R is for Rules

20 02 2011

On the bus the other day I overheard three Spanish-speaking schoolgirls discussing their English homework, coursebooks open on their laps. The conversation went something like this:

A: ¿El ‘present simple’, qué es el ‘present simple’? (The present simple – what’s the present simple?)

B: Es para las cosas que siempre vas a hacer. (It’s for the things that you’re always going to do).

A: Pues, el ‘present continuous’ – ¿de qué se trata? (Well, the present continuous – what’s that all about?)

C: Es para las cosas que tu haces una sola vez. Por ejemplo, ‘Yesterday I going shopping’. (It’s for the things you do only once. For example [in English], ‘Yesterday I going shopping’).

B: Y ¿’will’? (And ‘will’?)

A: Es para hablar del futuro, como ‘yo voy a ayudar a mis amigos’. (It’s to talk about the future, as in [in Spanish] ‘I’m going to help my friends’).

These girls were in ther mid-teens, I guessed, and had probably been doing three or four years of English already – three or four years learning, and attempting to apply (but with such conspicuous lack of success) some of the most basic rules of English grammar. Which led me to wonder, what earthly good had these rules done them? And, more radically, what earthly good are rules at all?

I’m not, of course, disputing the fact that language consists of certain patterns and regularities. I’m simply sceptical of the value of teaching these regularities in the form of explicit rules. Especially when the rules have so little obvious utility. As Chris Brumfit (2001) wrote, “it is common to believe that teaching the descriptive rules is to teach the means of generating the behaviour itself” ( p 29.) Clearly, this was not happening to the girls on the bus.

And it’s not just schoolgirls who find grammar rules hard to get their heads around. Some of the best minds in the business are ‘grammatically challenged’. Take, for instance,  the eminent linguist Dick Schmidt, who recorded this classroom experience when learning Portuguese in Brazil:

The class started off with a discussion of the imperfect vs. perfect, with C [the teacher] eliciting rules from the class. She ended up with more than a dozen rules on the board — which I am never going to remember when I need them. I’m just going to think of it as background and foreground and hope that I can get a feel for the rest of it (Schmidt & Frota, 1986, p. 258).

Which he did – by heading out into the street and trying it on with the locals. The fact that some learners, at least, dispense with rules should give us pause. After all, if we take the view that, as Ellis (2007) puts it, “language is not a collection of rules and target forms to be acquired, but rather a by-product of communicative processes ” (p. 23), then surely communication is the name of the game.

But what about accuracy? The argument that – without knowledge of rules – accuracy will suffer doesn’t hold much water either. As J. Hulstijn (1995) remarks, “It is perfectly well possible to focus learners’ attention on grammatical correctness without explicitly teaching grammar” (p.383). That is, after all, the function of feedback and correction.

And yet part of me can’t entirely dismiss the value of rules – or of some rules, at least – if for no other reason than for their mnemonic value, like the mantra-like spelling rules we learn as children and still invoke as adults: “i before e, except after c“. In support of this view, cognitive scientists have studied the role that such memorised rules play in ‘self-scaffolding’ learned routines, the frequent practice of which “enables the agent to develop genuine expertise and to dispense with the rehearsal of the helpful mantra” (Clark, 2011, p. 48).

Moreover, taking a socio-cultural perspective, might not grammar rules serve as a kind of symbolic tool, providing learners the means to regulate their own performance – a form of ‘private speech’, as it were?

Indeed, Lantolf & Thorne (2006), acknowledging the importance that Vygotsky himself credited “to well-articulated explict knowledge as the object of instruction and learning” (p. 291),  describe a number of studies of second language learners for whom self-verbalization of quite sophisticated grammatical concepts seemed to assist in their subsequent internalization.

If this is the case, my three schoolgirl companions – immersed in the process of jointly constructing knowledge out of explicit rules of grammar: were they on the right track, even if a long way from their desired destination?


Brumfit, C. (2001). Individual Freedom in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clark, A. (2011). Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, N. (2007). Dynamic systems and SLA: The wood and the trees. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10/1.

Hulstijn, J. (1995). Not all grammar rules are equal: Giving grammar instruction its proper place in foreign language teaching. In Schmidt, R. (ed.) Attention and Awareness in Foreign Language Learning. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Lantolf, J., & Thorne, S. (2006). Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmidt. R., & Frota, S. (1986). Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner. In R. Day (Ed.). Talking to learn: Conversation in a second language. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Illustrations from Carpentier-Fialip, P. & Carpentier-Fialip, M. (1931). L’Anglais Vivant: Classe de sixième. Paris: Hachette.



41 responses

20 02 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Very nice, Scott.

