Some Ways of Organising Language

Vivian Cook 
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Audio Visual Language Journal, Vol. 16, No. 2, 89-94, 1978

 Recent years have seen a change in attitudes towards the organisation of language for language teaching. Some people have suggested that the language content should not be organised.1 Others such as David Wilkins have brought forward new ways of organising language in terms of 'functions' and 'notions'2. The present article looks at some of the ways in which language has been organised, examines their deficiencies, and suggests some possibilities for the future.

Most methods of organising language are variations of four main types. The most familiar is grammatical organisation. This is supposed to be based on the description of the grammar of the native speaker of the language: an English speaker uses the 'Present Tense' so foreign students are taught the Present Tense. Situational organisation is also familiar. First the situations in which the student wants to use the foreign language are discovered and then the language is organised around the language that native speakers use in those situations: oar students smoke so they need to know how to buy cigarettes from a kiosk. A less obvious method of organisation is topical organisation. We find out what the students want to talk about and then establish how native speakers talk about those topics: a student may want to talk about football so we teach him the vocabulary and structures that native speakers use in connection with football. This type of organisation, while "A is used implicitly in much language teaching, is rarely used as the main method of organising language for the whole course. Finally there is functional/notional organisation. The student wants to use language tor particular purposes and to express particular things: we therefore teach him the language that native speakers use to carry out these functions and to express these ideas; if students want to persuade people or to express ideas of time, we teach them the language of persuasion and time. While this type of organisation has mot been used for very long, it is already popular, particularly among courses in English as a Foreign Language.

All of these types have certain failings. A general fault is that they are seldom based on reliable descriptions of native speakers. We have a fair idea of the grammar used by the native speaker perhaps, but we have little idea of how language varies from one situation to another, one topic to another, let alone how it connects with particular functions and notions. Grammatical organisation has the particular fault that it tends to emphasise form rather than meaning. The language becomes remote from real life and the teaching method is biassed towards mechanical techniques. Commonly also the grammar shows little relation to the types of grammar that have been used in linguistics in the past fifteen years or so, as a survey of American teaching materials bears out3 Situational organisation often becomes linked with a stimulus/response theory of language learning, the deficiencies of which are well-known. Functional organisation on the other hand, still lacks a thorough analysis of the functions for which students need the foreign language; partly also its advocates have been so intent on demonstrating that one function may be expressed through many grammatical forms that they have not seemed prepared to concede that the student may need to be able to produce only one of these grammatical forms per function, at least in the early stages. Notional organisation similarly lacks an adequate foundation; nobody really knows what the ideas are that a speaker wants to express. It also seems to imply that people have the same thoughts, whichever language they speak, and differ simply over which language they use to express them in; one may well have reservations about such a strong statement the relationship between language and thought and feel that one should allow for the possibility that people from different language backgrounds might want to express rather different ideas through language. Topical organisation can use some actual descriptions4, but it is not as yet clear what the choice of topic controls in language apart from some vocabulary.

Let us now compare these four types with some current assumptions about the aims of language teaching. It seems widely accepted that students learning a foreign language have two major needs: one is to function in an environment in which the language is used as an immigrant, as a tourist, or in some other role; the other is to use the language to further their professional career, as a businessman, as a translator, and so on. Both these needs may be combined: a foreign student at an English-speaking institution may need English both to function in the environment and as a tool for his profession. The common factor to both these needs is the emphasis on the social function of language: the student is assumed to need the language for active personal use rather than for its own sake as an academic discipline, or for developing his own personality, or for appreciating a foreign literature, all otherwise valid purposes. This factor stresses the creative aspect of language use: the student has to go out into the world beyond the classroom and hear and produce sentences he has never previously encountered; the teaching of a foreign language is successful to the extent that it allows the student the ability to function in the language. This aim can be summed up in Hymes' well-known phrase 'communicative competence', the ability to communicate5. The question we are concerned with is the effectiveness of these four types of organisation at fostering communicative competence.

