Monthly Archives: May, 2012

In praise of non-native speaker teachers part Two: localising lexis

Here’s the second of what I’m hoping will be five short posts in praise of non-native speaker teachers. Following on from some of the comments on the first post I did here, I should make it clear that in a sense I’m talking about the IDEAL of a non-native speaker teacher here in many ways. What I’m interested in trying to capture is what I think NNSTs are capable of, what it is they can do in monolingual contexts that natives would find nigh-on impossible, and what best practice might involve in a predominantly L1-oriented situation.

Today I’d like to suggest that non-natives working in their own countries of origin teaching students they share a nationality with have a definite advantage when it comes to explaining and exemplifying new language as they will now far more about both the macro-culture of the country in which they work as a whole as well as about the many micro-cultural worlds their students reside in. This knowledge can – and should – be used to hang new language onto. Just as knowing about Japan helps me explain what right-wing means to a student from Nagasaki through reference to the ultra-right uyoku groups there and knowing about Hikikomori – Japanese kids who become bedroom recluses in their teens – helps me explain what a recluse means, so NNSTs can refer to local cultural phenomenon, characters, events, TV shows, musicians and trends to help their students find English more memorable. What this does is filter the classroom material – whether it be a local or global coursebook or some other kind of material brought into the class – through a local perspective, thus making the language more real to the learners and rooting it in realities closer to their own.

I’ll give you a more concrete example of how I have rooted my own classroom practice in my students’ shared reality of London to show you what I mean.

I was recently teaching an Advanced class and in the midst of a listening (from Innovations Advanced, as it happens) about tourism in Estonia was the sentence:

The food still leaves a bit to be desired – it tended to be quite stodgy and there wasn’t a huge amount of choice, but otherwise, I certainly had nothing to complain about.

Students asked about desired. I explained that if something leaves a bit to be desired, it’s a polite, mildly humorous way of saying it could be better, it’s not as good as you’d like it to be or as it should be. Given that we were in the middle of the worst and wettest April in living memory, I then added that the English weather leaves a bitor leaves somethingto be desired – a locally pertinent example!

The previous day we’d looked at the word bully, and two of my students had given me written homeworks to correct overnight, which I hadn’t yet given them back, so I then – in a mock dramatic way – explained that if I was a bit of a bully, I’d throw the essays back at the students saying Their writing left a lot to be desired – an example connected to the micro-culture of the class itself.

Once the explanations have been given, and the meanings have hopefully been grasped, the next way in which we can facilitate some kind of connection with the language is through our boardwork. I wrote up on the board the following examples:

The food there                                        a bit     

The weather here             leaves         something          to be desired.

Your writing                                          a lot

Once the explanation and the examples have been given, the way to encourage personalization is to ask students to think of other things that maybe leave a bit to be desired. For this group, multi-lingual students studying in England, I asked them to think of things about London / England and also things about their hometown / their own countries that fit the pattern above.  I gave the group a minute or two thinking time on their own and then asked them to compare and explain their ideas in small groups. As they talked, I walked around and picked up on things they were trying to say, but didn’t quite have the language to do so – and used this as further input.

After two or three minutes, I stopped the group and drew their attention to the board, where we had the following:

Public transport here leaves a lot to be desired. The trains are a……….! Half of them are falling to ………… . Plus, it’s a r…..-…..! The cheapest tube ……… is four pounds!

 The media back home leaves a bit to be desired. We like to pretend it’s free and ob…………., but we all know there’s still a lot of c………… and certain things are t………. / off-l……… .

 To elicit the missing words, I basically re-told the stories I had heard students telling, paraphrasing their words and explaining the words in the gaps as I did so.

You might be thinking that this all seems a bit long-winded and will result in a lot of boardwork and a lot of time spent waiting for students to write things down. Well, obviously this WILL be slightly more time-consuming than simply writing up to leave s/thg to be desired on the board, but I’d argue that it’s time well spent. The longer examples make the meaning clearer, they allow interaction with the class – and this means recycling of grammar and vocab comes built-in to each and every class – and crucially they mean that what students then go away with written in their notebooks becomes a kind of record of the way the class manage to negotiate the content of the coursebook. As such, these examples are hopefully more relevant – and thus potentially more memorable – to students than the language found in the coursebooks themselves.

This way of rooting vocabulary in the realities of the class and local cultures also makes it easier when students forget things. Should anyone in the class, on later encountering this piece of lexis again, have forgotten it and need to ask what it means, I can simply say “You remember what we were saying about London transport? Or about Aziz’s writing last week?” Job done.

Now, if I can do this using my students’ generally fairly shaky knowledge and understanding of London and the UK, how much more effectively might a non-native speaker teacher steeped in the world of their students be able to manage this in a non-English speaking country?

 

 

 

 

 

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The Open English advert debacle: In praise of non-native speaker teachers Part One

Over the last couple of weeks, some of you may have encountered an advert by a relatively new online school based in Brazil called Open English. The advert became semi-viral among many in the ELT community thanks to facebook and Twitter and this sweeping sense of outrage seems to have its intended effect as it’s now been removed from YouTube and I couldn’t find a copy anywhere on the web. For those of you that didn’t manage to see the advert in its true horror, the dialogue runs like this:

These two want to speak English. One of them goes to a traditional school, the other one studies at OpenEnglish. One of them studies with the same textbook his mother studied with, the other one studies online with multimedia lessons. One has classes with Joana (a Brazilian teacher who’s shown to be dumpy and fairly unattractive – and is also, more fatally,  miming a chicken and generally epitomizing a total lack of cool whilst singing “the book is on the table”), the other one has classes with Jenny (who just happens to be a stereotypically ‘hot’ Californian blonde!), who ends the ad by turning seductively to the camera and asking “How about you? What is your choice?”

Quite rightly this ad caused a real stink in Brazil, with even the president of BrazTESOL penning a few critical words on the matter. All of this is well and good and shows the power of the Web at its best. What’s depressingly predictable, though, is the fact that this kind of trash not only still gets made and aired, but still (presumably) sells courses by tapping into age-old prejudices and myths. Whilst to any sane reader, this whole artificial dichotomy seems nonsensical, and we all know that a good teacher is a good teacher, regardless of where they happened to grow up or learn their English, it nevertheless remains a fact of life that there are unscrupulous folk out there making money out of these myths, and that there are also – sadly – both natives and non-natives that buy into such rubbish.

Whilst it’s easy to insist that good teaching is good teaching, I think that the reality is actually slightly more complex that this – and there that are, in fact, several important things that non-natives can do which native-speaker teachers find either impossible or else nigh-on! If we are to finally kill off these kinds of perpetuations of prejudices, then perhaps we need to be rather more appreciative of what it is that the non-native can offer students, and especially monolingual students they share the same L1 with (lest we forget, of course, this is the way the vast majority of EFL classes around the globe are delivered). What I intend to do over the next few posts here is to sing the praises of the non-native speaker teacher and to explore in slightly more depth exactly what these abilities might be.

Before I begin, though, I should make it clear that simply because non-natives CAN do these things, it obviously doesn’t mean that every non-native IS doing them. As such, my aims here are threefold: to highlight excellent practice that non-natives do – or else could – take advantage of; to heighten native speaker teachers’ awareness of these advantages and then to hopefully do my little bit towards ensuring no more NNSTs ever have to be as insulted again as I know they have been by the OpenEnglish advert!

As you all know, there remains in the ELT world a lot of prejudice against NNSTs. All too often, parental expectations lead to a demand for native speakers; this has a knock-on effect on school employment policies, which in turn affects the relative earning power of native and non-natives speaker teachers. Then there is the thorny issue of what qualifications are necessary before one can start teaching. I myself benefited from this mad disparity by flying off to Asia at the tender age of 23, armed only with a CTEFLA certificate following a 4-week course, but officially ready and able to earn many times more than my local counterparts, despite the fact most of them possessed both degrees and Master’s in English and English-language Teaching. In many countries I have visited, a system of semi-apartheid operates, whereby native speakers get the plum fluency and conversation classes, whilst NNSTs are relegated to bilingual grammar lessons. Fairly understandably, as a result of all this obvious bias, many NNSTs end up with an inferiority complex – and, sadly, many native-speakers end up with the opposite! This series of posts will hopefully start to redress this imbalance.

So here goes . . . the first great advantage that I believe non-natives have over their native colleagues is the fact that NNSTS are actually far better – and more realistic – aspirational models of English than natives could ever be! EFL students can possibly aspire to becoming their non-native teacher – a very fluent, articulate speaker of English as a foreign language, able to talk to a wide range of friends and colleagues – by no means just native-speakers, but also Greeks, Germans and so on. However, short of reincarnation, they can NEVER become me – or any other native speaker teacher! Even if I have learned the students’ L1, which does obviously help to set a good role model for them as language learners, it’s still not quite the same as vice versa. Non-native speaker status inevitably means that teachers have actually LEARNED English – as opposed to having just picked it up through fluke of birth. NNSTs also speak their own L1 and are thus far more aware than I could ever be of the kinds of problems – both lexical and grammatical – that students who share their own L1 will have while learning English. These pitfalls and problems are felt in the blood, in the bones.

Of course, a native who has lived in a particular country and who has learned the local language to a good level will also have a considerable degree of similar knowledge. Indeed, any teacher, native or non-native, who teaches students from particular language groups over a long enough period of time, and regardless of whether they speak any of these languages or not, starts to develop an understanding of what impact the various first languages have on users when they attempt to speak English. Only non-natives, though, feel it quite so deeply and can say they have been through the exact same experiences their students are going through in front of them. At their best, these teachers can intuitively feel why a false friend is sounding strange in English, or where the root of a particular repeated / fossilized grammar error may lie – and may well be able to frame this understanding (whether in English or in L1!) in such a way that helps learners grasp their errors most immediately.

Much of the advertising nonsense that exploits the supposed advantage of having a native-speaker teacher plays on the fear that somehow a non-native’s English is bound to be deficient in some way.There are so many flaws in this way of thinking that I don’t know where to begin: with the assumption that knowing loads of language and being able to use it has anything much to do with being able to explain and exemplify clearly? With the way this line of thought deliberately obscures the advantages discussed above? With the notion that what the native may know and that the non-native may not is actually of any use to any EFL student?

