAN what is technically and logistically feasible in a certain context. I tell you, mostly I want to gallop a good stallion, across a field of wild grass BUT mostly all I get to do is lead the pony around the garden. It’s… nice, but I don’t know for how long.

          • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

            Okay, I’m going to go out on a limb here, because I think you have been very sporty indeed to spar with me until now. I will make two statements here that you can quote me on:
            I think it is gruelling how far removed most course books are from the reality of the classroom. Rarely does material manage to be diverse enough in its application to meet the ‘flow’ of where a class is at, with its age group, needs, population and mixed levels. The challenge is to either produce something that is tailored to a specific area (of the world) or to make rubber modules that run the risk of being superficial.

            Or perhaps I am missing a last option: something classical that can be elaborated upon, regardless of who you are, and where. I take my hat off to you if you have attempted and achieved the latter while including aspects of English that are nutritious and rewarding to the student. As I say, I am endlessly curious about materials.

            My second statement, because I’m in a generous mood, is that I much prefer the exploration of lexis, the development of flexible productive skills and true communicative competence. That, however, seems as achievable in classroom practises as is making a nutritious, pastoral, take-away dinner. Chapeau to you, and now I better get back to that paper.

          • Lexicallab

            It’s not really for me to say what our materials are capable of, because that’s down to teachers in the end. I do know, though, that much of the impetus behind our own desire to write is exactly that feeling you mention of most books being too far removed from the reality of the classroom – and, I’d add, the reality of the world at large!

            I also know that we fairly regularly get messages through like this: “Finally! An advanced book which strikes the perfect balance between language
            which is both challenging and useful! The students respond really well to it, and as a teacher I actually feel I’m giving them language that is natural and helpful.”

            Perhaps the bottom line is that if a teacher believes in material, they can make students believe in it too – and, of course, if teachers hate the material they have to work with, this will often be transferred to students too!

          • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

            luck, blue, tour, uhhmmm, don’t know, hours, crumb or something, advantage, lift….?
            It’s fun, thanks. BUT I never said it wasn’t testable. It’s just a different route, and requires more time, a greater investment and a different approach to teaching altogether. Most important is the time issue. It should also never be underestimated (by course design teams) that teachers are obliged to live up to the expectations of the school. After all, the school in turn has to live up to the national education norms. It’s much more complicated than just making good material. It has to fit. Time is the most stringent factor.

          • Lexicallab

            4 was TRAFFIC and 6 was THING. :-)

            It IS, of course, a different route, and really that’s what the post that started all this discussion was basically saying: that teachers need to recognise that lexis is ultimately more important than grammar, and should thus be more of what we teach and what we test.

            As I’ve said elsewhere, when we’re teaching structural grammar, we’re not really teaching very much. The present perfect simple basically adds the idea of BEFORE to a student’s repertoire! This isn’t to say we shouldn’t focus on; just to say that we should be aware of its limitations in terms of boosting communicative competence and we ought to be aware of the many other items needed to function competently,

            Time is of course a crucial factor and we have to accept we cannot teach everything. Given this, though, it does make decisions about what we DO decide to spend time on all the more pressing.

          • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

            Hi again Hugh
            It’s been a fun discussion for which I am grateful. (the centre of which actually runs along the lines of my graduation project)
            I still think I make spanking classroom materials which would be easily transferable, (I do my own illustrations too). The funnest part is seeing how much lexis, grammar and skills practise/exposure you can get into series based on a single text, exploiting that text in as many ways as are thinkable. Thus, they recycle the same vocab a couple times and then can practise a bit of the tricky grammar, in the then known lexical items, to then back-track and use the same lexis for listening (e.g. a dictation or radio theatre piece) and later writing a short article on the subject (Who cut off Van Gogh’s ear, in this case) or staging an interview or smthg.
            So, yes, it’s fun and at the end of the day of course I agree with you
            (;-)) that lexis is more important than grammar.. so I’ll leave you wid Br’er Rabbit who tells us all “Im gwine ‘ter larn dem how ter talk ter ‘spectubble folks ef hit’s de las’ ack I do”

          • Lexicallab

            Hi Amber –
            Great you’re making materials and trialling them. If you ever want any extra thoughts on how they could be exploited, send us a sample and we’ll write a piece on how we’d use them in our EXPLOITING EXERCISES section.

            I think it’s good to get what you can from a text, but at some point, the recycling has to also extend across a linked series of related lessons too.

          • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

            Hugh, that is a nice offer, thank you.
            Extend across a linked series of related lessons they do, naturally. I’d be happy to share what I have made, for your perusal and at your discretion. It would involve sending a number pdfs, and illustrations in jpeg format, or lined up in a ppt. Or I could send it to you by post.

