Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dave Willis: Rules, Patterns and Words

Dave Willis (2003) Rules, Patterns and Words - Grammar and Lexis in English Language Teaching (Cambridge University Press)

In case you missed it, the last 20 years has seen a debate raging about the relative value of grammar and vocabulary in language teaching. Some say you can make sense with the right vocabulary and no grammar in a foreign language better than you can make sense with the right grammar and no vocabulary. To assume that you can have one without the other is, of course, nonsense, but to assume that patterns can only be found in grammar is also denying learners the chance to start creating their own meanings.

What we need is someone who can keep the new clean baby, whilst throwing out the dirty old bathwater. If an over-emphasis on verb-based grammar (derived from 40-year old morphology studies) is the bathwater and the generative power of lexical patterns is the baby, then Dave Willis is our man. Like any good teacher, Willis is not really interested in the debate itself. What he wants to know is: How will it help us as language teachers, and how will it help language learners?

So what right does Dave Willis have to tell us language teachers that we need to look at language more from the lexical side of things than we have in the past? Dave Willis was a language teacher for many years, he worked with the COBUILD team from very early on, had access to most of the new ideas that were being produced from that research and then produced (with Jane Willis) the first language course to be based on a lexical rather than a grammatical description - the COBUILD English Language Course (which, incidentally, was also the first to use a task-based methodology throughout). Pretty good credentials, if you ask me.

But does this book rest on what was? No. This is an entirely new approach - a new thesis that moves us beyond Willis' 'The Lexical Syllabus' (click to access downloadable version) and into a much more classroom-friendly approach, but does not ignore the traditional calls for some grammar teaching. The book not only offers a fresh description of language for language teachers, it is also full of sensible ways to pass on these ideas to students and help them with the task of language learning.

It is extremely rare for me to read an EFL book from cover to cover, but I could not put this one down. It reads well, and should sound true to most language teachers. If you want to find out how best to help language learners deal with grammar and lexis, look no further than this book.

This is another lazy cut and paste from my site.
You can learn more about Dave (and Jane) Willis at

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