G is for Granularity

3 05 2015

Granular is a buzz word in the discourse of publishing these days. With its vaguely breakfast cereal connotations it conjures up an image of learning content made palatable and wholesome.

For example, Knewton, the company that specializes in adaptive learning software, features a short video clip on its website, in which the presenter advises us that

“Publishers need to be looking at producing granular content. … no longer in the form of a big-package textbook, but broken down into small chunks that teachers, students, administrators can choose to use in combination or in a blend with any other content that they choose to use”.

Grains – chunks – blends: it’s making my mouth water.

Elsewhere on the Knewton site, we get this heady, but somewhat less appetizing stuff:

Within the adaptive learning industry, a shared infrastructure can benefit all existing educational apps by providing them with unlimited back-end content, granular and highly accurate student proficiency data, robust analytics, and more.


Differentiated learning can help each student maximize their potential by shaping the curriculum so that each student understands their proficiencies at a granular level and is given a direct path to improving them.

In a recent blog, they even show us what the granules (aka taxons) of second language acquisition look like:

Knewton taxons

Click to enlarge

But there are at least four major flaws in the way language learning has been granularized. These flaws long pre-date data analytics, but by bringing the power of industrial-scale computing to bear on data collection and analysis, companies like Knewton (and the publishers who enlist their services) are magnifying these flaws exponentially.

The first flaw – let’s call it the taxon fallacy – is that they have got their granules wrong. Notice that the so-called taxons in the Knewton graphic are the traditional ‘tenses and conjugations’ (present continuous, past perfect etc) – the same ‘tenses and conjugations’ that have been passed on like a bad gene from one generation to the next ever since the dawn of recorded time (or ever since the teaching of Latin) but which have little or nothing to do with how the English language is either used or internalized.

The units of language acquisition are not ‘tenses and conjugations’ (English has no conjugations, for a start). The units of language acquisition are words and constructions. Construction is a general term for any form-meaning association — whether a single word, a phrase, or a more abstract pattern — that has become conventionalized by the speakers of a language (see this related post).  Constructions are more than just ‘lexical chunks’ – they can also include morpheme combinations (e.g. verb + -ing) and syntactic patterns (e.g. verbs with two objects) – and they are much, much more than ‘tenses and conjugations’. They are not easily located in the syllabus of a standard coursebook – the type of syllabus which is still the default setting for data analysts such as Knewton.

The second fallacy – I’ll call it the proceduralization fallacy – is another legacy of a long tradition of transmissive teaching: it is the belief that declarative knowledge (e.g. knowing that the past of ‘go’ is ‘went’) automatically converts to procedural knowledge, i.e. that it is available for use in real-time communication. Hence, the assumption is that, if the learner is tested on their knowledge of an item (or granule) and found to know it, it follows that they will be able to use it. As teachers we know this is nonsense. Researchers concur: Schmidt’s (1983: 172) long-term case study of a Japanese speaker of English led him to conclude that ‘grammatical competence derived through formal training is not a good predictor of communicative skills.’ Counting the granules tells you very little about a learner’s communicative capacity.

Related to this fallacy is what is known as the accumulated entities fallacy, described by Rutherford (1988: 4) as the view that ‘language learning … entails the successive mastery of steadily accumulating structural entities, and language teaching brings the entities to the learner’s attention’. Since at least the 1980s we have known that, as Ellis (2008: 863) puts it, ‘grammar instruction may prove powerless to alter the natural sequence of acquisition of developmental structures.’ And Diane Larsen-Freeman (1997: 151), coming from a dynamic systems perspective, reminds us that

Learning linguistic items is not a linear process – learners do not master one item and then move on to another. In fact, the learning curve for a single item is not linear either. The curve is filled with peaks and valleys, progress and backslidings.

Unless a granular approach to data collection and analysis factors in these ‘peaks and valleys’, it will have nothing very interesting to say about a learner’s progress.

