Category Archives: Teaching lexis

Ways of exploiting lexical self-study material in the classroom part two: some things we can get students to do

In the first part of this post, I explored some of the things that you can do as teacher – both in terms of preparation / planning and in terms of actual classroom practice – to help to take lexical self-study material off the page and to bring it to life and make it more real for the students. In this post, I’m going to assume that that message has already been absorbed and am going to move on to talk about what you might do next. Once you’ve given students time to go through an exercise, you’ve out them in pairs to check their answers, you’ve elicited answers from the whole class and, as you did so, you’ve explored the language in the sentences and expanded upon both the items there and connected bits and pieces. You have a board full of great, connected, whole-sentence fully grammaticalised input . . . and then what?

In case you’ve forgotten – or never read the first post to begin with – here again is the exercise I’m describing, and thinking about how to exploit:

Collocations exercise

Well, the most obvious thing is to get students talking about their own ideas, experiences and opinions using the language they’ve just looked at. The way I’d usually do it is to prepare some questions based on what’s there. Take, for instance, the first item – address an issue. You could just ask What are the main issues in your country? Do you think the government is doing enough to address them? Those aren’t bad questions, but to support students more, and give them more ideas of what to talk abut, I’d probably twist this slightly to something like this:

Decide which three of the issues below are the biggest problems in your country.

Mark them from 1 (=most serious problem) to 3.

Alcoholism

Domestic violence

Drug abuse

Unemployment

Illegal immigration

Non-payment of taxes

A growing wealth gap

Digital connectivity

Illiteracy

Public and private debt

Now tell a partner which three issues you chose.

Explain why you think they are such big issues, what is being done to address them – and anything else you think could be done to improve the situation.

Just this on its own would be quite sufficient for a good fifteen-minute speaking slot in class. I’d give students a few minutes to read through and to ask about any vocabulary they weren’t sure of – there’s bound to be some in the list above. I might then model the task by explaining which of the above I think is the biggest issue in the UK (they’re all contenders, if truth be told, but personally I’d opt for the growing wealth gap!), why and what’s being done about it. Once I’d stopped foaming at the mouth about the fact my prime minister is currently at an EU meeting to lobby for the right to ignore Europe-wide restrictions on bankers’ pay whilst more and more of the people he’s supposed to be looking after are increasingly reliant on food banks, I’d then put students in small groups of two and three and get them to discuss their own ideas.

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As students talk, I’d go round, listen in, correct any pronunciation errors I might hear, ask questions and chip in with the discussion and – most crucially – try to find things students were trying to say, but couldn’t quite . . . or things they were saying that I would say in a slightly different (and better!) way. I’d zap backwards and forwards to the board and write up whole sentences, with the odd word here and there gapped. Once things were slowing down and some pairs / groups had almost finished, I’d stop the whole class and say OK, that was great. let’s just quickly look at how to say what you were trying to say better. I might have something like the following on the board:

A lot of men are frustrated with their l………… in life and then drink and end up t……………… it out on their wives.
A lot of women f…………….. their homes and end up in r……………… for battered wives.
Unemployment has r………………… over the last couple of years. Loads of people are moving abroad in s………… of work.
We’re being f…………….. / s…………… with immigrants. It’s causing serious f………………. in lots of areas.

To elicit the missing words, I’d basically paraphrase / retell the things I’d heard by saying things like this: A lot of people are unhappy with where they are in life they’re unhappy with their position, with what they’ve achieved, so they’re unhappy with their MMM in life. Anyone? No? They’re unhappy with their lot in life. And they drink and get angry and come home frustrated and they’re angry at the world, but they hurt their wives instead. They feel angry and frustrated, but don\’t know what to do with that anger, so they MMM it out on the ones they love. Yeah, right. They TAKE it out on them. And as a result, some women escape from the family home, like people MMM a disaster or MMM a war. Anyone? Yes, good. They FLEE and they end up in special buildings where women who have been beaten up – battered women – can hide and be safe from danger. These places are called? No, not refugees. Refugees are people who have to flee their own countries. The places are called REFUGES. Where’s the stress? yeah, REFuge, but ReFUgee. Good.

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Other questions connected to the vocabulary in the exercise that I might ask students to discuss could include the following:

  • Can you think of a time when law and order completely broke down in your country? What sparked it? How long did it last?
  • Why do you think some people might not agree with aid agencies providing emergency relief? What do YOU think about it?
  • Can you remember any news stories from the last few months about an area needing emergency relief? Why? What happened?
  • Can you think of anyone who’s been arrested for inciting violence or racial hatred? What happened?
  • Would you like to be a social worker? Why? / Why not?

With any of these, again I’d give them a minute or two to read through and ask questions about. I’d model and I’d then listen in and find things to rework, before ending up by reformulating student output on the board. If you’re not sure of your ability to hear things in the moment and to think of better ways of saying things, you can always cheat by doing exactly what I did above and plan in advance things you think students MIGHT or COULD say, decide the best words to gap, and then simply write these up whilst monitoring. You can begin by saying OK, here are some things I heard some of you saying. Fools them every time!

In the third and final post in this little series, I’ll outline some other things you could get students to do with an exercise like this.

Cheers for now.

Hugh

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Ways of exploiting lexical self-study material in the classroom part one: what the teacher can do

This post is essentially a response to a request by one the blog’s readers, Patrick Gallagher, who emailed me recently and asked for ideas on using material that’s essentially written for self-study in the classroom.

Now, initially I was struck by this because, naturally, as a coursebook writer, my immediate reaction is simply to ask why on earth you’d need to bring this kind of material into the classroom when there are already great lexically-rich materials out there written specifically for everyday classroom use.

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However, as I thought about it more, it occurred to me that there’s actually a fair bit more decent lexically-oriented material geared towards self-study than there is geared towards explicit classroom study, and maybe this fact shouldn’t surprise. The Headway / English File atomistic structural grammar syllabus still dominates and within this framework, vocabulary is not only treated very much as second best, but is also all too often limited to a focus on single words or, at best, collocations. The harsh reality is that it’s hard to get lexically-rooted material into class as the main focus, so I guess many teachers out there get round being shackled with a coursebook they may not particularly believe in or have much philosophical affinity with by bringing photocopied extracts from self-study material in.