I speak English with most of my friends. I read a lot – and all of it in English. I probably know a whole raft of slang and idioms and obscure lexical items that most non-natives don’t. Well, all I can say about that is so what? If you sit and watch a desert with a camel walking across the horizon, from second to second, it’ll be the camel that attracts your attention, despite the fact that it is only maybe 5% of your actual field of vision. We naturally – and, possibly, for good evolutionary reasons – notice difference rather than similarity. As such, many non-native speaker teachers fixate on that which divides us – the 5% – rather than that which UNITES us – the 95%! Much of the 5% that’s specific in my own speech may well be very low frequency among NATIVE-speakers themselves and thus of little – if any – use to EFL students. Possibly, in fact, some of it may even be totally idiosyncratic to me! It takes many natives a while to realise that, and many of us – present company very much included – spent much of our early career thinking that any random idiomatic titbit that springs to mind must automatically be of utility and relevance because . . . well, because it’s somehow ‘real’! One crucial step for any native speaker to really becoming a fully-fledged teacher is to recognise this urge and modify and curtail it!

Finally, I think another fear connected to this whole area is a fairly deep-rooted concern that many NNSTs have: the fear of getting caught out! ‘What if the coursebook I’m using has phrases I’ve never seen before?’, ‘What if students ask me questions about an idiom that I’ve got no idea about?’, ‘What if I try to reformulate what my students are saying on the board and it’s wrong – by native-speaker standards?’

Well, hello?! Welcome to being a teacher! ALL native-speaker teachers find themselves on the spot with alarming regularity. We are all too often asked questions by students that we simply don’t know the answers to, and there is only sane response to this – confess and be done with it! Committing the following fixed phrases to memory has helped me through countless potentially embarrassing moments in the classroom. I recommend you try the same!

“I’m not sure, but I THINK this is how it’s used”

“I’ve never heard that in my life – so it can’t be very useful!”

Oh, and if you REALLY want good adverts for language schools, I would personally suggest that very few could top this banned Dutch one . . .

Dissing Dogme Part Seven: a dogma in search of a mantra

If you stop and think about it, calling an approach to teaching DOGME is probably not the greatest idea.

Firstly, and of course this could just be my filthy tabloid-polluted mind, it looks like DOG ME and as if that didn’t sound sufficiently saucy enough already, there’s the whole  concept of dogging that was brought into the popular imagination by one-time Liverpool striker and violently abusive ex of Ulrika Jonsson, Stan Collymore. On a more serious note, there’s the fact that the Dogme 95 group of Danish film directors who so inspired Scott Thornbury with their manifestos, their vows of chastity and their desire to purify film making by rejecting special effects, post-production modifications and other technical gimmicks actually soon ran out of steam, splintered into arguing factions and was defunct by 2005! What started out as a clever metaphorical construct ended up being a bit of an albatross around the neck, especially when you learn that today if you want to claim you’re a Dogme film maker, you simply submit a form online and check a box which states that you “truly believe that the film … has obeyed all Dogme95 rules as stated in the vows of chastity”. Now surely a smarter person than me can see some kind of metaphor here involving the Internet? No? For shame! Finally, of course, there’s the fact that Dogme is Danish for dogma. Now, whichever way you slice it, dogma is not a great thing. My Macmillan dictionary defines it as “a belief or set of beliefs that people are expected to accept without asking questions about them” whilst Wikipedia defines the concept as “the established belief or doctrine held by a religion, or a particular group or organization. It is authoritative and not to be disputed, doubted or diverged from by practitioners or believers.” It is, as the old cliche has it, like punk never happened! I could well go into yet another post lambasting the creeping influence of the old hippies and attempt to paint Dogme as a sinister cult with its inner circle of True Believers, its guru, its tenets of faith, even its communes . . . but I won’t because that would just be childish, wouldn’t it?

What I WILL do though in this my final Dissing Dogme post, you’ll be pleased / stunned / devastated (delete as applicable) to hear, is really question what on earth Dogme is offering us that it feels in a position to be so dogmatic about, to query why smart and innovative teachers feel the need to wear group colours and to attempt to move the debate towards saner areas of discussion, which I hope to then go on and explore over the coming weeks.

Talk to folk outside of the loose collective that embrace the term Dogme and reactions range from amusement to bemusement to outright hostility. Simon Kent, who kicked this whole saga off way back when emailed me recently and let slip this little gem: “I’ve very much enjoyed the recent stuff, and I’ve also come to realise something else about the Dogme ‘community’, which I think  one of the earlier  Dogme  people themselves  mentioned . It is a group of people who openly share their ideas. Agreed. However, essentially what they are doing is saying  “Here’s a good lesson I did (maybe  using few materials).” Really, it’s nothing  more (or less)  than  that. It does seem a bit ridiculous to claim or extrapolate a whole way of teaching from this, and to then go on to  peddle it as a complete philosophy!”

This, in turn, is kind when compared to a comment made to me at IATEFL this year . . . “Dogme . . . or winging it, as we used to call it!”

Or, as my co-author Andrew Walkley puts it, “Dogme . . . isn’t it really just correction?”

Now obviously, all of these cheap shots fail to nail the big beast that Dogme has become, but part of the issue is just that. Dogme has become a kind of amorphous moveable feast that seems to mean different things to different people and that spectacularly fails to really define itself in any coherent and universal terms. In a sense, of course, this may be its fundamental power, and yet on occasion, it has started to remind me of a scary talk I once saw by an NLP snake-oil seller who proclaimed “If it works, it’s NLP”. If Dogme is to be anything other than a flag of convenience for a loose scattering of the rebellious and the disaffected, the earnest and the intellectual and if it is ever to be taken seriously as a meaningful movement then it needs to maybe focus more on clarifying exactly what it is – and isn’t – about. Alternatively, of course, it could be that teachers start stepping out from under its protective banner and saying what they think individually without invoking groupmind and stand / fall on their own two feet.

Let’s just briefly look at some of Scott’s original Ten Commandments.Again, these were clearly originally intended to be a humorous device, aping both Dogme 95’s vows of chastity and of course the basic ground rules as brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses (allegedly). However, the idea of Ten Commandments is an interesting one. How many is one able to break or abandon before one no longer can really claim to be of the faith? One? Two? Five? At what stage does one’s faith become something other than the One True Faith Of The Book is one jettisons commandments at will? My (admittedly sketchy) understanding of Christianity is that just breaking ONE – if it goes unrepented – is quite sufficient to get you a one-way ticket down the highway to hell. Where do today’s self-proclaimed Dogmeticians stand in relation to their own ten commandments? Are they pure in intention and action? Or have they erred away from The Path? Are they really still even of the same faith? Or are they rather sub-cults, splinter groups and factions?

Well, let’s go back to where it all began, when Scott Thornbury arrived with the tablets of truth. Firstly, there was Interactivity and the belief that the most direct route to learning is to be found in the interactivity between teachers and students and amongst the students themselves. Well, any teacher worth their salt tries to make their classes interactive – and there are many many ways of doing this. Coursebooks have been suggesting ways of making classroom activity interactive for donkey’s years, as have all manner of methodological tomes. Secondly, there’s the bold – and totally impossible to prove or quantify – claim that “students are most engaged by content they have created themselves” and yet as we’ve seen from these debates here, very few Dogme-rooted teachers seems to adhere to this in any kind of disciplined or consistent way, with most preferring either to simply ride the conversation and spin out their own teacher-led board-based input repertoires or else bring in their own material. Next up is the notion that “learning is social” – well, no kidding. Was anyone claiming it was anti-social? – “and co-constructed”. Indeed. This can surely mean anything from students discussing guided discovery questions about grammar to a teacher asking questions about language in a book to whatever else you want it to mean. Next came the idea of scaffolded conversations – in some corners, this has become twisted and taken to mean that learning in class can ONLY really take place through a never-ending ongoing conversation and that nothing can explicitly be taught – a kind of perversion of Krashen’s now discredited ideas carried to their logical end-point – whilst others prefer the idea that ‘conversation’ can mean not only what we normally think of as a conversation, but a conversation between an individual and a text, say . . . or what used to be known as reading in class! Yet surely a scaffolded conversation can be exactly what good coursebook material can offer teachers help with. The first double-page of every unit of every level of OUTCOMES aims to teach conversations specified in the CEFR, and aims to scaffold students to the point where they are better able to have these conversations. Unless I’m missing something, one thing scaffolding cannot mean, however, is letting students try first and THEN feeding back. That’d be like building a house, seeing if it stands or falls and only erecting scaffolding when it starts to shudder and shake! The fifth commandment focused on emergence and the belief that “language and grammar emerge from the learning process”. Again, this is essentially Krashen-lite and is based on his notion of acquisition over learning, a theory which has been widely shredded in the years since it was first propagated and which has little or no support within the literature. Are there still Dogmeticians out there who believe that learning is ONLY possible through some kind of negotiated and emergent process and that the more formal study of lexis or grammar, whether that be in class or outside of it, is less or completely non effective? If so, where’s the literature ti support such claims? And I’m NOT asking for a rehashed adapatation here of Vygotsky and his zone of proximal development theory.

So where are we? Oh yes. Halfway through. the sixth commandment is about Affordances and is rooted in the notion that one of the the teacher’s roles is to “optimize language learning affordances through directing attention to emergent language” – now, it may be me, but I can’t see how this differs much from ideas about noticing, which have been developing for the last few decades. In fact, the only real difference seems to be that Dogme limits itself to ONLY encouraging noticing of new language as it becomes ’emergent’ when in fact much evidence seems to suggest that it is when the language is NOT immediately pressing that students may perhaps have more brain space free to actually pay attention to form and function. No serious writer on noticing has ever suggested, as far as I know, that it only has impact under the limitations suggested here. Next comes voice and the idea that the learners’ voices be given recognition along with their beliefs and knowledge.Well, again, there’s nothing exclusively Dogme about such a notion. Surely any teacher who cares about their students, regardless of their approach to materials, grammar, etc. attempts to encourage learners to voice their own sense of self and ideas and opinions, and many published materials go out of their way to tap into these impulses. We’re left with a woolly notion of students and teachers being empowered by being liberated from the shackles of published materials. Clearly, Chia Suan Song’s students who said they enjoyed having a coursebook as part of their course or those teachers unwilling, unable or unhappy to abandon materials are just stuck in their slave mentalities and haven’t fully grasped this great gift of freedom they’ve been proffered. The fools! Personally, and to get all religious on your ass again, I always liked the Subud notion that freedom is free of the need to be free! Ninth is the notion of relevance and the idea that materials should have relevance for the learners – ironic really as it seems to suggest that relevance is an inherent quality rather than something meditated and faciliated through interaction in the classroom, and that it is possible for materials brought into the Dogme class to be in and of themselves ‘relevant’ to all the many students in the room. Relevant how – culturally, linguistically, grammatically, intellectually, etc. – is never gone into. leaving us with the tenth and final diktat, one rooted in Norman Fairclough and the Nottingham School: “teachers and students should use published materials and textbooks in a critical way that recognizes their cultural and ideological biases.” So I’m guessing that this is what the Dogmeticians are all busy doing, right? Counting the ratio of white faces to non-white, men to women, etc? Writing sociological treatises on sexism within ELT listening material? Dissecting the hetero-fascist subtexts? No? Thought not. If anything, the closest I think the ELT classroom gets to this most of the time is actually through coursebooks such as Ben Goldstein’s Framework. But of course Dogme cannot go there, can it!