Finally, there is the homogenization fallacy: the view that all learners are the same, have the same needs, and follow the same learning trajectory to the same ultimate goals. This quaint belief explains why the designers of adaptive learning software think that it is possible to calibrate any single learner’s diet of granules on the basis of how 50,000, or indeed 50 million, other learners consumed their granules. Although software designers using data analytics pay lip-service to ‘differentiation’ and ‘personalization’, essentially they have a battery chicken view of language learning, i.e. that the same grains are good for everyone, even if they are meted out in slightly different quantities and at slightly different rates.

Contrast that view with the sociolinguistic one that no two people speak the ‘same language’: ‘You and I may both be speakers of language X but your grammar and mine at the descriptive level will not be identical … We both appeal to different sets of rules’ (Davies 1991: 40). Or, as Blommaert (2010: 103) writes, ‘Our real “language” is very much a biographical given, the structure of which reflects our own histories and those of the communities in which we spent our lives.’ It does not exist in someone else’s data-base, much less in granular form.

In the end, as Brumfit (1979: 190) memorably put it, ‘language teaching is not packaged for learners, it is made by them. Language is whole people’.

Ergo, it is not granular.


Blommaert, J. (2010) The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brumfit, C. (1979) ‘Communicative’ language teaching: an educational perspective. In Brumfit C.J, and Johnson, K. (eds.) The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davies, A. (1991) The Native Speaker in Applied Linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Ellis, R. (2008) The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997) ‘Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition’. Applied Linguistics 18/1.

Rutherford, W. (1988) Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching. London: Longman.

Schmidt, R. (1983) ‘Interaction, acculturation and the acquisition of communicative competence,’ in Wolfson, N., & Judd, E. (eds.) Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Photos taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Hada Litim, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

Note: Coincidentally, Philip Kerr has just blogged on this same topic, i.e. Knewton’s ‘Content insights’, here: Adaptive Learning in ELT

G is for Grammar(s)

5 04 2015

Fries grammarThere is more than one way to skin a cat. And more than one way to describe a language. Hence, more than one type of grammar.

It all depends on your point of view. Take this sentence, for example:


Structuralist grammars foreground the way that the basic structure of this sentence (NP + verb to be + V-ed) provides the template for any number of similar sentences, such as This window is closed or Your days are numbered, but not Doorman will return shortly or Your number is up. Grammar, viewed thus, is a system of building blocks. In the words of a leading structuralist, ‘All the structural signals in English are strictly formal matters that can be described in physical terms’ (Fries, 1952: 56). Grammar is matter.

Grammar-as-matter is what a bog-standard computer program might be able to unpack, simply by skimming the surface of a text. The exclusive focus on the formal features of our model sentence (THIS DOOR IS ALARMED), however, might blind the computer to its inherent ambiguity, an ambiguity that has been playfully exploited by graffiti writers, e.g. THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. ‘What startled it?’ or THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. ‘But the window is not bothered’.

chomsky grammarExplaining how one sentence might have two quite different meanings impelled linguists like Chomsky to drill down beneath the surface level of sentences and expose their ‘deep structure’. Thus, the deep structure of the passive THIS DOOR IS ALARMED and its active equivalent SOMEONE ALARMED THIS DOOR is essentially the same.

But Chomsky’s project is more than simply the description of patterns, deep or otherwise. He wants to explain how the rules that generate these patterns are derived from innate and universal cognitive structures. His grammar, therefore, is less an account of linguistic behaviour than a theory of mind. As Chomsky himself put it (1972: 100), ‘When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence,’ the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.’ Grammar is mind.