And there IS plenty of good stuff out there: my own personal favourite and the one I recommend to all my students is ENGLISH VOCABULARY ORGANISER by Chris Gough, but then there’s also the ENGLISH COLLOCATIONS IN USE series by CUP, the PHRASAL VERBS ORGANISER and IDIOMS ORGANISER published by National Geographic Learning, George Woolard’s KEY WORDS FOR FLUENCY series and so on.

So what might teachers do with this stuff if we do decide to bring it into the class? One of the problems with doing this is obviously the fact that this stuff is all written to be done and home, checked and gotten on with. I was never designed with the classroom in mind and so fails to leap off the page in any kind of obvious way. As a little thought experiment, I’ve picked one exercise from ENGLISH COLLOCATIONS IN USE Advanced and imagined what I might do with it were I to use it to supplement a class, in the hope that it might provide some food for thought and fresh ideas for some of you. So here goes.

The exercise I’ve chosen is on social issues, which I’ve selected simply because this week with my Intermediate class we were doing some work on describing changes and this came up (Unemployment has gone down a bit over recent months / The divorce rate has risen dramatically over the last few years, and so on.) Here it is.

Collocations exercise

Well, the first thing I’d do is look long and hard at what language is there to be exploited so that when I was going through the answers, eliciting them from the whole class, I’d know what I wanted to focus, what I could ask the class about, what extra examples I might want to give and so on. I think it’s important that the teacher leads the class through this process BEFORE asking students to anything more personal or creative with what’s there.

In class, I’d tell students we were going to look at a bit more language to help them talk better about social issues, give them the exercise and tell them to fill in the gaps with the best missing words. As students are working their way though, I usually go round and check what’s right and wrong. If they have wrong answers, I might just say something semi non-verbal and negative like ‘Uh-uh!’ and point at the offending item. If students ask about a particular item, I may give a quick contextually-relevant answer too. In between doing all this, I’d also be writing sentences up on the board, with gaps in them, to expand on what’s there on page in a minute or two. These sentences are just things I either plan in advance or come up on the spur of the moment and they’re all things that might be said / heard around the language that’s being tested.

Once maybe 60-70% of the class have finished, I stop the whole class and put them in pairs, tell them to compare and then round up once I can see a few pairs have basically checked and agreed.

The round-up / checking is the first way the teacher can bring some of this language to life. What’s vital is we do more than simply get the answers and write them up. Here’s how I might run through this part myself:

So, number 1? Yeah, right. ADDRESS. Where’s the stress? Good. ADDRESS. The second syllable. And what how could a government, say, ADDRESS an issue like alcohol abuse? What might happen? What might they do? Well, for example, they might MMM street drinking. They might make it illegal. Right, so they might BAN it. Good. Another thing they might do is to make it more expensive to buy alcohol, so they might MM-MM taxes on alcohol, they might make them go up, so? yeah, INCREASE. And one last thing they might do is they might make it harder for companies to advertise alcohol, so they might not ban it completely, but they’ll MM-MM it. Anyone? No? The first letter is R. No? RESTRICT it.

On the board, by now, I’d have added the three words I elicited – or tried to elicit – to the sentences I wrote up earlier, so I’d already have something like this:

Last year they banned people from drinking on the street. It’s totally illegal now.
They’ve increased taxes on alcohol again.
They really ought to restrict alcohol advertising, so that kids aren’t exposed to it as much.

I’d then ask if anyone else had any other ideas on how the issue of alcohol abuse could be tackled – and would either accept students’ offerings, or else rephrase / reword them, maybe writing up extra sentences, depending on what came back from the class. I might also ask what other kinds of issues governments might sometimes need to address – and would hopefully get back one or two ideas from the class.

Teenagers drinking alcohol

For number 2, I’d again elicit the answer and probably write it up on the board. I’d then ask if they could think a famous example of an aid agency (Oxfam, ActionAid, the WHO, etc.) and would ask what kind of things they might provide as emergency relief – and when. Again, I might add some of their ideas to an already-prepared sentence on the board. Perhaps something like this:

The provision of emergency aid / supplies / relief in the wake of the earthquake / flooding / tsunami / volcanic eruption saved thousands of lives.
Cyclone_Evan_aid_distribution

Next, I’d elicit the answer to 3, and ask what happens when law and order completely breaks down. Again, I’d have already got a couple of sentences prepared to help narrow the focus and hone the input. As such, I’d ask something like this: So one thing that often happens when law and order breaks down is large groups of people go into the streets and fight the police or the army. They maybe throw petrol bombs or rocks at them, they might burn cars, that kind of thing. This is called a? Right, a RIOT. And RIOT can be a noun or it can be a verb, so here it’s a noun. OK. And another thing that often happens is people go into shops – large groups of people often, and maybe when the shops are closed, you know, they break in and then they steal loads of stuff, so they MM the shop. Anyone? Begins with L. No? They LOOT the shops. And what kind of thing might make all this happen? Why might people start rioting and looting? Yeah, right. It’s often when people are angry at the police because of something the police have done. And this makes the riots happen. It MM the riots. Anyone? Like a match, when you light a match, sometimes little MM fly off. Yeah, right. SPARKS. And it can be a verb too, you can SPARK riots or SPARK public anger. On the board, I’d then have this.

A man died in police custody and it sparked three days of rioting and looting. The police totally lost control of the whole area.

Looters-London-2011_525

For number 4, after eliciting the answer, I’d check what the group thinks social workers do. I’d then ask what it means in this context, breaking the cycle of abuse, and check they understand that it means kids who are physically abused themselves are more likely to abuse their own kids – or other people’s – later in life. It’s a vicious cycle. I might have a sentence like this up on the board:

Kids who are abused are more likely to abuse others in later life. It’s a vicious circle that’s hard to break.

I might also add that in lots of regional conflicts around the world, it can be very very hard to break the cycle of violence. One side kills someone, the other side seeks revenge. There’s then revenge for THAT attack, and then yet more revenge and so it goes on. It’s really hard to step out of that.

