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!

10 responses

  1. Good evening Hugh,
    I dropped by because of my friend Leo Selvian who thinks I have a lot to say but calls me a lurker because I usually read but don’t respond to blogs.
    I am not aquainted with Dogme probably because I teach EFL in a school context and much shop talk is spent on issues of “Getting the Buggers to Behave,” in Sue Cowley’s words. (I live in Israel and teach EFL in a comprehensive regional high school – in addition to teaching English I’m also a homeroom teacher responsible for the PSHE and general well being of an 8th grade class).
    Anyway I have spent the last hour or so reading all your posts and some of the comments.
    Dogme reminds me of the days I taught third grade in elementary school (almost 20 years ago) when I went into class with a repertoire of songs, chants and glove puppets – exhausting but fun! However, I must say that I found teaching the 4th, 5th and 6th grade with a course book a great base and source of support. Dogme would not work in the context of my teaching – in fact I think it would cause nothing short of chaos.

    1. Hi Dominque –
      Many thanks for taking the time to find me, read me and then actually manage to comment as well.
      This removes you from the anonymous lumpen lurker crowd into something more elevated!
      It was interesting to read your thoughts on Dogme – and its context-specific limitations (as well, of course, on the positive impact having a coursebook had for you!)
      I saw a guy called Willie Cardoso talking about emergent syllabi at Spain TESOL earlier this year and on the way out after the talk got talking to a Spanish high school teacher.
      I asked her what she’d made of it and she said – and I quote – it was “like a native speaker cult”.
      I pointed out that Willie is actually Brazilian, but that didn’t seem to dissuade her.
      I don’t agree with such harsh views, but I think they deserve to be heard, and their implications considered.
      Anyway, hope to see you posting more round here in the future.

  2. i agree with the points you make regarding authentic materials, robert o’neill at the last iatefl 2012 emphasized these points briefly (thx for Henry Widdowson ref) . coursebooks naturally get outdated with their texts, so using the net for some of my students (in multi-media and engineering) is essential, no where else can you get the necessary to-date lexis. giving sts option to pick texts seems like a good idea but in my experience does not pan out as one would hope.
    i find the dojo metaphor you describe useful and i did chuckle loudly at your image of ‘least favourite street corner of Dogme evangelism and tech evangilism’!


    1. Hi Mura –
      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

      I missed that Robert O’Neill session, but it’s nice to hear I’m not alone on this one!

      I do agree that texts can date, though I also know as a writer that there are things you can do to lessen (or, of course, increase!) the pace at which things date!

      As for using web-drawn stuff with students, it really depends for me on level. I suspect if you’re doing Multimedia and Engineering students, they’re already pretty high level and that there also isn’t that much specially written material for them. In which case, you’re on slightly firmer ground, I guess, though I’d still personally rather use texts I can grade down if needs be and would try to ensure recycling and revision of lexis as much as possible.

      I guess my comments above are particularly meant for an EFL audience and I should’ve maybe specified that more clearly.

      I share your feelings about letting students choose material not working as well as you’d hope. Classroom time is so precious and I feel one of our roles as teachers is to take responsibility for content and direction. If I told potential students who came to see me to ask about what they’d be doing on the course that it depends on what they were interested in and what they could find online, I’d be laughed out of my own office nine times out of ten. Interested to hear what your problems were in this department, though.

      1. robert o’neill did not actually have a session at IATEFL as far as i know, it was what he said in his interview( which apparently has not been uploaded due to technical problems with file)and in his acceptance speech for lifetime award(which is available).
        the main issue for me with letting students find their own material or even material related to topics i have chosen is their lack of search literacy. there was a recent study about how even if first year US uni students are au fait with say using facebook, google, etc., they actually have poor search skills (http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/so-called_digital_natives_not_media_savvy_new_study_shows.php). although this does not impact so much on language issues it is a concern for what i try to teach.

      2. That’s interesting. I just read this thing the other day – http://www.scienceomega.com/article/301/is-the-net-generation-a-myth – that reiterates the same points, but from a UK perspective.
        As my friend and co-author Andrew Walkley said so perfectly, though, if we’re teaching General English students, We should not teach digital literacy simply because it is ‘a life skill’ any more than we should teach cooking! Teaching language to help students use Facebook or send texts in English is our role, but there is no need to use the technology any more than students have to make dinner to learn language about cooking.

  3. […] a lurch away from published materials towards so-called ‘authentic’ materials, a move I’ve argued against elsewhere. For me as a writer, it presents its own kind of challenge. How can I get interesting and […]

  4. Can’t really fault your case on this one.

    However, I’m going to go for my “both and” approach and suggest that both approaches could be really beneficial.

    It’s probably a good idea not to shelter students from “authentic” texts (granted — that term needs some clearing up), and it can be done in a way that doesn’t daunt the hell out of them and with a clear focus on target language and even (depending on the text and level) a focus on comprehension, too. A good teacher can do this and when done well can be, I believe, healthy teaching.

    But you’re right. We still need to scaffold and direct our students rather than just chuck ’em in at the deep end and hope they swim.

  5. In my experience (and this is based on testing), neither teachers nor students can actually tell the vast majority of the time whether a text is ‘authentic’ and has been sourced from a website or newspaper or whether it’s simply a well-written text crafted for the language classroom. The fundamental issue remains is it interesting, is the language within it mostly intelligible and useful, and are the outcomes of the lesson worth pursuing.

    Obviously, you COULD find texts out there in the wider world and make lessons around them that fulfill these goals. In a sense, thsat’s what we ended up doing with the TED talks we got to use in the PERSPECTIVES series. So I’m not saying NEVER. Just that generally it’s a lot of faff for something that rarely reaps that much extra benefit.

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