G is for Grammar syllabus

15 04 2012

A hobby-horse of mine, I know, but I thought I’d make a video this time, rather than write about it all over again.

Some relevant quotes and references (the numbers don’t correlate with my ‘8 issues’ but the order more or less does):

1. “Of the scores of detailed studies of naturalistic and classroom language learning reported over the past 30 years, none suggest, for example, that presentation of discrete points of grammar one at a  time bears any resemblance except an accidental one to either the order or the manner in which naturalistic or classroom acquirers learn those item”.

Long, M. and Robinson, P. (1998) ‘Focus on form: Theory, research and practice’, in Doughty, C., and  Williams, J. (eds.) Focus on form in classroom language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 16.

2. “In helping learners manage their insights into the target language we should be conscious that our starting point is the learner’s grammar of the language.  It is the learner who has to make sense of the insights derived from input, and learners can only do this by  considering new evidence about the language in the light of their current model of the language. This argues against presenting them with pre-packaged structures and implies that they should be encouraged to process text for themselves so as to reach conclusions which make sense in terms of their own systems”.

Willis, D. (1994)  ‘A Lexical Approach’, in Bygate, M., A. Tonkyn, and E. Williams, (eds.) Grammar and the Language Teacher, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall, p. 56.

3. “Materials used in the teaching of grammar have commonly been based on intuition… In fact, corpus-based research shows that the actual patterns of function and use in English often differ radically from prior expectations…  Some relatively common linguistic constructions are overlooked in pedagogic grammars, while some relatively rare constructions receive considerable attention.”

Biber, D., S. Conrad, and R. Reppen, (1994) ‘Corpus-based approaches to issues in applied linguistics’,  Applied Linguistics 15, 2, p. 171.

4. “Language learning is exemplar based…. the knowledge underlying fluent use of language is not grammar in the sense of abstract rules or structure but a huge collection of memories of previously experienced utterances”.

Ellis, N. (2002) ‘Frequency effects in language processing. A review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition’, Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, p. 166.

5. “Learning grammar involves abstracting regularities from the stock of known lexical sequences.”

Ellis, N. (1997) ‘Vocabulary acquisition: word structure, collocation, word-class’, in Schmitt, N., and McCarthy, M. (Eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition, and Pedagogy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 126.

6. “Grammar is … simply the name for certain categories of observed repetitions in discourse…. Its forms are not fixed templates but emerge out of face-to-face interaction in ways that reflect the individual speakers’ past experience of these forms… Grammar, in this view, is not the source of understanding and communication but a by-product of it”.

Hopper, P.J. (1998) ‘Emergent language’, in Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure, Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum, p. 156.

7. “From the perspective of emergent grammar … learning an additional language is about enhancing one’s repertoire of fragments and patterns that enables participation in a wider array of communicative activities. It is not about building up a complete and perfect grammar in order to produce well-formed sentences.”

Lantolf, J. and Thorne, S. (2006) Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 7.

8. “We may learn the tokens of language formally, but we learn the system by using it through reading or writing, or conversing”.

Brumfit, C. (2001) Individual Freedom In Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 12.



43 responses

15 04 2012

Absolutely, Adam – and in the countries where I teach, at least, students also say they need a structured syllabus to “hold on to” – otherwise, they may often perceive their learning process as messy, unstructured, and the teacher – as unprofessional (!). This is all, I think, a matter of “management of learning”. Similarly to project management with its milestones , students need milestones and clear, even primitively simple, objectives when learning a language. To call the recurrent patterns “grammar”, putting them on a separate page in a book and treating separately from “vocabulary”, is simply comfortable (or perceived as such) for their cognition, I think. No matter how effective or natural it is, it is perceived as comfortable and brain-friendly. What would a cognitive psychologist say here?

16 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Yes, you said it all, Kate. It’s the rigid separation from vocabulary that, to my way of thinking, really weakens the argument for a grammar syllabus. As I argued in the post C is for Construction, if you cast your net out you’ll catch a lot more language patterning than the traditional grammar syllabus allows for.

15 04 2012
Adam Simpson

Since adopting a more learner-centered approach to my teaching over the last few years – a dogme approach if you will – my students have been happier with my classes and appear to have learned more. To be honest, we manage to uncover all the the discreet grammar items at our own pace, rather than according to the prescribed schedule. Of course, we can/should play the role of creating classroom activities which will lend themselves to certain aspects of language cropping up, but this is still better than ‘turn to chapter X of Focus on Grammar, we’ll be doing conditionals today.’

Nevertheless, it isn’t always easy for us teachers to keep track of what we’ve done in class with our learners, certainly not as easy as when it’s placed linearly in some kind of course book. Would you, Scott, consider this ‘ease of teaching’ as having been the underlying force in the proliferation of the grammar syllabus? If so, do you imagine it will continue to remain the controlling force in coursebook design, regardless of the advances in our understanding of how people learn languages?

PS – apologies for becoming creepy guy who always seems to leave the first comment on your blog; this is just a good time for me to be online.

16 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Adam, for being creepy! 😉

Your question: “Would you, Scott, consider this ‘ease of teaching’ as having been the underlying force in the proliferation of the grammar syllabus?”

Yes, partly, but also tradition, and the view – fairly entrenched – that grammar is the bricks and mortar of language acquisition. Even if many teachers don’t completely believe this, most students do.

