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Home » How to Teach English » Error Correction in ESL » Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Language Teaching

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Language Teaching

Although the ESL industry has been around for a long time, it’s still a work in progress.

As research develops, we learn more about what TESOL methods best facilitate language acquisition processes.

However, until now, there’s a teaching practice that tends to hinder the free expression of learners and may hinder fluency development.

It’s a tendency to prescribe language.

Teachers with traditional ideas about TESOL have a habit of telling learners what they should say (prescriptive teaching) instead of showing learners there are multiple ways to say something (descriptive teaching).

This leads to a barrier to student expression in a world of ideas where multiple possibilities for expressing yourself are available.

Today’s blog will present the differences between requiring learners to express themselves using formulaic structures (prescriptive language teaching) and allowing learners greater flexibility in communicating their thoughts (descriptive language teaching).

Possible Effects of Prescriptive Language Teaching on Learners

Consider the possibilities of what happens with language learners when English language classes are managed in a prescriptive manner.

 If a class member is corrected in front of other class members, they may lose face—especially adult learners.

If younger learners may begin to think the only way they can use the language is if it’s correct.

For both ways, the effects are the same: Learners may begin developing apprehension using the language. If that occurs, what’s next? You got it.

They may not want to use the language.

Or, if they do, they’ll be thinking so much about the correct way to express something, that their fluency levels plummet.

Read: Correcting Language Mistakes: Collaborative Learning Strategy

Are You Teaching English as Prescriptively or Descriptively?

Prescriptive language teaching is rooted in the idea that English is a subject to be learned instead of a language used to communicate.

Teachers with a prescriptive mindset tend to stay with fixed patterns and formulas to teach English.

While there’s nothing wrong with structure—it’s fundamental to a language—an over-emphasis on it may cause problems for language learners.

It’s certainly more comfortable for teachers to stick with fixed patterns such as using “going to,” if you’ve already planned to do something, or “will” if you decided to do something at the time of speaking.

But, do people engaged in conversations really examine one another’s speech to that level? Is this knowledge more informative than practical?

And what if a student says,

      • I will go to the mall today.

      • I will be going to the mall today.

      • I am going to the mall today.

      • I’m going to be going to the mall today.

      • I’ll be going to the mall today.

Which is wrong? Which is right? Couldn’t they all be used in a conversation?

As teachers, do we correct our students for saying something different than what we learned, or do we tell them there are multiple ways of saying something?

It’s the difference between prescriptive and descriptive language teaching.

When teaching English, do you favor the rules over opportunities to use the language? Sure, as mentioned, teaching the rules is a lot more comfortable.

We know where we stand, and class members can’t deviate. But we need to challenge ourselves outside our comfort zones for the sake of our class members.

The following points will help you determine if you have more of a prescriptive mindset or a descriptive mindset, followed by ways you can transition from prescriptive to descriptive.

Prescriptive Teaching

        1. Do you have a habit of pouncing on learners’ mistakes or errors in mid-sentence? In other words, even while they’re speaking, you correct them. If so, you may be prescriptive in your approach.
        2. Do you have a habit of requiring learners to use one or two ways of saying things? For example, are they permitted to use only, “I am going” and “I will go” when referring to the future? If yes, you may be prescriptive in your language teaching.
        3. Do you think in terms of right and wrong, correct and incorrect? When your class members fail to use the proper preposition (you believe) in the statement, “on your right,” or “to your right,” do you correct them? If you answered in the affirmative, you may be more of a prescriptive teacher.
        4. Do your class members have a fantastic grasp of language structure and formal vocabulary but are unable to use it fluently in conversation? If yes, you may be a prescriptive teacher.
        5. Do you use words such as, “wrong” and “right,” or “correct” and “incorrect,” or “don’t say it like that” and “say it like this”? You may have a prescriptive teaching approach.

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Effective ESL teaching methods

Descriptive Teaching

When teachers conduct ESL classes as if they’re language classes, a different dynamic takes place.

        1. You encourage class members to use their own words to express themselves while striving to understand exactly what is being said. You help them say what they want to say instead of what you think they should say.
        2. Instead of saying, “wrong,” or, “don’t say it like that, say it like this …,” you say, “I understand what you said, but you can also say it like this …”
        3. You show class members multiple ways of saying the same thing (e.g. I’m going to go to the mall today, I’m going to the mall today, I’ll be going to the mall today, etc.).
        4. Do you view your ESL class as an opportunity for learners to exchange ideas and learn from one another’s English? If you do, you’re showing a descriptive tendency.

If you identify with these points, chances are you have a descriptive way of thinking about teaching ESL.

Encourage natural expression in ESL classroom

How to Transition from Prescriptive to Descriptive Language Teaching

You’ve looked at the ideas above and realized you’re more prescriptive than descriptive in your approach to teaching ESL. No problem! Here are a few tips to overcome the prescriptive mindset.

        1. First, relax! Don’t pounce on every, quote-unquote mistake your learners supposedly “commit.” Gently show them how they can say something better.
        2. Second, instead of saying, “you must say it this way,” try expressing it as: “you can also say it like this,” and provide more grammatical alternatives.
        3. Finally, consider using a variety of expressions. Rather than tell students what they should say, seek to know more deeply what they want to say. Remember, not all cultures are the same. Some people see things differently than you do and may want to express themselves according to their cultural perspectives. Who knows, you may even learn something.

So, which are you? Feel free to share your thoughts with us.

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Error Correction: Examining Underlying Beliefs

Fossilized Error Correction

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