Prescriptive Teaching in the ESL Classroom

Being prescriptivist means not only describing the system of language to the students but also insisting that the students conform to using only what the teacher uses or what is presented in a course book. Students would then have errors corrected which are not necessarily ungrammatical but may be considered “non-standard” by certain speakers even though a large number of native speakers may use the very same forms themselves.

The world of TEFL has changed a lot over the years. In days when English was taught as a fixed body of Latin-based rules (e.g. “never split the infinitive!”), there existed a prescriptivist attitude. The position of form-focussed teaching has changed as has, with equal importance, the position of English as a world language. It is not correct or even practical, with a constantly changing, living language, to draw a line in the sand and state “here and no further.”

English is used more and more as an international Lingua Franca and many students who are learning it are doing so not through any desire to integrate into an Anglophone country but to do business with other non-native speakers. For a teacher to insist that students use, for example, Standard British English language or pronunciation, then, may be of little use to the students. For a student whose chief motivation for learning the second language may be purely instrumental (to improve job-finding prospects for example), it could also be seen as a touch insensitive to insist on them using British-style conversational strategies as they may never need to speak to a British person. The increasing globalisation of English makes this increasingly true.

What does this mean for the ESL classroom and for teachers? By definition, there is a prescriptive grammarian lurking in every teacher. Teachers spend a lot of time deciding what is and is not acceptable to them when listening to students. The ‘line in the sand’ will be different for each teacher but it is of overriding importance that all teachers maintain communicative efficacy as the priority.

The students need to be put at the centre of the learning process. Being descriptive implies a teacher-centred approach – “you will say this because it is what I would say.” Of course, we say this to students every day – implying that they should follow the “acceptable” rules of the language, not only because ‘we’ say it. The problems arise when we hear utterances that we could accept from other members of our family but not from our students.

If we can find out more about our students and be better informed as to what they need their English for, we can cater our teaching accordingly. This means doing more needs analysis. In this way, we can more effectively put our students’ needs first.

It should be noted at this point that there are many students in many countries who expect and want teachers to be prescriptive. This is the double edged sword of students also being customers who are, as we all know, always right. They expect rules. They want black and they want white. Grey has no place for them. It is the way many are accustomed to seeing education. Grand master hands down pieces of knowledge to willing student for absorption.

My own feeling is that students should be trusted more with alternatives presented to them by the teacher, not prescribed to them. I think it is fine to say to our students: ” ‘If I were’ is considered standard English but a lot of people use and you will often hear ‘If I was’.” Students have the ability to take information like this on board and we shouldn’t think it beyond them.

At the end of the day, it is not possible to apply, to English or any other language, watertight rules of usage so we, as teachers, shouldn’t try to. It just makes our jobs more difficult.

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