“If so, do you imagine it will continue to remain the controlling force in coursebook design, regardless of the advances in our understanding of how people learn languages?”

Yes, I think so. Even the most innovative coursebooks in recent years (in terms of choice of topics, treatment of texts, etc) still follow – quite slavishly – the ‘canonical’ grammar syllabus.

15 04 2012
Stephanie Ashford

Always a great topic! People here may be interested in the English Profile research project, which is using corpus data to determine grammatical, lexical and functional exponents for each the six Common European Framework levels. These ‘criterial features’, so-called because they are said to be indicative of the levels, are listed in booklet that can be downloaded from the English Profile website at http://tinyurl.com/bqpypu4 (see pp 9-35 for the bit about grammar).
Similar projects seeking to do the same for other European languages are being carried out under the auspices of the Council of Europe (http://tinyurl.com/6sn7r4r). Some have already been completed – notably for German and Spanish.
I’d be intrigued to know what others think of such endeavours. Worthy or futile?

16 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Hi Stephanie – good question. In fact, I sort of addressed this in my post called C is for Core Inventory, arguing that mapping linguistic structures on to communicative descriptors is highly problematic, not least b ecause many course designers, teachers, and testers will sieze on the structures and ignore their communicative utility – which is what happened in 1986 when the communicative approach was delivered the coup de grace by Headway.

15 04 2012
Peter Cox

Thank you a thousand times Scott. I feel that my learners come to me actually damaged by the grammar course approach. As you say it’s easy to “teach” and even easier to examine but quite useless for communication. We are not teaching Fortran IV where each word and punctuation point has one meaning and one meaning only, human language is so much more subtle, richer and complex.
Grammar to me is an analytical tool to be used by those already conversent with the language and not the place to start learning.
So why do we continue to use this approach when the evidence (a rare thing in TEFL) is so clearly against it?

15 04 2012

We continue to use it because it’s easy. Once you’ve taught the McNuggets a few times you can do it in your sleep. It’s thus ideal for exploited teachers who have to teach an absurd number of hours and levels and lazy teachers who want to master one method and use it till the cows come home.
It’s also ideal for Directors of Studies who want to exercise maximum control over what students learn and make sure that all learners are jumping through the same hoops. And the more hoops they jump through, the better the grade they get.
And boy oh boy! Does it sell!

16 04 2012
Peter Cox

Sound of a nail being hit right on the head here!

16 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Peter – and thanks Glennie for addressing Peter’s question better than I could have done!

15 04 2012
Sarah Emsden-Bonfanti

Thanks for another interesting topic, Scott. I’ve been mulling over the grammar issue for a current assignment for my MA in Applied Linguistics. I chose to focus on the error correction of students’ grammar. After much reading on the contentious issue at whose nexus is how we view: 1. language learning – product or process? 2. students’ grammar: an incorrect form of standard English, or as Selinker (1972) terms it, an ‘idiolect’ all of its own? After having taught English for 11 years, I find myself gravitating towards the latter views. The danger with focusing on the ‘correct’ product as an end itself is that we may in the least worst scenario end up putting words in students mouths or misinterpreting what they want to express. At the other end of the spectrum – the worst possible scenario – we may jeopardize their language learning. Writing with red pen (either in an opaque code that requires them to learn it to be able to understand our suggestions or by making the ‘corrections’ for them) or orally correcting students can have a major impact on their motivation and therefore their desire to learn or by actually getting them to focus on the detail (which is likely of course to be lexical too) at word and sentence level may detract their cognitive processes away from what it should be focusing on – the message itself, a meaning representation of what they want to say, not a prescriptive keep-your-thoughts-within-these-boundaries script. Controversial, I know, but I think it’s time we moved away from the conservatism that abounds coursebooks, syllabuses and the like who tend to package up language into something that will fit neatly into a double-page spread. BTW, thanks for the corpus link Stephanie; I look forward to reading it and believe that we have much to learn from corpus analysis.

16 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Sarah, for that thoughtful comment, and for introducing the concept of ‘interlanguage’ into the discussion. A tension I still haven’t felt I have adequately resolved in my own teaching (and training) is between the need to validate – and to teach to – the learner’s emerging ‘grammar’ – that is to say, their interlanguage system – and the expectation, even requirement, on the part of both the learners and their interlocutors, to achieve a degree of native-like accuracy. What I am pretty sure of is that you don’t acheive that native-like accuracy by following a grammar syllabus, but that the feedback you get (e.g. in the form of correction) does have a significant effect, assuming a degree of both willingness to ‘improve’ and an aptitude to do so, on the part of the learner. So I am nervous about dismissing the value of error correction altogether, although I recognise that the concept of ‘error’ is a highly problematic one, not least because the concept of ‘native-like’ is ideologically loaded.

15 04 2012

Excellent post Scott – thank you.

I love the omelette analogy. Can we assume though, that it is not useful to know that all omelettes are made of eggs, or that to make an omelette, we need to follow a step-by-step process? And how do we learn to make an omelette? We might read a recipe, follow instructions, watch someone else (an expert) make one, and then copy that? The chances are that the first time we try by ourselves, we’ll make a mess of it, but that as we gain confidence, experience and culinary prowess, we’ll start to be more creative and successful in our own omelette-making.

You say: ‘start with communication and work with the grammar which emerges or facilitates that communication’

I would say that is exactly what (good) coursebooks try to do. Obviously, we can’t cater for each individual student (the teacher has to do that), but we can predict the language which we think will be useful to complete that particular communicative aim, and we can then check those predictions with corpus.

