The Works of Hugh Dellar Part 2


In Part 2, I’ll look at Dellar’s view of language and how, as a teacher trainer, he suggests implementing it.



Dellar could be expected to give special attention to his view of language, and to take extra care describing and explaining it, since he repeatedly claims that his rival view of language is the most important, the most distinguishing, feature of his whole approach.  And yet, I can find no good account of it anywhere in his published work.

In Teaching Lexically, Dellar and Walkley (2016) discuss “Two Views of Language”.

The grammar view

The first view is the “wrong” one; it sees language as “Grammar + words + skills”, and it is the view, according to Dellar and Walkley, that guides the work of most ELT practice. It holds that

language can be reduced to a list of grammar structures that you can drop single words into (Dellar and Walkley, 2016, p. 7).

According to Dellar and Walkley, the implications of this view are:

  1. Grammar is the most important area of language. Examples used to illustrate grammar are relatively unimportant.
  2. Learning lists of single words is all that is required. Any word can effectively be used if it fits a particular slot.
  3. Naturalness, or the probable usage of vocabulary, is irrelevant. .
  4. Synonyms are more or less interchangeable.
  5. Grammar is acquired in a particular order. Students are introduced to “basic structures”, before moving to “more advanced ones”.
  6. The 4 language skills exist independently of language.

Grammar models of the English language, such as those found in Quirk (1985), or in Swan (2001), and used in coursebooks such as Headway or English File, describe the structure of English in terms of grammar, the lexicon and phonology. These descriptions have almost nothing in common with the description given above, which Dellar and Walkley subsequently refer to dozens of times throughout their book as if it were an accurate summary, rather than a biased straw man argument used to promote their own view of language. The description, and the simplistic assumptions that are said to flow from it, completely fail to fairly represent grammar models of the English language which are used by “most people in ELT”.

The lexical view

The second view of language is the “right” one. It takes “a lexical view” of language and is cryptically referred to by Dellar and Walkley as “from words with words to grammar”. It’s based on the “principle” that

communication almost always depends more on vocabulary than on grammar (Dellar and Walkley, 2016, p. 9).

This is illustrated by taking the sentence

I’ve been wanting to see that film for ages.

Saying want see film is more likely to achieve the intended communicative mesasge than only using the grammar and function words I’ve been -ing that for. Furthermore, in daily life, the language we use is far more restricted than the infinite variety of word combinations allowed by rules of grammar. In fact, we habitually use the same chunks of language, rather than constructing novel phrases from an underlying knowledge of “grammar + single words”. There’s a reasonable point struggling to get out there, but it’s hardly an articulate description of an alternative view of language.

A summary of the lexical view is found on page 12 of Teaching Lexically:

  • words have more value than grammar
  • language is lexically driven and words come with their own connected grammar
  • our own usage is determined by our experience of how language is used
  • there’s a huge number of patterns (sic) that can be generative to at least some degree (and this includes the traditional grammar patterns taught in ELT)
  • the vast majority of the examples of any one pattern will be made up of a small percentage of the all the possible words that could be used with the pattern
  • collocations and patterns will be primed to go with other collocations and patterns in similarly limited ways.

What does it all mean? As I mentioned in Part 1, Hoey’s (2005) view of language seems to be the main inspiration for their own view, but it’s not clear to what extent Dellar and Walkley adopt Hoey’s view, which is, after all, very radical.  Hoey claims that the best model of language structure is the word, along with its collocational and colligational properties. Collocation and “nesting” (words join with other primed words to form a sequence) are linked to contexts and co-texts, and grammar is replaced by a network of chunks of words. There are no rules of grammar; there’s no English outside a description of the patterns we observe among those who use it. As Hoey points out,

If this view of language is correct, if grammar and semantics are post-hoc effects of the way lexical items have been primed, … there is no right or wrong in language. It makes little sense to talk of something being ungrammatical. All one can say is that a lexical item or items are used in a way not predicted by your priming…. everybody’s language is truly unique, in that all our lexical items are primed differently as a result of different encounters.

Few people, either linguists or teachers, accept such a view. Hoey argues that we should look only at attested behaviour and abandon descriptions of syntax, but, while nobody these days denies the importance of lexical chunks, very few want to ignore the rules which guide the construction of novel, well formed sentences. After all, pace Hoey, people speaking English (including learners of English as an L2) invent millions of novel utterances every day, and they do so by making use of, among other things, grammatical knowledge.