I’m a bit torn on this myself. In general I try to keep the talk ‘about language’ (the meta-language) minimal, but there a few points to make here:

Learners (especially adult learners) often explicitly ask me to help clarify a specific language point (e.g. the 2nd conditional) or say things like ‘can we focus on grammar next lesson?’ This way of thinking seems to come from their (often flawed) previous classroom experiences where, unfortunately, rules dominated.

My tactic here is, pretty much, to try and benignly steer them away from this ‘structure of the day’ mentality – at least waiting until the language point emerges ‘naturally’ through our class communication and then focus on it mainly through meaning – avoiding giving some general rule (like, we use the Present Perfect for such and such and also to say such and such…), but looking at that particular example in that particular context and how it fits into the conversation along with everything else.

The only problem with this is that I suppose some learners do take more to explicit rule teaching than others. We have to sensibly cater for these people also.

I suspect that many learners would not even think about asking for ‘the structure of the day’ if they hadn’t been conditioned to learn in this fashion by previous teachers. Others, may just gravitate to it naturally.

In any case, teachers should probably be explicit in their approaches with the learners. Let them in on out thinking behind these things. Say why you think it seems more practical to not let rules dominate. And if any learners feel more comfortable with having explicit rules for certain language points, that’s fine, but we can advise that they should treat the rules with caution because…


21 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, the fact that learners can be more or less divided into ‘rule-learners’ , on the one hand, and ‘data-gatherers’, on the other, and that the former favour deductive methods, while the latter learn inductively, is fairly well documented in the literature – although whether these dispostions are innate, hence a characteristic of their learning style, or the product of their previous educational experience, is moot. But, either way, teachers who ignore these preferences do so at their peril!

20 02 2011

Rules are nice and scholarly but they are mostly window dressing. A passive knowledge affects learners’ competence more than performance and befits accuracy more than fluency. So putting a big emphasis on rules is a back-to-front approach; placing form before meaning, knowledge before skills and study before learning.

After the language has been practiced and some induction has happened then a little explicit teaching can be useful. The fundamental principles are fine to cover lightly but the more detailed and specific you get, the less useful it becomes. Being a linguist (in the academic sense) is not a prerequisite for being a good language learner.

The exception is writing, where more cosmetic, secondary and synthetic rules concerning punctuation, spelling and style need to be consciously learnt (in the L1 as well as the L2). So for writing and upper level learners detailed and specific prescriptions and exceptions are more helpful.

21 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Agreed. Krashen would say that the only function that consciously-learned rules serve is to monitor output at the point of utterance, easier and more useful when you are writing rather than when you are speaking.

20 02 2011
Dennis Newson

I can see that rules, if and only if they are well formed, can be of help under some circumstances. For example I find explanations of when you require a double consonant, as in twin/twinned/refer/referred/enter/entered or the different uses of owing to/due to useful, partly because I can never remember what the rule is and have to look it up.

Somewhat mischievously when my students used to plead for rules I quoted Peter Master’s treatment of the article system in Terence Odlin (Ed) Perspectives on Pedagogical Grammar Cambridge University Press 1994 ISBN 0 521 44990 – 1:Master identifies about 58 different rules governing the correct use of articles in a short passage of 11 lines. The students complained that the wanted a simpler rule. I explained that a simpler rule would not work.

But don’t “rules”, belong to language description and not to language learning? Grammar rules can go so wrong for the learner.

Scott described two young Spanish girls on a bus. Here is a young German student on the phone to me some time ago. Though it is not a transcript, I wrote it immediately after she had phoned.

Tense about tenses

(A student phoning from a railway station)

Hello, Mr. Newson. I’m sorry,I shall belate, er, I mean: I will be late…or is it better to say: ‘I’m going to be late” ? Doesn’t “will” suggest volition? And it’s not my fault. I didn’t want to be late – it is the train that is late, or should that be “was late? It should have been here at 8.30, and it is now 8.45).Oh. I must be quick. (Noise of train in the background).”The train has arrived” -or should that be “is arriving”? It hasn’t stopped yet .Sorry! See you in about an hour’s time…….or should that be:”I will see you…..or “I will be seeing you.”


21 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Dennis — that’s a great example of what Krashen would call a “monitor over-user”!

And thanks for mentioning articles — it’s somewhat ironic that the most frequently occurring words in the language are the most difficult to describe in terms of their use. Doubly ironic that they are so small, too, that they can go largely unnoticed. Nor does their absence or presence contribute a lot to communicative effectiveness. (If such a thing as English As a Lingua Franca does really exist, does it have any articles?) On the other hand, you could argue that because of their low salience, it’s worth making a bit of a song and dance about them, so as to bring them into the learner’s focal attention. (See my previous post, S Is for Small Words).