Starting with grammatical organisation, presumably part of the speaker's communicative competence consists of his grammatical knowledge of the language. Nevertheless many grammatical devices are used with- equal ease in any communicative role or situation: what is the relevance of 'Present Tense' to communicative competence for instance? Indeed if this were not the case, the habit of talking about the grammar of contextless sentences would be totally meaningless. Grammar is subordinate to other factors in the communicative situation rather than being the sole over-riding factor: it seems better to ask what grammatical patterns are used in what communicative roles rather than vice versa. Situational organisation on the other hand embodies something that is more crucial to communicative competence but is still only one aspect. Situation determines a small part of language and situational organisation cannot cope with the large amount that remains. Functional/notional organisation is clearly more successful at dealing with communicative competence, since, in a sense, this is what it was designed to do. Topical organisation reflects another aspect of communicative competence and ignores the rest. These four types complement each other: no teaching that aims at communicative competence can fail to take account of these four types and to strike some balance between them as is done for instance in the proposal for a Threshold Level.6 Yet there is still something missing. If the aim is for the student to take part in a communicative situation, all four types fail to take account of the structure of the communicative situation itself. Conversation is an interchange between two or more people governed by a complex set of conventions and rules. Turn-taking, for instance: one speaker signals continuously to the listener either that he is continuing to speak or that it is time for the listener to take over the speaker's role. Sequence is another aspect of the communicative situation: one type of speech function implies that another will follow. Cohesion is also important the way that sentences are linked together by ellipsis and so on.7 The communicative situation is structured in many different dimensions. The four types deal with certain aspects of these dimensions but do not integrate them into one overall structure (if that is indeed possible). The categories in each of the four types have been usually conceived as a succession of units rather than being linked together in the speech situation: one speech function follows another without being linked to a higher level speech function, one grammatical structure succeeds another without being integrated into the flow of the discourse. However well these four types are combined, there is something lacking if they are not linked together within the structure of the communicative situation: an organisation for teaching communicative competence that does not take account of the communicative situation itself is like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.

At the moment we have little idea of what such a structure would be. The work of Goffmann and others is starting to reveal some of the structure of conversational exchanges.8 In particular work in progress at Birmingham University shows some hints of what it might be like.9 The system of analysis suggested for classroom discourse by Sinclair and Coulthard has five ranks: lessons, transactions, exchanges, moves, and acts. As an example, the act 'marker' realised by


forms part of the 'opening' move

"Now what are the letters that are missing?"

which forms part of an 'elicit' exchange

"Now, what are the letters that are missing?"



which in turn forms part of a transaction and so on. This system of analysis has so far only been used with the language of the classroom and may need altering to apply to the situations in which the student wishes to participate. Potentially it can provide an overall structure into which the other types of organisation of language could fit. The grammar would be linked to specific acts, moves, and so on; the choice of a specific function would be seen in relation to the structure of functions of the discourse; the choice of topic would be correlated with the different types of exchange. If the organisation of teaching materials is to take account of communicative competence, it must surely organise teaching directly in terms of the communicative situation: it should employ a model of the act of communication which can link the different aspects together. If a teacher accepts that the structure of the situation is important, he must ensure that his students engage in structured situations.

