Teaching Lexically: Andrew Walkley talks about Teaching Grammar Through Vocabulary

(Reading time: 6 - 11 minutes)


Andrew Walkley is the co-founder with Hugh Dellar of Lexical Lab, a company to promote teaching lexically and provide excellence in lexical materials and training. He has taught English for over twenty years, mainly in Spain and the UK, and as a teacher trainer has given workshops to teachers in many different countries and teaching contexts. 

By Anastasia Spyropoulou, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Andrew believes that vocabulary is central to communication, and that words work in complex ways. It’s therefore important to give useful natural examples of the words you teach and draw attention to the grammar that goes with them. This is why teachers should encourage conversation in the classroom, so students can exchange thoughts and feelings and practise the everyday business of life in English. As well as generating useful language, this also means common words and grammar come up more often – and to learn a language, you need to revise a lot over time, and this is best done in varied ways.

  • Does grammar teaching demand too much when children are very young?

If you mean lecturing people about grammar, then yes - definitely. I might also say that it can demand too much of adults as well! But of course, that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t teach language that includes grammar to help students say what they want to say or respond to a student’s question with a short explanation sometimes.

  • You advocate the lexical approach to teaching grammar. Could you elaborate?

I would hesitate to say THE lexical approach, but yes I think we could treat grammar more lexically. The first thing to say is that a lexical view of language and learning recognizes that grammar cannot be learnt in a simple building block way and that learning rules (i.e. explanations of form and ‘meaning’) are the smallest part of the process. Grammar can only be fully acquired over time through use and exposure to language.

I would argue that building block approaches to grammar – especially ones which also restrict exposure to grammar until it has been ‘taught’ - slow the process of learning and create a lot of odd unnatural English in the classroom. Take starter levels. In many coursebooks, students don’t encounter past forms until towards the end of a book and may not see any examples of future forms or present perfect until the very last unit – and sometimes not even then. Students often do not even see or hear have to, must, shall, should, would, was -ing and a variety of other common ‘grammar words’ and patterns in many Elementary books either! Yet was, been, went, going to, shall, should etc., are among the most common words in the English language. By not having these words we restrict what students can say, read and acquire.


So I would say there are four main aspects to a lexical approach to grammar:

1) We can teach ‘grammar’ in the first instance as chunks within a clear textual context (a conversation or reading). Things like:

Have you been to Greece/Athens/London?

I’ll meet you here/outside/in ten minutes/at 6.

I need a coffee/help/to buy some food/go to the toilet

I’m going shopping/home/to Athens/to meet a friend

When/where/when shall we go/do?

What are you doing now/later/tomorrow/at the weekend?


And at higher levels it may be in phrases such as:

That must’ve been good.

You should’ve said.

I was going to go but …


We can show the pattern, we can say something about meaning, but we don’t have to explain all the forms in the first instance or analyse the chunk. We might focus on You questions and I statements first. We may teach other forms when they are needed by the context. We don’t have to force practice of all forms to present a phrase with ‘new’ grammar.


2) We teach grammar through vocabulary. The tendency in a lot of material is to teach single words, match to meaning or provide simplified examples. The idea is that these words then slot in with the grammar. However, if we present words with other words and consistently grammaticalize these words in natural examples, we will tend to recycle and provide more exposure to grammar structures. In the long run, that is likely to help acquisition.


3) Teaching grammar in response to what students say. Students are often able to convey quite a range of meanings without using the appropriate grammar. We can reformulate what they say in order to draw attention to the grammar that is normally used. Of course, this requires giving tasks that allow students to talk freely and potentially produce a variety of grammar. As I mentioned above, that is rarely the case at low levels, but often doesn’t happen at higher levels either. The focus is always on practising one particular structure.


4) Occasionally, it might be good to provide a collection of examples and exercises on an element of grammar that we have taught through the process. It may help the noticing and acquisition process. However, we should always bear in mind that if students struggle with these or continue to get things wrong, the solution is not long explanations or even more controlled practice. The solution is practice and exposure over time in a variety of contexts – ideally with real communicative value.


  • Can you relate grammar to students’ experiences, lives and activity?