Walkley and Dellar acknowledge the importance of grammar, indicating some limits to their adherence to Hoey’s model, but they nowhere clarify these limits. I conclude that while Dellar repeatedly stresses that his different view of language is what drives his approach to teaching, he fails to offer any  coherent account of “a lexical view of language”. As with his “principles of language learning”, the main point of his view of language seems to be to justify his view of teaching: again, the tail wags the dog. But, as Skehan (1998) says:

Phrasebook-type learning without the acquisition of syntax is ultimately impoverished: all chunks but no pineapple. It makes sense, then, for learners to keep their options open and to move between the two systems and not to develop one at the expense of the other. The need is to create a balance between rule-based performance and memory-based performance, in such a way that the latter does not predominate over the former and cause fossilization.

If  Skehan is right to say that there is a need for a balance between rule-based performance and memory-based performance, then Hoey is wrong, and Dellar must confront the contradictions that plague his present position on the lexical approach, especially his reliance on Hoey’s description of language and on the construct of priming.  Until Dellar tackles basic questions about a model of English and a theory of second language learning, so as to offer some principled foundation for his lexical approach, then it amounts to little more than an opinion, more precisely: the unappetising opinion that ELT should give priority to helping learners memorise pre-selected lists of lexical chunks. 

Teaching Lexically

When it comes to the practical business of teaching lexically, Dellar seems more at home. As anyone who has watched his presentations or teaching demos will know, lexical chunks come flying out of Dellar like captive birds released from a cage; no chance is missed to ring the changes on a promising “pattern”, one example will never do, no cliché is ever so worn as to be denied another airing.

In Teaching Lexically teachers are advised to

think of whole phrases, sentences or even ‘texts’ that students might want to say when attempting a particular task or conversation …. at least some of those lexical items are learnable, and some of that learning could be done with the assistance of materials before students try to have particular kinds of communication. (Dellar and Walkley, 2016, p. 13).

Here’s where the 6 step language learning process really comes into its own, because these are precisely the steps that the teacher should follow.

  1. Explain the meaning of the new language item you present. Giving a translation from the students’ L1 is a good way to do this.
  2. Let students hear and see examples of it in context.
  3. Approximate the sounds of the item.
  4. Make sure students pay attention to the item and notice its features.
  5. Do something with the item – use it in some way.
  6. Repeat these steps over time, when encountering the item again in other contexts.

That’s it, although noticing and repetition are the two stages that the lexical teacher should place the most emphasis on.

The only real problem of teaching lexically is that it’s difficult for teachers to come up in real time with the right kind of lexical input and the right kind of questions to help students notice lexical chunks, collocations, etc.. Still, Dellar is a living example of how this problem can be overcome with enough practice.

Dellar suggests that, ideally, teachers should work with one of the coursebooks he and Walkley have written, but otherwise use coursebooks focusing on the vocabulary and finding better ways of exploiting them.

Teaching Lexical Chunks

One of the most difficult parts of English for non native speakers to learn is collocation. As Long (2015, pages 307 to 316) points out, while children learn collocations implicitly,

collocation errors persist, even among near-native L2 speakers resident in the target language environment for decades.

L2 collocations constitute a major learning problem for several reasons, among them L1 interference, the semantic vagueness of many collocations, variations in collocates,  and the deceptively similar appearance of many collocates. Dellar makes no mention of the fact that learning lexical chunks is particularly difficult for adult learners, and neither does he discuss the questions related to the teachability of lexical chunks that have been raised by scholars like Boers, who confesses that he has no answer to these questions. Dellar blithely assumes that drawing attention to features of language (by underlining them, talking about them and so on), and making students aware of collocations, co-text, colligations, etc., (by giving students repeated exposure to carefully-chosen written and spoken texts, using drills, concept questions, input flood, bottom-up comprehension questions, and so on) will allow the explicit knowledge taught to become fully proceduralised.  Quite apart from the question of how many chunks a teacher can reasonably be expected to treat so exhaustively, there are good reasons to question the assumption that such instruction will have the desired result.

