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


About chrisjones70

Senior Lecturer in TESOL/Applied Linguistics at the University of Liverpool. All views and posts here are my own. Twitter : @ELTResearch

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