But, like the structuralist account, Chomsky’s reduction of grammar to a set of mathematical rules tells us nothing about the meaning of our sentence THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. Nor does it explain how it functions in context – how it has the force of a warning, for example (Don’t open this door!). Nor how its elements map on to some objective reality, e.g. how this in THIS DOOR ‘points’ to a specific door. A functionalist grammar, on the other hand, tries to relate the linguistic forms to specific communicative purposes and their contexts, and, more ambitiously, to explain how these purposes and contexts actually determine the way the grammar has evolved. Grammar is not simply a reflection of thought, but is ‘motivated’ by its social and cultural functions. Or, as a leading functionalist grammarian, Michael Halliday, puts it, ‘language is as it is because of what it has to do’ (1978: 19). Grammar is function.

Halliday grammarA not dissimilar, cognitive, view of grammar starts from the premise that, as one scholar puts it, ‘language is rooted in human experience of the physical world’ (Lee 2001: 48). That is to say, grammar is the linguistic realization of the way we physically experience and perceive the world. Thus, the sentence Doorman will return shortly does not mean that the doorman will, literally, be short when he returns. Rather that, because we tend to construe time in terms of physical distance, it makes sense, when we talk about time, to use spatial words like short and long (and back and over). Likewise, our use of grammatical tense, aspect, modality, countability, and so on, all originate in our lived experience. Grammar is perception.

Finally, an emergent view of grammar is one that has, in part, been fuelled by developments in corpus linguistics. Corpora demonstrate that language is both formulaic and subject to constant variation. This tension between stasis and flux means that, over time, certain strings of words (called constructions) become fixed and assume a grammatical, i.e. non-literal, function: they become grammaticised. The English future form going to is a case in point: a verb string that started life meaning the same as walking to, but became a metaphor for futurity, and was eventually reduced, informally, to gonna. According to the emergent view, grammar is ‘the set of sedimented conventions that have been routinized out of the more frequently occurring ways of saying things’ (Hopper 1998: 163). Grammar is routine.

Matter, mind, function, perception, routine: which of these multiple ways of looking at grammar (and this by no means exhausts the number of grammars that have been theorized) best serves the needs of language learners and their teachers? I’ll leave that for you to ponder on.


cognitive grammarReferences

Chomsky, N. (1972) Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Fries, C. C. (1952). The Structure of English. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978) Language as Social Semiotic. London: Edward Arnold.

Hopper, P.J. (1998) ‘Emergent grammar’ in Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and functional approaches to language structure. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lee, D. (2001) Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

(A version of this post first appeared on the Cambridge English Teaching forum)

The End

9 06 2013

So this is it, folks: I’m closing down the blog for the summer… and for good. After 3 years, 150 posts, nearly 7000 comments, and innumerable hits, visits, views, however you want to describe and count them, plus one e-book spin-off (but no sign of a second edition of An A-Z!), I think it’s time to call it a day.

But that’s not the end of blogging.  In the autumn (or in the spring, if that’s your orientation) I’ll be resuming with an altogether different theme and format, provisionally titled The (De-)Fossilization Diaries.  Watch this space!

At some point between now and then I’ll lock the comments on this blog, but it will hang around a little longer. If you think you might miss it if it suddenly disappeared, you could always buy the book! 😉

Meanwhile, thanks for following, commenting, subscribing, tweeting… I have so enjoyed hosting this blog, not least because of the active and widely-distributed online community that has grown up around it. Blogging is my favourite medium by far, and, despite claims to the contrary by some curmudgeons, it seems to be very much alive and well.

bunyolsNow, to give you something to chew on over breakfast, I’ve done a quick cut and paste of some of the one- (or two-) liners that capture many of the core themes of this blog. (You can hunt them down in context by using the Index link above).