The backwash effect assumes that texts are chosen for coursebooks because of their grammar content rather than for their intrinsic interest.

I honestly don’t that that is generally the case nowadays. It may have been back in the early nineties, before Michael Lewis and the Lexical Approach, but I genuinely don’t believe that any coursebook writer worth their salt would choose a text on this basis nowadays. Any material that is going to be successful in class will need to stimulate the students’ interest. Only then can we look at how the text might be exploited for language analysis and / or further skills work (can we use it as a springboard to get students talking about a topic, for example?). There is, I’ll hand it to you one exception, in my experience, and that is the lesson which looks at future predictions. This inevitably leads to some text about futuristic societies and gadgets. Here, I agree with you, the intrinsic interest can wear a little thin, or perhaps that’s just a personal thing.

Whilst the traditional grammar syllabus is still incorporated in today’s multi-syllabus approach (I have yet to find a publisher willing to risk publishing a course without it), I would argue that it is no longer the sole driver in the way you seem to suggest. Modern courses also deal much more systematically with phraseology and spoken language chunks too, don’t you think?

16 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Antonia – lots of food for thought. On the subject of food – and the omelette analogy – I agree that the novice cook needs recipes, but (for the purposes of my analogy) it’s important to remember that – apart from the list of ingredients – recipes are really more procedural rather than simply being declarative. I.e. they offer guidance as to how to make an omelette, rather than describing what an omelette is. The grammar syllabus, on the other hand, (admittedly, in its most degenerate form) simply describes what language is like, without really showing the learner/user how to put it to communicative use.

Moreover, to pursue the metaphor, by doing the recipe a few times I start to internalise the procedure, and even get creative with it, which I would be less likely to do if I’d simply memorised the list of ingredients. Does that make sense?

And I agree that my argument that the grammar tail wags the coursebook dog is a little cheeky – in terms of the texts that are chosen – but I would be surprised if the starting point in the planning of a new coursebook wasn’t still the grammar syllabus. ‘What shall we put in Book 1? Present simple. OK. What topic shall we choose to contextualise it? Daily routine? OK. I’ve got a nice text from the Sunday Times colour supplement we could use, with a bit of tweaking…’ Etc. Don’t planning discussions still go like this, basically?

17 04 2012

Thanks Scott – yes, unfortunately, that sounds scarily familiar! When is that emerging Dogme coursebook going to get written then? 😉

18 04 2012

“You say: ‘start with communication and work with the grammar which emerges or facilitates that communication’

I would say that is exactly what (good) coursebooks try to do. Obviously, we can’t cater for each individual student (the teacher has to do that), but we can predict the language which we think will be useful to complete that particular communicative aim”

What communicative aim? What I’m still seeing in top-selling and recently published coursebooks are reading texts or listenings which inevitably queue a move to the presentation of a grammar point which always takes centre stage in the page layout. This is then followed by a supposedly communicative task which has IN NO WAY been the starting point of the unit. In other words, there has been no communicative aim. The communicative activity is – as ever – a way to practise the structure presented. The raison d’etre of the whole clumsy procedure has been to present and practise the grammar point.

This clunky, unimaginative and endlessly repeated process on the part of coursebook writers often reminds me of the way stallions have to be manoeuvred into place to mate with mares. There’s this very slow and clumsy procedure to enable the ultimate and desired ‘connection’ to take place. We stand and watch as the protagonists are positioned and re-jigged until …bullseye. In the same way, one watches – fascinated in a dreadful kind of way – as the author once again manages to position the parts until ‘congress’ is achieved and all the elements combine to produce, for example, ‘if Fleming hadn’t discovered pencilin…blah blah blah’.

19 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

What a powerful metaphor, Glennie! Having once had a seasonal job on a racehorse breeding stud, I experienced a shock of recognition. But not a metaphor I’ll be able to use in talks on grammar learning, I fear. Maybe a slightly more sanitized image, as of spaceships docking, might be an alternative!

Seriously, though, you make a very good point, and it set me to wondering where this prolonged and cumbersome induction process derives from. Basically it seems to go back to the situational approach of the 1960s, where short situations would be set up which generated several examples of the target structure. The whole thing took up about as much space on the page as a large postage stamp (from Trinidad and Tobago, say) — see, for example, Robert O’Neill’s classic English in Situations (OUP, 1970) and the associated coursebook, Kernel Lessons (Longman 1971), which, as the name implies, really did consist of bite-sized language presentations, each of which would take about five minutes manoeuvring-time, from start to finish.

What seems to have happened then, with the advent of the communicative approach, was a certain embarrassment about full-frontal grammar presentations, even those disguised as generative situations. Somehow, the grammar had to be nested or embedded within a teaching sequence which resembled a task-based one, involving, for example, a succession of tasks and texts. Teachers and learners were kidded into thinking they were doing a task, but, as you rightly suggest, the whole elaborate stage machinery was directed at the inductive ‘discovery’ of the structure of the day. The teacher’s management skills were directed, not at managing learning, but at managing grammar — in the mistaken belief that the latter equates with the former.

