TESOL Thoughts

Reflections on Teaching and Learning

9 “Methodological Absurdities” revised

@ cerirhiannon, flickr.com/photos/eltpics

@ cerirhiannon, flickr.com/photos/eltpics

One of the books that was on my reading list for a long time was “The Lexical Approach” by Michael Lewis. Now that I’ve finally read it, I want to share my thoughts on some of the methodological implications he addresses towards the end of the book, where he presents a list of nine sentences that he claims any teacher in the world, including himself, has probably said in the past. All nine sentences, according to Lewis, are lexical items that should be removed from a teacher’s classroom expressions due to their “methodological absurdity” (192). Believing that these sentences would allow for a rich discussion about teaching methods and practice, I have added some comments next to his statements, and a poll to see how some of you feel about these so-called “methodological absurdities”.

Michael Lewis’ Methodological Absurdity list:

  1. “It’s quicker if I explain”.
  2. “They haven’t done…. yet.”
  3. “Can you say that in a full sentence please?”
  4. “Can you repeat that, please?”
  5. “Are there any words you don’t understand?”
  6. “What’s the word for… ?
  7. “I insist in English all the time in the classroom.”
  8. “I wish they’d say more.”
  9. “Do you need help?”

While I do not have any particular desire to engage in absurdities of any sort, I am definitely “guilty” of some of uttering those statements on occasion. And although I do agree with Lewis on the uselessness or problematic nature of some of these statements, I cannot say that all of these statements would qualify as absurd in my book of regular classroom expressions. Lewis’ explanation on why these statements are ludicrous makes a lot of sense to me –but to be completely honest, some of these statements really do serve a practical purpose in day-to-day teaching.

Which statements do you also regularly state (and defend doing so), and which ones have you said in the past but would like to take out from your repertoire?

Guilty, but … (food for thought)

6. “What’s the word for… ?

Sometimes I like to ask students to tell me what the word for something we’ve just discussed in class is in their L1. I do this mainly as a way to check that they understood it, especially when it’s an abstract concept or a hard word to put in context. If used sparingly or intelligently, why would this be an issue?

7. “I insist in English all the time in the classroom.”

I mostly teach Advanced English language learners, so it seems to me like there is little or no need for their L1 in the classroom. A bit ironic after what I wrote about #6. I suppose it’s alright if students are talking about the instructions in their L1 and want to do so to make it quicker, but I do think they would benefit more from using English most of the time.

Have said in the past, but will take out of my repertoire:

5. “Are there any words you don’t understand?”

I have asked students many times if there are any words they do not understand, even if I have to admit it never really felt right to take this approach. Did I really believe students would remember those individual, disconnected words? What if there are many words students don’t understand but don’t really have to know to get the gist of what we’re reading? Each learning context and each lesson requires a different awareness of the vocabulary encountered. And as Lewis implies, we should not just focus on individual words. Also, we can focus on what students to know and start building meaning from there.

8. “I wish they’d say more.”

I’ve definitely struggled when working with a group of students who tends to be silent. It’s scary as a teacher when you ask something and few students speak up, or when there are few questions being asked by students. Ideally, I’d like students to question what is being said, to offer their opinions, to speak in class. But why is this so important for me? Aside from the fact that I do believe the speaking practice is useful, perhaps the main reason is that I’ve always believed that students who speak in class are engaged and interested in the lesson.  But what does that say of equally engaged students who feel less confident speaking? What about those who need more time to process their thoughts and prefer to observe others? Lewis affirms that “cognitive involvement and acquisition are not less effective for being quiet, even silent” (193). While I will continue to engage students in class discussions when the task at hand calls for it, perhaps I should be thinking more about ways to understand if students are engaged –regardless of their spoken class participation.

9. “Do you need help?”

 I often state this while students are working independently (and silently) because I want them to know that I am there to help. I want students to know I won’t just passively sit behind my desk and ‘take a break’ while students work. Lewis highlights the fact that if we believe in learner autonomy then we need to encourage strategies that “help learners to help themselves.” Something I’d like to try before students engage in any independent work next time is to elicit some ways in which they can work through difficulties in the task they’re performing.


I agree -methodologically absurd: 

 1 –“It’s quicker if I explain”.

Since I believe in experiential learning, I’d have to say that the only thing that is quicker about me explaining something is that I can say I told students something. This is pretty meaningless in terms of them actually having learned something new. Learning a language requires doing something with it. In terms of students actually acquiring any new language or skills, it will not be quicker if I explain.

