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.

L is for Linguistic landscape

11 03 2012

I took the photos (below) in one 20-minute walk from home to the gym last week. (You may need to click on them to see the details of their texts).

They all feature language, or better, languages, and are typical of the multilingual ‘linguistic landscape’ that is Barcelona – or, for that matter, any large cosmopolitan centre in the 21st century.  Barcelona may be an extreme case of public multilingualism, given the fact that it is the capital of a region that already has two official languages, as well as being a major tourist centre. Nevertheless, as English extends its (some might say insidious) global reach, there must be few places in the world where public signage and advertising hoardings don’t intermix languages. (An exception is/was Libya, where the law proscribes anything but Arabic).

The term linguistic landscape (LL) is a relatively recent one, and

refers to the visibility and salience of languages on public and commercial signs in a given territory or region. It is proposed that the linguistic landscape may serve important informational and symbolic functions as a marker of the relative power and status of the linguistic communities inhabiting the territory (Landry and Bourhis, 1997: 23).

In a recent collection of papers, Shohamy and Barni (2010: xiv) add that, ‘the notion “linguistic landscape” … includes any written sign found outside private homes, from road signs to names of streets shops and schools.  The study of LLs focuses on analysing these items according to the languages utilised, their relative saliency, syntactic or semantic aspects’. (Elana Shohamy gave a memorable plenary on this very subject at the IATEFL Conference in Cardiff in 2009).

This kind of analysis – or a simplified version of it – is not beyond the reach of English language learners. As I have blogged elsewhere this week, learners have the means (e.g. their mobile phones) and the opportunities (unless they live in Libya) to collect examples of signage in English, or English mixed with a local language, in their own context.

In a recent article, Peter Sayer (2010: 152) describes how he documented and classified the uses of English in the linguistic landscape of Oaxaca, Mexico, and adds that such a study ‘can easily be reproduced as a classroom project, with the students taking on the role of “language detectives”‘, thereby becoming more aware of their own sociolinguistic context.

The photos they bring to class could become the focus of the following questions:

  1. Where was this photo taken?
  2. How many languages can you see?
  3. What is the relative status of the languages? How can you tell?
  4. Who wrote the text? For whom?
  5. Why is (some of it) in English?
  6. Is there a translation? Why/why not?
  7. Is it correct?
  8. Is there anything you don’t understand?
  9. Is there anything you would like to remember?

Particularly interesting is the way that the use of English indexes specific discourses, such as the aspirational culture of brand-name consumer goods. But it can also frame the language of dissent and resistance. Here, for example, is a piece of graffiti spray-painted on the rocks at a beach (Canet de Mar) north of Barcelona. It says ‘NO MORE GUIRIS IN CANET’.  (Guiri is a fairly pejorative Spanish word for tourist).

It intrigues me that, while the language chosen to frame the message is English (easily intelligible to foreign visitors), the author uses a Spanish word (guiri) that most tourists would not understand.  Which raises the question: for whom was the message written – and why? Clearly, there is an intertextual element – the use of English in graffiti is widespread, and the NO MORE-frame is a recognisable feature of the discourse of protest. At the same time, the use of the word guiris serves to exclude a wider readership – reflecting (intentionally or not) the way that the writer seems to wish to exclude tourists from Canet. The interplay between the global and the local – through the use of an in-group expression embedded in an international catchphrase  – captures the essence of the message, making it less an expression of out-group-directed protest and more an expression of in-group-directed solidarity.

Such are the language affordances provided by the linguistic landscape!


Landry, R. and Bourhis, R. (1997) ‘Linguistic landscape and ethnolinguistic vitality: an empirical study’, Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 16,  1.

Sayer, P. (2010) ‘Using the linguistic landscape as a pedagogical resource’, ELT Journal, 64, 2.

Shohamy, E. and Barni, M. (2010) Linguistic Landscape in the City, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

G is for Gist

27 11 2011

A couple of weeks ago Patrick Huang, a teacher trainer in Toronto, wrote to me:

I was hoping you could help with this notion of ‘gist’ tasks, which I’ve always thought as helpful in the ESL classroom.  … A colleague in Seoul recently met Michael Swan, and he mentioned that Michael has reservations about the use or usefulness of gist tasks for students. I also seem to remember seeing an article along the same lines.

What’s your current view on this? Do you include / recommend this in your MA TESOL course? Would you be able to refer me to sources where I can do more reading on the topic? I might then be able to give my students and trainees more useful and helpful ideas and practice.