11 05 2012

Mr. Thornburry
In what order would you teach the structures listed below to a class of young adult beginners learning English for general purposes, why and how ?
•To be + noun – e.g. Are you a student. They’re housewive
•Possessives – e.g. John’s my you’re his her our their
•Prepositions of Place – e.g. On under next to behind in front of
•Present Continuous – e.g. He’s typing.
• Pronoun Objects – e.g. Me you him her us them
•Can – e.g. Can you…? Yes, I can. No, I can’t + verb. I can’t speak English.
•Present Simple + -ing – e.g. I like swimming
•Do you questions – e.g. Do…? Does…? Yes, I do/he does. No, I don’t/he doesn’t.
•Present Simple negative form – e.g. I don’t like milk.
•Question word + do you – e.g. Where/What/When do you….?
•Adjective/adverb – e.g. He drives carefully. He’s a careful driver.
•Comparative of adjectives – e.g. John’s taller than Mary. John’s as rich as Mary.
•Have – e.g. Have you..? I have + noun. I haven’t + noun. I have a car.
•Present Perfect – e.g. I’ve opened the door.

11 05 2012
Scott Thornbury

Dear Nurcan – I wouldn’t.

For the reasons outlined in my video. And in next week’s blog post (to be posted this Sunday).

16 04 2012
Luiz Otávio

As I watched and re-watched this video, I kept asking myself if there will ever be a textbook that can accommodate the sort of organic, emergent, non-linear, student-driven grammar syllabus you’ve described and, at the same time, be accessible, tangible and user-friendly enough for a relatively wide range of teachers and learners.
1. I think quite a few grammar mcnuggets could be (easily?) replaced by more accurate grammatical descriptions and rules – “first”, “second” and “third” conditionals come to mind. This would, however, mean that practice activities in the moulds of “Look at the pictures. What would have happened if X had / hadn’t…?” would have to be scrapped and sent back to the drawing board.
2. Similarly, it’d relatively easy to draw up a syllabus of “spoken grammar”, with plenty of noticing activities and opportunities for transfer.
3. Speaking of noticing, it’d be easy to include a collection of interesting texts / listenings plus open-ended noticing activities, which would encourage students to create their own mini-syllabuses running parallel to the core syllabus.
4. Also on noticing: authors could easily include a number of easy-to-implement grammar interpretation tasks in the moulds of what you proposed in your teaching grammar book a few years ago (I’m thinking specifically of the “passive voice” pictures as I’m writing this text.) This would be, however, a major paradigm shift, you know, I can’t help but wonder – how ready is the average teacher to embrace grammar practice which is input – rather than output – oriented?
5. I’m all in favor of lexical phrases occupying a far more central position in the syllabus than they currently do in mainstream titles. In fact, I could even go out on a limb here and say that it’s entirely possible to use lexical phrases as the main building blocks of a textbook and, depending on how these phrases are sequenced, the “new grammar” could well arise “naturally” out of the work on chunks. This, as you said, would somehow mirror more naturalistic learning processes, whereby phraseology, as you said, seems to prime students for subsequent grammar use.
These are all feasible changes, which can, I believe, be implemented, irrespective of whether one believes that teachers and students worldwide will embrace them. That’s another story. But you see, all these changes, except for item 3 perhaps, depend on the existence of a previously designed syllabus, which could (and perhaps should) be a revamped version of the old grammar syllabuses we all grew up with and pay more attention to the underlying processes – and that includes less mcnuggetization, more attention to phraseology and spoken grammar, as you said.
But assuming that tapping into, systematizing and recycling emergent language (especially via pushed output in class) is a valid thing to do (and that’s an entirely plausible assumption), I still find it hard to think of a textbook that can pull this off – and I can think of a number of “task-based” titles that have tried and failed (miserably) in the past.

16 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Luiz, for yet another insightful comment! It’s slightly off the topics you raise, but your comment about the inadequacy of many pedagogical grammar rules (such as those that deal with the ‘conditionals’) reminded me of a review I wrote recenty, of a pedagogical grammar, which (in my opinion) was less than useful in answering the kinds of questions that (I imagine) an inquisitive learner might put to it (such as ‘Is ‘I’m loving it’ wrong?). Which leads me to wonder how much of coursebook production is informed – not by market research into what teachers want in them – but by research that tracks the ‘questions’ that learners want answered as they struggle to express themselves in situations of authentic use?

16 04 2012
Luiz Otávio

My guess is not much, Scott, and this is compounded by the fact that mainstream coursebooks are targeted at an international market, which means that questions that might arise because of the students’ L1 background are not even marginally contemplated.

16 04 2012
Scott C

Some interesting comments. I’ve been grappling with the issues above quite a bit recently and my thoughts on what and how I should teach have been swinging backward and forward. It’s nice to be kept on one’s toes!

Unfortunately, I think traditional views on how languages are learned play a big part on what goes into courses/coursebooks. However, the people who sell said coursebooks and marketing in schools play a huge role. As I’ve said before, it’s much easier to sell a course which involves “a, b and then c” than selling “whatever crops up in class on the day!”

Perhaps like any change it will just take years of chipping away. I just need to start by getting my co-teacher to stop telling me during handover, “We did ‘some/any’ but they need to do more of the present perfect.” 🙂

16 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

“They need to do more of the present perfect”. Yes. How often have we all heard that! The problem is that the need to do ‘more of the present perfect’ sells grammar practice books by the truck load. The need to talk about your experiences requires only a room and a few chairs in a circle. There’s no money in it!