1. If there are no languages, only language, what is it that we teach? … The short answer, perhaps, is that we would facilitate a kind of creative DIY approach – semiotic bricolage, perhaps – by means of which learners would become resourceful language users, cutting and pasting from the heteroglossic landscape to meet both their short-term and their long-term goals. (L is for Language)

2. The tension – and challenge – of successful communication is in negotiating the given and the new, of exploiting the predictable while coping with unpredictability. To this end, a phrasebook, a grammar or a dictionary can be of only limited use. They are a bit like the stopped clock, which is correct only two times a day. (M is for Mobility)

3. Creating the sense of ‘feeling at home’, i.e. creating a dynamic whereby students feel unthreatened and at ease with one another and with you, is one of the most important things that a teacher can do. (T is for Teacher Development)

4. A reliance on the coursebook IN the classroom does not really equip learners for self-directed learning OUTSIDE the classroom, since nothing in the outside world really reflects the way that language is packaged, rationed and sanitised in the coursebook.(T is for Teacher Development)

5. The language that teachers need in order to provide and scaffold learning opportunities is possibly of more importance than their overall language proficiency (T is for Teacher Knowledge)

6. A critical mass of connected chunks might be the definition of fluency. (Plus of course, the desire or need to BE fluent). (T is for Turning Point)

7. Education systems are predicated on the belief that learning is both linear and incremental. Syllabuses, coursebooks and tests conspire to perpetuate this view. To suggest otherwise is to undermine the foundations of civilization as we know it. (T is for Turning Point)

8. If I were learning a second language with a teacher, I would tell the teacher what I want to say, not wait to be told what someone who is not there thinks I might want to say. (W is for Wondering)

9. Irrespective of the degree to which we might teach grammar explicitly, or even base our curriculums on it, as teachers I think we need to know something about it ourselves. It’s part of our expertise, surely. Besides which, it’s endlessly fascinating (in a geeky kind of way). (P is for Pedagogic grammar)

10. Every language divides up the world slightly differently, and learning a second language is – to a large extent – learning these new divisions.(P is for Pedagogic grammar)

11. The meaning of the term student-centred has become too diffuse – that is to say, it means whatever you want it to mean, and – whatever it does mean – the concept needs to be problematized because it’s in danger of creating a false dichotomy. (S is for Student-centred)

12. There is a responsibility on the part of teachers to provide feedback on progress, but maybe the problem is in defining progress in terms of pre-selected outcomes, rather than negotiating the outcomes during the progress. (O is for Outcomes)

13. Language learning, whether classroom-based or naturalistic, whether in an EFL or an ESL context, is capricious, opportunistic, idiosyncratic and seldom amenable to external manipulation. (P is for Postmodern method)

14. I have no problem with the idea of classes – in fact for many learners and teachers these can be less threatening than one-to-one situations – but I do have a problem with the way that the group learning context is moulded to fit the somewhat artificial constraints of the absentee coursebook writer. (P is for Postmodern method)poached eggs nov 2012

15. The idea that there is a syllabus of items to be ‘covered’ sits uncomfortably with the view that language learning is an emergent process – a process of ‘UNcovering’, in fact. (P is for Postmodern method)

16. This, by the way, is one of [Dogme’s] characteristics that most irritates its detractors – that it seems to be a moving target, constantly slipping and sliding like some kind of methodological ectoplasm. (P is for Postmodern method)

17. The ‘mind is a computer’ metaphor has percolated down (or up?) and underpins many of our methodological practices and materials, including the idea that language learning is systematic, linear, incremental, enclosed, uniform, dependent on input and practice, independent of its social context, de-humanized, disembodied, … and so on. (M is for Mind)

18. Is there no getting away from the fact that classrooms are just not good places to learn languages in? And that, instead of flogging the present perfect continuous to death, it might not be better simply ‘to take a walk around the block’? (A is for Affordance)

19. If automaticity is simply the ability to retrieve memorised chunks, this may result in a repertoire that is fast and accurate, but functional only in situations of the utmost predictability. Fine, if you’re a tourist – just memorise a phrase-book. But for a more sophisticated command of language – one that is adaptable to a whole range of situations – you need to be able to customise your chunks. In short, you need to be creative. Hence, creative automaticity. (A is for Automaticity)

20. Technosceptics, like me, happily embrace technology in our daily lives, but are nevertheless a little suspicious of the claims made, by some enthusiasts, for its educational applications – claims that frequently border on the coercive. (T is for Technology)

