Alice Savage

Hidden Grammars: Complex Systems in the Language Classroom


What if there is not just one way to categorize and describe grammar? What if there are several? What if one grammar exists inside another and that exists inside a third? This view of the way language is organized for communication comes from Complex Systems Theory, which Diane Larsen-Freeman and her colleague Lynn Cameron describe in their book, Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics (2008). The idea of multiple-grammars sounds, well, complex, and this is just one feature of their fascinating work, but it makes sense in light of the principle that language serves communication and not the other way around.

In order to meet the needs of unique individuals in ever-changing contexts, language must be a dynamic system. In a complex-systems approach, this means that language must have stabilities, such as the fixed expressions we use when we greet, ask and answer questions, and signal our intention to leave. Traditional grammar includes many patterns that have become fixed over time such as subject/verb agreement or past tense inflections. However, language must also absorb vast amounts of new language as evidenced by the surge of science and technology concepts that have entered the lexicon. For example, the term artificial intelligence would have confused most people 50 years ago, but today it has a stable meaning. Artificial intelligence or AI refers to computing systems that are sophisticated enough to adjust and “learn” after encounters with new information.

A complex-systems approach accommodates both stability and change at different levels. In language this describes the patterns underlying words, phrases, lexical strings, and discourse moves. Boundaries among the categories are difficult to define, but their purpose is not. It is to help people interact. Conventional grammar is simply the most basic level.

The word can provides an example. Yes, it’s a noun, but it’s more frequently a verb. We can introduce the modal + base form to talk about things we can and can’t do, but there’s an inherent frustration in its abstraction since knowing the rule doesn’t equip a student to navigate real conversations where the meaning of can actually changes depending on its context.

Here are some examples of how the word can might appear in a scaled up look at language. A speaker might use “I can’t help it,” in a conversation about her ability to control her behavior. In another situation, she might use “We can wait and see,” to politely delay making a decision. In an academic paper, she might write, “While much can be inferred from the research,” to signal that she is shifting the focus to talk about what cannot be inferred. These examples comprise a very small selection of the many roles can may play when it appears in familiar expressions that embed meanings. These expressions reflect the ways that language has evolved in conventionalized ways at the phrase and discourse level in order to facilitate clarity in communication.

In other words, we might expand the definition of grammar to describe a set of recognizable patterns that have been conventionalized over time and at different scales. These patterns include traditional rule-based grammar, lexical grammar, which has gotten increasing attention through corpus linguistics research, and discourse grammar, which comes from a heightened interest in genre studies and pragmatics. These “grammars” occur at different levels in much the same way that the veins in a leaf are similar to the twigs on a branch and the branches of a tree. There is similarity, but one is embedded within or may overlap with the other.


The insight provided by complexity theory is useful for recognizing these sometimes hidden grammars that are necessary for communicating explicit and implicit intentions in specific discourse communities. However, our aim is always to think as teachers. As a result, we have to ask a very practical question: What does a complex-systems approach look like in the classroom? This was a guiding question for us when we developed Trio Writing, which organizes grammar around content themes rather than a conventional grammar syllabus.

The first level of grammar is the most familiar. This grammar includes the standard catalog of rules most students and grammar teachers are familiar with. Some examples include article use, third person s and verb tenses. These rules are very tidy because they can be abstracted from specific situations. When students practice them, teachers can say, “This is correct,” or “This is not correct.” These rules are typically very discreet and broken up into the various charts and boxes that appear in standard grammar textbooks.

When we started with Trio, however, it made more sense to teach only the elements of grammar that were needed for tasks. Third person singular rules fit a writing assignment about an individual friend or relative, but we could reserve third person plural rules for a different topic featuring multiple people. A referential the made sense when describing a restaurant meal because once the restaurant was identified, students had a scaffold to write about the service, the food, and the prices. By associating these single-item grammar rules with a writing purpose, students had a relevant context for applying the pattern at different scales.

The second level is lexico-grammar. We discovered it by spending hours staring at the Oxford 2000, a high frequency vocabulary list we were working with. Many of the words were so vague that they seemed impossible to teach to beginning English writers. Interestingly, their very vagueness allowed for different meanings. Consider the word place, which can have multiple meanings depending on the words it is paired with: place a bet, first place, my place, place an order, place a greater emphasis on (the wellbeing of a community), or set another place for Sara.  How do we teach place without a partner word to give it a specific context?

Our solution was to combine vocabulary items in phrases that fit the students’ likely needs for a specific task. This approach also allowed us to present the words that students knew to teach the words they didn’t know. We also combined abstract words with concrete words that could be represented in a picture. For example, we used a picture of mountains to teach mountains in the distance, a guy on the stairs waving to a neighbor to teach downstairs neighbors, and a financial graph to teach affected the economy. Beginning level students could then use these phrases ‘as is’ or slot in alternative vocabulary to write about nature, a neighborhood or even a business.

