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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.


20 Responses

  1. That really gave me some food for thought. I’ve never been a fan of grammar rules, probably because I am (or at least used to be) a native speaker. I’ve also been crticised by colleagues for accepting answers that aren’t correct because the don’t “follow the rules”.
    But what do you do when you take on students with a alot of weaknesses and have to make them unlearn all the wrong things they have learnt so far? A few grammar rules may be necessary there to get them going.
    Glad to hear someone finally say that grammar rules don’t really work. Know quite a few teachers who should watch this. ehehheheh
    Can’t wait to read what you’re going to post about phrasal verbs. Must admit I was lost there for a while.

  2. White lies? but why? this is unecessary, they can cope with the truth : learning a language is a complex activity. But what I find more difficult, is to avoid giving out rules, when some students crave for them and when all their education is based on them. Surely we must take their educational history into account.

  3. Dear Smaragda and Alice,

    Yes, that’s the trouble, isn’t it: Learners crave the rules, they’ve learned language using rules before, so not getting them is discompabulating. One has to strike a happy compromise. White lies can be very white indeed: You might wind up explaining some things and simply not explaining others.

    In the weekly quiz on this blog I’ve been including points that have troubled my learners from one class or the other for some interesting reason – sometimes because they apply concepts from their native tongue (like the choice of prepositions), sometimes something they learned in school is in conflict with real instances of English. A classic case is “I’m loving it,” which seems to break one of the rules students learn early on; and it’s so easy to put it down to McDonalds. Another: “I’m always forgetting my sunglasses.” There you need to explain about expressing emotions with the continuous. A case where many students misapply a false but widespread ‘rule’ and think this is incorrect: “I have lost my glasses this morning.” Or they’ll say this native speaker exchange is incorrect: “How are you?” “I’m good!” I just finished writing a multiple choice grammar quiz and tried to make sure it contains stuff like that, but now that I’m done I’m worried there might be some leftover prescriptivism left.

  4. Anne:

    I hear this alot–the school I work for isn’t a big fan of ‘teaching grammar’–but I find that, with simple stuff, it’s a lot easier.

    Sure, I could just explain examples like “I drink whiskey” and “I’m not drinking whiskey,” without giving a rule, but they’d make one. It’s part of how we learn anything. When I talk to them, I always say there’s a lot more “But we’ll get into that later.” This (often) satisfies them, and leaves me wiggle-room for mistakes.

    Also, my students know they don’t speak ‘perfect’ German (I make a lot of jokes about Saxon German) and understand that we don’t speak ‘perfect’ English. So, most can understand that ‘the rules’ are flexible.

    Still, I’m in favor of including them until someone gets a good foundational knowledge, then to start talking about different possibilities. Why does “I’m working on a big project at work”–even if it’s Sunday and I’m eating breakfast with my wife–sound better than “I work on a big project?” We can discuss the ‘feeling’ when they have enough background to start consciously choosing words.

    This turned into a ramble, sorry.

  5. Hi Toby,
    So nice to have you back 🙂 ! I think as long as you explain the rules of use for any form and find lots of applications for it that’s fine. I’ve just run into a few issues where I’ve actually changed the way I teach because the simplistic explanations don’t go anywhere.
    I don’t hand out lists of signal words, for example. And whenever they start onto signal words, I give them examples where the word is followed by another form, viz
    I’ve lived here for 10 years.
    I lived in Konstanz for another 10 or so.
    See what I mean? I think it’s just a matter of not giving learners a false sense of security, yet lots of language – or as Willis calls it – lots of ‘grammar’!

  6. Hello, Anne!

    Thanks for the welcome. I agree that overly simplistic grammar doesn’t really help. And, I like using gestures to give corrections–the classic hand-waving-backwards means the verb needs to be in past tense–because then, as time comes, they can decide whether it needs to be in simple past or present perfect.

    I’d like to know what you mean by ‘signal words.’


  7. Dear Anne,

    Yes “students crave the rules”, but not all the students… The German ones definitely do, yes, and so do the Swiss, but very often the British don’t care about grammar.
    I’m not a big fan of quizzes, even less so when the quiz offers incorrect sentences amongst correct ones. To me those quizzes are testing and evaluating more than helping me understand. And the quiz lacks the “learning experience”, i.e. the whole context, the narrative, the explanations, questions, that can help us fix structures and meanings.
    I can see what you mean by “very white lies” ! but then why not just say it’s a white lie? like “it’s not that simple but I say so now so that you build up on it easier later, or : there are other instances when imparfait is needed too but for the moment we’ll stick to this context.”
    But maybe my reluctance to white lies is just my catholic upbringing!

  8. Hi Toby,
    Murphy Unit 8: “We use the present perfect with today/ this morning/ this evening etc. when these periods are not finished at the time of speaking.” Can’t throw a fast rule like that at learners until they’ve heard and read and used lots and lots of present perfect and really understand the concept. Which is, what, after years of English? Intead I just try to give them lots and lots of examples. Do you know Scott Thornbury’s book, Natural Grammar? That sort of turns things inside out. He takes words and shows how they’re used. So there you can take a word like “this” and see where it takes you. Quite fun.

    Hi Alice,
    Yes, I agree, quizzes evaluate – but it’s formative evaluation, because they give rise to questions, and that’s the interesting part. Quick checks therefore make up a very small but important part of my teaching. I don’t see any harm in confronting students with incorrect language if you point out that that’s precisely what they’re looking for. Forced choice can train analytical thinking, or it can simply be an Easter Egg hunt, depending on what happens after people click on one choice. When I started up the little interactive quiz here on my page to try some of the trickier issues out, some people wrote in some quite interesting comments, which is why I went on. That seems to have died down.

