Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Rules, Patterns and Words by Dave Willis

 Subtitle: Grammar and Lexis in English Language Teaching

(Book Review)

Why I Read This Book
This is another book I read for professional development (i.e. this was not pleasure reading.)  It's also on the list of books recommended by the DELTA course, so I'm counting this as part of my DELTA reading list.

More specifically, Dave Willis has been on my radar ever since Angry Soba brought him to my attention in a comment back in 2014.  Angry Soba mentioned that Dave Willis and his work on the lexical syllabus,  was very influential at his school, Birmingham University

I was also familiar with Dave Willis because of  TEFLology, who did a segment on their show about Dave Willis [LINK HERE].  The folks at TEFLology mention that Dave Willis originally came up with many of the ideas associated with the lexical approach, even though Michael Lewis is more famous.
So, after having read The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis, I figured that something by Dave Willis would be my next logical step.

Book Club
I've started up a "reading for professional development" book club at my current job, and I decided to use this as our first book.
(Admittedly this was probably somewhat selfish of me, since I chose this book based on my own personal preferences--coming off of The Lexical Approach, this book was a logical follow-up for me personally.  But this book was also on the DELTA reading list, so in theory it was of general interest to anyone who was vaguely interested in doing the DELTA at some point.)
In the end, we got about 7 people who read all or some of the book, and we got some interesting discussion going.

One of the nice things about a book club is it gives you a chance to check your own personal reactions against other people's reactions.
For example, I found the middle of this book a bit boring.  Initially I was worried this was just a reflection of my own limitations as a reader, but it turned out in the book club that everyone found the middle a bit boring.  So it's not just me.
I'll try to make use of some of our discussion in the review, to balance out my own opinion.

What is the Book About:
As I confessed in our book club discussion, I had a hard time figuring out the main point of this book.  I understood each section well enough as I was reading it, but upon finishing the book I wasn't sure if I could summarize it neatly into one main theme.

Upon reflecting on the book, I've determined that there were 3 main points that jumped out at me,

1). Students can’t be expected to spontaneously produce language upon their first exposure to it.  So this is problematic for P-P-P style lessons.   Instead of the P-P-P model, Willis is advocating an alternative model of improvisation, recognition, rehearsal, system building, exploration, consolidation, and then finally spontaneous use.  (Spread out over several lessons).

2) The lexis of the sentence determines the grammar, so teachers should concentrate on teaching word patterns instead of only teaching verb tenses.

3) Most of the grammar rules we teach apply only to written English, not spoken English.  Students who only learn the grammar rules of written English may have trouble comprehending authentic spoken language, so teachers need to expose our students to authentic spoken language more.

Again, I bounced this off of the other members of the book club to see if I was missing anything, and there seemed to be general agreement --these apparently were the main points my colleagues came away with as well.

I'll make some brief comments on each of these points below.

1). Students do not learn the grammar that the teacher presents them with in a straightforward manner

In his opening chapter, Willis observes that what teachers teach students often does not take hold in the students' speech.  There are many simple grammatical mistakes that (despite the teacher's best efforts) often persist even into the higher levels.

Every teacher can identify with this, but why is this?

Often teachers blame the students for their lack of accuracy.  But Dave Willis shows that this explanation is not satisfactory.

One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that learners are simply careless.  They know that they should add "s" to the third person singular of the present simple tense, and they know how to form questions with the auxiliary "do", but they are simply too careless to apply this knowledge when they are using language spontaneously.  But second language acquisition research, as well as our experience as teachers, tell us that these are stages that almost all learners go through.  We can hardly dismiss all learners as careless.  It seems much more likely that the processes we have described are a  necessary part of learning, that learners have to go through a process which involves making mistakes before they can produce appropriate forms spontaneously and without conscious attention.  (p.7)
Willis then goes on to conclude:

There is, then, plenty of evidence that learners do not move immediately from an understanding of new language forms to spontaneous production of those forms. (p.7)
In other words, the CELTA style lesson of presenting and practicing a language item, and then expecting students to spontaneously produce it at the end of the lesson, is doomed to failure.