          • Lexicallab

            Hi Amber –
            Just email over to us one exercise.
            info@lexicallab.com

          • Lexicallab

            Finally, the difference between self-made material and coursebook material . . . I think it’s partly that the latter gets road-tested and checked much more thoroughly; partly that rubrics and instructions become much more important; partly that the content has to be more thoroughly thought-out and made more general, in a sense.

          • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

            Well, I should then show you some of what I have made. Over a cup of coffee…downtown Rotterdam?

          • Lexicallab

            Kind offer. Sadly, no plans to be over there any time soon, though.

          • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

            no worries

          • Amber Cozzi-Nowak

            So British ;-)

          • Lexicallab

            Hi again Amber –
            The process is quite complex. To give you an idea, at present we’re working on second editions of our General English series, OUTCOMES, and this involves collating feedback from a wide range of users around the world, having these assessed and filtered by an editorial team who then also add their own comments, all of which is then fed back to us. We then rework material, critique and comment on each others’ work and then submit to the editorial bunch. There then usually follows three or four drafts / iterations of the material, which is also often piloted by existing or potential users, who give further feedback. Once the final version has been agreed upon, it goes to design, and the proofs that result are then checked for errors at least three times by a range of people – including me! So for any one double-page to get to print, there’s a lengthy process of checks and balances.

            That said, every now and then tiny little mistakes or typos do still sneak through, but everything possible is done to minimize the risk of this.

            We also do still teach and use a lot of our own materials, but over the years we’ve become more conscious of the fact that god teachers can usually make their own material work with their own students if they believe in it – and while that’s great in itself, it’s really doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily work for anyone else. That was a big step for us, getting our heads round that.

  • I think it is unfortunate that this article compares grammar to vocabulary in the way it does. The reality is that without a working scaffold ( grammar) it is nigh useless to learn vocabulary.
    As a language teacher of over 30 years I have seen NUMEROUS students who want to run before they can walk and then fall over. Namely they have all this vocabulary which they have no way of using withe the scaffold they currently own. Hence a real mess comes out of their mouths or pens.
    Vocabulary “only” works in any meaningful way when the structures can support it.

    • Lexicallab

      Hi Andrew –
      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I think in a sense we’ve maybe misrepresented ourselves in the short initial post above. We’re certainly not saying don’t teach grammar. Indeed, in the final paragraph, we make this quite explicit: “We should be very clear from the start that none of the above is to say
      that lexical teaching means never teaching grammar rules or that we
      should only teach words. Far from it.”

      I think several issues arise form your response. One is what we mean by vocabulary. For us, a lot of vocab worth teaching exists beyond the single word level. It’s often whole blocks / chunks of language, many of which may well come with their own internal grammar. As such, something like I’VE BEEN WANTING TO . . . FOR AGES may well be taught (initially) as a chunk and we might explore ways of filling that chunk (GO THERE / SEE THAT, etc.) as well as looking at the surrounding co-text. This means that perhaps at Pre-Intermediate level, you may well end up with little dialogues like this:

      What did you do last night?
      > Oh, I went to see LOST RIVER.
      Oh, I’ve been wanting to see that for ages. Was it any good?

      and so on. This way of thinking about language means breaking down the traditional distinctions that exist between vocabulary teaching and grammar teaching – which we feel are at the root of the kind of (very familiar, it must be said!) – problems you outline above, and instead teaching language as combinations of the two all the time. It does mean reversing conventional expectation in many ways, though, as it means more of the grammar focus be the grammar of the words in use – and less of it being endlessly repeated form and meaning repetition of the kind that also hampers (and bores!!) so many students.

      What else? Well, yes, there are obviously problems learning just words on their own, but as we explore above, there are alos (bigger) problems with just learning structures on their own too, and I’d still bet on a student communicating better if they can say I WANT SEE THAT AGES than if you’ve got I’VE BEEN -ING FOR AGES only. Ideally, of course, you’d want them to have the whole expression with the grammar and vocabulary combined. Lest we forget, grammar ONLY works in any meaningful way when students have the lexis that it’s used with. It’s not as if this is an either / or equation.

      We also feel that pretty much ALL teaching of words has to include a keen focus on examples and showing common usage, which means exposing students to the way the words they’re learning generally grammar. This will mean a LOT of exposure to structures studied before, as most examples will use present simple, present perfect, etc. and will allow covert revision of these things.

      Finally, once students hit Intermediate, from thereon in it really IS lexis that makes the biggest difference as students will already have studied with and be familiar with the structures they’ll use 95% of the time, and whilst there are still some small grammatical subtleties worth looking at, there’s also a vast world of extra lexis. Exams like Cambridge Proficiency reflect this, requiring as they do knowledge as huge swathes of vocabulary.

      In an ideal world, this would be reflected in courses and coursebooks, as grammar was slowly phased out to at least some degree the better students get.


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