My IATEFL Glasgow Diary Part 4 – Dave Willis on Grammar

Tuesday, 20th March 2012, Glasgow Conference Centre.



After Adrian Underhill’s plenary, the thousands of TEFLers filtered out of the auditorium towards the different talks.
The first I went to was Dave Willis’s ‘Focus on Grammar: learning processes and teaching strategies’. Dave Willis had come to my IATEFL talk last year on Systemic Functional Grammar and through the Q & A session, it beame obvious that we had similar views on grammar (if I had read his book ‘Rules, Patterns and Words’, I really would have noticed that sooner…what kind of teacher am I?) and the way they are oversimplified and dealt with badly in most ELT coursebooks.

In his 2012 IATEFL talk, Dave Willis highlighted that current pedagogic methodology often focuses on ‘recognition’ but only touches lightly on ‘systems building’ and often even neglects the ‘exploration’ stage of the learning of patterns. With specific reference to the English verb system (tense, aspect, modality), Dave asserts that making contrasts, e.g. between the present continuous and the present simple, can lead to false generalisations. Using examples of the present continuous for daily routines and habits, e.g. ‘We are usually having breakfast around then’, he warns against the overgeneralization of grammar rules that gives rise to students saying ‘English has so many exceptions’.


Another issue contrastive teaching (What is the difference between the past simple and the past continuous?) is that it ignores the major useful generalisations and uses of the aspect, e.g. the interrupted-ness as a feature of all progressive aspects. Other useful generalisations about the progressive aspect might include: something temporary, something new, describing of something changing or developing.


Many coursebooks tend to look at specific tenses, but fail to look at the aspect as a whole. Dave then goes on to recommend that coursebooks start with the present continuous, avoid contrasting it with other tenses, but instead feed in slowly the different features of the aspect.  Here are some useful generalisations of the tense and aspect system.


Present tenses often used to :

Talk about the present and future;

Talk about the past when we are telling a story;


Past tenses often used to:

Talk about the past;

Talk about hypotheses;

Be polite.


Perfective Aspect often used to:

Look back

i.e. present perfect shows how something continued to the present,

past perfect shows how something continued to a particular point in the past.


Although general guidelines are worth giving to students, Dave Willis cautions against offering precise rules and tells us that successful pedagogic grammars are good at constructing examples (clearly contrived ones to boot) that fit the rule of the language they want to have. Instead he suggests that we get students to look at authentic texts and examine the choices made in real contexts, while considering the contextual features that are motivating that choice the speaker/writer makes.


Here is an example of a text that he uses. Notice how there are no correct answers and the options given can all be correct depending on the point of view of the speaker/writer, and the emphasis they want to give the different subjects and themes of the text.

Stating that we need to expose our learners to the different genres of texts in different registers, and get our learners to see how time is talked about with different tenses, Dave provides a viewpoint of language that seems to be continuously echoed throughout the rest of the conference, a viewpoint that I have expounded on in my talk about politeness and pragmatics as well, and that is:


Stop overgeneralizing and offering fake formulae to learners. Instead get them to discuss and notice the patterns of language use.


Raise their awareness of pragmatic/discourse issues and allow them to understand that it all depends on the context and the intentions of the interlocutor.


For more updates on the rest of Day 1 at the IATEFL Conference, watch this space…


…to be continued…

Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

10 thoughts on “My IATEFL Glasgow Diary Part 4 – Dave Willis on Grammar”

  1. A lovely, informative summary. I’m so glad to read this because unfortunately I missed the talk, and Dave Willis always talks such good sense. Having spent most of the afternoon discussing patterns with my C2 level students this really strikes a chord with me 🙂

  2. Dave W rescued me as a new CELTA from the mental confusion of relating Grammar (big G note) to the sort of English I heard, read, spoke, and wrote. Love the man – such good sense!

    1. I do enjoy Dave Willis’s talks on grammar. They are much more in line with the Systemic Functional Grammar approaches that I find myself aligning to.
      It was great to meet you at the conference, Peter!

  3. Very interesting viewpoint, however, while I agree that this is right for serious students of English or highly motivated Anglophiles, MY Israeli high school students beg for rules to help them get through the tasks and exams they need to. It’s no good when I try to have them look at things more analytically, globally, drawing conclusions and learning from extrapolation. Most of them demand a hard-core rule that they can memorize and live by. It doesn’t placate them at all when I tell them that real – live language doesn’t really work that way. 😦

    1. Hi Adele,
      Thanks for your comment.
      Yes, it’s a common gripe by teachers that students simply want the fast and simple rule, albeit generalised, to apply when producing language. And teachers want it too.

      I think it very much depends on the language point and the needs and the level of the students and the amount of time they have in the English class. I have given students very generalised ‘rules’ like, ‘If you are talking about the future, don’t use ‘will’, use ‘to be going to’ and you’ll be safer!’

      But with other language points, e.g. ‘Is ‘could’ the past of ‘can’?’ I would hesitate to overgeneralise. In such cases, I’d much rather show students the different uses in context and get them to notice the patterns of usage, and maybe even formulate some rules of their own. E.g. ‘Could’ has a meaning of remoteness and ‘can’ is ‘nearer’, before exploring the concepts of remoteness through Temporal, psychological, social and hypothetical distance, and always getting students to ‘feel’ the language point through examples and visualisation.

      I find that in this way, they can better produce the language than if they simply understood the rules intellectually.

      Have you experienced teaching language this way too?

  4. Oh shoot! I get lots of complaints about commenting on my blog on Blogger but it seems WordPress isn’t any better – lost my comment when it prompted me to log in. Anyhow, here we go again…

    I liked your report, Chia. I try not to miss Dave Willis’s talks but this time it clashed with so many others and seeing that Ken Lackman is a lexical friend I had to make a choice. I think Sharon above also had to make a choice and go to to Penny Ur’s talk which she summarised very nicely in her blog.

    I agree with Dave Willis’s view (and evidently yours) on grammar and it’s true that coursebooks rarely look at the aspects in general. Cutting Edge Upper-Int comes to mind with a couple of units where they deal with the Perfective and Continuous aspects as a whole (i.e. across all forms).

    On Adele’s comment that her students like hardcore rules, isn’t it one of the notions we as EFL/ESL teachers should try to break up? That over-dependance on artificial and often erroneous rules will not help learners communicate better in English?


    1. Hi Leo,
      Thanks for your comments. Ken Lackman’s talk was one that I really wanted to attend as well. I saw him talk about using Concordances in the classroom at IATEFL Harrogate and to this day, I still use some of those wonderful activities he suggested.

      Dave Willis’s views on grammar never fails to inspire me, and you are absolutely right in saying that we teachers ought to try to debunk the grammar myths that students (and even teachers) seem to have – that the pedagogical be-all-and-end-all rules we find in books like ‘Grammar in Use’ are the gospel truth and that language can that easily be categorised and quantified. After language use often does not happen in isolation but in context and within an interaction – and as we all know, when two or more human beings get together to interact and communicate, things get complicated…hahaha…

      What I’m saying is communication and interaction is dynamic, fluid and ever-changing, and it would be misleading and perhaps not so useful to beguile students into believing that these hard-core artificial rules are in any way linguistically accurate…

      Sounds like we’re both on the same page here… : )


  5. Hi,
    It is paradoxical ,on the one hand, many peopel in ELT complain that grammar teaching is oversimplified and ignores many aspects of grammar rules, and on the other, they expect that this extra information be included in coursebooks causing them to be over-resourced and contain too many facts.

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