Dave Willis puts the case for making lexis the starting point in teaching.

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The following article is reproduced with the kind permission of English Teaching professional magazine.

Dave Willis has published widely on methodology and language description. He has authored a number of books including The Collins Cobuild Intermediate English Grammar and The Collins Cobuild Basic Grammar. His latest books are Doing Task-based Teaching (OUP 2007) co-authored with Jane Willis, and Rules, Patterns and Words: Grammar and Lexis for ELT (CUP 2003).

Introduction Receiver-friendly grammar Grammar for complexity Meaning A grammar-based system A meaning system A meaning approach A set of procedures Conclusion References

Anchor Point:0Introduction

Let me begin by giving you a few words to see if you can construct a story from them:

Mother little girl. Mother say little girl go see grandmother. Mother give little girl big basket food. Mother say ‘You take food grandmother …’

I feel reasonably confident that most of you will have identified the opening of the story of Little Red Riding Hood. But what I gave you was not simply a random string of words. Suppose I had offered you the sequence:

Mother, girl little. Say grandmother mother go see girl little. Give basket big food girl little mother. Say ‘Grandmother food take you …’ mother.

You would certainly have found this much more difficult, perhaps impossible, to interpret. What, then, is the important difference between the first and the second versions of the story?

Anchor Point:1Receiver-friendly grammar

You might answer this by saying that the word order in the first version makes sense. More precisely, you might say the first version follows the conventions of English clause and phrase structure. Each clause has the structure subject + verb + … . In the phrases little girl and big basket the adjective comes in front of the noun. So the first version does conform to some of the rules of English grammar. It follows the rules of English word order or, to put it another way, the rules of English clause and phrase structure.

So, it is possible to tell a story quite adequately with a string of words and no more than a very limited grammar of structure. But it is certainly a very limited grammar. There are, for example, no definite articles or indefinite articles in the first version of the story, no other determiners and no verb tenses. This raises an interesting question: if things like articles and tenses are redundant, why do we bother with them at all? The answer, of course, is that articles, tenses and other grammatical features are far from redundant. Even in the telling of a simple story, we can make things much easier for our receiver – a listener or reader –  by using the full resources of the grammar:

Once upon a time there was a mother who had a little girl. The mother said to the little girl, ‘You must go to see your grandmother.’ She gave her a big basket of food and said ‘Take this food to your grandmother.’

So, grammar is vital if we want to be receiver-friendly and if we want to express our meanings with any precision. 

Anchor Point:2Grammar for complexity

We also need grammar to express some of the complex abstract relationships between different elements of our message. One day I was playing in the garden with my two-year-old grandson. He was filling a bottle with water from a tap and pouring the water in a hole he had dug. I was thirsty and asked him for the bottle. When he gave it to me, I drank some of the water. He was horrified. ‘Grandpa,’ he said, ‘that water not for drinking. It for putting in a hole.’ He used the form for + -ing to express purpose, and it is difficult to see how he could have got his message across efficiently without that complex little bit of grammar.

So, we can make meanings without grammar, but if we want to express meanings in an efficient receiver-friendly manner, we need not only lexis and structure. We also need a grammar that identifies things clearly: we need articles and determiners. We need a grammar that places things in a temporal setting: a tense system. And we need a grammar that is capable of expressing abstract relations, phrases like for + -ing to express purpose.

Anchor Point:3Meaning

In 1975, Michael Halliday published a book describing how his son, Nigel, acquired his first language. Normally we think of children as learning to talk, but the title of Halliday’s book is Learning How to Mean1. The emphasis on meaning is important. Halliday consistently sees language as a system of meaning. Words, or, in Halliday’s terms, wordings, are a means to an end. The important thing, as children or students struggle to acquire language, is the acquisition and development of the capacity to make meanings.

All of what has gone before may or may not be interesting, but what does it have to do with classroom language teaching? Well, it seems to me to demonstrate fairly clearly that meaning is lexically based. We can have a meaning system, a language, with relatively little grammar. If, however, that system is to develop into a system which is listener/reader friendly and which is capable of expressing complex abstract relations, then we need grammar. But the important thing is to start with lexis and to go on to build a grammar which will become gradually more considerate of other language users and which will be able to express more and more complex ideas. What we need is lexis which becomes more and more ‘grammaticised’. We need to start with lexis and create conditions in which the grammar will develop.

Anchor Point:4A grammar-based system

What often happens in classrooms is that language is seen as grammatically based. Teaching procedures are designed to teach the grammar, to teach learners to produce a range of grammatical sentences. At the same time, learners acquire vocabulary and use this to fill out their grammatical sentences. This is an attempt to start with grammar and build in lexis incidentally. This sounds like a perfectly reasonable way to proceed. The only problem with it is that it doesn’t seem to work very well. Learners find it incredibly difficult to use the grammar they have learnt. It is a very long time, for example, before they have control of do-questions or the distinction between the present simple and continuous tenses, even though these things are taught at a very early stage. They may be able to produce these items when they have plenty of time to think about them, when they are given a grammar test, for example. But they do not use them when they produce language spontaneously. Such items are not a part of their meaning system.

Anchor Point:5A meaning system

What would happen if we took a quite different approach in the classroom? Instead of beginning with the grammar, we could begin by teaching words and phrases and encouraging learners to make the best use they can of these. In the early stages they will string these words and phrases together with a minimal grammar. As this happens, we increase the demands on learners, requiring them to construct more complex meanings in a more receiver-friendly way. As they are exposed to more and more language, they will begin to construct and use a more complex grammar, and we will try to devise activities to help them to build in this complexity.

