A Review of “Teaching Lexically” (2016) by H. Dellar and A. Walkley

(Note: I’ve moved this post from its old place in my “stuff” to here because the old blog is getting increasingly difficult to access and to edit.)

Teaching Lexically is divided into three sections.

Part A. 

We begin with The 6 principles of how people learn languages:

“Essentially, to learn any given item of language, people need to carry out the following stages:

  • Understand the meaning of the item.
  • Hear/see an example of the item in context.
  • Approximate the sounds of the item.
  • Pay attention to the item and notice its features.
  • Do something with the item – use it in some way.
  • Repeat these steps over time, when encountering the item again in other contexts” 

These “principles” are repeated in slightly amplified form at the end of Part A, and they inform the “sets of principles” for each of the chapters in Part B.

Next, we are told about Principles of why people learn languages

These “principles” are taken en bloc from the Common European Framework of Reference for languages.  The authors argue that teachers should recognise that

“for what is probably the majority of learners, class time is basically all they may have spare for language study. [This] … “emphasises how vital it is that what happens in class meets the main linguistic wants and needs of learners, chiefly:

  • To be able to do things with their language.
  • To be able to chat to others.
  • To learn to understand others cultures better”.   

We then move to language itself.

Two Views of Language

1. Grammar + words + skills

This is the “wrong” view, which, according to Dellar and Walkley, most people in ELT hold. It says that

language can be reduced to a list of grammar structures that you can drop single words into.

The implications of this view are:

  1. Grammar is the most important area of language. …The examples used to illustrate grammar are relatively unimportant. …It doesn’t matter if an example used to illustrate a rule could not easily (or ever) be used in daily life.
  2. If words are to fit in the slots provided by grammar, it follows that learning lists of single words is all that is required, and that any word can effectively be used if it fits a particular slot.
  3. Naturalness, or the probable usage of vocabulary, is regarded as an irrelevance; students just need to grasp core meanings.
  4. Synonyms are seen as being more or less interchangeable, with only subtle shades of meaning distinguishing them.
  5. Grammar is acquired in a particular order – the so-called “buildings blocks” approach where students are introduced to “basic structures”, before moving to “more advanced ones”.
  6. Where there is a deficit in fluency or writing or reading, this may be connected to a lack of appropriate skills. These skills are seen as existing independently of language .

2. From words with words to grammar

This is the “right” view, and is based on the principle that “communication almost always depends more on vocabulary than on grammar”. The authors illustrate this view by taking the sentence

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

They argue that “Saying want see film is more  likely to achieve the intended communicative message than only using what can be regarded as the grammar and function words I’ve been –ing to that for. “

The authors go on to say that 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”.  This leads the authors to argue the case for a lexical approach to teaching  and to state their agreement with Lewis’ (1993) view that

 teaching should be centred around collocation and chunks, alongside large amount of input from texts.  

They go on:

From this input a grasp of grammar ‘rules’ and correct usage would emerge. 

The authors cite Hoey’s Lexical Priming (2005) as giving theoretical support for this view of language.  They explain Hoey’s view by describing the example Hoey gives of the the two words “result” and “consequence”. While these two words are apparently synonymous, they function in quite different ways, as can be seen in statistics from corpora which show when and how they are used.  Dellar and Walkley continue:

Hoey argues that these statistical differences must come about because, when we first encounter these words (he calls such encounters ‘primings’) our brains somehow subconsciously record some or all of this kind of information about the way the words are used. Our next encounter may reaffirm – or possibly contradict – this initial priming, as will the next encounter, and the one after that – and so on. 

The authors go on to explain how Hoey uses “evidence from psycholinguistic studies” to support the claim that we remember words not as individual units, but rather, in pairings and in groups, which allows for quicker and more accurate processing. Thus,

 spoken fluency, the speed at which we read and the ease and accuracy with which we listen may all develop as a result of language users being familiar with groupings of words.

A lexical view of teaching

Dellar & Walkley urge teachers 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.

It seems that the biggest 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.. The practicalities of teaching lexically are discussed under the heading “Pragmatism in a grammar-dominated world”, where teachers are advised to work with the coursebooks they’ve got and approach coursebook materials in a different way, focusing on the vocabulary and finding better ways of exploiting it.

The rest of Part 1 is devoted to a lexical view of vocabulary (units of meaning, collocation, co-text, genre and register, lexical sets, antonyms, word form pragmatic meanings and synonyms are discussed), a lexical view of grammar (including “words define grammar” and “grammar is all around”), and a lexical view of skills.