Instead of the traditional CELTA style P-P-P, Lewis has an alternative method.

Improvisation.  Recognition, Rehearsal, System Building, Exploration,  Consolidation.  Spontaneous Use.

Each of these stages is discussed in detail in Willis's book, so I'm not going to attempt to summarize it all here.  Just briefly: improvisation is when the students are pushed to do a task beyond their current language ability.  This makes them aware of the gaps in the ability, which will in turn make them more attentive to the input they receive, which will help them to recognize the forms in the input, and lead to System building, and consolidation, and spontaneous use.  (Actually it's a lot more complicated then that, but for more detail consult Willis's book.)

A couple of note:
It appears that Willis is playing the long game here.  His stages are not to be completed in one 90 minute lesson, but over the course of several weeks (or months? or years?  Actually his timetable is not really clear.)

And it appears to me that the assumption behind this method is that the students are being exposed to a continuous stream of input.  However input is not really a focus of this book, so how to provide input is never really addressed.
It was a concern of mine, however.  My classes only meet for 4 hours a week, so it's difficult to balance language work and input.  (Ideally students would get a lot of input outside of the classroom, but in reality experience has taught me that 90% of them do no language work outside of class, despite all my pleading.)
I wonder if there is enough time in the schedule to give the students exposure to input, and do language work, and practice speaking.  It's a tough balancing act.

Moving on to Willis's second point:

2) Lexis determines the grammar of the sentence, so teaching should focus on word patterns and not just verb tenses

A lot of ESL textbooks focus exclusively on verb tenses.

However, as Dave Willis points out, the grammar of the sentence is actually determined by the verb.

Contrary to popular belief, the English language does not simply follow a Subject Verb Object pattern.

To use Willis's own examples (p.28):
"laugh" takes a subject, but no object. I laughed.
"buy" must have an object. I bought it.
"put" must have both an object and an adverbial of place.  She put it on the shelf.

(The above examples are all verbs, but elsewhere in the book Willis also shows how the structure of noun phrases are also dictated by vocabulary choice.)

Simply teaching students the difference between the present perfect and the present continuous isn't enough, Willis argues.  Nor is it enough to teach vocabulary in list forms.
Instead, the students have to be taught the type of sentence patterns that different vocabulary generate.

Much of this section is similar to what Michael Lewis argued for in The Lexical Approach.  But it's much more methodically laid out.  And also Dave Willis uses much less inflammatory language than Michael Lewis did.
As a result, by the time you get to the end of Dave Willis's book, it was very hard to disagree with him.   Everything he said just seemed so reasonable.  He made a very good case that the grammar of the sentence is directly related to the lexis.

However, on the flip side, the fact that Dave Willis laid out all these word patterns so methodically also meant that this section could be really boring to read.
I had to really struggle to keep focused on it myself.  Often my eyes would glaze over, and I would get to the end of a paragraph and discover that I hadn't absorbed any of it, and would make myself go back and read it again.

The same frustration was reported by the rest of the book club, and in fact it sounds like of the 7 of us, I was the only one who even bothered to read this whole section thoroughly--everyone else just skimmed it.

 3) The Grammar of Spoken English versus Written English

The good news, however, is that if you persevere through the middle of the book, the last section on the grammar of spoken English is really interesting.

Dave Willis points out that everything we think we know about grammar comes from written English, and doesn't reflect how people actually talk in real life at all.

For example, Willis says, in spoken English people often just string words together instead of putting them into complex clauses.
One example Willis gives (on page 193) from a corpus of spoken English is:

His cousin in Beccles, her boyfriend, his parents bought him a Ford Escort for his birthday.

Willis says that in written English, the noun phrase would have looked like this:

He has a cousin in Beccles whose boyfriend’s parents bought him….

Willis explains that there are historical reasons for why our grammar rules only describe spoken English and not written English.  Historically, spoken language was almost impossible to analyze and study because it  disappeared into the air as soon as it was spoken.  Up until relatively recently, there were no data banks of spoken language corpus available, and so all the study of language was based off of the written word.