20 02 2011

Thinking about the i before e, I just couldn’t resist posting this, which I think fairly sums up the problem with rules shared by Scott’s Spanish teens, and so many others:


20 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Antonia! I love that! “If in doubt, look it up, you lazy git!” I’ll try that the next time a student asks me about the rule for the definite article, perhaps. 😉

20 02 2011

Rules make the world so very nice and tidy, snug, under the covers with a hot cup of tea, watching the world pass by. I’ll happily stay here for a bit longer, and that’s definitely my volition.

Scott, your post reminded me of my experience trying to come to terms with the rules of the Italian subjunctive. This notoriously difficult part of the language, my teachers presented to us everyday over a two-month period, teaching us the rules that it follows. This process was then compounded by various practical exercises to reinforce the rules. The simple directions they provided me were my warm cup of tea, but, when I got out into the world, everyone was drinking coffee. Why had I learned all of this only to find that nobody even uses it?

Now I can use this subjunctive when I feel it is appropriate with little anxiety, thanks to lots of exposure to ‘real’ Italian. I agree with TEFL 101, a back-to-front approach caused me this anxiety, like that expressed by Dennis, and it was only solved by some real-life application to different situations that helped. So, when I see the rule-hungry students’ hands shoot up, I ask myself, “how am I going to get them out of the snug life and into real life in a way that does not compound their concern for rules”.


21 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Dale, your story about the Italian subjunctives reminds me of this extract from Christopher Isherwood’s autobiography (he writes about himself in the third person):

…Humphrey said suddenly, “You speak German so well – tell me, why don’t you ever use the subjunctive mood?” Christopher had to admit that he didn’t know how to. In the days when he had studied German, he had left the subjunctive to be dealt with later, since it wasn’t absolutely essential and he was in a hurry. By this time he could hop through the language without its aid, like an agile man with only one leg. But now Christopher set himself to master the subjunctive. Very soon, he had done so. Proud of this accomplishment, he began showing off whenever he talked: “had it not been for him, I should never have asked myself what I would do if they were to — etc., etc.” Humphrey was much amused.

[Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind, Eyre Methuen, 1977, p. 76]

This story suggests to me that conscious learning of rules is likely to be effective only under certain conditions, e.g. when the learner is motivated (as in Isherwood’s case by having a ‘gap’ in his competence pointed out to him) and, even more important perhaps, when the learner is ready — i.e. at the right stage in his/her interlanguage development. In your case, the time spent learning the subjunctive probably didn’t meet either of these conditions. On the other hand, you could argue ( as Dick Schmidt did, on the basis of his experience acquiring Brazilian Portuguese) that the classroom learning of rules ‘primed’ him to notice occurrences of these grammar items when they occurred naturally when he was communicating with Brazilians. That is to say, his noticing capabilities had been fine-tuned.

20 02 2011
Dawn Severenuk

Hello Scott. I don’t mean to put a downer on things, but if you’ll please permit me a little bit of cynicism…..

Those of us who have extensive experience teaching in Spain (or, at least, cleaning up after the problems created by the Spanish education system) know that one of the most useful use of rules is that it allows the Ministry of Education to create artificial filters when selecting teachers at the primary and secondary level. Passing the “opo” (the civil service selection exam, which only Spanish citizens who have degrees from Spanish universities can take – at least in Madrid – I hope things are better in Catalonia) to become a teacher of English is less a question of how much English you know rather than how many rules you can recite in order not to fail an exam. Knowledge of the rules seems to be a far greater priority than how one uses (or doesn’t use) the rules in order to communicate effectively.

I once had a student who — MAYBE — had a pre-intermediate level of English, which was further complicated by a harelip that complicated any attempt at pronunciation. In spite of the fact that she figuratively and literally couldn’t speak English, she was still offered a teaching position here in Madrid and is a full-on civil servant.

If these students are in the public system or attend “concertados,” my guess is that the students were probably putting what seems (to us, at least) like undue focus on the rules because that’s all they’re required to do. In Madrid, it’s not like students are required to communicate in English in the classroom; the vast majority just want to get through the exam with as high a mark as possible. If repetition of the rules, rather than practical application, get them what they want…

20 02 2011
Jessica Mackay

Hi Dawn,

Things are, unfortunately, much the same in Barcelona as Madrid, although there is hope, I imagine there as here, as future language teachers now have to take a new Master’s qualification which seems very comprehensive and includes more actual TP.

Also, the girls in Scott’s anecdote were in their mid-teens, so it’s more likely, post ‘reforma’ that they’ve had up to ten years of instruction. By the time Spanish school-leavers reach my institution, they’ve had 12 years of rules, have extensive metalinguistic knowledge (e.g. they’ve heard the differences between the pres. simple and pres. continuous repeated every year), yet only have a CEF A2/B1 level and are, unsurprisingly, thoroughly demotivated.