So anyway my closing questions really are these: what does Dogme actually believe these days? Is there any sense of adherence to the commandments outlined above? If so, to how many of them? If not, then what’s the point? Admit you’ve lost your religion and embrace your atheism! If you’re clinging to a few choice concepts, is there there ANYTHING inherent in these beliefs that actually sets it apart from other more generalised statements about good practice? And on a broader level, why do people even feel the need to invoke and protect the whole concept? Is it a misplaced sense of brand loyalty? Is it just because you get to hang with the cool kids, even if only online? Or is it simply a cover. a shield to hide behind in case the flak flies too hard and fast?

I guess in a sense what I’m asking is why don’t the smart, young, motivated teachers who use Dogme as part of their calling card simply ditch the badge and start talking about what they believe about teaching instead? There’s a kind of collective madness inherent in jumping to the defence of a tag or a label that’s out of your control and that others will take to mean whatever they want it to mean. If you believe that classrooms would be better off if we all stopped using any published materials and all just had loads of conversations and reformulated, why not just pitch those ideas as exactly that? If you’re interested in critiquing published materials whilst using them, then great: write a paper or conference talk or a blog post about that: recognise these ideas were around before Dogme and have a life outside of their appropriation. Know your roots and talk your own truth. It is, of course, The Only Way (TM).

Dissing Dogme: Part Six – the mystery of the missing syllabus

Many moons ago, when I was first trying to get a foothold in the publishing game, I sent off a series of lessons I’d co-written with a friend I made on my DELTA course, Darryl Hocking. We felt that coursebooks didn’t begin to do enough to teach natural spoken English and had spent the best part of a year recording endless conversations, transcribing them, and analysing them searching for common themes, patterns and chunks. What we ended up with were a series of lessons with titles like TALKING ABOUT YOUR VIEWS ON THINGS, TALKING ABOUT YOUR FAMILY, ENCOURAGING PEOPLE, TALKING ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE BEEN UP TO, TALKING ABOUT WHAT YOU PREFER and so on. Each lesson had a scripted listening, some sound chunking pronunciation work (very influenced by David Brazil), some vocabulary and  collocations, some spoken grammar, some conversation strategies and so on. We were very proud of our efforts and convinced of their revolutionary nature. We sent a few sample lessons round to different publishers and sat back and waited for the phone to start ringing. To cut a long story short, this all eventually led to our meeting with Michael Lewis and Jimmie Hill, which in turn led to a book deal with what was then Language Teaching Publications – better known as LTP. During our first meeting with Michael – in a pub in Hove (!) – he spent some time flicking through all our samples before turning to us and saying “Well, there are some nice lessons here, but I don’t see a course! Where’s the bridge, the arch, the umbrella?”

I’m often reminded of this conversation when I browse the Dogme blogs that abound: nice lesson, where’s the course? And that is, of course, because there isn’t one. A course, that is. Just a series of lessons that may or may not follow up on from each other and that may or may not recycle or develop what’s been covered earlier.

As part our the preparation for our own five-yearly British Council inspection at University of Westminster last year, I was in charge of getting together a presentable syllabus for each level of the General English classes. Our courses are predominantly coursebook driven, and in essence the contents of the book forms the bulk of the syllabus at each level. I made discrete enquiries about whether or not it would acceptable to the BC to simply type out the menu of contents for each level, and was informed it would not. I then spent a fair bit of time liaising with a friend who works at the BC Madrid and who’s done some astounding work on syllabus for all six levels defined by the Common European Framework, including a very thorough mapping of a range of coursebooks onto the stated CEFR goals for each level (which I’m very pleased to say INNOVATIONS scored particularly well in). What resulted from this was a 6-page document for each level we teach at Westminster based very much of the CEFR. The way I see it, if the CEFR defines, say, B2 in terms of can-do statements across a whole range of skills, then this means that in order to be placed at this level, the student must’ve spent the time at B1 acquiring these competencies, so the B2 can-do statements become by default the B1 syllabus. The BC ended up commending us on the syllabi we’d produced and the inspection went without a hitch.

Luckily, as it turned out, none of this work was in vain or was just simple window-dressing designed to smooth our passage through the inspection because as it happens, almost every week we have potential punters and sponsors calling, emailing or visiting and asking us not only what’s special about our centre, not only what qualifications do our staff have, not only the fees and dates, but also – crucially – the course content. We explain some of what we offer will be determined by our perception of what students need, but are also able to provide detailed descriptions of course goals and content.

As a coursebook writer myself, as well as a teacher on General English courses, syllabus is absolutely central. What has driven Outcomes first and foremost was a desire to teach towards CEFR communicative competencies. Sure we felt we had to try to cover the grammar expected at each level and found in the vast majority of competing titles, but what we wanted to drive the car was the pursuit of can-do statements, whether they be to do with speaking, writing, listening or whatever. We also spent a lot of time working out how we could incorporate as many of the core 3000 words into the syllabus as possible, a task which simply cannot happen by accident and which, even with the best will in the world, is nigh-on impossible to achieve with any degree of comprehensiveness.

So where does Dogme fit into all of this? What does it have to say about syllabus apart from let’s wait and see what happens? How does it sell its vision to the BC or to punters keen to do what they’ll get out of the course? I’ve seen two possible answers to this questions from those within in the Dogme camp, both of which struck me as woefully inadequate. Firstly, I watched a Dogme talk which mainly seemed to be about how the teacher in question had constructed a ‘student-generated’ course (see my earlier post for my thoughts on that little myth) by asking his learners to bring texts in every day, work around which would form the bulk of each lesson. To counter any accusation of lack of syllabus, the teacher announced that every time he ‘covered’ (it wasn’t explained what ‘covering’ might mean in this sense) a grammar item, it’d be ticked off the list, so that if any parents or sponsors wanted to know what’d been going on he could point to the structures already dealt with. Now, not only is this based on an outmoded way of thinking of syllabus (i,e: competence = the ticking off of discrete structural items) that I would’ve thought anyone with any interest in pushing for a greater focus on spoken language would’ve been resistant to, but it’s also only possible retrospectively.

The second approach I encountered came dressed in many intellectual garments and garnished with plenty of scary quotes, but in essence boiled down to an ’emergent syllabus’ – or one that was ‘negotiated’. In the end, this turned out to be little more than a kind of simplified version of old-fashioned needs analysis, whereby the teacher asks the class what they want to do and constructs some (or, in this case, all (!!)) of the course around these desires. The killer for me was the first thing students said was that they wanted to go to the park – and so a park visit was pencilled in for Friday afternoon! Superb. Maybe another day could involve a pub lunch and then maybe Monday mornings could just be a lie-in! Genius.

When I first started teaching, I used to do needs analysis for my General English classes. I’d give them a long list of topics and ask them to mark their top three, count up the votes and prioritise that was round. Usually, there’d be 8 votes for food, say, 8 for sport, 7 for holidays, 7 for family and so on, and I’d have to make executive decisions on this basis. Now I’ve come to realise is that one of the things students pay us for is to KNOW what input they most need to take them to the next level. So much work has been done – by publishers, by the CEFR, by the BC – to define level that it seems plain arrogant not to take account of this.

Dissing Dogme brief respite: The coursebook (writer) strikes back

Well, you’ve got Phil Wade to blame – or thank, I guess, depending on your point of view – for what follows. Phil has been a keen contributor to this blog so far and via Twitter suggested that I detail what I do in my own classrooms – with my own coursebooks! This really follows on from Chia Suan Song’s Teach-Off series and my own series of rants about Dogme. What I’m hoping to do is once a week explore and explain a class that I’ve taught in as much detail as I can manage with the limited time I have available for these things.

I realise I’m an atypical teacher in many ways: I also write coursebooks, and generally (though not exclusively) teach from my own coursebooks. In addition, I generally work from A to Z or 1 to 10 or top left to bottom right (take your pick) when teaching coursebooks – especially my own! I also work in London, teaching (mainly) multilingual classes of adults (which can mean anything from 19 to 80). Having got all of that out of the way, I’ll fill you in on my lovely main class this term.

I’m teaching an Advanced group two mornings a week – Mondays and Wednesdays. Classes run from 09.15 to 12.30 and the students are all doing five mornings a week, with three different teachers. The class have been together for three weeks already – this is the fourth – and will be together for four more weeks. There’s one more intake next Monday, a large Japanese group, and some of them may possibly be joining. Many of the students have been with us since last September, some since January and some only since April. The nationality breakdown is seven Chinese students, a Moroccan, an Iraqi, an Italian, a Taiwanese, a German, an Austrian (born in Romania), a Japanese and a Colombian. Here they all are (apart from two of them, who were absent today!)

So anyway, it’s a General English class and the reasons for the students being here are many and varied. Most of the Chinese lot are government exchange people, and many work in international offices in Chinese universities; we have university students taking a year out to come and study English; people getting ready to do degrees and Master’s; people just here for a few months to brush up their English for possible future use and so on. They’re quite a strong group, with at least half of them probably able to aim for CAE in June, even though none of them are actually planning to take the exam. We’re using OUTCOMES Advanced, and students get a free copy as part of their fees. The class I’m going to detail below was two hours from 9.15 to 11.15 and was followed by a fifteen-minute break and an hour-long progress test, which I won’t bother detailing here as not much happened apart from students doing their progress test!

Today we started a unit called CONFLICT. Why? Well, conflict is in the news all the time; lots of high frequency lexis crops up when discussing it; we’d previously done Unit 5, which was called NIGHT OUT, NIGHT IN and so this unit provided a slightly more serious counter-balance (light and shade, as my editors always told me!) . . . oh, and also because one of my students had had a huge row with her boyfriend the day before and the class really wanted to know more about this particular conflict.

Nah, just kidding! I made that last bit up . . . but if you want Dogme motivations, I can invent them at will. As if that would’ve made my decisions or the topic any more or less valid.

I began, though, as I usually began – with some revision of what I know the teacher yesterday looked at. I like to ensure there’s some kind of thread from one to the next so that, even though the class have different teachers, they can feel a sense of continuity. Also, knowing that you’re going to be (soft) tested keeps them on their toes, encourages them to actually spend time looking through their notes once they get home every day and also creates a sense of progress. I usually get to class early and sit and chat with the early arrivals anyway, but once we had six students (at quarter past nine  . . we have a cut-off point of fifteen minutes grace for latecomers. After that, they’re excluded till the break) we started the revision sheet. The first exercise was as follows:

REVISION

Complete the sentences with the best missing words.