The size and scope of the collocations problem can be appreciated by considering findings on the lesser task of word learning. Long (2015) cites work by Nation (2006) and Nation and Chung (2009), who have have calculated that learners require knowledge of between 6,000 and 7,000 word families for adequate comprehension of speech, and 9,000 for reading.  Intentional vocabulary learning has been shown to be more effective than incidental learning in the short tem, but, the authors conclude,

there is nowhere near enough time to handle so many items in class that way. 

The conclusion is that massive amounts of extensive reading outside class, scaffolded by teachers, is the best solution.

As for lexical chunks, we’re into not just words, but patterns (as Dellar is fond of  stressing), so there are hundreds of thousands of them. Swan (2006) points out that

memorising 10 lexical chunks a day, a learner would take nearly 30 years to achieve a good command of 10,000 of them.

Dellar has never satisfactorily addressed the question “Given Swan’s (2006) and Long’s (2015) arguments, how can you justify telling teachers that their main use of class time should be helping students to learn several hundred lexical chunks?”. Worse still, Dellar has given no coherent answer to the question: What are the criteria for the selection of lexical chunks to be explicitly taught, and how do you justify your way of teaching them?

Basing selection on frequency seems the most sensible option, but there are problems with such a simple criterion, not the least being the peculiar needs of each set of students in each particular classroom. Dellar sometimes mentions the criterion of frequency, but he offers very little clear or helpful advice about what lexical chunks to select for explicit teaching. The general line seems to be: work with the material you have, and look for the lexical chunks that occur in the texts, or that are related to the words in the texts. This is clearly not a satisfactory criterion for selection.

When it comes to the question of the best way to facilitate the learning of lexical chunks, Dellar’s none-too-subtle approach is based on noticing and repetiton, which brings us back to the contradictions in Dellar’s view of language learning. The claim that the 6 stage process speeds up a natural, unconscious process doesn’t bear examination: two completely different systems of learning are being conflated.  Dellar takes what is called a “strong interface” position, and makes conscious noticing the main plank in his teaching approach. How can he reconcile this with his reliance on Hoey’s theory, which insists that lexical priming is a subconscious process?

A bit of clarity 

I’ll end with a brief summary of Long’s (2015) discussion of the same issue. Long’s fifth methodological principle is this:

Encourage inductive “chunk” learning.

Note that Long discusses ten methodological principles, and sees teaching lexical chunks as an important but minor part of the teacher’s job. The most important concluson that Long comes to is that there is, as yet, no satisfactory answer to “the $64,000 dollar question: how best to facilitate chunk learning”.  Long’s discussion of explicit approaches to teaching collocations includes the following points:

  • Trying to teach thousands of chunks is out of the question.
  • Drawing learners attention to formulaic strings does not necessarily lead to memory traces usable in subsequent receptive L2 use, and in any case there are far too many to deal with in that way.
  • Getting learners to look at corpora and identify chunks has failed to produce measurable advantages.
  • Activities to get learners to concentrate on collocations on their own have had poor results.
  • Grouping collocations thematically increases the learning load (decreasing transfer to long term memory) and so does presentation of groups which share synonymous collocates, such as make and do.
  • Exposure to input floods where collocations are frequently repeated has poor results.
  • Commercially published ELT material designed to teach collocations have varying results. For example, when lists of verbs in one column are to be matched with nouns in another, this inevitably produces some erroneous groupings that, even when corrective feedback is available, can be expected to leave unhelpful memory traces.
  • It is clear that encouraging inductive chunk learning is well motivated, but it is equally unclear how best to realise it in practice, i.e., which pedagogical procedures to call upon.

In Part 3, I’ll discuss Dellar’s overall view of ELT.


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

Hoey, M. (2005) Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language. Psychology Press.

Krashen, S. (1985) The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. Longman.

Lewis, M. (1993) The Lexical Approach. Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. (1996) Implications of a lexical view of language’. In Willis, J,, & Willis, D. (eds.) Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, pp. 4-9. Heinemann.

Lewis, M. (1997) Implementing the Lexical Approach. Language Teaching Publications.

Long, M. (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley.

Skehan, P. (1998) A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swan, M. (2005) Practical English usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swan, M. (2006) Chunks in the classroom: let’s not go overboard. The Teacher Trainer, 20/3.

Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G., and Svartvik, J. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman.

One thought on “The Works of Hugh Dellar Part 2

  1. Pingback: Dellar on Grammar | What do you think you're doing?

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