Teaching Grammar Lexically – reflection

Most of us have at least heard of the Lexical Approach, and most of us would also be hard pushed to give a succinct account of how it can be implemented in the classroom. Having Andrew Walkley, co-author of the Outcomes series, present a brief and practical guide to teaching grammar lexically was not to be missed.
Our guest presenter asked us to consider introducing high-frequency structures earlier than traditional, PPP-focused course books usually prescribe.

For example, “What are you going to do after class?”
                      “Not much / I’m just going home / Nothing, what are you going to do?”

Rather than waiting until Unit Four of Elementary, we can give this language to beginner students. The expectation is that they will be able to grasp the meaning and will try using it. They will make mistakes, but at this level we would expect them to. Through continual exposure and reinforcement the students will acquire this language (language which they have a genuine need for) earlier than might normally be expected.

Carry on colligating

Here we need to define a key word: colligation. It literally means ‘to tie things together’. Where a collocation refers to items of vocabulary that go together, a colligation looks at items of grammar.

For example, there are only really seven or eight verbs that go with the future perfect:

I’ll have + been here/lived in this flat/finished by and so on.  

Rather than practising every possible structure with every possible verb, teachers should focus on those which actually occur ‘in the wild’. I have certainly witnessed teachers fretting about the passive, and then creating practice activities which generate unrealistic and unnatural productions like “My hamburger has been eaten by someone!”

Repeating and reformulating

The speaker added we should appreciate the value of noticing. “Well, we’ve done the present perfect so the students should have got it.”

We should try not to fall into the trap of grinding through a course and expecting students to keep up. We must appreciate the need for repetition, and lots of it. Continually drawing students’ attention to previously taught structures in subsequent texts helps. Each exposure reinforces primings and understanding. This goes further than reviewing and recycling at the beginning of a lesson. When a text (any text!) contains examples of previously taught language, elicit the form and function from the students.

Similarly, use reformulation as a tool for further input. By listening more to what students are trying to say, we can give them the language they need. This tends to fall into the most common grammatical patterns, and this is another opportunity for us to provide repeated exposure to them.

So, how has this all worked out in the classroom?

I found that quite a lot of my colleagues had already been implementing some of these practices without having formal explanations for them. Indeed, a teacher for beginner classes was surprised by the the idea that someone wouldn’t teach high-frequency structures as lexico-grammar early on.

‘Notice’  has become something of a buzz-word in my classroom, and my students are benefiting from this. It’s interesting how the first or second time I ask them to notice (the present continuous structure for a future plan in the listening, as an example) they need guidance as to what exactly they are noticing. However, when fed subsequent examples, they are able to tell me the form and function with little-to-no elicitation.

I recently focused on passives in class, and bearing colligations in mind made the lesson a lot more useful. Another teacher told me about his past perfect lesson where he drew students’ attention to its tendency to colligate with noticed/realised/discovered/found out.

And lastly, reformulation has in the past threatened to detail lessons, leading us down a rabbit hole of new language. But when it’s language that students have a genuine need for, surely it’s a rabbit hole worth exploring.

by Adrian Peel