Even if this combination of the four types proves successful, it still has a major deficiency: while it describes the behaviour of the mature native speaker, it says nothing of how he learnt it. The usual procedure in organising language is: first, look at the native speaker's language behaviour; second, select which aspects of this behaviour are relevant to the potential students; third, arrange the selected aspects into a teaching sequence; fourth, translate these aspects into teaching techniques and materials. Two additional steps are implied: one is establishing how the native speaker learnt the chosen aspects of his language behaviour; the other is describing how a learner of a second language learns them, if this is different. When these steps are not employed, as is usually the case, this procedure involves a fallacy about the relationship between communicative competence and the stages that led to that competence. It is assumed that the parts into which competence can be broken up correspond to units in the learning process: we acquire competence by adding pieces to a jigsaw puzzle till we see the whole picture. One element of adult competence is the "Present Perfect Tense" and so this is a discrete item on the teaching programme; adults use language to complain, so a functional syllabus teaches complaining separately; and so on for the other types. But what we know about language learning suggests that this is far from true: the language learner progresses through a series of complete language systems, rather than learning one discrete item at a time. In other words he starts with an easy jigsaw of 3 pieces and gradually builds up to an expert's jigsaw containing 1,250, each jigsaw being complete in itself. Thus 'Present Perfect' in the adult may not have been learnt as a discrete item at one period of time but may have evolved out of an earlier, more rudimentary system; the child may not learn 'complaining' separately, but evolve the function of complaining out of a set of more primitive functions. Sequencing each part of final communicative competence and teaching it separately goes counter to most ideas of language learning; the learner is given fragments of the native speaker's final system rather than evolving a complete system of his own at each stage. He is like an incomplete Frankenstein's Monster who cannot function till all the separate limbs are assembled rather than a child who is an organic whole at each stage of development.10 The remedy is to take heed of the sequences that learners go through in acquiring a second language. Some first accounts of this are already beginning to appear11 and eventually teaching will be able to call upon information about these learning sequences.

Many people are agreed on what second language learning is not, but there is at present a lack of consensus about what it is. Let us advance a proposition to which many would assent, namely that second language learning is most effective when the student has to use the language constantly for actual communication. This is, for instance, advocated by such diverse writers as Belyayev and Macnamara,12 and some cogent evidence in its favour has been recently presented.13 This proposition is one possible consequence of the adoption of communicative competence as the aim of language teaching; the student, it is claimed, best learns how to function in communicative situations by participating in them, by expressing himself rather than parroting other people's remarks. In the classroom this implies teaching techniques where the student has to communicate with someone else through the new language. This approach can be called 'communicative teaching' to show its relationship to communicative competence.

How then does communicative teaching relate to the types of organisation that have been discussed? In terms of grammatical organisation it is possible to think of games-like situations where the students are practising a single point of grammar and are at the same time communicating with each other. But most grammatical teaching is the antithesis of communication: the students practice one grammatical point at a time in a structure drill, make up arbitrary sentences from a substitution table, or hear a grammatical explanation. However it may be disguised, most grammatical teaching is nothing more than teaching of grammar. Though it may be possible to organise communicative teaching around grammatical points, it seems a case of the tail wagging the dog. Situational organisation fares slightly better; the students can recreate real-life situations within the classroom. But these are still re-creations in which the students act parts rather than play themselves. Situational organisation has had little to say about the real situation of the classroom in which the students find themselves. Functional/notional organisation is open to more or less the same objections as grammatical organisation; practising one function or notion at a time is the opposite to real communication where the functions and notions used vary from one moment to the next; we rarely spend ten minutes complaining or talking about time. If the teaching is based on recordings of real or scripted conversation, this is again open to the objection that the student is more observer than participant. Even organisation in terms of discourse structure is difficult to apply to communicative teaching except at the ranks of transaction and exchange where it is possible to practice certain aspects of discourse separately without destroying communication itself. Topical organisation is, however, more suited to communicative teaching. The topics that are used in the classroom may mirror those used by native speakers without destroying real communication by being taught separately: the teaching activity of guided discussion for instance can be organised in terms of topics without limiting the student's freedom to communicate his own attitudes, feelings and ideas, as they are limited by the other types of organisation.

To make this discussion more concrete let us look at some teaching materials based on a communicative topical approach. One set of such materials is English Topics. This is an intermediate course for adult learners of English as a Foreign Language, partly designed to cover the requirements of a particular examination, the First Certificate of Cambridge University. The book is organised around topics, and its teaching activities are intended to lead to the students expressing their own ideas through English. The topics themselves are based on those established by the Child Language Survey as being the most common among British teenagers. Some adaptation had to be made to the classroom: important as gossip may be, it can scarcely be dealt with through published teaching materials. The ten topics that were finally chosen were: Teaching, Holidays, the Supernatural, Houses, Food, Speech, Jobs, Sports and Games, Fashion and Pop, the Arts.

