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The best of two worlds: negotiating the

grammar versus lexis dilemma
in the EFL classroom

Barbara Nykiel-Herbert
Department of English
Youngstown State University
Youngstown, Ohio
Learning English as a foreign language:
an impossible task?

• Demands for proficiency in English higher than for any other
language, and than at any other time in history

• EFL learner achievements measured by ESL standards – unfair!

• ESL methodologies applied in EFL contexts – ineffective!

• No quick fix for language learning – no “miracle method” of EFL
teaching has yet been discovered.
Challenges of EFL learning in Taiwan:
quality and quantity considerations
• significant systemic differences between Chinese and English

• language treated as content subject, not skill

• ineffective methodologies

• cultural attitudes and expectations

• heavy reliance on the written mode

• large classes

• insufficient exposure to English outside the classroom

• shortage of instructional time
Why is English hard to learn for
Chinese speakers?

 Grammatical complexity of English compared to Chinese –
conceptually new distinctions must be learned (for example,
categories, tenses, etc.)

 Lexical dissimilarity – no common sources for vocabulary, no
lexical cognates

 Writing system – visual “training” to read Chinese is not helpful
for reading English; new visual processing habits must be
How long does it take to learn
 Children learning L1 receive between 10 to 15 thousand hours
of interactive exposure to language before their 5th birthday.

 It is estimated that about 6000 hours of exposure/interaction are
necessary for an adult to achieve proficiency in L2.

 ESL programs in the US allow 2-3 years for immigrant students
to master English.

 Research shows that it takes immigrant students in US schools
5-7 years to acquire academic English proficiency.
Quality of instructional input: what should we

Language components:
 grammar
 vocabulary/morphology
 sounds
 writing system/spelling
Language skills:
 speaking
 listening
 reading
 writing
Grammar: what is its place in the EFL
 Grammar has become the “dirty word” of language teaching.
 Language teachers love grammar; students hate it.
 Grammar bashing is unjustified. Grammar is the engine of
language: it generates meaning relationships among lexical
- The dog bit the boy.
- The boy bit the dog.
- Who bit the dog?
- Who did the dog bite?

 We need to teach grammar for doing, not merely for knowing.
Evolution of approaches to grammar
instruction in language teaching:

 grammar-translation (prescriptive rules, emphasis on accuracy)

 audio-lingual method (pattern drills)

 functional grammar: focus on discourse function of grammatical
structures (speech acts)

 natural approach (extracting and constructing learner’s grammar
from “comprehensible input”)

 communicative approach (focus on communicative “chunks”;
grammar on “as needed” basis; focus on fluency)
Common outcomes of these approaches

 The grammar-translation (analytical) method was sensible and
worked well for what it was intended - written text translation!

 The audio-lingual method produced excellent pattern
memorization results, but was weak on vocabulary and
appropriateness (contexts in which the memorized structures
should be used.)

 The “natural” and communicative approaches did not produce
satisfactory results in EFL contexts. Language cannot be
learned from mere exposure. Communication fails if the
grammar engine lack power to put words together meaningfully.
Language is a tool

Language is a tool of communication and thought. Proficient use
of language requires its skillful application. Skills are learned
procedurally. Learning a language is like learning how to drive:
routine operations must become automatic so that we can pay
attention to the road. In the same way, we don’t need to be
familiar with complex grammatical rules in order to use
language, but we must know practically how to put words
together to produce sentences. Production of grammatical
structures must become automatic so that a speaker can focus
on what he wants to say, and not so much how to say it.

A different memory function (semantic, procedural) is used for
learning and storing vocabulary.

To communicate effectively, a speaker must control both the
grammar and a sufficient amount of vocabulary. Both should be
taught simultaneously in an integrated manner.
Importance of interactive practice

Automatic production of grammatical structures can only be
achieved through sustained practice. Such practice must be
interactive: a learner must be spoken to with an expectation to
respond, not spoken at with an expectation to listen.

Interaction underlies L1 learning and accounts for successful
acquisition of language in an immersion context (such as ESL.)

