Hugh Dellar is a coursebook writer, a frequent conference speaker, a teacher trainer, and an EFL teacher. He’s perhaps best known for his promotion of the lexical approach. While I know how strongly he feels about the importance of lexis in ELT, I’ve become increasingly confused about what he thinks the lexical approach is and how he thinks it should be implemented. It all started on Sunday when I read a tweet from Hugh who was at the IATEFL Poland conference. He wrote:
“intensive & focused pure lexical syllabus can help break down the fossilisation that result from bringing L1 primings into L2”.
What I didn’t immediately realise was that he was in the audience at a presentation, tweeting bits as soon as they came out of the presenters’ mouths. So great is Hugh’s enthusiasm for the lexical approach, he just can’t wait to spread the good news! Anyway, I tweeted
What’s a “pure lexical syllabus”? What fossilisation results from “L1 priming”? Sit down and have a glass of water Hugh.
Dellar: don’t think it’s too controversial to dub a syllabus which features only lexis & no explicit grammar teaching “pure” myself.
Me: You can dub it anything you like. What it is – apart from “only lexis and no explicit grammar”?
Dellar: if you mean what goes in it, that’s obviously open to debate. It is what it is though whatever else you’d rather call it.
Me: Pure nonsense!
Dellar: says you. And not sure they’d the most helpful way of furthering the debate you were after.
That’s as far as I got in my attempt to find out what a pure lexical syllabus might be. As for fossilisation,
Dellar: fossilisation can result from saying things in L2 using L1 primings, communicating meaning but not noticing the gap.
Me: You’ve used 4 constructs in that answer and all of them carry a lot of theoretical baggage. Result: highly-debateable assertion.
Hugh: most assertions are debatable aren’t they? We work in terrain not blessed with many concrete facts.
Apart from an equally unsuccessful attempt to find out how lexical priming fitted in to Dellar’s evolving view of language and ELT, that was that.
So I went and had a look at Dellar’s blog. What, I wondered, was a “pure lexical syllabus” and how can it rectify the fossilisation that results from “saying things in L2 using L1 primings, communicating meaning but not noticing the gap”? Eventually, I found a presentation where Dellar had recorded himself talking about “Teaching Grammar Lexically”. The presentation starts with Dellar telling us how, in his CELTA course, he was taught to teach under the tyranny of “PPP – grammar teaching”. Dellar explains:
“This was based on Chomsky and the whole idea of structuralist grammar…..I realise now that this is an outmoded and outdated way of thinking about grammar”.
During the presentation Hugh makes references to “structuralist grammar”, “structural grammar”, “Chomsky and grammar”, “that sort of grammar”, …..
By “Structuralist grammar” I think Dellar means structuralism, a school of linguistics associated with Saussure and Bloomfield. Structuralists took a descriptive view of their job and limited themselves to the grand task of describing and classifying languages all over the world in terms of well-defined linguistic units (although while Saussure remained faithful to this mission, Bloomfield allowed behaviourism to pervade American structuralism). Chomsky, of course, had a very different view of linguistics, and a very different view of grammar. Structuralism and Universal Grammar are thus not, pace Hugh, synonymous but rather diametrically opposed. Furthermore, UG represents a theory of language which provides an explanation of how we learn language, suggests that all natural languages share the same underlying properties, and has resulted in extraordinary scientific advances, especially in the area of developing artificial languages. It’s been the dominant paradigm in linguistics for the last 50 years, it has absolutely nothing to do with “the tyranny of PPP” or with any pedagogical grammar, and most linguists working today would beg to differ with the opinion that it’s an outmoded and outdated way of thinking about grammar.
What Dellar demonstrates here is a basic ignorance of theories of language, which is worrying for someone proselytising one very specific theory of language. I think Dellar means to say that PPP (the presentation and practice of discrete points of grammar) is an outdated way of teaching EFL / ESL. Let’s proceed. Dellar says that Michael Lewis’ book “The Lexical Approach” changed his life by introducing him to a new way of seeing language and of teaching EFL, namely the lexical approach, based on the claim that “Language is not lexicalised grammar, rather it’s grammaticalised lexis. First and foremost it’s lexis that carries more meaning and drives communication”.
The presentation is typical of Dellar’s work, in that is poorly-expressed, and full of assertions about language and language teaching which are as confidently made as they are lacking in either evidence or argument. Here are some of them:
• PPP gives the illusion of progress
• Murphy’s books, the Headway series, English File, they’re all based on a false view of language
• PPP doesn’t work because students learn to talk about English, not in English
• the system creates grammar fear and grammar dependency
• focusing on structures in isolation distorts the reality of usage
• the best way to teach English is to “Keep it real” – teach what people really say in English, stick to typical contexts, focus on institutionalised sentences
• conversations must be given priority
• don’t teach single words
and on and on. Lots of supplementary assertions are also made, including these:
• Despite Chomsky, there are only 10 to 12 verbs you use in the future perfect
• We use will to make promises, to make decisions at the time of speaking, to make threats, OK? You know, predictions. These definitions are useless unless they’re rooted in a store of commonly used sentences that students have acquired and are able to use. From this they start to develop a coherent understanding of the functions and underlying semantics of the grammar.
