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Lexis - the new grammar?

How new materials are finally challenging established course book conventions

Paul Meehan

Course materials are, at long last, showing signs of moving away from the prescriptions of the traditional course book. A sea change has taken place in recent years in the way language teaching and learning is viewed, and course book writers are beginning to reflect this. The "natural English" syllabus (Oxford University Press, 2003), compiled by Ruth Gairns and Stuart Redman, is a good example of this, for it chimes in with more contemporary theoretical perspectives, which view the acquisition of lexis as the driving force behind language learning. This represents a challenge to the traditional assumptions behind generations of course books underpinned, as they have been, by inherited and highly durable grammar-centric notions of language learning (arising from a written model of the language based on the grammar of written English).

This grammar bias is clearly misplaced if one considers that most language learners need, primarily, to communicate through spoken English. What is more, the notion that improved communicative skills are to be achieved through gradual exposure to increasingly complex grammar structures, item by item, as the structure of the traditional course book requires, creates a distorted perception of language learning; and the consequent measure, that this perception gives rise to, for assessing linguistic competence and progress made (i.e. the extent of the student's mastery over these structures) is a false yardstick.

Research findings, as Scott Thornbury points out (1), endorse this view, for they highlight the fact that syllabuses based on written models do not match the frequency and distribution of grammar as it is used to talk. For example, in conversation the present tense outnumbers past tenses by around four to one; simple forms outnumber the continuous forms by twenty to one and the past perfect features highly infrequently. Thus, by adhering to the canons derived from a written standard of English, course book designers have, until quite recently, tended to perpetuate a skewed set of language study priorities - resulting in disproportionate emphasis being placed on comparatively marginal grammar items, to the detriment of those elements that yield much higher returns in terms of learners' communicative needs.

The natural English syllabus provides a counterweight to these engrained course book traditions, by shifting the balance away from the priorities of a written model of the language, with its overemphasis on structures, towards lexis and the needs of the L2 speaker. The syllabus currently focuses on intermediate and upper-intermediate learners, and the framework was established by analysing the performance of a cross-section of intermediate learners, over a range of communicative tasks, in comparison to low advanced/advanced learners. The aim was to expose the kind of language required to push through the intermediate barrier to the levels beyond. The findings confirmed the need for more critical evaluation of grammar input; suggesting a focus shift, away from peripheral areas of grammar (tense shift in reported speech, for example) (2) towards a more systematic study of vocabulary as used in spoken discourse - featuring a broad spectrum of language, not fully represented in course books, and made up mainly of long or short phrases, collocations, lexical phrases and idioms, vague language and spoken linkers.

The findings that inform the natural English syllabus, and its accompanying study materials, do not really represent new knowledge, just that course book writers are finally catching up. The Lexical Approach theorists have long been aware of the limitations of following a written model-based syllabus and advocated the primacy of lexis over grammar structures as far back as the early 1990s (3). The principal tenet of this approach is that the language native speakers use, whether in a formal or informal situation, is not original (i.e. it is not uniquely created for that context); but is built up in readymade, prefabricated chunks - which the speaker/writer selects from his/her lexical store (featuring, in the case of an adult native speaker, tens of thousands of chunks) and assembles together to construct what he/she wants to say. And it is precisely these chunks, in their multiple forms, that are the constituent elements of the range of language natural English has pinpointed as the key to developing the student's communicative capabilities.

Now that these realities of language use and linguistic behaviour are finally having a significant influence on the output of mainstream course book writers, it will not be long before we see the widespread effect of these materials in EFL/ESOL classrooms across the world. The shift in study priorities will mean that greater emphasis will be placed on providing language learners with the range of tools need to build up their own effective lexical store and communicative repertoire. In practical terms, this will entail developing greater awareness of lexis, and enhancing acquisition and usage skills through receptive skills work, text analysis, gap fills, communicative tasks, classifying and matching exercises, etc. The recently updated and expanded Innovations series (Thomson Heinle 2003) constitutes one of the standard-bearers of the new wave of study materials. Written by Hugh Dellar, Andrew Walkley and Darryl Hocking, this range of course books is conceived primarily from a lexical perspective. Credit for innovation must also be given to the Cutting Edge series (S.Cunnigham/P.Moor, Pearson Education/Longman) which first emerged in 1998 and features a strong lexical strand running through it.

With course materials now in the process of freeing themselves from inherited blueprints and conventions and embracing new outlooks on language learning that downgrade the traditional importance given to the study of grammar, the nature of classroom culture and practice will, inevitably, be called upon to adapt. The challenge will be to wean those teachers, and students, schooled in the traditions that have evolved from a grammar-centric view of the language off excessive dependence on grammar structures and rules - and encourage them to reappraise their expectations and understanding of language learning and teaching.

Notes:

  1. from: Syllabus Design: What's wrong with grammar, 2002 - OUP website
  2. was found to be largely redundant since native speakers and high level learners report speech in a number of acceptable ways, not involving tense shift
  3. principally, Michael Lewis; for further details see The Lexical Approach, the State of ELT and a Way Forward, LTP 1993

© Paul Meehan 2003


Paul Meehan is a London-based EFL/ESOL teacher and freelance writer.

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