It is vital to provide multiple opportunities for meaningful
interaction in the target language.
Improving effectiveness of EFL instruction

The three Rs of effective EFL instruction:

 Relevance: making content meaningful to learners

 Re-entry (repetition): to foster automatic application

 Reinforcement: to maintain high level of student motivation
How useful are the commonly
used approaches?
 Lexical/communicative approaches focus on relevance, but fall
short on re-entry (re-cycling, repetition).

 Grammar-oriented approaches (such as the audio-lingual
method) emphasize repetition, but neglect relevance.

 What is needed is a combination of both: controlled
personalized practice through conversational models of relevant
language that can be applied in a variety of contexts.

 Such models must be practical, short, and transferable.
Conversational Model 1

 A: Why don’t we play badminton sometime?
 B: Good idea. What day’s good for you?
 A: Saturday morning?
 B: Sorry, I can’t this Saturday. I have to work on a report with my
 A. How about next week?
 B. That sounds great.

This conversation model is easy to memorize and is
applicable in many situations.
Model 1 practice frame

 A: Why don’t we ____________sometime?
 B: Good idea. What day’s good for you?
 A: __________________
 B: Sorry, I can’t this Saturday. I have to _________________
 A. How about_________?
 B. That sounds great.

 go to the movies/drive to the coast
 Friday night/Sunday afternoon
 study for a test/see my parents
Conversational Model 2

 A: Can you help me? I’m trying to send a fax.
 B: Sure. First put the page into the feeding tray, face down.
 A: Like this?
 B: Yes, that’s right. Then press the “fax” button and dial the
 A: Do I need to dial nine first?
 B: No, you don’t. This is a direct line. When you hear it ring,
press the “send” button.
 A: Thank you for your help.
Model 2 practice frame

 A: Can you help me? I’m trying to ___________
 B: Sure. First ______________
 A: Like this?
 B: Yes, that’s right. Then __________________
 A: Do I need to _________
 B: No, you don’t./(Yes, you do.) ________________
 B: A: Thank you for your help.

This dialogue is not practical - can only be applied in a
fax-sending situation. It does not easily transfer to other
What is “relevant language?”

 Related to the content meaningful to the learners
For example, I have no interest in golf and so a lesson on playing golf is
a waste of my time. I’ll be bored and demotivated)

 Current
For example, no young person in the UK or US would say, “It’s raining
cats and dogs!” or “Heavens to Betsy!”

• Socially appropriate
For example, don’t greet your boss with ’Wassup, dog? [What’s up,
friend?] and don’t invite him to chill in your crib. [come over to your

• Properly collocated
For example, impenetrable darkness; top priority; preventive measures;
suffer consequences; character assassination; debilitating illness
Some examples of word usage errors

 Natural attractions in the park include rarely seen
coastal plants, the autumn overflight of migratory birds,
and beautiful living coral reefs.

 The park embraces land both above and below

 You can lie down on the beach and enjoy suntan. But
don’t forget to bring a bottle of suntan lotion in good

 Kenting is home to many unique geological features
including uplifted coral reefs.
Corpora as sources of relevant language

A corpus is a collection of samples of real language as it is spoken by
users, held on a computer for analysis of words, meanings, grammar
and usage. Corpus data are collected from newspapers, magazines,
websites, journals, books, TV, radio, and conversations, so all language
styles are represented. Using corpora as language sources can help
language learners eliminate many word usage errors.