1   It’s a really weird book. I couldn’t really follow the …………………….. .

2   It’s a book about the author’s mum and her …………………….. to overcome alcoholism.

3   The …………………….. in the book is quite minimal, but also very funny and it feels very natural.

4   It’s laugh-out-loud …………………….. in places!

5   The story …………………….. around the lives of ten women.

6   The book …………………….. issues such as domestic violence,. drug abuse and rape.

7   It’s a ……………………..-read book! It’s amazing! You have to try it. Honestly!

8   It’s just a really great book. I can’t …………………….. it enough.

9   It’s a novel, but it’s …………………….. on a true story.

10  It’s …………………….. in the seventeenth century.

11  It’s mainly about the impact of the …………………….. rights in the 60s and 70s.

12  The book …………………….. with themes of loss and longing.

Students spent maybe five or six minutes trying to fill the gaps in themselves, in pairs. There was a fair bit of head scratching and wryly amused comments along the lines of “This is from yesterday?” I monitored, wandering around and seeing how students were doing, saying when things were right or wrong and then rounded up the answers. I elicited by reading out the sentences and stopping at each gap, taking answers from the class as a whole – and then writing the correct answers up on the board.

As I was doing this, I was ‘working the language’ – adding, paraphrasing, explaining, exemplifying. Here’s a taste of the kind of thing I’d say:

(1) Yeah, plot. The plot of the book is the story of the book. It’s the same word for films as well and here . . . (pointing to a sentence I’d written on the board that read: The plot was full of t……… and t……….. . It was really hard to follow) . . . if the plot keeps changing and it’s hard to follow and you don’t understand what’s going on from one minute to to the next (said whilst moving my arms in a snake-like manner!) it’s? Yeah, full of twists and turns (I then wrote this in to the gaps). It’s always twists and turns, never turns and twists.

(2) Anyone? yeah, struggle. And we often talk about someone’s struggle to overcome something, so their struggle to overcome addiction or depression or their struggle to overcome alcoholism. Like their fight to beat this problem.

(3) Yes, the dialogue. How do you pronounce it? Where’s the stress? yes, OK. DI-a-logue. Everyone. Again, Juanita. Good. And it’s the same for films as well – the speaking, the talking is called the DI-a-logue.

(4) It’s laugh-out-loud funny, you know, like when you’re reading something on the tube and you suddenly burst out laughing (a chunk I taught them on Monday, by the way) like this (I acted this) and people look at you like you’re crazy, you know?

(5) The story? Yes, reVOLVed around (circling my hands) the lives of ten women, so they’\re the main focus, the story is basically about them.

(6) Anyone? yes, it tackles these issues. It’s often for controversial topics or issues so maybe the film tackles the issue of mental illness or the book tackles the issues of racism, violence and poverty.

(7) It’s a? Yes, MUST-read book. You now, you MUST rad it. It’s amazing. In the same way, a film can be a MUST-SEE FILM.

(8) And 8? I can’t? recommend it enough. yeah. Where’s the stress? re-co-MEND. Again? OK. Better. So yeah, I really really recommend it. I can’t re-co-MEND it enough.

(9) This one they often use for Hollywood movies. It’s fiction, but it’s? Yeah, BASED on a true story. Sometimes very loosely based on a true story.

At this point, a student asked me to write that up on the board, so I wrote: It’s based on a true story – very loosely based on one anyway!

(10) And if you’re talking about the place or the time when the action in the book – or the film – happens? It’s? Yeah, SET IN. so you know, it’s set in Algeria, in the 1950s. OK?

(11) It’s mainly about the impact of the? Oh, yes, OK. It could be women’s rights. I hadn’t thought of that. or, if you’re talking about the broader fight for equal rights for black people, for women, for gay people? yeah, the civil rights movements. I guess it’s particularly associated with the US in the 60s, but you can still talk about protecting civil rights, and so on.

(12) And 12? Yeah, deal with these themes, so it explores them, talks about them. Can be the same word for films as well, again.

One student asked what loss and longing meant.

I said it’s when you lose someone – or something – the noun is loss, so we say sorry for your loss when someone close to you dies. And longing is like a strong feeling of wanting someone or something.

Next up, we moved onto the second part of the revision sheet, which you can see below. For five minutes or so, students discussed their ideas in pairs and again I went round, helped out, clarified if things were totally wrong.I also got a few gapped sentences up on the board, based on things students were trying to say, which I used during my round-up, as we shall see.

Now discuss these questions with a partner.

– Why might someone be feeling a bit rough?

– When might someone be in bits?

– Where do you go if you want to strut your stuff?

– What happens in a meat market?

– What do you do if you take the mickey out of someone?

– Why might someone hassle you?

– What do you do if you cause a scene in a restaurant?

– What’s the problem if you’re smashed?

– Say three things you could take up.

After a few minutes, I went through the answers with the class. I think of these kinds of questions as questions about language that generate language. Whilst I generally mostly know the answers that’ll come up, there are always some curve balls.I also ask these kinds of questions a lot whilst going through answers tio vocabulary lessons, and students absorb this and often ask ME similar questions in return!

For feeling rough, the class said maybe because you were drunk last night or because you were maybe starting to have a cold. I tried to elicit the words COMING and TO DRINK in the sentences on the board, but got GOING and ALCOHOL, so ended up providing the missing words myself and completing the examples on the board. For IN BITS, students said “When you’re devastated”, to which I responded, OK, but WHEN might you be in bits, WHEN might you be devastated. We then established it was maybe when someone close to you died or if you lost your house and all your possessions. One of my Chinese students, Ryan (it’s his ‘English’ name – his choice, not mine, I hasten to add!) took perverse delight in mentioning this and had a couple of other ideas here as well! For strutting your stuff, some of the Chinese students shouted out ‘on a stage’ and ‘in a ballroom’. I explained that if you’re on a stage, it’s usually because you’re performing, and that a ballroom is more old-fashioned, like maybe if you’re learning to waltz or something. Someone else shouted out ‘a club’ and I asked which part of the club? The bar area? No, the students said, the area where you dance. Which is called? I asked – and elicited dancefloor, which i wrote into the gapped sentence on the board. When I asked what happens in a meat market, there was much laughter and one of my Chinese students said “Buy meat!”. Someone else said “No! Buy a girl.” I said it doesn’t usually imply that you’re BUYING sex. You’re just LOOKING FOR it. Maybe you buy the person a drink or something, but you don’t buy – or even hire (!) – them. I then elicited PULL and PICK UP and wrote these up on the board.With hassle, the students laughed and said their other teacher Glenn hassled them because they hadn’t done their homework! WE also established bosses can hassle you for work, street sellers hassle you or drunk guys hassle women in bars – the common theme being they all want something from you! With smashed, three students asked if it was because you’re tired. I said no, that’s shattered. We then established smashed was when you’re blind drunk, so drunk you can hardly stand up! Finally, with take up, one students said A CHAIR. I asked what he meant and he replied “Like in an interview”. “No, that’s HI. COME IN, HAVE A SEAT. So, anything you can take up, like when you start doing a new hobby?” I got three answers from the class and added them to my example on the board, so by the end of all of this the board looked like this:

This all took maybe the first twenty-five minutes. I now had a full class and we were ready to roll with Unit 6 – Conflict. I led in by saying something like What we’re looking at over the next few days is conflict – interpersonal conflicts, arguments, rows, conflict between nations, conflict resolution, that kind of thing. Today we’re going to be looking at what people do during and after arguments, OK? I asked the class to turn to page 42 and to look at the SPEAKING exercise A. In pairs, they discussed briefly what they thought the words in bold meant:

Speaking

A      Check you understand the words in bold. Then tell a partner which of the things below you sometimes do.

  • lose your temper and scream and shout
  • storm off and slam the door behind you
  • throw things across the room – or at someone
  • have a big sulk
  • hold a grudge against someone after an argument
  • apologise first and try to make up

I went round to see what words were causing most problems and got a few gapped sentences up on the board while I was doing so. After a couple of minutes, I stopped the class and clarified the words. I said something like the following: OK, so maybe you lose your temper – you get angry – and you scream and shot . . . you go mental, go ballistic (we’d had these two expressions the other day). A student shouted out You flip your lid and blow your top (which we’d also had) and I said yes. And if you storm out? Students: You leave quickly. Me: Yes. Quickly and? Student: angrily. I then acted out storming off / storming out of the room and  asked students what you do if you slam the door. They acted this and I pointed out on the board that you could also slam the phone down. One of the Chinese students laughed and said this was a very useful expression! After I asked, one student did a great acting out of sulking, complete with bottom lip stuck out and there was much banter about it being just like various students’ wives. I then elicited immature / childish onto the board, having glossed it and given the first two letters of each word. I asked what you do if you hold a grudge and then asked what the opposite was, pointing to the board for support, where the class could see F…….. and f……… . I then elicited forgive and forget. One student said they were good at forgiving, but not forgetting to much laughter. Here’s the board after all of this:

After checking they knew what make up meant, I explained that when I got into arguments, I was prone to lose my temper and flip out a bit. Not so much now, but when I was younger I might also have sometimes punched the wall or the door or something. BUT I never sulked. I always got things out! They then chatted for several minutes about which of these things they did when they had rows. I wandered round and picked up on some things they were trying to say, but couldn’t quite and got more gapped sentences on the board. Here’s what the board looked like after the round-up here:

On reflection, self-contained – which was the first thing a student shouted out – when I was explaining that quite a few students said they never lost their tempers and never really got angry or lost their tempers – wasn’t the best answer and self-controlled would’ve worked better here, but I took that offering and let it go. The second sentence involved retelling a story I’d heard Xiao Xi tell about throwing things at her husband and was greeted with both incredulity and much laughter. The third one – I tried to elicit system, but got heart / body / mind and so just gave it to them – and then managed to get bottle – led into a good five minutes of discussion among the whole class. One student said bottling things up was bad because eventually you explode. O then said “Yes, like the US high school massacres.” One student asked if anything like that ever happened here. There then followed a discussion that took in the Cumbrian killings, Dunblane, recent Chinese kindergarten machete murders, a Japanese high school killing involving a dead boy’s head on a spike outside a school and Anders Brevik. There was much heated debate about whether or not the Norway scenario was the same or not. I said I felt it was different, because he saw it as politically and racially motivated. And we moved on!

Next, students looked at exercise B and discussed how each of these things could lead to arguments.

B                  Look at the list of things people often argue about in the box below.

