Prescriptivism in the classroom

Boudewijn Steenhof, another student in my Testing Prescriptivism course, is a teacher, and combines his two interests in the post below.

From my perspective, the course Testing Prescriptivism I’m following this semester has an extra layer. Being a teacher, it’s my job to prescribe the rules of the English language to my students. Or isn’t it? What good does learning the exact grammar rules do when our – i.e. the teachers’ – ultimate goal is to prepare the students for the scary English-speaking world?

From my own L2-education in English, I most vividly remember learning the rules for verbs, adjectives and adverbs by heart. What is allowed where? What is not allowed somewhere else? There wasn’t a lot of time in class for speaking, discussion and role-playing for situations we could encounter in the real world. The exact opposite was the case when I did a course in education at Sydney University. My German peer and I ended up explaining concepts like the present progressive and how to use it to the Australian native speakers in our class, because the latter had never learnt these rules and concepts at school.

The discussion on how to incorporate grammar in high schools is all but new. For decades, educationalists, teachers and other interested parties have been debating about whether grammar discussions should take up most of the time allocated for learning English or not. In my opinion, it shouldn’t. Prescriptivism is a very useful trade, especially to prepare for things such as writing formal letters or preparing important business meetings. However, this should not be the most important thing students learn in the classroom. Luckily, a lot of ‘modern’ instruction books, such as English in Mind, aren’t focusing just on prescribing the grammar rules, but use a more descriptive method of training the students’ knowledge of the English language. It uses stories and comics, for instance, in which students are asked to point out certain grammatical treats, such as being asked to describe the language used. This seems to be a natural way of learning the language and it almost always results in a positive attitude towards English grammar from the students. I find that Teaching Prescriptivism provides me with a new context and perspective on grammar in the classroom, and my opinion on this topic seems to be backed up by the content in the classes. Therefore, I hope to incorporate more content from this course in my lessons at school.

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