Formulaic sequences in EAP and SLA

Formulaic sequences in English for Academic Purposes and Second Language Acquisition: towards the characterisation of lexico-grammatical norms
GERAS 2017

Shona Whyte & Cédric Sarré

This paper discusses a phenomenon often discussed under the umbrella term “formulaic sequences” (FS) and used to refer to chunks, clusters, collocations, idiomatic expressions, multi-word expressions, lexicogrammatical patterns, or processing units in different areas of psycholinguistics, systemic-functional linguistics, second language research and corpus linguistics, to name but these fields. With respect to the teaching and learning of English for Specific Purposes (ESP), formulaic sequences are of interest from two contrasting perspectives. The first, more traditional approach in ESP, has been to treat FS from a speaker-external perspective, defining FS as “the use of idioms, idiomatic expressions, and collocations used by NSs and L2 learners, that is, what is formulaic in a given language” (Myles & Cordier, 2016). In phraseological terms, FS may be viewed as “the preferred way of saying things in a particular discourse” (Gledhill, 2000). A second approach is favoured in second language acquisition research, and involves a speaker-internal or psycholinguistic definition of FS as “multiword units which present a processing advantage for a given speaker, either because they are stored whole in his/her mental lexicon (Wray 2002) or because they are highly automatised” (Cordier, 2013). Each approach is appropriate to the research questions of interest. Thus in second language research, objectives include the characterisation of FS in L2 speech production and their role in L2 development. Studies thus compare learners’ use of strings retrieved holistically with those generated online, using distinguishing criteria such as fluency, form-function mapping, and frequency in input and output (Myles & Cordier, 2016). In ESP research, on the other hand, one goal is to improve the efficiency of ESP teaching by focusing on particular FS. Give the importance of FS in fluent processing, and high frequency of such “semi-preconstructed phrases” (Sinclair, 1991), it is argued that “the more frequent items have the highest utility and should therefore be taught and tested earlier” (Nation, 2001, cited in Simpson-Vlach & Ellis, 2010). To this end, Simpson-Vlach and Ellis (2010) applied a number of frequency, collocational and pedagogical criteria to FS in spoken and written corpora of academic and general English to generate an academic formulas list of 200 FS deemed most worth teaching. It remains to be shown, however, how L2 acquisition of such externally defined FS proceeds, or how pedagogical intervention can encourage this process. This paper reviews definitions of FS from these two contrasting perspectives, highlighting problems at the intersection of the two approaches identified by Myles and Cordier (2016). It discusses the design of research instruments to replicate an empirical study by Lindstrom et al (2016) in order to address the question of how FS can best be taught and learned in English for Academic Purposes.


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Mobility abroad in teacher education: a virtuous spiral

SPIRAL, School-teacher Professionalisation: Intercultural Resources and Languages, is a European teacher education project which aims to develop intercultural and foreign language competence in pre-service primary teachers (Erasmus+ 2015-18).


The project

Coordinated by the French International Centre for Pedagogical Studies (CIEP), SPIRAL involves institutions for teacher education in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK. The project partners have designed a learning platform to support trainee teachers who undertake short school placements in a different country.
The platform provides
  • practical help in making contact with their host schools, and
  • pedagogical support for making the most of this opportunity to develop teaching and intercultural competences.

In each of the three years of the project’s lifetime, 30 pre-service primary teachers (6 from each partner country) make 2-week school visits to another project country. Where possible, the mobility is organised as part of regular teacher training courses.

The learning platform

The online platform has been purpose-built to accommodate participants from the five SPIRAL countries on Moodle, using the project’s own graphic identity. It includes
  • a survey tool
  • a built-in video/audio recorder, and
  • an ePortfolio.

The platform offers a structured sequence of 17 activities designed to help learners before, during, and after their mobility along three dimensions labelled research, practice, and language. Following a self-assessment activity, where participants complete can-do statements related to a common reference framework developed by the project, the primary student-teachers work on the activities with support from a tutor in their home country.

Examples of activities designed for the three dimensions at each stage of the mobility are shown below:

(10 activities)
read articles on intercultural competence (ICC)
find out about education system in host country
record a video CV for host school
(3 activities)
explore four Competence Cards (intercultural competences) selected for special emphasis
keep classroom observation notes in relation to each competence
monitor own language and teaching experiences where appropriate
(4 activities)
relate own experience to previous ICC reading
write a reflective paper
record a short oral reaction to experience
Student teachers enroll in the learning path corresponding to the host country: a French student going to the Netherlands joins the Dutch path. Instructions are offered in each of the project’s five languages in each path. The activities are identical in each path, with the exception of one webquest specific to each host country. The trainee teachers can collect a variety of media in their own space on the SPIRAL platform (web links, audio, video, text, PDF), organise these into collections (folders) and share whole collections or parts with their home tutors. Host teacher feedback is also expected.

