The notorious rules. Thoughts on rule-based teaching.

File:Abandoned concrete factory mechanism.jpgHere’s the discussion that took place at Scott Thornbury’s blog. The brief summary of the majority of the comments is that rules are a hindrance rather than any help, preventing the students from freely using the language instead of facilitating acquisition.

It is interesting for a non-native English teacher like me to watch native teachers discuss this matter, since the non-native teacher’s way of thinking is often very different from that of a native. That is especially evident in the treatment of rules. It seems to me that non-native teachers are way beter at teaching English through rules (many of them achieving good results), whereas native speakers are much better at teaching their own language through situations and contexts.

My personal approach is somewhere in -between the two poles. I have summarized it in this short article I posted there as a comment:


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.


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