With a partner, discuss how each might lead to arguments – and which you think cause the worst.

money

time spent together

careers

exes

silly annoyances

household chores

kids

sport

stress and tiredness

homework

work

religion

politics

in-laws

They took to this topic with great gusto and it went on for maybe ten minutes. Plenty of personal examples emerged and there was much laughter. I went round listening to different pairs. helping out when they asked how to say particular things or wanted things checked and – as ever – writing things on the board. As things slowly started to wane, and before they started to drag to a half, I stopped and just went through a few things I’d heard, eliciting missing words onto the board to complete gapped sentences.To elicit, I basically retold stories I’d heard, using the students’ names and paraphrasing the stories, glossing the meanings of the missing words and seeing if students knew what I was looking for. This way, I got STEER in steer clear of, EYE TO EYE, want me to (although FIRST I got WANT THAT I, and we discussed the different patterns from Romance languages to English here) and WAGES. I ended up giving up and giving them an allowance and pressurizing. The last sentence you can see below was what a Chinese student, Xuesong, had said happens with her and her husband and this was their way of avoiding arguments about money. Juanita, the Colombian woman, laughed and said it was like giving him pocket money, while Nicolai, the German guy looked distinctly unsettled by such a prospect! Here’s the board after this slot:

I felt we’d done enough on all of this and wanted to move on, so decided to skip exercise C:

C                  Which of the things above do you argue about most often? Who with? How do the arguments usually end?

I then said they were going to hear two conversations involving conflicts between people and that they should listen to find out what the relationship was, what the conflicts were about and how they ended.

Listening

You are going to hear two conversations in which conflicts occur.

A                  Ω Listen and answer these questions about each conversation.

1                  What’s the relationship between the people?

2                  What are the conflicts about?

3                  What happens in the end?

I played the CD once and put students together in pairs to compare ideas, before eliciting answers.

You can hear the first conversation here . . . and the second one here.

They’d basically got the whole idea after one listen, though there was some discussion about whether or not the first conversation was flatmates or a mother, father and son. In the end, one student pointed out, in families it’s unlikely a son would borrow money to pay the gas bill and that they sounded too equal to be parents and a kid. I asked if the class wanted the conversations again, but they seemed quite happy to move on.

I pointed them to the NATIVE SPEAKER note which they read:

Native Speaker English

I hasten to add

To clarify or comment on a previous statement, we can use I hasten to add. It can be used either formally or jokingly.

A:                  No. I do understand I made a mistake.

B:                  And not for the first time, I hasten to add.

I was absolutely furious about it  – not that I’m normally an angry person, I should hasten to add!

And I then gave one more example: my co-author Andrew had been reminiscing to some friends in the pub about an early conference we both did where we had to share a room and had said ONLY A ROOM – NOT A BED, I HASTEN TO ADD! This seemed to garner a few chuckles and we moved on.

I explained that next we were going to be looking at ways of giving negative or private information. The students read the explanation box and then looked through 1-6 in exercise A.

Developing conversations

Giving negative / private information

When we give negative or private information, we often use sentence starters that warn the listener about what’s to come

To be frank with you, I’m really not sure there’s a future for you here at all.

A                  Work in pairs. Imagine the sentence starters below were all used in an office over the space of a week. Complete each one in a humorous or serious way.

1                  I don’t mean to be rude, but …………………………………………………………………………………… .

2                  To be brutally honest, …………………………………………………………………………………… .

3                  With all due respect, …………………………………………………………………………………… .

4                  To put it bluntly, …………………………………………………………………………………… .

5                  If you want my honest opinion, …………………………………………………………………………………… .

6                  Between you and me, and this shouldn’t go any further, …………………………………………………………………………………… .

Some students asked about brutally and I explained that if you’re brutally honest, you’re so honest it might hurt the person you’re talking to, in the same way of putting things bluntly might, and added that if someone is beaten up, it can be a brutal attack – and that you can use a blunt instrument like a hammer or something to attack people. Students then discussed in pairs possible things that might be said in an office using these sentence starters. There were plenty of very very funny ideas, and after a few minutes I rounded up a few. This led to much inter-class banter. Xuesong shouted out I don’t mean to be rude, Ryan, but your shirt is so old-fashioned. Here’s the offending (lilac) shirt:

There was a little ‘cross cultural’ interlude where I joked with Nicolai that even though the stereotype of the Germans here is of a blunt, direct people, all you needed to do was signpost clearly that this was what was coming by saying To put it bluntly and then you could then be as rude as you liked! He joked that we must obviously be a bit thick if we need to told this, but this was fine by him. With the final sentence starter, the gossipy one, another student suggested Between you and me, and this shouldn’t go any further, Ryan is married. When I asked why this needed to be so secret, it was suggested that it was because he had not told his secretary, who was the recipient of this piece of gossip. Nicolai then added Between you and me, and this shouldn’t go any further, I saw Ryan in the street with . . . and said the name of a colleague who’s fairly openly gay. A couple of students sniggered, some rolled their eyes, but most looked bemused and wondered what the comment implied. Time to move swiftly on, I felt, so we skipped exercise B and hit the grammar.

Wish comes up a lot in conflict conversations, particularly I wish you would . . . / I wish you wouldn’t . . . but this exercise includes this within a more general overview and consolidation of the structure. I told the students we’d be doing a bit of work on wish and that they’d heard several examples in the conversations. They were instructed to sort the sentences in exercise A into three groups of two sentences and then told to compare their ideas and explain the differences in form and function.

Grammar I wish

A                  Divide the sentences below into three groups of two – according to the time the sentences focus on.

1                  I just wish you were a bit less selfish, to be honest!

2                  I wish I’d never started this conversation.

3                  I wish I didn’t have such a short temper!

4                  I wish he’d understand that people do have exes!

5                  I wish I’d told him what I thought of him earlier, to be honest!

6                  I wish you wouldn’t always make fun of me in front of all my friends.

B                  Compare your ideas with a partner and explain the different uses of wish.

I elicited the answers. There was considerable debate about the answers and we ended up checking the form and function for each one, much like this:

Me: So it’s 1 and 3. When’s it talking about? Now or the past?

Student: The past. past simple.

Me: Yeah, but it’s about now, or generally, always.

Student: So it’s like a second conditional.

Me: Yes, kind of. And what’s the form? I wish plus?

Student: Past simple

Me: OK, and it’s 2 and?

Student: 4.

Me: yeah? What do you think the ‘d is in 4?

Student: Had.

me: yeah, but then it’d be had understood, not ‘d understand.

student: so 4 is would?

me: yeah, so it’s 2 and 5. Talking about now or the past?

Student: past.

Me: yeah, it’s regrets about things you did – or didn’t do – in the past. And what’s the form? I wish plus?

Student: past perfect.

Me: OK, so 4 and 6 go together. What’s the context in 4? Why would someone say this?

Student: Maybe someone’s boyfriend is angry that she’s still in touch with her ex boyfriends . .

Student: And finds her chatting on facebook!

Me: Are you talking from experience here? (laughter) So anyway, 4 and 6, yeah. I wish he would understand . . . I wish you wouldn’t make fun of me. WE use this one to talk about annoying habits that other people have that we want them to change, but suspect they won’t! It’s always when we’re annoyed with people, this one.

Here’s my fairly poor boardwork that emerged from this. Not wonderfully revealing, but sufficient in the circumstances as the book’s examples carried the weight, really.

Students then tried exercise C, which was a controlled practice of this.

C                  Complete the sentences below by adding the correct forms of the verbs in the box.

be                  can                  have                  leave                                    sent                  think

1                  I wish I ………………………. longer to stop and talk, but I’m afraid I’m actually in a bit of rush.

2                  I wish I ………………………. her that email! It just made everything worse.

3                  I wish you ………………………. your things lying around all over the place all the time. It’s so annoying!

4                  I just wish I ………………………. turn back time and start again.

5                  You always talk such rubbish! I wish you ………………………. sometimes before you open your mouth!

6                  It’s the fact that you lied to me that really hurts. I just wish you ………………………. more honest with me!

They tried on their own for a few minutes and then discussed in pairs, talking particularly about any differences. When I rounded up. I elicited the answers, wrote them up and again concept checked everything. Like this:

So . . . number 1? I wish I? yeah, HAD longer – talking about when? OK. Now. Good. And 2? HAD sent or HADN’T, then? OK, HADN’T. So what really happened? Yeah, I sent her the email and it exacerbated the situation, made things worse. And 3? WOULDN’T LEAVE. Right. So you have this annoying habit of always leaving your things lying around all over the place and I wish you wouldn’t do it.

Finally, I told students to look at exercise D, the personalised practice and said they’d be writing their own examples in a minute, but first I’d give a few examples of my own.

D                  Write down five things you wish using the patterns below. Explain your sentences to a partner.

1                  I wish I’d never …………………………………………………….. .

2                  I wish I wasn’t …………………………………………………….. .

3                  I sometimes wish I could …………………………………………………….. .

4                  I wish my …………………….. wouldn’t …………………………………………………….. .

5                  I wish my ……………………….. would sometimes ……………………………………………………..

I then told brief anecdotes about how I wish I’d never started smoking, how I wished I could speak more languages and how I wished my wife wouldn’t always nag me about all the things she wishes I would stop doing! I gave students a few minutes to write and went round helping out as best I could. This was hard as there are 13 students each writing five sentences. I then got students up and asked them to find a new partner and explain as much as they could about their regrets. Several key problem areas soon emerged – the perennial confusion between wish and hope (I wish me and my husband wouldn’t get divorced!), the over-extension of would to talk about yourself (I wish I wouldn’t be so fat), tense confusion for different times . . . and just general uncertainty about how to say particular things. I monitored and wrote a load of sentences up[, with the grammar parts missing. I stopped students and re-told various wishes, paraphrasing and using student’s names as I did so. I elicited and double-checked the grammar and we ended up with this:

I pointed out that fact SO is often used in negative wishes – I wish it didn’t get so cold in the winter, I wish I wasn’t so bad with money, etc.

This had now been two hours straight, so we took a break.

After the break I told them it was time for the progress test.

Quick as anything, one student shot back: I wish we didn’t have to do it!

And that, folks, is that. I didn’t quite finish the double-page spread, which was all leading towards a couple of conflict situation role-plays, which one of my colleagues will start off with tomorrow. The homework was more work on WISH and to prepare what they want to say for the role-play, thinking about incorporating as much of the language from today as they can.

Hope this has proved interesting.

It’s nearly killed me writing it.

Looking forward to seeing your comments and questions!

Dissing Dogme Part Five: Conversation-driven or teacher-driven?

