Grammar nonsense 7: the syllabus for Beginners

It’s been quite a while since we last published a post in this particular series. Writing both a Beginner-level book as part of the Outcomes series and two levels of the new Pearson series Roadmap really hasn’t left much time for writing anything else – especially given my typing speed and slowness of thought. And not having small children, I prefer to sleep in rather than get up at the crack of dawn and bash out a blog post before breakfast as Hugh seems able to do! Anyway, that’s quite enough of excuses. With a little bit more time opening up for me now, I thought I would return to the theme of grammar nonsense!

Now, you might think that at Beginner level, as the grammar is rather basic, there surely can’t be much in the way of nonsense to report on! Plurals do indeed generally end in ’s’, adjectives are not modified with a plural ‘s’ in English, and they usually go before a noun, rather than after it, etc. No controversy there, but writing Outcomes Beginner actually threw up quite a lot of nonsense for us to deal with – as well as the occassional curiosity, – with the biggest issue being the ‘Beginner syllabus’ itself.

For those unaware of how the book-writing process works, preparation for most coursebooks starts with the construction of the syllabus. This generally involves making a list of the grammar and topics covered in other books at the same level! This selection is then seen as what needs to be covered and your USPs (your unique selling points) – whether they be puppets or tasks or real-world texts or whatever – are fashioned around these “essentials”. At higher levels, what is deemed essential becomes less secure and so there is some flexibility to work around the core of items you find in all books. However, when it comes to beginner books and, to a large degree, Elementary ones too, both the grammatical content AND the order are pretty much exactly the same in every series aimed at the global market.

Basically, it goes something like this:

Units 1-4

verb be + plurals/subject pronouns and possessives/articles/this, that, these, those/adjectives

Units 5-8

present simple + adverbs of frequency/prepositions of place and time

Unit 9-11

past simple – be followed by regular forms, which are then followed by irregular forms

Unit 12

can / can’t and/or there is / there are and/or would like

Unit 13 and 14

present continuous – present meaning and sometimes future meaning (or be going to)

OK, there is some slight variation in the second half of books once be and the present simple have been firmly established.  One or two books introduce the present continuous (in its present meaning – started but not finished) before the past simple. One or two books introduce there is / are earlier as part of the focus on be. There are also different lengths of units and of books themselves, but these have marginal impact on the above. What’s more important are the ‘rules’ that accompany this order:

  1. The book shall not contain examples of a structure/ grammar before it is formally presented.
  2. The book should try to restrict practice / output to the grammar that is presented.
  3. ‘Different’ meanings of a form will be clearly separated – ambiguous examples should be avoided.

Essentially, they present a linear building block approach to learning.

Practise and ‘master’ one area before moving on to the next.

It’s the combination of these fixed grammar syllabus and set rules – as much as the actual order of syllabus – that is, to my mind, grammar nonsense.

It’s nonsense for these reasons:

  • It restricts the communication that can take place in class and all too often leads to stupid / childish practice.
  • It presents an unreal view of English by excluding some of the most frequent words and patterns in English (been / should / will, etc) from even being seen.
  • It assumes learning is linear and so restricts repeated exposure over time.
  • It assumes students are in an English bubble of the coursebook and classroom – like the Internet and the mass media somehow don’t exist.

I will explain a bit more about the effects of all of this in some future posts. However, my point here is to expose the real nonsense. Even if the building block approach is true, what strikes me as crazy is that ELEMENTARY courses then follow almost the same pattern (albeit slightly speeded up) and with the same rules. What’s that all about? Surely, if we have built the blocks correctly, then you could have examples of past simple, be going to and other patterns from the very first page of Elementary, and we could introduce been or will, say, in unit two or three. Instead, on average Elementary students have to wait until around page 54 to see an example of the word went and you finally get to see been – one of the top hundred most common words in English – in unit 12. If you make it that far, that is! Isn’t this really just an admission that something has gone wrong? Beginner courses, it seems, are basically building Jenga-style towers. They are perhaps fun at times to create, but they have no long-term purpose – other than to collapse, so can we start again!

