Theories of Language
1. Walkley and Dellar offer no coherent account of language. They talk about two opposing views. The first view, the “wrong” one, is that “language can be reduced to a list of grammar structures that you can drop single words into.” This is called the “grammar + words” view; it’s described on page 9 of Teaching Lexically and subsequently referred to dozens of times throughout the book. The description is a derelict misrepresentation of grammar models of the English language such as those found in Quirk et.al. (1985), or Swan (2001), which describe the structure of English in terms of grammar, the lexicon and phonology.
2. The second view , the “right” one, is an attempt to summarise Hoey’s (2005) view that the best model of language structure is the word, along with its collocational and colligational properties. Collocation and “nesting” (words join with other primed words to form a sequence) are linked to contexts and co-texts, and grammar is replaced by a network of chunks of words. There are no rules of grammar; there’s no English outside a description of the patterns we observe among those who use it. As Hoey himself points out,
If this view of language is correct, if grammar and semantics are post-hoc effects of the way lexical items have been primed, … there is no right or wrong in language. It makes little sense to talk of something being ungrammatical. All one can say is that a lexical item or items are used in a way not predicted by your priming…. everybody’s language is truly unique, in that all our lexical items are primed differently as a result of different encounters.
3. Few linguists or teachers accept such a view. Hoey argues that we should look only at attested behaviour and abandon descriptions of syntax, but, while nobody these days denies the importance of lexical chunks, very few want to ignore the rules which guide the construction of novel, well formed sentences. After all, pace Hoey, people speaking English (including learners of English as an L2) invent millions of novel utterances every day, and they do so by making use of, among other things, grammatical knowledge. Walkley and Dellar acknowledge the importance of grammar, indicating some limits to their adherence to Hoey’s model, but they nowhere clarify these limits.
4. While Walkley and Dellar repeatedly stress that their different view of language is what drives their approach to teaching, they fail to offer any coherent account of “a lexical view of language”.
Theories of Language Learning
5. Walkley and Dellar offer no coherent account of how people learn an L2: no examination or evaluation of theories of SLA is attempted.
6. Hoey’s Lexical Priming Theory is adopted without any proper description or evaluation being attempted. The bare claim is made that when we learn a lexical item, it becomes primed for collocation, grammatical category, semantic associations and colligation, and that’s how we learn language.
7. When one looks at serious attempts by Nick Ellis and others to develop a theory of language learning based on usage and statistical learning, where priming is an integrated component, the inadequacies of Walkley and Dellar’s “explanation” are particularly apparent.
There is need for a detailed theoretical analysis of the processes of explicit and implicit learning. What can be learned implicitly? If implicit learning is simply associationist learning and the induction of statistical regularities, what aspects of language can be so acquired? Just how modular and inaccessible are the implicit learning processes for language acquisition? What are the various mechanisms of explicit learning that are available to the language learner? If the provision of explicit rules facilitates, or is Implicit AND Explicit Learning necessary for, the acquisition of certain forms, what are the appropriate nature of these rules? What are the developmental paths of implicit and explicit learning abilities? Are there sensitive periods for implicit language acquisition? (N. Ellis, 2015, p.2)
8. Instead of stating a coherent view of (second) language learning, Walkley and Dellar offer 6 “principles of learning”, which aren’t principles at all. They say:
“Essentially, to learn any given item of language, people need to carry out the following stages:
- Understand the meaning of the item.
- Hear/see an example of the item in context.
- Approximate the sounds of the item.
- Pay attention to the item and notice its features.
- Do something with the item – use it in some way.
- Repeat these steps over time, when encountering the item again in other contexts”.
We’re not told what “an item” of language is, though there must be tens or even hundreds of thousands of them, or how they all get learned in this 6-step process.
9. Note that the key Step 4 is bolted on to Hoey’s explanation of language learning. Hoey says Krashen’s distinction between acquisition and learning is correct: explicit learning only functions as a monitor, and priming is the unconscious process through which language acquisition happens. Walkley and Dellar turn to Schmidt for the “paying attention and noticing” bit of priming, but they fail to explain how Schmidt’s hypothesis works inside the framework of Hoey’s theory.
10. Teaching Lexically involves using a product (Breen, 1987) or synthetic (Long, 2015) syllabus, and “doing things to learners” (Breen, 1987). In Teaching Lexically, teachers make all the decisions. They work with a pre-confected syllabus and students are expected to learn the “items” that the teacher selects by going through the 6 stages listed above.
11. The goal is to teach lots of lexical chunks. The chapters in Part B of Teaching Lexically on teaching speaking, reading, listening and writing are driven by the same over-arching aim: look for new ways to teach more lexis, or to re-introduce lexis that has already been presented.
12. Walkley and Dellar promote the view that education is primarily concerned with the transmission of information. In doing so, they run counter to the principles of learner-centred teaching where students are seen as learners whose needs and opinions have to be continuously sought out and acted upon.
