A different kind of Beginner-level book 1

If that’s what it’s not, what is it?

My post about the Beginner syllabus and short answers with auxiliaries has produced quite a few responses o social media – both positive and negative. On the whole, I’m happy to receive both, though some made some assumptions about my personality and lifestyle that are, shall we say, a little wide of the mark (“a collector of VIP selfies” being one of my favourites!). Obviously, shot through all of these comments is also the question “Well, if not this, then what else have you got?” For example, here’s a question from Michael Doherty”

I’ve been wondering about this, and wanting to write a syllabus/syllabuses 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 syllabuses for different levels. What would you (as proponents of the lexical approach) suggest?

In fact, some people already know what we have, which is a new Beginner coursebook, but of course, they also believe that it must inevitably be rubbish simply because it is a coursebook and we get some money for writing it! So what I’d like to do here is set out a bit more about what our alternative low-level syllabus is, why I think it is better, and what are the limits and advantages of having it in coursbook form.

An important point of principle

Before I talk about the changes to the syllabus that we’re  proposing, I should state a point of principle. While there is a value in noticing and practising a particular aspect of grammar or vocabulary, it will not be mastered in that lesson. Accurate production of words or grammar in conversation/writing will be acquired for over time by multiple encounters in different contexts – sometimes over a very long period of time and actually often never! Particular examples of different forms may be mastered as phrases before the underlying grammar can be said to have been acquired. If you do not believe these principles, then probably you won’t agree with anything here, or in our follow-up posts. Still, maybe we can persuade you!! Read on.

The CEFR as a guide

We do pay attention to the CEFR goals and certainly share some of the thought processes laid out in the EQUALS document, mentioned by Michael above. Basically, we start by considering what we believe students want/need to do at a low level; we think about the contexts students will be in, and the conversations they might normally have in those contexts; and we then think about the language which will enable these conversations. Where we may differ is that we do not simply reduce this language to words and grammar. We recognise that chunks/phrases also have an important part to play.

Also, while the CEFR states that the content for language learning should reflect the reasons why students learn a language to at least some degree, the actual CEFR descriptors were produced by language educators in relation to what was being studied rather than necessarily what a L2 user may actually do in real life. As such, they contain things like ‘describe people’, but not ‘give their opinion on society’; students are encouraged to ask about the time at A1, but then not do requests until A2.

From our point of view, low-level students can do a much wider range of things – they will just do them ‘badly’. An opinion on society could be ‘government bad’ or ‘here, schools good’ and a succesful request could be ‘move?’ As such, we would try to enable a wider range of conversations than perhaps suggested by the CEFR, but think about the simplest ways these can be done naturally – and from the teacher’s point of view, correctly. In other words, we might teach ‘The government is bad’, ‘Schools are good here’ and ‘Can you … move (please)?’. However, we would not expect students to be consistently accurate as a result. They will tend to revert to the ungrammatical versions above in free conversation until they have had sufficient exposure to the words and forms and sufficient opportunities to use them over time.

The traditional syllabus as a guide

Having made a list of ‘conversations’ we want to enable the students to have and considered the language needed to fulfil them in simple ways, we then considered the order in which these conversations might be taught. In this case, we started with the traditional grammar syllabus as an initial guide. We seem to live in days where nuance is easily lost: you’re either for us or your against; it’s either awesome or it’s rubbish. While I disagree with the rigid block-by-block approach of the traditional syllabus and its underlying assumptions, the general trajectory is sensible. It would seem a bit perverse to me to start with past tense, then do ‘should’, followed by the present continuous, followed by conditionals, etc.

Be is the most common verb and saying hello and asking who someone is (name and/or job) is a very reasonable place to start a Beginner class. It makes sense to then introduce other verbs and the present tense is a good place to start there too, especially given the fact that it’s so easy in English.

However, there are quickly things we’d do that break away from a traditional syllabus. If we have ‘taught’ be, why can’t students cope with there is / is there? If they have had I’m / We’re, why can’t they cope with I’m/we’re going? While the core grammar we focus on and manipulate moves in the direction of simple/basic forms to more complex ones, we also think that we may teach grammaticalised phrases to enable a more realistic conversation. So when we teach and practice forms of ‘be’ (Who’s he? What’s your name?  What’s her name?), we can also teach ‘I don’t know’ as a phrase. When we teach How much is it? we might also teach the phrase What would you like? and maybe Anything else?. When you teach Where are you from? we could also teach Do you like it? or even Have you been there? When we teach the present simple, e.g. Where do you live? we could teach And you?; when we teach and practice Is there … ? (Is there a bank near here? / There’s one …), we might also teach the pattern I’m looking for a (restaurant) called (Dotori). Hopefully you get the idea.

So we broadly practise a dialogue that’s main focus is a particular piece of grammar (largely in line with tradition), but then we may add in a phrase to enable some students to extend the conversation and/or to make the conversation more natural. While we do this in restricted ways in the course material, as teachers we will also often add more in response to what students are trying to say.

Want to learn more about teaching low-level students? Take a summer course with us.

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