S is for Small Words

2 01 2011

In an extract from his recently published (and long overdue!) autobiography, Mark Twain recalls how, as a child, he was once reprimanded by his mother: “It was a simple speech, and made up of small words, but it went home.” And he adds, “She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small words do effective work…” (‘The Farm’, in Granta, 111, 2010, p.237).

‘Making small words do effective work’ might in fact be a definition of English grammar. Not being a highly inflected language, English makes use almost entirely of function words (or functors), such as auxiliary verbs, determiners, and prepositions,  in order to convey all manner of grammatical relations, including definiteness, quantity, possession, duration, completion, volition, voice, futurity, habit, frequency and so on.  Small words also serve to make connections across stretches of text (e.g. and, so, but), to connect utterances to their context (here, now, this), and to manage speaker turns (well, oh, yes).

Not surprisingly, therefore, small words are everywhere: the twenty most frequent words in English are all functors, and together comprise a third of all text, while on average around half the words in any single text are likely to be function words. (Thus far, of the 200 odd words in this text, over 80 are functors).

What’s more, it’s the small words that have the highest degree of connectivity with other words: Nick Ellis (2008) cites research that shows that “the 10 most connected words of English are and, the, of, in, a, to ‘s, with, by, and is” (p. 235). The most frequent patterns that are formed by these connections are what we know as the grammar of the language. As Michael Hoey puts it:

Small words on the march: from Palmer's New Method Grammar (1938)

Grammar is … the sum of the collocations, colligations and semantic associations of words like is, was, the, a and of, syllables like ing, er and ly, and sounds like [t] (at the end of syllables) and [s] and [z] (likewise at the end of syllables)
(2004, p. 159).
It follows (arguably) that learning about the behaviour of these small words, including their constructional properties, is the key to learning the structure of English.  This is an insight that predates even corpus linguistics. In 1864 a certain Thomas Prendergast wrote:
“When a child can employ two hundred words of a foreign language he possesses a practical knowledge of all the syntactical constructions and of all the foreign sounds.”

Not just a child, but any language learner, I’d suggest. In fact, if you take just the top 200 words in English, and for each of these words you display the constructions most frequently associated with it, you cover all the main grammar structures in the language.   Just think of how many structures incorporate the verbs have, be, and do, for example. Or the adverbs ever, more and still. Or the conjunctions if, while and since.

Not only that, if you memorised just one or two common idiomatic expressions whose nucleus was one of these high frequency words, you’d be internalising the typical grammar patterns in which these words are commonly embedded. For learners who are not well disposed to generating sentences from rules, these memorised chunks offer another way into the grammar. What’s more, they provide the building blocks of spoken fluency. Think of the conversational mileage provided by these expressions with way (one of the commonest nouns in English): by the way, either way, to my way of thinking, the wrong way, no way, way to go! etc.

This is the thinking that underpins books like Harold Palmer’s Grammar of English Words (1944) which details the meanings, collocations and phraseology of 1000 common English words.  It is also the theory that prompted me to write Natural Grammar , published in 2004 by Oxford University Press (the working title of which, by the way, was The Secret Grammar of Words). In this book I take 100 high frequency words and explore their associated patterns. Predictably, this word-level view of grammar provides coverage of all the main ‘coursebook’ structures, plus a good many more.

One argument for organising a grammar around ‘small words’ is that their very smallness – and the fact that they are typically unstressed and often contracted –  means that they have low ‘perceptual saliency’. That is to say, learners simply don’t notice them. Making them salient, by devoting a double-page spread to each one, would seem to be a helpful thing to do, I figured.

Which leads me to wonder – if this was such a good idea, and so well-grounded in theories of language description and acquisition – why the lack of uptake? In short, why has this book been less than a runaway success? 😉


Ellis, N.  2008. The dynamics of second language emergence: cycles of language use, language change, and language acquisition.  Modern Language Journal, 92, 232 — 249.
Hoey, M. 2004. Lexical Priming: A new theory of words and language. London: Routledge.

Prendergast, T. 1864.  The Mastery of Languages, or, the Art of Speaking Foreign Tongues Idiomatically.



41 responses

2 01 2011

I would suggest that part of the explanation for the relatively disappointing uptake of the book is the pressure that many teachers are under to get through coursebooks in a limited time period.

Many might like to spend longer on these key short words. But the pressure to get through units Y and Z by the end of the terms means that their students must make do with the (all too) short look at, say, ‘can’ offered in Unit X.

All students like to have a sense of making progress, of course, and this is one of the arguments used by the ‘one book a year’ school. But an obsession with quantity too often leads to an absence of deeper quality learning.

2 01 2011
English Raven

I just took a look (for the first time, I must confess) at the sample pages from Natural Grammar and it looks like a phenomenally useful resource and teaching/learning approach.

And that, I guess, is my answer to your final question… why am I looking at it for the first time now, six years after it was published?

Shall I slot this down as another example of the requirement that authors do pretty much all of their own marketing in cases where the ideas and concepts are anything more than slightly innovative?