Of course! I would’ve thought it is essential. Why else learn a language? However, talking about your life shouldn’t just be an adjunct to a grammar presentation – or some kind of controlled practice. There may be some structures that could be related to life in this way – the present perfect can easily be turned into questions and discussion about a student’s life. That’s good, but it still means that the grammar often becomes isolated and studied separately to all other grammar, which is not really how conversations or language works. The other thing is that some grammar – say articles – is almost impossible to personalize in this way. I think this grammar is best taught in response to what Ss try to say/write or as it comes up in texts.

However, from my point of view, as a general rule, we want to try and START with students’ lives by asking questions and getting students to talk about their experiences, the things they do, the opinions they have. Sometimes we can predict language they will need and present it. At other times we need to work with what they have said and show them ways to say it better with new words and grammar. In both cases we might not always restrict the focus to one structure or contrasting pair of structures.


  • Is the idea of correctness an absolute thing?

Basically the answer is no. One aspect of a lexical view of language is that the way we use language is essentially down to our experience of how language is used rather than being based on some kind of genetic set of rules. Certainly humans seem to have a common capacity to see patterns and they also have a desire to form groups and conform to group behaviours. From this we sometimes talk about rules and what is correct or incorrect. However, these would be better described as norms within a group. Some norms will be more consistent than others but all language has potential to change. This is why I don’t speak like an Anglo-Saxon or like my grandparents – or even my younger self. It’s also why we have so many different varieties of English including perhaps now English as a Lingua Franca. Having said all that, within our groups and through education people turn norms into rules which may be tested in an exam and in those cases there is absolute correctness!


  • Wrong words or wrong grammar? Is there an interrelationship between words and grammar?

Certainly. This was a point made much better than I ever could by Pawley and Syder many years ago. Why do we say it’s half past 9, rather than It exceeds 9 by 30? Grammatically, these are both correct, but one is accepted as a norm and the other is not. More recently, Michael Hoey in his book Lexical Priming shows how words which apparently have the same meaning, such as consequence and result, are rarely exact synonyms or equally common within the same grammatical patterns. Hoey argues that this is therefore a reason to believe that grammar comes out of our use of words rather than words being placed in the slots that grammar provides. Whether you fully agree with that or not, there clearly is some inter-relationship between words and grammar a lot of the time.


  • Are there different types of grammar?

Absolutely. I think Michael Swan sums it up best: “the role of ‘grammar' in language courses is often discussed as if 'grammar' were one homogeneous kind of thing. In fact, 'grammar' is an umbrella term for a large number of separate or loosely related language systems, which are so varied in nature that it is pointless to talk as if they should all be approached in the same way. How we integrate the teaching of structure and meaning will depend to a great extent on the particular language items involved.”


  • Is it difficult to determine whether a mistake is a lexical or a grammatical one?

This must be the case. Certainly, I am not one for reducing correction to simple symbols of G (grammar) or WW (wrong word). Even if we can identify some simple change within a short string of words, the whole text may still be unclear.

I’d like to give this example from an essay a student wrote in my class. It was a problem solution essay on youth crime.

The final aim of reduced the juvenile crime is to help the parents of the sons, because in some times when the boy or girl behaves badly is because in his/her family he or she is having personal problems like drink, drugs or mistreat.

As we read through we might instinctively correct reduced to reducing and cross out the. However, as we continue you realize the word aim is wrong. I guess it could be way, ‘the final way of reducing …’. So it is both vocab and grammar. However, note that if the student meant to say ‘The final policy …’ we would need different grammar again - The final policy that will help reduce …

And here the use of final may also not be best either. We might say: Finally, we could reduce juvenile crime by …

How do you know exactly what the student wanted to say?!


  • Can grammar be generative?

Of course, it can. As I suggested earlier, humans certainly have a tendency to seek patterns and conform to our group behaviour. We draw on these patterns when we want to make new meanings. However, as we have seen in the case of telling the time above, in practice we stick to what most other people say.  So while words and grammar have potential to be completely flexible and generative, the way they are used is limited by what our experience of language and what a group of listeners will accept as effective communication.


  • Do we ever play with language?

It follows on from this that we can and quite obviously do play with language. We are constantly creating new sentences and texts. However, corpus linguistics and research has shown how there are often many formulaic combinations of words within these ‘original’ texts. Indeed through genres, parodies and pastiches there may be whole textual frames which are reused. From my point of view, it is also interesting to note that we tend to talk of word games and a play on words rather than a play on grammar!


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