We are then faced with the dilemma of how to help them discover, or re-discover an enthusiasm for the language, while simultaneously weaning them off an institutionalised dependency on grammar rules and teacher talk. It is of course, very easy for me to be critical. I work with ‘adults’ who are generally very committed to learning. I do understand why this happens, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

21 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Dawn — and Jessica too — for that reminder of how rule-bound certain learning cultures are. This is the kind of positivist educational tradition that treats language the same way as mathematics, i.e. as a collection of immutable truths. Of course, the time spent learning the rules of the present simple and the present continuous might have yielded better results had the rules been more accurate. That is to say, a lot of time is wasted learning rules that are simply wrong, or, at best, gross simplifications. That, at least, is the argument used by grammarians like Michael Lewis, and by corpus linguists, whose research has exposed how fraudulent some rules are.

On the other hand, it could be argued that my three teenage schoolgirls simply didn’t have the requisite metacognitive skills to think about grammar in ways that a rule-based approach assumes. The fact that one of them said that the present continuous is used for “talking about things you’ve only done once” is quite bizarre — I doubt whether there’s a language in the world that has a tense for once-only activities! If they had thought about their own languages, for example, they might have seen that this rule was implausible, to say the very least.

So, if we’re going to use rules, maybe we should raise learners’ consciousness about language in general, including their own language, before we even start.

21 02 2011
Jessica Mackay

The fact that your teenage learner said ‘Yesterday, I going shopping’ in a discussion about what appears to be future forms is even more bizarre.

Do you think It may be an example of transfer from Catalan? It does have a rather unusual way of forming the past tense, using the verb ‘to go’ as the auxiliary (‘vaig anar’ = ‘I went’ is literally ‘I go to go’). So these sound like L1 Spanish speakers applying the rules of Catalan to English. How’s that for Cross Linguistic Influence?

Your comments on meta-cognition also reminded me that this was one of the special areas of interest of Dr Mia Victori, who died so tragically young just before Christmas

Victori, M & Lockhart, W. Enhancing metacognition in self-directed language learning System, 23:2, 223-234 (1995)

20 02 2011
Denilso de Lima

It’s been quite a long time since I decided to avoid talking about rules (or terminology) in my classes. To be quite honest, I believe rules prove to be more hindrance than help.

When a teacher gives rules to students, those students will try to communicate thinking about the rules first and not about the things they really feel like saying. Thinking about the rules is no help to communicate (convey ideas). So, teachers have to show students that it’s possible to acquire a language without mastering the grammatical system (rules and terminology).

Basic to Intermediate level students should be given less rules and terminology. Instead, they should learn how to communicate using the language as a natural process. This idea is the same of going to school after being able to speak your own language; that is, you can speak (use) the language when you go to school, there you learn about linguistic facts and the mantras. The point is: teachers should help basic-intermediate students acquire the language in a natural way and teach rules only when students reach advanced levels. It would be much simpler; students would have linguistic input to analyse and see the rules working.

As Thornbury puts it in “Uncovering Grammar”, grammar is a process (not a thing). “When we use language in real communication, grammar manisfests itself in ways that seem to have little to do with the conscious application of these linguistic facts (=rules). Grammar seems to be more like a process” (p. 1). Helping students to process the language in natural ways is much better than giving them rules and terminology in general.

Unfortunately, “it has been, and remains, the central misunderstanding of language of language teaching to assume that grammar (rules and terminology) is the basis of language and that the mastery of the grammatical system is a prerequisite for effective communication” (Michael Lewis, 1997, p. 133).

As a teacher trainer and ELT book writer in Brazil, I have been teaching teachers that this idea is totally possible. The results are wonderful. My adult students love it. they are able to communicate in English accurately and without thinking about rules and all that technicisms that teachers take as mandatory in language teaching.

I rest my case quoting the English novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy, “purism, whether in grammar or in vocabulary, almost always means ignorance. Language was made before grammar, not grammar before language.”

@DenilsodeLima (Twitter)

21 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Denilso – I am encouraged by your commitment to a process view of language, and learning through using. Clearly there are teachers like yourself who are able to buck the system — but I worry that you may be a minority! (And thanks for the Hardy quote — I’ll add that to my collection!)

20 02 2011

For adult learners, I wonder if there is a parallel here with more recent discussions about the appropriate use of L1 and translation in the classroom. I would argue that adults use cognitive processes more consciously than children. Critical thinking skills such as logic and reasoning are what allow us to identify patterns in language when we are adults, but this kind of thinking requires a greater deal of meta-cognitive awareness – or monitoring to make sure that there is no flaw in our reasoning. Perhaps by totally avoiding ‘grammar rule’ teaching, we are doing the same thing to our learners when we make them feel guilty for translating.