Anchor Point:6A meaning approach

If we take this approach, the job of the teacher is fourfold. We need:

  • to create activities which require learners to make use of what language they have. In the early stages this will probably involve little more than stringing words and phrases together. We need to provide positive encouragement as they do this, accepting their success in making meanings, and playing down their grammatical shortcomings
  • to manipulate the circumstances of communication in such a way that learners are obliged to extend their grammar of the language in order to extend their meaning system
  • to provide learners with samples of language which will give input to enable them to extend their grammar
  • to provide learners with guidance which will help them extend their grammar in useful ways.

Anchor Point:7A set of procedures

What would this approach look like? Let me outline a set of procedures which might realise it:

1 Involve students in tasks, in activities which involve real language use. Set them problems to solve; involve them in games which require them to use language; engage them in argument and discussion in ways which will encourage them to express themselves.

2 Since we have argued that communication is predominantly lexical, it will be necessary to provide lexical input appropriate to the topic learners are about to engage with. This may be done immediately before the task or as an earlier homework exercise or class activity.

3 Try to ensure that learners engage with meaning as they negotiate a task. Careful presentation and practice of grammatical items before the task is likely to lead learners to concentrate on the production of specific forms rather than making the most of the grammar they already have. The more learners concentrate on the production of specific forms, the less they are concerned with engaging in the exchange of meanings.
4 There may be exposure to new grammatical forms in the process of introducing the task, but this is not the same as isolating target forms and asking learners to reproduce them immediately. Learners may feel the need to attempt to include new forms, or they may be happy to work with the language they already have.
5 Since we have argued that language learners are able to stretch their grammatical resources to meet communicative demands, there is no need to provide grammatical input before the task. It is, however, necessary to ensure that the target task is negotiable within the learners’ current grammatical knowledge. This is determined partly by the nature of the task. Simple storytelling or statement of fact, for example, require relatively little in the way of grammatical complexity. Hypothetical argument, on the other hand, would be grammatically demanding.

Linguistic complexity is also determined by task design and input to the task. If, for example, learners are simply asked to talk about their career ambitions, the task is open ended and therefore linguistically demanding. The teacher could, on the other hand, give learners clear guidelines on how they are to proceed.

  • Which of the following jobs would you most like to do: English teacher, professional athlete, dentist, policeman, lawyer, journalist, politician?
  • Work in groups and put the jobs in order of preference.

Here learners have a precise framework in which to interpret preferences and opinions expressed in the discussion. The task is consequently much less demanding linguistically. It is possible to leave the learners to work through the task first, and focus afterwards on the grammar involved in expressing choice and hypothesis.

6 Offer learners the opportunity to carry out a task spontaneously and later to work through the same meanings again after time for preparation and reflection. This could be done by asking them first to do the task spontaneously in groups, with relatively little preparation, and later to work as a group to prepare a report of the outcome of their task to present to the class as a whole. The spontaneous task offers learners the opportunity to work with their existing language resources. The preparation of a report offers them the opportunity to consider carefully how to express themselves, incorporating insights from fellow students and possibly from the teacher as well. Alternatively, learners could be asked to write down the conclusions of their discussion or to write down one of the stories they have heard. Writing affords time for attention to language form.

7 After they have completed the task, offer learners insights into the kind of language used by experienced speakers of English. They may listen to a recording of experienced speakers carrying out the task they have just attempted themselves, or they may read a written version of a story they have been working on. The advantage of looking at appropriate language after rather than before attempting to produce the language for themselves is that learners will have been sensitised to the meanings they are about to hear. They will be listening for expressions of hypothesis and preference, for example. After the listening, these forms can be highlighted and worked on explicitly. The process is one of starting with the language the learners already have, then offering them ways to build on it. 

Anchor Point:8Conclusion

Basically what these proposals suggest is that we should start with meaning and look at grammar afterwards. Traditional approaches to language teaching rest on the assumption that accuracy precedes fluency. First learners acquire new grammatical insights, then they learn to put these insights to work and gradually produce them with greater fluency. The proposal here suggests that fluency precedes accuracy. First we should encourage learners to engage in meaning. Once they have done this with a degree of success, we can look at ways of expressing their meanings with greater precision and listener/reader friendliness. One obvious caveat is that such a methodology would set a low premium on accuracy and, as a result, would produce students who could exchange meanings with fluency, but could not produce accurate sentences. But isn’t this a healthy alternative to what happens in many, possibly most, classrooms at present? Far too many classrooms produce learners who can make accurate sentences but who cannot communicate with any fluency. It seems to me that an approach with a primary focus on meaning, if sensitively handled, would be nothing but beneficial, provided that we allow for a focus on grammar after meaning-focused activities. Such an approach would set healthy priorities. Instead of focusing on grammatical accuracy with meaning as a by-product, we would focus on meaning, with grammatical development as a by-product. To paraphrase my two-year-old grandson, ‘Language not for talking, it for meaning.’

Anchor Point:9References

Anchor Point:11Halliday, M. (1975), Learning How to Mean: Hodder Arnold

For more articles relevant to this approach go to www.willis-elt.co.uk.

Author e-mail: dave@willis-elt.co.uk