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to instintively glance away from the Headway, dictionary and exam advertisements pasted all over the next installment of EL Gazette


2 01 2011

English is a very periphrastic language and function words are important but maybe your work has not been that successful because overtly learning such semantically-light (less ‘perceptually salient’) forms is not as engaging as other more colorful or meaningful approaches and content.

This may seem like a shameless plug, but actually I have developed a system called the Semantic Translation Method which I believe adequately deals with the need to learn function words but at the same time does so in an inductive, uncliched and learner-directed way.

2 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Good point about the semantic ‘lightness’ of the functors. Nick Ellis makes the point that “the most frequent words of the language tend also to be the most ambiguous” (2008, p.234) and refers to the process of ‘desemanticization’, where frequently used words lose semantic force – think of the ‘delexical’ verbs take, get, make, for example.

I’m intrigued by your ‘semantic translation method’ – are you prepared to drop a hint as to what it involves – or do we have to buy the book!

3 01 2011

Sure, I’ve outlined it here.


3 01 2011


I’m curious about this statement.

refers to the process of ‘desemanticization’, where frequently used words lose semantic force – think of the ‘delexical’ verbs take, get, make, for example.

How can a word possibly “desemanticize”? Just wondering. Is it possible to quantify meaning? One word having more meaning and one less? Isn’t this subjective? Wouldn’t a better word, a more transparent word, be “generalization”? When I think of these “words” they might be considered to have more force, given their proliferation throughout the language and their stickiness.

Sorry if I really am not up on the terminology used to discuss this area of semantics.


3 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi David, I was hoping no one would ask me that one! But I think I’ve found an answer! De-semanticisation is just one of the processes of language change that are more generally grouped as ‘grammaticalization’ processes: a good example is the way that the French negative structure ne…pas originally meant “not a step” and collocated with verbs of movement only: je ne vais pas = I don’t go a step, but over time was used metaphorically to mean ‘not at all’, and gradually became ‘bleached’ of its original semantics (i.e. de-semanticised) to become purely grammatical, as in: je ne fume pas. (A bleaching process which has now gone on to shed the ne particle in spoken French: Je fume pas).

The modals in English followed a similar process of ‘bleaching’, also called ‘generalization of meaning’ (so you were right!). ‘Will’ originally signalled volition, but over time it became generalised to mean futurity. Likewise, the future marker ‘be going to’ was originally only used as a verb of motion: “I am going to yon hill”. Habitual use caused it to shed its literal meaning and become a grammatical functor, reduced in spoken (and some written) registers to gonna.

(My source is a fascinating chapter by Joan Bybee, called Cognitive Processes in Grammaticalization, in Tomasello, M. (ed.) 2003, The New Psychology of Language (Vol. 2), Lawrence Erlbaum).

11 06 2012

Dear everyone. Being intrigued by the NG approach (thanks for this inspiring book) and the written dialogues here, Scott’s example of the ‘grammaticalization’ of the French ‘ne…pas’ brought up a question: Is anyone aware of this or a similar approach to French? As I am also teaching this language, I’m highly interested in that – from a theoretical but first and foremost from a straightforward practical side. Any hints are welcome.

2 01 2011
Dennis Newson

Happy New Year to everyone. But I start the year amazed. Before I got to Scott’s question about the uptake of his book, as I was reading the quote from Mark Twain and the statistics about most commonly used words I was thinking— No. No. Surely not. The tenor of all these comments places us in the area of Linguistics, Applied Linguistics, descriptions of the observable structure of language, valid intellectually and academically, fascinating even but quite removed or disconnected from the real world of messy, sweaty coal face language learning and teaching and magical, independent, unteachable, unpredictable, random language acquisition. The names of the games in that arena, surely are things like rapport between teacher and taught, motivation, social learning, autonomous learning, relevance to student language needs and so on and so forth and not, surely, following a hidden syllabus of words of any size. But no one knows all of this or champions it with more conviction than Scott himself. So where am I misunderstanding the message?

2 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Dennis, for the comment, and the question – which allows me to elaborate a little on how Natural Grammar is compatible with an “emergent pedagogy” (of the Teaching Unplugged type). In fact, Mr Darkbloom more or less answers the question himself, below.

Usage-based theories of language acquisition (either first or second) take as axiomatic that learning and use are two sides of the same coin. You learn a language by using it, and by using it you learn it. Thus far so good. The problem with SECOND language acquisition is that not everything that the learner is exposed to is available for use – because it is unattended. This is particularly the case with the ‘small words’. Nick Ellis sums up the problem (take a deep breath, Dennis!): “The ambiguity of grammatical functors, their homophony and polysemy that result from high frequency of usage, erosion, desemanticization and extension, entail that they are low-contingency constructions that are difficult to learn” (2008, p. 237). Quite simply, the small words fall through the cracks! Hence the so-called Basic Variety – i.e. the language spoken by beginners – is totally lacking in functors or any kind of inflection.

