vertical and horizontal development

In the book Teaching Lexically, Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkey refer to horizontal and vertical development exercises and the pay-offs they bring.  By developping a sentence horizontally we are adding something that the writer or speaker  might say next. By developping a sentence vertically we are adding something that someone else might say next.  I’m quoting from their excellent book now.

“These kinds of exercises are good, because they:

  • present co-text that the students need, but often don’t see because they don’t fit into typical lexical sets.
  • help the students develop awareness of conversational and discoursal norms.
  • treat coursebook sentences as plausible messages instead of simple discrete unconnected items”.

So let’s have a practical example. Let’s imagine we are teaching an A2 class and the students have been  doing some work with common phrasal verbs from a page in their workbooks or a worksheet. They could do this type of mechanical work at home and you can augment the teaching experience by bringing this type of exercise in class. As an example, I have just taken this exercise from the web (answers in italics).


  • Look, the plane is taking off!
  • I usually get up around nine o’clock every day.
  • You should do up your coat, it’s getting cold.
  • Please, turn the light off before leaving.
  • I can’t hear you. Can you speak up, please?

Once the students are familiar with the meanings, it is time to put the phrasal verbs to practice a bit more actively and creatively. Give the students strips of paper or have them cut strips of paper or paper cards for themselves. I always have scrap paper in the classroom for these purposes, usually handout leftovers printed just on one side. They can fold and cut along the folds. Explain the concepts of vertical and horizontal development and get them into groups of 3-6. Have a look at the first sentence. How can it be developped horizontally? If you prefer, you can entirelly skip the concepts of horizontal and vertical development and say: Imagine you have just said: “Look, the plane is taking off!”. What could you add next? Write it on a piece of paper, place it on the desk face down and then when everyone has contributed, turn the cards over and see what kind of different answers you came up with”. “I am giving you about five minutes, so manage your time efficiently and see if you can tackle all sentences”. “Any problems, doubts or questions, I will be around, so ask me.”

Some possible horizontal developments at the language level for the first sentence might be:

  • Look the plane is taking off!

It’s amazing/I wonder where it’s going/It’s a Ryanair flight/It’s a big one

Review some of the horizontal developments with them by switching to plenary mode and then get them to work in groups again for vertical developments. Some possible vertical developments for the second sentence might be:

  • I usually get up at around nine o’clock everyday.

Me too/That’s late/Why so late?/What time do you go to bed then?

I also feel this kind of work (at the suggested level) gives the students time to process meaning and “repeat” the phrasal verbs in their minds, thus allowing consolidation. It also brings opportunities for writing in small doses, which is a very much neglected area in the language classroom.


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