SPIRAL in teacher education

A group of language educators external to the project were invited to a presentation of the project at the University of Alcala for feedback on progress to date.

My impression was very favourable: it’s clear a great deal of thought and effort has gone into the design of online activities. The results appears coherent, well integrated in local SPIRAL contexts, and very relevant to the wider language education community. This is the kind of project that institutions should support through long-term integration into local curricula and programmes, in order to establish its role in intercultural and foreign language teacher education. We know from experience that when modules appear in permanent course catalogues with an appropriate attribution of credits, buy-in by both tutors and trainees is much easier to sustain. And once institutional recognition is assured, generalisation to other institutions across academies, countries, and even at the international level, becomes a real possibility.

Supporting (language) teacher education with mobility

It is hard to resist the temptation to raise a few issues I think are worth considering for a possible SPIRAL 2 and beyond, with the goals of sustainability and normalisation (Bax, 2003) for exploiting mobility in teacher education.

Closed versus open platforms

I confess my heart sinks when I log on to most traditional learning management systems like Moodle. My objections include
  • an uninviting interface where I see only enclosing folder upon enclosing folder containing information to be downloaded and assignments to be completed. The internet’s answer to brutalist architecture;
  • the top-down pedagogical framework: the user cannot take an initiatives, only respond to activities already defined and timetabled in advance;
  • the lack of ownership of any resources added: neither students nor instructors are assured of being able to retrieve work accomplished on the platform, either for their records or to use/share for other purposes.


While open platforms using free tools obviously have the drawbacks of not providing the privacy and safe space to share that students often need, they do offer more freedom in both the type of resources that can be accessed and the range of activities that can be engaged in. On open platforms, future teachers can learn to use tools they may re-use with their own pupils as their careers progress, and they also have control over what happens to any work they post. Perhaps most importantly, they can interact with one another.

Tutor-trainee exchange versus group interaction

My second gripe about online delivery of this type of course is related to the first. Because they tend to reflect somewhat conservative views of both web-related technology and pedagogical practice, Moodle-type learning platforms encourage a fairly transmissive view of teaching and learning. The instructor defines the content, plans delivery, and sets assignments to check understanding. The instructor uploads materials for the student to download and digest, the students upload materials for the instructor to download and evaluate, and the instructor posts feedback. Students don’t collaborate either on the input provided by the instructor, or on the output produced by each student.
This format misses opportunities for students to learn from one another, either by collaborating on learning tasks or by providing feedback to one another. The whole burden of supporting learning and assessing it is borne by the instructor alone. This makes it more likely for both sides to become discouraged, since the students have no peer support and the instructor is limited to providing individual feedback.
In courses covering foreign language learning and intercultural understanding, it seems important to include multiple perspectives, making group interaction an obvious asset for both teaching and learning.

In case of SPIRAL, since the project has a fixed duration and functions essentially as a pilot for a future intercultural/foreign language course, there is neither funding nor staff resources for more interactive modules. But this is a point to consider in any future developments, in my view.

Intercultural learning versus foreign language focus

Alcala city hall displays a portrait of El Empecinado (the Undaunted) who saved the city from Napoleon against the odds, and gave the Spanish language the verb empecinarse (to insist).

My third point concerns the relative importance of intercultural versus foreign language competences. I understand that particularly in primary education, where teachers are responsible for a general curriculum comprising all the core subjects, it is unrealistic to expect very high foreign language proficiency from participants (e.g., CER level C). I also concede that my own linguistic training disposes me to place high value on both language proficiency and linguistic knowledge. But I do feel that to improve the language skills of tomorrow’s citizens we need teachers able to teach foreign languages well, which would imply both having good language skills and knowing how to support classroom foreign language learning. (See recent research by de Bot and colleagues on instructional time and teacher proficiency with very young learners in Dutch schools, references below.)

I feel that we have in many ways abandoned the goal of promoting foreign language acquisition in schools.