A lot of studies have been done in the area of promoting meta-cognitive awareness to help students consciously choose which strategy works best for them when working with listening and reading texts. The idea being that learners can consciously decide to become better at processing input. I am not sure how effective this is, but it makes a lot of sense from a pedagogical standpoint. I think using consciousness-raising activities with learners to prime their minds for noticing grammar works in the same vein. We want them to be conscious, with a great deal of logical precision, of the rule-based patterns we are showing them so that they can work it out for themselves (thus promoting autonomy!) However, when a CR task is finished, it only makes sense that we check to make sure that learners have gone through the process in the intended way, a sort of confirmation that yes, indeed, they have got the rule right – and this IS the rule. In the end, where do we draw the line? We either start with the rule or end with it…I would argue that ending with the rule is better for learning. But it’s still a rule, right?

21 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Delpha, thanks for your insightful comment. As I mentioned earlier, in responding to both Dawn and Jessica, rules that don’t take into account the learners’ metacognitive capacities are a bit like whistling in the wind. Much better, I agree, is your approach whereby learners are motivated to derive their own rules from the data they are exposed to. In fact, I’m not even that bothered if their rules are ‘wrong’, so long as that they are ‘heuristic’ — that is that they provide a learning ‘hook’ – or the kind of self-scaffolding materials that I mentioned in my post. Dick Schmidt’s ‘rule-of-thumb’ for the imperfect in Portuguese probably worked better for him than the dozen or so grammar book rules his teacher was trying to teach him.

23 02 2011

On your question of translation:
Ran into Jim Cummins at a TESOL conference a few years ago. Told him that when my students wrote compositions in L1 first and then translate to L2, I usually advised them to try writing in English first, in order to do more thinking in English and not get distracted by the difficulties of translation or waste time with an extra step. Asked him if I was wrong, and he bluntly agreed that I was! His point was that we need to start from background knowledge, of course, and their L1 students’ L1 is in fact their background knowledge.

I’ve discussed this idea with students since then and let individuals choose what works best for them when writing. I also push bilingual dictionaries as the most efficient way to learn vocabulary, rather than English-English. When a tricky construction comes up in a text we’re reading, I actively promote translation, asking to see it in every language in the room (fortunately, that’s usually at least 3 or 4 where I work). Builds community and promotes thought, I believe!

20 02 2011

Logical reasoning does help learning, but clearly stands in the way of acquisition – that is why learning will not really result in acquisition (S. Krashen). On the other hand, the adult way of thinking requires rules to feel comfortable and confident . “I need to understand this, or I won’t be able to use it” – my students say.

I do teach them to notice and consciously process the patterns they come across – yet, left to their own devices, they are likely to have to make a very long journey to the truth. Hence, the teacher is there to provide the shortcut. Call it a rule – or label it in a different way…

It’s not the rules as such that are to blame for the learner’s struggle – it’s the abstract and obscure meta-language used to formulate the rules, along with the lack of situation-based practice. In my practice I have successfully combined three ways of teaching:

– teaching using very simplified, one-word rules (I call them “keyword rules”) introduced through situations and contexts and immediately practiced in situations, with subsequent abundant exposure to the structures within broader contexts (reading, listening) – so the rule is there to provide a sense of security, yet it is so minimal that it does not in any way dominate the teaching/learning. This was supported by

– teaching the students to notice, process, verify and acquire language odds and ends independently (the higher the level, the more they are able to do that with the experience they have accumulated resulting in more and more intuitive insights. This is furtherly enhanced by

– letting go of them and not teaching anything, but simply immersing them in the language. Given the solid base and confidence they got through the first 2 types of teaching, the latter method did work, and this is the stage when real acquisition, as I feel it, takes place.

Since I keep having to “repair” the results of the previous … erm.. dubious ways of teaching, and have seen so many students start speaking within a few months of this three-fold approach, after years of struggling and frustration, I believe this is the compromise that works.

21 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

I love this three-pronged approach: a combination of mnemonics, discovery learning, and learning-through-doing. This would seem to satisfy the needs of learners for some kind of heuristic props (see previous comment), while not making rules the end-point of instruction. I am intrigued by your ‘one-word’ rules, though. Can you give me an example?