The point of Natural Grammar was to bring these words into conscious awareness, on the grounds that “paying attention – becoming conscious of some material – seems to be the sovereign remedy for learning anything, applicable to many different kinds of information. It is the universal solvent of the mind” (B.J. Baars, author of In the Theatre of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind (1997), quoted by Ellis).

Now, you may disagree with the way that I decided to organise this material- e.g. that it is too rule-based and deductive – but I hope you don’t disagree with the motivation: to make unattended language salient.

2 01 2011
Mr Darkbloom


Perhaps if you had thrown in some glossy photos, a few ‘aspirational’ texts and given it a more course book-like name, the book would have done a lot better! 🙂

But seriously though, I think your (excellent) book has fallen between the cracks mostly because it appears to be a reference book rather than a course book. Trouble is, if a class already has, say, course books and a few dictionaries, they’re probably not going to buy an extra book like this one.

As it happens, I’ve had your book for a while, but because I’m relatively new to teaching unplugged and been so excited about the possibilities that I’ve avoided (almost as a rule of thumb) giving the learners traditional exercises to do in any book. But, as with anything new, one tends to overkill! And it’s funny you should write about NG now as I’ve just asked my DOI (director of Ignorance) to order copies for all my learners!

Why, the change?

Well, because my DOI has insisted that we must have a (course) book for all learners (regardless of needs of learning style). It was evidently an offer I couldn’t refuse, if we were not to have fisticuffs. So, I went straight into damage limitation mode and selected NG!

I’m now quite excited about ways to expoilt the book. Seeing when and how I will fit it in with the various learners. One thing I’m sure of, is that I’m going to, for now at least, use it entirely as a response to emergent language.

For example, when studying a text, I often ask the learners at some point to choose several lines they find interesting (content and/or language). We go over meaning and do some paraphrasing or other work.
Now, I’m going to try and use NG to focus on particular phrases of interest. So, if a learner seems interested in the phrase ‘as far as I’m aware’, I can use NG to draw their attention to this and a few other expressions. I say ‘a few’, because I’m sure you would agree, Scott, working through the entire two pages on ‘as’ just because the word has come up would not be sensible in any given lesson – I mean, are they supposed to remember all that?!

Anyway, thanks for writing the book. You got me out of a fight!


4 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your comment – and your enthusiasm – Mr Darkbloom. In the light of some less enthusiastic responses (see professor Baker below), I’d be very interested to see how well you succeed in integrating Natural Grammar into your dogmetic classes. A teacher I know in Western Australia has the learners keep ‘Key word notebooks’, recording instances they find of the functors in context, one page per functor. She comments: “I saw your article on the function words and I wanted to tell you how well it went down with the class – they’re noticing so much and getting very excited about it all!”

2 01 2011
Adrian Underhill

Yes, very interesting, and why this has not caught on is an important question. It is worth remembering that a primary principle of Gattegno’s Silent Way was that from the beginning the learners engaged with the high frequency function words of the language, using only enough content words (verbs, nouns, adjectives) to hold things together and give demonstrable and perceptible meaning. His slogan for the early stages was much language, few words, which meant that you held back the number of content words (though students could always incorporate words they wanted or discovered) while you explored, learnt to notice, developed sensitivity to the possibilities of the function words. In this way he said students gradually learnt the spirit of the language, which made them able to learn rapidly and be independent of a teacher at an earlier stage. My own understanding of spirit is a kind of intuitive and wide picture noticing and sense making of underlying ‘non-structures’ that fall between the cracks of the ‘known structures’ that we identify and put in grammar books.

Helping the student to open to the spirit of a language was a primary aim of the teacher, and as learning progressed so more content words would be introduced as needed by the learner. And he had a range of nonconventional and colourful classroom techniques and methods for doing these things.

Gattegno challenged conventional approaches heavy on vocabulary, saying that these were inefficient because they obscured the spirit of the language, keeping the student dependent on the teacher for longer than necessary. He downplayed the challenges of developing a large vocabulary and up-played the importance of learning the spirit as the key to all the rest. I must say that as my students attended to words of low perceptual saliency (as Scott says) rather than standard vocabulary, so their capacity to eat up and master the standard vocabulary in no time and apparently without effort forged ahead.

Before meeting the Silent Way I became intrigued with the word frequency issue through The General Service List by Michael West (published first in 1953) and found many ways to bring this perspective into my classes. The well worked out system of the Silent Way was an immense help in this.

Back to Scott’s question: Why has it not caught on? Does it lend itself less well to course books? To learning as a saleable commodity? Does its elegance undermine the marketable value of the sheer quantity of language to be learned?

2 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for reminding me of the Gattegno connection, Adrian. Yes, indeed, and here he is on the subject:

In all languages there are two kinds of words; those which can be simply substituted one for another from one language to the next, and those which cannot be dealt with in this way. The first group includes all names of objects that belong to the environments of the people using the language in question. Most nouns are in this category. These words can be matched in a one-to-one correspondence and we could conceive of them as being in vocabularies only requiring either to be recalled or looked-up.