    I work for a magazine whose online part has some articles that contain interactive questions, and those are the most popular pages of all.

    I tend to explain things like that, too: “It will do for now”. After all, they are working on their own interlingua. But when I started teaching about 13 years ago in Siegen/ Westphalia my first evening class students made very weird mistakes: They’d really got almost all of their English in middle school and hadn’t had more than 4 years at best, and I remember plenty of students who applied (pre-intermediate) grammar rules almost mechanically. Times and students sure have changed.

  9. Just wanted to react to Toby and the signals, I’ve always found that a lot of fun:
    Present perfect: janey or jenafs /
    just, already, never, ever,yet, for and since
    – and – so far (we’ve had good results)
    Have you ever …? (denotes experience)
    How long … (have you lived in your present flat?)
    Both of these are great for mingling/ collecting statistics – activities.
    Past simple: last year, this morning, yesterday etc.

  10. Hi Joan,
    Yes, the signal words can be combined with a tense, but they go with all sorts of other verb forms, too, which is why I don’t quite trust them as beacons for our students:

    I just wanted to tell you…
    I was already… when we…
    I never knew anyone who…
    I have yet to see…
    I’ll be there for…
    Did you ever see such a sight in your life as three blind mice?
    And “this morning” isn’t a trustworthy signal at all. The important bit is whether the morning is over or not, and you can only tell from the context, not from the words.

    What I mean is, a crutch should make the going easier, not more difficult.

  11. Hi Anne,
    Sure, I know what you mean. But nonetheless, using these ‘chunks’
    (Michael Lewis) I think learners can store some formulae that will help them on their way, good ‘faith’ has to play a role, too!
    I have lived in my present flat for 21 years / since 1989 – a chunk and personalising the information can make it more realistic.
    But, working with some colourful timelines makes grammar more bearable, too, showing the past simple – I saw him this morning – as a finished / completed action.
    Oh, well, sorry for going on and have a good week,

  12. You’re absolutely right, Joan, sorry to give you such a hard time. One just needs to be careful. Thanks for being such a dear 🙂 Please do go on, always!

  13. Maybe it’s just me, but to see some incorrect English confuses me, I may remember the incorrect form after the exercice. If it works for some students, tant mieux ! I like your conversation with Joan about the two past tenses in English, because I’m still struggling with them.

  14. You know, Anne. . .

    My students know that German doesn’t really conform to the rules. And they don’t expect English to be as iron-clad as they’d like. (Though they still complain when they bump up against an exception.) I think that giving a degree of rules–or what you called ‘signal words’–doesn’t hurt. And they know there are exceptions.

    My current rule–regarding the two tenses here–is to say “use the simple past unless you know why you want the present perfect.” It’s not perfect, yet, but it seems to work.

    I haven’t read “Natural Grammar,” but now it’s on my list of books to get. I really enjoyed “Teaching Speaking,” but, well, it didn’t give rise to many big changes in how I teach. (Maybe that’s my fault.)

  15. I’m with you on that one, Toby. And then just teach the concept of “How long has this been going on?” That covers 90% of the lower intermediate to intermediate crowd. I’m just really sensitized to the younger crowd, the students whose level is actually way out there, who have grown up with English and need a fair amount of sophisticated language, yet simple explanations as they really don’t have much time and their attention span is short. So I think it’s worth refocussing rules, and getting model sentences up to date and all the rest.

  16. It sounds like the presenter is guilty of the most common of TEFL assumptions- assuming a blank slate student when we almost never get such a thing. By the time students get to us, they have already been taught loads of grammar rules and/ or formed their own conscious or unconscious generalisations. Many of those are wrong, or at least oversimplified. How on earth can we correct them without giving an alternative rule?

  17. I’ve forgotten where I read this, Alex, but Einstein used to tell his students that they would be sitting the same test again in a subsequent year, but the answers would all be different.
    I think that’s how learning works in general, doesn’t it? You find an answer that is satisfactory under the circumstances. But as soon as you raise the level of complexity it becomes wrong and you need to find a more sophisticated answer.
    So basically we have to convince the learners that it’s good and productive to deal with various layers of explanation.

  18. Anne:

    I have nothing to add to this conversation. I just wanted to say that I loved that lost comment. It really sums up my experiences–not only, but especially–in teaching.

    This is my notice that I’m going to steal your quote.

  19. Dear Toby,

    This story is bouncing around in several versions:

    “How Albert Einstein Saw Things A Little Differently

    Albert Einstein had just administered an examination to an advanced class of Physics students.
    As he left the building, he was followed out by one of his teaching assistants.
    “Excuse me, sir,” said the shy assistant, not quite sure how to tell the great man about his blunder.
    “Yes?” said Einstein.
    “Um, eh, it’s about the test you just handed out.”
    Einstein waited patiently.
    “I’m not sure that you realize it, but this is the same test you gave out last year. In fact, it’s identical.”
    Einstein paused to think for a moment, then said, “Hmm, yes, it is the same test.”
    The teaching assistant was now very agitated. “What should we do, sir?”
    A slow smile spread over Einstein’s face. “I don’t think we need do anything. The answers have changed.”


    “ALBERT EINSTEIN was teaching at Princeton University and had just administered an exam to an advanced class of physics students. On the way back to his office, the teaching assistant carrying the exams asked him, ”Dr. Einstein, wasn’t this the same exam that you gave to this same class last year?”

    Dr. Einstein responded, ”Yes, it was.”

    The teaching assistant, in awe of perhaps the greatest physicist of the twentieth century, then asked, ”Excuse me for asking, Dr. Einstein. But how could you give the same exam to the same class two years in a row?”

    Einstein replied simply, ”The answers have changed.””


    (If anyone knows the origin, please do leave a note – thank you!)

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