Much language teaching is diverted towards culture, to the detriment of actual language learning.
Primary school language teaching, seldom delivered by language specialists, often emphasises human geography and cultural traditions. Secondary school and university programmes generally focus on learning about the target language grammar, as a gateway to the target culture. More recently, intercultural competence, or communicating with individuals from different cultural backgrounds, has taken centre stage. As a linguist, I argue against both approaches.
Intercultural competence is a natural consequence of learning a foreign language, and need not be a specific focus of study.
In learning to comprehend target language speakers, and in turn express themselves even approximately, learners being to equip themselves both to understand communication breakdown and negotiate misunderstandings. And as proficiency develops, the culture of the second language can constitute content (like history, mathematics, or science in CLIL teaching).
The culture of target language speakers can be studied separately, once the language has been acquired to an appropriate level.
No doubt the current focus in language classrooms on cultural and intercultural competence is partly due to the difficulty of actual language learning. Acquisition is a notoriously long and uncertain process which does not lend itself easily to short teacher training programmes (which often also have other, more pressing learning objectives to attain). All the more reason, I would say, to grasp the nettle.
I believe a number of steps can be taken to address the problems of second/foreign language learning and teaching during teacher training.

Experiential modelling

At the very least, our teacher education modules should offer a good model of using the foreign language to communicate. We should provide opportunities for spontaneous exchange, in written or spoken mode, using any of the many synchronous and asynchronous tools now available. We should allow student teachers to try out their perhaps limited linguistic skills in a safe environment, where mistakes can be made and risks taken, risks and errors both being integral to language acquisition. Then they can hit the ground running when they arrive in the host environment.

Collecting teaching resources

We should also encourage student teachers to seize the opportunity of a stay in the target culture to collect resources to be used in future language teaching classes, such as photographs, recordings of native speakers, or cultural artifacts. They should also try and cultivate contacts for future class exchanges. This would remind student teachers that this school placement is not simply a chance to put themselves in their learners’ shoes as low proficiency speakers. It is also a chance to view the host class through their learners’ eyes: what would an eight-year old French child notice about the German classroom? What topics could be explored in future class exchanges? Note that this argument applies to placements where students use English as a lingua franca (e.g., French students working in English in the Netherlands) as well as where they aim to teach the host language (e.g., German future teachers of English in the UK).

Continuing professional development

Finally, any teaching module based on foreign language teaching and learning should provide motivation and resources for ongoing language learning on the part of the future teacher. A placement of two weeks, a month, or a full term in the target culture will in most case suffice only to assure the student teacher of the extent of language practice still to be undertaken if a level of proficiency is to be attained that is truly comfortable for teaching. Upon their return, we need to offer ways to prolong and extend contact with the target language.

Only in this way can we ensure that new generations of teachers have the wherewithal to create genuine opportunities for language acquisition in their classes.


Bax, S. (2003). CALL—past, present and future. System, 31(1), 13-28.
De Bot, K. (2014). The effectiveness of early foreign language learning in the Netherlands. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4(3), 409-418.
SPIRAL common reference framework PDF
SPIRAL competence cards PDF

Unsworth, S., Persson, L., Prins, T., & De Bot, K. (2014). An investigation of factors affecting early foreign language learning in the Netherlands. Applied Linguistics.

Photos from unsplash, the SPIRAL project site and Twitter feed, or my own.

Is task-based language teaching just a variation on presentation-practice-production?

Many language teachers are interested in the question of what makes a task a task. Pre-service teachers are often under pressure to conform to some see as the hegemony of task-based language teaching (TBLT) which they feel is imposed on teachers by the Common European Reference framework (CER). They want to know whether their textbook which claim to follow CER principles offer genuinely task-based teaching activities. Or they wonder how the demands of “authentic” language use associated with TBLT can be squared with the seemingly artificial language used in the foreign language classroom where everyone shares a native language.

Teacher educators, too, struggle with strong versions of a task-based approach, as opposed to weaker, task-supported incarnations, which often seem to overlap with the production phase of the PPP approach, where structures are Presented and Practiced with the teacher before learners are encourage to Produce their own contributions. Does this seem a reasonable compromise, or does it mean abandoning the principles of TBLT?

In the slides above I summarise two articles, one by Jason Anderson in defence of PPP, and another by Rod Ellis, one of the main proponents of TBLT. Anderson argues that PPP has admirably stood the test of time and is suited to a wider range of teaching contexts than TBLT. Ellis, on the other hand, defends TBLT against a number of misconceptions about this approach, and to my mind invalidates many of Anderson’s points. My own view is that TBLT is quite different from PPP, and that there are good reasons, related to how languages are learned, to favour TBLT (see Jordan for instance).

Update 15/03/17: more from Jordan on Two versions of task-based language teaching, drawing in Long’s book on TBLT and SLA, and Breen’s process syllabus.

Anderson, J. (2016). Why practice makes perfect sense: the past, present and potential future of the PPP paradigm in language teacher education. Practice, 19.

Ellis, R. (2013). Task-based language teaching: Responding to the critics. University of Sydney Papers in TESOL, 8(1), 1-27.

Jordan, G. Principles and practice. Critical EFL.