The Works of Hugh Dellar Part 3

Dellar’s View of ELT   

Dellar ‘s basic view of ELT is this:

  1. Language is lexically driven.
  2. A grasp of grammar ‘rules’ and correct usage will emerge from studying lexical chunks.
  3. Spoken fluency, reading comprehension, and listening comprehension will all develop as a result of learners being familiar with groupings of words
  4. So the explicit teaching of lexical chunks should be the most important part of a teacher’s job.

The conclusion is, of course, a non-sequitur, but that’s the least of the problems we encounter when examining Dellar’s work.

Bottom-up Grammar

To  Dellar’s “basic” view, we must now add his ideas on “bottom-up grammar”. In his podcast for The Tefl Show (2016), Dellar says that while those just starting to learn English will go into a shop and say “I want, um, coffee, um sandwich”,

…. as your language becomes more sophisticated, more developed, you learn to kind of grammar the basic content words that you’re adding thereSo you learn “Hi. Can I get a cup of coffee and a sandwich, please.” So you add the grammar to the words that drive the communication, yeah? Or you just learn that as whole chunk. You just learn “Hi. Can I get a cup of coffee? Can I get a sandwich, please?” Or you learn “Can I get…” and you drop in a variety of different things.

This is classic “Dellarspeak”: a badly-expressed misrepresentation of an erroneous theory. But in order to learn more about how to teach learners “to grammar content words”, and when it’s better to teach “the whole chunk”, we need to look at the talk Dellar gave at the IATEFL Hungary 2017 conference called “Following the patterns: colligation and the necessity for a bottom-up approach to grammar”.  The talk began with a brief summary of “big, top-down grammar”, already referred to in Part 2, and then moved on to describe the seven hallmarks of “bottom-up” grammar. Here they are:

1. Grammar as lexis / phrases

You can teach a grammatical structure as a phrase. For example,

  • What’s it like?
  • I’ve never seen it but it’s supposed to be great.
  • I’ll do it later.
  • You should have told me.

Students can be taught these common examples of how grammar is realised without studying them as grammar.

2. Phrases providing slots

There are lots of little patterns that are sort of flexible and sort of malleable that we can use in lots of varying ways, but not an infinite number of varying ways. For example What are you doing…. tonight?  What are you doing ……. after this? is a sort of fixed phrase that can be adapted a bit, but not much – in fact, there are only 6 ways of finishing the sentence.

And, while some phrases look flexible, actually, they aren’t.  For example, There’s no pleasing some people is not flexible. You can’t say There’s no angering some people. Why? Because nobody says it; its not a probable sentence in English; it’s a fixed expression.  So sometimes you can alter the slots and sometimes you can’t.

3. Collocations

If you think about collocations and then collocations of collocations you start thinking about grammar. For example, take the word responsible. Used as an adjective, we get

I’m responsible for hiring and firing.

But the word grammars differently when used as a noun:

It’s the responsibility of the boss to make decisions.

And the negative adjective forms different patterns again –  it has its own, different internal grammar:

It’s irresponsible of you to leave a gun in the house.  

“So the adjective form and the noun form and the negative form grammar, or pattern grammatically, in different ways. Thinking about the grammar of individual words gives you a different way of thinking about what grammar is and how it works. Instead of the big top down grammar, which we just drop words into as Chomsky suggested, it’s thinking about the individual words that drive our communication and the grammatical patterns which often attach themselves to those particular words”.

4. Colligation

Colligation refers to the grammatical patterns which frequently attach themselves to words. For example, the verb to be born only colligates with the past simple passive. Likewise, the most frequent colligation of dub is past simple passive:

Bandem was once dubbed the Paris of the East.

Phrases colligate in weird ways. You can say

I can’t be bothered,  but not

I can be bothered.

You can say

 It was really surprising  or

 It wasn’t that surprising,

but saying

 It wasn’t that astonishing

“sounds weird because ungraded or extreme adjectives don’t usually colligate with not. So again it’s about thinking about the patterns of individual words and making those patterns available to your students”.