Reading for gist is conventionally associated with the idea of skimming, which, in turn, is typically mentioned in association with scanning. In An A-Z of ELT these terms are defined like this:

  •  skimming (skim-reading, reading for gist): rapidly reading a text in order to get the gist, or the main ideas or sense of a text. For example, a reader might skim a film review in order to see if the reviewer liked the film or not.
  • scanning: reading a text in search of specific information, and ignoring everything else, such as when consulting a bus timetable for a particular time and destination.

Setting skimming and scanning tasks in the language classroom rose to prominence with the advent of the communicative approach, and its promotion of the use of authentic texts. Authentic texts were considered to be more in tune with a functional (i.e. non-structural) view of language, and lent themselves to a task cycle in which different skills were integrated in order to achieve a communicative outcome. Arguably, the only way to deal with such texts – especially at lower levels – was to skim and scan them. “You don’t have to read every word!” the long-suffering students were exhorted.

Very quickly, skimming/scanning became an end in itself, and teachers were misled into thinking that, by having students skim or scan texts, they were developing the skill of reading. How often do you see this expressed as an aim in examined lessons: “To develop the sub-skill of skimming a text for its gist…”

This overlooks two basic facts: (a) most students already know how to skim/scan texts in their L1, and will transfer these skills to their L2, when faced with texts whose purpose  precludes a closer reading; and (b) the skimming and scanning of texts (in the absence of a more intensive reading) is a characteristic, not of good readers, but of poor ones.

(These, I suspect, are Michael Swan’s arguments too).

Of course, it’s true that students, faced with a text in class, tend to ‘park’ their L1 reading skills, assuming that the text is a linguistic object, rather than a communicative one, and adopt a one-word-at-a-time strategy. Setting gist tasks, initially, is one way of discouraging this tendency. Giving students a time-limit to identify what the text is about, who wrote it, to whom, and why, seems an excellent way of ‘peeling off the first layer of the onion’, as it were. But this is less a skill-teaching strategy than a text-attack one. And, unless it is followed up by a more detailed reading, including some kind of focus on the linguistic features of the text (e.g. its lexical, grammatical, or discourse features), it would seem to be a singular waste of time and resources.

It’s also true that L1 reading skills don’t transfer automatically to the L1 if the text is beyond the learners’ present linguistic competence – particularly if it contains a relatively high proportion of unfamiliar words. This is what is sometimes known as the ‘threshold effect’. As Catherine Wallace (2001, p. 22) puts it,

L2 readers need a minimum threshold level of general L2 language competence before they can generalise their L1 reading abilities into L2. Where proficient L2 learners are good readers in their L1, the consensus view (based on a wide range of research studies and teachers’ observation) is that reading abilities can, indeed, be generalised across languages even in the case of differing scripts.

This would suggest that, in order to optimise skill transfer, the teacher should either pre-teach the unfamiliar vocabulary, or choose (or create)  texts whose lexis is within the students’ present competence. Researchers suggest that familiarity with 95% or more of the words in a text is the cut-off point. (The Vocab Profile tool on the Compleat Lexical Tutor website allows a highly useful test – based on word frequency data – of a text’s readability).

But pre-teaching vocabulary or using graded texts is not ‘teaching reading’. It is simply allowing learners to transfer existing skills into their L2 reading.  Why do it, then? Because texts are a useful springboard into other activities, including speaking and writing, as well as offering the opportunity for a more detailed analysis of the text’s grammatical or discourse features. Failure to exploit texts in these ways, by simply skimming or scanning them, teaches nobody nothing.


Wallace, C. 2001. ‘Reading’.  In  Carter, R.,  & Nunan, D. (eds.) The Cambridge Guide to TESOL. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

D is for Discourse

9 01 2011

On the bus: Illustration by Quentin Blake for 'Success with English' (Penguin 1968)

In a recent article I describe the term discourse as being “both slippery and baggy: slippery because it eludes neat definition, and baggy because it embraces a wide range of  linguistic and social phenomena” (Thornbury 2010, p. 270). Is there any way of nailing it down?

In An A-Z of ELT I define discourse as “any connected piece of speaking or writing”. Let’s test this definition with an authentic example:

Just arrivd. I’m on the bus.

