My favorite quote so far at IATEFL: “Do not teach things that are wrong.” That’s Dave Willis. And as he proves in this talk held before a room full of English teachers, it’s easier said than done. We often enough do teach total malarkey, namely as soon as we teach prescriptive grammar rules that don’t allow for the complexity of the language.

According to Dave Willis (and Peter Bundy), grammar rules don’t really work. The knowledge of the language comes first, the grammar comes second. Grammar consists in knowledge of use, not in knowledge of rules.

So what do teachers need to do? Students are smart. They need to look at the language. They’ll figure it out.

And meanwhile, what does the teacher do? Correct student errors, not so that students will apply the rules correctly, or even get the phrasing right then and there, but to destablize students and remind them that there is a little (just a little) more to be learned.

This is not verbatim, but close:
“Encourage learners to look at language themselves. … Get them to work with text… How many different patterns can you see here? Which verbs operate with which patterns? Can you think of any other verbs which operate with this pattern? All the time, throwing the onus on the learner and making them think things through for themselves … This seems to me to be much more productive … encouraging the learner to actually apply that amazing creative facility that they have to work with language. If you give prescriptive rules, you’re in danger of cutting that off. If you encourage learners to think for themselves, then you are helping them become more positive learners and apply that faculty which is far more sophisticated than anything a teacher could offer them.”

By the way, I do think this is worth a debate! Isn’t all education filled with “white lies” mediating between learners and reality?

Tomorrow’s Grammar Guru quiz will be on a hot issue Dave Willis presented: Phrasal verbs.