Mar 312010
I wrote a post on scrapping functional phrase lists that you can find here. Commenters have provided some great ideas like working with movie scripts and larger chunks of discourse. Thank you! I said I’d give some examples (Eeek!) So to continue what seems to be becoming a little series, I’d like to start small and work up. This is my longest ever post, so you might want to grab a cup of coffee.

Here are a couple of examples of small changes I’ve been making to traditional functional phrase lists. I’ve been experimenting with these because I wanted to:

  1. look at language in context. Context changes meanings. If you point to a cabbage and say ‘That’s a nice one’ to the assistant in a grocery store, it means ‘I’ll take it it’. But make the same comment while pointing at a picture when you’re strolling round the National Gallery with a friend, and nobody’s going to expect you to buy it.
  2. be a bit fussy about what language we’re targetting. Phrases like ‘I don’t agree’, or ‘I propose we…’, are infrequent items in spoken English (more on that here). There are more frequent phrases we’d want to draw attention to first. And if we decide we want to look at them anyway (maybe because they keep coming out of our students’ mouths?) we might want to make sure we’d highlight their limitations of use. Which brings me to…
  3. impart usage information. So rather than saying ‘learn this list’ –also give information on appropriacy and tasks that explore how they are used. I think a lot of the challenge with speech acts is about recognizing the intent of the speakers. So getting students to consider strategies speakers are using often seems like a good way to go to me.

Here’s a fairly traditional list of suggestions phrases, but rather than single phrases, it’s a list of adjacency pairs.

For me, significant changes are:

  1. the language is presented within the larger context of a longer listening text. (The students complete some of the phrases while they’re listening.)
  2. it’s demo-ing high frequency spoken forms rather than forms that would be more common in written English like ‘I suggest we…’ ‘I propose we…’ ‘I recommend…’
  3. because we’ve got adjacency pairs, the students get to see the responses alongside. We can still ask questions about form like ‘which suggestion form is followed by –ing’, just as we might with a traditional phrase list. But there’s an in-built benefit to the adjacency pairs – they allow us to compare some different strategies folks are using when they respond.  It’s pretty easy to agree with someone else’s suggestion – no threat to face there. Disagreeing is trickier and we commonly employ strategies like hesitating, questioning, or changing the subject. If we list adjacency pairs rather than single phrases, we can ask the students follow up questions about what strategies the speakers are using when they respond, and to compare the strategies to those employed in their own language.

And onto my second example. The idea here is that what we say is one thing, but when we say it is another. What’s appropriate at one time may be inappropriate at another. So here’s a traditional list, but with some basic usage information added.

It gets easier to discuss speakers’ intentions, politeness issues and discourse as students advance in level, but I don’t see the sense of waiting until students are high intermediate or advanced. Both of these examples come from Lifestyle pre-intermediate (Copyright Longman Pearson 2010).

But there’s a paradox here, because in some ways it flies in the face of what we might see as good teaching practice. This isn’t a ‘learning-by-doing’ method. There’s explicit instruction going on here about usage before we go into a role play or or whatever.

There’s a pretty general consensus in the pragmatics literature that we should teach features of discourse more overtly – so point them out and raise them for discussion. Research evidence suggests we can’t necessarily expect our students to pick up the social rules speakers are following in the same way that they might pick up new vocabulary or grammar structures. I don’t think we can impose our social rules on our students, but I think we owe it to them to tell them what they are, so they can make informed choices.

Also, in both the examples above, the phrases are demonstrated in use in a longer listening text. That’s not going to work in a dogme-style lesson based primarily around student input. It’s another challenge and I hope to post on that another day…

You might also want to check out my posts on:
How about some nice
How about some nice
Scrapping the lists
Some list alternatives 2

And for more on pragmatics and sociolinguistics, check out my Learning to speak ‘merican blog which explores how meanings get conveyed (or not) in greater depth, along with issues like politeness and directness.

 Posted by at 5:38 am

  6 Responses to “Some list alternatives part 1”

  1. Very nice…. the context is absolutely vital, isn’t it?

    Sometimes people get so hung up on the words that they let their common sense go out the window. People, most of the time, say pretty much exactly what you would expect them to say, don’t they?

  2. It’s funny how things coincide because I think the podcast interview you’ve just posted with Jennifer Jenkins ( has parallels with what I was trying to say here.
    I’m not trying to teach ELF, but I am arguing for getting more explicit about the rituals and rules we (often unconsciously) follow so our students can accommodate in ELF contexts. And yes, I think context is often vital for understanding intentions.

  3. […] to part two of my scrapping the lists journey (intro here, part one here.) My question here is what about ditching lists of phrases if we’re teaching unplugged, dogme […]

  4. […] some practical ideas on how to do this, see my posts on: Scrapping the lists Some list alternatives 1 Some list alternatives […]

  5. […] might also want to check out my posts on: Some list alternatives 1 Some list alternatives […]

  6. […] How about some nice Scrapping the lists Some list alternatives 1 […]

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