The text is certainly connected: the travel lexis (arrivd and bus) connects the two clauses topically. The ellipted subject (I) in the first clause is recoverable from the second clause, so that both clauses share a common theme.   Moreover, the clauses are sequenced in such a way that they map on to the script that represents, in schematic form, what happens when people arrive at, say, an airport. The definite article the, in the bus, presupposes shared knowledge as to which bus (possibly the airport bus) is being referred to.

By invoking shared knowledge and a context of use, however, we are going beyond the (linguistic) text itself and hypothesizing, not only a recipient, but a particular relationship between the sender and the recipient, and a particular interpretation of the text that is consistent with the sender’s purpose. In short, we are assuming that the text is coherent, that it has some communicative purpose, and that it is the (partial) trace of a more extended exchange.

Which indeed it was: the message was sent (by me) in response to the following:

Are U there yet? Cheers, Grzegorz.

Grzegorz was hosting me at a conference in Warsaw, and had previously told me how to get from the airport into the center of town.  A different constellation of contextual variables would have produced a different discourse, leaving as its trace a different text. This in fact was the case when I sent the same text message, but with a change of article, to a friend:

Just arrvd. I’m on a bus.

In this case, the absence of any assumption of shared knowledge (a vs the) positions writer and reader in a different relationship. The communicative purpose has also shifted somewhat: whereas the first message is designed to reassure Grzegorz that everything is going to plan, the second implies a sense of novelty, strangeness, possibly adventure.  Here, then, we are concerned with the text less as connected sentences (discourse1, if you like), and more as an instance of language in use (discourse2).

But there is a third sense of ‘discourse’ that can be extracted from these tiny texts. The formula [I’m] on the bus connects to a larger discourse, which is that of text messages in general. The phrase would probably occur with significant frequency in any corpus of  text messages or mobile phone conversations. In this sense, the text makes (implicit) connections with other texts of the same type: it exhibits intertextuality. So much so that it (and its possibly even more frequent variant: I’m on the train) index a social practice that has generated its own ‘meta-discourse’. Here, for example, is how one website humorously glosses the phrase:

I’m on the bus

Said in two different environments:

1. When commuting on the bus and one is engaged in a mobile phone conversation, it is used to avoid talking loudly about embarrassing topics in a crowd of eavesdropping fellow commuters.

2. When person A is tired, or doesn’t see the logic of why person B has called, this can be said to avoid conversation with person B.

A: “Hey what did the doctor say about that lump on your balls?”
B: “I’m on the bus.”
A: “Oh alright.”

(from The Urban Dictionary)

The social and cultural meanings that text messages have accreted, then, constitute a third sense of discourse: discourse as social practice, or discourse3. (Some writers – e.g. Blommaert 2005, and Gee 2005 – would argue that social practice extends beyond mere language use, and that discourse as social practice should include “all forms of meaningful semiotic human activity” [Blommaert, op.cit. p. 3]. But for the purposes of this discussion I’ll take discourse as social practice to mean ‘social practice as encoded in language‘).

As a further example of the way ‘I’m on the bus’ has achieved catchphrase status, and hence indexes a social practice, in 2004 the Brighton & Hove Bus and Coach Company used it as a slogan for promoting bus travel in the region, emblazoning it across the sides of its buses alongside blown-up portraits of transport workers and local commuters. As the managing director commented, “It really has been a great way of connecting with the community we are pleased to serve and making our buses come alive with the people who travel around on them” (Brighton & Hove Bus & Coach Co website)

In this case, then, ‘I’m on the bus’ instantiates a larger discourse of community values and civic pride, of which the managing director’s upbeat comment contributes yet another strand.

So, discourse can mean connected text, or language in use, or language as a social practice. Which leads me to wonder: which of these meanings has the most relevance to the way learners are taught to interpret and produce texts in class?


Blommaert, J. 2005. Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gee, J. 2005. Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method (2nd edn). London: Continuum.

Thornbury, S. 2010. What can a corpus tell us about discourse? In O’Keeffe, A., & McCarthy, M. (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Corpus Linguistics. London: Routledge.

P is for Poetry

10 10 2010


The Lake Isle of Innisfree (by W.B.Yeats)


A couple of days ago I got the following email:

I am a fellow kiwi (like so many, living in Australia) preparing for the DELTA which has led me to read a rather large number of your books (among other authors) which I have really enjoyed and I just wanted to say how interested/ inspired I am to see your frequent examples using poetry in the classroom. I have a fondness for poetry but have always been a bit wary of using it in the classroom especially as even colleagues will label poetry as “elitist” or “obscure” and therefore not fit to use in a communicative environment.