Part 1 ends with “A practical pedagogy for teaching and learning”, which stresses the need to consider “Naturalness, priming and non-native speakers”, and ends with “The Process”, which repeats the 6 processes introduced at the start, noting that noticing and repetition are the two stages that the lexical teacher should place the most emphasis on.

Part B offers 100 worksheets for teachers to work through. Each page shares the same format: Principle; Practising the Principle; Applying the principle. In many of the worksheets, it´s hard to find the “principle” and in most worksheets “applying the principle” involves looking for chances to teach vocabulary, particularly lexical chunks.  Here’s an example:

 Worksheet 2: Choosing words to teach.

Principle: prioritise the teaching of more frequent words.

Practicing the principle involves deciding which words in a box (government / apple for example)  are more frequent and looking at the on line Macmillan Dictionary or the British Corpus to check.

Applying the Principle involves choosing 10 words from “a word list of a unit or a vocabulary exercise that you are going to teach”, putting the words in order of frequency, checking your ideas, challenging an interested colleague with queries about frequency and “keeping a record of who wins!”

The worksheets cover teaching vocabulary lexically, teaching grammar lexically, teaching the 4 skills lexically, and recycling and revising. Many of them involve looking at the coursebook which readers are presumed to be using in their teaching, and finding ways to adapt the content to a more lexical approach to teaching. In the words of the authors,

the book is less about recipes and activities for lessons, and more about training for preparing lexical lessons with whatever materials you are using.       

 

Part C (10 pages long) looks at materials, teaching courses other than general English, and teacher training.

Discussion

Language Learning

Let’s start with Dellar and Walkley’s account of language learning. More than 50 years of research into second language learning is “neatly summarised” by listing the 6 steps putatively involved in learning “any given item of language”.  You (1) understand the meaning, (2) hear/see an example in context, (3) approximate the sound, (4) pay attention to the item and notice its features, (5) do something with it – use it some way, and (6) then repeat these steps over time.  We’re not told what an “item” of language refers to, but we may be sure that there are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of such items, and we are asked to believe that they’re all learned, one by one, following the same 6-step process.

Bachman (1990) provides an alternative account, according to which  people learn languages by developing a complex set of competencies, as outlined in the figure below.

There remains the question of how these competencies are developed. We can compare Dellar and Walkley’s 6-step account with that offered by theories of interlanguage development (see Tarone, 2001, for a review). Language learning is, in this view, gradual, incremental and slow, sometimes taking years to accomplish. Development of the L2 involves all sorts of learning going on at the same time as learners use a variety of strategies to develop the different types of competencies shown in Bachman’s model, confronting problems of comprehension, pronunciation, grammar, lexis, idioms, fluency, appropriacy, and so on along the way. The concurrent development of the many competencies Bachman refers to exhibits plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours.  This applies not only to learning grammar, but also to lexis, and to that in-between area of malleable lexical chunks as described by Pawley and Syder.

As for lexis, explanations of SLA based on interlanguage development assert that learners have to master not just the canonical meaning of words, but also their idiosyncratic nature and their collocates. When learners encounter a word in a correct context, the word is not simply added to a static cognitive pile of vocabulary items. Instead, they experiment with the word, sometimes using it incorrectly, thus establishing where it works and where it doesn’t. By passing through a period of incorrectness, in which the lexicon is used in a variety of ways, they climb back up the U-shaped curve. Carlucci and Case (2011) give the example of the noun ‘shop.’ Learners may first encounter the word in a sentence such as “I bought this wine at the duty free shop”. Then, they experiment with deviant utterances such as “I am going to the supermarket shop,” correctly associating the word ‘shop’ with a place they can purchase goods, but getting it wrong. By making these incorrect utterances, the learner distinguishes between what is appropriate, because “at each stage of the learning process, the learner outputs a corresponding hypothesis based on the evidence available so far” (Carlucci and Case, 2011).

Dellar and Walkley’s “Six Step” account of language learning is neither well explained nor complete. These are not, I suggest, very robust principles on which to build. The principles of why people learn are similarly flimsy. To say that people learn languages “to be able to do things with their language; to be able to chat to others; and to learn to understand others cultures better” is to say very little indeed.

Two Views of Language

Dellar & Walkley give one of the most preposterous misrepresentations of how most teachers see English grammar that I’ve ever seen in print. Recall that they describe this popular view of language as “grammar + words”, such that language can be reduced to a list of grammar structures that you can drop single words into.

In fact, grammar models of the English language, such as that found in Quirk et.al. (1985), or 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 on page 9 of Teaching Lexically, which is subsequently referred to dozens of times throughout the book as if it were an accurate summary, rather than a biased straw man used to promote their own view of language. The one sentence description, and the 6 simplistic assumptions that are said to flow from it, completely fail to fairly represent grammar models of the English language.