16 04 2012
J.J. Almagro

Although admitting that the ‘grammar-é-mobile-cual-piú-mal-vento’ approach has its attractions (spoken grammar, phraseology, by-product of communication, interlanguage etc.), also believing in the virtues of cooperative learning and teaching unplugged, I still believe that emergentist advocates have a lot to explain about how to operationalize the observation, progress, and productivity of L2 emergence in classroom instruction environments in comparison with the ‘McNuggetization’ of EFL coursebooks.

How could be explain the fact that a lot of students seem to be learning through knowledge transmission models?

16 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Yes, indeed, a lot of students DO learn, irrespective of the approach or syllabus. And a lot don’t. And thereby lies the mystery. As I never tire of posting:

“Ah, solving that question
Brings the linguist and the researcher
In their long coats
Running over the fields”

(to paraphrase Philip Larkin!)

It would seem to me to be self-evident that you get better at communicating the more time you spend actually communicating, and that anything that interferes with, distracts from, or in any way diminishes that communication quotient (such as prolonged study and practice of grammar rules) is counterproductive. This is why the grammar syllabus threatens to undermine the good intentions of otherwise ‘communicative’ teachers. Like it or not, it prioritises form over meaning.

If, on the other hand, the syllabus were organised, at the very least, semantically – e.g. according to the kinds of meanings that the learners might conceivably want to express – then, it seems to me, that the methodology that operationalises that syllabus is more likely to be meaning-focused too. If your syllabus dictates ‘narrating’, then there’s a good chance you will program some kind of activity in which students are actually narrating. If, on the other hand, your syllabus dictates ‘past simple’, you might, you just might, overlook the purposes for which the past simple is actually used, and run aground on the grammar.

So, the alternative to a grammar syllabus is not necessarily ‘no syllabus’ (as in 100% non-synthetic Dogme) but it might be a notional syllabus, or a functional one, or a task-based one, or a procedural one.

16 04 2012
Luiz Otávio Barros

“If, on the other hand, the syllabus were organised, at the very least, semantically – e.g. according to the kinds of meanings that the learners might conceivably want to express – then, it seems to me, that the methodology that operationalises that syllabus is more likely to be meaning-focused too.”


I think this sort of model would have a lot of very interesting byproducts:

1. Carefully selected texts and listenings of certain genres / themes would probably contain a good number of examples of the target language because, to a large extent, the topic would naturally “trap” such examples.
2. Lots of noticing tasks could be included to highlight the key language, which, because of the nature of the syllabus, would probably be mostly made up of thematically coherent lexical phrases anyway (e.g.: a text on learning difficulties would naturally give rise to “I find it hard to… / I have trouble + ING / It’s hard for me to…”)
3. This sort of semantic backdrop would be twice as likely, I think, to lead to more realistic communicative tasks (setting, purpose, non-linguistic outcome).

But we’re still left with a few unresolved issues, I think. Off the top of my head:

1. If, because of the nature of the syllabus, most of the new language will be lexical / chunky in nature (at least initially), what sorts of practice activities (with a view to automaticity) should we engage students in? If “fill in the blanks with was or has been” will not, at least initially, occupy a central position in the syllabus, how do we help students commit the target language to memory and proceduralize it?
2. If the book is organized around some sort of “input then output” sequence, we’re still left with the issue of whether to expect the new input to be deployed during meaning-focused output tasks, aren’t we? Do we incorporate a reactive, after the event, “this is what you should’ve said” sort of focus on form? And does the fact that we’re prioritizing lexical phrases change the very essence of the input then output model?

I wonder if there might some sort of compromise that would make a book like this more sellable. An idea would be, I think, to sequence topics, communicative goals and lexical phrases in such a way that, say, after X lessons, learners would be invited to analyze the underlying grammar patterns that emerged from all the meaning-focused work they’d been doing.

17 04 2012
J.J. Almagro

Scott and Luiz,
The concept ‘semantic backdrop’ makes me wonder about other kinds of backdrops -not sure if ‘higher-order’ should be the appropriate term. Would it be feasible to organize textbooks syllabi combining conceptual backdrops such as ‘organicity’, ‘cooperativeness’, ‘frequency’, ‘discourse’, ‘ZPD’, ‘complexity’, ‘accuracy’, ‘fluency’, ‘automaticity’, etc.?

16 04 2012
Peter Cox

Hi Scott
I’ve just downloaded the recently released text of Dave “Walks on Water” Willis’s 1990 book “The Lexical Syllabus” from http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/edacs/departments/cels/research/resources/lexical-syllabus.aspx and find a lot of what we are talking about discussed in exquisite detail with lot of challenging examples of where the sort of standard grammar that is taught falls down. You won’t be surprised by my discovery but it’s intriguing for us newbies and I think it will add useful background to what I understand you to be saying.

17 04 2012

Thanks for the link! Thanks for the post and the comments, too. An area rich for learning ,..

16 04 2012

Reblogged this on IheartELT and commented:
A wonderful set of quotes on grammar and language. Thank you, Scott!

18 04 2012
Scott Smith

There’s an interesting longitudinal study on this very topic with university-level learners of German here:


The PDF is (or should be) available for free through Google scholar and the psu.edu domain.The study speaks for itself, but I generally agree with Klapper’s and Rees’ admonition that “for exclusively classroom-based foreign language learning, we should be careful not to abandon all explicit grammar instruction.”

