If you’re responsible for teacher development in your school, you might sometimes find that it’s a burden to continually try and find ways to come up with new materials and approaches. Given the choice, I’m sure you’d love to invite Jeremy Harmer, Scott Thornbury or Penny Ur to come in and give a talk or do a workshop. However, thanks to the massive availability of talks and webinars online, it is possible for your teachers to be trained by the leaders in our field without the speakers even knowing about it.
I think the best way to use these materials in your training sessions is to use a flipped approach. Instead of watching the talk together, you can ask your trainees to watch it before the training session. They can make some notes of things they want to discuss and questions they have which they can bring to the session for discussion.
This was something I did a few months at my previous school. We watched Hugh Dellar’s webinar for BELTA, Five Golden Rules, on the Lexical Approach and then discussed the implications of his talk in the training session. What this achieved was that rather than being a solely trainer-led session, it was much more equal and discursive and offered an interesting variety to normal sessions.
Furthermore, you have the option to contact the speaker to see if they would be interested in following up the session with you. They may not be able to, but it’s worth a try. I did this with Hugh, emailing him before the training to ask if he would mind answering some questions from colleagues that came out of the discussion. Hugh was extremely generous with his time and answered their questions in great detail. He was so generous in fact, that I have decided to share his answers with you here so you can use them yourself.
The Internet gives us so many options to bring interesting materials into the classroom, and this is equally true of teacher training. I think this is a good example of how you can use these resources for the benefit of your teachers.
1) Do you have any suggestions for how we can use a Lexical Approach while using a coursebook which follows a strict grammar syllabus, and makes it difficult to jump around from structure to structure?
In a sense, this question is what’s prompted us to start working on what will be our first methodology book, TEACHING LEXICALLY, which will be out in 2016 sometime. It’s going to be published by DELTA Publishing. I realise that’s not much use to you now, but in a sense, it’s a mark of what a huge question it is, as there’s literally a book’s worth of stuff to say about this. In short, though a couple of points:
(a) Despite the fact that anti-coursebook rhetoric continues to tar all coursebooks with the same brush, coursebooks are in fact very different, and reflect very different views about the nature of language and the way learning should best be supported. There’s a huge gulf between something like English File, which is essentially Headway redux in its focus on discrete building block grammar done structure by structure , and words mostly dealt with in isolation with definition matching common – and what we’ve tried to do with Outcomes. And, of course, there are plenty of other angles elsewhere too. In an ideal world, teachers should be using books that most reflect their own views on how language and – by extension – learning works, of course.
(b) The biggest issue if you’re using an atomistic block-by-block book is the lack of exposure to other structures – and to the interaction of grammar and vocabulary – that it affords students. The two main ways teachers can bridge this gap are: (1) by ensuring that when you give examples of new vocabulary, you give whole sentence, fully gramamticalised examples – on the board – and occasionally ask questions – or just tell students – about any particular grammatical features of the examples. (2) reformulate / rephrase what students try to say – and write up on the board whole sentences showing them how to say what they wanted to say in better English. This will inevitably involve exposing them to grammar they’ve not had presented to them yet – if they’re Elementary – or to grammar that’s not the ‘focus’ of the lesson if they’re higher than that and doing a PPP atomistic grammar lesson.
This way, students get regular repeated encounters with grammar in action and get to see how grammar interacts with vocab to say things of use to them.
2) Do you think it’s possible to use the approach with very advanced students?
Firstly, I think it’s not only possible but highly desirable to use an approach that takes collocation, fixed expressions, word grammar, common usage and so on (for that is basically all the lexical approach means to me, in essence) into account at ALL levels, from absolute Beginners to post-Proficiency. So it’s not really a question of level for me, rather just one of basic beliefs, approaches and understanding of student needs.
That said, I think that once students get to CPE level – or even past it – there’s still a HUGE amount of lexis they need to learn, and that often what they find most frustrating at these levels is being made to go over the same old stuff they’ve gone over before, and having exercises that revise old grammar, but make it really hard – or else that present tons of random ‘hard’ words without any thought for how they contribute to the development of their communicative competence. If you look at the CEFR and the way it defines these levels, you see certain notions arise time and time again:
- C1 students have a good command of a broad range of topics.
- C1 students have wider knowledge of general, academic, professional and leisure-based topics
- B2s can correct most of their mistakes.
- C1s errors are rare and corrected.
Fluency, interaction & Coherence
- B2s hampered by searching for patterns and expressions.
- C1s can select a phrase from a range
- C1s controlled used of organisational patterns
- B2s can show degrees of emotion.
- C1s can use language flexibly, including emotional, allusive and joking usage.
