Workshop review: Teaching Lexically by Hugh Dellar

By Mike Budden

To begin with, at this workshop Hugh presented some common ideas and beliefs about grammar to get us thinking about how much we believe language learning is grammar + words and if there are perhaps pitfalls in this way of thinking.

He showed us that coursebooks often provide dry examples of grammar, which can be quite far removed from actual realistic language use. (Do we ever sit peering into a building commenting on what people in various rooms are doing? Do we ever have conversations about future plans that exclusively uses going-to future?) Indeed, many different grammar structures can be found in realistic conversations and to train our students to only expect one or a select few grammar structures in a given situation is simply inadequate. Students need to be more flexible when using language, through learning different lexical options as opposed to fixed or consistent grammatical options in response.

The idea of language being grammar + words could potentially teach our students our students that once you have the grammar, you’re good to go and can start using the language freely, but as shown by some of Hugh’s examples sentences, this could lead to some confusing, albeit grammatically correct sentences such as:

“It’s no satisfaction for some people.” instead of “There’s no pleasing some people.”


“Something has been happened.” instead of “Something has happened.”

As Hugh puts it, these sentences are possible, but not probable.

Here are two example conversations highlighting the potential result of a “grammatical approach” and one of “a lexical approach” (to the best of my memory).

The context is; A Japanese man meets an English man on a train to Brighton and they make small talk.

Grammatical approach:
EM: Goin’ to Brighton then?
JM: Yes, I am going to Brighton.
EM: Been there before?
JM: No, I have never been there before.
EM: Living in London then?
JM: Yes, I am living in London.
EM: And are you enjoying living there?
JM: Yes, I am.

Lexical approach:
EM: Goin’ to Brighton then?
JM: Yes, I am really looking forward to it.
EM: Been there before?
JM: No, but I’ve been meaning to for some time now.
EM: Living in London then?
JM: Yes, I live in X in North London.
EM: And are you enjoying living there?
JM: Yes, it is quiet, but I have everything I need there.

As we can see in the second example, the Japanese man is comfortable using probable pieces of language in this context and as such, it flows quite nicely. Apparently after the actual exchange (which went more or less like the first, grammatical approach example), the Japanese man complained that the English man was quite rude as the conversation ended abruptly after a few short exchanges. We could propose that to the English man the Japanese man came across as being robotic and unengaged in the conversation.

To teach using such an approach in class we can look at a sentence such as the following and discuss what different answers are probable, giving less consideration to which possible grammatical structures might be difficult for the students and focusing more on which pieces of language are realistic.

What are you doing tonight?

I might go to a concert.
I’m thinking about seeing a movie.
I’m going to Bondi to meet a friend.
I think I might just stay at home.
I’m going to clean my flat.

If we collect examples based on what the students are actually trying to say in the correct context, the “meaning” of the grammar is inherently clear, even if the grammar is more “advanced”. If a student asks about the grammar, we need simply say what the function is e.g. might + verb to talk about future possibility or present continuous to talk about future arrangements.

The big lesson that I got out of this all was that there is a risk here of making our students’ lives more complicated by teaching them to talk about grammar, instead of it being imprinted in the fixed chunks of language we teach our students to use. We should be diligent when choosing what language we teach, ensuring that we favour language which is higher frequency, relevant and useful to the student.

Thanks for reading 🙂