I still teach grammar to my Japanese EFL students. Naturally, one has to maintain a critical eye to what is taught and when – the past perfect at pre-intermediate might (MIGHT) suit a Romance language speaker, but it’s a guaranteed headache for a Japanese L1 user – but I don’t see the harm in teaching explicitly language points if it’s done appropriately.

18 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Scott (a lot of Scotts in this discussion!)

As I said at the end of my video, I am not against grammar teaching per se. (After all, I’ve written 5 books with the word ‘grammar’ in the title!). What I’m arguing against is the use of grammar (or a small sub-set of what we now know as grammar) as the organising principle around which language teaching programs are organised. If the goals of language learning are viewed through the narrow and distorting lens of pedagogical grammar, is it any wonder many (most?) learners don’t get beyond A2?

18 04 2012

So, it’s grammar-CENTERED (can we say so?) sylabus which proves to hinder most learners’ progress beyond A2 as it gives them the false idea that language IS its grammar, and it’s very demotivating for them to discover that after having diligently drilled all the grammar bits provided by the coursebook, and filled millions of gaps, they still aren’t making the grade.

However, we’ve felt that when we build the syllabus around meanings, the amount of the material to be noticed and acquired sometimes becomes overwhelming even at A2. Hence the mcnuggets – for digestibility. What might be some solutions for this problem? Indeed, quoting Luiz, “how do we help students commit the target language to memory and proceduralize it”? He suggested analysing the underlying grammar principles AFTER some lessons of meaning-based work – yet, aren’t your students often reluctant to use something new if they don’t “understand” it? Most of them do demand explanation, and by explanation most of them will mean – what grammar is it? Explaining each and every chunk becomes overwhelming. It’s the “adult” way of thinking, I’m afraid, and its all about psychology.

Another thing – when should we expect the production of what was noticed during communication of meanings? It appears that if they will be exposed to the target language at lesson 1, but may only start actually using it by, say, lesson 20 (PPP models are very unrealistic). That is natural – so, should the new generetion coursebooks (or courses) bear that natural delay in mind and ensure raising already covered topics a few times later on in the course?

18 04 2012
Luiz Otávio Barros

“He suggested analysing the underlying grammar principles AFTER some lessons of meaning-based work – yet, aren’t your students often reluctant to use something new if they don’t “understand” it”

Good point. I think this will depend on (1) the language area at hand and the degree to which it requires some sort of “on the spot” clarification (meaning, form or both) and (2) the degree to which the meaning-focused lessons can highlight the new lexical phrases in such a way that students don’t feel compelled to break them down into their constituent parts immediately.

18 04 2012

In dogme, you aren’t asking people to use things they don’t understand, you are asking them to use the language they have (at beginner levels this may be L1). You then upgrade the language and ask them to try and use the new language. Starting this way, people DO understand, as they are supplying the meaning.
The main problem of any prescriptive syllabus – be it grammar or vocab mcnuggets, is that you are essentially telling people what to say, not having them ask you how to say it.

20 04 2012
Scott Smith

I think my point might have been missed or misinterpreted.

The data from Klapper and Rees’ study shows – with a clarity that is remarkable for research in language teaching – that a *planned focus on form* syllabus delivered greater gains in communicative and grammatical competence than a course comprising a similar cohort, with similar general intelligence scores and previous linguistic attainment, who followed a *meaning-oriented incidental focus on forms* curriculum. The assumption underlying my position in this thread is that “emergentist” (scare quotes) teaching and learning is sufficiently similar to the latter syllabus type to be susceptible to the criticism that *planned* FonF syllabi seem to work better.

There are, of course, limitations to the conclusions that we can draw from the research. Primarily, it’s just one paper (albeit a very good one), and I know of no other research that is similar in its longitudinal tracking of learner attainment with regards to the specific syllabus and input types under discussion here. The study should – perhaps even must, given what’s at stake – be replicated. The sample size is also relatively small (n=~120) and there is little mention made of controlling for variability in the standard and style of teaching. Furthermore, the study was conducted on university-level students who had *chosen* to study German. They would have already achieved a strong B1 at the very least (a minimal A-level pass in the UK) and would have likely been at B2, with perhaps some learners even reaching C1 before setting foot on the university campus.

I would also suggest that teaching in a planned FonF syllabus is actually more flexible than in an incidental curriculum. In my experience, it’s perfectly possible and probably rather desirable for the teacher to depart from a plan to give feedback and work on immediate language concerns. Conversely, it’s impossible for a teacher following a purely meaning-focused curriculum to impose planned FonF activities without altering what the teaching and learning in the course is predicated on in a fundamental way.

I think points regarding the overall level of attainment of learners to be something of a red herring – there are, I believe, simpler explanations than inappropriate grammar curricula for the majority of learners topping out at A2 – motivation being the most immediately obvious. Most people I know are pretty good at working out what they need and want. Perhaps the majority of learners don’t attain higher levels of competence in English because they simply just don’t need to. A2 is roughly the level at which 16+ language examinations, such as the GCSE in the UK, are benchmarked. As a mandatory subject in every example I know of in compulsory education, the secondary school learner *must* take a foreign language… Post-16 qualifications often provide greater flexibility in choice, such that learners can work on subjects that are more intrinsically motivating for them.

One either learns to the level one needs to, or learns to the level one has to.