I’d then elicit number 5 and point out that both tenses are possible, depending on whether it’s connected to something happening now or not. I’d add that you can also make a plea for peace or for calm. I’d ask when someone might make this kind of plea (after a murder, after a terrorist attack, after a terrible crime, etc.) and why (they don’t want things to turn violent) – and I might also add that charities can make a plea for help or for donations at times of real need. I might end up with something like this on the board:

The father of the murdered boys has called for peace / has made a plea for peace amidst fears that the tensions could explode into violence.

I might then tell the amazing story of Tariq Jahan, whose two sons were killed during the Birmingham riots of 2011, but who almost single-handedly prevented an ugly situation getting much worse through his calm, his compassion and his charisma.

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Finally, I’d elicit the answer to number 6 and I’d ask how you might INCITE violence. I might add that Tariq Jahan could easily have incited anger and hatred after the death of his sons, and could easily have persuaded others to go out and seek revenge, but chose not to. I might then add that there are relatively new Hate Speech laws in place in the UK that outlaw hateful, threatening, abusive, or insulting communication that targets people on account of skin colour, race, disability, nationality, ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation. It’s not uncommon for extremists to go on trial accused of inciting racial hatred, for example. I might add / complete one final sentence on the board, perhaps something like this:

He’s some kind of neo-Nazi. He’s on trial at the moment. He’s accused of inciting racial hatred via his website and his online publications.

Hopefully, this will give some pointers as to how the teacher can bring a fairly dry self-study piece of material to life in the classroom and use it to revise and recycle language students already know, to allow exposure to plenty of fully grammaticalised sentences, to connect the classroom material to the wider world outside and to provide space for students’ own ideas, theories and questions.

In the next part of the post, I’ll go into some more detail about how teachers can next get students to do a range of interesting things with any kind of self-study material they might happen to bring in. Until then, I look forward to your comments and questions.

Twenty things in twenty years part nine: the vast majority of mistakes really aren’t to do with grammar!

The world used to be so tidy. Back in the misty morning of my youth, I seriously did naively believe that the root cause of student error was essentially grammatical. If only students could somehow have the ‘rules’ for the use of specific grammatical structures drilled into their heads through repeated mini-lectures, homeworks, pages of English Grammar In Use, concept questions and so on, and if only they could correctly memorize and internalize the forms of all the structures we’d ‘done’ in class, then all would well, the occasional lexical slip notwithstanding.

It took me quite some time to realise that if the errors students are making are within the confines of tasks that only focus on and require the production of one or two grammatical structures, such as the old Harrap’s Communication Games classic Haven’t we met somewhere before? (wherein students got role-play cards detailing where they’d been at what times in their life and had to work out where and when exactly they’d met everyone else in the room, a task which inevitably forced errors along the lines of Yes, I’ve been in Australia in 1984), then the odds that these errors will essentially involve structural glitches are fairly high. The task creates and forces the mistakes it is designed to focus on. This is its purpose.

There may, of course, be a place for such a focus, though today I feel that the place really ought to be a far smaller one than that which I used to allow to exist. However, to extrapolate out from such experiences and to then believe that mistakes are mostly down to grammar is a fallacy of the highest order, albeit a fallacy I – and many many other teachers – have been suckered by, and that is still (implicitly, perhaps) propagated by The System.

If you want to become more aware of the real issues that students face when attempting to put their slow accumulation of knowledge into practice then a change of tack is needed – as is a focus on tasks which require the production of language outside the narrow confines of what are essentially grammar drills of varying kinds. Of course, one way of doing this is to listen to students as they speak and to pick up on things they struggle with or make mistakes with. This is all well and good and to be encouraged, I think, though I have a residual suspicion that what most teachers actually pick up during freer slots is grammar. This is what we’re most trained to focus on, and the way most of us are still trained to perceive error, and old habits die hard. In addition, of course, in the flow and flux of everyday conversation, with maybe 8 or 9 pairs of students all talking at once in class, it’s hard to notice much at all, let alone to notice it, think of decent ways of reformulating it, note this down somewhere or get it on the board somehow in a way that might later lead to you being able to do something interactive with it! No wonder we fall back into noticing what we’ve already been primed to notice. Even when we break through the filter of grammar and start seeing language in a broader sense, we all still come to the correction / recasting of student speech with our own schema, our own repertoires and bags of tricks that we know we can spin out into something of possible value, and all of this hampers us in our efforts to truly hear clearly and reformulate cogently and thoroughly.

Which brings us to an innovation I picked up from my co-author and colleague, Andrew Walkley. Both of us teach at University of Westminster and we both use the coursebooks we’ve co-authored, OUTCOMES. A few terms back, Andrew started using Vocaroo, about which I’ll say more in a future Talking Tech post, to help students get to grips with the weight of new lexis they encoutered in class. These were students studying 15 hours a week, and at the end of every week we record fifty chunks / collocations onto Vocaroo and send the link to all the students. They then write them down as best they can, like a dictation; we send the original list and students then write examples of how they think they might actually use each item – or hear each being used. These are emailed over and we correct them, comment on them, etc.

On one level, it’s a very sobering experience because words that you felt you’d explained well, given extra examples of, nailed as it were, come back at you half digested, or garbled, or in utterly alien contexts with bizarre co-text. Of course, what’s really going on is the new language is somehow slowly getting welded awkwardly onto the old; meanings in the broadest sense are largely understood, but contexts of use not yet clearly grasped. Grammar mistakes of a far more complex and unwieldy kind than I’ve been to Australia in 1992 rear their ugly heads, mistakes far less amenable to communication games; meanings are expressed clumsily and yet more fluent ways of expressing them are elusive or many, making cogent feedback hard to frame in places.

This should not surprise, of course. The fact that students have encountered new items in class, seen them once or twice or even three times in some kind of context, possibly translated them and more or less grasped their meanings is simply evidence of the fact that they’ve not yet been primed anywhere near sufficiently. For fluent users who’ve grasped new items, there’s been encounter after encounter after encounter, with item and with co-text in context; for learners, this process has only just begun, and as a result the odds of priming from L1 being brought over when it comes to using the new items creatively is very high indeed.

