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Review ~ Messaging: Beyond a Lexical Approach

An interesting but flawed approach to language learning that combines traditional methodologies with modern technology.
Reviewed for TEFL.net by Luke Lawrence
Messaging: Beyond a Lexical Approach

Messaging: Beyond a Lexical Approach

In this interesting, if not exactly groundbreaking book, George Woolard draws heavily on his own experience of learning Spanish to introduce an approach to language learning that he terms “messaging”. In this, he aims to provide a “fast and efficient” way of acquiring language that falls back on traditional methods of language pedagogy such as translation and Contrastive Analysis, but uses modern technologies (podcasts, media players) to achieve this.

As the title suggests, Woolard takes the meaning-before-form viewpoint of Michael Lewis’ Lexical Approach and expands upon it to create what he terms a “message frame”. This is a semi-fixed example sentence, which is (very!) similar to a traditional grammar frame, except for the fact that it has at least one fixed noun or verb. This message frame is then “chunked” into common collocations and then finally personlised by substituting the appropriate noun or verb – Woolard encourages noun substitution as he argues it is the noun that carries the most meaning, as in the Lexical Approach. See below for an example of this. He likens this way of learning to the way a holiday phrasebook works, a metaphor he repeats many times at the beginning of the book, but appears to forget about as the theory progresses and becomes more complex.

The book argues that this focus on the message will integrate vocabulary and grammar and allow learners to flip back and forth between grammatical structures as needed, rather than in the linear fashion of a typical coursebook wherein learners are only “allowed” to use one grammatical structure at a time. As I’ve already mentioned, this is hardly groundbreaking and can be said to be a mere manifestation of what Dell Hymes proposed in 1972. However, it does give us a slightly more concrete and complete version. Theoretically, this makes sense, but the examples given to illustrate this leave a lot of unanswered questions. For example, a summary of the approach is given as shown below, with no attempt to explain where all the extra language in the “personalizing” stage might come from:

Messaging– (YOU-CAN-SAY)

We’ve been having problems with our car recently.

Chunking – (YOU-CAN-ALSO-SAY)

We’ve been having problems with our neighbours recently.

He’s been having problems at school recently.

Personalizing – (CAN-I-SAY?)

I’ve been having problems with my laptop recently. It keeps freezing and I have to shut it down and start it up again. What a pain.

Instead of speaking and listening, these messages are to be exploited by focusing on texts (“ a textSbook”) by fully exploiting every structure, vocabulary item or phrase in each text by repeated visits to the same text.

More controversially, Woolard calls for a return to the audio-lingual method of memory-based learning through traditional drilling methods, which he believes is the most effective way to install the language chunks in our brain so that they can be immediately recalled to create spontaneous speech. Although this argument is well put together; drawing on child development theory to explain how Consciously Produced Language (CPL) transforms into Spontaneously Produced Language (SPL), little account is taken of the individual needs or learning styles of the learner or what to do when faced with a situation not covered by the example sentences that have been drilled, no matter how much personalization goes into them.

Perhaps even more controversially, he also advocates extensive use of L1 and full translations of texts. Using Cook’s 2010 text Translation in Language Teaching as his main resource, Woolard justifies this by stating that all proficient speakers of a foreign language can also translate between that language and their own mother tongue. This perception seems to me to be fundamentally flawed. Although it may be true, it does not follow that they learned to do so through translating. Being able to translate is the end product of language study (whatever form that may take), not the means of achieving it. Additionally, his solution to how this can be achieved in a multilingual learning environment is “simply” for coursebooks to have online translations of texts in a multitude of languages – an idea that completely fails to take into consideration the logistics and cost of such a huge undertaking. Interestingly, he backtracks somewhat on this idea in the Postscript to the book, replacing it with the even less well thought-out idea of getting students to use Google Translate instead.

Overall, I found Woolard’s personable writing style engaging and easy to read and his examples clear, concise and unfettered by dogmatic allegiance to any particular school of thought. I picked up some useful tips (using the speed control on Windows Media Player to slow down podcast speed, for instance) and found myself sympathetic to some parts of his argument. However, these strengths are also this book’s weaknesses. The conversational style and tendency to over-rely on applying universal principles for ways and means that he personally found success with are not quite convincing. The lack of allegiance to any pedagogical tradition leads to conclusions such as: “It seems to me that there is something intuitively correct about the message approach”, that highlight the lack of empirical evidence for much of the theory proposed in this book. The result is an interesting collection of ideas and advocacies, but ones that have the unfortunate sense of a “My Share” corner of an ELT journal.

Reviewed by Luke Lawrence for TEFL.net July 2013
Luke Lawrence has been teaching in Japan for 11 years and is currently working at the British Council Tokyo. His main interests are cultural context in ELT, innovations in methodology, and Young Learners.

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TEFL.net : TEFL Book Reviews : Teaching : Review ~ Messaging: Beyond a Lexical Approach