• What really gets you from intermediate to advanced isn’t grammar. It’s layer upon layer of lexis.
Questions that need answering
I suggest that in order to have credibility as a teacher trainer and presenter of the lexical approach Dellar needs to publicly address these questions:
1. What theory of language informs the lexical approach? If it’s Hoey’s theory of lexical priming, how can it be tested? What studies have been done to test it? What evidence from studies supports it?
2. How do children acquire the ability to speak their native language according to lexical priming? How does Hugh counter the poverty of the stimulus argument?
3. What theory of SLA informs the lexical approach? Does Dellar agree with Hoey that lexical priming theory gives 100% support to Krashen’s Monitor theory? If so, how does Dellar deal with the circularity of Krashen’s constructs, and the fact that Krashen’s theory gives no significant role to explicit learning?
4. How does Dellar respond to the thousands of studies in SLA which support the construct of interlanguage? The evidence from these studies supports the claim that SLA is a cognitive process involving the acquisition of grammatical competence along a relatively fixed route. Does Hugh dismiss this evidence?
5. How does Dellar use the construct of “noticing” in his lexical approach? Does he think that “lexical chunks” can simply be substituted for the areas of language Schmidt discusses? Schmidt, after all, went to a great deal of trouble to explain what his theoretical construct “noticing” is (and isn’t), and it’s important to appreciate that noticing is a construct used to support the argument for the need for explicit learning of aspects of grammar.
6. How does Dellar use the construct of “fossilisation”? Is he aware that many, including Larson-Freeman recently, challenge the idea of any end state, and that Hoey himself says we never stop learning?
Once Dellar has given some account of what he thinks language is and how he thinks second languages are learned, he needs to then address the question of classroom teaching. I have said elsewhere that in my opinion Lewis’ book The Lexical Approach cobbles together a confused jumble of half-digested ideas; fails to offer any coherent or cohesive ELT methodology; and offers no proper syllabus, or any principled way of teaching the “chunks” which he claims are the secret to the English language. No doubt Dellar disagrees, but he has yet to present his own lexical syllabus. To describe a language in a particular way is one thing; to work out the best way to teach it in a classroom is another. Which is simply to say that you can’t get prescriptions from descriptions, however much Dellar might think you can.
Given Dellar’s conviction that Lewis is right to say that language is not lexicalised grammar but rather, grammaticalised lexis, the question remains: How do you teach it to a class? Apart from saying “give them lots of real language”; “don’t teach single words”; “you MUST use conversation”; etc., and reeling off dozens of authentic utterances like I’ll see you later; I’ll see what I can do; This won’t hurt at all; That’ll do; I’ll be back in a minute; I’ll pay you back tomorrow; ..., how do you organise a 100 hour course based on a lexical approach? What’s needed is a syllabus.
Breen suggests that a syllabus can be organised in response to these questions:
1. What knowledge does it focus on?
2. What capabilities does it focus on?
3. On what basis does it select and subdivide?
4. How does it sequence what is to be learned?
5. What is its rationale?
The first question is important because I, like many, don’t think that knowledge of attested behaviour (which is what we get from looking at corpora of what people say) is the same as our knowledge of language. Hoey goes to great lengths to explain what’s involved in knowing a word (sic), but he restricts himself to what’s performed and ignores the possible. Despite Hoey (and Dellar’s simplistic paraphrase “don’t teach the possible, teach the probable”), most modern linguists find it important to address the questions of “externalised and internalised” language and of valency. Furthermore, most linguists, both pure and applied, agree that language is a cognitive, inventive process, and that when we speak of competence in a language, we refer to something close to Bachman’s model, a cluster of competences not best explained by any theory of lexical priming.
The other questions involve setting out not just the “what” but the “how” of classroom-based teaching. I presume that Dellar doesn’t want to substitute the PPP of discrete points of grammar for the PPP of lexical chunks. So what happens? How are the classes which make up the syllabus conducted? What are the roles of the teachers and learners? As many will know, Breen suggests that syllabuses can be divided into 2 types: product and process syllabuses, and he argues that process syllabuses are better. I look forward to Dellar telling us what his lexical syllabus looks like, and whether he thinks it represents a product or process syllabus, or something else entirely.
I understand that Dellar is soon to launch “LexLab”, which will be place where all those interested in a lexical approach can share their ideas. I suggest that Dellar can hardly launch such an ambitious project without giving a clear account of the lexical approach which addresses questions about the nature of language; L1 acquisition; SLA; the various competencies involved in communicative language ability; the role of noticing, fossilisation, and the lexical syllabus.