The second view of language, the right one according to the authors, is “language = from words + words to grammar”. Given that this is the most important, the most distinguishing, feature of the whole approach to teaching lexically, you’d expect a detailed description and a careful critical evaluation of their preferred view of language. But no; what is offered is a poorly articulated inadequate summary, mixed up with one-sided arguments for teaching lexically. It’s based on Hoey’s (2005) view that the best model of language structure is the word, along with its collocational and colligational properties, so that collocation and “nesting” (words join with other primed words to form 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. There is no right or wrong in language. It makes little sense to talk of something being ungrammatical.

This is surely a step too far; surely we need to describe language not just in terms of the performed but also in terms of the possible. 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 would 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.  They do so by making use of, among other things, grammatical knowledge.

The fact that the book devotes some attention to teaching grammar indicates that the authors recognise the existence and importance of grammar, which in turn indicates that there are limits to their adherence to Hoey’s model. But nothing is said in the book to clarify these limits. Given that Dellar and Walkley repeatedly stress that their different view of language is what drives their approach to teaching,  their failure to offer any  coherent account of their own view of language is telling. We´re left with the impression that the authors are enthusiastic purveyors of a view which they don’t fully understand and are unable to adequately describe or explain.

Teaching Lexically

1. Teaching Lexically concentrates very largely on “doing things to learners” (Breen, 1987): it’s probably the most teacher-centred book on ELT I’ve ever read. There’s no mention in the book of including students in decisions affecting what and how things are to be learned: teachers make all the decisions. They work with a pre-confected product or synthetic syllabus, usually defined by a coursebook, and they plan and execute lessons on the basis of adapting the syllabus or coursebook to a lexical approach. Students are expected to learn what is taught in the order that it’s taught, the teacher deciding the “items”, the sequence of presentation of these “items”, the recycling, the revision, and the assessment.

2.  There’s a narrowly focused, almost obsessive concentration on teaching as many lexical chunks as possible. The need to teach as much vocabulary as possible pervades the book. The chapters in Part B on teaching speaking, reading, listening and writing are driven by the same over-arching aim: look for new ways to teach more lexis, or to re-introduce lexis that has already been presented.

3. Education is seen as primarily concerned with the transmission of information. This view runs counter to the principles of learner-centred teaching, as argued by educators such as John Dewey, Sebastian Faure, Paul Friere, Ivan Illich, and Paul Goodman, and supported in the ELT field by all progressive educators who reject the view of education as the transmission of information, and, instead, see the student as a learner whose needs and opinions have to be continuously taken into account. For just one opinion, see  Weimer (2002) who 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.

4. The book takes an extreme interventionist position on ELT.  Teaching Lexically involves dividing the language into items, presenting them to learners via various types of carefully-selected texts, and practising them intensively, using pattern drills, exercises and all the other means outlined in the book, including comprehension checks, error corrections and so on, before moving on to the next set of items.  As such, it mostly replicates the grammar-based PPP method it so stridently criticises. Furthermore, it sees translation into the L1 as the best  way of dealing with meaning, because it wants to get quickly on to the most important part of the process , namely memorising bits of lexis with their collocates and even co-text.  Compare this to an approach that sees the negotiation of meaning as a key aspect of language teaching, where the lesson is conducted almost entirely in English and the L1 is used  sparingly, where students have chosen for themselves some of the topics that they deal with, where they contribute some of their own texts, and where most of classroom time is given over to activities where the language is used communicatively and spontaneously, and where the teacher reacts to linguistic problems as they arise, thus respecting the learners’ ‘internal syllabus’.

Teaching Lexically sees explicit learning and explicit teaching as paramount, and it assumes that explicit knowledge, otherwise called declarative knowledge, can be converted into implicit (or procedural) knowledge through practice. These assumptions, like the assumptions that students will learn what they’re taught in the order they’re taught it, clash with SLA research findings. As Long says: “implicit and explicit learning, memory and knowledge are separate processes and systems, their end products stored in different areas of the brain” (Long, 2015, p. 44).  To assume, as Dellar and Walkley do, that the best way to teach English as an L2 is to devote the majority of classroom time to the explicit teaching and practice of pre-selected bits of the language is to fly in the face of SLA research.

Children learn languages in an implicit way – they are not consciously aware of most of what they learn about language. As for adults, all the research in SLA indicates that implicit learning is still the default learning mechanism. This suggests that teachers should devote most of the time in class to giving students comprehensible input and opportunities to communicate among themselves and with the teacher.