But the irony is that spoken English is actually the default norm of the language, and written English is the exception.  (All languages have spoken forms, but not all of them have written forms.  Plus, all of us are exposed to more spoken English than written English.)

Dave Willis gives a number of ideas for how we can make students more aware of the differences between spoken English and written English.   He also suggests that students should be exposed to examples of natural spoken English.

Connections With Other Books I've Read
Some of the other books I've read in the past have also talked about the huge differences between written and spoken English.

Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct illustrated this same point by referencing the Nixon Watergate transcripts.  (Perhaps because I'm a history nerd, that example has particularly stuck in my mind).
Apparently in the 1970s, when newspapers began printing transcripts from the Watergate tapes, this was the first time most of the American public had been exposed to written transcriptions of spoken English, and most people were very confused by them.  People wondered why Nixon and his aides talked in what appeared to be non-grammatical utterances and sentence fragments.

Scott Thornbury also talks about the differences between spoken and written English in Beyond the Sentence.  
Scott Thornbury makes the point that part of the reason that spoken English contains so many pauses and doesn't have complex clauses is not only for the benefit of the speaker, but also for the benefit of the listener--it's difficult to process too much at one time.
In ESL textbooks, most listening exercises "clean-up" the language and remove all the "errs" and "umms" and ungrammatical sentence fragments.  But Scott Thornbury argues that when we clean up the language too much, we actually make it more difficult for the listener.
For that reason, Scott Thornbury argues that we should make listening exercises that include more natural spoken English.

I suspect this was what a friend of mine was trying to do with this TESOL Films series. although I never asked him directly.  (After I posted one of the videos, someone e-mailed to ask me about all the "err" and "umm" and "you know" in the dialogue.  But I think that leaving the natural spoken English as is was intentional.)

Book Club Stuff
If anyone is interested, I'll post below the material I used for my book club.

1). The Introductory E-mail (XXXX  represents a person's name, which I am deleting for privacy reasons.)
2). Email for the meeting
3). My thoughts on the book (docs, pub)  (I fibbed slightly on this.  I said "I had never thought about the grammar of spoken speech before", when in fact both Pinker and Thornbury had talked about it.  But I thought I'd pretend this was all new to me to put myself on the same level as the other book club members.)
4). Worksheet loosely based on Dave Willis's idea (docs, pub)
5). Discussion Questions for the Meeting (docs, pub)
6). Slideshow for the Bookclub Meeting (slides, pub)  (As with most slideshows, this was mostly visual cues that were supplemented by my verbal explanation.  On the disclaimer slide, this was where I invited people to disagree with me if I was summarizing the book wrong.  Also, on the slideshow I referenced "Some Guy's Website" because I had found these thoughts on someone's website the day before, but couldn't find the link the next day when I was putting together the slideshow.)

1). The Introductory E-mail
A number of people spoke to me briefly over this weekend expressing interest or asking questions.
I should have kept a list, but I'm relying on memory here. If I included your name, and you have no interest, just let me know and I'll take you off the list.

If anyone knows of someone I should have included, but didn't, let me know, and I'll add them.
Just a few notes for people who have questions:

My goal for this book club is to read a book on ELT in its entirety, fully examine the arguments of the authors, and then critically discuss them. (i.e. what do we agree with, what do we disagree with, what are we already doing, what would we like to try to start doing, what is unrealistic or impractical to do in our context, etc.)

We are going to try to stick to the books on the DELTA syllabus, so that people who are interested in doing the DELTA at some point can kill two birds with one stone here. (ie read the book now just for the sake of the book itself, but hopefully have it become useful at some point in the future on the DELTA course).

But these books should (hopefully) also be interesting to people who have no intention of doing the DELTA, and indeed the writers of these individual books did not publish them with the DELTA specifically in mind.