21. As edtech proponents tirelessly point out, technology is only a tool. What they fail to acknowledge is that there are good tools and bad tools. (T is for Technology)

22. Another bonus, for me, of the struggle to dominate a second (and third, fourth etc) language has been an almost obsessive interest in SLA theory and research – as if, somewhere, amongst all this burgeoning literature, there lies the answer to the puzzle. (B is for Bad language learner)

23. ‘Fluency is in the ear of the beholder’ – which means that perhaps we need to teach our students tricks whereby they ‘fool’ their interlocutors into thinking they’re fluent. Having a few well rehearsed conversational openers might be a start…. (B is for Bad language learner)

24. I’ve always been a bit chary of the argument that we should use movement in class in order to satisfy the needs of so-called kinaesthetic learners. All learning surely has kinaesthetic elements, especially if we accept the notion of ‘embodied cognition’, and you don’t need a theory of multiple intelligences to argue the case for whole-person engagement in learning. (B is for Body)

25. I agree that learners’ perceptions of the goals of second language learning are often at odds with our own or with the researchers’. However, if we can show [the learners] that the communicative uptake on acquiring a ‘generative phraseology’ is worth the initial investment in memorisation, and, even, in old-fashioned pattern practice, we may be able to win them over. (C is for Construction)

26. How do we align the inherent variability of the learner’s emergent system with the inherent variability of the way that the language is being used by its speakers? (V is for Variability)

27. The problem is that, if there is a norm, it is constantly on the move, like a flock of starlings: a dense dark centre, a less dense margin, and a few lone outliers. (V is for Variability)

28. Think of the blackbird. Every iteration of its song embeds the echo, or trace, of the previous iteration, and of the one before that, and the one before that, and so on. And each iteration changes in subtle, sometimes barely perceptible, ways. But the net effect of these changes may be profound. (R is for Repetition [again])

29. Diversity is only a problem if you are trying to frog-march everyone towards a very narrowly-defined objective, such as “mastering the present perfect continuous.” If your goals are defined in terms of a collaborative task outcome … then everyone brings to the task their particular skills, and it is in the interests of those with many skills to induct those with fewer. (E is for Ecology)

30. Teaching […] is less about navigating the container-ship of the class through the narrow canal of the coursebook/syllabus than about shepherding a motley flotilla of little boats, in all weathers, across the open sea, in whatever direction and at whatever speed they have elected to go. (P is for Postmodern method)


G is for Grammar lesson

7 04 2013

I recently received a request for an article for a teachers’ journal in Denmark. The editor wrote:

The teaching of grammar in Danish secondary schools seems to be moving back towards a rather traditional view on grammar (for example,  an A-level examination in English testing whether students can correct wrong sentences and explain the rules of grammar).  I was hoping that an article by you may offer a new perspective on the teaching of grammar and authentic language.

I haven’t written the article, but I did write this piece of doggerel:woman teacher 1950

The Grammar Lesson

The teacher enters briskly, taps the board:
‘Now pay attention, class, and not a word.’
Her steely gaze subdues the general clamour.
‘I’m going to teach the rules of English grammar.’

‘I’ll start by explicating all the tenses,
Their forms, a few examples, and their senses.
We’ll finish, as is usual with a test.
A prize for which of you can answer best.’

He always takes the bus (she writes). ‘The present.
(Though present, as we speak, it clearly isn’t).
We call this timeless present “present simple”.
My tailor’s very rich is an example.’

‘Now look at me,’ she orders, as she paces
Between the rows of startled little faces.
‘I’m walking to the door. Now I am turning.
I’m teaching you the grammar. You are learning.’

Intending that her actions be the stimulus,
She demonstrates the present tense (continuous).
‘For acts that are in progress, it’s expressive,
And so it’s sometimes classified “progressive”.’

‘Now, who is this?’ She shows a pic of Caesar.
‘An ancient Roman?’ someone says, to please her.
She draws a Roman galley, oars and mast.
He came, he saw, he conquered: simple past’.