Conversation is an elusive beast. It can be hard enough to have a decent one with someone that you know well and enjoy talking to. You may not be in the mood, you may not feel you have anything particular to report on since the last time you spoke, the topic that seems to be emerging may be of little interest you and you may participate only nominally as your mind may well be somewhere else entirely. Now add a few more people and shake to see what happens. Well, if my classes over the last twenty years, or the classes I’ve observed during that time, are anything to go by, then what happens isn’t all that dissimilar to what would happen in a conversation between eight or ten or twelve people in a pub. Two or three people dominate, with sometimes just one or maybe two hogging the conversation completely. Factions emerge, people drift in and out and sub-groups splinter off and have their own conversations instead, maybe chipping in to the main conversation when they feel like it. What almost never happens is a conversation spontaneously develops in which all the varied multiple members participate and contribute equally. I’m not complaining about this. It just seems to me to be the way things are. As any of you who’ve met me will know, I love a good conversation as much as the next man (or woman) and believe, much like Theodore Zeldin, in his mesmerisingly good book The Art of Conversation, that what we talk about and who we talk about it with can have a profound effect on who we become. So I’m down with the concept. What I have an issue with is basing a whole approach to teaching on it! Or claiming to, at any rate.

Dogme prides itself on its own self-image as student centred and conversationally driven, yet beneath the veneer my feeling is that there lurks many a frustrated materials writer simply waiting for the right offer from the right company before cashing in their chips, saying goodbye to the revolutionary kudos and joining the big bad enemy camp. And I speak as someone whose whole career as an ELT materials writer has been driven by general boredom and frustration with much of what I had been given to teach with early on in my career! The roots of my cynicism lie in the fact that when I hear Dogme practitioners vent about materials, what I think is actually going on is not a rejection of materials per se, but a rejection of most other materials apart from their own! Now, in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with this. Many good young – and not-so-young – teachers start out on the road towards becoming materials writers (even if only on a part-time basis, as I’ve always preferred things to be myself) by rejecting published materials and preferring their own. This is as it should be. This is how you start to learn your craft. But let’s be honest here and recognise things for what they are.

I remember reading – slightly incredulously – a post on Chia Suan Song’s blog where she took a Tom Waits’ song into class and did a lesson based around it, which then morphed into student-selected songs followed by a viewing dictation of the action in Lady Gaga’s Telephone video and a homework that revolved around pop artists Roy Lichtenstein. Now, I’m not saying none of this was fun. I’m sure most students had a great time doing all the activities Chia describes – and I’m not saying it didn’t lead to some vocabulary work that may have been of utility (though the cynic in me feels the need to add that some items such as a helicopter flew by, prison warders and a car with red and yellow flames may be particularly useful when having to describe the video to Telephone, and that perhaps this is not something students will often find themselves doing again in future, but hey!), but to claim that this way of doing things is anything other than a keen teacher infectiously spreading her enthusiasms (Tom Waits, social semiotics, Roy Lichtenstein) and teaching on the hoof is to dignify things above and beyond the reality. In essence, this is a materials-driven class; just that for some reason the teacher believes that a Tom Waits lyrics and a Lady Gaga video offer more to the students than published material might. Of course every teacher has the right to make these decisions, but at the end of the day, we also have to be able to square with ourselves that what we end up teaching is of maximum utility to our students, and not simply something that was needed to describe something foisted upon students by one’s own whims. And I speak as someone who comes from a music background and who spent the first few years of my teaching career imposing countless songs I was personally mad for onto my students!

On a similar note, last year I watched Luke Meddings give a plenary at France TESOL, where he compared the city planning of Paris with the way Dogme teachers approach lesson planning and where he also made several analogies between exploring cities and language. Within this, we were treated to several pseudo-impromptu tasks involving working with partners and describing our first memories of visiting Paris, what we’d done thus far in the city this time around and so on. The idea was that a teacher could use these talking tasks to generate ‘meaningful, student-centred’ discussion and from there, pick up on mistakes and things students were trying to say but couldn’t quite say yet (or ’emergent language’ if you want to sound fancy) and turn this into input – the old TBL task-followed-by-teacher-led-input paradigm I’ve discussed elsewhere in these rants. Now, again, this could well be a lot of fun and could generate a lot of discussion – BUT Dogme seems to mistake generating a lot of discussion with being ‘discussion-driven’! It’s surely TEACHER driven in that it’s the teacher deciding to bring such tasks (or, indeed, any of the many similar tasks that you find in Teaching Unplugged) into the class and using them as a way of getting students to talk! And in this sense, can anyone explain to me how this is any different to a good text in a coursebook that students want to talk about, or a set of questions in a coursebook that students want to discuss? The only difference I can see is that one may – if written well – feature graded input, recycle previously taught language, be written specifically to encourage classroom conversation and target specific high-frequency bits of lexis!

Let’s be really generous here and assume, for the sake of pushing the extremes, that a teacher DOES somehow manage to work from emerging conversations that happen between the students themselves, at some point they will inevitably want to turn this inwards and towards language. What they’ll be looking for is a slip or a gap in the students’ output that they can seize on and exploit, so students feel like they’re actually learning something and not just jabbering on. What is picked up and the way it is exploited is often the result of past experience and practice. Indeed, it’s hard top see how it could possibly be anything else. This means the teacher rolling out a familiar riff and thinking “Oh great. I can do my thing on used to versus usually here” or “Brilliant. Let’s do a little bit on what they thought London was going to be like, and how it turned out to be different. That always goes down a treat!” In essence, despite the appearance of spontaneity and ultra-responsiveness to students’ so-called needs, these linguistic interludes are frequently simply another form of teacher-driven task or teacher-led language focus.

As an adult, I’m smart enough to know that not everyone in a very varied group of fellow learners is going to want to sit and chat or talk about whatever I might want to start talking about of a morning – whether that be Arsenal’s ongoing struggle for a Champions League spot, a new country record I’ve been digging, a row I had with my wife or the nutter I had to deal with on leaving my house in the pissing rain that morning. And I sure as hell don’t want to spend my morning having conversations about other such mundane topics of anyone else’s choosing! I’m all for classrooms having more talking in them, and for this talking to engage the whole student, but let’s confuse things and call these bits of talking conversations. They’re clearly not, or at least hardly ever will be. They’re the result of materials (or tasks) that teachers bring in, and that teachers have to justify to themselves, their students, their students’ sponsors and their bosses in terms of their goals, the utility of what is taught around them and so on. In this, the good practice that Dogme seems intent on claiming a monopoly on is no different to the good practice nay teacher who’s learned how to listen to their students engages in, and to insist that it is is to do these teachers, who numerically surely far outweigh the Dogme crowd, a profound disservice.

Dissing Dogme Part Four: The 36 chambers (or the authenticity trap)

I have a friend in Japan called Rika. She’s a sales rep for the company that distributes our books out there and is a wonderful, outspoken, funny, rude individual. Now, one day, whilst I was lucky enough to be in the middle of an author tour of Japan, we went for a drink in Osaka. We ordered our beers (Asahi Super Dry. Highly recommended) and sat down. Next thing I knew, some random guy approached our table, bowed profusely and whipped out a pen and piece of paper. Rika made her mark and then turned back to the conversation, looking slightly bashful. I was just about to ask what was going on when it happened all over again – same scenario, different random guy. These were clearly autographs Rika was signing. When I finally found time to ask what was going on, Rika admitted these guys had seen her on TV the week before in a judo competition. After much interrogation, I finally managed to find out that this had actually been the women’s national finals and that Rika had come fourth. She seemed to want to keep her two divergent worlds very separate and was quite embarrassed to have been ‘found out’ – and also bemused as to why I was interested. We spent the next hour discussing how this incredible achievement had come to pass and during the course of the conversation I learned that she’d been doing judo for years, had been through three main schools (or ‘dojos‘) and passed through twelve levels in each dojo, a path that mirrors the mythical thirty-six chambers of Shaolin. You may well be wondering why on earth I’m telling you all of this, of course, but bear with me here.

I asked what happened at each level, and in essence it was a series of graded skills that the student mastered before passing on to the next level. I asked Rika when she had her first real – or if you prefer, ‘authentic’ – fight. Was it after twelve levels? Or twenty-four? She looked at me like I was mad and said “You’re joking! If I’d taken on a real fighter at that stage, they would’ve destroyed me and I would’ve lost all my motivation! We’re only allowed to fight for real once we’ve passed through all thirty-six levels.” Intrigued, I pushed this further and asked how much of what she’d learned did she think she actually used in her first fight. She laughed and replied “Maybe 5%. I won in about thirty seconds flat. I used my two best moves and the other girl was down and out!”

The more perceptive among you may have realised that I’m talking metaphors here – and then some! Whilst being able to handle so-called ‘authentic material’ – whether that be films, TV shows, YouTube clips, articles from The Guardian or New Scientist, novels or whatever – is perhaps the ultimate end point we want to help our students reach, the destination is NOT the road. It was in, I think, 1980, at the height of their fetishization by the CLT pioneers, that Henry Widdowson said pretty much all you’d think needs to be said on the question of authentic materials (I’m too lazy to endlessly add the scare quotes, but imagine them there if you will!) by stating the bleeding obvious: materials are not ‘authentic’ or ‘inauthentic’ in and of themselves; authentic materials written for particular audiences with particular sets of cultural, stylistic, linguistic and intellectual backgrounds may well have no authenticity whatsoever in the classroom. For a text to become authentic in the classroom it essentially has to be authenticated through the interaction of the students. And a text written for language learners is just as likely to be authenticated as anything else, if not more so!

What Widdowson did was at least make folk sit up and think twice before bandying terms like ‘authentic’ around as if they were manna from heaven. However, there are other reasons to be very wary of so-called ‘authentic’ materials in the classroom. Foremost among these is the grading of language. Used at anything below Advanced level, most authentic texts contain language way outside of students’ current abilities; frequently, it’s very low frequency language, language that may be being used in an odd or creative way or that may even be a unique coning. We may try to get round this unpleasant truth by grading the task not the text (personally, I think doing the opposite – grade the text and not the task makes way more sense in a classroom!) or telling students not to worry if they don’t understand every word, but this is to willfully ignore why students think they’re reading or listening in a classroom – which is to learn new language! All we end up doing in this situation is encouraging by default a kind of self-reliance on dictionaries and the accumulation of countless random words encountered, in the desperate hope that this way will lie competence.

It gets worse of course: courses which rely heavily on authentic texts rarely, if ever, have the kind of inbuilt recycling of language that good coursebooks do. Language comes and goes on the wind – and in essence this is because the teachers who rely on such materials aren’t first and foremost interested in language per se; they’re interested in the texts as a springboard for discussion or debate. This is just plain old-fashioned wrong imho! Whilst I have no problem with the idea of texts leading into interesting discussions (indeed, I think you could very easily argue that texts written specifically for use in the language classroom often encourage more of this than many so-called ‘authentic texts’ do!) I believe that the main reason for having texts in the classroom must be to teach language. Texts, therefore, need to be rich in re-useable language in the form of common collocations or chunks – and graded at (or just above) the students’ level.