It also tempers the expectation one should have of the power and value of correction. I’m under no illusion that the detailed comments and extensive correction / recasting I carry out on student efforts (see below) will result in correct and fluent use henceforth. Rather, I see my work here simply as further efforts to prime and to draw attention to glitches, misconceptions, perennial misuses and so on; in short, I am merely a condensed and rather more focused part of the priming process.

What else you realise is the sheer futility of trying to explain much error through the filter of grammar. Take the first sentence shown below – The area has been deserted after a huge flooding 3 years ago. What’s a dogged grammar hound to do here? Point out that if we’re using AFTER when talking about something that happened three years ago,m we’d generally use the past simple, so if we want to use the present perfect, it’d be better to use SINCE? If we’re talking about flooding, it’s usually uncountable and thus kill the A? Even if you were to do this, you’d still be left with: The area has been deserted since huge flooding three years ago, which still sounds very stilted and forced. Often, the only real solution to the morass of oddness these sentences throw one into is rather severe reworking, with options sometimes given, questions sometimes asked, and explanations often proffered.

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Now, of course, you could very well argue that the task here has created the errors, and to a degree that’d obviously be true. However, the range of issues students have with each item varies immensely depending on L1, how much they read in English, what they’re actually trying to say and so on, so the range of problems is also massively expanded in comparison to what emerges from controlled grammar practice activities!

As well as casting a fairly glaring light onto the complexity of fluent language use and the long convoluted process of attempting to integrate the new with the old, it all also suggests that when we’re teaching new vocabulary, we need to pay more attention and thought to how well we’re priming students. The more we insist on – and write up – single ways or short ungrammaticalised chunks / collocations – the less chance our students have of really coming to terms with the ways in which new items are typically used with previously learned grammar and vocabuklary, or the kinds of (often fairly limited) contexts in which items are used.

Any of you who ever have to deal with student writing as they prepare to do degrees or Master’s in English, where all the kinds of issues seen above are compounded with serious discoursal and structural issues, spelling problems, paragraphing anomalies, and so on will know what I mean when I claim that prevention is infinitely desirable to cure.

And that the medicine needed really isn’t all that much to do with grammar as we know it!

Twenty things in twenty years part seven: input is more important than output

To say that the CTEFLA that was my gateway into the world of English Language Teaching encouraged me to be output-focused would be an understatement. Like many teachers who’ve come through the British ELT system, with its roots firmly in that bare minimum of twenty days of training, and teaching practice from day two of your course, I had bred into me a deep fear of Teacher Talking Time (I can’t be the only one, for example, that was intimidated with lunatic Mathematics along the lines of ‘70% of the talk time should be theirs, leaving you with only 30%!’). This quite naturally engendered a desire to ensure that my students were kept talking at any cost. Indeed, so desperate was I to ensure that I managed to keep my students talking that for at least a year early on, this particular tome was my Bible:

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It’s basically a recipe book full of activities designed to do what it says on the tin – keep student talking – and until tonight, I’d not looked at if for at least fifteen years. However, dusting my dog-eared copy down from the shelves, I see that I’ve highlighted several old favourites. There’s the aptly named MAD DISCUSSION for starters, which I believe I used to know as pizza or Paris, and which involves splitting the class into two teams, asking one member from each team to come forward and then have them talk about why their topic – picked at random from a bag – is better than that of their opponent. Pizzas or Paris, plastic spoons or zips, the wheel or detective novels, and so on. Then there was MAGIC SHOP, which involved each student getting three slips of paper, every one containing a different positive human quality (honesty, health, humility, adaptability, and so on). Students decide which qualities to keep and which to barter with others. They then get ten minutes’ bartering time before reporting back on which qualities they’ve ended up with and how happy this has made them! I could go on, but the urge to invent a time machine and go back and inflict serious damage on my younger self would start to become overwhelming.

Now, given the fact that a four-week course is never going to teach even the most remarkable trainee to really be able to do anything other than fake it, I suspect that much of the reason behind the relentless emphasis on STUDENT talking time is simply a fear that the novice teacher will start spouting rubbish given half a chance. I know for sure that I did, repeatedly, and I’ve seen plenty of other young teachers do the same, if not worse!

Instead, far better, the logic runs, to train the teacher to be some kind of all-singing, all-dancing entertainer who can magic fun out of anything available and who may not know much about language, but who sure knows how to get the party started. And once it starts ebbing, how to rekindle it and keep it burning all lesson long!

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However, in reality, the fact that novices may well spout nonsense is actually an argument for introducing longer, more comprehensive and more language-focused teacher training courses for those entering the profession, or – at the very minimum – an argument for more serious discussion of what KINDS of teacher talk may be valid and what be more problematic, and why – rather than an argument in favour of endless activities and talking for its own sake.

Another argument put forward in support of an output-dominated pedagogy is the notion that if not here, then where? In other words, if students don’t practise in class, then where will they ever get the chance to do so? Interestingly, even more recent critiques of the state of affairs we’ve gotten ourselves into such as the Demand High idea propagated by Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill still seems more focused on methodology and on what we as teachers can do in terms of classroom techniques to encourage our students to produce more and to stretch and expand their output.

The result has long been, continues to be and sadly will probably continue to be, for as long as CELTAs are still regarded as serious gateways into the profession, classrooms full of clowns with their bags of tricks, recipes, fun in large neon lights, and loads of hot air. Signifying very little indeed.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way at all, you know! It took me a while to work this out, but once I did, the blinding obviousness of the revelation almost . . . um . . . well, blinded me, I suppose. Anyway, here’s the secret. It’s this: students don’t actually learn language by chatting away using the language they already have, now matter how much fun they may have in the process. They actually learn language from language. Not images. Not blank spaces in coursebooks left in to lighten the visual load on a page. Not from running round the classroom in a  frenzy. But from language.

Whilst it’s possible that some of the interaction students engage in with other students during a lesson may expose them to new input or encourage them to produce for themselves things that had hitherto remained stuck in the receptive parts of the brain, we need to accept that it also may NOT. This isn’t to say that there are no good reasons for still doing pair work: there are obviously plenty. It’s simply to state that linguistic development and enrichment are NOT among the activity’s prime functions!

