Teaching Lexically

Wednesday was one of those days that made me realise (not for the first time!) why blogging is great, and why I got into it in the first place – read more about it here. I’d just finished breakfast and I still had about 30 minutes to my first class so – as you would these days – I was trying to kill it on FB, when I came across Andrew Walkley’s post ‘Lexical Sets/Topic Vocabulary‘ on the BELTA blog.

In a nutshell – please do read it, it’s well worth it – Andrew points out that teaching lexis in sets (e.g. appearance, education) doesn’t help acquisition. That is, students would learn 10 random words faster than 10 words from a set. An idea proven by research, but not really reflected by course book design, nor by how most of us teach lexis. You can read more about this in this article by Leo Selivan, where he proposes some interesting alternatives to teaching lexis in sets.

Andrew then highlights that course books and teachers “are ruled by the grammatical syllabus”, which means that we have to cover present simple in order to be able to go on to present continuous, past simple, and so on. You know the drill. Otherwise – or so we are let to believe – students won’t grasp it.

Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/76tVxa
Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/76tVxa

As a language learner, I’ve found this idea very restrictive. I would typically learn a new language structure (e.g. tense, chunk, isolated item), because I had the communicative need for it. In other words, I wouldn’t wait until I knew how to form the present simple, before attempting to talk about my past experiences or future plans. ( you can read more about my language learning experience and tips here). Yet, as a teacher, I’ve tended to follow the grammatical syllabus of standard course books.

In other words, the course book, and by extension the teacher, prescribes what the student must learn today, often stopping them from going a step beyond that (we’ll learn ‘the future’ next month, Jose; now focus on the task). Wouldn’t it be better, though – as Andrew points out – if we started to:

teach phrases containing more ‘advanced’ grammar easily to beginners – especially where we make use of translation – which could allow for a wider variety of language earlier on. Yet we become primed to expect certain grammar and words at certain levels which prevents us from seeing how we can help students say more of what they want to say, sooner.

[from the author: please note that all the example sentences below were invented by me or taken from my classes. For the examples Andrew used originally, follow the link to his article]

Andrew then suggests some interesting ideas which can help us achieve this. For example, if the chunk ‘I’m broke’ comes up in the class, we can exploit it by eliciting and working on some probable language connected to the chunk:

  • Why are you broke? Spent money on (clothes)/Haven’t been paid yet/My mate owes me loads/etc.
  • What would you do if you were broke? Get a loan (from the bank)/Borrow money from (a friend)/ Ask (your parents) for a loan/Get a job/etc.
  • How would you feel? Miserable/down in the dumps/suicidal/normal – I’m always broke/etc.

You could elicit the responses to the questions from students and upgrade their language to make it sound more natural. Of course, the language can be graded according to the students’ level, but there’s no reason why the above exchange could not take place even on low levels. It actually should, because it’s based around language that students might be likely to use in this context.

Photo from: https://flic.kr/p/7J5PTA
Photo from: https://flic.kr/p/7J5PTA

Another idea described by Andrew is ‘building on simple grammar’ and structures to form more complex ones using students’ ideas. For example, imagine teaching a beginner class ‘likes and dislikes’:

I                            love                                     reading books
                              like                                     football
                              don’t like                         broccoli
                              hate                                    queuing for a long time

If students only used the above structures, the activity would end up pretty restrictive. However, you could expand it by adding alternative subjects, such as:

My granny                           loves                                     reading books
My son                                   likes                                     football
Aliens                                    don’t like                         broccoli
Messi                                      hates                                    queuing for a long time

If we allow students to use dictionaries, or if we translate for them, we can get them to come up with sentences and language that is communicatively important to them. We might also want to feed in appropriate questions or reactions to the statements, for example:

  • A: I love football! B: Do you?/Really? I don’t/Me too/etc.
  • A: My mom hates football. What about yours? B: She loves it!/She hates it too
  • A: My dad like reading books. B: And what about your mum/brother/cousin?

Admittedly, the above are not 100% natural exchanges, but they resemble much more closely real conversations then students simply making sentences about their likes and dislikes.

Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/5ueUT6
Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/5ueUT6

Finally, why not ask ‘why’ and get the students to give reasons. This might result in some interesting new language we could further explore, but most importantly – it will lead to meaningful and relevant practice. For example:

  • Why do you hate reading? Because it’s boring/I fall asleep every time/I prefer TV.
  • I don’t like my city. It’s not safe. There are many thieves.
  • My mum loves broccoli. She likes all vegetables. She doesn’t like meat.

The important thing that Andrew’s article reminded me of is that there’s no reason why we should restrict our students’ production to what we’ve prescribed for a given class. Actually, two days before I read the article, I was teaching hobbies and free time activities to a beginner level Polish class. When they were discussing what they and their friends or relatives enjoyed doing in their free time, one student asked how to say ‘which’ in Polish. At first I thought she didn’t really need to know it now, and we should continue the activity, but it quickly dawned on me that it was a very natural question word to know. Consider:

  • A: I like reading books.
  • B: Nice. [silence, tries to find the right word and ask something, but gives up]. I like reading books too.
  • A: Nice. [silence – they move on to the next ‘like’]

Of course, asking ‘which books’ is what we’d normally do in this situation. Teaching this question word opened up some very interesting language possibilities. Then we elicited some likely chunks with ‘which’ (Polish, unlike English, is a terrifyingly inflectional language, so the form of ‘which’ will change depending on the gender, case and number) and some likely answers. Then, they had a chance to practise it. The same could have been done with ‘how often’, ‘when’ or ‘why’, e.g.:

  • A: I love going to the cinema. B: Me too! How often do you go?
  • I really like to sleep late when I have the time.

