Deductive vs. inductive teaching


I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.

attributed to Confucius (551–479? bc)

The above-mentioned criteria for creditable PG rules are particularly relevant to deductive (rule-driven, top-down) teaching, which leads from an explicit presentation of metalinguistic information, the provision of a set of abstractions, isolated language rules at autonomous levels of description subsequently accompanied by model sentences, to their application to concrete L2 representations and practice tasks only after the clarification has been studied and digested (Komorowska 1993:120). This technique simply means providing learners with the ready grammar rule, describing en détail how the new structure is formed, what its components are, and in what type of context it can be used. All the information is given in the form of a mini-lecture, during which the teacher usually employs grammatical terminology. After the explanation, the learners are provided with examples illustrating the new structure, which they analyse, and are subsequently asked to apply the rule to new sentences. They are typically expected to memorise the rule (and relevant ‘exceptions’). This form of teaching offers a clear clarification of new language items, which makes the learning task easier and less intimidating and is time-effective, leaving more time for practising the new structures. Among other advantages,

It gets straight to the point, and therefore can be time-saving.
It respects the intelligence and maturity of many – especially adult – students and acknowledges the role of cognitive processes in language acquisition. …
It confirms many students’ expectations about classroom learning.
(Thornbury 1999:30)

This type of teaching is prevalent in the majority of traditional educational institutions.[1]

The teacher may, however, also go for inductive (Socratic, rule-discovery, bottom-up) teaching, rejecting the idea of giving the learners a ready-made rule. Rather than explicitly telling them off the bat what the rule is, s/he may supply them with carefully selected intelligible linguistic data in context, usually in the form of a text illustrating the use of the particular grammatical structure. The learners’ mission in this guided discovery technique with properly devised questions is to try, on the basis of the model, to arrive at some generalisation that accounts for the underlying regularities in the data and to formulate their own explanation of the rules governing the material presented. The elicited students’ rules will then, if necessary, be amended and corrected by the teacher, and the language structure practised.[2] Following Stern (1992:150), we can represent the deductive and inductive sequences schematically in the following way:[3]

deductive approach:                      General rule → Specific examples → Practice

inductive approach:                        Specific examples → Practice → General rule

Figure 1: The deductive and inductive approaches (modified after Stern 1992:150)

The inductive approach, instead of basing on a teacher-fronted transmission-style classroom, is student-centred and allows learners to become deeply involved in the language they are studying and offers potential for reflection. In the process of experiential learning (learning-and-doing) they feel more important, are less passive, and do not get bored so easily during the lesson. Therefore, the inductive technique can render great service to teachers who have problems with keeping their students disciplined, concentrated and occupied, as it partly obviates these problems. Knowing that they can work out the rules from examples by themselves greatly increases learners’ motivation, makes them attentive, more actively involved in—and confident and enthusiastic about—the learning process rather than simply passive recipients, and at the same time contributes to its effectiveness. Learning a language in the proposed framework affords opportunities for cognitive development, a sense of success, achievement, and progress, which all learners need in order to preserve motivation. The inductive method has the obvious advantage that what the learners discover themselves, they are more likely to remember; a principle expressed in the words of Blaise Pascal (1623-62): “People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they themselves have discovered than by those which have come into the minds of others.” Brudnik et al. (2000) note that students generally remember approximately 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they hear and see, 70% of what they say, and 90% of what they do by themselves – just as the best way to learn to cook well is not merely to observe an expert chef in a culinary show, but to prepare meals following his/her instructions. This premise was succinctly reflected in the wise words of Benjamin Franklin (1706-90):

Tell me and I forget,
Teach me and I remember,
Involve me and I learn.

which are a development of the saying attributed to Confucius (551-479? BC), quoted as the motto to this section. Moreover, the inductive technique also enables learners to interact in the TL whilst learning about it.

Learners can improve their learning when they are aware of what they are doing, how they are doing it, and what possibilities are available to them. Once students’ attention is drawn to expressing meaning in a particular way and they are sensitised to the possibilities, they will be able to acquire the necessary grammar of the language in an easier manner. Discovery techniques can make grammar lessons enjoyable. Moreover, owing to the application of such an approach, the learners are encouraged to analyse the language and discover rules for themselves even outside of the classroom. Due to the work with language data students become more attentive to the TL in general. Inductive learning develops the capacity to discern patterns and regularities in naturally occurring input, hence being good preparation for independent study. It is a Socratic method making learners exploit their cognitive abilities, which will help them notice the structure. It makes the student a more successful language learner “who is constantly looking for patterns in the language. He attends to the form in a particular way constantly analyzing, categorizing and synthesizing. He is constantly trying to find schemes for classifying information” (Woods 1995:77). A language course should prepare students to become effective and independent language learners. “Working things out for themselves prepares students for greater self-reliance and is therefore conductive to learner autonomy” and further self-directed learning (Thornbury 1999:54). Thus, a successful FL grammar should not be a metalinguistic artefact, but a puzzle. The inductive approach is particularly attuned for learners who like pattern-recognition and problem-solving challenge. Discovery learning raises language awareness in the learners and contributes to their better understanding of grammar.

