The Applied Linguistics MA: course content and students' perceived needs

Author: John Field


This article considers the expectations of students attending MA courses in Applied Linguistics, many of whom have a background in language teaching. It contrasts academic approaches to language with those widely adopted in the language classroom. It identifies four possible rationales when planning course content for Grammar and Linguistics modules at MA level. One treats linguistics as a body of knowledge; another aims to develop students language awareness. A third meets short-term goals by providing the linguistic knowledge necessary for the study of second language acquisition. A fourth aims for long-term goals by equipping students for new professional roles.

Table of contents

1. Introduction

In an earlier life as an ELT materials writer and teacher trainer, the present writer applied for a place on an MA course, persuaded that a year of postgraduate study would contribute significantly to his professional development. He was heartened by the fact that the course title ('Linguistics and ELT') included the acronym ELT; and did not take in the full implications of the remainder. The course provider was a distinguished Linguistics department, which was wise in the ways of theoretical syntax, morphology and phonology; but had little understanding of students with backgrounds such as mine. The consequence was that I and others spent a great deal of our year asking 'why?': Why Chomsky? Why typology? Why allophones? Why discourse theory? The answer we received was invariably: 'Wait until the end of the year and everything will fall into place.' Needless to say, it did not and we graduated as bemused as ever.

That was 25 years ago. Things have changed - not least in the emergence of a distinct (if loosely defined) discipline of Applied Linguistics. But Linguistics tutors still do remarkably little to explain their course content to language teachers studying at Masters level. In this paper, I suggest that we may need a clearer rationale for choosing the topics we favour, one which enables us to relate the choices we make to future professional benefits. Such an approach would no doubt gladden the hearts of those who subscribe to the currently fashionable view of the student as consumer or 'stakeholder'. But my motivation in urging it derives chiefly from the pedagogical truth that informed learning is more productive learning:

The issues are approached in two ways. Firstly, I examine the likely expectations of the language teacher so far as the study of grammar is concerned and contrast them with the demands of linguistic study at Masters level. It is surely incumbent upon tutors to be aware of the backgrounds, and sometimes the false assumptions, that students bring with them. Secondly, I identify four possible rationales for choosing course content. Whichever is adopted, it should, I suggest, be made transparent to the intending student. The discussion focuses on the teaching of syntax and morphology; but much of what I say applies equally to the teaching of Phonology, Lexis and Discourse.

2. Assumptions of the teacher-student

ELT pedagogy gives rise to certain assumptions about grammar which include the following (see also Leech 1984):

  • Grammatical forms should be represented contrastively
  • Grammar should be presented (and corrected) by example rather than rule.
  • Language should be graded by formal complexity and by frequency
  • A language syllabus is driven by grammatical form and use, with lexis added on a topical basis

The reference source on which a language teacher most relies is likely to be a publication such as Swan (1995), whose goal is to present the language in the form of a set of simplified rules that are accessible to the learner . A number of commentators have outlined what they regard as the characteristics of a sound pedagogical grammar of this kind and, by implication, the way in which it differs from a 'linguistic' grammar. Hammerley (quoted in Westney 1994) characterises the form in which grammar is presented as: concrete - simple - non-technical - cumulative - close to popular notions - in rule-of-thumb form. To this, Swan (1994) adds the notions of conceptual parsimony and predictive adequacy . A balance needs to be struck between, on the one hand, the need to isolate discrete points to ensure that they are grasped unambiguously and, on the other, the need to present rules which are comprehensive enough to account for the majority of examples that the learner is likely to encounter. (For further discussion of pedagogical grammars, see Towell's Good Practice Guide: Design of a pedagogic grammar.)

The type of reference source that students are expected to study at MA level (e.g. Quirk et al. 1985) is, of course, markedly different. The concepts are at a higher level of abstraction and complexity. Many of the examples invoked are not chosen on the grounds of probability or naturalism; this may well evoke scepticism in ELT practitioners for whom an important constraint is the need to exemplify points of grammar in ways that resemble likely real-life utterances.There is also a requirement that the MA student should master a range of technical terminology and use it with precision. A coursebook approach to grammar theory is developmental, proceeding from simple to more complex in terms of both forms and functions, from frequent to less frequent and from general rule to exception; by contrast a 'linguistic' approach is global, exploring one issue from several angles. Popular notions, particularly certain imprecise received ideas which prevail within ELT, may need to be challenged. Finally, a tendency to over-generalisation in favoured materials like Murphy (2004) or to obscurantism in manuals such as Lewis (1986) will need to be compensated for.