Where all this connects to Dogme is that, in its frenzy to rid the classroom of the curse of published materials, it has ushered in a whole new era of authentic materials gone mad. This particularly occurs at the nexus between Dogme evangelism and tech evangelism, one of my least favourite street corners in the known universe. iPads and hi-tech classrooms are used to zap content – apparently often student-selected content – in from the Web and we’re sold visions of students becoming hyper-motivated as a result. The material from the so-called ‘real world’ is presented to us as by definition more motivating or relevant and thus more likely to engage.

Yet all of this fails to recognise that our fundamental role in the classroom is to teach language – and that we can best do this if we take responsibility for selecting and sifting the language we expose our students to (thinking, if you like, about the thirty-six levels we want them to master before they can fight the language for real), if we ensure we don’t kill them softly with material too far beyond their current range of competence (throwing them into the ring after their first dojo!) and if we help them OVER-learn lexis so that when they finally do have to deal with authentic texts, they’ll know far more than they encounter and will emerge relatively unscathed from the encounter. This can only be achieved by careful selection of material – and that may well, of course, mean careful selection of coursebooks!

Dissing Dogme Round Three: the implausibility of certain core language emerging via conversation.

I recently had to cover an Upper-Intermediate class at work, at very short notice. I literally picked the book up, went straight in to class and started teaching.

The class is doing OUTCOMES (hey, if you can’t use your own coursebooks at your own place of work, where can you use them, eh?!) and were on Unit Three – Things You Need. The goal of the opening double-page spread is to help students talk better about a wide range of objects and to describe what the objects are for. If any of you have used this book, you’ll perhaps have spotted a fair few typos in the first edition, which escaped the copy editor’s clutches. Beneath the obvious typos, though, lies another level of glitch: things that we as writers know have been missed out, but which may not be apparent to the casual observer! Typically, this lesson began with one of just such mistakes. The first exercise is vocabulary-focused and has students looking at a whole page of pictures at the back of the book and discussing some questions in relation to these. Students discuss if there are any things there that they have never used (and if not, why not); which objects they use all the time / regularly /now and again / hardly ever; whether or not they have any of these things on them now – and which they have at home . . . and, finally, which they did not know in English before. Now, here’s the catch. The pictures at the back were supposed to be labelled, like a picture dictionary, but somehow the labels went AWOL. The pictures show things like a hammer, a drill, a saw, a torch, a stepladder, a nail, a screw, glue, rope, wire, a plastic bowl, a cloth, a dustpan and brush, a mop and bucket, washing-up liquid, a corkscrew, a tin opener, a lighter, a rubber, correction fluid, staples and a stapler, scissors, clips, sticky tape, a charger, an adaptor, string, a needle and thread, an iron, (clothes) pegs, a plaster and a bandage. Obviously, not having the names of these objects isn’t a disaster because as a teacher you simply begin by asking students to work in pairs (or groups) and to see how many things they know the names of. You then round up and teach the gaps, drill any new words, write them up on the board (possibly with extra collocations / examples of use added in, so things like HAVE YOU GOT A CORKSCREW? I NEED TO OPEN THIS BOTTLE OF WINE or HAVE YOU GOT A STAPLER? I NEED TO STAPLE THESE BITS OF PAPER TOGETHER.) and THEN get students to do the speaking afterwards.That’s what I did and it all worked fine.

Now, quite possibly, you’re wondering why I’m telling you all of this in what’s billed as being another bash at hardcore Dogme, right? Well, afterwards, I was discussing the class with a colleague and we were discussing how hard it’d be to access and teach such language through a Dogme approach. There is a whole slew of language that’s useful for students that simply doesn’t come up in everyday conversation and is unlikely to appear in a conversation-driven class unless the teacher really goes out of their way to guide the conversation towards it in some cunning way. I was reminded of something I heard Willie Cardoso say at Spain TESOL this year. He claimed that essentially language only exists in the here and now, and only comes into being – or becomes relevant to students – through communication and as a result of communicative needs. At the time, this struck me as a short-sighted thing to say as clearly all manner of language exists all around us. Even when we’re sitting silently, not engaged in communication at all, language is everywhere: in books, on posters, in newspapers, on the web, in the conversations of others and so on. Much of this language – and actually much high frequency lexis – occurs far more commonly in written language than spoken, and actually in specific kinds of written language, chiefly journalese or the language of academia. Much other language that may well be high-frequency in certain contexts only occurs in those particular contexts and is unlikely to be needed in general chat.

If you doubt the frequency of some of the words above, think on this: in the MACMILLAN ADVANCED LEARNERS’ DICTIONARY, string is a three star word; ladder is a two star word, as are cloth, needle, rubber, rope and nail. I could go on, but the basic point here is that almost all of these words are relatively high frequency and thus deserve to be taught. I’m obviously not saying frequency is everything, but at the same time it’s not nothing either. What’s important here is to have some kind of principled approach to what we teach across a series of lessons, or across a course as a whole, and to ensure that we pay heed to such crucial factors as word frequency.

Now of course, I’m sure that the more skilful Dogmeticians could come up with contexts in which some of the language mentioned above could be introduced (though I have to say, could is certainly not the same as do – and I’d bet good money that most actually don’t!). You could perhaps ask students to brainstorm problems around the house and reformulate their ideas onto the board; you could then ask them to discuss all the tools they’d need to deal with these problems – and maybe encourage to walk around explaining things they don’t know the words for to see if anyone else in the class knows the English words. It’s obviously not impossible for at least some of these tools above to thus emerge and get taught, but it’s not strictly conversation-driven to approach a class this way and the emergence of these words depends on the teacher choosing tasks with a specific language goal in mind. Which, when you stop and think about it, is basically what materials often do, isn’t it! And there’s the rub.

Perhaps a truly skilled Dogme teacher, who’s incredibly well informed linguistically, could even manage to ensure conversations veer in all manner of different directions over a period of time and thus ensure coverage of a large number of high frequency words more commonly found in written English. I have nothing but admiration for the one in a thousand teachers who may be able to manage this. I simply ask them whether or not well thought-out materials might not be able to bring those words to the students in a faster, more focused and more efficient manner?

As a coursebook writer, one of the major changes I’ve made is to shift from the colloquial, informal spoken style of INNOVATIONS to the more complex, broader range of language contained within OUTCOMES. Now you could easily argue that for many students, the former is more what they require. That’s fine. I fear, though, that for many more, they also require (either now or in the future – the great forgotten time by Dogmeticians, for the need then has by definition yet to appear!) language used in more niche kinds of speech (presentations, business, academic discussions, etc.) and also in writing (and its close cousin reading). One of the things we obsessed over with OUTCOMES was ensuring coverage of as much core lexis as possible. The Macmillan stars proved an invaluable guide and helped us countless times to decide on which words to include – and which to not bother with yet. And such decisions are at the heart of what we do as language teachers. Written well, coursebook material is far better placed to bring this kind of language to the students – and to test how much of it they know already and to then give opportunities to practise it – than Dogme is.

Dogmeticiains will argue that their approach somehow creates ‘a real need’ in students for the language, yet actually whether the task is brainstorming tools required or trying to name tools in unlabelled pictures, both tasks are an artifice, a kind of game, and in neither situation do students REALLY need these tools. By starting our planning with a goal in mind – a place you want students to have got to by the end of the class – you’re far more able to introduce such language, though, than you are if your goal is go with the flow and see what comes up.

The only time a student in a true Dogme class may actually REALLY need to ask for a hammer is when they reach boiling point and flip out in frustration at their teacher, who has no clear notion of where the minutes are leading or of what they intend to teach – and a blow to the head with a blunt instrument seems to be the only possible way to end such tedious torture.

Dissing Dogme Part Two: Carrying TBL to its demented logical extreme

So, ding ding, gloves on! Here we again with Round Two of cheap pops at Dogme. I bet you can’t wait.

Today what I’d like to focus is an issue right at the heart of Dogme: when and how students are given language, the medium through which new language is delivered and the issues arising from this. The title of this post refers to TBL, and the reason for this is that in many ways I think Dogme has ended up painting itself into a bit of a corner by adopting much of the orthodoxy of Task-Based Learning. Interestingly, though, it has done so without really acknowledging as much, and even without (often) doing it in as focused  a way as the best TBL manages. Now, I’m certainly no advocate for TBL, and tend to agree with much of what Anthony Bruton has said against it, but at least it had a clear aim – usually (in its early forms, anyway) geared around asking students to do meaningful tasks often related to real-world necessity or utility. These tasks might be something like visiting a doctor, having a job interview or booking tickets.

In TBL, language may be fed in during some kind of pre-task stage, where structures and lexis are either explicitly focused on or are merely hinted at, but the bulk of the language comes in response to the students’ own ability to perform the given task. Inevitably, when the whole thrust of a task is to communicate (and perhaps negotiate) a particular message successfully, students are basically free to use whatever grammar and lexis they wish. Some tasks may suggest or prompt the use of certain items more strongly that others, but at the end of the day, its the completion of the task that matters. All too often this means that students – scared of drawing attention to themselves by making what they may still perceive as mistakes – stay within the confines of words and structures they already know; in short, they get by, but do so without always bothering to make the extra effort and take the risks needed to utilise new language.

The feedback then depends both on what students themselves feel they needed, if they are willing – or able – to ask about this, and then on whatever the teacher was able to notice students having problems with. In reality, often what this means (and this is especially true if the teacher is setting up and running tasks they’ve done before and thus have some sense of the linguistic requirements of) is that teachers have an already prepared set of language ready to be wheeled out and looked at; at best, they may well focus on a mixture of previously anticipated areas (which may or not have actually been problematic, but which nevertheless will make students feel they’re getting some input and upgrading of their output) AND actual responses to things students really tried to say.

Much of the feedback will be done on a board, possibly (and ideally, I suppose) using examples written up whilst students are busy communicating and doing the task. There may well be gaps in the examples / boardwork, which the teacher then elicits, and probably some time for commentary and also questions on the linguistic input.