The second category of words is the one that generates the problems in language learning. Since it is not possible to resort to a one-to-one correspondence, the only way open is to reach the area of meaning that the words cover, and find in oneself whether this is a new experience which yields something of the spirit of the language, or whether there is an equivalent experience in one’s own language but expressed differently.


2 01 2011


Yes, small is beautiful! But I think on some macro level, what’s going on is that we humans are basically hardwired for size. We look at things in total. We never think of infinity as something getting infinitesimally smaller but rather larger. Our brains fight us when we try to learn “small”.

Does anyone remember a small book called, “Conversation Gambits?”. In the late 80s/early 90s, “gambits” were all the teaching rage. I thought it made a lot of sense to compose a notional syllabus of them and did so for a language institute. It never saw the light of day beyond my own classroom!

I think we should start with verbs and small words. They are fly paper that the rest of language can stick to. However, we seem to be more attracted to the flies!

I think in essence, this isn’t something easily structured. Grammatical / lexical syllabi are behavioralist and “learning” can be easily measured. I think this another reason for its dominance.


2 01 2011
David Venezia

I think Scott’s comments about how and why his book ‘Natural Grammar’ came into existence has an important kernel about context embedded in it.

In the way I understand words and symbols, books and ideas exist in contexts that give them relevance and help to trace delimitations for their understandability. It seems that the idea of ‘Natural Grammar’ or ‘Lexicalism’ makes the same point about language: meaning comes from the connections and the interelations. This is probably not a new idea for many of us here on this message board, but applying this principle to teaching may be something we want to think more about.

In terms of being interesting, learning how to use phrases and words that have grammatical principles embedded in them seems much more interesting to me than studying generalized grammar abstractions that have been digested and insisted upon as norms for decades if not centuries. These ‘natural grammar’ phrases can be extracted from content that has been demonstrated to be relevant to learning goals. The phrases can also be researched by learners using corpora and inserted into semi-authentic dialogues constructed to be used in classroom role-plays.

The possibilities are many.

I like to use current news stories as the basis for lessons for this reason: these very common phrases are everywhere in AP and Reuters items, for instance.

As to why ‘Natural Grammar’ has not caught on, my best guess would be that publishing trends and marketing choices don’t often coincide with relevancy and efficiency in educative processes. Excuse the didactism, but the ‘free’ market is a human constuction that has been superimposed upon the needs and interests of people attempting to find solutions through creative innovation. In my opinion, creativity and problem solving are not things that can be subsumed under the omnipresent functioning of the ‘free market.’

There are definitely ways for us to interface with the ‘free market.’ Scott has been doing this, in fact, for some time–quite successfully. But there are going to be those ‘gems’ that ‘slip’ through the cracks.’

Though in a last ditch effort to retrieve “Natural Grammar’ from the dregs of high frequency prepostions, I’m going to buy a copy of “Natural Grammar’ today.

3 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

In terms of being interesting, learning how to use phrases and words that have grammatical principles embedded in them seems much more interesting to me than studying generalized grammar abstractions that have been digested and insisted upon as norms for decades if not centuries.

Nicely put, David – and thanks for buying the book. I look forward to a spike in sales!

2 01 2011
Lindsay Clandfield

There is one market segment that has been great purchasers of Natural Grammar from what I know, and that is coursebook authors! The late great David Riley, publisher at Macmillan, once said it should be absolute required reading for anyone writing a course.

I can see its influence in a few recent coursebooks, especially the use of a particular exercise type which I think you said you invented Scott – the one where a target small word has been removed from a text and the learner has to put it back in. (e.g. the word “the” has been removed ten times from this text; put it back).

Not the huge numbers that purchased Murphy, granted, and not from a collective that your readers would have expected perhaps but a sale’s a sale… 🙂

2 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that Lindsay. If I’ve added a grain of sand to the improvement of coursebooks in general, I shall feel vindicated. After all, I’d rather be remembered for improving coursebooks than for torching them!

Do you think it might earn me an MBE? 😉

2 01 2011
English Raven

The priority you place here on creating more salience for the functors was one of the driving motivations in an activity I’ve often used with reading texts, called Flip-fill, which I explained and demonstrated in a screen cast here:


One thing your post (and Natural Grammar in particular) got me thinking about is how to consider or approach this for lower levels, where the more common words — often functors — often make their way onto learning wordlists. Your workbook, for example, appears to be targeted to learners from Intermediate levels and above.

My feeling is, that for beginner and lower levels, the most important thing is to focus on chunks of useful language and to build this up to a point where communication becomes more feasible and flexible, and then look at ways to facilitate more specific and analytic (even rules-based) focus on the smaller parts (in which case, Natural Grammar would make an excellent follow-up at later levels). But even at the initial and lower levels, I think that both internalisation of chunks and salience for functors and content words can be nicely encouraged through activities like Flip-fill, which is more less about noticing and remembering.

