Over the last few years, Hugh Dellar has given various versions of the same talk on how to teach grammar. The latest version was at the IATEFL Hungary conference last week, called:
Following the patterns: colligation and the necessity of a bottom-up approach to grammar
At the IATEFL conference in Glasgow earlier this year, the title was:
Following the patterns: colligation and the need for a bottom-up approach to grammar.
So he’s gone from seeing “a need”, to seeing “the necessity” of change, a hardening of line perhaps explained by his ever-more detailed analysis of how lexical items “grammar” in their own uniquely primed ways.
The talk starts and finishes in various different ways. One way it starts (e.g. Brno, April 2017) is with Dellar insulting Toby Young (that’s him in the photo above), a British journalist who’s a stickler for grammar. Dellar shows Mr. Young’s photo and asks if anyone in the audience recognises him. “Well thank your lucky stars if you don’t!” says Dellar, who assures everybody that Mr. Young is a privledged, middle class snob “in possession of a rather punchable face”. Another way it starts (e.g “Teaching Grammar Lexically”), is with Dellar talking learnedly about “Chomsky and the whole idea of structuralist grammar” and then going on to explain how ELT suffers from “the tyranny of grammar teaching”.
A popular way Dellar finishes is by reading out his “poem”, a re-working of Larkin’s classic “This be the verse”, which starts out like this:
They fuck you up your language teachers,
They don’t mean to but they do.
They plague you with their rules of grammar
With extra homework (from Raymond Murphy’s English grammar probably photocopied) just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats
Who half the time had games and fun
And half Murphied you round the throat.
Only one line in the second stanza has been changed from Larkin’s original; can you guess which one is Delllar’s? The whole thing (I’ve spared you the rest) must be seen as Dellar’s way of expressing his feelings about structuralist grammar, that “outmoded and outdated way of thinking about how language works”. But what exactly is the difference between this outmoded grammar and the sort of grammar that Dellar himself is so keen to promote? Well that’s the middle bit of the talk, the bit that comes after insulting a middle class journalist and attributing structuralism to Chomsky, and before reading his poem.
Grammar, Dellar tells us, is not one thing but a range of different kinds of things. Having dealt with the kinds of things that “big, top-down grammar” is, Dellar explains the seven kinds of things that characterise his “bottom-up” grammar. Here they are, and you’ll probably spot when I’m using Dellar’s own words.
- Grammar as lexis /phrases
You can teach a grammatical structure as a phrase. For example,
- What’s it like?
- I’ve never seen it but it’s supposed to be great.
- I’ll do it later.
- You should have told me.
You can teach students these kinds of very common examples of how grammar is realised without studying them as grammar.
- Phrases providing slots.
There are lots of little patterns that are sort of flexible and sort of malleable that we can use in lots of varying ways, but not an infinite number of varying ways. For example
- What are you doing…. tonight?
- What are you doing ……. after this?
is a sort of fixed phrase that can be adapted a bit, but not much – there are only 6 ways of finishing the sentence in fact. And, while some phrases look flexible, in fact they aren’t. For example,
- There’s no pleasing some people.
Isn’t flexible. You can’t say
- There’s no angering some people.
Why? Because nobody says it; its not a probable sentence in English; it’s a fixed expression. So sometimes you can alter the slots and sometimes you can’t.
If you think about collocations and then collocatons of collocations you start thinking about grammar. For example, take the word responsible. Used as an adjective, we get
- I’m responsible for hiring and firing.
But used as a noun, it grammars differently:
- It’s the responsibility of the boss to make decisions.
And the negative adjective forms different patterns again – it has its own, different internal grammar:
- It’s irresponsible of you to leave a gun in the house.
So the adjective form and the noun form and the negative form grammar, or pattern grammatically, in different ways. Thinking about the grammar of individual words gives you a different way of thinking about what grammar is and how it works . Instead of the big top down grammar, which we just drop words into as Chomsky suggested, it’s thinking about the individual words that drive our communication and the grammatical patterns which often attach themselves to those particular words.
Colligation refers to the grammatical patterns which frequently attach themselves to words. For example, the verb to be born only colligates with the past simple passive. Likewise, the most frequent colligation of dub is past simple passive
- Bandem was once dubbed the Paris of the East.
Phrases colligate in weird ways. You can say
- I can’t be bothered but not
- I can be bothered.
You can say
- It was really surprising or
- It wasn’t that surprising.
– both are OK. But
- It wasn’t that astonishing
sounds weird because ungraded or extreme adjectives don’t usually colligate with not. So again it’s about thinking about the patterns of individual words and making those patterns available to your students.
A very flexible pattern is
- Just because … it doesn’t mean ……
There’s also this idea Nick Ellis has that we can learn the meaning of words because we’ve learned prototypical examples of patterns that the new word is encapsulated within. For example,
- verb across a place
Nearly always, the verb that goes into that pattern is go – you go across a place. So every other example you encounter of this pattern across a place will have a variation of the verb go, like move, or travel, for example. If you then encounter:
- They man-doubled across the place.
you know that man-doubled is some kind of way of moving.