Using a special search engine (a concordancer) we can use corpus
collections for the following tasks:

 new senses of existing words and terms
 meanings of unknown words
 word frequency
 common collocations
 overview of the word in its linguistic environment (grammatical,
lexical, stylistic)
British National Corpus

 About the BNC
 The British National Corpus (BNC) is a 100 million word collection of
samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources,
designed to represent a wide cross-section of current British English,
both spoken and written. [more]
 Search the Corpus
 Look up: _____________
 You can search a for single word or a phrase, restrict searches by part
of speech, search in parts of the corpus only and much more.
 The search result will show the total frequency in the corpus and up to
50 examples. [more information]
 News from the BNC
 New BNC website
 BNC goes XML
 New version of Xaira

Results of your search
Your query was: obtain
 Here is a random selection of 50 solutions from the 4549

 ABE 1015 That is small compared with the number of marriages
--; 7.8m in 1984 and 9.3m in 1989 --; but in Mao's day a divorce
was considered an offence against socialism and so was almost
impossible to obtain.
 AKY 1032 My staff erected ladders to enable the riggers to
patch up the envelope and refill it with gas to obtain lift.
 ALC 832 It was important to obtain a view of the potential
uptake of ATB courses.
 ANH 1493 And in both cases if these conditions obtain some
compromise will be reached, or at least there is a good chance
that it will.
Results of your search
Your query was: get
 Here is a random selection of 50 solutions from the 96099

 A7K 773 It's not beyond some people in churches to lift a phone
and get young people up.
 ABV 1844 But the husband continues: `;… but let us get one
thing clear --; I haven't done anything wrong!';
 AMW 561 Now don't get the impression that the Club is devoted
to enlarging the egos of `;would be Wimbledon champions';.
 AN2 61 The original engine I have kept as a spare and would
like to convert it to run on unleaded petrol, could you please
inform me where to get drawings or information on conversion.
British National Corpus: Bibliography

 A60 KBS open learning MBA programme. London: BPP
Publishing Ltd, 1989, pp. ??. 1058 s-units, 15554 words.
 A61 Invasion. Millin, Bill. Lewes, East Sussex: The Book Guild
Ltd, 1991, pp. ??. 2470 s-units, 44212 words.
 A62 Media and voters. Miller, William L. Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1991, pp. ??. 1099 s-units, 25350 words.
 A63 National Insurance Statutory Sick Pay. Statutory Maternity
Pay from 6 April 1991 for employers. u.p., n.d., pp. ??. 637 s-
units, 7166 words.
 A64 One step backwards, two steps forward. Pethybridge,
Roger. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, pp. ??. 1797 s-units,
41009 words.
Lesson sequence example: Shopping for

 Introduce relevant vocabulary: some recycled and some new

 Introduce a conversational model and get students to practice

 Pair the students up for controlled personalized practice of the
model with new lexical material

 Additional social language: what a speaker may hear in a
particular situation, and appropriate ways of responding, for

For example,
Will this be cash or charge?
Sorry, we do not accept American Express.
Do you have a Macy’s credit card? Would you like to apply for
one today?”
Would you like your receipt in the bag?
You may exchange it within 30 days with the receipt.

 Listening comprehension of real-life conversations.

 Free practice: students work in pairs or small groups with a clear
communication goal (for example, to buy an item of clothing at a
department store.)

 Home assignment: 1 minute speech about a recent purchase.

 Provide multiple opportunities for recycling the newly learned
material in order to integrate it with what the students already
know, and the new material that they are learning.

 Activities and material should be:
 varied in content, form and style
 appealing to the students
 real – to show the students immediate benefits of their
Time: the most precious resource in the
EFL classroom
 Distributed practice
 Long- and short-term instructional plans
 Most time is wasted at the beginning of each class – get an
activity going even before students arrive (i.e., play a song, a
nursery rhyme, a poem, an amusing dialogue, etc. while
displaying its text on the board; invite students to join in as they
 Time each activity (use kitchen clock!)
 Make activities short – move briskly
 Develop routines – cut down on teacher talk
 Remember: slow learners are produced by slow teachers!
Maximize the students’ exposure to English

 Create an “English only” classroom.

 Encourage out-of-classroom language encounters.

 Assign projects that put students in touch with real language
(internet, TV, etc.)

 Display meaningful visuals for continuous stimulation and
peripheral learning.

1.The content of frames 12-17 is based on the following resource:
Saslow, Joan and Allen Ascher. 2005. Making English
Unforgettable. Top Notch Professional Development Series,
Issue Pearson Longman.

2.The content of frames 20-24 is based on the following resource: