Yes, this is another post about why English teachers are wrong.
Don’t misunderstand me: lots of English teachers are great. Especially more modern ones that use methods more commonly understood to be effective.
I’m an English teacher and I’ve worked with lots of English teachers.
Lots of us are fantastic.
But I also know that many of my clients had bad experiences with the English teachers, especially in school.
These teachers may have focused exclusively on reading and writing exercises, emphasising complex grammar rules and older vocabulary that we don’t actually use. They may have taught you that the only response to the question, “how are you?” is “I’m fine, how are you?” and stressed learning the difference between “who” and “whom” (spoiler alert—the difference doesn’t really matter).
They may have taught you that you needed a teacher like them to learn English.
I see my clients develop all sorts of misconceptions about learning English that they got from their teachers.
So I want to set the record straight.
Here are some of the most common lies that English teachers tell their students—either explicitly or through the methods they use—and why they’re wrong.
1. You should learn English only from a textbook
If you learned English in a school classroom, your teacher probably emphasised reading and writing, and you spent most of your time with your nose in a textbook.
This is the classic language teacher’s playbook: give a reading and a worksheet. Students work quietly, alone, fill in the blanks, and eventually, learn to speak English fluently.
Except that’s not really how it works. Students know it, and teachers know it.
In reality, you need to use all the language skills.
After all, most of us want to end up having actual conversations one day. That requires understanding spoken English and producing it ourselves.
The truth is that, while input is essential to learning English, you need much more than just a textbook. In a world where it is so easy to find interesting English resources, from podcasts to films, audiobooks to Netflix series, watch out for teachers who are too attached to their textbooks.
The takeaway: Sure, use a textbook if you like, but don’t let that be your only contact with English. You need to use it in context, too. Make sure you’re listening to English and make sure you’re speaking English—even if it’s just by yourself.
2. Grammar is most important
English teachers love grammar.
I think the reason is that it’s the closest we get in language learning to be able to say that this is “right” and that is “wrong”. Teachers have to assign grades so they have to be able to evaluate students using numbers. Grammar exercises are great for that.
And grammar is part of language. You won’t be understood by others unless you speak reasonably accurately.
But the fact is that you don’t need perfect grammar to be understood most of the time.
And you don’t need complex grammar, either. I’d estimate that 95% of your communication can be accomplished with the simplest grammar forms.
You don’t need to know the difference between the past perfect and the past perfect continuous to have English friends or to interact with your Australian clients. And you certainly don’t need to know the difference between “who” and “whom” (just say “who”—it’s less pretentious).
In my view, there’s a cost to over-focusing on learning grammar. Just learning grammar teaches you to score well on tests, not to communicate in the real world.
And you don’t need to memorise conjugations to learn grammar. We learn grammar in a bunch of ways, including through listening activities, through reading, and more.
The takeaway: Don’t over-focus on grammar. Focus on using English—listening to it, reading it, speaking it, and writing it—and the grammar will come.
3. English classes are the only way to learn
There are a lot of English schools and tutors out there. And while lots of them are good, they also depend on English students feeling like they need help to learn English.
Now, some people really do benefit from English classes.
But most people can probably make an independent English-learning plan and be just as effective, if not more so.
But there’s a lot of people who learn languages very successfully on their own.
The takeaway: You can learn English independently, without the structure of a classroom or a tutor. Lots of people successfully teach themselves languages, and you can too.
4. English materials don’t need to be interesting
Perhaps this isn’t quite a “lie”, but it is a consistent implicit message from many English teachers: English materials don’t need to be interesting.
I’m not sure why language learning materials are uninteresting so much of the time. It’s not that hard to take interesting material and simply put it in less complex language.
But English teachers seem to insist on the same tired old material.
There is better stuff out there—more interesting material that draws you in and makes using English a pleasure.
Enjoying using English is critical. When you do activities that you actually enjoy, you’ll actually pay attention to them. You’ll continue to come back to them even if they’re a little challenging. You’ll find that you want to keep learning and engaging with English.