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10 Responses

  1. Carol Milner says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. I have learned lots of Spanish from text books – which allows me a lot of theoretical knowledge but without any conversational skills. I believe that conversation practice needs to be added to each unit, so that the student can say phrases and sentences that are useful. After all, this is how we learn to speak our native language. Many thanks for sharing your findings – it allows us to think more clearly about just what is required.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Thanks for taking the trime to read the blog post and leave your thoughts Carol.
      I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on Outcomes Beginner.
      It sounds like it might be something you’d enjoy using.

  2. Tatyana says:

    Could it be because the only way to explain ‘been’ or ‘should’ at the beginner level is to actually translate them, and a lot of language schools around the world still have a ‘no L1 policy’?

  3. Andrew Walkley says:

    Hi Tatyana,
    I think you are right. I personally think L1 has a place at all levels for conveying basic meanings, but at low levels it is fundamental to the process. I am sure it’s exclusion has contributed to the state of affairs described in the post and I will be mentioning this in some follow-up posts that are coming soon.

  4. Francesca says:

    YES! I’ve been thinking and saying the same for YEARS, which is why once I’ve done the first few functional bits like greetings etc, I do the past simple… and then present continuous for plans. I lived in Barcelona for 12 years and learnt Spanish as I went along and I remember very clearly how much I needed to use the past far more than any present form to talk about my routine. I mean?!

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Francesca. Glad to hear you’re coming from a similar place. I think for us the issue isn’t even really ‘teaching the past simple’ or ‘the present continuous for plans’, but rather teaching things like I WENT + some endings, I HAD + some endings, I’M MEETING + some endings and so on. At least to start with, that seems to me to be the sanest way forward. I’m guessing this would be very similar to your own Spanish-learning experience if you picked it up on the street. It’s certainly what happened with my Indonesian.

  5. Andy Russell says:

    Great post, and a view I’ve been expressing almost since I began wading through the coursebooks at EF in 2002.

    When I first arrived in China I’d forgotten to pack something, so I asked a Chinese friend how to express regret in Chinese. No problem whatsoever for me but, fresh off my TEFL course, had the situation been reversed, I would probably have told her that she needed to wait several years until she’d reached level 13 before I could let her have the sacred keys to the 3rd conditional.

    Coursebook syllabuses are not designed for the learner, they’re designed for publishers and those charged with eking out an English syllabus over 5-10 school years.

    Good luck with the new coursebooks. Personally, I’d burn all the existing ones and give you a free run at the market.

    • Andrew Walkley says:

      Thanks for you comment Andy. Much as I see the flaws of coursebooks, I do think that we also have to understand the complex system that is ELT. Publishers are listening and responding to schools and teachers. In other words, the beliefs represented by course materials are shared by many teachers. I’m happy to have written a beginner book which breaks from tradition somewhat, but I’m only slightly optimistic it will be embraced by even a large minority of teachers – and it probably wouldn’t be that different even if we did have a free run!!

  6. Michael Doherty says:

    I’ve been wondering about this, and wanting to write a syllabus/syllabusses for different levels. I tried this by comparing the contents of Speak Out elemnetary, the CEFR, and the EAQUALS core curriculum. I gave up, as I couldn’t find what was where and if there was a particular order to follow. Seemingly not. Do you have a table of contents for your beginner book? Or a suggestion for a syllabusses for different levels. What would you (both, as proponents of the lexical approach) suggest?

    • Andrew Walkley says:

      Thanks for commenting Michael. You can find the table of contents here. There is a slight problem with CEFR descriptors from my point of view at low levels in that the descriptors originally came out of teachers suggesting what students could do at low levels, which may be influenced by what teachers themselves do in low level classes – creating a certain circularity. My take is to consider what conversations students may want/need to have and thinking about how we can enable them, but also helping students notice and manipulate in some ways the wider structure of English. We are NOT saying that students should not study Be or present simple or past simple etc. Nor are we saying that there would be some kind of random order, just that we can integrate language as chunks and also work more with a so-called spiral syllabus. I can see this needs a bit more discussion, so I shall try and write a full post about it shortly.


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