Grammar Instruction in Language Teaching: Proven and Innnovative Practices, presented by Dilin Liu and Eli Hinkel
Another wonderful highlight of the day was a session that explored current theories and practices in grammar. Eli Hinkel of Seattle University is never one to disappoint an audience. Her co-presenter of the University of Alabama, Dilin Liu, was equally informative. Although the information was given in a bit of a whirlwind of powerpoint slides, I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to have walked away without good insights and points to ponder.
Dilin Liu emphasized the importance of function and meaning in the newer theories on grammar. He illustrated multiple times how grammar is conceptual in nature and always embodied in experience. For example, why we do say “a shirt” but “trousers” or “pants”? Because the body of the shirt is most prominent, and we perceive the garment as one whole. In contrast, the two legs of someone’s pants are most prominent, and we see two separate parts. These are concepts. The concepts come from experience. The grammar then is motivated and not arbitrary in any way.
The idea of grammar being motivated and experience driven contrasts with the earlier generative grammar viewpoint, which states language is innate. Dr. Liu also addressed collocations and argued that certain word pairings are not random, but motivated. For instance we say “make a change” but “take a break” and “have difficulty.” Why? Because we conceptualize “make” as doing an activity that requires effort. “Take” is perceived as an easier action. “Have” is associated with experiences.
The discussion then shifted into teaching practices, and Eli Hinkel made a strong case for the usefulness of prefabricated language. Her position stems from the idea that grammar is processed as units, not parts. She recommends teaching students chunks of language (or bundles, if you prefer). For example, if students can memorize a small set of nouns for people of authority and a set of reporting verbs, they will achieve greater accuracy and variety in their academic writing as they make multiple references to works they have read: The author/ the reporter/ the researchers… + state/ claim/ believe… + (that…). Students simply need to be taught what chunks to assemble and how to assemble them.
Dr. Hinkel suggests that students learn short lists of prefabricated language, that is, a little at a time, and then students will increase their vocabulary and their accuracy in production. A number of useful suggestions were made, one of which was to buy a collocation dictionary to help identify the chunks worth teaching.
Dilin Liu has published a few related articles, which you can find on his website. You’ll want to check out the one on the most frequent multi-word English expressions in academic writing, which was published this year in the English for Specific Purposes Journal, and a second article on the most frequently used phrasal verbs in the TESOL Quarterly. Also, for more about Eli Hinkel and her work, visit her website. (Be on the lookout for a new book by Dr. Hinkel. She hinted that it would soon be in print.)
Many thanks to both presenters for a wonderful session!