‘And when he came, the weather – it was pouring’,
She adds this detail to her simple drawing,
And with a gesture eloquently sinuous
She illustrates what means the past continuous.

I’ve been to China. In my life. Just once.
Time not important. Use the perfect tense.
He lost the race since he had started last:
Had started represents the perfect past.’

‘Although it seems a little bit excessive,
We also use the perfect with progressive.
Have you been playing badminton? is how
We ask if something’s happening to now.’

‘The future forms we’ll save until … the future.
I think by now you have the general picture.
So pen and paper out – yes, you have guessed it:
I’ve taught you stuff and now it’s time to test it.’

And this is how, as any learner knows,
The English language grammar lesson goes.
And this is why (the moral of my verse)
The English language learner can’t converse.in class 1950

Illustrations from Jan, J.M. & Ollúa, R. (1950) El Inglés Práctico; Comercio, Exámenes y Viajes, Buenos Aires: Academias Pitman.

P is for Pedagogic grammar

24 02 2013

Palmer happy etcHow do you write a pedagogic grammar?  Or, more realistically, how do you judge the worth of one that has already been written?

This is a task I regularly set my MA TESOL students, i.e. to put a teacher’s or learner’s grammar of their choice to the test, and to come up with a set of criteria for evaluating pedagogic grammars in general.

The criteria that result almost always involve issues of accessibility. How easy is it to find what you want? How clearly is it organized and signposted? How clear are the explanations? and so on.

Accessibility is a real issue. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the students who have little or no ELT background find performing even simple research tasks incredibly difficult. Asked to rule on the grammaticality of I’m lovin’ it, for example, one student failed to locate the distinction between stative and dynamic verbs in Parrott (2000), even though these are listed in the index (which, admittedly, is at the front of the book, not the back). Others, using Swan (2005) found what they were looking for but only if they knew what they were looking for: if they didn’t know the relevant grammatical labels they got endlessly sidetracked.Palmer grammar

Even knowing the labels is not necessarily any guarantee of success: in reviewing a recent grammar (Carter et al, 2011), I was directed by the index entry for phrasal verbs to the article on prepositional phrases, only to be told that phrasal verbs are filed under Verbs: multi-word verbs – the equivalent of two clicks on a website. More frustrating still, to answer the question ‘Is I’m loving it grammatical?’, I drew blanks at each of these search words: dynamic, stative, progressive, continuous, aspect, love, like. I finally ran the answer to ground in the entry Present simple or present continuous? (Why, I wonder, is this aspect distinction referenced only for present tenses?)

Palmer participlesApart from being accessible, a pedagogic grammar has to be reliable. That is to say, we need to be able to trust its explanations. This doesn’t mean to say that we have to be told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It’s a pedagogic grammar, not a linguist’s grammar, after all. But we needn’t have to accept half-truths. Nor untruths.

The accuracy of the grammars that my students choose to evaluate  (including some very dodgy websites) they tend to take on trust. But should they?

For a start, it’s important to know just how prescriptive the grammar is. Many pedagogic grammars are cagey about this, claiming to be purely descriptive. Leech (1989: ix), for example, says, of his own grammar, ‘Where a form is considered right by some native speakers and wrong by others, we point this out without being prescriptive’. However, this ‘pointing out’ often takes the form of a warning, e.g. ‘Be careful about using like instead of as…’

The Cambridge grammar that I reviewed makes its stance very clear: ‘Learners of English should use the standard forms of the language in most situations’ (Carter et al. 2011: 3). This is only to be expected, since this is a pedagogic grammar – one that models the target language for the learner, rather than one that describes its infinite variety for the specialist. Modeling implies some consensus as to what is being modeled, consensus implies norms, and norms imply a degree of prescriptivism, although of the norm-describing, rather than the norm-enforcing, kind, one would hope.palmer connectives

The distinction between norm-describing and norm-enforcing gets dangerously elided, however, when rules are prefaced by ‘we always…’ or ‘we never…’ For instance, in Carter et al. we find (with reference to the aforementioned multi-word verbs): ‘If the object is a personal pronoun (me, you, him, us, etc.), we always put the pronoun before the particle’ (p. 547). Or, ‘We don’t use the continuous form with verbs of mental processes’ (p. 417).  Apart from causing us to wonder who this imperious ‘we’ is, both statements can be refuted by a quick search in a corpus. A little hedging (generally, seldom, etc) would have been both less incriminating and more accurate.

