Teaching English as a Second Language


A while ago, I blogged on some aspects of teaching and understanding English.  Those articles were heavily influenced by Michael Lewis’ books.  The first article explained a different view of English verb tense as expressing attitude or perspective. This perspective could be temporal, but it could also be one of certainty/doubt or formality/informality. The second article explained the centrality of multi-word phrases (lexis, collocations, idioms) in language. Not only were these the prime carriers of meaning (as opposed to single words), but fluency involved mastering them rather than mastering grammar and vocabulary. In fact, these phrases had their own grammatical rules.  Thus grammar went from a universal system governing all word use, to a function of word groups.

This is a simplification so if you are interested, I recommend reading the articles.  Better yet, read Lewis’ books (bibliography below).

This article moves a bit further with some themes.


Input vs. Intake

Research shows most language is learned outside the classroom.  Yet how can a student turn language encountered into language learned (instead of exposure to gibberish)?  One answer is an interpretive framework. If a student knows enough about the language to recognize structures, the student could then parse at least some of it.  Then the student might be able to infer meaning from context, or at least identify key phrases as worthy of future research/noticing.

Noticing is key; the student must be able to recognize chunks of meaning as such — even if the meaning is not known.

For instance, people often speak very rapidly so that phrases can sound almost like a single word.  So say a student hears the following:


It sounds like a stream of babble. But let’s say the student learned about prepositions and their role in relating nouns, and is familiar with “to”.  Now in hearing this, the “to” might stand out in sharp relief, giving the student a pivot upon which to parse the phrase into the more manageable:

hewent to thestore

Still not perfect, but now there’s some knowledge.  There’s an actor and a target (possibly a destination).  Now the key is to understand what hewent and thestore means, but at least knowing the possible range of relationships expressed has already given the student quite a bit to work with, and the scope for research has been reduced.

Naturally, as the student learns more about verbs and articles, further parsing can be done.  In fact, if the student gets good enough at recognizing discrete units in speech then s/he might even be able to successfully parse (if not understand) the above phrase as:

he went to the store

So a key to understanding is in recognizing chunks of a language so the student knows what to focus on.  This may be why language with which we are unfamiliar sounds like an unbroken stream of gibberish, but once we learn enough we start to recognize individual words.  Are people really speaking with clearly defined word/phrasal boundaries, or do we just learn to parse out the words in an unbroken stream because we recognize the patterns?  Not appreciating our role as interpreters can have a negative impact on usefully processing the language students encounter.


Consciousness Raising

If the above is true, then one of the most valuable — if not the most valuable — roles of class is not in teaching students new language (although that too should be done), but in teaching them how to process the language they encounter.  Naturally, phrases and vocabulary do help as they give students recognizable chunks with which to start parsing (again, see how the example above benefited from “to”).  With this in mind, we should emphasize this aspect of learning and introduce more consciousness-raising activities.

Consciousness raising is just getting people to start recognizing important parts of language, such as phrases, key words and so on — all with an eye towards multi-word units.  Various activities could be done to promote this skill.  Students could read texts and highlight key phrases, collocations and so on.  Multi-word combinations that occur multiple times could be singled out for special notice, and the ability to be able to do this with the spoken word should also be practiced.

This way, students are given the skills to learn language outside of class rather than unrealistically trying to teach them all the language they need to know.



I’ve used this word a few times, so it’s time to explain it.  Collocations are words that occur together more times than would be expected by chance.  I’m not talking about things like articles, which are overly generic, but things like “heavy smoker”.  Notice how “heavy smoker” is a frequent pairing, as opposed to “big smoker” or even “major smoker”.  Why do we choose one over the other?  Maybe there was an answer (now lost to the mists of time), but now this is simply the way it is.  Often, “wrong” word combinations that students choose have nothing to do with grammar, they are simply not the way things are said.  This means a mastery of grammar may contribute much less to fluency than many people think.  Would a mastery of grammar really tell students that “heavy smoker” is the right collocation, as opposed to “big smoker” or “major smoker”?

So when encountering words, spend some time on their collocations and remember these words may also be parts of idioms. Idioms are a lot more central than many people think.


Authentic Language

Students need to use English effectively, and this means using English as native speakers do.  This means the samples chosen should be real-world examples.  Think twice about using a doctored or simplified example from a textbook, and make heavier use of real-world corpora such as magazine articles, transcripts of talks and so on.

Another aspect of authentic language is in how students practice.

Since language is about communication, classroom practice should revolve around authentic communication activities.  While practicing form has its place, at some point the student should generate real meaning (as opposed to scripts) with the language learned.  For example, instead of practicing sentences that involve prepositions of place, have students do activities like telling other students how to get to certain places on a map or how to place tiles to solve a puzzle. These activities have a goal, require real communication (in the service of a real task with a real outcome), and naturally draws out the language desired.

In short: Task Based Learning


Further Reading & Resources

This is a free Concordancer — a tool to search for collocations of words in actual corpora.

The English Verb by Michael Lewis

The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis

Implementing the Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis

Lexical Approach Activities by Ken Lackman

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