What’s your feeling about approaching the “small words” for those lower levels and students much newer to the language, Scott?


– Jason

3 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Very nice activity, Jason, and totally in line with what I’m going on about. (I might have also included, as functors, other determiners, such as ‘most’, and the adverb ‘too’, along with the auxiliary ‘ been’ and even some of the phrasal verb particles, like ‘up’ – but this is quibbling. Incidentally, my favourite website in the world, The Compleat Lexical Tutor – see link on right – will sort your text into functors at the click of a mouse -select the VocabProfile tool).

Another activity along similar lines is the ‘ultimate gap-fill’ – the program that used to be called ‘Storyboard’, where you’re given a text, all of whose words have been replaced by lines representing each letter: ___ _____ ____ ____ _____ etc, and the title of the text. Students, working in small groups preferably, key in whatever words they predict might occur in the text and, if correct, these will appear. Canny students will type in a few high-frequency functors, like ‘the’ and ‘of’ as well as topically relevant key words. Gradually the text becomes more like a conventional gap-fill, but it really does challenge the learners’ ‘grammaring’ skills – in much the way that a dictogloss does too. (You can also set a time limit, and see if they can beat the clock).

Does anyone know if there is a downloadable tool to create your own Storyboards, incidentally?

3 01 2011
English Raven

Thanks for the reference to The Compleat Lexical Tutor, Scott, which I’ve checked out before now but I wasn’t aware of that functors function.

With reference to your point about what is or isn’t a functor, to be honest (and perhaps I didn’t explain this clearly in my screencast) my main criteria when it comes to salience is stressed versus unstressed words in texts. Functors will usually, but not always, remain unstressed (and the words you picked up there are good examples). Perhaps because I did most of my teaching in a context where the L1 did not have much at all in the way of stress-timing, this is what I put focus on in terms of relative salience.

I’m glad you mentioned the Dictogloss as well, as I also find this an excellent activity for highlighting functors and unstressed elements in spoken texts, when students get around to collaboratively reconstructing texts based on their listening notes. Many of the functors will have fallen through the cracks whilst listening and note-taking, and the reconstruction phase encourages students to try and retrieve them, and/or notice them more when comparing their reconstructions to the original.

3 01 2011
Dennis Newson

Jason. Thanks very much for for the flip-fill screencast. What I found most interesting is the fact that you report that your pupils, in groups, love doing these exercises. Way back, one of my favourite programs – now no longer available – was a cutely named product: ADAM and EVE – Automated Document Analysis and Manipulation and Extensible Variety of Exercises (1988) by a Professor Dr. L.K. Engels, then of the University of Leuven and Theo Leenders, the programmer. Amongst other things, what this program could do for you with a single command was, for example, remove all the prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns in a given text, replacing them with gaps. (Another thing this program could do was list, for any given text, the frequency scores for each “word” i.e. whether it was from the first 500, 1000, 1500 or 2000 most frequently used words.) I was excited with a tool that enabled me to make a systematic attack on dealing with texts of my own choosing – though typing them in was a labour of love since some programming tags had to be inserted. I was delighted, and my German first and second semester teacher training students, to a man and woman, simply hated the exercises I so proudly produced for them with Adam and Eve. Eventually, I gave up trying to use it. Perhaps the problem was that students at the beginning of their studies with no classroom teaching experience did not acknowledge that they were a group that had to be concerned with accuracy and that the A&E exercises were designed to help there. Later in their careers these same students were much more interested in corrective language work arising out of their written work – “Writing in English” – very open, writing about a whole range of issues that interested or preoccupied them individually – where, with the help of a program developed by a student based on DBASE (Remember that?) I tried to classify and track all individual language “errors”. (This was impossibly perfectionist – there were too many students producing far too many texts to process within a week The student named the program “STASI”, the name of the East German secret police. What still troubles me is that while, of course, I accept that the way these functors (another new term for me) operate is how it is in English and, logically, has to be mastered by learners somehow, isn’t this just replacing McNuggets with McFunctors?

3 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Dennis – we seem to have responded to Jason’s Flip-fill with similar ideas. I wonder if the Adam and Eve activity came across as too much like a test? Were the students working alone or together? Could some game-type element have been introduced? (Storyboard seems to work best when students are collaborating but where they have to race the clock AND get a score). Just a thought.

3 01 2011
English Raven

Hi Dennis,

Thanks for the follow up there… as per Scott’s comments above, I think the group/collaboration-orientation and the timing factors played a big role in making Flip-fill enjoyable for students, as well as the rhythm and accessibility (on any given turn, if groups became stumped, there was always the next flip to try and retrieve the missing information again). I actually saw groups allocate students to concentrate on particular chunks of the text, or even groups divide into two with one half trying to memorize one side while the other did the same for the opposite side. The activity also ended as soon as a team had completed all the gaps on both sides, but the winner had to have the most correct gap fills as well.