The focus clearly is on range – both high-end, more written forms like academic language / journalese and also low-end: colloquial speech. The focus is most certainly NOT on grammar, but rather is on patterns, expressions, phrases and so on. It’s basically saying the measure of these students IS lexically rooted.
I also think advanced students need to be challenged, and they need to feel they’re progressing and the best way to ensure these things happen is to present them with blocks of language that fall under a common theme – say, describing places you’ve been to – and to get them to do things with this language: meet it, use it, practise it – and to then test and revise it too. This helps them see how much they remember and creates a sense of moving forward. Even something like this exercise below from Innovations Advanced contains plenty of meat for students at this level – and not just in the explicitly taught words, but also in the co-text within the examples they then gap-fill, and astute teachers will pick up on this and exploit / explore it too:
- Describing places
A Complete the sentences with the words in the box:
ancient no-go skyline
compact remote skyscrapers
deprived residential sleepy
ghost town shanty towns sprawling
- It’s an …………… city. It was founded over 2000 years ago.
- It’s a seaside resort, but we stayed there in the off-season, so it was more like a ………….. . It was absolutely dead!
- What I like about Amsterdam is how …………… it is. I mean, you can walk round it very easily.
- It’s a huge …………… city – it goes on for miles and miles!
- She’s from some place called Batagal, in a really …………… part of Siberia.
- All round the outskirts of Johannesburg are these huge sprawling …………… . They’re really rough. They’re like complete …………… areas for the police!
- It’s a nice enough area. There are lots of young families round there, so it’s very ……………, which I guess is nice if you have kids.
- It’s a nice enough place. It’s just a …………… little provincial town where nothing much ever really happens.
- As you come across the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan …………… is just incredible – all those …………… everywhere! It’s really exciting.
- It’s a very poor area – one of the most run-down, …………… areas of the city.
B Which of the sentences can you use to talk about places you know? Tell a partner as much as you can about these places.
The more you start thinking about what’s said and written around certain topics, you more you realise how little students really know even at these levels, and how big the gap between CPE and near-native still is.
To finish, I guess my question in return would be if you’re NOT doing this at these levels, what else do you think works better and why?
3) How can this approach be adapted for students who are preparing for exams?
As you may have worked out by now, I’d argue rather than it needing to be ‘adapted’ for use with students studying for exams, it should be absolutely central to the whole way we approach exam preparation. Most exams – and particularly the Cambridge exams, which I think are excellent tests of general competence and proficiency – basically test how much language students know. Students who know the most language generally do the best in exams – and knowing the most language in essence means knowing not just word meanings, but how words interact with other words and with grammar, the contexts of use in which they’re deployed, etc. It also means being able to write well, which frequently involves knowing whole chunks and fixed phrases and patterns on top of words in action.
The other thing to bear in mind is that the Cambridge exams really DON’T test knowledge of discrete structural items – and they certainly don’t ask students to explain items or use metalanguage! They test general proficiency and competence. Even the Use of English sections rarely look at tense-based grammar, which remains the great obsession of EFL teachers and materials. Instead, more often, it’s little chunks, patterns, what might be termed lexico-grammar instead.
I’ll tell you what, though: it’s NOT yet more revision of the present perfect – or a lesson just on random prepositions!
4) How can the Lexical Approach be used while teaching reading and listening?
I guess I’d begin by answer by turning it around and ask how ELSE you think reading and listening occur – and occur well – without there having first been huge over-learning of language. Some teachers may wish to clutch at the straws of hope that ‘skills’ provide, but all the research suggests that skills really don’t exist outside of language – think about it: if they did, then the ‘skills’ students possess in their own L1s would simply transfer over and students would able to skim, scan, gist read and all that kind of thing in L2 because they already have those ‘skills’. What stops them being able to do this in English is simple: they lack the language to do it, and this generally doesn’t mean the grammar: repeated studies have shown that students can read ‘above’ their grammar level and that grammar is very rarely what stops students processing texts.
With reading, it’s to do with the following, relayed here in quote form to show I’m not just making all this up as I go along!