To really get over the Intermediate hump and to progress anywhere near to Advanced level, students not only to practise again saying what they’ve already learned to say. They need to take on board large amounts – huge amounts even – of new language. They need to tighten up on their ability to use grammar, sure, but basically they need a ton of lexis: collocations, chunks, fixed and semi-fixed expressions, and so on. They need to meet these things repeatedly, they need to have certain salient features of them brought to their attention somehow and they need to do something – possibly, actually, they need to do almost anything – with them. Given that the teacher alone cannot be expected – or, of course, in most cases (my own included, I hasten to add!) be trusted – to provide sufficient relevant input themselves, via correction and teacher talk, then the issue of INPUT becomes perhaps the most pressing one that teachers have to think about.

Given that we seem to be living through the days of increasingly shrill rhetoric about flipped classrooms and that we’re constantly being told that technology now facilities exposure to English 24-7-365, many might argue that now more than ever the classroom should be output focused, but I would turn this on its head – or flip it, if you prefer (see what I did there!) – and ask if not in class, then where – and, more crucially, when?! The fact remains that for the vast majority of students, class is the one place where they have a hope of getting input pitched roughly at their level, which can then be mediated, explained, expanded upon, explored and revised by a professional – that’s us, kids – and that’s because most students who wind up in EFL classes, especially those who come as adults, are essentially failures in varying degrees. The lucky few, those who can learn a foreign language via interaction, are skipping class in favour of going out there and learning language through interaction! The rest of us miserable wretches all know what we ought to do if we really want to learn a foreign language well, but Lord knows that doing right is the hardest work there is on God’s own earth – and that it ain’t nowhere near as much fun as doing wrong.

If you’re honest, you know that most students don’t do much outside of class to push on from where they’re at. They do what we all do – take easy options and short cuts. They may well do some interactive stuff online, which is fine, but it’s not tackling new input; they may well try and tackle some insanely optimistically graded text of some kind – The Guardian, perhaps, or a two-hour movie that contains accents and language even native-speakers may well struggle with in places; but what all but the most motivated and focused few won’t do is read graded readers, do an hour (or even half an hour) a day from decent self-study vocabulary books, and so on. It’s too much like hard work.

And the fact that we not only have such an expression in English, but that it’s such common currency says much about the age in which we live, I fear!

Anyway, to wrap up for tonight, this is where the choice of material becomes crucial. Material we select for classroom use needs to take the weight of all these issues on its shoulders. It needs to amuse and entertain, for sure, but also it needs to push and stretch as well. On top of that, it needs to guide and shape awareness both of how language works and also of what needs to be done to get to the next rung on the ladder of linguistic competence. It needs, in short, to demand more of its users. And if we as teachers are serious about demanding high, then making sure our classes are focused first and foremost on input rather than output is not simply an option, but a must.

Teaching grammar lexically

A week or so ago, I posted up my first experiment with narrating Powerpoint presentations, as i tried to run through a talk I did at our inaugural University of Westminster Lexical Conference. As promised back then, I’ve managed to make another similar kind of thing, this time using Camtasia and then uploading it directly onto YouTube, which this blogging platform then allows me to embed here!

Anyway, this was the closing plenary to the one-day conference, and is really a condensation of many of the thoughts I’ve had over the last twelve to fifteen years about why the way I was taught to teach grammar isn’t particularly useful or efficient – and how we might start to redress this and do things better henceforth.

It seems stupid to spend too long giving much of a preamble to a video where I get to talk for myself at, I’m sure some might say, considerable length, so I’ll cut to the chase and leave you to watch this yourselves. Hope you enjoy it – and I look forward to reading your thoughts and comments.

Talking Tech 2: Snappy Words

One of the comments made after my first foray into blogging about some of the tech tools that are touted for teachers was that I must’ve chosen a duff site for starters so that I could have a good rant. Now, as any of you who read my blog regularly know, I do like a good rant as much as the next person, if not more, and as I previously promised, I will also be blogging at some point about some sites / tools that I rate and think have validity in ELT. However, it really must be said that you don’t actually have to look very hard to find soft targets. As the dash towards digital becomes ever more frenzied, so Scoop It and other ‘curating’ (how I loathe that term!) mechanisms become ever more clogged with uncritical propaganda bombarding decent teachers with endless things that we’re all supposed to be keeping up with if we are to survive as teachers in the 21st century . . . and, perhaps predictably, most of them are utter dross and not worth wasting teachers’ time with, let alone students’ precious spare moments! Or do I mean extra moments? Or redundant ones? Or excess? All will be soon be revealed!

Today’s topic is Snappy Words. I can’t for the life of me remember who first suggested I spend half an hour of my life checking this site out, but those are thirty minutes I’ll never get back and if and when I do remember, I’ll hold them personally responsible. As is to be expected, the site itself touts its wares with some considerable degree of self-promotion. Apparently, Snappy Words is a free visual English dictionary and thesaurus that lets you search the meaning of words and other associated words”. Enter any word or phrase into the search box and it will create a web of related words, phrases, and definitions. Hover your cursor over any word or phrase in the web to read its definition. Click and drag any node to explore other branches of the web. Double click on a node and it will generate new web branches. Oh, and it’s free! All the 21st buzzwords you could wish for in just a couple of sentences: click, drag, free, fun, web, visual – the works!

And a brief trawl of the ELT-oriented sites out there promulgating these things for teachers reveal that most folk simply take the hype at face value. Here’s just a sample of the gushing guff that folks would have us believe: “Snappy Words could be a good resource for students that are stuck in the rut of using the same words and phrases repeatedly in their writing” – yes, God forbid that students should learn how to use words and phrases and then repeat their use again. Where would we be if repetition ever occurred?! “Snappy Words will give such students access to alternative words and their definitions much faster than thumbing through a thesaurus.” Another suggested use is as follows: “learners can use it either before a new theme or reading, as well as for revisions – especially to set during a self-learning time where each learner focuses on vocabulary they want/need, thus adding personalized learning in a very simple way.”

As is always the way with these things, it sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?

Well, in keeping with the tech theme, I’ve made a relatively teched-up little overview of what happens if and when students were to go to Snappy Words, so you can judge the rest for yourself.