I also see your point about McNuggets versus McFunctors, but I find the former comes across as boxes full of similarly-marked tools, which learners have to constantly unpack and sort while trying to use the language productively in real time, whereas the Functors approach is more organic, more lexical, more about useful patterns stemming from words.

Assuming of course, that the functors aren’t set out as a sort of progressive syllabus around which all texts and activities are organised and contrived, in a set order… I would, for example, be inclined to use Natural Grammar according to the order or frequency with which different parts emerged in classroom activities and production (not the order of the book, which I assume to be there for reference practicality?), revisiting and reviewing more common occurrences as needed.

(Loved your students’ reference to a learning program as “STASI”, by the way — sounds like you had a group with a good sense of humour there!)

3 01 2011

Hello Scott and all,

I find this topic very interesting. This article gave me a lot to think about: http://www.thornburyscott.com/assets/Big%20words,%20small%20grammar.pdf

I also think Scott’s question about “Natural Grammar” not being a runaway success is a good one. I always thought that the book is/was a little bit before its time.

It is a great book and one that I have really enjoyed using as a teacher. I have been able to use it in situations where I was granted a great deal of control. I think that using the book requires a teacher in such a situation and one that is not afraid to work without a coursebook. The book does, as Mr. Darkbloom says, appear to be more of a reference book than a coursebook. Also, I think another issue might be how the book fits (or doesn’t) to classes that are already offered. It doesn’t seem to match many of the courses that I have seen or heard about and thus might be easily “relegated” to reference/backup/supplementary status.



PS- Of course, another part of the reason that the book didn’t take off might be because teachers make copies from it and Ss don’t “need” to buy the book. Of course when I used the book I cut out the entries for specific words and told Ss they needed to buy the book if they wanted more.
(credit for this joke goes to someone on the dogme yahoo group)

3 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for coming aboard, Mike. Your quip about cutting up the book makes me think (semi-seriously) if it might better be published as an app. What price a functor? $2.00 for a preposition?

Your point about it not being entirely clear as to whether it is a reference book or a resource book is well made. But, then, did anyone have such doubts about Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use?

3 01 2011
Luiz Otávio

Happy New Year!
I think I can throw in my two cents from four different standpoints.

1. Novice teacher (with a bit of hindsight)
When I started teaching, The Collins Cobuild English course had just been published and it looked so different from anything I’d ever seen up until then. Yet, glossy and appealing as the book was, Jane and Dave Willis’ approach was far, far beyond my ZPD(!) at the time, especially the bits in which they analyzed a few selected “small words” (which a few modern titles started doing years later in a more unobtrusive manner, for lack of a better word). So, way back then, working for a school that used the Cobuild series would’ve been my worst teaching nightmare. It never happened, for better and for worse, but Dave and Jane Willis have my utmost respect for their courage and vision. Long story short: it might, and I say might, be difficult for less experienced teachers to buy + be able to implement the approach your book advocates, especially if they didn’t go through that kind of experience as learners.

2. Experienced teacher
A few years ago I taught a very advanced group of students for two consecutive terms. In the first one (a grammar course), I had to teach them niceties such as “I objected to his/him going” (verb+preposition+pronoun+ing) as grammar. It so happens that, basically, the whole lesson flopped miserably. The very next semester was a conversation+vocabulary course and in one given lesson I taught them how to use “the odds”, which included the pattern “the odds of his + ING”. Guess what – the lesson was fairly successful and they all seemed to understand and be able to use the pattern within the confines of future predictions etc. I think the point I’m trying to make is: there’s something that just feels right about moving from lexis to grammar rather than the other way round.

3. Someone who’s interested in teaching theory
When I read your post, I kept coming back to something I think Pit Corder (!) once wrote. It was about competing attentional resources and how, sometimes, “defocusing” on grammar, via lexis, can paradoxically help students pick up the target grammar. This means, I think, that enabling students to analyze function words might perhaps have the same effect?

4. Someone who’s trying to go back to coursebook writing
This is where the biggest problem lies, I think. Maybe, and I say maybe, a grammar syllabus organized around “small words” is inherently at odds with the current orthodoxy, whereby you propose a topic, find a text, flood the students with examples of the target structure, have them analyze these examples and then propose practice activities that will somehow try to “trap” the target structure. In other words, perhaps PPP (and all its clones) lends itself better to focus on forms rather than a more organic, lexcially-driven focus on form.

Anyway, thanks for giving me lots to think about at the beginning of 2011!

3 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Luiz, for your (characteristically) thoughtful comment. Yes, the Willis’s were a formative influence in my own thinking – and in fact I acknowledge this in the Introduction to Natural Grammar. I never used the Collins COBUILD course myself, but I did have a Diploma trainee who swore by it. I also saw Jane Willis doing a presentation of it years ago here in Barcelona. And I was an early fan of Dave Willis’s The Lexical Syllabus (1990) – available from the Birmingham University website, by the way. Dave’s more recent book, Rules, Patterns, Words (CUP, 2003) makes a very good case for a ‘Natural Grammar-ish’ approach. For example:

Many phrases are generated from patterns featuring the most frequent words in the language. Learners should be given the opportunity early on to recognise the general uses of words such as about and for, paving the way for the recognition and assimilation of patterns at a later stage (p. 166) .

