The Role of Corpus Linguistics in Focus on Grammar

Marjorie_Fuchs Irene_SchoenbergMarjorie Fuchs and Irene Schoenberg

The Role of Corpus Linguistics in Focus on Grammar

The field of English language teaching has seen many trends come and go. Total Physical Response, The Silent Way, and The Natural Approach are just a few of the methods that have held the spotlight before disappearing or joining the supporting cast of strategies that experienced teachers use. Many have criticized our field for adopting the latest trends while dropping all that came before. However, the Focus on Grammar series has always taken a balanced approach, keeping what is tried and true while incorporating what is new and effective. To that end, Focus on Grammar has taken into account the findings of corpus linguistics, while never losing sight of what is pedagogically sound and useful.

Corpus linguistics is a field of linguistics which studies large samples of naturally occurring language in order to better understand how the language is used. Computers have made it possible to examine and analyze millions of language samples. We now have information about the frequency of use of vocabulary and structures, the words that typically occur with different structures, and the language of different genres. The results are interesting and important for anyone involved in language teaching.

One contribution that corpus linguistics has to offer English language textbook writers is information on which words occur most frequently with particular grammar forms. For example, corpus linguistics data show us which verbs most commonly occur in present perfect questions beginning with Have you ever…?  Focus on Grammar often uses such information (in this case, been, had, heard, and seen) in developing the opening texts, which present the grammar point in context. This information is also incorporated into the examples provided in the Grammar Notes, and in the exercises which follow.

The findings of corpus linguistics, however, are not always that helpful. Much of the information corroborates what teachers and textbook writers have always known about English structures. For example, a recent grammar textbook offers a list of the 25 most common non-action verbs in English based on corpus findings. Yet, in the first edition of Focus on Grammar, before the authors incorporated corpus linguistics findings, a list of non-action verbs in English was almost identical to the recent corpus-based list. The biggest difference was that the Focus on Grammar list put the verbs into categories to facilitate learning and help students master the meaning and use of these verbs.

In another example, corpus linguists cite say, get, go, know, think, see, make, come, take, want, give, and mean, as the most common verbs, along with the suggestion that these verbs be taught before others. But experienced teachers take into account that some of these verbs, such as get, are much more difficult to explain, in part because they have multiple, often idiomatic meanings.  (e.g. get lost, get married, get on).  Concrete action verbs such as eat, run, open or email are easy to understand and practice (Open your book to page 1), so a materials writer or teacher may choose to teach these verbs before more statistically common ones.

Another issue materials writers need to address is sequencing–the order in which different structures are presented. For example, although corpus linguistics might show that the present perfect without any time markers as used for the indefinite past (I’ve been there) is the most frequent use of the present perfect, this use is more difficult to understand than those with time markers (I’ve been here since noon). For that reason, the authors of Focus on Grammar 3 chose to first introduce the present perfect with since and for, because it is more concrete and students can more easily grasp the meaning of this difficult aspect of English.

One important question for the grammar textbook writer is whether information from corpus linguistics should be pointed out as corpus research, added as a grammar note, or simply reflected in the language of the charts, notes, and other texts. Our solution in Focus on Grammar has been to present this information simply and only when helpful.  For example, corpus linguistics research has shown that the contractions ‘s not and ‘re not are more common after pronouns than the contractions isn’t and aren’t. While reviewing Focus on Grammar 2 for the Fourth Edition, the author realized that the Grammar Presentation and other texts already reflected the corpus research.  She decided not to put this information into a note because so much detail would be more confusing than helpful.

The authors made a different decision, however, when they learned from corpus linguistics that that is very frequently used in informal speaking to refer to what came before, not just to refer to proximity. In this case, they added the information to the grammar notes in Focus on Grammar 1, and practiced it in the unit. (A: I like my grammar class. B: That’s great.) But they didn’t burden students with statistics or a reference to why this note is included.

Focus on Grammar has been steadfast in adopting new ideas, but only when they are of additional help to students. Corpus linguistics is just one of many factors that play a role in determining the presentation of frequently used verbs, the sequence of presentation of the structures, and the grammar notes given to students.

One of the aims of Focus on Grammar is to present to students the real use of language, and corpus linguistics has, therefore, played a role in informing the series. We have incorporated the findings of corpus linguistics when we believed they would help our students; at other times, however, we have chosen not to use the findings because doing so would be unhelpful or even detrimental to the learning process. The most important goal of Focus on Grammar has always been to present grammar structures using natural language and to provide opportunities for students to practice those structures in both controlled and open-ended ways. The wealth of high-interest, fully contextualized material engages students, enhances learning, and leads to true communication both in and outside the classroom.

For more information on Focus on Grammar, please go to our website, or contact your Pearson ELL Specialist.