Now, however, I feel ready to sally forth and use poetry in the classroom more frequently, ignoring what my other colleagues have to say,

To which I replied:

Thanks for your message — it’s nice to know that the poetry is appreciated. The fact that poetry is open to multiple interpretations, exploits repetition and figurative language, breaks rules, is generally short, and encodes interesting cultural information, all make it exploitable in the language classroom, I figure.

How, then, would you use a poem in class? Here’s what I said about the classroom use of literary texts in Beyond the Sentence:

Essentially there needn’t be any major differences between the approach to using non-literary texts and the approach to using literary ones. However, you might have to work harder at the pre-text stage, providing any helpful background knowledge (including cultural and biographical information), and you might have to intervene more at the comprehending stage, i.e. the stage where learners are attempting to construct a coherent mental schema of the text. What is important (as with non-literary texts) is that at some point you should solicit the learners’ response to the text, including their feelings about it: did they find it moving, funny, difficult, thought-provoking, etc? And why, or why not? At some point, and especially if the text is a poem, learners should be given the opportunity of hearing the text read aloud. Often … the text doesn’t properly come alive until it is heard.

In order to demonstrate how this might work, let’s take an example by one of my favourite poets, W.B. Yeats:

The Balloon of the Mind

Hands, do what you’re bid:
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.


...that bellies and drags in the wind.... (photo by Saeid Shahin Kiya)


1. Project or dictate the title, and ask “Why is the mind like a balloon?” Brainstorm possible answers.
2. Read the poem aloud, naturally but at an easy pace. Students listen. (Or play this recording).
3. They then write down any words or phrases they caught on this first hearing and compare notes.
4. Repeat stages 2 and 3.
5. Project the poem, or write it on the board. Read it aloud again.
6. Check the meaning of bid (= order), bellies (from the noun belly), drags, and shed.
7. Ask some check questions: Who is addressing whom, in order to do what? What is the object of do? What is the object of bring? What or where is the narrow shed? Elicit a translation, if feasible.
8. Ask “Why is the poem a good example of its own message?”
9. (Optional: Draw attention to the (half-)rhymes and the rhythm (three prominent syllables in each line) and ask the students to practise reciting the poem, in pairs and as a group).
10. (Optional: Ask students to draw an image that “describes” the poem; compare).
11. “Think about a way that the poem reflects your own experience”. Discuss and report.
12. “Hide” the poem, and see if the class can re-construct it from memory.
13. Ask students to write a poem beginning “X, do what you’re bid” – where X stands for any of the following: eyes, ears, tongue, heart, feet etc.

Do you have a “poem lesson” that you’d like to share? Or a favourite poem you have used in class?


Yeats, W.B. (1950) The Collected Poems of W.B.Yeats (2nd edn). London: Macmillan.

T is for Text

14 12 2009

…specifically, using texts for grammar presentation.

In the A-Z there’s no mention of the value of using texts as a means for presenting grammar, neither under the entry for text nor for grammar teaching, an oversight I feel I should correct – especially in the light of the following exchange.

Just a week or so ago, I received this email, from a woman I’ll call Irena. (The text is reproduced with Irena’s permission):

I am a third-year English Language and Literature student at the Faculty of Philology in XXX,  and one of my elective courses this year is Methodology of ELT. We are using your book ( How to Teach Grammar) as our core book and, while it has been extremely useful so far, I do find myself in need of assistance.

Namely, I was supposed to micro-teach last Thursday in front of my class, but, no matter how hard I had tried, I could not prepare myself. My task was (and still is) to teach grammar from texts. Now I will have to do it this Thursday and I still have a hard time trying to prepare the lesson plan…

My idea is to teach Past Simple Tense because it is most easily demonstrated with the help of texts, but I am not sure how to actually put my ideas to work. Do I find a text and read it aloud and then ask my students if they can notice past tense verbs? Do I give them handouts? I know the text should not be long, so should I ask them to read it out loud? Which text should I choose? What kind of activity would be best to engage my students? What are the best exercises? And should I teach Past Simple Tense at all? I am really confused and, quite frankly, terrified of doing it. Not to mention I am still planless, and the micro-teaching has to occur in less than 2 days.

So I would appreciate any sort of help you can offer …

What advice would you give Irena?