Since there was no grammatical or other progression to the materials, the topics can be studied in any order; the teacher can use only those that appeal to a particular group of students rather than plodding remorselessly through them all. However, before the student can express his ideas he needs some minimum of language; this problem was solved partly by making the materials an intermediate course, partly by including material that would expose him to some appropriate language for each topic, encourage him to express his own ideas, and enable him to listen to others expressing their own ideas.

Let's take a particular topic and see how this worked out in detail. The topic 'Jobs' starts with a short background text taken from a Unilever pamphlet 'Choosing a Career' ("Choosing a career is like any other activity it is best to work to a plan..."). This is followed by brief factual information on employment and strikes in Britain ("In 1971 91% of men working in England worked more than 37 hours per week, 45% of women.. ."). The text and the factual information are read silently by the students whether overnight or in class. The teacher checks their comprehension and develops the topics in class, using a list of 'Points to consider' ("How do the hours worked by men and women in your country compare with those in England?")- Then there are two short scripted dialogues, one on 'Pleasing the boss', the other on 'Changing Jobs' ("Jill: Have you seen this job in the paper? Simon: The one in Manchester?..."). The dialogues are always 'topical' two or more people are discussing a topic rather than using language in a service situation; this can be treated in different ways listened to from a tape or from the teacher's reading, read aloud, repeated sentence by sentence and so on. Both of them are followed by short lists of' Talking Points' ("What reasons should one have for changing jobs?").

Then comes the core of the materials activities to force the students into saying something in English. Activity 1 is a questionnaire about attitudes to jobs ("How many hours a week should people work? (a) less than 30, (b) 30 to 40, (c) 40 to 50, (d) more than 50"). The students complete the questionnaire and the teacher uses the results to start discussion and argument by highlighting differences between students or by adopting a devil's advocate position. Activity 2 is an application form for a job. Activity 3 is role playing: the students are provided with information about a firm called Silford Chemicals who are looking for a senior executive; they are given brief character descriptions of four candidates ("Mary Boston is 40 and started work as a secretary but transferred to an executive job. She is unmarried and writes 'I have never found any problems in telling men what to do'.")

In Activity 4 the students are asked to describe and discuss photos relevant to the topic ("An Air-hostess on British Airways. Describe what the passengers and the air-hostess are doing. What are the attractions in being an air-hostess?"). The photographs are chosen not for their attractiveness nor for their potential for teaching vocabulary but for stimulating discussion of the topic. Activity 5 is simply a list of short talks that the student can prepare and deliver ("What I would most like to be.").

The next section has two passages for oral comprehension, one of scripted spoken prose with multiple choice questions on the potted biography of an author ("James Macintyre, the son of an English ambassador and a South American gypsy, attended one of England's most famous schools . . ."), and one passage of unscripted spontaneous conversation between real people. This passage is kept short and exists in two forms, edited or unedited, so that the teacher can choose how to use them with his own class ("I think job, you know your job is very important and if you're going to be bored, you know, if you're going to do it for the rest of your life, it's very sad ..." versus "I think your job is important. If you're going to do a job that bores you for the rest of your life, it's very sad . . ."). Both these comprehension passages are followed by discussion points ("What do you think makes a satisfying job?"). Finally the topic closes with suggestions for written follow-up work ("A letter of application for a job ...").