The problem is not so much that these statements are inaccurate (and, admittedly, the counter-examples are few and far between): it’s that they are not explanatory. There is a reason that the pronoun is rarely given end-weight in phrasal verb constructions, and that is because it seldom encodes new information. And the reason that continuous forms are less often used with mental process verbs is that states of knowledge tend not to be dynamic or evolving (a core meaning of progressive aspect) — you either love something or you don’t.  What would it have cost to include explanations like these? Offering an insight into the reasons underlying the rules might better prepare users to deal with ‘exceptions’ (e.g. I’m lovin’ it!), as well as equipping them with the means to fine-tune their meanings in speaking and writing.Palmer prepositions01

But it’s only a pedagogic grammar, you protest.  Language learners don’t want choices; they want rules.  Maybe.  But to my mind ‘pedagogic’ implies something more than simply stating rules (that would be a pedantic grammar, perhaps). Pedagogic implies that the grammar is somehow learning-oriented: a pedagogic grammar is one that the user not only consults, but can learn something from. As Larsen-Freeman (2003, p. 50) puts it, ‘To my way of thinking, it is important  for learners not only to know the rules, but also to know why they exist … what I call the “reasons” underlying the rules’.

As an instance of an explanatory approach, observe how Leech (1989: 394, emphasis added) both mitigates the force of a rule, and takes the time to add a reason:

Verbs not normally taking the Progressive.

Be careful with verbs of the kinds outlined in 3a-3f below. They usually do not have a Progressive form, because they describe a state.

So, my criteria for a pedagogic grammar: accessibility, reliability, and ‘explainability’. What are yours?


Palmer auxiliariesCarter, R., McCarthy, M., Mark, G., & O’Keeffe, A. (2011) English Grammar Today: An A-Z of spoken and written grammar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2003) Teaching language: From Grammar to Grammaring. Boston: Heinle.

Leech, G. (1989) An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage. London: Edward Arnold.

Parrott, M. (2000) Grammar for English Language Teachers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M. (2005) Practical English Usage (3rd edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Illustrations from Palmer, H.E. (1938) The New Method Grammar, London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Parts of this blog post first appeared in a review of Carter, et al. (2011), in the ELT Journal, 66/2, April 2012.

F is for Fractal

29 04 2012

Medieval grammarians were obsessed with etymology because (according to a recent review in the London Review of Books[1]) the study of word origins ‘perfectly expresses the medieval conviction that language is a comprehensive, fully rational system, in which any part may be logically derived from the whole – just as “logic” itself derives from Logos, the all-creating word’.

The notion that ‘everything is in everything’ was a core precept of the Jacotot Method, also called ‘universal teaching’ (Rancière 1991 – I’ve blogged about it here), in which a single text (in Jacotot’s case it was a bilingual version of the 18th-century French novel Télémaque) served not only as the tool that revealed the secrets of the French language, but also the key that opened the intelligence of the learner. As Rancière (1991: 26) understands it: ‘That is what “everything is in everything” means: …  All the power of languages is in the totality of the book.  All knowledge of oneself as an intelligence is in the mastery of a book, a chapter, a sentence, a word’.