Enjoy.

Clearly, the site suffers from many of the dictionary issues arising from using free online sources that I blogged about when discussing Lingro, but these problems are compounded by its very nature: the web of supposedly related meanings just vomits forth language problem after language problem that any student ill-advised enough to waste time here would be confronted with. Within seconds of starting off on the start they wind up dropping down one rabbit hole or another, possibly only emerging many minutes later none the wiser and possibly considerably more baffled than they previously had been.

I’m reminded of a student who once came to me at the end of a lesson and asked  if the sentence It has typical peacock markings was correct. Bemused as to where this sentence had come from, and also curious as to what on earth the IT in the sentence might be if it wasn’t actually referring to a peacock, because, let’s face it, not many things out there do actually have typical peacock marking, I asked – only to be told it was from my previous class! I know I may sometimes write things up on the board that I later realise could’ve been done better, but this struck me as an unlikely lapse. I said it seemed unlikely, and asked if she could show me where exactly it was from. I was then pointed to an exercise in Innovations Intermediate (I think) that was looking at national stereoptypes, adjectives used to describe groups of people, and how to refute or argue back against stereotpyes, so it’d contained things like:

He’s a typical Englishman – cold and unfriendly.

> Oh, come on! I’ve met plenty of English people who were really warm and friendly.

and so on. TYPICAL had been used in almost every mini-dialogue, and I’d thought I’d explained it rather well at the time, but this particular student, whether because of diligence or confusion, had gone home, looked the word up and in the examples of the word in action that they’re terrible dictionary had provided for them then encountered the gem above about having typical peacock markings. As this sentence contained two words that were unknown, the dictionary had come out again and had led to peacock blue and proud as a peacock, followed by did you mark where it fell and the marks of violence! The student had given up at this point, quite wisely, but clearly could have contained unravelling this thread indefinitely!

This way of studying takes a long time and is bound to lead to confusion.  It also illustrates the problem many students have when they separate grammar and words and when they rely predominantly on dictionaries.

Yet dictionaries, even ones that come up with the kind of weirdness described above, don’t come anywhere near to taking students down shit creek and abandoning there when seen in the light of Snappy Words. And let’s face it, that’s not a place most students pay us to deposit them.

Without even leaving them a paddle!

Working exercises hard

Last weekend at University of Westminster, we held our first one-day Lexical Conference. This will hopefully now become an annual event, and we were greatly encouraged by the fact that it sold out and also by the wonderful speakers we had. Alongside myself and Andrew Walkley, we had Leo Selivan, Philip Kerr, Nick Bilbrough, Luke Fletcher, Richard Paterson and Katie Mansfield, Muralee Navaratnam and as special guests of honour Michael Hoey and Michael Lewis.

I did two sessions – a plenary entitled Teaching Grammar Lexically – and a workshop called Working Exercises Hard. I had a couple of folk email me to ask if I had an online version of the sessions, which I didn’t, but due to popular request (well, ONE request at least!), I’ve trained myself how to use a great site that allows you to upload Powerpoints and narrate them and below is the fruits of my labour.

Thought it’d make a change as a blog post and if it is well received, it may be something I try and do again.

Hope you enjoy watching this and look forward to your comments and questions.

Connecting the classroom to the world outside

As you can probably imagine, a not inconsiderable number of the presentations at the recent IATEFL conference in Liverpool revolved around technology – and (less frequently!) its use in ELT. On occasion when watching some of these sessions, I did start to feel as though I’d stumbled into a fairly poor advertising hour (“Have you heard about Brainshark? Well, it’s a great sight that could have wonderful application in the language classroom”) as I’m subjected to such strident pitches for sites that I often wonder if the presenters are on commission – and if not, then why not?! At other times, you get almost comic misrepresentations or misunderstandings of what certain sites may be able to do for you and for your students (“Scoop.It – a great site that helps you publish class magazines”), but without a doubt the single biggest claim often made to support the utilization of more tech in the language classroom is that it somehow helps to “connect” your classroom to “the real world”.

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Now, I’m sure that I myself have been guilty on more than one occasion in the past of talking about “the real world” as somehow existing outside of – and in contrast to – the classroom, but let’s face it, it’s a daft construct, isn’t it? The classroom is as much a part of ‘the real world’ as the police station, the football stadium, the hospital or the newsroom. Students do not cease to be ‘real people’ simply because they step into the language classroom, and teachers are no less ‘real’ there either!

I was given pause to think further about all of this last week as I was went in to teach my Upper-Intermediate class on Monday morning, the day after the Boston bombings. Like most of you out there, I suspect, I suffer from the usual slow drift of students into class, despite the fact we have an institutional lateness policy that excludes students until the break time (I teach three-hour classes – from 09:00 to midday) if they turn up more than fifteen minutes late. As such, we usually kick off with some chatting and some reformulation of student output – or, if you prefer, what a certain strain of conference attendees have started referring to as ‘Dogme moments’, a phrase guaranteed to raise hackles!). Understandably, this often involves “the real world” impinging on the classroom as students want to discuss things they’ve seen or heard about outside over the weekend, etc. I was expecting something about the bombings to come up, but as it turned out several of the students hadn’t heard anything about it, simply because they don’t really keep up with the news, or if they do, it’s L1 news mainly focused on home. The one student who did seem to be up on the story simply said “Yes! Terrible! Terrible!” when I asked if folk had seen the news about it, and all we ended up with on the board as a result was the following:

Did you see the news about the bombings in Boston?

> Yeah, it’s awful, isn’t it?

Horrendous! And no-one has admitted responsibility yet, so they’ve got no idea who did it.

> Well, let’s hope they catch the culprits soon.

