Archive | October 2014

Language myths

sekiyama shrine 2

Discussions  this week have made we consider how much influence the typical structural syllabus has on ELT and it is worrying that it still seems to hold so much sway. If we use a structural syllabus, we are being asked to accept the following:

1. Language should be learnt through a primary focus on grammatical forms.

2. The grammatical forms which are of most importance are based on verb phrases used with particular tenses and aspects (e.g. Present Simple) which learners can use to generate their own language.

3. These forms are best learnt through a sequence which is arranged something like verb to be, Present Simple, Present Continuous, Past Simple, Past Continuous, Present Perfect , Past Perfect and future forms. This is then repeated and reviewed as learners progress through the levels.

I think that these are (by and large) myths, which fly in the face of evidence. Here is how I would refute them:

1. There does not seem to be any evidence that this is the best way to organise a syllabus. Of course, all learners need grammar and of course they need help with it. But I think that most learners actually express themselves by using lexis. At an early stage this could be by using simple words (‘Coffee’, ‘Yes’ , ‘Ok’ etc) or stock phrases such as ‘My name’s___’, ‘I come from____’ ‘Can I have a ___ please’ etc. As a learner’s level improves s/he may be able to use more grammatical forms but this is largely because they have heard/read a larger stock of chunks to generalise from. The language which learners (even at intermediate levels) seem to produce are prototypical chunks such as ‘I’ve been living in the UK for ___’, ‘ I don’t understand’, ‘I think’ etc. I don;t think these are produced because the learner s knows the Present Simple or Perfect but because they are learnt as wholes- as we would learn idioms. Sinclair (1991) made this point about language when looking at the COBUILD corpus, suggesting that much language is produced according to ‘the idiom principle’ (in prototypical chunks) rather than from the ‘open-choice principle’ (using the flexibility of syntax to create new and original language).

2. Even if we accept that a structural syllabus is the best way to proceed, it is curious that an obsession with Present Simple etc still holds sway. Many learners across the world (Swan and Smith 2001) have major difficulties with  other areas of grammar such as determiners and how these connect to different types noun phrases, for example.  But determiners and noun phrases are almost ignored, aside from the odd lesson on articles or countable and uncountable nouns. There are also many other areas which (in my experience) are tricky for learners which are given only a fleeting focus in most structural syllabuses including  causative ‘have’ and ‘get’ and the cohesive devices ‘it’ ‘this’ and ‘that’ in written texts.

3. Early studies in SLA investigating order of acquisition  (for example Dulay and Burt 1974) suggest that a typical order  does not follow the sequence used in many coursebooks, Continuous forms seems to be acquired earlier than simple forms, for example. It seems curious  this evidence is often ignored when the sequencing of structures is chosen. Even if we do not accept the view that there is a typical order of acquisition, the kind of prototypical chunks which learners often need contain language which is not part of the typical structural syllabus. Do learners really need to wait until they are intermediate or above before they can say ‘I was wondering…’, ‘ No, I haven’t seen that yet’, ‘I wish my flatmates wouldn’t ___’ etc?

Thoughts and comments welcome.


Dulay, H. and M. Burt (1974) Natural sequences in child second language acquisition. Language Learning 24: 37-53.

Sinclair, J. (1991). Corpus, concordance, collocation. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Swan, M and Smith, B. (2001). Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


Written correction

Sekiyama shrine

It is fairly obvious that learners expect us to correct their written work, even if some researchers (e.g. Truscott 1996) have suggested it has no benefits. The question is of course, how we can best do this.

Like a lot of people within ELT, my training emphasised the benefits of using an error correction code with learners and asking them to re-write their work.This seems to be something of an orthodoxy.  The British Council Learning English site (2014) , for example, suggests that ‘This is a common tool to optimise learning opportunities from mistakes learners make in written homework and to encourage the editing stages of process writing.’  The difficulty with correction codes is that experience tells me (and I suspect a lot of teachers) that they do not work very well, much as I am supportive of their use in theory. I have used them many times and found that while students can correct simple surface errors if pointed out with a code (e.g.third person ‘s’ for present simple, adding ‘s’ to plural countable nouns), they have no idea how to correct errors with collocations or more complex constructions, simply because they do not know them. This is of course the reason why they made the errors in the first place!

