Steve Darn - ELT
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GME: Analysing Language



In a previous article, I emphasised the importance of checking understanding in the process of teaching new structures and lexis, particularly through the use of concept questions. Checking understanding generally follows the isolation of new language which has been presented in context, analysed and fully explained. It is this analysis and explanation stage which is the focus here.


A framework for analysis
The teacher may present language inductively through a text, a situation, through a task, or simply asks learners to 'notice' lexis. Alternatively a deductive approach may be used whereby the learners are given the rules and asked to apply them in using the language. In either case the learners need to fully understand the language before they begin to practise it in guided activities, or produce it together with other 'known' language. Teachers also need a framework within which to analyse language for planning purposes. Five aspects of the language need to be considered:

  • Form - the arrangement of the language, any rules which govern it, and any special difficulties which it presents.
  • Phonology - sounds, word stress, features of connected speech, sentence stress, intonation and rhythm, all of which help learners understand spoken English and make their own speech more natural, comprehensible and meaningful.
  • Function - the purpose(s) for which the language is to be used and the contexts in which it is used, by whom and in which situations.
  • Meaning - the message that the speaker intends to convey, which may vary according to the context, particularly if a structure can be used to perform more than one function.
  • Register and appropriacy - when and with whom it is appropriate to use the language

You can use this form when preparing your lessons to ensure that you thoroughly analyse the language items:


Pre-planning language analysis form >> 48k


Form and phonology
There has been a recent revival in paying attention to form. Research suggests that a lack of focus on form may lead to fossilised errors, while the consideration of lexical items and 'chunks' has led to a consciousness-raising approach to form, involving noticing language presented in context, and not necessarily associated with practice.

Whether presenting language traditionally or using a consciousness-raising approach, and whether the language is being presented for the first time or for revision, the following should be considered:

  • Part(s) of speech. Lexis is often made up of more than one component. Multi-word verbs, for example, may comprise a verb, a preposition and a particle (get on with). There may be important collocations.
  • Spelling (note differences between UK and US spellings)
  • Regularity / irregularity (past tense verbs)
  • Word order and structures which follow (transitive verbs, verb plus infinitive or gerund)
  • Pronunciation (contractions, question forms, tag questions)
  • The written form and the spoken form. It is now recognised that there is a 'written grammar' and a 'spoken grammar', involving significant differences in some language, particularly functional items. Both forms need to be considered, and conventional rules reconsidered. (He said it was his birthday the following day / he says it's his birthday tomorrow)
  • The concept. Is the concept clear and concrete, or vague and abstract? Is the concept the same in the mother tongue, and is the language used to express it similar? Sometimes it is necessary to teach the concept before looking at the language (the present perfect).
  • Potential problems. There may be complexities of form (I should have had my hair cut), pronunciation (depending on the learners' first language), or confusion of form and meaning between similar structures (didn't need to/needn't have, be used to/get used to). There may also be confusion caused by similarities with items in the mother tongue (false friends).

Function and meaning
The fact that there is not a one-to-one match between form and function is the main reason for presenting language in context. On the one hand, a function (such as comparing, inviting, asking for permission) may be expressed by a number of different structures, as in these suggestions:


Why don't we watch a film?
Let's watch a film
Shall we watch a film?
We could watch a film

On the other hand, a structure my have a number of different functions;

I can play tennis (ability)
Can I open the window? (asking for permission)
Can you pass the salt? (request)


The form-function relationship is further complicated by meaning, which can only be deduced from context. In isolation, the question 'Do you play cards?' could either mean 'Can you play cards?', or 'Would you like a game of cards?' depending on the situation.

Finally, careful consideration should be given to rules which govern form in relation to use and meaning. There are often exceptions to rules, but rules are also often over-generalised and may be misleading. A balance needs to be achieved between generalisation and complexity, bearing in mind level and context.


Register and appropriacy
Particularly in the case of functional language, the analysis of target items also involves analysis of the situation and relationship between speakers (appropriacy) which in turn may govern the choice of language according to level of formality (register). This form of analysis involves three main factors:

  • Setting (place and time)
  • Participants and relationship
  • Speaker's intention (function)

Again, it is possible to look at a single item (in this case 'would' expressing different functions:

Would you like another drink? (social situation, offer)
I'd get the green one if I were you (shopping, friends, advice)
Granny would always tell us bedtime stories (family, past habits/nostalgia)
Would you by any chance be available next week? (work, making an appointment)


Alternatively, there may be several structures or variations on a structure used to express the same function, the choice of register being governed by social distance.


Is it OK if I open the window?
Can I open the window?
Could I open the window, please?
Would you mind if I opened the window?


Probably the most useful underlying concept here is that of 'social distance', i.e. the further apart the speakers are socially, the higher the required level of formality.


Post analysis
Analysing language is the first step for the teacher in the process of presentation. The analysis of the target language will then guide decisions made about other aspects of presentation:

  • The approach - inductive or deductive, and how much can be elicited. A test-teach-test approach may be appropriate at higher levels where there may be partial knowledge of a structure, for revision purposes. The teacher may wish to compare and / or contrast structures, or may merely want students to 'notice' new language.
  • How much to present - a single structure, a number of structures for one function, a number of functions of one form. Questions and responses in functional / situational dialogues. Level is important here.
  • The context - through visuals, mime, realia or brief anecdotes, through a text, through a dialogue, or through a task.
  • Checking understanding - concept questions and time lines where appropriate.
  • Drilling the target language - what kind of drills to use, and how much is necessary.
  • Explanation of form and visual highlighting - what to put on the board.

Further Reading

Rosemary Aitken - Teaching Tenses (revised edition), ELB 2002.
Gower, Phillips and Walter -Teaching Practice Handbook, Heinemann 1995.
Scott Thornbury - How to Teach Grammar, Longman 1999.
George Yule - Analysing English Grammar, OUP 1998.


first published 24 August 2006

http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/analysing-language