Another reason for poor attainment could well be (and I know this is a heretical statement, but I’ve spent more than half my career in Japan) poor teaching. It’s possible in this country to end up a fully-tenured professor of English at a state-sponsored university without ever *once* being observed in practice, or receiving any feedback on teaching outside of unreliable end-of-semester student evaluations which only four or five of thirty students usually bother to complete. This is also achievable without once ever entering into any kind of training with an assessed practicum – true for both foreign and Japanese teachers of English. Obviously, different countries have different standards. Nevertheless, there are thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of English teachers around the world who probably shouldn’t be in a classroom. The blind leading the blind is, arguably, the rule rather than the exception.

It is obvious that poor textbooks abound. As I said in my initial post, the teacher must be critical when using a pre-planned text, as it does not – indeed *can* not – take the learners into account. One could argue that it is the role of the teacher. to do so.

Before blaming pedagogical grammars, shouldn’t we at least attempt to account for other factors?


21 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Scott – for that clarification.

Having located it, I’ve now read the Klapper and Rees paper (I initially failed to follow your advice to search for it using Google Scholar) and I agree that it’s a very thorough study, and deserves to be taken seriously. However, I’m not sure I draw quite the same conclusions from it that you do. It’s true that the group that followed the grammar syllabus, where there was explicit attention to form, did better than the group that didn’t, when tested on grammar (there was no test of fluency, as the authors admit), but this is not necessarily an effect of the syllabus — it’s an effect of a focus on form during the actual lessons. According to the researchers, The second group received “only occasional and, generally, more incidental attention to linguistic form.”

Now, of course, if there is a grammar syllabus there is more likely to be more attention to grammatical form — and this may be one (the only one?) advantage of a grammatical syllabus. But there’s no reason that — within a more task-based/meaning focused programme — there couldn’t be consistent, even persistent, focus on grammatical form — the difference being that it is reactive rather than pre-emptive. Thus, whether or not students get a focus on form is a methodological rather than a curriculum design issue. The fact that the researchers found that the order of acquisition of grammatical structures followed its own route, regardless of the grammar syllabus, or, indeed, of the natural acquisition the students received in their third year when they went abroad, again supports the view that the grammar syllabus is a poor reflection of the natural syllabus. So, to repeat, the initial progress of one group was due to the attention given to grammar, not the grammar syllabus in itself although I admit that the attention given to grammar may have been an effect of this syllabus.

What I found most interesting about the study was the fact that given naturalistic exposure abroad the differences between the two groups evened out, suggesting that the difference between the two kinds of instruction had ultimately the same ‘priming’ effect. The authors speculate that “naturalistic exposure that builds on prior FonF [reactive focus-on-form] instruction appears to be just as effective in developing grammatical competence as FonFs [preemptive focus-on-forms] classroom-based instruction and subsequent naturalistic exposure”.

In the end, as the authors insist, there is nothing better than naturalistic exposure, especially if it has been preceded by some kind (any kind?) of instruction. In the absence of such exposure, should the classroom attempt to replicate it, or should we accept that classrooms are not conducive to the kind of communicative opportunities and massive exposure found in naturalistic conditions, and therefore revert to a strongly form-focused approach? If the latter, should this be driven by a grammar syllabus or a more meaning-focused, e.g. task-based, syllabus? If the latter, how can sufficient form focus be engineered to ensure the same gains in accuracy and complexity as in a more traditional, grammar-driven approach?

And what about fluency?

Anyway, thanks very much for pointing me in the direction of this article even if it raises as many questions as it answers. We need more rigorous longitudinal studies of this type.

21 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

PS: Just to give the background to the above discussion, here’s the abstract of the paper in question:

Klapper, J., and Rees, J. 2003. Reviewing the case for explicit grammar instruction in the university foreign language learning context, Language Teaching Research vol. 7 no. 3 285-314

This paper examines the extent to which research findings from second language and immersion programmes, concerning the efficacy of different instructional approaches, are transferable to the context of foreign language learning in British higher education. It draws on data from a four-year longitudinal study involving two experimental groups of undergraduate learners of German as a foreign language, one of which was exposed to ‘focus-on-form’ tuition, the other to ‘focus-on-forms’ instruction. The relative merits of the two approaches are assessed through analysis of proficiency gains for classroom instruction and residence abroad phases of the programme, using holistic and discrete proficiency-testing instruments. The study also highlights the effect of formal and naturalistic learning contexts on the rate and order of development of particular grammatical competencies in L2 German for the sample.

Note: Focus on form (FonF) is what I call a reactive form focus, e.g. through error correction
Focus on forms (FonFS) is what we know as a proactive, or preemptive form focus, as in PPP.

29 04 2012

Scott, Woah, a tricky one. Students surely need a bit of both. A chance to plan output (FonFS ) like just talking about something, describe someone or an experience, which is easy enough, just fairly slowly put it on the board, you’re going to talk about…you should say…maybe give a model, and then let them talk in pairs or small groups, just slowly making the points gives them a chance to plan. Recently I’ve recorded students doing the task, got them to transcribe what they said, reformulated it, and then got them to repeat it (FonF) “record your partner talking for a minute, then listen carefully and write it down word for word…” I then reformulate what they wrote, they read the new version to another partner, then put their notes down and tell their story a final time. One reason this was possible is that I had a class of four students who were really motivated. I had time to re-write what they’d written, and could give them something else to do while I did so, I know lots of teachers aren’t so lucky but the results were amazing, the stories were better organized, more fluent and more accurate. It was always real and interesting as well. The last one was tell your partner about the last time you lost something. Great stories!
Anyway, FonFS, FonF, and most importantly a focus on meaning (FoM) are surely all possible within a lesson.