In many ways, this basic template, developed and honed by Prabhu during the Bangalore Project in the early 80s, fed into both the TTT (Test-Teach-Test) paradigm and, more pertinently for the purposes of this post, Dogme. However, whilst TBL at least focuses on tasks which may have some real-world utility, in Dogme, there may not necessarily even be a task, or if there is, it may just be ’emergent’, just as the students’ language is supposed to be. In reality, this may well mean one of two things: (1) a teacher walks into  a room and starts chatting to students – or, in an even more Dogme twist, students start chatting to the teacher – and sooner or later either a task suggests itself or some language that needs to be fed in order to help the communication along gets given to the class (orally, or via the board) or – and I suspect this is by far the more common approach adopted by many self-proclaimed Dogmeticians – (2) a teacher walks into a classroom with a task of some kind that they want students to do. Maybe the students are to brainstorm ideas or debate a series of moral questions or listen to and discuss the meaning of a pop song or whatever. There’ll be some kind of ‘task’ which results in some kind of talking, which in turn results in some kind of input (which may well be, as stated earlier, not based exclusively on what was really actually heard, but also on past experience and prediction).

There may possibly also be some kind of learning that occurs as a result of students interacting with each other. In Dogme presentations, I’ve seen this kind of thing dressed up as the true fruits of a Vygotsky-ian social constructivist approach, but to most people it’s called accidental learning – and certainly nothing the teacher set out to actually teach!

Now, my beef here is this: why on earth do the Dogme folk think that language can only be given to students AFTER they actually need it? What  grounding is there for this in any theoretical approach to learning? And what kind of load does it place on both the teacher – as sole provider of linguistic input – and on the students, who have to sit through a kind of presentation stage post hoc after every single chat / task / debate / bit of speaking? The teacher inevitably ends up being the source of input, thus increasing the risk of their own ideolect colouring the language they pick up on, whilst the medium of delivery for feedback will invariably be the board, meaning students then have to copy down what they’ve seen written up. If you then want to check the degree to which students have learned from the feedback, there needs to be a repeat stage built in later on, or some kind of parallel task, though of course 9as stated above, again) if the goal is purely driven by an interest in communication, it ultimately doesn’t matter if learners try to take new language on board or not, so long as they get their point across again!

Now, I’m all for teachers being able to do the above, but to elevate this to the be-all-and-end-all of language teaching is idiocy. What most annoys is the denial of the notion that we are actually able to predict language students may well need to do tasks. Surely one of the things students pay us for is to make informed decisions about what tools might best help them perform tasks. Oops. Wait a minute! This is actually what COURSEBOOKS do – or good ones do, anyway! Silly me. Nearly forgot.

Once coursebooks are focusing on helping students to perform certain kinds of tasks better – and with the increased influence of the Common European Framework more are, or are at least paying lip service to the idea of doing so – then the next step is to predict what lexis and what grammar might best aid students in their attempts; what kind of listening (or reading) models it might be useful for students to meet before attempting tasks – and how the task itself might best be framed in order to ensure that students are best positioned to attempt to take some of this new input on board as they attempt it. This means students have written records already provided, teachers can see how much they already know and teach the gaps by using exercises designed to get new language to students ahead of tasks and tasks can be more fruitfully and richly attempted (and, of course, as students do this, the teacher is STILL free to monitor and get new language up on the board to round up with).

Are Dogmeticians seriously suggesting that feeding in language – or testing students’ knowledge of language – before getting them to try some kind of communication is a no-no? If yes, then why? And if not, then why the coursebook hate?

Dissing Dogme: Part One

In the greater scheme of things, there are obviously many many things about ELT that annoy me way more than Dogme does – or should! There’s the continuing dominance of the atomistic structure-by-structure building block approach to syllabus design that dominates (the great irony being, of course, that Dogme is born out of an antagonism to many of these coursebooks in much the same way as my own career as a writer was!); there’s the tech evangelists for whom technology in the classroom is the magic bullet that will heal all ills . . . and don’t even get me started on the NLP snake oil salesmen, whole brain training charlatans and multiple intelligence madness! I’ve always enjoyed watching Scott Thornbury talk, and would like to say I regard him as a kind of friend, on the TEFL conference circuit at least, and have good relations with many of the other folk involved in spreading the Dogme dogma. I think anything that encourages teachers to listen more to their students, to treat them first and foremost as people rather than language-producing machines, and to use student output as the basis for reformulated whole-class input is essentially a power for good and should be encouraged, as there’s still way too many teachers unable – or unwilling – to do such fundamentals in class. And yet somehow the way in which Dogme has become such a noisy sub-culture and so prone to self-aggrandizing claims (or boasts, if you prefer) gets my back up. Since unleashing the crude attack dog approach of Simon Kent on Dogme the other day, I’ve been trying to articulate to myself exactly what it was that was bugging me about something that in so many ways I’m in broad agreement with.

What I aim to do over the next couple of weeks is to go through a kind of blow-by-blow account of my grievances, and to see how (or, indeed, IF!) folk out there respond.

My first gripe could perhaps cynically be seen as the sour grapes of a materials writer in desperate need of more love and affection, I suppose, but one thing that particularly annoys me is the way much of the debate has become framed around coursebooks versus non-coursebooks. Dogme has always had a ‘vow of chastity’ element that forswears coursebooks or, indeed, originally, any materials, and recent blog phenomena such as Chia Suan Chong’s ongoing ‘teach off‘, whereby a Dogme teacher takes on a coursebook-driven teacher drive this angle home with a vengeance.

The root of my anger here is that such rhetoric reduces all coursebooks to a homogenous whole, all are seen as equally bad, and as a result teachers are essentially encouraged to disengage from learning how to ‘read’ coursebooks and to assess and discuss the differences between them, the agendas that drive each one, the angles they have, and the reasons why they are the way they are. It seems blindingly obvious to me that a good teacher can manage a good lesson with even poor classroom material, and can do great things with better materials, whilst a less experienced or competent teacher can barely scrape by even if supported by great materials – and would surely struggle to do anything of any value in a Dogme-style lesson. Part of the problem is that Dogme is founded on a kind of cult of the individual, a belief deeply rooted in both British ELT and, as I argued earlier on this blog, the 60s and 70s counter-culture. There’s a feeling that material is there to be messed with: and in this age of Web 2.0 and all the interactivity it offers, this has become the general modus operandi of many younger teachers in their life at large as well. This is all well and good, and obviously all good teachers mediate material for their learners. One of my fears is that actually the twin rhetoric of the individual over all else and of anti-coursebooks actually inadvertently influences the way teachers think about materials, and leads to desperate attempts to reinvent wheels that have not even been fully understood as such! It’s depressing to count the number of times I’ve observed teachers using coursebooks in weird ways – starting with exercise five, say, then doing the final practice before finally going back to exercise 1 – and, on asking why, I’m usually told something along the lines of ‘Well, you can’t just teach it as it is, can you? You have to interpret it and do it the way that suits you best’.

This is born out of a materials illiteracy – a failure to grasp why things are structured in the way they are – as much as a desire to break free of perceived shackles. For me, mediating materials is far more about teaching what’s there, but exploiting the LANGUAGE that comes up – both within the materials themselves AND as part of the students’ own output / speaking in response to questions in the book. For my own teaching, in many ways I could be accused of being stuck in that I generally just pick a book up (and, admittedly, I am frequently in the rather singular position of those books being things I’ve co-authored myself!) and start with exercise 1 and move on to 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, regardless of the class. Where the tailoring to class needs and interests and desires comes in is through their responses to questions, through the way they respond and the anecdotes that emerge as a result of this interaction.

I recently observed a class where the teacher was doing a double-page spread based on injuries and illness. It began with some speaking, which asked students to discuss a few questions related to the topic. The teacher I saw began with a complicated running dictation which resulted in students writing down questions – and then discussing them – before starting the book. When we were discussing the lesson afterwards, I asked what the point of the intro had been only to be told it was a warmer, to help generate interest in the topic. When I asked what the teacher thought the point of the speaking in the book was, the teacher looked nonplussed before the penny finally dropped!

Now, obviously, this isn’t Dogme’s fault and many Dogmeticians would just say the fault is relying on coursebooks and that it would’ve been better if the teacher had gone materials-free. However, by refusing to engage with published materials, you close off a large part of teachers’ potential learning and development. Whether you like it or not, most teachers around the world use and rely on coursebooks in class. Dogme is but a tiny drop in a much bigger ocean in this respect, and as long as it sticks to such rigid ‘rules’ as materials-free has little to say about the realities of these teachers. One great irony is that there are countless teachers out there who would kill for books and classroom materials. A mate of mine is running an incredible project across two schools in the tiny blighted West African nation of Guinea Bissau, and I recently shipped over a container full of ancient EFL and French teaching books, which have been received by teachers living on five dollars a day as if they were manna from heaven. Presumably, though, they’d all be better, more committed teachers if they just burned the lot and made do on the resources they have?

Coursebooks are a lifeline for many teachers: they provide structure, content, language, pacing, support. To deny this is to dismiss the realities of these teachers’ lives and realities. This isn’t to say that helping teachers learn to improvise and riff off students is bad. Far from it. It’s just saying that is is not – and cannot ever be – the be all and end all.  The pursuit of good teaching would be better served by trainers also thinking about how to make teachers more aware of what’s happening with materials – and why and how best to exploit the material – and of course this must include leaving space for students.

Another issue, as mentioned above, is the assumption that all coursebooks are equally bad and all equally ill-suited to tackle students’ needs and desires in anything other than a crass and superficial way. Ask anyone who writes published ELT materials seriously, as opposed to mainly for money, and they’ll tell you they’re driven by agendas not dissimilar to those the Dogme folk are interested in. For me personally, much of my early writing was driven by the conviction that coursebooks failed to represent language – and particularly spoken language – as it was truly was: lexico-grammatical. More recently, whilst sticking with this theme, I’ve also become much more interested in cultural issues, representation and so on. Ben Goldstein, with things like Framework and The Big Picture, is exploring issues around representation, imagery and taboos; Lindsay Clandfield is interested in bringing literature to the fore, fronting serious issues over pop trivia and so on. All of us, in our ways, have tried to challenge the status quo brought about by the huge success of Headway, though I’m sure all of us would also be honest enough to recognise the craft and skill that’s gone into the creation of successive generations of Headway as well, and to accept that, on its own terms, it’s  a very well-written book. It’s just one whose key ethos I don’t buy into. My point here is, I guess, that OTHER key driving forces and beliefs are available!

Finally, there’s a failure to recognise that coursebooks act as agents of change. There was a great article on this subject many moons ago in the ELTJ that I’d recommend you all read. The gist, though, is that coursebooks are ways of presenting change by numbers, of reducing the fear the majority of teachers have of change and making slow shifts of focus in the broader field accessible. To give just one example of how this works, think of the fact that Outcomes, Global and Framework all feature plenty of non-native speaker accents, a phenomenon that was inconceivable just twenty years ago. Through such publications, these issues move from the leftfield and the avant garde into the mainstream in a way that would be nigh-on impossible otherwise.

To live in a world in which coursebooks are the devil is to deny all of the above.

I defy any of you to justify the existence of such a world!