I'm led to believe that most people on the DELTA only skim these books for the necessary information that they need to complete their assignments, but I thought it might be interesting if we read them in full and tried to fully absorb what the author was saying. At least that's what I'm going to be doing. But I hate to be dictatorial about this group. Feel free interact with the book in whatever way is most useful for you--ie if you prefer to just dip in and out of it, and read the parts that interest you, that's perfectly okay too.

For selfish reasons, I'm choosing books that I myself have not read yet, in order to check more books off of my own personal reading list. So this month's book: Rules, Patterns and Words by Dave Willis, I've not read yet and can offer very little guidance in terms of what to expect when reading it.

What little I know about Dave Willis I will summarize below.
Dave Willis, along with Michael Lewis, are known for advancing "The Lexical Approach" in ELT. Michael Lewis is more famous, but Dave Willis supposedly came up with many of the ideas first.
"The Lexical Approach" advocates designing the syllabus around the teaching of vocabulary and lexical phrases instead of around grammatical structures. They advocate it's more useful to teach learners lots of vocabulary and phrases than to drill grammar.

Without having read this book yet, I suspect we might find the ideas advocated in it to be in contrast to the way our textbooks are usually arranged, and it hopefully will have a lot of food for thought and discussion.

Links and things of interest:
Also, XXXX has got me listening to the TEFLology podcast, and they have a couple of relevant episodes if you have time to put a podcast on in the background.
The Lexical Approach is discussed on this episode here:
https://teflology-podcast.com/2015/06/10/episode-26-the-eltons-thomas-prendergast-and-the-lexical-approach/
and Dave Willis is discussed on this episode here:
https://teflology-podcast.com/2015/11/25/episode-35-dogme-on-the-diploma-dave-willis-and-the-lingua-walkout/

2) Email for the meeting
Just a reminder that we're meeting this Wednesday at 1pm.
I know that not everyone has finished the book, but you're still welcome to come if you've only read part of it. (Or skimmed it.)
I only just finished it yesterday myself.
In order to try to jumpstart the discussion, I've written down my thoughts on some aspects of the book on google docs. If anyone else has any thoughts, feel free to chime in with your comments. Otherwise I guess we'll talk on Wednesday.

3). My thoughts on the book


Rules, Patterns and Words by Dave Willis


Readability
How did everyone find this book?
I found the beginning really interesting, and the end really interesting, but I found the middle a hard slog.  
I really liked the beginning.  I thought the tone was personal, and even a bit humorous in places.  I liked the personal anecdotes.  I liked the comment about how the exam writers always tested question tags “for reasons best known only to themselves”.  And I found his comments about how elementary mistakes persist even into advanced levels to be not only interesting, but also very true.
I also really liked the end.  I had never really thought about the grammar of  speech before, and I thought it was very interesting to think about.  How interesting that most of our grammar rules come from written English, and not spoken English, even though speech is so much more common than writing.
I found the middle interesting in the abstract--his point about how lexis determines the grammar of the sentence was something I had never really thought about before.  But in the details I found it hard to stay focused.  My eyes glazed over a lot when I was reading the middle sections, and I really had to struggle to stay focused.
Your thoughts?


The Main Point of the Book
I think I’ve got a bit of a “can’t see the forest for the trees” problem with this book.  I understood each section well enough when I was reading it, but I’m struggling a little bit to tie the whole book together into one theme.  
After finishing the book, I’ve identified 3 things that have stayed in my mind.  (Not necessarily the main points, but just the 3 things that have struck me.)


1). Students can’t be expected to spontaneously produce language upon their first exposure to it.  So this is problematic for PPP style lessons, Instead of the PPP model, Willis is advocating an alternative model of Improvisation, recognition, rehearsal, system building, exploration, consolidation, and then finally spontaneous use.  (Spread out over several lessons).
2) The lexis of the sentence determines the grammar, so we should concentrate on teaching word patterns instead of only teaching verb tenses.
3) Most of the grammar rules we teach apply only to written English, not spoken English.  Students who only learn the grammar rules of written English may have trouble comprehending authentic spoken language, so we  need to expose our students to authentic spoken language more.