21 02 2011

Well, rules are only one part of explanation, which is a part of presentation. They are the essence of the explanation, and whether or not they are a help or a hindrance depends on how good the whole explanation is. Rules simply should be as short, jargon-free and … “tangible”, as possible. Now I’m not going to say ANYTHING really new. I try to explain by setting the scene and describing a situation, eg, I messed up a job interview because I was wearing the wrong clothes, using the wrong body language and saying the wrong things – then say that I’m criticizing myself for what I did yesterday (stressing CRITICISE and YESTERDAY) – I – SHOULD-NOT-HAVE-WORN-A –TUTU (wear-worn-worn) – WORN A TUTU , nie nado bylo (Russian, = I shouldn’t have) . Then I elicit: what about fidgeting and scratching my back? – I – shouln’t-have-fidgeted, I- shouldn’t-have- scratched my back. Then I put the pattern on the board: Sb + should’t have + done smth YESTERDAY (CRITICISM!) – Is this present perfect? (in response to the very usual question) – “yes”, I say, “kind of. It looks the same, but it’s “should have” always, never “has”. OK?” Then I choral drill the above three phrases. Then I do some substitution drills to make them comfortable with the patterns. Throughout the drilling and eliciting I stress it was yesterday, we are dissatisfied and criticizing, and say nie nado bylo a few times for reinforcement. We then proceed with telling me what I SHOULD have done at the interview, which is followed by a structured pairwork activity to get them discuss their own failures. The blackboard/OHP is almost blank with the pattern and 2 keywords on it – CRITICISM, YESTERDAY, “ne nado bylo”. That’s it. Nothing really new. The keywords are labels, can we call them rules? I think we can. Have I explained it? Yes, since they understood and used it appropriately. Russian is very helpful here indeed – I never hesitate to instantly translate a word or to instead of laboriously explaining/drawing/eliciting anything for 5 – 10 minutes. For present perfect that might be RESULT, JUST DONE, EXPERIENCE (ever/never), HOW MANY TIMES? – for the different uses of it.

21 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Katherine for going to the trouble of explaining that – and doing so so clearly (and wittily). I would say that your ‘shorthand’ rules do qualify as rules, in the sense of being rules-of-thumb, reminders, or mnemonics, rather than fully descriptive rules, and are all the more effective for being so. After all, in real time, which is easier to retrieve and apply:

1. You use ‘should have’ and ‘ought to have’ to say that there was a mild obligation to do something in the past, but it was not done. (Collins COBUILD Students Grammar);

2.If somebody didn’t do something that was important, we can say he/she should have done it. (Swan & Walter, The Good Grammar Book);

3. Sb + should’t have + done smth YESTERDAY (CRITICISM!)

21 02 2011

Teaching rules as part of a process of acquisition has always seemed pointless to me, and as Mr Lewis points out in The English Verb, most of the rules we have to describe grammar (where grammar means the verb phrase) are inadequate and just plain wrong.

On the other hand, learners uncovering rules allows learners the chance to notice regularities and patterns in the language. I really like the way Jason Renshaw asks learners to compare language in reformulations and come up with their own rules that they then teach the class. This means learners are coming up with their own hypotheses about the language, and it is always within a context. This can then be compared between different contexts as part of an experiential learning process, as opposed to ” we use this to say that”.

It seems obvious, however, why students prefer them to me. It’s concrete evidence of things learned! And…no risks attached! You don’t have to speak or do anything, just write em down. It’s much easier basically.

21 02 2011

This discussion reminds me of one I had when I first came to Japan. I was having a private lesson with a student who was telling me about his favorite teacher, who happened to be an English teacher. I asked my student what made this English teacher his favorite. He simply said “he knows all the rules”. Curious to learn more about this teacher, I asked about his ability to have conversations.

(My student had impressive conversation skills, particularly for a student who hadn’t studied outside of Japan, so I was curious to learn more about how he developed his abilities, and thought it was perhaps from a great classroom experience.)

My student’s response? “He can’t speak English – at all – but he knows all the rules, and there is no grammar challenge that can stump him. It’s so impressive.”

21 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Christopher! Yes, I think there are certain teachers for whom a knowledge of the rules provides them with a sense of authority, and often compensates for weaknesses in other areas. Not that knowledge of the rules is a bad thing – for teachers at least. So long as it’s not misapplied. In the introduction to my About Language, I quote Tony Wright to this effect: “One great danger of acquiring specialist knowledge is the possible desire to show learners that you have this knowledge”.

21 02 2011

Is it the baggage of the word “rule” that is objectionable? Learning Japanese adjectives I studiously seperated words according to their endings (the infamous ‘i’ and ‘na’ adjectives.) Once I came to Japan these initial rules allowed me to notice language more effectively in context, and once i came up against the exceptions the beginner level ‘rule’ morphed into a kind of intermediate ‘guide’.

Do learners crave rules in the same way tourists crave maps when they first visit a new location? Maybe as a way to avoid wasting time wandering in the wrong direction. Similarly, second or third visits to the same location see more adventurous wanderings.

