If you ask me … the problem with opening gambits

Many moons ago, I enjoyed a brief and intense love affair with a book by Eric Keller and Sylvia Warner called Conversation Gambits. First published by LTP back in 1988, I came to it in the mid-1990s and at the time it was something of a revelation, containing as it did a whole host of relatively fixed sentence starters that served particular pragmatic functions in everyday conversation. This was an area of language things like The Lexical Approach and various books on Discourse Analysis had made me aware of, but that I’d never before seen presented in a way that made classroom exploration fun and easy.


For months after first discovering the book, I’d sneak little exercises from it into my classes. For instance, I’d give students a photocopied list of negative sentences, along the lines of It’s been raining every day this month, This coffee is really strong, English is really hard, Grammar is boring, and so on, along with a list of chunks like On the other hand, But then again and Very true, but . . . and ask students to work in groups and come up with positive, optimistic responses to each complaint.

You may be wondering why I’m telling you all this, right? Well, I was reminded of the book – and of why I fell out of love with it – just a couple of weeks ago after a talk I did at UCLAN in Preston. I was asked if I thought students taking Cambridge exams would be marked up or down if they gave opinions using less frequent sentence starters than the ubiquitous I think or In my opinion.

It reminded me that for many teachers perhaps the easiest and most visible chunks – and thus the ones we often think of as being most available to teach – are exactly the kind outlined above. Yet it also reminded me of the conclusions I drew long long ago: that in the end these chunks – as useful as they may be – are merely the bare bones and that it’s actually the fleshing out of the skeleton that’s far more challenging for students.

To return here to the question itself for a minute: well, I’m not a Cambridge examiner, but on a simple level, I suspect the answer is that if a student uses another sentence starters such as Well, the way I see it or Well, personally, I reckon that – and they do so correctly, with a full understanding of the register / context in which such chunks are generally utilised, then they’d get marked up slightly; if, however, they used them in a context that’s inappropriate or if they used a slightly odd chunk such as According to me, they’d probably get marked down. I also suspect (and feel free to correct me here if you’re an examiner and know I’m wrong) that in an exam, there’d be more attention paid to the initial pragmatic chunks than to what follows, at least in terms of an insistence of accuracy and contextual appropriacy.

However, in real communication, what you think / reckon – and how you word your thoughts – depends very much on the subject you’re talking about. The answers to the three questions below will require completely different responses – and in this sense, it really doesn’t matter which chunk you start each response with; what matters is what then follows.

What do you think of the conference so far?

What do you think of the second edition of OUTCOMES?

What do you think of Labour’s chances in the next election?

That said, the good news is that – as we’ve pointed out in the fourth post on basic principles over here – language tends to be fairly patterned and thus predictable. As such, working out input that will help students answer such questions better becomes possible. The last question above, for instance, could prompt any of the following:

THERE’S NO WAY THEY’LL win outright. THEY MAY BE IN WITH A CHANCE OF forming a coalition, perhaps with the SNP.

I’m not feeling optimistic. THE BEST I CAN SEE IS a hung parliament.

I RECKON THEY’RE GOING TO GET get more or less wiped out in Scotland.

IT’S REALLY HARD TO CALL it at the moment. Labour and the Tories look neck and neck.

PRETTY SLIM, IF YOU ASK ME. I RECKON they made the wrong choice, going for Ed Miliband as leader.

The core point here is that whilst fixed strings of words that serve pragmatic strings of words (such as the aforementioned sentence starters and the kinds of things highlighted in CAPITALS above) are obviously useful and well worth teaching, particularly as they allow expression across a range of different topic areas, if we really want learners to be able to say anything of import about specific subjects, then we also need to attend more keenly to the language of this field and to ensure students get the chance to grapple with it as we move from topic to topic.

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5 Responses

  1. Joe Martin says:

    ha ha ha ha, you’re killing me…….jeez i’ve used that book on and off for a million years……..next you’ll be bad mouthing Peggy Ur’s Grammar Practice or Swan’s Practical Language Usage and then where will I be

  2. Lexicallab says:

    Hi Joe –
    Not strictly bad-mouthing the book, really.

    More pointing out what I came to regard as its limitations . . . and the restrictive limitations on thinking about what chunks and fixed language might be that such books can sometimes inadvertently engender.

    I’ve not looked at the Swan for years, but remember enjoying its epic overview of the F-word back in the day.

    The Ur book I feel is more flawed, personally, and feeds into classroom behaviours I’m not convinced are for the best.

    But that, as they say, is another story.

    • Joe Martin says:

      since we are talking about well known tomes in esl….question for you guys…what 10 books DO you think are essential for esl instructors?

      • Lexicallab says:

        Hi Joe –
        Quite an interesting – and tricky – question.

        In a sense, I think teachers rely too much on books, especially ones that provide games, recipes and supplementary activities, and that really we’d all be better off it we learned how to do more with what’s there in the main material we’re actually using.

        At the same time, though, we’ve obviously been influenced by all manner of things we’ve read over the years, so where there are books we’d recommend, they’re more to do with teacher development in the broadest sense of the word, rather than being compendiums of activities.

        In fact, we’re currently talking about starting our own Lexical Lab podcasts and one of the things we’d aim to do is to chew over what we’ve been reading of late.

        We may also end up doing a series in the RESOURCES section of the site looking at favourite reads.

        Until then, though, eight essential reads off the top of my head:
        1 Lexical Priming – Michael Hoey (Routledge)
        2 Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings – John Swales (CUP)
        3 Notional Syllabuses – D. A. Wilkins (OUP)
        4 Metaphors We Live By – Lakoff & Johnson (University of Chicago Press)
        5 The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a Way Forward – Michael Lewis (LTP / National Geographic Learning)

        6 Messaging – George Woolard (e-book published by The Round)
        7 Psychology for Language Teachers: A Social Constructivist Approach – Marlon Williams and Robert L Burden (CUP)
        8 Conversation – Theodore Zeldin (The Harvill Press)

        You may well have read some of them, but if there are any you’re curious about and want to know more about, just shout.

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