How these all tie together I’m not exactly sure.  Do they all tie together?  Did I miss anything?  Your thoughts?


Other Thoughts
(In no particular order, here are some other thoughts, questions, and concerns I have about this book.)


  • It seems like this book is aimed more at textbook writers and curriculum designers than day to day teachers.  How much control do we as teachers have over what the syllabus focuses on?
  • Related to the above point.  I think it is possible to supplement our textbooks with some of the activities Dave Willis suggests if we prepare supplementary materials ourselves.  But how realistic is this to do?
In my own experience, I have a bad habit of being captivated by whatever book I’ve read last.  After reading The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis, I tried to supplement my classes with a lot of lexical and vocab work.  But it was a lot of work trying to design everything, and increased my preparation time by about 30-40 minutes for each class. This added up over the course of a week, and I burned out on it after a few months.  
Unfortunately teaching can be a very high burnout profession, and I think the key to surviving is always trying to find ways to minimize your workload, not increase it.  The easiest thing to do is just to follow the curriculum the way the textbook writers have designed it.  If you spend a lot of time trying to fight the textbook, you’re going to make your job a lot harder.  
In that respect, even though I think there are a lot of good ideas in here, I’m not sure it’s practical for us to implement them.  Your thoughts?


  • Although all that being said, I did actually design one worksheet recently that was kind of inspired by the ideas in this book.  Link here.  I’m not sure if Dave Willis would have approved exactly, but I tried to follow Dave Willis advice of using authentic material, and of trying to have some sort of sorting activity to draw students attention to which words can be followed by the “to infinitive”.


  • I get the impression Dave Willis is writing only about adult students.  I’m not sure there’s anything we can take away from here to use in our children’s classes.  Or am I missing something.  Your thoughts?


  • Another practical problem: in my own experience I find it almost impossible to get students to do homework outside of class.  Even with adult students--Especially with adult students.
I get the impression that much Dave Willis approach is based on the assumption that students are doing a lot of studying outside of the classroom.
For example, one component of his approach is that “ample exposure to spoken and written texts to provide opportunities for learners to explore language for themselves.” (p.215)  But how can we provide ample exposure to the this during only 4 hours a week?  We can encourage students to read outside of class, but in my experience most of them don’t.
Willis also seems to believe that the key to learning is the acquisition of lexis (and recognition of the sentence patterns associated with it).  But I’ve struggled with this in my classes.  It’s easy enough to present students with lexis, but it’s very hard to get it into their long-term memory.  Again, mainly because they just don’t do their homework.  Vocabulary journals are where words go to die, and none of the students do the quizlet practices I make for them.


  • More thoughts on P-P-P.  It seems that Willis’s approach is in contradiction to the PPP approach, because he believes it’s unrealistic to expect students to use a grammar point in spontaneous production in the same lesson they are first exposed to it.
Although one thing I’ve picked up at company workshops (which wasn’t made clear in my CELTA) is that students should not be forced to use the target language during their free production--it should just be a fluency practice in which they can use the target language if they want to, and not use it if they don’t want to.
Have I got that right?  And if so, are most teachers aware of this?  (I’ve talked to at least a couple teachers who felt that their lesson failed because the students couldn’t use the target language correctly in the fluency practice.)


4). Worksheet loosely based on Dave Willis's idea

You Don’t Own Me by Lesley Gore (1964)
Listen to the song and write in the missing phrases.  