“Even if there are separate skills in the reading process …. it appears to be extremely difficult, if not impossible to isolate them for the sake of testing or research” [Alderson, 2000. CUP]
“What matter appears to matter [to being a quick reader] is the massive overlearning of words and much recognition practice in transferable and interesting contexts, in order to ensure quick access during reading” [Alderson, 2000. CUP]
“For complex social and psychological reasons, [second language students] are less sure that they have grasped the topic being spoken of, the opinion being expressed about it, and the reasons for the speaker wanting to talk about it. They are less sure of the relevance of their own past experience in helping them to arrive at an interpretation. On top of all that, they are less sure of the forms of language . . . For all these reasons foreign learners are less able to bear top-down processing in forming an interpretation and as a result are more reliant on bottom –up processing.” [Brown 1990, quoted in Jenkins, 2000. OUP]
With listening, there are two main issues – being able to hear the language you already know when it’s said fast / against background noise / in an accent you’re unfamiliar with . . . and then dealing with language you CAN hear, but simply don’t know – or cannot retrieve from the memory banks quickly enough as it’s not yet fully automatised. There’s been a lot of research into how chunks of words that often go together exist within their own phonological envelopes and that the sound chunks are stored along with the meanings in the mind. David Brazil in particular wrote well about this. The problem of hearing the acoustic blur of sound is something Richard Cauldwell has written remarkably well about over recent years as well.
So yes, there are some other factors involved in reading well (recognising spelling, genre familiarity, general and generic higher-level skills that can’t really be isolated or taught) and listening well (familiarity with a wide range of accent,s plenty of previous work done on connected speech, weak forms, linking, elision and so on) . . . but the bottom line is that what REALLY makes students better at both reading and listening is more language: not guessing unknown words from context, not skimming and scanning tasks, not prediction exercises – but knowing – and knowing WELL – way more language than they meet in any given text they have to grapple with.
I often give out student advice sheets to learners who are worried about particular issues. Here’s what I have as my FIRST piece advice on one of them:
If you are worried about your listening . . .
. . . learn more English! The more words you know, the easier it becomes to listen to English! If people use words you don’t know when they’re talking, it’s obviously hard to understand them. Try to learn words which go together – collocations – so that when you hear these words used together, you recognise and process them as a group. Make sure you learn the language you look at in class, and if you want to do more to boost your vocabulary, try a self-study book.
Not much more to add to things than that here!
Oh, well I guess the final point to make is that in terms of how this might work in class there are a few crucial things:
(1) Both reading and listening lessons need to basically be PRIMARILY about using the texts to teach some new language.
(2) No more than 10% of any given text should be language students haven’t met yet – most of the texts should be recycling of language already met, which tends to mitigate against ‘authentic’ texts.
(3) Any new language taught from texts – and there has to be some – should be in context, with collocations, co-text, etc. – and attention paid to genre, register, etc.
(4) Do more pronunciation work – linking, weak forms, elision, etc. – not because it necessarily helps pronunciation, but because it trains the ear to hear better
(5) With listenings, it’s good to sometimes focus not only on language, but on hearing specific chunks – the kind of thing we did in Innovations with the gapped listening texts.
5) How could this work in a course book? How would the book, and therefore the course, be organised?
Well, in a sense these are the exact questions we’ve tried to answer with the two series of books we’ve written – Innovations and Outcomes! We’ve perhaps come up with slightly different answers each time, but the core principles have stayed the same. Keep topics such as those found within your usual standard ELT fare. Within each topic, decide what conversations are often had around the topic, write some sample conversations, then analyse them to see what lexis, chunks & grammar most naturally emerge from – and thus feed into – the conversations. This is what in American high school syllabus design has come to known as backwards planning: start by thinking about where you want students to end up, then work out what language is best provided when in order to scaffold students’ journeys towards this destination. Another way of looking at it could be taking a CEFR-informed kind of slant on task-based learning and marrying it with a lexical approach; predicting in advance what language will be most useful and feeding it in at various steps.
To give just one example. Take the theme of crime. Every coursebook has a unit based around the topic, but usually what you get is random nouns along the lines of burglar-burglary, robber-robbery, etc. Then there may well be a listening or reading about the world’s worst criminals or something similarly light. All good fun, but what does it actually help students say / talk about? Not a lot!
We approach it differently. We’d start by thinking about the conversations people usually have around the topic, how they start and how they develop. These phrases tend to be fairly predictable:
(1) Did you see that thing in the news about ….? / Did you hear about that ….? / Did I tell you they x happened to y?
(2) Watch out if you’re going to …. because …
and so on. We then take one of those to work on, think about what language occurs most commonly when talking about specific crimes and end up with mini conversations like this:
Did you see the news about that murder in Edmonton last night?
> No. What happened?
Oh it was awful. Five guys attacked this other guy in the park, stabbed him eight times and left him to die.
> God, that’s awful. Do they know why?
Once you have a few of these, you can turn them into exercises. Students can do them as controlled practice by reading and extending the conversations. They then personalise the conversations by thinking of stories they’ve heard themselves and telling them. Weaker students will follow the template laid out above while stronger students will simply use it as a springboard and bounce off it.
Elsewhere we try to sure that reading and listening texts are thoroughly mined for language and that the language extracted is useful and leads to specific communicative outcomes, wherever possible.