A Lexical Approach to Teaching Grammar

Serafima Gettys, Stanford University

The paper will discuss some essential tenets of the approach that has become known in literature as the "lexical approach to grammar instruction" or"lexically-driven grammar".

Today's language course objectives are specified in terms of communicative functions the learners wil be able to fulfill. Most practicing teachers agree that communicative competence can be developed only in proportion to linguistic competence. The strategy suggested by the author is a way of creating an appropriate balance between the two major aspects of language competence: grammar and lexicon.

The paper will briefly review research literature related to the issues under consideration; provide arguments in favor of the lexical approach to grammar and describe an instructional sequence designed and used by the author in teaching beginning Russian.

Basic assumptions for the study come from the theory of UG (N. Chomsky). According to Chomsky, the maturation of the language faculty reaches the steady state shortly before puberty and the ability to learn a new language natively disappears (J. Strozer). Language acquisition after childhood differs in important respects from the language acquisition before puberty.

However, there seems to be no critical period for at least one aspect of language acquisition--the growth of vocabulary (N. Chomsky). Learning words, according to N. Chomsky, is the main part of language learning. This led some researchers to the assumption that a language course should essentially be built around a mental lexicon supported by grammatical information (Vivian Cook, Philipp Hibbard, David White etc).

The study of today's textbooks reveals that although on the whole the textbooks focus on meaningful information and contextualized practice, the rules that are used to describe grammar remain unchanged. The latter makes apparent the obvious contradiction of language teaching: while the communicative approach considers grammar as something peripheral, the textbooks are still grammatically structured. The rules, as they are presented in contemporary textbooks, invite their readers to move from abstract to concrete, from general rules to their specific realization. The author will argue that with inadquate vocabulary in the earlier stages of L2 learning learners are not able to comprehend and internalize grammar. The latter makes the rationale behind the development of lexically-driven curriculum highly relevant.

The rationale of the approach is based on the principle of priority of words in language acquisition. The author will attempt to demonstrate the central role of lexicon in language acquisition, the significance of lexically-oriented grammar in the context of communicative methodology, and will outline the organization of the mental lexicon and its implications for teaching. The main features of the lexical approach to teaching will be discussed:

1. High-level grammatical rules are derived from specific instances of the language in use. Whenever the language material is not subject to clear-cut rules, it is treated as a vocabulary item.

2. More grammar forms are studied as vocabulary items, each instructional sequence is built around some specific lexical item. The knowledge of a lexical item includes more background grammatical information and information about the way words combine and operate in a sentence.

3. In presenting and practicing new language items the teacher relies on the native language of students: students are made aware of the differences between the two languages in the means of expression of the same meaning. Translation aids better comprehension of the language phenomena.

4. The language sample is presented and practiced in a phrase rather than in a sentence (the phrase is known to be the main operational unit in language processing).

5.The lexical approach differs from more traditional (textbook) handling of grammar in the amount of detail. Particular attention is given to the verb.

The lexical approach to teaching grammar binds the learning of vocabulary and grammar more closely than it is usually done in the textbooks.

The author designed and conducted an experimental course based on a lexically-driven curriculum and its implementation is still under way. Further empirical study will investigate the effect of the approach. Nevertheless, even today the results of the classroom study suggest that the lexical approach to teaching grammar may have a positive effect on the general achievement of the students; both fluency and accuracy in using L2 in communication improve.