If MA tutors were to take greater account of the background from which their students come, it would enable bridges to be built between the type of linguistic theory with which the students are familiar and the type to which an MA course is likely to expose them.

3. Rationales for course content

My experience of five different MA courses suggests a number of possible approaches to determining the Linguistics content of MA programmes in Applied Linguistics. The precise method of delivery adopted by the Linguistics tutor may to some extent reflect the particular rationale that has been adopted.

3.1 Linguistics as a body of knowledge

One might take a view of linguistic theory as a fixed body of knowledge, certain areas of which should be familiar to any student who is to bear the title of MA, MEd, MSc.

Chief consideration: the relative importance of a particular concept to current syntactic theory;

Goal : to transmit declarative knowledge (Anderson 1983);

Method of delivery: more likely to be the lecture or the seminar, with precept supported by exemplification.

A sound piece of advice given to me when first designing a course of this kind was: Go for the verb . This would entail both discussion of the verb's central role in determining sentence structure and detailed examination of its multiple forms and functions (relating to tense, aspect and modality). It also permits a move from formal to semantic analysis when considering argument structure, theta roles, aspectual class, voice, etc.. Other topics might include: prescriptivism, schools of linguistic thought, inflectional morphology, typology and universals, deixis, the possible effects of discourse upon word order.

This 'body of theory' approach is open to challenge. It conforms to a traditional notion of how a university educates. However, it would seem to be at odds with current approaches to learning. Most importantly, it clashes with the view of the educational process with which language teachers are most familiar - that which underpins their own pedagogy. It can be accused of adopting the type of assumption that the educationalist Paolo Freire characterises (1970) as 'banking': treating a learner like a bank account into which payments are made with a view to later withdrawals when situations such as examinations arise. In short, it treats course content as product. An argument that has been influential in education theory (see for example the findings of Larkin 1979) holds that the goal of teaching history or physics is not simply to impart facts but to enable the learner to think like a historian or physicist. As Linguistics tutors, we perhaps need to give more thought to ways of getting students to think like linguists.

3.2 Development of the student's language awareness

Hence there arises an alternative view that a Linguistics module should focus on the process of analysing linguistic material: its chief function being to make students more sensitive to the syntactic, lexical, phonological and pragmatic choices made by language users.

Chief consideration: which types of task are most effective in sensitising the student to critical features of the English language;

Goal : to transmit procedural knowledge (Anderson 1983) in the form of analytical skills;

Method of delivery: more likely to be task-based activities.

The approach may entail 'learning by discovery', with students set linguistic tasks at phrase, sentence or text level. In attempting to review the choices they have made, they acquire both the concepts and the metalanguage that linguistic description demands. Alternatively, the module designer may choose to specify a set of practical tasks as the means of assessing course outcomes, with a consequent wash-back in terms of how students prepare themselves for assignments and exams.

The kinds of task employed for instruction or assessment might include:

  • parsing using Chomskyan tree diagrams or a system of constituent analysis
  • analysis of foreign language texts in terms of morphology and linguistic typology
  • contrasting two minimally different sentences
  • identification of theta roles and/or situation types in an extended test
  • explanation of the functions of the verb forms (e.g. modals) in an extended text
  • explanation of deviations from canonical word order in an extended text

The value of this approach is that it equips the student with a transferable skill which increases his/her ability to respond, for example, to the kind of impromptu error that frequently arises in the language classroom. The heightened language awareness achieved also has potential knock-on benefits for other modules in an MA course, most notably those which involve the analysis of discourse in the form of child language, classroom talk or social interaction. A weakness, of course, is that these connections may not be made explicitly, with the result that students under-estimate the relevance of what they are accomplishing.

3.3 Supporting local goals

A third approach makes the link to other areas of study more transparent. It treats the Linguistics component as a necessary preparation for studying Applied Linguistics - one which ensures that the student is adequately equipped in terms of background knowledge and terminology to master central issues in SLA, sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics.

Chief consideration: issues arising elsewhere in the MA course which demand an understanding of linguistic theory;

Goal: supportive knowledge which enhances student autonomy in the study of core areas of Applied Linguistics;

Method of delivery: a restricted Linguistics syllabus which anticipates later areas of study; or, alternatively, analysis of the linguistic content of specialist texts within Applied Linguistics.

This approach is favoured by those who do not see pure Linguistics as playing a central role in an Applied Linguistics MA but nevertheless recognise the extent to which linguistic theory underpins theory and research in many applied areas. The literature in these areas tends to take for granted an adequate grounding in Linguistics. Without such knowledge, the novice student can be severely handicapped in terms of his/her ability to grasp issues and follow arguments. Reading is likely to be shallow and motivation is likely to suffer severely as the result of an overload of partially understood terminology.

