Do It Like Dellar, Or Use Your Brain?

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In his talk Teaching Grammar Lexically, Dellar tells us about the life-changing effects that reading Michael Lewis’ The Lexical Approach had on him. What it did was to jolt him out of his comfortable life of grammar-based PPP teaching, and make him realise that language was not lexicalised grammar, but rather grammaticalised lexis. This “profound shift in perspective” took its toll; Dellar confesses that struggling with the challenging implications of Lewis’ text threw his teaching into a state of chaos for two years, and that he and his co-author Andrew Walkley have spent more than twenty years “unpicking” its “dense” content.  About ten years later, Dellar had sufficiently recovered from his intellectual odyssey to read another book, Hoey’s Lexical Priming, and this led to an even deeper understanding of, and commitment to, the lexical approach. The extent of Hoey’s influence on Dellar can be appreciated by noting that, after 2005, Dellar’s stock of constructs doubled – from one to two, so that it now consists of “lexical chunks” and “priming”.  Undaunted by widespread criticism of Lewis’ and Hoey’s arguments (neither offers a developed theory of SLA or a principled methodology for ELT), and unencumbered by complicated theorising or thinking critically, Dellar sees ELT with uncluttered clarity. Alas, he also sees the need to share his vision with others, and so he travels around the world extolling teachers everywhere to profoundly shift their perspective, throw off the “tyranny of PPP” and embrace the promise of properly primed lexical chunks.

In contrast to this simplistic, evangelical proselytising, real educators take the view that the primary goal of education is to encourage people to question everything, to think critically for themselves. It emphasises the dance of ideas, the delight in thinking about things in such a way that one’s intellect is engaged, one’s appreciation of the complexity of things is improved, and the accumulation of information is down-played. In primary and secondary schools, the good teachers are those who encourage students to question conventional wisdom and at university, the same ethos of critical thinking is what informs the best academic staff; they’re less concerned with facts than with what their students make of them. My concern is that in the world of ELT training, this type of approach is not much in evidence.

What is critical thinking?

The ability to think critically involves three things:

  1. An attitude: don’t believe what you’re told.
  2. Knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning
  3. Skill in applying the methods referred to in 2 above.

Critical thinking demands a persistent effort to examine anything you’re told in the light of the evidence that supports it and the logic of its conclusions. It demands that you’re not impressed by who said it, that you remain open-minded, and, above all, that you think rationally for yourself. It refers to your ability to interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments. it refers, that is, to your ability to critically examine the so-called facts, to assess the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions and to assess whether conclusions are warranted.

Critical thinking is needed when you do your own work and when you assess the work of others. When you do your own work in an MA paper, critical thinking demands that you

  • articulate the problems addressed
  • look for means for solving those problems
  • gather and marshal pertinent information
  • evaluate the information gathered.

When you evaluate your own work and the work of others you must identify defects such as

  • poor articulation of the problem
  • appeals to authority
  • unstated assumptions and values
  • partial data
  • unwarranted conclusions

Thinking critically is, in my opinion, most of all an attitude.  It’s the attitude of  a sceptic, of one who can sniff a rat. In many areas of life you’ll be well-advised to deliberately ignore the scent, but when it comes to matters academic, sniffing a rat, sensing that there’s something wrong in the argumentation and evidence given in a text, is a skill that needs nurturing and honing. Once you adopt the right attitude, then you have to improve your ability to not just feel there’s something wrong, but to identify exactly what that something is.

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Back to the Baloney: Dellar’s Lexical Approach  

From the evidence available on his websites, blogs, and recorded interviews, webinars and presentations, Dellar’s approach to ELT training is severely at odds with the critical approach I’ve sketched above. Despite his confusion about both theories of language (UG = Structuralism??) and theories of SLA, Dellar presumes to tell teachers what’s wrong and what’s right. PPP grammar teaching is wrong, teaching lexical chunks is right. Rather than attempt to evaluate different approaches to ELT and tentatively recommend this or that alternative, Dellar banishes doubt and gives the strong impression that he’s cracked it: he’s worked out the definitive blueprint of ELT, and all he has to do is to overcome the entrenched resistance of those still chained to Headway, or English File, or whatever coursebook it is that keeps them languishing under the oppression of PPP grammar teaching.

Any initial excitement  you might feel about someone proposing a move away from coursebook-led teaching soon evaporates when you realize that Dellar is against grammar-based coursebooks, but not coursebooks per se; indeed the definitive blueprint of ELT turns out to be nothing other than his own coursebook series Outcomes! Delivery from the tyranny of grammar teaching and emergence into the brave new world of the lexical approach is a simple affair: you just throw away Headway and pick up Outcomes and  then lead your students, unit by unit. through its mind-numbingly boring pages, just as with any other coursebook. The only difference between the tyrannical past and the liberated future is that grammar boxes are replaced with long lists of leaden lexical chunks, repeated exposure to which is somehow supposed to lead to communicative competence.

If we examine Dellar’s published work – his blogs, his video presentations, his webinars, his conference presentations, and his coursebooks – we find very little evidence of critical thinking about language, language learning or language teaching.

  • Does his work invite teachers to critically consider different views of language? Does it consider the arguments for a generative grammar as argued by Chomsky, versus the arguments for a structuralist approach as argued by Bloomfield, or a functional approach, as argued by Halliday, or a functional-notional approach as argued by Wilkims, or a lexical approach as argued by Pawley, or Nattinger, or Byber? Or does it tell them that English is best seen as lexically-driven, and that’s that?
  • Does his work invite teachers to consider the pros and cons of different accounts of SLA, of different weights given to input and output, of explicit and implicit learning, of different accounts of interlanguage development? Or does it tell them that priming is the key to SLA?  Does Dellar’s oeuvre encourage teachers to critically assess the construct of priming? Or is priming taken as a given, and is it simply asserted that lexical chunks are the secret of language learning?

Conclusion

ELT training is too often characterised by an “I know best” assumption, and by its general rejection of a critical approach to education. Instead of approaching teacher training sessions with prepared answers already in hand, teacher trainers should adopt a critical thinking approach to their job. They should ask teachers open questions, toss some provisional answers out for discussion, invite teachers to critically evaluate them, and work with teachers to help them come up with their own tentative solutions. I need hardly add that these tentative solutions should then be critically discussed.

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One thought on “Do It Like Dellar, Or Use Your Brain?

  1. I think it was Bertrand Russell who defined a pedant as someone who cares whether what they say is true. Can I suggest that you add this, caring whether what you say is true, to your list of things that are involved in critical thinking?

    Like

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