You don't own me
I'm not just one of your many toys
You don't own me
Don't say I can't go with other boys
And don't tell me what ________________
Don't tell me what ________________
And please, when I go out with you
Don't put me on display
'cause
You don't own me
Don't try ________________ me in any way
You don't own me
Don't tie me down 'cause I'd never stay
I don't tell you what ________________
I don't tell you what ________________
So just let me be myself
That's all I ask of you
I'm young and I love ________________ young
I'm free and I love ________________ free ________________ my life the way I want, ________________ and do whatever I please
And don't tell me what ________________
Oh, don't tell me what ________________
And please, when I go out with you
Don't put me on display
I don't tell you what ________________
Oh, I don't tell you what ________________
So just let me be myself
That's all I ask of you
I'm young and I love ________________ young
I'm free and I love ________________ free ________________

Can you find these patterns?

tell
person
what
to + inf

















verb
to+ inf





adjective
to+ inf






Answers:

You don't own me
I'm not just one of your many toys
You don't own me
Don't say I can't go with other boys
And don't tell me what to do
Don't tell me what to say
And please, when I go out with you
Don't put me on display
'cause
You don't own me
Don't try to change me in any way
You don't own me
Don't tie me down 'cause I'd never stay
I don't tell you what to say
I don't tell you what to do
So just let me be myself
That's all I ask of you
I'm young and I love to be young
I'm free and I love to be free To live my life the way I want, To say and do whatever I please
And don't tell me what to do
Oh, don't tell me what to say
And please, when I go out with you
Don't put me on display
I don't tell you what to say
Oh, I don't tell you what to do
So just let me be myself
That's all I ask of you
I'm young and I love to be young
I'm free and I love to be free To live

Can you find these patterns?

tell
person
what
to + inf
don’t tell
me
what
to do
don’t tell
me
what
to say
I don’t tell
you
what
to do
I don’t tell
you
what
to do

verb
to+ inf
don’t try
to change
I love
to be

adjective
to+ inf
free
to live
free
to say

(In the line: I'm free and I love to be free To live my life the way I want, To say and do whatever I please, “to live” and “to say” are both related to free)
5). Discussion Questions for the Meeting


  1. On the last page, Willis writes, “It is unlikely that you will agree with everything you have read here.”  What areas do we disagree on?
  2. What do we expect students to do in the final free-production stage of at P-P-P lesson?  Does this conflict with Willis’s views on how language is acquired?
  3. Is it realistic to replace P-P-P with Willis’s system of Improvisation, Recognition, Rehearsal, System Building, Exploration, Consolidation, Spontaneous Use
  4. Does Willis’s system rely on the assumption that students are getting a lot more exposure to English than 4 hours a week? (ie reading and studying on their own outside of class).  If so, how realistic is this of our own students?
  5. Is the grammar of spoken English different than written English?  Do we force our students to speak in an unnatural way when we insist on the grammar of written English?
  6. Is there anything in this book that is relevant to young learners, or is this only for adult students?


Below are several of Willis’s proposals.  For each one, discuss
A). Do you agree or disagree with their pedagogical value?
B). How practical are they to implement in our current teaching context?

  • the texts we use in the classroom should be natural texts rather than texts specifically designed to illustrate a particular grammar point (p.224)
  • learners will be exposed to a range or grammar forms long before any attempt is made to recognise and systematise all of these forms (p.224)
  • learners should have ample exposure to spoken and written texts to provide opportunities for learners to explore language for themselves (p.215)
  • If teachers attempt to control what is learnt, they will certainly fail.  If they take the elimination of learner error as their overwhelming priority, they will certainly fail.  (p.212)
  • There is a strong case for introducing the study of language as part of the subject matter of the classroom, and a principled comparison between L1 and L2 should be part of this discussion (p.210)
  • Learners should be exposed to recordings of natural spontaneous spoken English (p.199)
  • The whole process of learning must be kick-started by the acquisition of lexis.  As lexis is acquired, so it is possible to expose learners to more and more texts, and provide more and more opportunities for exploration. (185)
  • Lexis, rather than grammar, should be the basis of the syllabus (p.184)
  • Learners need to be pushed to improvise beyond their current level of language.  This will make them aware that there are are gaps in their language, which in turn will make them more sensitive to noticing these forms in the input (.21-22)
  • Learning should take place in a task based framework, so that learners will improvise and discover new meanings in a communicative atmosphere (p.222)

6) Slideshow



Video Review

See here, and embedded below.


Link of the Day

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