Nevertheless, adult L2 learners are what Long calls partially “disabled” language learners, for whom some classes of linguistic features are “fragile”. The implication is that, unless helped by some explicit instruction, they are unlikely to notice these fragile (non-salient )features, and thus not progress beyond a certain, limited, stage of proficiency.  The question is: What kind of explicit teaching helps learners progress in their trajectory towards communicative competence?  And here we arrive at lexical chunks.

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 in his section on lexical chunks, while children learn collocations implicitly, “collocation errors persist, even among near-native L2 speakers resident in the target language environment for decades.” Long cites Boers work, which suggests a number of reasons for why L2 collocations constitute such a major learning  problem, including L1 interference, the semantic vagueness of many collocations, the fact that collocates for some words vary , and the fact that some collocations look deceptively similar.

The size and scope of the collocations problem can be appreciated by considering findings on the lesser task of word learning. Long cites work by Nation (2006) and Nation and Chung (2009) who have have calculated that learners require knowledge of between 6000 and 7000 word families for adequate comprehension of speech and 9000 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, but scaffolded by teachers, is the best solution.

As for lexical chunks, there are very large numbers of such items, probably hundreds of thousands of them. As Swan (2006) points out, “memorising 10 lexical chunks a day, a learner would take nearly 30 years to achieve a good command of 10,000 of them”. So how does one select which chunks to explicitly teach, and how does one teach them? The most sensible course of action would seem to be to base selection on frequency , but there are problems with such a simple criterion, not the least being the needs of the set of students in the classroom. Although Dellar and Walkley acknowledge the criterion of frequency, Teaching Lexically gives very little discussion of it, and there is very little clear or helpful advice offered about what lexical chunks to select for explicit teaching, – see the worksheet cited at the start of this review. 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.

The other important question that Teaching Lexically does not give any well considered answer to  is: how best to facilitate the learning of lexical chunks?  Dellar and Walkley could start by addressing the problem of how their endorsement of Hoey’s theory of language learning, and Hoey’s “100% endorsement” of Krashen’s Natural Approach, fit with their own view that explicit instruction in lexical chunks should be the most important part of classroom based instruction. The claim that they are just speeding up the natural, unconscious process doesn’t bear examination because two completely different systems of learning are being conflated. Dellar and Walkley take what’s called a “strong interface” position, whereas Krashen and Hoey take the opposite view. Dellar and Walkley make conscious noticing the main plank in their teaching approach, which contradicts Hoey’s claim that lexical priming is a subconscious process.

Next, Dellar and Walkley make no mention of the fact that learning lexical chunks is one of the most challenging aspects of learning English as an L2 for adult learners.  Neither do they discuss the questions related to the teachability of lexical chunks that have been raised by scholars like Boers (who confesses that he doesn’t know the answer to the problems they have identified about how to teach lexical chunks). The authors of Teaching Lexically blithely assume that drawing attention to features of language (by underlining them, mentioning them and so on), and making students aware of collocations, co-text, colligations, antonyms, 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 is expected to treat so exhaustively, there are good reasons to question the assumption that such instruction will have the desired result.

In a section of his book on TBLT, Long (2015) discusses his 5th methodological principle: “Encourage inductive ·chunk” learning”.  Note that Long discusses 10 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.

Conclusion

Teaching Lexically is based on a poorly articulated view of the English language and on a flimsy account of second language learning. It claims that language is best seen as lexically driven, that a grasp of grammar ‘rules’ and correct usage will emerge from studying lexical chunks, that spoken fluency, the speed at which we read, and the ease and accuracy with which we listen will all develop as a result of language users being familiar with groupings of words, and that therefore, the teaching of lexical chunks should be the most important part of a classrooms teacher’s job. These claims often rely on mere assertions, and include straw man fallacies, cherry picking the evidence of research findings and ignoring counter evidence. The case made for this view of teaching is in my opinion, entirely unconvincing. The concentration on just one small part of what’s involved in language teaching, and the lack of any well considered discussion of the problems associated with teaching lexical chunks, are seriously flaws in the book’s treatment of an interesting topic.

References

Bachman, L. (1990). Fundamental considerations in language testingOxford University Press.

Breen, M. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design, Parts 1 and 2. Language Teaching 20 (02) and 20 (03).

Carlucci, L. and Case, J.  (2013)  On the Necessity of U-Shaped Learning. Topics.

Hoey, M.(2005) Lexical Priming. Routeledge.

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

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

Tarone, E. (2001), Interlanguage. In R. Mesthrie (Ed.). Concise Encyclopedia of Sociolinguistics. (pp. 475–481) Oxford: Elsevier Science.

Weimer, M. (2002) Learner-Centered Teaching. Retrieved from http://academic.pg.cc.md.us/~wpeirce/MCCCTR/weimer.htm  3/09/2016

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