5. Patterns

A very flexible pattern is

Just because … it doesn’t mean ……

“There’s also this idea Nick Ellis has that we can learn the meaning of words because we’ve learned prototypical examples  of patterns that the new word is encapsulated within. Take, for example, the pattern “verb across a place”. Nearly always, the verb that goes into that pattern is go – you go across a place. So every other example you encounter of this pattern “across a place” will have a variation of  the verb go, like move, or travel, for example. If you then encounter:

They man-doubled across the place

you know that man-doubled is some kind of way of moving.

6. Discourse Patterns

These are very useful. For example:

 While some people think …. it nevertheless seems true that …..

 According to ……, however in reality, …….

7. Genre Dependencies

All genres have their own grammatical and lexico-grammatical conventions.

And that’s it!

The Hungary plenary session Dellar gave was preceded by a talk he gave at the 2017 international IATEFL conference, slightly more hesitantly called Following the patterns: colligation and the need for a bottom-up approach to grammar” (emphasis added). The talk is notable for its treatment of L1 transfer. which Dellar sees in terms of the effects of “L1 primings”, a construct that he nowhere defines. Dellar shows scant appreciation for the complex findings from a huge amount of research on the important phenomenon of L1 transfer, and his conclusion that learner errors are the result of “not noticing the gap between the way in which the words grammar in one language and grammar in the next language” is a typically incomplete and mangled attempt to articulate controversial views about both language and language learning. There is a considerable body of literature on the vexed question of “noticing” and “noticing the gap”, two very different constructs which most scholars think need to be carefully separated. Nowhere does Dellar show any appreciation for the complexities of “noticing the gap”; he takes it at face value and uses it, inevitably, to support his argument that teachers should spend most of their time giving students multiple examples of “how words grammar”. Dellar’s IATEFL talk, typically, is packed full of example sentences; they all provide evidence of Dellar’s talent for  endlessly ringing the changes on everyday speech, but they don’t do much to explain how words grammar.


Having heard this account of “bottom-up grammar”, teachers who use traditional grammar to explain formal elements of English to their students might wonder just how they’re supposed to follow the patterns that Dellar is so captivated by. What precisely are the patterns?  Reviewing the kinds of things that characterise “bottom-up” grammar, we see:

  • phrases that just have to be memorised;
  • phrases with slots where there’s no way of knowing when you can and when you can’t alter the slot;
  • collocations where each different form of a word has different grammatical patterns which attach themselves to each different word;
  • colligations where phrases work in weird ways.

From which Dellar concludes:

it’s about thinking about the patterns of individual words and making those patterns available to your students.

What’s he talking about? Even the few patterns that Dellar does manage to flag up  allow for very limited generalisations. Surely “the big top-down grammar, which we just drop words into” (Dellar once again wrongly attributes this to Chomsky) at least has the value of usefulness: lots of sentences can be generated by knowing, for example, that English syntax is usually of the SVO form;  that you cannot omit the pronouns in verb phrases; and that adjectives with three syllables form the comparative and superlative with more and most. Dellar cites Michael Swan in support of his arguments, but Swan is, in fact, all in favour of big top-down grammar, and also, by the way, a prominent critic of the lexical-chunk approach. While Swan sees a place for teaching ‘high-priority chunks’, he has argued forcefully and persuasively against giving formulaic expressions so much attention that other aspects of language – ordinary vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and skills – get sidelined.

In brief, Dellar advises teachers to “follow the patterns” without giving any clear description of what the patterns are, or any coherent explanation of how to follow them. It seems that teaching students “how words grammar” is not by showing them how to follow the patterns, but by giving them an endless stream of examples.

Teaching Words

So, to return to basics, at the heart of Dellar’s methodology is the task of presenting and practicing words and their “micro grammars”, concentrating on lexical chunks – a task which makes the labour of Sisyphus look like a walk in the park, given the repertoire of native speakers of English. As already noted in Part 2, apart from not answering critics who doubt the wisdom of spending so much time on explicitly teaching vocabulary, Dellar has never given any satisfactory answer to the problem of how to manage the sheer number of lexical chunks that are found in the English language. Furthermore, he has given no satisfactory criteria for choosing which of them to teach, or any persuasive arguments for his own peculiar way of teaching them.