Another benefit of lexical grammar is that it supports efficient storage and retrieval.  When students learn new vocabulary through phrases, these phrases are stored in long-term memory as multiple-word units (Schmidt, 2000).  Students are not required to reassemble words into phrases or understand all the discrete rules that might support a phrase. The phrase, mountains in the distance embeds several rules, including plural -s and the article the, and word order, as well as the “non-rules” that govern prepositions. Then when composing students can mix-and-match other vocabulary into the same pattern: clouds in the distance, people in the distance, trees in the distance, etc.

In speaking, these phrasal chunks are surprisingly ubiquitous and, when combined with tone and gesture, they foster more intimate relationships and deeper understanding. For example, compare the bland, “That’s good,” which reflects conventional grammar knowledge with “How cool is that!” which embeds details about the culture, the speakers’ relationships with each other, and the degree of enthusiasm they may share. “How cool is that,” is a semi-fixed expression that may appear in a social pattern where intimately related speakers share and respond to good news in a way that is both familiar and flexible.

Lexical or phrasal grammar is an efficient way of acquiring competence for specific communicative contexts, and the result is greater accuracy and more natural phrasings. In fact, studies have shown that L2 learners underuse formulaic constructions when compared to native speakers, and they overuse word combinations that are atypical of native speakers.  Even though the meaning might get across, it’s still “not the way we say it” (Hinkel, 2016). Therefore, teaching students meaningful chunks of language puts them at a much greater advantage when it comes to natural speech and writing patterns.

The third level of grammar is at the discourse level. Discourse grammar takes a step back to look at the larger patterns that frame a piece of writing, a talk or even a conversation. It includes “grammatical patterns we find across sentences and paragraphs in writing or within and across turns in speaking” (McCarthy 2016). Identifying and describing this type of grammar requires awareness of genre. For example, in academic journals, writers use standardized patterns of organization to frame a research project, including an abstract, the introduction, a description of the project, the results, and a conclusion. As writers move from one section to another, they use standardized language to signal their moves. For example, an opening might begin with For a long time, it has been the case that… or Most publications claim that…. (Hinkel 2012).

In order to apply Hinkel’s ideas about discourse grammar to Trio, we needed to level the contexts down for beginning English writers. Since students only had a handful of mix and match phrases in English, short paragraphs were a logical choice. Paragraphs with one level of detail would not cognitively overload the students, but they could give students experience with the shifting perspectives that are the foundation of a well-written text. In addition, students could learn to make decisions across paragraphs as well as within. For example, they could frame a paragraph around a past home and then a new paragraph around a current home, thus gaining experience with discourse level thinking in addition to the other grammars.

Paragraphing presented in this way potentially gives agency to students who can follow their ideas to interesting places. Even at low levels, they can contrast past and present, two places, two times or two people. Foundational experiences with shifts in focus can then be elaborated on as they add different types of paragraphs such as a chain of effects, or different arguments for an opinion. When supported by lexico-grammatical chunks that are associated with the task, they can also be expected to use more accurate syntax within those paragraphs.

In Trio, the assignments attended to discourse grammar by creating questions for each paragraph. This scaffolding helped students experience the ways in which paragraphs organize information in scaled up patterns,. For example, in a two-paragraph assignment the questions included, Who is a good host? What does he or she do? In another, What did your city build? How did it affect people? Students could use available language resources to develop their answers to each question in short, organized paragraphs. The assignments had supportive structure, but they also gave beginning-level students choices.


Ultimately, we have to acknowledge that conventional grammar is extremely pervasive in English language teaching. Complex systems theory explains the persistence of this grammar as an attractor state. An attractor state is like a default position. Larsen-Freeman and Cameron liken it to a valley where the force of gravity “attracts” elements of the system. Traditional grammar is a product of experience, habit and expectation, and as such has stabilized as a major driver of what many teachers think students need and what students think they need.

So while old-school grammar exerts a strong force, it exists within a dynamic system that is open to change. The field now seems to be shifting as teachers and learners recognize that communication requires more than rules about how pieces fit together at the most basic level. Perhaps by applying complex systems theory to lesson plans, we can make room for additional levels that can include traditional grammar but also scale up to include lexical and discourse patterns.

We have been teaching with Trio Writing for a couple of years now, and we are seeing the results of a Complex Systems informed approach in practice. Surprisingly, many of our students are producing multiple-paragraph essays that are longer than the model essays and more grammatically accurate than we had expected. Their success has convinced us that English learners benefit from exposure to and practice with not just one but several grammars.

Cameron, Lynn and Diane Larsen-Freeman (2008). Complex Systems and Applied

Linguistics (Oxford Applied Linguistics). Oxford: Oxford University Press

Conklin, Cathy, and Norbert Schmitt (2012). The Processing of Formulaic Language: Annual

Review of Applied Linguistics, 32, 45–61.
© Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Hinkel, E. (2012).  Innovative and Efficient Construction Grammar.  Selected papers

from the 21st International Symposium on English Teaching.  English Teacher’s Association, Republic of China (ETA-ROC), Taipei, 51-59.

Michael J. McCarthy, (2016) Teaching Grammar at the Advanced Level in E. Hinkel, Teaching

English Grammar to Speakers of Other Languages, Routledge.

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