Traditionally, language has been taught in discrete parts: learners are taught speaking and listening skills separately from reading and writing, and vocabulary is separated from grammar.
However, anyone who has seriously studied a second language knows that language is much more holistic and difficult to divide up into separate elements. Particularly problematic is the tendency for second language classes to focus on lists of related vocabulary words (e.g., “words for the weather,” “words for health”) separately from grammar, which is usually focused on the verb phrase, particularly on how to conjugate or analyze verbs according to their “person” (e.g. first person: “I go”; second person, “you go,”, etc.) This methodology not surprisingly results in students able to reel off related words on demand or conjugate verbs, but not do much else in their second language. Because of this focus of study on grammar and vocabulary isolated from any context, it’s not uncommon for students to come out of four years of high school study of a foreign language really unable to communicate in it. A lot of the research on second language learning suggests that words are actually learned “in the company they keep,” or in phrases, rather than in isolation. Phrasebooks, for example, with commonly used phrases, have been popular for years to pick up some quick, productive language before visiting a foreign country. In addition, research shows that a large portion of spoken language, and a smaller but still significant portion of written language, exists in short, ready-made phrases (“Last time I checked—”; “On the other hand—”). Given that learning phrases seems a much more “natural” way to learn language, and that it’s a quick way to give students some productive speech, some focus should be given to learning phrases across the language skills.
Important Issues in Teaching Phrases
Choose the Most Salient for Study
Of primary consideration in teaching students phrases is determining which ones to teach: the focus should be on the more commonly used phrases in conversation and writing. In addition, studying a limited number of phrases over the course of the semester and learning how to use them well in conversation and text is of more value than studying a massive number and learning them only superficially. Phrases are usually three to six words long.
The teacher can look through her own textbooks as well as analyze student conversations to determine which phrases to teach. Otherwise, there is research available that shows which phrases are commonly used in conversation and writing.
Study Phrases in Context, not Isolation
Just as it is of limited value to learn single words out of context—the learner has little idea of how to use these words in actual speech or written production - it is not very productive to learn longer phrases out of context. Phrases should instead be learned while analyzing the conversations and texts in which they occur.
Specific Language Functions
Phrases have specific language functions: to open a conversation, to introduce an opposing point, to summarize and conclude.
Methods for Teaching Phrases for Speaking and Listening:
First calling student’s attention to phrases, then explicitly teaching them, and finally practicing them in authentic situations in which students have been given a specific role and task, such as an unhappy customer writing to a company’s manager about a poor product, are tasks the teacher can assign. Some specific phrases and tasks follow.
Conversation Phone Calls: There are phrases associated with making phone calls which are different from that of face-to face conversations. For an obvious example, a speaker on the telephone usually identifies herself with “Hello, this is Stacia,” a phrase almost never used in person. There are also phrases for getting to the main point after the initial greetings: e.g., “The reason I am calling is—” and to conclude and say good-bye, e.g., “Thanks for your help with this”; “I’ll look forward to hearing from you tomorrow, and “Have a good day.” Teaching these phrases and their functions also reveals something about the nature of a phone call in American English: it is brief, purposeful, and with specific and expected “movements”: the greeting, the statement of purpose, etc. This demonstrates people usually call each other with a specific purpose in mind, different from many face-to-face conversations, and if the caller doesn’t come quickly to a purpose, the callee is likely to be annoyed. Having students practice these conversations, with set or less guided dialogues prepares students for the actual language used on the telephone.
Face-to-Face Conversations: Face-to-face conversations also have their specific phrases for certain functions, although they may be less defined than those of telephone conversations. There are also phrases related to more informal settings, such as between friends or grocery store clerks and customers, and more formal, such as between office managers and employees. The phrases also reveal the conventions to these conversations, although again the expectations may be looser than in telephone calls. In addition, it is these phrases that really reveal the gap between actual language use and the language students may have been taught in prior ESL or EFL classes, as often these common phrases are different from what students were previously taught.
Conversations for Informal Settings:
Friends/acquaintances: Common greetings between friends usually begin with “How’s it going?” to which the response is almost invariably “Fine, and yourself?” or closely related expressions: “Not so bad! And you?’ or “Pretty good. And how about you?”
In informal American English, particularly among young people, “Hey” seems to have replaced “Hi,” or “Hello” for the opening greeting.
For coming to a main point of an informal conversation, some signaling phrases such as “I just want to say—” or “I’ve been meaning to ask you—” are often used.
Just as “good morning” or “hello” are rarely used in informal face-to-face conversations, they rarely end with “good-bye.” Rather “Sorry, I’ve got to go,” or “Nice seeing you!” or “Take care, now” are commonly used.
Salespeople/Customers: “May I help you?” is the traditional way a salesperson greets a customer in English. For coming to the main point of the transaction, he might say, “And are you looking for anything special today?”
To conclude, the common response to the customer’s thank-you for service is the salesperson’s “No problem.” Again, “you’re welcome” is not heard so much today in actual conversation.
Conversations for Formal Settings:
Conversations for more formal settings, such as business meetings between relative strangers, have their own set of phrases, such as “It’s nice to meet you,” although the extremely formal
“How do you do?” (to which the expected response is a repetition: “How do you do?”) has almost disappeared from American English. More formal meetings usually have an agenda and a leader who guides the meeting in reaching main points: “We have a couple of things we really need to discuss today—” or “The really critical item on the schedule is—” The meeting might then conclude, again with the from the leader, “I think that covers it for today,” or “To wrap things up—” Adherence is to the schedule is generally expected, and people who attempt to deviate from it may be rebuked with something such as “Well, to get back to the main point—” Failing to recognize the function of this phrase, to draw the group back to the main topic, results in annoyance from the other participants.
Methods for Teaching Phrases for Reading and Writing
Notes: Rarely are notes in complete sentences: In informal notes, English actually becomes a pronoun-drop language, as is standard in some languages, like Spanish, where the subject pronoun may be dropped: “Am at the store,” “Had to take the car in,” and “Dinner on the stove,” are some common phrases in personal notes, getting right to the main point with minimum greeting or closure.
Business Letters: Business letters in particular seem replete with phrases to perform a certain function: “To Whom It May Concern,” to open, “It has come to my attention—” to come to the main point; “Looking at this situation from a customer’s perspective—” to raise an opposing or differing viewpoint, and “Please take this matter under consideration,” to conclude are some examples of phrases used in business letters.
Essays and Reports: Again, formal essays and reports are filled with phrases that not only perform specific functions but also signal the reader and writer’s membership in an academic community: “It has long been thought by experts—” to open a discussion; “Therefore, this suggests the importance of—” to raise a main point, “However, other evidence might suggest—” to recognize other viewpoints, and to summarize, “In conclusion, further study is warranted—”
Language should not be taught in discrete elements: it is by nature holistic. From learning the English phrase, students learn vocabulary as well as grammar related to specific language contexts. Phrases also teach specific conventions and functions of language: how to open a conversation, recognize when a meeting leader is stating a main point, and so forth. In addition, use of these phrases actually signals the speaker or writer’s membership in a community. Time invested in teaching commonly used phrases is there well-spent on giving students productive language for specific situations.
Do you think it is valuable to teach phrases? If so, what are some methods you use to teach it?