Any Dellar text, oral or written, serves as a vehicle for the rehearsal of things that he’s spotted about the lexicon. In every talk that Dellar gives, and in all the videos of his classes on YouTube, you don’t have to wait long before he offers up some of his bounty:

It’s the small words that are such fun, yeah? I mean, I think it’s really important that we see that. Like “even” for example. The only way to explain what “even” means is through lots of examples.

 ‘I’ve had a really busy day. I haven’t even had time for a coffee.’ Yeah?

‘I’ve been on my feet all day. I haven’t even had time for a break.’

 ‘She doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t even swear.’ OK?

Enough already. I wonder if Dellar has ever rung the changes on the expression “He can’t see the wood for the trees”.


What most characterises Dellar’s published work is its focus on what Breen (1987) calls “doing things to learners”.  Dellar promotes an extreme form of teacher-centred pedagogy where teachers make all the decisions and students have little say. Nowhere in all his published work does Dellar discuss needs analysis, and nowhere does he discuss at any length the possibility that students should take part in the decision-making process which determines the content of the course they enrol in, or how the syllabus will be implemented.  Dellar simply assumes that teachers are in charge, and that in normal circumstances they work with a pre-confected synthetic syllabus, usually defined by a coursebook. The teacher decides what particular  “language items” to concentrate on, the sequence of presentation of these “items”, and the subsequent practice, recycling, revision, and  assessment of them.

For Dellar, education is primarily concerned with the transmission of information, a view that runs counter to the principles of learner-centred teaching, as argued by educators such as John Dewey and Paul Friere, and supported in the ELT field by educators such as Catherine Doughty, Maryellen Weimer, Carol Chapelle, Grahame Crookes, Rebecca Brent, John Faneslow, Scott Thornbury, Sue Sheerin, Alan Maley and Mike Long. All these educators see the student as a learner whose needs and opinions have to be continuously taken into account. For example, Weimer (2002) argues for the need to bring about changes in the balance of power; changes in the function of course content; changes in the role of the teacher: changes in who is responsible for learning; and changes in the purpose and process of evaluation.

Dellar takes an extreme interventionist position on ELT, as the book Teaching Lexically demonstrates. Teaching lexically involves dividing the language into “items”, presenting these items to learners via various types of texts, and then practising them intensively, using pattern drills, gap-filling and matching exercises, comprehension checks, grammar explanations, error corrections and so on, before moving on to the next set of items. As such, far from being the innovative approach Dellar claims it too be, it replicates the grammar-based PPP methodology that Dellar so stridently criticises.

Dellar sees translation into the L1 as the best way of dealing with meaning, which follows from his focus on learning vocabulary: the faster you deal with meaning, the sooner you can get to the key part of the process, namely committing lexical chunks with their collocates, and even the co-texts, to memory. Compare this to a more communicative, learner-centred methodology, where the negotiation of meaning is seen as a key aspect of language teaching, and where, as a consequence, the lesson is conducted almost entirely in English and the L1 is used sparingly. In such a methodology, students chose for themselves some of the topics that are dealt with; they contribute some of their own texts; most of classroom time is given over to activities where the language is used communicatively and spontaneously, and the teacher reacts to linguistic problems and gaps as they arise, thus respecting the learners’ ‘internal syllabus’.

Massed and Distributed Practice: The Icing on Dellar’s Cake

One last aspect of Dellar’s work needs mentioning: his recent talk on massed versus distributed practice, which was the subject of his 2018 IATEFL presentation Spacing out: in praise of distributed practice.

In his talk, Dellar accuses the ELT profession of being in thrall to mass practice, which results in “hampering learners”,  “limiting potential”, “slowing learning”, and “robbing students of their time.” To remedy this situation Dellar insists that coursebooks which  impose the “invalid construct” of massed practice on teachers be replaced by those implanting the proven pedagogical procedure of spaced practice.

In cognitive psychology, studies in various fields have shown that when studying factual information or practicing a particular skill like a golf swing or reversing a car, spaced practice gets better results than massed practice. It’s a big step from these results to the claim that spaced practice can have a transformative effect on learning an L2. While the subject is an interesting one and worthy of discussion, what is of note here is the way that Dellar treats the subject.