Yet, like any other,[4] the inductive method should be employed wisely and sparingly, restricted only to rules that can be perceived and defined quickly; otherwise a lot of valuable class time can be wasted on futile and frustrating guessing (Ur 1996:83). When a difficult grammar area is to be presented or when the teacher is short of time, the inductive approach is more suitable. It is direct, gets straight to the point, and can therefore be very time-saving and efficient. “Many rules – especially rules of form – can be more simply and quickly explained than elicited from examples. This will allow more time for practice and application” (Thornbury 1999:30). “The time taken to work out a rule may be at the expense of time spent in putting the rule to some sort of productive practice … many language areas such as aspect and modality resist easy rule formulation” (ibid.:54f.). Thus, in order to avoid ambiguity and confusion that can creep in during the elicitation of certain grammar rules from examples, it is often undoubtedly better to go for deductive teaching. The inductive method may leave the student at a loss and cause frustration when the learner is not sure whether s/he has taken the right path of thought, if s/he is correct in his/her findings and conclusions about the new structures s/he is discovering. “Students may hypothesise a wrong rule, or their version of the rule may be either too broad or too narrow in its application” (ibid.:54). It may be difficult to discover form-function relationships without explicit cues; learners feel more secure knowing that their hypotheses about grammar will be carefully monitored during a controlled practice stage. Moreover, experience suggests that some balance must be maintained so as not to discourage students from learning and to avoid monotony in the classroom. Although Lewis recommends a shift from the teacher’s explanation to the student’s exploration where learners “write their own grammar rules” (1993:149), which is believed to lead to acquisition rather than learning of grammar (ibid.:150f.), this carries the danger that incorrectly formed rules will fossilise. While the inductive method is believed to be successful in arriving at rules governing ‘fuzzy’ areas of grammar, the deductive method benefits the presentation of ‘rules of thumb’ which identify some grammar prototype (Leech 1994:28), and it may produce more durable gains in knowledge. Furthermore, “[t]he time and energy spent in working out rules may mislead students into believing that rules are the objective of language learning, rather than a means” (Thornbury 1999:54). The inductive approach also places heavy demands on teachers planning a lesson. “They need to select and organise the data carefully so as to guide learners to an accurate formulation or the rule,” whilst also ensuring intelligibility of the data (ibid.:55).

Thus, one factor which should impact the choice between an inductive and deductive method is the kind of item being taught: some grammar areas seem to lend themselves to a deductive treatment, others to an inductive one. Another factor is the learner himself/herself: a C-R task may not suit all learners. Some prefer receiving a clearly laid-down authoritarian rule to discovering the intricacies of the FL by themselves. It is especially true for beginners, who lack sufficient TL knowledge to interact in the language whilst talking about it, and young learners, who may not be interested in the conscious study of the language and whose cognitive abilities are relatively undeveloped. Leech (1994:18) points out that inductive learning, especially in the less advanced stages of language development, is implicit, while the deductive method is more fitted to explicit learning of grammar. The deductive approach confirms many students’ expectations pertaining to classroom learning (cf. Section 2.2.14). There is a place for explaining, not constantly ordering pupils to find out for themselves. “An inductive approach frustrates students who, by dint of their personal learning style or their past learning experience (or both), would prefer simply to be told the rule” (Thornbury 1999:55). It is also conceivable that reliance on learner acquisition undercuts the position of the teacher, or even the syllabus per se. It is suggested that the inductive approach may cater and be more effective for holistic learners, who learn best by exposure to language in meaningful contexts, but not analytic ones, who form and test hypotheses and extract rules from examples. The deductive approach is “particularly appropriate for adult learners whose learning style and expectations predispose them to a more analytical and reflective approach to language learning” (ibid.:38). Moreover, the deductive approach seems to bring results tout de suite as the learners can see their progress when they become able to use new structures. In addition, Leech draws a distinction between receptive and productive skills, believing that “[r]eceptive skills (listening, reading) are more directly under the control of inductive learning,” while “[p]roductive skills (speaking, writing) are more likely to be aided by deductive learning” (1994:22). Therefore, when using language productively in speaking or writing, we need explicit presentation of grammar rules. One more point may be added, namely that the deductive approach allows the teacher to deal with immediate grammar issues on the go, rather than having to anticipate and prepare for them in advance (Thornbury 1999:30).

For these reasons C-R activities should not replace traditional grammar teaching, but rather be employed in conjunction with grammar-oriented language training. To recapitulate, both deductive and inductive presentation can be useful depending on the cognitive style of the learner and the structure to be presented. Additionally, learners’ preferences must be taken into consideration. Rather than being wedded to one approach, the most profitable strategy may be an eclectic one combine both methods. Woods (1995:72) suggests that the teacher should seek out tasks which combine communicative features of interaction (to cater for holistic learners) with the opportunity to analyse what is going on within the language (for analytic learners). Students do best in classes wherein the teacher varies the approach in order to accommodate all learning styles.

To be able to employ the awareness/consciousness-raising approach implies that the teacher’s knowledge of the TL be explicit (even if initially acquired subconsciously). Intuitive implicit knowledge that native speakers possess will not do the trick.

source: Paradowski, Michał B. (2007) Exploring the L1/L2 Interface. A Study of Polish Advanced EFL Learners. Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw, pp. 110–14.

[1] I would not necessarily agree here with Dakowska’s (2005:28f.) statement to the effect that “we must recognize the irony of the explicit presentation of the rule: the learner ends up with what he or she has been taught, that is information about language, expressed as a sentence explaining some principle which governs the use of a given form. Technically, this is an observation, a thought expressing a regularity in the grammatical system, but not the ability to behave communicatively according to this observation.” This need in no way be ironic, as the presentation of a rule is rarely an end in itself (as opposed to e.g. the study of Latin may be), and communication—for most L2 users—requires the conscious or proceduralised application of the underlying principles, the prerequisite for any act of comprehension or production in the FL (cf. Section 1.7).
[2] This progress from concrete, specific representations to the abstract language system is what happens in naturalistic acquisition.
[3] Lewis (1993) proposes an alternative observing-hypothesising-experimenting paradigm.
[4] Μέτρον ἄριστον [Moderation is the best thing], in the words of philosopher Cleobulus of Lindos (6th c. BC), or, as the inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delhi ran, Μηδὲν ἄγαν [Nothing in excess].