2-“They haven’t done…. yet.”

This statement reminded me of teaching grammar classes. It does not sit well with me to say that students “haven’t done” the present perfect, for example. What does doing a grammatical tense even mean? Students might not have had a teacher explain it to them in class (see previous statement for how useful that is), or may have not done any exercises relating to that one grammatical point in particular, but unless the student has been living in an environment in which there is no English language around them, I’d like to think some students could already have some familiarity with the language we’ll practice in class.

3- “Can you say that in a full sentence please?”

Asking students to repeat something in a full sentence when I completely understood what they said seems pretty useless to me. As Lewis asks, “if meaning was communicated, what is the purpose of the full sentence?”  I think there are better ways of doing this, e.g., in writing or by allowing full sentences to naturally take place. But if we are talking about lexical items? Why insist on students always speaking in (unnatural) full sentences?

Works Cited

1.Lewis, Michael. The lexical approach. Vol. 1. Hove: Language Teaching Publications, 1993.

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4 thoughts on “9 “Methodological Absurdities” revised

  1. Great blog post. I haven’t read “The Lexical Approach” but its on my list. I have to admit, I am also guilt of some of these. I’m not sure what the problem is for “Can you repeat that, please?”. Is he referring to a situation where you are not getting a student to repeat because you misheard them or couldn’t hear them?

    The one I am probably the most guilty of is “Can you say that in a full sentence please?”. Yes, we don’t always speak in full sentences, but sometimes we do. And, if I am asking a student a question to judge their accuracy or ability, a short, one or two word sentence tells me nothing. In addition, although they can often elide a sentence to just a word or two, if they don’t practice using whatever form or function is being taught via a full sentence, it is likely not to be reinforced. All this applies to accuracy-building activities though, not fluency-building ones.

    • Hi Anthony, and thanks for commenting!

      I’m glad you asked what’s wrong with “Can you repeat that, please?” according to Lewis. I should have explained a bit more. He says that basically asking a student to repeat is not very natural (not sure I agree) and it’s too much like interrogating. His suggestion is to say a personal comment, something a bit less intimidating to students (my interpretation). I suppose it might work better to tell the student what we thought he meant and ask if that’s correct -anything that sounds less threatening. Context is key for this though. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking someone to repeat something they’ve said, but Lewis’ explanation makes me think he does not approve of asking this because we should be engaging in a natural conversation with students instead of acting as guardians of the English language.

      For the full sentence part, he explains that doing so is “totally unnecessary grammaticalisation”. I hope I’m not completely misinterpreting Lewis, but after reading the book, I’d dare say he would not believe the way those sentences are structured (grammar?) is really what matters for language acquisition.

  2. Hi Laura, Thanks for this. I haven’t read The Lexical Approach. I’m definitely guilty of many if not all of these. I’m with you, though, in thinking some of these aren’t really so bad. Take 6. I’m currently teaching someone who doesn’t share any of my foreign languages, so we really only have English between the two of us. Like yourself, I ask him to look at the translation into his L1, Arabic. Then I have him use it in context, and contrast it to a similar word. For example, last lesson we had “strength” and “advantage”. Explaining the difference is really quite difficult. But I think we managed by deciding that advantage is always for a given purpose, while strength can stand on its own. So in combination with comparing similar lexical items, I think “What’s the word for…” is actually quite useful. – I also actually do like to offer help, especially when I notice one group is lagging behind. I do realize that it’s more a matter of classroom management, though, than actually helping them learn. So thanks for this summary and your very useful reflections!

    • Hi Anne, and thanks for commenting! Sorry I’m just now getting to your post, but I actually only now discovered it -it had gone to my Spam inbox here on WP.
      Strange. Anyway, yes, I’m with you on #6 and do think that sometimes direct translation can help with vocabulary. In fact, a bit after I wrote this post, I got a chance to attend a presentation by Penny Ur at the TESOL Convention in Portland. I hope I’m not taking her too out of context, but when she was addressing strategies for vocabulary retention, translating a word was actually presented as being more useful than guessing vocabulary from context, for example. I still want to learn more about the Lexical Approach and the current it inspires for many teachers who approach vocabulary acquisition very differently to how I think most of us have learned to deal with lexis. Might post more on the subject soon! Thanks for reading 🙂

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