- Discourse Patterns
These are very useful. For example:
- While some people think …. it nevertheless seems true that …..
- According to ……, however in reality, …….
- Genre Dependencies
All genres have their own grammatical and lexico-grammatical conventions.
Students need to see new vocabulary with the grammar that the new vocabulary is often used with, and they need to see grammar with the lexis it’s used with. They need to think “This is a language lesson where we’re learning this grammar in this context, with this vocabulary, and we’re learning this vocabulary in this context with this grammar”. Apart from bottom-up grammar, teachers should do some general grammar explanation and use general rules of grammar carefully, avoiding bad rules. They should use PPP, but only with chunks of language and to build conversation; and they should encourage noticing by constantly drawing their students attention to how words grammar. Finally, two-way translation of whole sentences, cloze exercises, gap fill exercises and drills are all good ways to teach students about language patterns.
How persuasive is Dellar’s argument that a bottom-up approach to grammar is “a necessity”? Teachers who use traditional, big, outmoded grammar to explain formal elements of English to their students might wonder just how they’re supposed to follow the patterns that Dellar is so captivated by. What are the patterns? Looking at his repeated presentations of bottom-up grammar, the patterns turn out to be so particular and idiosyncratic as to be of very little help in making any generalisations that serve to generate grammatically correct utterances. It boils down to doing what Dellar does: going through a seemingly endless list of exemplars.
Looking back at the seven kinds of things that characterise “bottom-up” grammar, we see phrases that just have to learned; phrases with slots where there’s no way of knowing when you can alter the slots and when you can’t; collocations where each different form of a word has different grammatical patterns which attach themselves to each different word; colligations where phrases work in weird ways and “so again it’s about thinking about the patterns of individual words and making those patterns available to your students”. Even the patterns themselves that Dellar presents don’t allow for much generalisation.
Surely “the big top down grammar, which we just drop words into”(Dellar would be pleased to know, if only he’d listen, that Chomsky has absolutely nothing to do with this grammar) at least has the value of usefulness: lots of sentences can be generated by knowing, for example, that English syntax is usually of the form subject – verb – object, that you can’t omit the pronouns in verb phrases, and that adjectives with 3 syllables form the comparative and superlative with more and most.
Dellar cites Michael Swan in support of his arguments, but Swan is, of course, a prominent critic of the lexical-chunk approach. While Swan sees a place for teaching ‘high-priority chunks ‘ he has forcefully argued against giving formulaic expressions so much attention that other aspects of language – ordinary vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and skills – get sidelined.
Dellar advises teachers to “follow the patterns” without giving any clear description of what the patterns are or any explanation of how to “follow” them. In fact, as he’s demonstrated so many times in so many different talks, and in his magnum opus Teaching Lexically, Dellar’s methodology has at its heart the task of presenting and practicing lexical chunks, a task which makes the labour of Sisyphus look like a walk in the park. Given the fact that native speakers know tens or hundreds of thousands of such chunks (estimates vary, but 30,000 is conservative), as Swan has pointed out, a student could learn 10 chunks a day, every day, for 7 long years. and still not be a proficient user of English. So, as Dellar himself is fond of saying “Good luck with that”.
Modern ELT is based on the idea that the best way to help students learn an L2 is by involving them in activities where they use the language as a vehicle for genuine communication. Grammar teaching is still regarded as important, and how best to go about it is the subject of on-going debate, but most agree that it should take a back seat, and that teachers should spend most classroom time involving their students in activities where they communicate with each other in the target language, not listen to the teacher talk about it. The sovereign principle of Dellar’s pedagogy is: “Teach Them About Words”; and that involves spending a great deal of the scarce, precious resource that is classroom time on the explicit teaching of words. Apart from not answering critics who doubt the efficacy of spending so much time on explicit teaching, Dellar has never given any satisfactory criteria for choosing which words to teach, or any persuasive arguments for the way he goes about teaching them.
Dellar’s approach to teaching grammar misrepresents the traditional pedagogical grammar of Swan, Parrott and others and poorly represents the work of Pawley and Syder, Nattinger and DeCarrico, Sinclair and others. It’s myopic, obsessive and incredibly boring. In any talk that Dellar gives, he can’t go for five minutes without offering up some of his precious treasure:
It’s the small words that are such fun, yeah? I mean, I think it’s really important that we see that. Like even for example. The only way to explain what even means is through lots of examples.
- I’ve had a really busy day. I haven’t even had time for a coffee. Yeah?
- I’ve been on my feet all day I haven’t even had time for a break.
- She doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t even swear.
- He’s got a semi-detached house outside London, a new car with four wheels and a steering wheel, he’s even got some dosh in the bank. Yeah?
- It’s past midnight, they’re all falling asleep, but I haven’t even got to the best bit yet.
- I don’t know what Chomsky said, I don’t understand Nick Ellis, I can’t even spell my own name.