In practice English Topics works out as quite teachable material. However, though based on topics and using 'communicative' teaching, it still fails to bring in explicitly the question of interaction. In later materials this has been made the core of a course in English intonation, Using Intonation.5 Here the organisation of the material is in terms of the functions that intonation has in dialogue. The units include such areas as 'trying to get information', 'supplying information', 'reacting', 'checking,' 'getting people to do things,' 'stating things positively' and so on, all of which are linked to particular English intonation patterns. The teaching techniques lead the student into using intonation in his own natural speech. For instance the unit on 'reacting' starts with a brief explanation of the commonest intonation patterns for showing different kinds of reactions to statements ("The High-Fall sounds the most involved and excited: 'Paris"). Then a listening exercise asks the student to listen to a conversation about being sacked and to decide what kind of reaction one of the speakers has ("Did you know I'd changed my job?" "No".). Two dialogues for repetition and exploitation now present the intonation patterns in context ("I always travel by train now." "Do you?"). Then there are three speaking exercises in which the student has to produce sentences of his own with the appropriate intonation; one asks him to give his reactions to four pictures of various street incidents such as a mugging and a car accident; another asks him to supply the reactions that various people might have to some news headlines; the third exercise asks for the student's instant reactions to remarks such as "The building's on fire". Finally there are brief reading exercises in which the student has to first read aloud certain reactions and then make up the statements against which they are reacting. Using Intonation tries then to teach one aspect of the structure of interaction through communicative teaching techniques that require the student to produce utterances of his own creation in the classroom.

So, to conclude this article, language is people talking to each other. One goal of language teaching is people talking to each other in a foreign language. We need to know more about the ways in which people use language to interact with each other, not just the grammatical patterns or even the functions, but the structure of the interaction itself. We also need to develop teaching techniques and materials that will teach this to the student. The materials that have been mentioned here are attempts to go towards this goal but stop short very far from achieving it.


1.  L. Newmark and D. A. Reibel, "Necessity and Sufficiency in Language Learning", International Review of Applied Linguistics VI/3 (1968).

2. D. A. Wilkins, "An investigation into the linguistic and situational content of the common core in a unit/credit system", Council of Europe Committee for Out-of-school Education and Cultural Development (1972). D. A. Wilkins, Notional syllabuses (O.U.P. 1976).

3.    F. J. Jenks, "Foreign Language Materials: A Status Report and Trends Analysis", in G. A. Jarvis (ed.) Perspective: A New Freedom National Textbook Company (1975).

4. For instance, R. W. Rutherford, M.E.A. Freeth, and E. S. Mercer, "Topics of Conversation in the Speech of Fifteen-year-old Children", Nuffield Foreign Languages Teaching Materials Project Occasional Paper No. 44. (Child Language Survey, 1970).

5.    D. Hymes, "Competence and Performance in Linguistic Theory", in R. Huxley and E. Ingram (ed.) Language Acquisition: Models and Methods (Academic Press,

6.    J. van Ek, "The Threshold Level" (Council for Cultural Co-operation of the Council of Europe, 1975).

7.    M. A. K. Halliday and R. Hasan, Cohesion in English (Longman, 1976).

8.    E. Goffmann, "Replies and Responses", Language in Society, 5 (1976).

9. J. McH. Sinclair and R. M. Coulthard, Towards an Analysis of Discourse: The English used by teachers and pupils (O.U.P. 1975).

10.  This point is developed more fully in V. J. Cook, "Freedom and Control in Language Teaching Materials", in R. W. Rutherford (ed.) BAAL Seminar Papers 1970: Problems in the preparation of foreign language teaching materials, (Child Language Survey, York; 1971) and V. J. Cook, "Competence and Language Processes" Indian Journal of Applied Linguistics (to appear).

11.  For instance N. Bailey, C. Madden, and S. Krashen, "Is there a natural sequence in adult second language learning?" Language Learning 24 (1974).

12.  B. V. Belyayev, The Psychology of Teaching Foreign Languages (Pergamon, 1963) p. 142.

J. Macnamara, "Comparison Between First and Second Language Learning", Working Papers in Bilingualism, 1 (1975), n.90.

13.  A. Fathmann, "Variables Affecting the Successful Learning of English as a Second Language", TESOL Quarterly, 10 (1976).

14.  V. J. Cook, English Topics (O.U.P., 1974).

15.  V. J. Cook, Using Intonation (Longman, t1978).