Research in this area supports the idea that correction works but also suggests that error codes may not be the most effective. Sheen (2007), for example, found that focused  direct corrective feedback  was significantly more effective than no feedback at all, when articles were targeted. Focused direct corrective feedback is simply underlining the targeted form and writing the correction above it. She also found that when metalinguistic explanation was added(e.g. adding brief notes about the grammatical form in focus) this was more effective than  focused direct corrective feedback. Frear (2012) found that focused direct corrective feedback (in this case with past simple forms) was significantly more effective over time with regular verbs when compared to  unfocused direct feedback and both types of indirect corrective feedback. Indirect feedback in this case was to simply underline the errors but not provide the correction and this was either focused on the targeted past simple forms or on errors in general. These studies also suggest that, as we would expect, learners also need to re-write their written work, first correcting errors and then re-drafting their work.  Given that correction codes are a form of indirect feedback then it would seem that it may not be as effective as targeting a particular form and simply correcting it directly before asking student to re-write their work. I would argue that this is even more likely to be the case with collocations and lexical chunks because learners cannot generally form them based on grammatical knowledge. It is simply a case of knowing them.

So what is the way forward? There is a real need for  teacher training to at least introduce teachers to the results of such research and  to introduce more options for correcting written work than only using correction codes. Ellis (2009) gives a useful list of options. Validating the options against the research evidence and in terms of their own particular teaching situations would allow trainees  to make more informed choices in their teaching. In terms of the  research, there is of course a need to replicate the kinds of results described above with more studies in more contexts. There is also a need to look at the impact of different types of feedback on written lexical errors, something which seems to be largely missing at the moment. Reformulated student work (the teacher re-writes students work correcting errors but keeping the original intention of the student) is also an area which needs more research. Although this is time-consuming, it seems logical that reformulated work can be a good source of comprehensible input for learners and it would be interesting to further measure its effects against other  direct types of feedback whereby a targeted form is underlined and  the correction provided. Some studies (



The British Council Teaching English . Writing Correction Code. Available:

Ellis, R., Sheen, Y., Murakami, M., & Takashima, H. (2008). The effects of focused and unfocused written corrective feedback on Japanese university students’ use of English articles in narratives. System, 36, 353-371.

Ellis, R. (2009a). A typology of written corrective feedback types. English Language Teaching Journal, 63, 97-107.
Frear, D. (2010). The Effect of Focused and Unfocused DirectWritten Corrective Feedback on a New Piece of Writing . College English Issues and Trends, Volume 3, 57-72.
Frear, D. (2012) The effect of written corrective feedback and revision on intermediate Chinese learners’ acquisition of English. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Auckland.

 Santos, M., Lopez-Srrano, S., & Manchon, R.M. (2010). The Differential Effect of Two Types of Direct Written Corrective Feedback on Noticing and Uptake: Reformulation vs. Error Correction. International Journal of English Studies Volume 10(1), 131-154 .

Sheen, Y. (2007). The Effect of Focused Written Corrective Feedback and Language Aptitude on ESL Learners’ Acquisition of Articles. TESOL Quarterly, 41(2), 255-283.

Truscott, J. (1996). The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language Learning, 46, 327-369.

What have corpora done for us?

Research in Corpus Linguistics can, to some, seem interesting but a little distant from the classroom. This article by Julie Moore nicely summarises the benefits of corpora for teachers. See the article here

John Sinclair (who led the original COBUILD project) is also someone whose work is often overlooked but was also way ahead of others in his analysis of language. His Corpus, Concordance, Collocation is well worth seeking out.