The underlined words, I gave the first letter of each and then paraphrased the meaning, in order to elicit from the group. They provided all of the words except for culprit (“I know what you mean, but I don’t know this word”), which I then gave then . . . and they then carried on chatting with each other about their weekends – trips to Cambridge, a musical someone had seen, the weather, a great new Japanese restaurant, and so on! The usual mish-mash of activities that students engage in over a London weekend. Some further reformulation occurred and at 9.15, we locked the door – metaphorically speaking, in case you were wondering – and got on with the class.

if you adhere to (one of ) the tech evangelist lines, and particularly the tech-Dogme nexus that I’ve touched on before, then perhaps this might have been a moment to follow the road to “the real world” and ‘zap in’ some content from the outside world. I’ve often seen it suggested that one of the great advantages of the ‘connected’ classroom is that the teacher is able to tap into students’ supposed interests in current affairs and the like, and at the click of a button, access content online that deals with these issues.

What the teacher then actually DOES with this content is less clear, in general, but let’s for a moment roll with this idea. Let’s assume that the flicker of interest that the bombings elicited was something I decided was worth pursuing and that, on a whim, I called up a BBC news report . . .  this one, for instance . . .

What does one DO with this? Perhaps I show the class it, and tell them to take notes on what they understood. They could then compare ideas in pairs or groups, and I could then round up, picking up on things they were struggling to say. None of these things are bad per se, but there are issues particularly to do with what (a) how much the teacher – and the students – ARE actually able to notice, in terms of new language (b) whether what we notice on the first couple of listens IS actually the most useful and worthwhile language to spend time looking at and (c) what on earth one THEN does with the video after all of this.

My own feeling is that one of the great advantages of published classroom material – at least the good stuff out there – is that it’s generally well graded and that there’s usually at least SOME focus on language contained within texts and that the teacher is able to sit down before the class and have a look at exercises they’ll be teaching – and tapescripts / readings they’ll be working with – and think about the language that’s available in therm to be taught. With ‘zapped in’ material, we’re left to rely on our wits and our intuition and noticing skills, and this places a great burden on the teacher. We often simply notice what’s unusual or strange on first listen. Try it yourself with the video clip above. Listen through and note down what you think you’d pick up on and think about teaching?

The first time I did it the words and phrases I picked up on were the finish line, cordoned off, a line of copy / copy and breaking news. Now, whilst these items will almost certainly be NEW for many students at Upper-Intermediate level, you don’t need to be a linguistic genius to realise that actually these may well not be the most USEFUL items in that particular listening. Far more fruitful to explore – and far harder to be aware of and to pick up on whilst doing this kind of thing ‘live’ – would be things like THEY’RE INVESTIGATING THE EXPLOSIONS / THEY’VE LAUNCHED AN INVESTIGATION INTO THE EXPLOSIONS . . . and to then explore words around INVESTIGATION: a thorough / police INVESTIGATION; they’re still pursuing their INVESTIGATION; the INVESTIGATION has revealed that . . . and so on.

In addition to all of this, there’s then the question of what one might do AFTER viewing this zapped in content? Ask the class to comment on and discuss how they feel about? well, you may very well STILL not get much more than “Terrible! Terrible!” out of them! Ask them to speculate about who may have carried it out? Good luck with that one! Usually a recipe for all manner of prejudices and conspiracy theories to pour forth – or else simple honesty along the lines of ‘How on earth should I know!’

So, yes, of course technology CAN bring content from the web into the classroom, but there are clearly issues about whether or not this is desirable, what it leads to in terms of teaching – and whether this is the most useful thing we could be teaching at this time, the load it places on teachers, the random accumulation of language it results in, the often fairly unsatisfactory conversations that then result and so on.

However, believe it or not, none of this is really the point I wanted to make today in this post! The above is really just an exercise in thinking through how conference claims about the ability of tech to ‘connect’ us to ‘the real world’ could pan in out in reality and in specific exercises. What I really wanted to focus on today was the fact that in reality, it’s surely the TEACHER and the STUDENTS that connect classrooms to ‘the real world’ – as we all live in both that world out there and the classroom simultaneously.

In my class last Monday, the other connection to the bombings actually came whilst we were doing a reading from OUTCOMES Upper-Intermediate based around an email from someone who’d been in Venice for the carnival. One exercise that followed the reading was encouraging students to extract certain lexical items from the text and looked like this:

D                  Find words in the email that mean the same thing as the words in italics in 1-8.

1                  It was very kind of Nina to let me stay at her house for free.

2                  The city was completely full of tourists.

3                  It’s not surprising most costumes look so good.

4                  The locals generally continue with traditional costumes.

5                  The Plague Doctor costume is quite scary and threatening and evil.

6                  The food is delicious, but high in calories.

7                  Venice is completely changed in a good way during carnival.

8                  People light and explode fireworks all the time.

Students scoured the text again to find the correct words. As they were doing this, I got some extra examples onto the board to show more about how to use some of the items. As usual, I left some words gapped so that these could be elicited as we checked things. I then put them in pairs to compare their ideas before rounding up and going through the answers (which were, in case you were curious, as follows: put me up, packed with, no wonder, stick to, sinister, fattening, transformed, set off). As I elicited the answers, I explained meanings, paraphrased, gave extra examples, contextualised usage and so on. Here’s just one section of the board by the time we’d finished:

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“The real world” impinges here in all manner of different ways – as it does everyday as we work our way through the class coursebook! The comment about eating biscuits was a joke on both myself and a lovely Chinese guy I’m teaching, Xuhong, who insists on bringing a large packet of custard creams to class every day, many of which I then feel compelled to eat, resulting in both of us bemoaning our expanding waistlines!

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The mobile network comment was clearly a reflection of the day’s news from Boston! Perhaps ironically, this then sparked more discussion than the initial conversation at the start of the class! There was some discussion about how this actually worked, what the mechanics of this were; the fact that the Madrid bombings had been set off by mobile led to a brief explanation of what these bombings had actually been, for those unaware of them; there was then considerable talk about how hard it must be for the rest of the city to function without mobile connectivity!

And then we moved on to some speaking, with students discussing festivals / carnivals they’d been to!

So my point here is that the idea that technology automatically ensures ‘connectivity’ with the outside (‘real’) world not only needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt – and critiqued and considered thoroughly, but that it also actually fails to take into account the ways in which teachers link what’s in coursebooks to what’s going on outside throughout our working lives, day in, day out.

