How Do Middle School English Textbooks Introduce and Teach Formulaic Sequences?

Despite increasing challenges posed to the prevailing understanding of single word as the basic carrier of lexical meaning, it stills acts as the core unit of vocabulary teaching and learning (Schmitt, 2010). Whereas in the last article “What Do Formulaic Sequences Exactly Mean for EFL Learners in China?”, I discussed the significance of formulaic sequences (FS) for Chinese EFL learners. Therefore, how English textbooks in China introduce and teach FS is an enticing question. I start with textbooks for middle school.

I choose the textbook for Grade Eight (Volume II) published by Shanghai Educational Publishing House as an example. Middle schools in different cities generally use different textbooks. This textbook is used in my hometown Guangzhou, so I learned it in my middle school nearly eight years ago. The sampling enables me to integrate analysis of the material with actual experience of the way students learned and teachers taught FS in class. The textbook consists of four modules: social communication, arts and crafts, animals, and discoveries. Each of them comprises two separate units. There are eight sections in a unit: Reading, Listening, Grammar, Speaking, Writing, More Practice, Study Skills, Culture Corner, and Self-assessment. At the end of the book appendices “words and expressions in each unit” are attached. 

My first finding is that within a unit no part specifically targets FS. Rather, exercises of FS are implicitly embedded in vocabulary or grammar sections. For instance, in the vocabulary practice in unit I “Helping Those in Need,” students are asked to fill in the blanks such as:

Every Saturday, he went there to look after the patients. One of them had_____walking, so he helped him move around.

Next to the sentence my eight-year-old notes read, “have difficulty (not ‘difficulties’) doing sth. (not ‘to do sth.’).

Also, the topic of grammar in unit 1 is infinitives. The textbook reads, 

Some verbs can have other verbs after them. We usually use to before the second verb. We call these second verbs infinitives.

We can use verbs + to + infinitives in sentences.

In the righthand margin, I noted down many “verbs + to + infinitives” FS:

decide to do sth.

offer to do sth.

hope to do sth.

choose to do sth.

begin to do sth.

manage to do sth.

hate to do sth.

Likewise, grammar in unit 2 focuses on gerunds. 

Gerunds are nouns ending in -ing. These nouns refer to actions and activities.

This time I wrote down “verbs + ing” FS: 

enjoy doing sth.

finish doing sth.

avoid doing sth.

imagine doing sth.

practice doing sth.

Second, I find that although FS do not occupy a separate section within units, they do so in appendices “words and expressions in each unit.” Chinese EFL teachers usually refer to FS as “fixed expressions”( “固定搭配“). I remember after finishing each unit, we were asked to copy words and expressions five times and make a sentence with each of them as homework.

My final discussion is about the teaching of FS with the aforementioned textbook (and the others for Grade 7 and 9 in the same textbook series). In the appendices, at most nine FS are listed for a unit. Whereas English teachers in my middle school taught many more FS in class. Most of the FS have new words in a unit as the cores. As a result, I believe intentional teaching of FS in such an EFL context in China is necessary, chiefly because the textbooks do not contribute much to students’ self-learning of FS. Only learning and using several FS in appendices are not enough to cover many other FS that are likely to be tested in English exams or to increase writing scores. Here it reminds me of Schmitt’s advice on excellent research topics about FS. One of them is “how are FS acquired in naturalistic and formal settings.” Indeed, if, for instance, articles in a textbook include most FS that will appear in a test later, are teachers’ instruction and FS-related assignments still helpful? I hope to probe into this topic in my postgraduate study.


Schmitt, N. (2010). Researching vocabulary: A vocabulary research manual. Basingstoke, UK:

Palgrave Macmillan.