Deciding on the amount of rules given could be point of negotiation at the start of a course – the teacher offers to give guidelines for certain language points if asked, but in return the students are asked to notice these rules, and their exceptions, in each encounter.

21 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, I think you are right — the word rule does have negative connotations (school rules, rule of law, military rule, etc), whereas the term regularities is perhaps less loaded. Which reminds me that in her book Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring (Thomson Heinle 2003) Diane Larsen-Freeman distinguishes between rules and reasons: “It is important for learners not only to know the rules, but also to know why they exist. I’m not referring to how the language came to be; I am referring to what I call the ‘reasons’ underlying the rules”. As an example she gives the rule that prohibits using the progressive with stative verbs (as in *I am owning a car). “The reason for the rule is due to the semantic incompatibility between processes depicted by the progressive, which typically involve change, and unchanging states embodied in stative verbs… Knowing the reason for a rule… gives language students an understanding of the logic that speakers of another language use” (pp. 50-51).

22 02 2011
Martin Sketchley

I recently read a journal article “Reformulation and reconstruction: tasks that promote ‘noticing'” by Thornbury (ELT Journal Volume 51/4, 1997). Its a good article to refer to when trying to learn more qbout grammar learning. When I try to ‘cover grammar’ (not sure I enjoy the term), I try to focus on context. I do not teach rules explicitly but I try to get students to acquire and notice the rules compared to their L1 and use activities to promote implicit grammar learning. Some activities that are useful for reconstruction is ‘dictogloss’. I have just started implementing dictation based activities in class to promote noticing.

When reflecting upon my own Korean language learning, I didn’t have any formal language lessons and I only had a vocabulary and grammar book to refer to. Most of my personal learning occurred when communicating in L2 and became more confident in Korean. For me, grammar can provide the basics but to acquire more advanced lexical phrases, vocabulary, etc one must practice and notice differences from L1. Essentially, I didn’t have a teacher to tell me what grammatical phrases I failed upon but I did have natural conversation and feedback from the listener to advise me what was suitable or not. This was more invaluable than having to memorise particular rules.

Finally, I have encountered students that only want to learn more advanced grammar explicitly (particularly Asian students) and are unhappy about communicative activities which could promote reformulation or reconstruction of grammar rules. For particular learners, they are able to monitor their progress of language learning if they can talk about grammar. As teachers, are we teaching grammar in the wrong way with focus on rules and exceptions so students are then able to talk about the rules or exceptions? Shouldn’t we be teaching grammar in a meaningful and useful purpose? A great blog post by Thornbury again.

23 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

…are we teaching grammar in the wrong way with focus on rules and exceptions so students are then able to talk about the rules or exceptions?

Yes, Martin, and your mention of exceptions is a useful reminder that rules about language are seldom watertight, and are often fuzzy at the edges — not least because there is so much variability in language, due to factors such as geography, register and style, and mode (e.g. speaking versus writing). There is always a counter example of the rules we teach — even the seemingly immutable rules of form, e.g. that the comparative one-syllable adjective takes -er as its suffix. A quick corpus search reveals many so-called exceptions (all from the British National Corpus):

The way the English game is evolving it is becoming ever more fast and physical.
a lift from someone in whose hands you could not really expect to be more safe — an officer in uniform
Member for Teignbridge can not argue simply that nuclear power is cleaner and environmentally more safe
Of a number of possibilities, one shone out more bright and unpleasant than any of the others.
you felt like an alien, lumbering and self-conscious, materially far more rich and spiritually far more poor than the people who thronged the place,
which some men enjoy to the prejudice of others, such as that of being more rich , more honoured, more powerful
but would come about in a way both more slow and less physically violent,
to be subjected to the effects of changes which might otherwise have been more slow in coming

23 02 2011
Nick Jaworski

Excellent post. This is something I’ve thought about a lot in my own teaching.

Rules are certainly a double-edged sword. They can provide the learner with confidence. They know their utterance is correct, so they are not afraid to speak. However, they can also make a learner become so obsessed with them that they can’t create an utterance at all for fear of making a mistake. There can also be so many rules that the learner spends more time thinking about them than ever actually speaking/writing.

Ambiguity in many educational settings and many cultures is something to be avoided. For this reason, many learners find comfort in rules. Making the students comfortable is a priority of any teacher and so this is one reason rules are useful to bring up in class.

They also allow learners to reflect on their own language. It helps them notice. They’ll take the language they said/wrote and compare it to the rules they know. Without a knowledge of rules, this self-reflection may not happen for some students. In effect, it encourages a second look and even a reformulation. There is also the point made above of students noticing the rules when seeing/hearing the language used.