Thus every word, phrase, sentence, chapter is subject to intense scrutiny – but always as a microcosm of the whole. ‘This is the first principle of universal teaching: one must learn something and relate everything else to it … The student must see everything for himself, compare and compare, and always respond to a three-part question: what do you see?  what do you think about it?  what do you make of it?  And so on, to infinity’ (ibid. 22-23).  In fact, as Rivière  (ibid. 27) points out, ‘the procedures used matter very little in themselves.  It could be Télémaque, or it could be something else.  One begins with a text and not with grammar, with entire words and not with syllables…’

Romanesco broccoli, showing fractal forms
(from Wikipedia)

Cut to the 21st-century and the notion that ‘any part may be derived from the whole’ is a fractal one: ‘A fractal is a geometric figure that is self-similar at different levels of scale’ (Larsen-Freeman 1997: 146). Language, like other complex systems, is fractal in nature: patterns at one level of delicacy are reproduced at every other level. It takes only a very short text to display many of the basic design principles built into language, such as text organisation, sentence structure, word formation, as well as vocabulary distribution and frequency.  In William Blake’s words, the text is ‘a world in a grain of sand’.

Take this one, chosen more or less at random from a joke book for children[2]:

Two elephants went on holiday and sat down on the beach. It was a very hot day and they fancied having a swim in the sea. Unfortunately they couldn’t: they only had one pair of trunks!

In just three sentences the text displays a classically generic story structure, involving actors (two elephants), circumstantial details (on the beach, a hot day), a sequence of past tense actions, and a complicating event. It also has a basic joke structure, consisting of a narrative and a punch-line, which here takes the form of a play on words.

The 37 words further divide up into function words (also called grammar words) and content words (also called lexical words). The former include such common (and typically short) words as a, on, of, the, and was. The latter are the ones that carry the main informational load of the text, such as elephants, beach, hot, and unfortunately. In the elephant text, the relative proportion of these two types of words is roughly 50:50, and this closely reflects the ratio of function words to content words in all texts.  Moreover, the proportion of common to relatively uncommon words in the text exactly reflects the proportions found in much larger collections of text: 30 of the 37words  (i.e. roughly 80%) are in the top 1000 words in English.  Not only that, but of the ten most frequent words in English, six are present in this text, some of them (a, and, the) occurring more than once.

The fact that this tiny text is a microcosm of all text is consistent with what is known as Zipf’s Law (Zipf 1935, 1965). This law states that if a word is nth in frequency in a given language it is likely to occupy the same ranking in any single text in that language. So, the most frequent words in the language are likely to be the most frequent words in any text in that language, and their order of frequency will also be roughly the same. Zipf also showed that there is a correlation between the length of a word and its frequency. Short words occur often. Again, this is evident in our short text.

Coursebook texts are generally rather long, in the belief (possibly mistaken) that learners need to be taught how to read, when what they actually need is the language knowledge (lexical, grammatical, and textual) to enable them to transfer their reading skills from their first language into their second.  Long texts have the disadvantage that they take quite a long time to process, leaving little classroom time for the kind of detailed language work that exploits the text’s linguistic properties. In fact, as I’ve attempted to demonstrate, even a very short text, such as the elephant joke, is packed with pedagogical potential. What’s more, Zipf’s Law relieves us of the worry that short texts might not be sufficiently representative.

As with the Jacotot Method, the choice of text is immaterial. ‘The problem is to reveal an intelligence to itself. Anything can be used. Télémaque. Or a prayer or song the child or the ignorant one knows by heart. There is always something that the ignorant one knows that can be used as a point of comparison, something to which a new thing to be learned can be related’ (Rivière 1991: 28).

Everything is in everything.


Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997) ‘Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition’, Applied Linguistics, 18, 2.

Rancière, J. 1991. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Zipf, G.K. (1935, 1965) The Psycho-biology of Language: An Introduction to Dynamic Philology, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

(Parts of this article were first published in the Guardian Weekly, March 18th, 2005.)

[1] Newman, B. (2012) ‘Ailments of the Tongue’, London Review of Books, 34, 6.

[2] The Great Puffin Joke Directory, by Brough Girling, Puffin Books, 1990.

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.