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.