With regard to massed practice, Dellar says:

massed practice is so deeply rooted  in our mental construct of how competence develops that we rarely stop to consider how effective it is, or if there might be more effective ways of developing competence.

We may note that

  1. By definition of the terms, nobody has a mental construct of how competence develops.
  2. Dellar offers no empirical evidence to support his assertion that using massed practice as a teaching procedure in ELT is deeply rooted in the way teachers approach their work.

As for spaced practice, Dellar says:

time and time again what’s been shown is that spaced distribution instruction on the development of particular grammatical structures versus massed practice or massed exposure is very conclusive. The immediate post test show very very little difference in terms of the way that learners perform but the delayed post tests show time and time again that spaced distribution and spaced exposure to the new items always helps you outperform people who study under mass practice conditions.

Note here that

  1. The spacing effect has not been “verified” in vocabulary learning for the simple reason that in research on instructed language learning, pedagogical procedures don’t get verified. Rather, hypotheses about procedures are supported or challenged by empirical evidence from well-conducted studies.
  2. Dellar cites no studies to support his assertions about the comparative merits of massed practice versus distributed practice, and his assertions are, in fact, false. No study has shown the results that Dellar claims. When Dellar was asked to provide the sources for his assertions, he cited an article from a website called “Ask a Cognitive Scientist”. The article, Allocating Student Study Time: “Massed” versus “Distributed” Practice was written in 2002 and is not specifically about SLA.
  3. Dellar treats the tentative conclusions reached by fledgling studies as convincing proof that massed practice is having a crippling effect on learners and that spaced practice is the best way to teach both vocabulary and grammar. Such claims are unwarranted.

Dellar’s main argument is this: “It’s not massed practice that makes learning stick, it’s spaced practice”. To support this argument Dellar mounts a straw man argument against grammar-based coursebooks and makes sweeping, unwarranted  assertions about the damage done by massed practice. He provides no evidence from research findings in SLA to support his exaggerated claims for the effects of spaced practice, and while there are certainly signs that spaced practice can help learners with specific types of studying, there’s no evidence to support the claim that spaced learning provides the best pedagogical procedure for helping learners to achieve communicative competence in an L2.

At one point in his talk, Dellar says

If we’re really going to act like professionals and we’re going to acknowledge the impact of research on our practice, sooner or later we have to acknowledge that coursebooks that are based on massed practice are not theoretically valid.

In fact, no SLA research has ever stated or implied that ELT coursebooks like Headway or English File are based on mass practice, or that mass practice has no theoretical validity. Dellar’s use of the terms ‘construct’ and ‘theoretical validity’ suggests that he has yet to fully grasp what they mean, and it is surely ironic that Dellar should imply that he has a good grasp of SLA  research. Still, underneath the cant there’s a more sincere message lurking. Dellar uses the Hungary IATEFL conference platform to call for the abolition of coursebooks which  impose the “invalid construct” of massed practice on teachers, and for the adoption of revolutionary new coursebooks which implement the proven pedagogical procedure of spaced practice.  Happily, just such a coursebook series exists; one which exemplifies not only spaced practice, but also “interleaving” and “the complete grammaticalisation of lexis”. It is, of course, Dellar and Walkley’s Outcomes series, advertised on a 3 metre high billboard on the left of the platform.


As a teacher trainer, Dellar attempts to hammer home his own agenda. Rather than encourage teachers to engage in a well-informed, open, critical discussion of current ELT practice, Dellar presents teachers with the crude choice between bad stuff (grammar plus words plus skills and massed practice) and good stuff (from words with words to grammar and distributed practice). The bad stuff is deliberately misrepresented and the good stuff is presented with a general disregard for objectivity, evidence, scholarship`and rational argument. There must be more to good training than this.


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Dellar, H. and Walkley, A. (2016) Teaching Lexically. Delta.

Dellar, H. (2017a) Following the patterns: colligation and the need for a bottom-up approach to grammar.  Presentation at the  IATEFL Conference in Glasgow.

Dellar, H. (2017b) Following the patterns: colligation and the necessity for a bottom-up approach to grammar.  Plenary at the IATEFL Hungary Conference.

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