I’m intrigued by the Pit Corder reference – which suggests he understood something about incidental and/or peripheral learning. I wonder what the reference was? (I know he wrote a paper or book chapter about pedagogical grammar, but I can’t lay my hands on it).

8 01 2011
Thomas Ewens

I think the Corder reference is a chapter in

Introducing Applied Linguistics. S.P Corder, Penguin. 1973.

I seem to remember that Corder expounds his views on pedagogical grammar here. So it might be what you’re looking for.

11 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Thomas, belatedly. I tracked down that Corder chapter, and although it’s not the one that Luiz was referring to, it is very interesting in its own right — not least because it includes the first reference I remember reading to ‘Sprachgefuehl’ – i.e. a feel for language – which I wrote about in F is for Feel. Here’s what he has to say:

The ‘speaking rules’ of language cannot yet be described. What we cannot describe we cannot teach systematically. Thus the learning of the speaking rules is still a wholly inductive process. A native speaker can tell whether an utterance is appropriate or not; this was what we called ‘Sprachgefuehl’. But he cannot say much about why a particular utterance is or is not appropriate. To acquire ‘Sprachgefuehl’ a learner requires plentiful contextualised language data and he needs a native-speaking informant to make judgements about the appropriateness of his utterances. But teaching the speaking rules is not part of a pedagogical grammar. Perhaps one day it will be, when we know a little more about how language is used.

‘Presentation: pedagogic grammars’ 1973. In Corder, S.P. Introducing Applied Linguistics, p.348.

A lot you could discuss here: every sentence could form the basis of a lively workshop!

3 01 2011
Dennis Newson

Scott, I no longer remember quite how we worked with ADAM and EVE but it is quite possible that it came across as a dry, language- as opposed to content- orientated exercise. 30 years ago, perhaps still, I don’t know, language teaching in German universities was totally content-orientated. It was very hard to get people to see that you needed to be language-aware, too, otherwise you would be presenting students with content they could not access.

Your reference to STORYBOARD reminds me of an occasion when I did a Blu-Tack version with a group of teachers in a very cold room in the University of Prishtina, Kosovo, equipped with a blackboard that was was chalk-resistant. I laboriously wrote the whole story on separate cards, one per word, large letters on one side, and minuscule ones on the other so that only the person working with the cards could read the word, and fixable to the board from both sides with pellets of Blu-Tack.

The teachers called out words and an assistant, directed by me, turned round all instances of the called-out word. It went down extremely well as an activity and the teachers’ comments and reasoning for their suggestions ought to have been recorded for posterity. I only recall that after the item
” man” had been called out and accepted and revealed on the board, a male teacher suggested: ” woman”, arguing: ” If this is a story and there is a man in it, there must be at least one woman in there , too”.

Unfortunately, this was a non-sustainable exercise and could not be used by the teachers in their own classrooms in the way that I presented it because Blu-Tack was not available in Kosovo.

3 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Great story, Dennis. What lengths we used to go to! I wonder if the same lesson would have been so warmly received if it had been beamed to the students via an interactive whiteboard!

4 01 2011

Hi Scott,

Happy New Year! Thank you for another fantastic post. Your rhetorical ending, “why has this book(NG) been less than a runaway success?”, was intriguing. Obviously you felt it should have been well-received, yet it wasn’t. Intrigued to see what I could discover, I pulled my copy of NG off my bookshelf, blew the dust off it (it actually had dust on it – it still looks new) and begin to thumb through it.

I saw in the introduction where you stated being inspired by the work of Michael Lewis and Jane and Dave Willis. Their work rings a bell with me, as I am always trying to get students to notice how certain words frequently “go-together”, or collocate. So, why hadn’t I used this resource more often, if it speaks to one of my teaching “pet” teaching habits?

To help me find an answer for why I had apparently contradicted myself, I now turned to another resource book that I’ve often used to guide my teaching. The title is, “how to Teach Grammar” by Scott Thornbury 🙂

On page 155, I found my answer. If you substitute the name – Mr. Priestley – with my name – Thomas Baker – my students would be in agreement that I spoke those words.

For me, “Natural Grammar” is more “learning about English”, than it is “learning English”. It is also decontextualised, for the most part. Scott, NG is not “sexy”. Not at all, in fact, well, you get the point…

In my early years of being an EFL teacher, I simply did not have the skills to walk into a classroom with a copy of NG. New Interchange (P-P-P), yes, most definitely, but not NG.

