Grammar and vocabulary teaching: What a difference a brain makes

In my last post, I argued that Hugh Dellar’s negligent misrepresentation of grammar models of the English language, such as Huddleston’s (2009) or Swan’s (2005), and his inability to provide any clear description of an alternative  “bottom-up approach to grammar” combined to make his advice to teachers useless. In this post, I take a quick look at two texts that discuss aspects of grammar and vocabulary teaching, just to give some indication of how useful an articulate, well-informed discussion of such matters can be. The first is an article that appeared in ELTJ and the second a recent book which you can read a bit more about on Mura’s blog, where he interviews the authors.

Spoken Grammar: What is it and how can we teach it?

McCarthy and Carter (1995) argue that learners need to be given exposure to both spoken and written grammars, and that the inter-personal implications of spoken grammars are important. They use a relatively small corpus of spoken English, constructed specially for the study of spoken grammar, where particular genres of talk are collected.  In the article, they use 2 samples of data.

(McCarthy & Carter, 1995, p. 208)

In Sample 1, a couple are making food (a curry) for a party. The authors note that ellipsis is the most salient grammatical feature of the sample.  For example:

  • D: Didn’t know you had to do that.
  • B: Don’t have to…
  • B: Foreign body in there

The authors comment:

(McCarthy & Carter, 1995, p. 209)

The article goes on to summarise the grammar features which stand out from an examination of the data:

1. Tails: slots at the end of clauses for more information.

  • they tend to go cold.., pasta
  • He’s quite a comic, that fellow
  • It’s very nice, that road up to Shipton.

2. Reporting Verbs: Use of past continuous rather than past simple.

  • He was telling me…..
  • They were saying …..

3. Frequent use of tend to

  • I tend to put the salt in last
  • It tends to go cold
  • I tend not to use names

4. Question tags: Used most often when meaning is being negotiated

5. Will / going to   More to do with interactive turn taking than semantics of time.

Finally, McCarthy and Carter propose a “Three Is” methodology in place of the traditional PPP methodology.

(McCarthy & Carter, 1995, p. 216)

I have given the most skeletal outline of this article, which includes a lot more information about the data and a series of classroom activities designed to draw upper intermediate students’ attention to some of the most salient aspects of the spoken grammar.

Successful Spoken English: Findings from Learner Corpora 

The book defines a successful English speaker in terms of his/her communicative competence at the various levels outlined in the CEFR, from B1 to C1. This in itself is an interesting and welcome innovation, which moves us away from both the Native Speaker norm and from the vague and incremental CEFR scales. The authors explain how they measure successful spoken language and then discuss the data which emerge from their searches  of the UCLan Speaking Test Corpus. As the editors explain to Mura

This contained data from only students  from a range of nationalities who had been successful (based on holistic test scoring) at each level, B1-C1. As points of comparison, we also recorded native speakers undertaking each test. We also made some comparisons to the LINDSEI (Louvain International Database of Spoken English Interlanguage) corpus and, to a lesser extent, the spoken section of the BYU-BNC corpus.

They begin with an examination of the data pertinent to linguistic competence, describing frequency profiles, frequency lists, keyword lists and lexical chunks at each level, from B1 to C1. It makes fascinating reading, and particularly interesting (again, I take this from Mura’s interview with them) is the finding that higher levels of linguistic competence are not characterised by the use of a much greater range of vocabulary, but rather by a greater flexibility in the use of the words they knew  – most of which remained in the top 2,000 most frequent words in the corpora. As they made progress, students were able to use words with a wider range of collocates for a wider range of functions.

In the subsequent chapters on strategic, discourse and pragmatic competences, each of which ends with a lively, well-considered “Discussion” section, more fascinating insights are shared, and the teaching implications are discussed. Just for example, in tune with McCarthy and Carter (1995) discussed above, the authors stress the need to distinguish between different spoken genres and to recognise the cooperative nature of much spoken discourse: the ability to co-construct conversations and to develop ideas from and contribute to the turns of others, is one important mark of increasingly successful speakers.

The authors suggest that one practical way for teachers to use the book is by taking advantage of the lists of frequent words, keywords and chunks for each level, and to use, for example, the language of successful B2 level speakers to inform what they teach to B1 level speakers. This is a principled and powerful way of choosing the vocabulary and lexical chunks to concentrate on in any particular course, providing that the lists are taken from relevant corpora (that is, corpora built from learners performing relevant tasks).

Another clear message from the book is that successful speakers need to develop all aspects of communicative competence (linguistic, strategic, discourse and pragmatic competence) and that, therefore, teaching should focus on all of these areas rather than spending too much time on learning an unprincipled list of lexical chunks.


Huddleston, R. (2009)  Introduction to the Grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jones, C. Byrne, S., Halenko, N. (2017) Successful Spoken English: Findings from Learner Corpora. London, Routeledge

McCarthy, M. and Carter, R. (1995) Spoken Grammar: What is it and how can we teach it? ELTJ, 49/3, 207-218.

Swan, M. (2005) Practical English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

4 thoughts on “Grammar and vocabulary teaching: What a difference a brain makes

  1. McCarthy and Carter’s descriptions are interesting and valuable in that they document what actually gets said in certain circumstances, but I seriously doubt if there is much here that would find its way into most teaching of EFL. Wouldn’t readers of this blog agree that their level of sophistication suggests their finding are appropriate for people studying Linguistics rather than the majority of people learning and facilitating EFL?



    1. Hi Os,

      The article is, I think, quite accessible and appeared in ELTJ, not exactly a heavyweight journal. As I said, it contains a few practical classroom acvtivities too. I don’t see why lots of teachers wouldn’t find it interesting.


  2. As a teacher of EFL I find this very interesting. I fully intend to read the ELTJ article and so if the classroom activities can be used or adapted.

    Thank you Geoffrey for writing this.


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