A guest post by the mysterious Sputnik of The Tesla Coil, on A Book You Should Read. Number two in the series, then, is a little book about chunks…..
‘Most people would succeed in small things,’ observed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘ if they were not troubled with great ambitions.’ This may certainly prove to be the ultimate fate of Michael Lewis’s classic 1993 work The Lexical Approach. It was certainly not untroubled by great ambitions, as it proclaimed in its subtitle: The State of ELT and a Way Forward. Such hubris, of course, grated with a few of the initial reviewers, for whom the subtitle announced an implicit condescension towards the existing ELT status quo, as if it really said, Everything is Wrong and I’ll Show You How to Make It Right. Anca M. Nemoianu, for example, writing in TESL-EJ, complained of ‘the signs of distrust, and sometimes even disregard, for language teachers attitudes, knowledge, and classroom practices’ (August 1994, 1:2). For me, however, the appeal of the book lies precisely in its vaunting ambition, its avowed purpose to lead us from the valley of professional darkness and into an enlightened state where we know what we are supposed to do, how we are supposed to do it, and why.
The first part of the book is nothing short of a relentless series of prompts. Penned in the fiercest interrogative mode ever seen in the genteel and generally windless world of ELT field manuals, it is a quasi-cavilling, probing, harassing sort of questioning which compels the reader to undertake an anxious self-examination. If Descartes famously holed himself up in the snug confines of a giant oven in order to arrive at the founding principles of Western philosophy in Discours de la Methode, it is not difficult to imagine Lewis composing his masterpiece in the more rebarbative circumstances of an infantry trench or a North Sea trawler. It is deeply uncomfortable. Assuming the guise of an Old Testament God, Lewis heaps scorn on the unprincipled teacher (yes, imagine – an unprincipled teacher), chastises the unthinking, and laments the fortunes of those whose classroom practice does not mirror ‘the values they claim to espouse’ (p.32).
Should the reader wish to become principled, he has to submit to a kind of coruscating doubt not dissimilar to the process adopted by Descartes. With the combined admonitory talents of a worried parent and a sergeant-major, Lewis asks us to reconsider some of the most cherished assumptions in ELT. Don’t we, he urges, over-value explanations, structure, product and speaking? Do we know why? Shouldn’t we, perhaps, stress the importance of exploration, lexis, process, and listening just a little more instead? In fact, shouldn’t we ask more questions, and stop rehearsing answers for which we can provide little or no philosophical or empirical underpinning? Eh?
This, then, is the crux of the book. It espouses a willingness, like all great dialectical thought, to attend to details and, by so doing, see in them the bigger picture itself. This bigger picture is the approach of the title. An approach , he remarks, ‘is an integrated set of theoretical and practical beliefs, embodying both syllabus and method. More than either, it involves principles which in the case of language teaching, reflect the nature of language itself and the nature of learning’ (p.2). It is not, in other words, a set of recipes for the classroom; rather, it is an elaboration of the precepts by which you might make them and the syllabuses in which they are contained. The depth of this approach can be measured by its attention to the very tropes we utilise to describe language. Lewis rails against the ubiquitous atomistic metaphor of the machine which governs our understanding of linguistic phenomena, and implores us to adopt an holistic one of the organism in its stead.
But, again, this book is so much more. It is a wholly intemperate and inabstinent beast, immoderately invoking and provoking so many ideas it exceeds the summarising brief on the first few pages. Lewis makes the case for this ideational largesse very explicitly, but was it too much for a profession which countenanced a four-week course as its entry qualification? How did he hope to persuade the entire teaching nation with such a principled stance? Nearly two decades after its publication, many of Lewis’s ideas have entered the mainstream – chunking, collocation, and a focus on sub- and supra-sentential grammar have all, to some extent, been adopted for use in textbooks and classrooms. However, many more have not. For example, how many of us have disregarded his reproof that teaching the conditionals, will as the future, reported speech, and the passive is ‘neither more nor less than nonsense’ (p.146)? Of greater primacy is the failure of the lexical approach itself to change the manner in which we think about and teach language. It has undone none of the suasiveness of the grammar-based syllabuses which still predominate in class and text. Nor has it retarded the exam juggernaut. And how many NESTs would retain their positions if they abandoned speaking as the central feature of their classes?
This raises the question of the role of thinkers like Michael Lewis in ELT. Forming a nexus between teachers, textbook writers and more abstract university researchers in linguistics and education, such free-wheeling intellectuals or ELTerati are a rare but precious breed. They have not only to amass an empire of research but also to find a practical expression for it and then persuade the teaching masses to use it. Persuasiveness in teaching often has more to do with instinct and practicality than ideas. Perhaps Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach, published in 2000, was a recognition of this problem and an attempt to address it so as to make it more likely that the lexical approach would achieve a kind of teaching critical mass. It is certainly a more amiable read, and more practical than its elder sibling. However, for a bracing encounter with a blazing mind working at its most acute, The Lexical Approach is hard to beat.
Thanks Sputnik… and over to the mob to answer your question. Whither the thinker in ELT?
And I’ll throw in another for luck. Where is the line between grammar and vocabulary these days? Cheers!