In my view, NG is for a teacher with advanced teaching skills and lots of self-confidence. People like Dennis Clandfield, Adrian Underhill, Dennis Newson, English Raven, and especially Mr. Darkbloom, they all would be very comfortable with this book. I feel this is due to their vast experience, knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Could I use NG today, now that I have 10 years experience as an EFL teacher, a CELTA, and a DELTA under my belt? Yes, leave no doubt, NG is a great book for me today, just as Teaching Unplugged is also a great resource for me.

If you were to ask me how I would use NG, I would answer by saying that I’d contextualise each of the 200 grammar patterns, trying to use Task-Based Learning, in the way that Mr. Priestly describes on page 155.

To finish, let me add that I’m a great fan of yours, I enjoy reading your blog posts and I often refer to your work to guide my teaching. I often refer my colleagues to your extensive body of work. In fact, my copy of How to Teach Grammar is the book that has been borrowed a billion times (really) and I’m totally surprised to have it at home right now!

Best regards,

4 01 2011
Luiz Otávio

The article I was referring to was actually a conversation between Pit Corder and Dick Allwright (my tutor in Lancaster!), published in 1986. It was Dick Allwright, rather than Pit Corder, who originally made the point.
Here’s the link:

Click to access 185.full.pdf

4 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Oh brilliant, thanks, Luiz. Yes, I do remember this discussion. And this statement of Dick’s seems now so prescient: “If we study the way lexis is acquired, we may get closer to the way grammar is acquired. When I watch learners in class, I see them working on words, but I can see them getting all sorts of help with grammar in so doing. In a sense they put their agenda on the lesson through the questions they ask about words. So one might end up by seeing a natural process of grammar acquisition through the natural process of enquiring about vocabulary” (p. 187).

I wish I’d been aware of this when wrote the introduction to Natural Grammar. Especially felicitous is Allwright’s use of the term ‘natural’: I am often asked (well, sometimes) why is Natural Grammar ‘natural’? Now I have the answer!

4 01 2011
Dennis Newson

Luiz. Thank you so much for that stimulating interview with Pit Corder. [http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/content/40/3/185.full.pdf].

Scott quotes Allwright from it. I am amused to see how I raided it for quotes for my “Down with Grammar!” file. All of the following statements were made by Pit Corder in that conversation.

1. “But if indeed we are programmed to acquire a language—and no one has been able to prove we aren’t—then you can’t at the same time say that what the teacher teaches ‘leaks’ into the process. Either you’re programmed or you’re not, so to speak, and all the evidence is that you are, so it doesn’t really matter what the teacher does at any particular point.”

2. ” I think from the teacher’s point of view that to concentrate on problems of vocabulary is a good strategy, on the grounds that grammar will look after itself.”

3. ” I think that talking about the meanings of words may prove to be an interesting and useful way of acquiring vocabulary(whereas talking about grammatical structures is not a good way of acquiring grammar) . ”

3. “If I was going somewhere and was asked whether I would prefer to take a grammar book or a dictionary, I would say: ‘Give me a dictionary—I can do without the grammar; I’ll make it up as I go along.’ ”

4. ” Teachers will need to be trained in task development and task selection, and to recognize when a particular task is appropriate for a particular group. What they won’t need is grammatical theory. ”


4 01 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Nice article.

I find myself a rabbit in the headlights of this quote:

“But if indeed we are programmed to acquire a language—and no one has been able to prove we aren’t—then you can’t at the same time say that what the teacher teaches ‘leaks’ into the process. Either you’re programmed or you’re not, so to speak, and all the evidence is that you are, so it doesn’t really matter what the teacher does at any particular point.”

I’m struck by two thoughts:

01. I suppose some learners are more ‘programmed’ than others, if we consider how aptitude for second language learning varies from person to person.

02. If teachers really cannot influence language aquisition, there’s still a hell of lot to do in trying to create a good social environment conducive to ‘learning’!

Oh, and thanks very much, Prof Baker, but I don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same line (lest same post) as the other teachers. I’ve only been doing this a couple of years. I’m a novice! (But, yes, generally I suppose I got balls… guilty as charged, m’lord) 🙂 🙂

5 01 2011

Can monkeys learn grammar?

This link has just been posted on another list where grammar and TEFL are being discussed. I don’t actually think it gets us anywhere, but it seems worth sharing:


9 01 2011

I kind of predicted as much about Natural Grammar when I reviewed it:


I also seem to have predicted that it would, however, have a big influence on other books.

I would add two other reasons for it not being a huge success, looking back. One is that translation really helps when learning these kinds of things and so a bilingual book perhaps makes more sense. I’ve seen such books from Japanese publishers, but not sure how popular they are.

The reason I personally don’t use it anymore is because it isn’t photocopiable. Having said that, even if it was it would be difficult to know when to get a particular page out. I wonder if a version that was half topic based and half word by word would work better

11 01 2011
Mr Darkbloom

“it would be difficult to know when to get a particular page out.”

I’m sure, given your time in the classroom, you’re not that stuck for ideas. 🙂

Go on… give us one example where you could probably fit a slice of NG into a lesson.


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