13. Walkley and Dellar take an extreme interventionist position on teaching. The language is divided into items, small numbers of which are presented to learners via various types of texts, and practised using pattern drills, exercises and all the other means outlined in the book, including comprehension checks, error corrections and so on, before moving on to the next set of items. Most of class time is given over to explicit teaching.
14. Translation into the L1 is regarded as the best way of dealing with meaning. Compare this to an approach that sees the negotiation of meaning as a key aspect of language teaching so the lesson is conducted mainly in the L2. This is only to suggest that while using the L1 can be helpful, it should be done sparingly.
15. Walkley and Dellar see explicit learning and explicit teaching as paramount, and they assume that explicit knowledge can be converted into implicit knowledge through practice. These assumptions clash with SLA research findings. As Long says:
“implicit and explicit learning, memory and knowledge are separate processes and systems, their end products stored in different areas of the brain” (Long, 2015, p. 44).
16. To assume, as Dellar and Walkley do, that the best way to teach English as an L2 is to devote the majority of classroom time to the explicit teaching and practice of pre-selected bits of the language is to fly in the face of SLA research.
17. Learners of English as an L2 require knowledge of about 5,000 word families for adequate comprehension of speech and 9,000 for reading. Since there clearly isn’t enough time to handle that many items in class, massive amounts of extensive reading outside class, scaffolded by teachers, should be encouraged.
18. As for lexical chunks, there are hundreds of thousands of them. As Swan (2006) points out, “memorising 10 lexical chunks a day, a learner would take nearly 30 years to achieve a good command of 10,000 of them”. So how does one select which chunks to explicitly teach, and how does one teach them? Walkley and Dellar give no satisfactory answer to the question. The general line is: work with the material you have, and look for the lexical chunks that occur in the texts, or that are related to the words in the texts. This is clearly not a satisfactory criterion for selection.
19. Walkley and Dellar make no mention of the fact that learning lexical chunks is one of the most challenging aspects of learning English as an L2 for adult learners. They simply assume that by going through the 6 step process, and devoting a great deal of time to Step 4, the explicit teaching will turn into implicit knowledge and communicative competence. Quite apart from the question of how many chunks a teacher is expected to treat so exhaustively, there are good reasons to question the assumption that such instruction will have the desired result.
20. One of the most important questions confronting those designing English as an L2 courses is this:
What proportion of class time (from 0% to 100%) should be devoted to a focus on the L2 as object and what proportion on the L2 as a medium of communication, given that both are necessary parts of any ELT course?
In my reply to Walkly, I quoted Wong, Gil and Marsden (2014) who concluded that, despite other differences, most SLA researchers agreed on the relative importance of the roles of implicit and explicit learning.
“Implicit learning is more basic and more important than explicit learning, and superior. Access to implicit knowledge is automatic and fast, and is what underlies listening comprehension, spontaneous speech, and fluency. It is the result of deeper processing and is more durable as a result, and it obviates the need for explicit knowledge, freeing up attentional resources for a speaker to focus on message content”.
21. While research shows that explicit instruction can have beneficial results, nobody who has studied instructed SLA recommends devoting most of classroom time to it. There are greater gains to be made in interlanguage development by concentrating on activities which help implicit knowledge than by concentrating on the presentation and practice of bits and pieces of language. Activities which develop the learners’ ability to make meaning in the L2, through exposure to comprehensible input, participation in discourse, and implicit or explicit feedback should take up the majority of classroom time.
22. We know that teaching is, as Long (2015) puts it, “subject to the learner’s cognitive ‘veto’” but we can still manipulate the linguistic environment so as to affect whether implicit or explicit learning takes place. We can choose the type of input to which learners are exposed, the relevance of the input to the learner’s needs, the sequence and salience of linguistic features within that input, and the tasks we give learners. Some tasks, like dictation, oral drills, written fill-in-the-blanks exercises, focus on language as object and encourage intentional and explicit language learning. Others, like “solving a problem through small group discussion, reading an interesting story, or repairing a bicycle while watching a ‘how-to’ video on YouTube”, to give Long’s examples, encourage a focus on meaning and communication, and in the process create opportunities for incidental learning. Our decisions about how to manipulate the linguistic environment should, I suggest, be made in a principled way that respects what we know about the process of SLA, and reflects our pedagogical principles.
23. For the reasons discussed above, my argument is that Walkley and Dellar’s views are mistaken, misguided, and misleading. They give no adequate account of language or of language learning, and they promote an approach to teaching which is unlikely to be efficient in helping learners develop communicative competence or to achieve a functional command of the L2.
Breen, M. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design, Part 2. Language Teaching, 20, 2.
Ellis, N. (2015) Implicit AND Explicit Language Learning: Their dynamic interface and complexity
In Rebuschat (Ed.). Implicit and explicit learning of languages (pp. 3-23). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT. Wiley.
Swan, M. (12005) Practical English Usage. London, Longmans.
Quirk, Randolph and Greenbaum, Sidney and Leech, Geoffrey and Svartvik, Jan. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman.