An Optimal [Functional] Sequencing

Este material se enfoca en la nivelación, que es la relación existente entre los procesos de aprendizaje y adquisición, y en cómo los libros de textos organizan el material de comunicación lingüística y comunicativa para facilitar el proceso de aprendizaje. En inglés.

Is it possible to do the «grading»?

Is it true that what is linguistically simple is, in fact, easier to learn?

There is the generalised belief that learning should start with easy items and turn to progressively more difficult ones, but it is often the case that teachers and syllabus designers often trust their own experience. In fact, it is not easy to determine what is easy and what is difficult.

Can you think of something «simpler» than the -s for third person singular?

A common assumption that guides the so-called «Structural Approach», is that learners in fact progress in a linear fashion. What do we mean? We mean that aspects of language should be presented and practised to the point of «full» mastery and automated use before complex and more «difficult» ones.

At first sight it seems sensible to assert that learners should progress in a linear fashion, from the presentation and practice of simple structures to that of more complex ones, and that there should be a strict control over the number and kind of structures presented in order not to overburden the learners.

However, the very same linguists and grammarians that state that there are simple and complex structures also declare that «language is a system of systems».

What is a system?

An organised whole, made up of components with a value within that same whole. For example, the Present Perfect Tense has a value only when contrasted with the Simple Past Tense. And the singular contrasts with the plural, and so on.

The adoption of an approach like the one described above poses two questions:



  • considering that language is a system of systems, as we say above, is it necessary to teach all the components of a given system for the learner to access the system as a whole?
  • taking into account that words in general, and modals in particular, for example, have several meanings, is it necessary to teach all the possible meanings including metaphorical meaning?
  • if words and phrases have different uses and communicative meanings, which mark degrees of adequacy with respect to different social situations and interaction with speakers who perform different roles, is it necessary to teach all the possible uses? Or should their less frequent uses be introduced at a later stage when they are taken up again for a second (or third) time?

The three questions posed above read like rhetorical questions. The common-sense answer is NO, NO, NO.

Besides, there does not seem to be any room for learner contribution. And we know for a fact –our learners themselves teach us lessons on creativity every single day– that the learner’s mind is a «processor», constantly adjusting, sorting out, hypothesising, arranging and re-arranging. An active mind.





The route of acquisition

Research into second and foreign language acquisition has proved there is a natural route of development specified by the language being learnt, in this case English.
This natural route specifies a natural order of acquisition, which, apparently, has little to do with linguists’ and grammarians’ decisions as to the degree of complexity of linguistic forms.

To give you an example: a long time ago a group of 13 year-old beginners, using a rather inadequate textbook for their age since it was geared to young adults, came to lesson 4 or 5. The main target was «Expressing and asking about likes and dislikes» through the exponents like-likes/don’t’-doesn’t like. In that lesson there were two young adults, a boy and a girl, «getting to know each other». At one point of the conversation, the girl asked, «Do you like classical music?» «Oh, no», replied the boy. «Classical music sends me to sleep.»

The teacher was horrified. «How can I possibly teach this pattern at this stage?» So she decided not to teach it. She played the cassette, and when they got to the much-feared pattern, she asked: «Does X (I forget the character’s name) like classical music?» «No», the learners replied, almost all of them. The teacher asked a brave question: «How do you know?» She saw several hands up and got ready for the worst. She appointed one of the learners. «Yes» «Porque dice "Classical music sends me to sleep."» And then, when she hadn’t yet recovered, she heard, «Homework sends me to sleep.» And then she could hear generalised laughter. And then, «Matemática sends me to sleep.»

Breathe in. This is fantastic but it doesn’t explain the whole of language learning.

As we say elsewhere, learning does not proceed in a linear fashion. It’s got its own directions, rhythms and modes of proceeding.

One of such ways is through reiteration, that is, «by recycling new material and presenting the learner with it in different contexts» but not massively.

What does this mean? That when organising material for presentation and practice, there should be as many opportunities as possible for the learner to be exposed to the target linguistic aspects at regular intervals, each occasion providing more clues as to the way the item/s function/s within their own system and across with respect to other systems.

The view of learning that underlies this approach to material organisation implies that learning itself is «provisional», that it counts on a learner getting near(er) the target in gradual approximations, going back, processing and re-processing, hypothesising, getting stuck, and going further on.

So, the syllabus organisation is spiral, which allows cyclical reiteration. In turn, these reiterations in new contexts offer chances of recycling the material, reinforcing it, and widening its confines, discovering new meanings and uses.

This kind of approach might give the impression of too much disorganisation. This requires the teacher to keep a daily record of lexical and structural items which were introduced, those that are still standby, and those that must be taken up again, so that systems are recycled in terms of learner needs and completed and rounded off in accordance with linguistic requirements.

Because of everyday overwork, what we generally do is rely on the organisation in the textbook we have chosen. And that refers us back to the choice of textbook. But there are several things a textbook cannot do for us –however good it might be– and that is catering for our learner needs.

This capacity to detect learner needs will develop in us the possibility of viewing the textbook with a critical eye –even if it is the best we could possibly have chosen, and of drawing from it what our learners require. This is an important step in developing our autonomy as teachers.

On the other hand, the assumption that as teachers we must follow whatever has been stated in the textbook blindly is false, as false as the rather generalised belief that the ideal textbook should contain a restricted corpus of grammar and vocabulary. Vocabulary is what really allows communication, comprehension and the expression of personal meanings.






ELLIS, R. (1984). Classroom Second Language Development. Oxford: Pergamon.




Publicado: 15 de enero de 2015

Última modificación: 30 de abril de 2021



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