And you’ll learn much more quickly.
“To make sure that language acquirers pay attention to the input, it should be interesting. But interest may be not enough for optimal language acquisition. It may be the case that input needs to be not just interesting but compelling.”
So find materials and activities that delight and stimulate you.
We’ve created resources for interesting materials for each of the language skills. Check these out if you need some inspiration:
- English speaking activities
- English listening activities
- English reading activities
- English writing activities
The takeaway: Don’t settle for boring materials. Find materials that fascinate you. You’ll find it much easier to motivate yourself, and much easier to remember what you’re learning if you’re actually interested in the subject.
5. Your pronunciation has to be perfect
One of my personal pet peeves is when English teachers over-correct pronunciation.
I heard this in an English podcast recently. The two hosts of the podcast are an American man and a Brazilian woman. The Brazilian woman said a word in English—I forget now which—and the man corrected her pronunciation. He repeated the word how he thought she should say it.
She tried to mimic him, but he still wasn’t satisfied and he corrected her again. That happened twice more before he gave up.
The thing is that even as a native English speaker I actually couldn’t hear the difference between her pronunciation and what he wanted. It was so slight that it wasn’t noticeable to me.
It bothered me for two reasons.
The first is that it reflects the view that his accent is “right” and that if hers isn’t the exact same, it is “wrong”. In my opinion, that view fails to appreciate the rich diversity that there is in how English is spoken throughout the world, and neglects the differences between American, British and Australian accents.
And, I mean, if anyone’s accent is “right” it’s mine, isn’t it? (Kidding.)
But the second reason I found it hard to listen to is that when English teachers do that—when they correct their students on such small things that don’t matter—they frustrate students. Especially when the student can’t fix it, like this woman: she didn’t know (and neither did I) what she was doing that he didn’t like.
Students that can’t see their own mistakes may stop enjoying English because it feels mysterious and impossible.
The truth is that there isn’t a “correct” way to speak English or a “right” accent. Instead, there is pronunciation that others understand, and pronunciation that they don’t understand. Your job is to get close enough to something they will understand.
The takeaway: Work on your pronunciation until others can understand you. But don’t over-focus on “proper” pronunciation or try to have the “perfect” accent. There’s no such thing.
6. You need to choose an accent
This is a related—but distinct—issue: sometimes teachers say that you must choose which accent you’re going to learn: Australian, British, American, and so on. They frame it almost as if these are all separate languages.
Of course, it’s true that accents really are different from each other. They differ not just in pronunciation, but also in rhythm, prosody, vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, and even in the kinds of grammatical structures that are used most frequently.
But the fact is that once you speak one “kind” of English, you speak English. You can use that same language with people from any other English-speaking country or region.
Sure, there might be some words you’re not familiar with. You might get confused when a Brit refers to a “biscuit” if you’re used to hearing it called a “cookie”. (But that actually doesn’t make you different from lots of English-speaking Americans.)
In fact, you probably should listen to many different accents.
You’ll have a richer experience if you become familiar with a variety of accents in English.
You’ll develop a more flexible ear and a larger vocabulary. And you’ll be able to more easily interact with more people—including other English learners.
The takeaway: There’s nothing wrong with focusing on learning from just one accent, especially at the beginning. It might be easier. But you shouldn’t limit yourself to just one forever—you can get familiar with a number of accents throughout your English learning journey.
Learning English has changed since you went to school
You might have had a great experience in school with a wonderful English teacher.
But you might not have.
You might have had a teacher that told you some version of the lies above: that you have to learn English from a textbook, that grammar is more important than everything else, that your accent has to be perfect, and more.
Those views still exist in some teachers. But, fortunately, we’re moving away from them.
Don’t get trapped up in these simplistic views of learning English.
It really can be fun, it can be interactive, and you don’t have to be perfect.
You can do it in a variety of different ways, enjoying the process, and learning a bunch of other things as you go.
Krashen, S. (2011). The compelling (not just interesting) input hypothesis.The English Connection, 15(3), 1.