21 04 2012
Lexical Leo

An attack on grammar syllabus from eight different angles! Yet a quick flick through most coursebooks available on the market today reveals that despite all the evidence that has emerged from corpus studies (Issue #3) and the lack of evidence that presenting discrete grammar items has any effect on language proficiency (Quotes #1 and #8), grammar syllabus is still alive and kicking. Why don’t you just die, you…. !

As always, Scott, a great post – comprehensive and informative. This must be a must-see for all pre-service teachers who are still unfortunately taught in many quarters to be grammar machines.


22 04 2012
Diana Bermudez

Hi Scott,
I would like to thank you for your post. I am currently taking a course on assessment and testing. I would like to ask you a question. When it comes to testing grammar, objective testing seems to be the most preferable? I believe that if the methodology being used is a form of CLT such as TBL, then we would test the student integratively with scale bands that would assess form and function as well as other features depending if it’s speaking or writing.
What are your thoughts on this subject?
Thank you so much!

29 04 2012

Hi Scott,

Please allow me to use your website to ask you and your many readers for help.

I’m looking at Content and Language Integrated Learning.

As you, and your readers, surely know, CLIL involves teaching a curricular subject through the medium of a language other than that normally used. Very often, as noted in the European Commission report (2010: 1) “teachers working with CLIL are specialists in their own discipline rather than traditional language teachers. ….. In many institutions language teachers work in partnership with other departments to offer CLIL in various subjects. The key issue is that the learner is gaining new knowledge about the ‘non-language’ subject while encountering, using and learning the foreign language.”

CLIL can be defined as a dual-focused educational approach where English is used for the learning of both content and language. In CLIL “various language-supportive methodolgies are used which lead to a dual-focused form of instruction where attention is given both to the language and to the content” (Coyle, et.al., 2010: 17).

The question is: “How do we go from theory to practice?”

The innovative qualities which so recommend CLIL give rise to new problems that previous syllabus designs need not confront. The most obvious questions are:

1. Who decides on the content of a a CLIL course?
2. Who teaches the CLIL course? The content expert? If so, what is the role of the language teacher? If not, what is the difference between a CLIL course and an ESP course, apart from the elaborate educational “theory” discussed in Coyle, et. al (2010) which many might dismiss, in the absence of more practical examples, as sophistry?

The obvious and essential and innovative quality of CLIL is that the content teacher and the language teacher work together. In this case, the approach has much to recommend it; but how, precisely would that work? Of course, it could work, and work very well, in principle. We can imagine any number of ways in which the language teacher could collaborate with the content teacher in each and every stage of a CLIL course, but what would be the practical implications? There are enormous implications of introducing a CLIL approach for curriculum design at a general educational level, in primary, secondary and tertiary levels. And what about those schools and institutions devoted to TESOL? Are they doomed to extinction under the force of this new approach?

Learning content-based subjects (typically subjects like geography and history) has long been distinguished from learning EFL, and much has, rightly been made of the different methods needed to teach them. We might all, accross the curriculum, agree on learner-centred approaches, on a problem-solving, task-based approach, and helping learners develop their thinking skills.

But, while history and geography are truly content-based, however innovatively its content might be pedagogically organised, EFL is a fundamentally different type of study, where content is not the focus. Learning English, to put is simply, is not a question of what you know. Learning English has often been compared to learning such skills as how to drive a car, or even swimming. Those advocating a CLT approach to language learning have emphasised the distinction between knowing what and knowing how, between “procedural and declarative” knowledge or “implicit and explicit” knowledge . The challenge for CLIL, therefore, is to find a way of combining or converging these two.

What seems to be happening is that in primary, secondary and tertiary education, “content teachers” are being encouraged to deliver their courses in an L2, often English. But what is not at all clear is how language teachers are involved. The European Community Commission for Languages (2010) gives no clarification of this crucial issue, except to say that content teachers need further training, which rather assumes that they will take care of language issues. Mehisto, et al., (2008), deal with primary education and equally seem to suppose that the content teacher will manage the language aspect. Such sources seem to be in almost complete contradiction to all the principles which define CLIL, at least as outlined above in this unit.

On a purely anecdotal level, living in Spain, I have talked to a number of directors of educational institutions where what they call CLIL courses are being enthusitically adopted With only one exception, all the “CLIL courses” that they are carrying out are being delivered exclusively by the subject teacher who is supposed to take care of the complex language components so carefully discussed by Coyle. et. al., (2010). In one case (Sweeny, 2012), EASDE (part of Ramon Llul, a private university in Barcelona) is about to launch a BA in Business Administration taught in English, which, it claims, embraces CLIL principles and methods. The teachers who will give this course will be tested for their proficiency in English and then given a 2-week course by an ELT language expert in how to deal with the languages issues which might arise. The language teachers involved have no training in, or appreciation of, CLIL.

What to do?




Coyle, D, Hood, P. and Marsh, M. (2010) CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
European Commission, Languages. ( 2010) Content and Language Integrated Learning. Retrieved from: http://ec.europa.eu/languages/language-teaching/content-and-language-integrated-learning_en.htm 27th April, 2012.
Mehisto, P., Marsh, D. Frigols, M. (2008) Uncovering CLIL. London: Macmillan.

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