His book ‘The English Verb’ is now thirty-five years old, but it is still one of the most valuable reads for any EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher. Lewis rejects the notion of grammar being about ‘rules and exceptions,’ persuasively arguing that if there are exceptions to the rule, then the rule must be in some way broken (I like how well this chimes in with theories in other domains, such as how Dawkins says that if there were exceptions to the rules governing evolutionary processes, those rules must be wrong and need re-examining).
‘The English Verb’ is not a book about teaching. Instead, it is a book that looks at the underlying semantic meaning of the different verb forms in the English language. Its power lies in that striving for universal meaning and universal applicability — or, as Lewis would have it, The Principle of General Use.
For instance, does will represent the Future Simple in English? This is certainly what many course books would have you believe. Lewis rejects this roundly, demolishing the notion by offering examples of will that do not fit that temporal conception — one being Boys will be boys, which makes no sense whatsoever if you apply the commonly-understood ‘rule’ to the word. No, will is just another modal verb, and acts like the other modal verbs do — and it has a central meaning too, which can be found by examining as many examples of sentences with will as possible.
Or to take another example, does the Present Simple talk only of the present, and the Past Simple only of the past? Not at all. As Lewis remarks many times in the book, “Time is not the same as tense. The importance of this distinction cannot be overstated. Time is an element of our experience of reality. Tense is a purely grammatical idea” (p47).
Though many course book writers do not appear to have taken onboard Lewis’s analysis, there is still hope for EFL teachers — you could read his book, for one thing, and thus arrive at a deeper understanding of the English verb. Or you could complete International House’s Language Awareness Course, written by Alex Tilbury but clearly owing a major debt to Lewis’s writing. You can get a flavour of this course here, in a video I recorded during a recent LAC run at my school, IH Bielsko-Biała. You could also check out the fine work done by Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley at the Lexical Lab.
But this piece is not to examine those semantic underpinnings of the English verb system — to do so would take too long to do properly, and since Lewis’s book runs to under two hundred pages, the best option would be to get hold of a copy and read it.
Because it is a remarkably readable book.
It also contains much that is wise and useful for EFL teachers to consider — despite Lewis’s protestations that he had not set out to write a book about teaching.
Lewis takes the reader on a journey; he does not declare all of his points up-front, but rather arrives at the principle points only when he feels he has convinced his reader of their truthfulness and value. This foundational point, this pedagogical approach, also provides a touchstone throughout the book.
Is English grammar difficult? Superficially, maybe…
But providing a relaxed approach is taken by the teacher, so students do not feel they should understand immediately, there is nothing frightening about [the important grammar points]. (p12)
Before attempting to teach English grammar, the teacher must get the idea straight in their own mind and then…
Set out to encourage in their students the idea that the big, underlying problems of English are understandable, discoverable, not impossible to understand, and, above all, not intimidating, but fun to explore. (p13)
These might seem like lofty goals — make grammar fun to explore? Don’t worry if students don’t understand immediately? — but they work if you set out to make them work. And Lewis shows you how — he offers a number of approaches to teaching grammar, approaches that we might now label Guided Discovery, where the emphasis is not on explanation but on exploration.
This, indeed, could be considered the central teaching point within the whole book, and both opens and closes the text:
Teachers often feel that ‘explaining grammar’ is an important part of their job […] Much more useful is for teachers to find good questions to ask students about examples, so that students may discover for themselves. (p18)
If this is a gentle broaching of the topic, then by the end of the book Lewis has roundly demolished the idea of ‘basic explanations’:
All too often teachers explain to save time. It is very doubtful how much time is saved. First, it is necessary that the teacher’s explanation is accurate. Secondly, and much more importantly, it does not follow that because the teacher has explained clearly, the students have understood. If they have not understood, no time has been saved at all. Instead, a problem has been stored up for later, students have been confused or intimidated, and the whole process of language learning made more difficult. (p178)
It is worth dwelling on the difference between these two quotes. Lewis is certainly wise in how he approaches his task — he starts softly, offering a mild warning near the start of the book, mild enough that it will not put off the prospective reader. But by the time the reader has spent a number of hours in Lewis’s company, they are ready for the starker warning.
This warning will be familiar to EFL teachers who have completed their CELTA — I still remember the tutor writing ‘Teaching ≠ Learning’ on the whiteboard on day one — and it is a warning that has echoed through the history of EFL teaching. If you want another example of this warning writ large, you need look no further than Truscott’s seminal ‘The Case Against Grammar Correction in L2 Writing Classes’ (1996).
As with so much else in learning — Lewis compares the way languages are taught with how we might learn about science, through hypothesis and experimentation — discovery is key, and so too is allowing students the chance to discover for themselves.
All learning theory suggests that those things we discover for ourselves are more firmly fixed in our minds than those we are told. (p165)
Any teacher, like myself, who reads ‘The English Verb,’ will feel that they owe Michael Lewis a debt. This debt can easily be repaid — we can adapt our teaching so that it better follows Lewis’s suggestions, and if we do so, we will ‘pay it forward’ to our students, who surely will gain more from our lessons than if we stick with ‘rules and exceptions’ based grammar explanations, or if we think that those explanations, in isolation, will ever be sufficient to help our students learn.