To sum it up, I totally agree with Andrew that there is no reason why we can’t expand on the ‘prescribed’ chunks or grammar, and get even low-level students to say more complex, but at the same time more personally relevant and meaningful sentences. I guess it might have been something I used to do from time to time, but never really paid any conscious attention to. After Andrew’s article, I’ll be more aware of this, and can hopefully make it a more regular part of my teaching repertoire.

This is why Andrew’s article reminded me why blogging is great. The posts you read can often remind you of classroom practices which you’ve forgotten about and give you some great fresh ideas to use in your next class.

While I was wondering about the implications of the article, my 1-1 student arrived and the class started. While we were chatting about what he’d been up to at the weekend, I noticed that he’d written some phrasal verbs in his notebook and translated them into Spanish. It turned out he’d been reading an article and decided to translate some of the new vocabulary. Since I know Spanish, I quickly noticed that some of the translations were not accurate. I explained that words do not live in isolation, but are always connected with others. The first ‘phrasal’ was ‘find out’ and this a photo of what we wrote up on the white board:

collocations white board 2

The student gave a couple more examples that were relevant to him which we discussed and expanded on. We also highlighted some examples that were not correct, but could possibly be correct in Spanish, depending on the translation: e.g. *Columbus found out America.

We did the same with two more phrasal verbs. Notice that I wrote ‘I’ll carry on’ because I think it’s much more likely to occur than ‘I carry on’; despite the fact that we’d never done ‘will’ in class, pointing ahead, ‘to the future’, quickly dispelled any doubts:

white board collocations

By then, the student had realised that, as he put it, learning new words is much more than just translating them. As homework, I asked him to look up language patterns which collocate with the other phrasal verbs he’d written in the notebook. We’ll see next week what he’s come up with.

I definitely feel now that collocations and chunks lie at the core of successful language learning, not grammar. While my teaching had been naturally drifting towards a more lexical approach, it was only when I started teaching Polish when it fully dawned on me how crucial chunks are. As I mentioned above, it is utterly puzzling how we, the Poles, love to decline and conjugate absolutely every single word in Polish: verbs, determiners, relative pronouns, nouns, possessives, you name it! For example, my name’s Marek, but depending what you do with me, my name will get different endings:

  • Marek, come here! – Marku, come here!
  • I had a chat with Marek – I had a chat with Markiem
  • I wrote a letter to Marek – I wrote a letter to Marka
  • I gave it to Marek – I gave it Markowi

This of course means that learning individual words in their base form will not get you very far, i.e. you will be able to produce very little comprehensible output, and you’ll have big problems understanding what people are saying. Of course, you might want to spend the rest of your life trying to memorise all the noun declinations, but I don’t think it would be the most productive activity in the world, let alone communicative. As a result, it’s much more effective to teach students chunks, or even full utterances with variable slots (something which I might write about soon suggesting some practical ideas).

So yes, chunks are great, and so is blogging. Thanks for a very inspiring post, Andrew!

PS On Sunday 8th February, Andrew’s giving a webinar on the topic. You can read more about it here.

For more articles about teaching grammar and vocabulary click here, and for articles on Methods and Principles here. Don’t forget to follow the blog on the right hand side to get the latest posts by email 🙂

12 thoughts on “Teaching Lexically

  1. Marek, Thank you so much for your comments on the post I wrote. I really like your examples of boardwork. I think this kind of sharing of real examples of what we do is really useful. I will have to look back to what I wrote, but I don’t think I offered “Aliens don’t like broccolli” as an example. I can’t imagine that – although I guess if a student came up with this sentence I’d like to know how he knows – which I guess could lead to an interesting conversation!
    Some really interesting other reflections about your language learning experience which I’m going to follow up too.

    1. Hi Andrew!
      Thanks for commenting.
      Bit difficult to get the boardwork right on a tiny whiteboard like the one I’m using at home. Especially if you want to write up example sentences and use the lexis in context.
      No, you didn’t use the aliens example. It was mine. Perhaps I should have made it clearer that all the example sentences in the article are mine. Will change it today. But, yes – would definitely lead to an interesting conversation! 🙂
      Pity I missed the webinar, but really liked your article. Hope there’ll be more inspiring article exchanges like this one in the future 🙂

  2. Great ideas Marek. I do, however, feel a wee bit anxious when I teach lessons using a more or less lexical approach. There’s an unpredictability to these lessons that I don’t experience with more conventional ‘grammatical’ lessons. Did you go through this phase before you became more confident with exploring language in the way that you did with your one to one student?

    1. Definitely. As with anything, practice makes perfect. You need to get used to it. But I think it can be very valuable to students. You can also prepare more at home, i.e. think about real life examples of how the new language is used. With time you’ll develop a range of activities and ways of exploring the language on the spot. Definitely recommend the Lexical Lab, a new website by Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley.
      I’ve come to like the unpredictability you refer to. It’s important that a lesson has a clear goal, but it’s nice to have options and respond to what happens in class.

  3. Hi Marek….liked your post…..agree with your approach…….attempted to say the same…….but in a much less academic way, and heard nothing from Adrew and Hugh…….good luck….i vote for you

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