I once argued somewhere else that the only useful grammar rules to teach are ones that mirror L1 and that are easily applicable. The difference in use between “a” and “an” is fairly straighforward and it doesn’t hurt to mention it. Rules for the passive or the present perfect, on the other hand, are often less than useless.

As far as acquisition goes, rules have little direct impact. However, in their ability to instill comfort in many students and their aid in allowing students to notice language (their own and others) they can have a indirect impact on acquisition.

24 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Nick. Yes, on the plus side, rules act as a metacognitive tool that – as you put it – “help them notice”. And this may be the real value of rules, over and above their usefulness in terms of production: they make the learner more receptive.

23 02 2011
karen McDonald

Yes, some rules were just meant to be broken, poetic licence and the rest;)

23 02 2011

When I find out that a student is obsessed with rules and is afraid to take risks (which is essential in mastering a language), I show them how native speakers bend and break the rules of their own language, eg, when they say “I’m loving it”. I also show the more advanced ones that they are the masters of the language, not its slaves, so they have the right to choose between, say, “I sat there” and “I was sitting there” depending on what they want to stress. This turns struggling with the language and its rules into making friends with it – and is another way of bringing comfort and confidence.

24 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

I like that idea – turning the so-called exceptions into exemplars of the inexhaustible creativity of language!

23 02 2011
Nick Cox

Reading this, it occurred to me that perhaps new rules could be formulated to take into account communicative competence, more in the form of gentle guidelines. For example, students often have difficulty in NOT using ‘will’ and ‘would’ in the condition clause of 1st, 2nd and 3rd conditionals. Perhaps we should advise those who have real difficulty mastering it to always use a contracted form. That way, errors in 1st conditionals are likely to pass unnoticed if they speak fluently and their 3rd conditionals will sound like real natives anyway. After all, most native speakers I can think of say conditionals like “If I’d have known, I’d have bought you a card.”

24 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Nick – and perhaps there are “rules of production”, as opposed to rules of accuracy. E.g. if expressing future meaning, when in doubt, use ‘will’ (you have a statistcally very favorable chance of being right). Or, use ‘Really?’ or ‘…no?’ instead of short questions and question tags – they’ll save you a lot of bother!

23 02 2011

Just added a link to this post on the TeachingEnglish facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil so that all the readers/contributors there can benefit from your A-Z meanderings.

Please feel free to post there directly yourself.



25 02 2011
Stephanie Ashford

In his recent book ‘The Language Wars – a History of Proper English’ (2011), Henry Hitchings draws an interesting distinction between ‘rules’ (“mental mechanisms that carry out operations to combine words into meaningful arrangements”), ‘principles’ and ‘conventions’.

In his view, the mental mechanisms are beyond our “conscious control”, whereas the rest is within our power. He argues in favour of teaching conventions because they enable lucid communication, but he accepts that “from an educational perspective, penalizing someone who starts every third sentence with ‘And’ is of less value than showing why a more varied style is preferable”.

This chimes with Waykate’s point above about “making friends with rules”. But Henry Hitchings’ (Hitchings’s?) real interest is not in rules, principles and conventions, but why people care about them so much. The last paragraph in the book is the best – but I won’t spoil your pleasure…. ;o)

26 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Stephanie, for the tip – the Hitchings books goes straight on to my wish list.

Yes, one of the confusions about the term ‘rule’ is that it conflates both prescriptive rules (what you should say) and descriptive ones, (what people in fact do say) without making a distinction. As language teachers, the assumption is that we are more interested in the latter, but the distinction is not always that clear cut. For example, we teach that the comparative of one-syllable adjectives is formed by adding the -er suffix – but in fact actual usage tolerates more + adjective (see a preceding comment). So, are we teaching a descriptive rule, or are we simply saying what ought to happen?

26 02 2011
Bruno Andrade

I’m utterly convinced that students thrive when they are touched by the emotional sense of learning, not by the dictation of rules and exceptions.

Much of this buzz about teaching terminolgy, I believe, comes from the old patterns of education in which I reckon most of us belonged to. Teaching was a dictatorial scheme where teachers were the holders of all information and students HAD to take everything in.
As a self-taught student in the English language, I never really got the reasons and the rules of the English language. When people asked me any question about grammar I was simply unable to answer or explain it. I just said: “I have no idea. I speak this way because it sounds better” – The “sound better” excuse followed me until I started teaching. Only then, I realized that I needed to know the rules but I knew deep in my heart that my students didn’t (as I didn’t before). And I have been following this self-concept ever since. My students can excel in the language without having to memorize all the particularities of the language. Only if they need to go a little further, I sparkle some rules here and there.
After some time I got to prove my own experiment: I asked my native-american friends how, why and when I should use the past perfect. Guess what their unanimous answer was: “We don’t know. We use it because it sounds better”

Great post!

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