SLA is a case in point. Let us take at random a single alphabetical section (P) from the index to Ellis's (1994) comprehensive and widely used overview of the field. This one section features 25 entries which would be relatively opaque to the reader with no background knowledge of linguistic theory. They range from specifically linguistic terms ( pied piping, performance, pitch, phrase structure, parameters, perlocutionary act ) to constructs which have been built on the basis of an understanding of linguistic principles (for example, pidginisation and past tense learning both assume a knowledge of inflectional morphology). Of course, any author (and Ellis is no exception) will go some way towards explaining these terms as they arise - but that is not the same as enabling the reader to relate them to the body of theory from which they derive. This kind of wider understanding of general Linguistics is a prerequisite for the study of even the most straightforward topics in an area such as SLA. To give an obvious example, L1 transfer can affect a range of levels of linguistic analysis: phonology, lexis, syntax, morphology, pragmatics and discourse features. How is a student to grasp the issues involved without some kind of understanding of those levels?

The approach described enables the tutor to justify the inclusion of abstract linguistic material in terms of the more applied uses to which it will be put elsewhere in the course. At the same time, there is something rather self-referential about it: it equips the student to perform within the instructional context but does not necessarily impact upon life after the course.

3.4 Congruence with long-term goals

A final view treats the purpose of a Linguistics component as being to reshape received views of grammar, lexis and phonology: preparing the student for new professional roles (syllabus design, materials writing, course evaluation) where a sound theoretical background is of the essence. This kind of approach is likely to become increasingly prominent, given the recent proliferation of MA courses that are specifically linked to language teaching and learning (the currently favoured acronym is TESOL).

Chief consideration: relevance of material to future career choices;

Goal: applied knowledge;

Method of delivery: possibly project-based with students tracing contrasts between pedagogic and linguistic grammar.

This approach is best supported by identifying a number of sub-goals which relate specifically to the uses to which students will put the information they acquire. They include:

  • a. Heightening students' awareness of the structure and functions of language. Examples: study of tense, aspect and modality; the role of lexis in generating syntactic structure.
  • b. Reshaping the ways in which target-language grammar is represented to learners and syllabuses are designed. Example: study of form vs function in cases such as the Present Perfect.
  • c. Tracing underlying patterns of meaning that obtain across languages so as to provide points of contact with the L2 learner.
    Example: aspectual class.
  • d. Extending the student's understanding of the different ways in which other languages map meaning on to form.
    Examples: word order vs animacy vs inflection; the use of Middle Voice and reflexives; the relative importance of thematisation.
  • e. Ensuring the basics for an understanding of the literature of SLA research. Example: Principles and Parameters.

The strength of this approach is that it ensures that the student will, unlike that MA group of 25 years ago, recognise the relevance of studying linguistic theory. It enables the tutor to embrace the distinction made by Barnes (1976:81) between 'school knowledge' and 'action knowledge':

School knowledge is the knowledge which someone else presents to us. We partly grasp it, enough to answer the teacher's questions, to do exercises, or to answer examination questions, but it remains someone else's knowledge, not ours..[But once] the knowledge becomes incorporated into that view of the world on which our actions are based I would say that it has become action knowledge.

4. Conclusion

The approaches identified in the paper are not mutually exclusive and Linguistics tutors may well wish to give consideration to all four angles. Interestingly, the examples of practice-relevant topics cited in section 3.4 echo quite closely some of those identified in section 3.1 as central to a traditional view of what a course in Linguistics should cover. It may after all be possible to square this particular circle: presenting the essential theory but doing so in a way that connects closely to students' perceived needs.


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Barnes, D. (1976). From Communication to Curriculum . London: Penguin.

Ellis, R. (1994). The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed . New York: Herder & Herder.

Leech, G. (1994). Students' Grammar - Teachers' Grammar - Learners' Grammar. In Bygate, M., A. Tonkyn & E. Williams: Grammar and the Language Teacher , 17-30 . Harlow: Longman.

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Lewis, M. (1985). The English Verb . Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

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Swan, M. (1994). Design criteria for pedagogic language rules. In Bygate, M., A. Tonkyn & E. Williams, Grammar and the Language Teacher , 45-55 . Harlow: Longman.

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Westney, P. (1994). Rules and pedagogical grammar. In T. Odlin (ed.), Perspectives on Pedagogical Grammar , 72-96 . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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