A Dogme approach to coursebooks: Part Two

In the first part of this two-piece post, I basically ran through the talk I gave at IATEFL Liverpool this year, in which I explored some of the ways in which the original ideas behind Dogme can be used to better exploit classroom material. Here, I want to move on to consider how else some of the ideas put forward might Dogme contribute to good practice when it comes to utilizing coursebooks?

Well, the first two commandments of Dogme are interactivity – the belief that the most direct route to learning is to be found in the interactivity between teachers and students and among the students themselves – and dialogic processes, the idea that learning is social and dialogic, and that knowledge is co-constructed.

In a hardcore Dogme approach, these ideas are thrust forward to support the notion of a speaking-activity-and-reformulation-only kind of approach, yet there’s surely no reason why interaction and dialogue can’t be part of how we use coursebooks. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that you can’t really use a coursebook well unless you do so interactively and unless there’s dialogue involved in the checking of answers, in the exploitation of texts and so on. Let’s consider another example. Let’s look at how it’s possible to run the listening that follows the speaking about social issues that I showed and considered in the first part of this post.

Imagine for a minute that you’re a student in one of my classes. You know that you’re going to hear five news extracts and that your task, first time around, is to match each one to one of the social issues previously discussed in this Speaking slot below.

Untitled

Now, I’ve yet to work out if it’s actually possible to embed sound files into WordPress blog posts, so until then I’m going to have simply include links.

Play the first two extracts here and match them to the relevant topics above, OK?

Listening text 1

Listening text 2

Once you’d listened (to all five extracts, obviously, in a real classroom situation), I’d then put you in pairs and ask you to discuss with your partner which issues they were discussing – and how you knew. While you were doing this, I’d be writing on the board gapped sentences containing relevant bits of lexis from the extracts themselves that I wanted to focus on whilst rounding up the answers, to see how much language you’d noticed whilst processing the listening texts for gist. The board may well end up looking something like this.

Boardwork:

They’ve launched a new i………. aimed at ending homelessness.

There’s growing c………… about the number of people sleeping r……….. .

Homeless people often end up v………. to drugs and violence.

She took her employers to c…….. and won her c………. .

She was d………. promotion because she was pregnant.

She was a…………… €487,000 compensation.

I’d then stop you and round up by asking “OK, so number 1. Which issue were they talking about? Yeah, OK. Homelessness. How do you know?” and then from what students told me – with some prompting of my own, I’d paraphrase the gaps above and elicit – or try to – the missing words (initiative, concern, rough, vulnerable, court, case, denied and awarded – just in case you were wondering). So, for instance, to elicit the first gap, I might say something like “Yeah, the government – or the local council – is starting – launching – this new plan of action to try and tackle the problem of homelessness, so they’re launching an? Right. An initiative. Where’s the stress? Good. INItiative. Everyone. Again. Good!”

Once we’d finished with the listening text, I’d then ask students to tell each other about any similar stories they’d heard – and to explain how they feel about each one.

Now, it seems to me that even this tiny little snippet of classroom practice involves plenty of interactivity: you’d be interacting with the listening text and then with other students; I’d then interact with the whole class as a group, AND with the language from the text AND with the board. Out of the dialogue we’d engage in, we’d reach a mutual understanding of – and deeper appreciation of – the texts and this two-way dialogue would ensure that the strongest and most confident among the group were called upon to provide language for the weaker and less confident members. The teacher may lead, but the input would be co-constructed and mediated.

Finally, by then discussing with each other similar stories students had heard about, we’d address three final commandments from the Dogme Big Ten: voice – the learners’ voices are given recognition, along with your beliefs and knowledge; relevance – the relevance of the materials to the students’ lives is explored and opened up, and through doing this there’s a kind of critical use that comes into play as well. Dogme suggests that teachers and students should use published material and coursebooks in a critical way that recognizes their cultural and ideological biases. Well, by ensuring students have the opportunity to relate content to their own experiences, worldviews, cultures and countries, the material facilitates exactly this. It encourages the students to localize content and language – and to word their own worlds, having first been scaffolded and supported en route. And if that’s not Dogme, then I don’t know what is!

So there you have it. What I’ve tried to do with these two posts is to help shunt Dogme away from the posturing and pseudo-revolutionary communes it’s been in danger of moving permanently into and dragged it back towards something approaching the middle ground. And I’ve possibly also helped – albeit in some tiny little way, natch – to reframe the debate around what is and isn’t Dogme.

Perhaps rather than setting things up as coursebook versus teaching unplugged, we can now start to consider how some of the basic precepts behind the original manifesto can guide and inform both the utilization and the construction of more worthwhile coursebook material.

A Dogme aproach to coursebooks: Part One

In 1995, two Danish film directors – Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg – created the Dogme 95 manifesto and said their vows of chastity. These were rules that they claimed they had introduced in order to stimulate a return to filmmaking based on traditional values of story, acting and theme. The idea was very much a rejection of the increasingly Hollywood-influenced approach that made liberal use of special effects and technology. Launched at an event in Paris intended to celebrate 100 years of cinema, the concept attracted a lot of publicity, with its insistence on a deliberate move away from post-production, from soundtracks and from visual trickery, generic predictability and so on. Dogme 95 promised nothing less than a way to reengage audiences sated and bloated by years of overproduction.

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It was, however, three more years until the first two films bearing the official Dogme seal of approval were released – Festen and The Idiots. Interestingly, neither film adhered strictly to the ten tenets suggested in the original manifesto and a mere five years later, after the 31st film was officially verified by the original board as Dogme-valid, the movement was essentially dead in the water. Today, filmmakers inspired by the original idea can submit a form online and tick a box which states they “truly believe that the film … has obeyed all Dogme 95 rules as stated in the vow of chastity”. In other words, the revolution has become merely an opt-in badge of convenience.

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You may of course be wondering what any of this has to do with ELT. Well, in 2000 Scott Thornbury launched his own attempt at revolution: Dogme Language Teaching. Initially intended as a partially tongue-in-cheek attempt to restore the communicative aspect to communicative language teaching and to reject the over-reliance on the seemingly endless material churned out by publishing houses, all of which were seen as a barrier to real communication between the social agents present in the classroom, Dogme has become the dogma that refuses to die – the methodological flag of resistance for countless teachers and the subject of much heated debate both in its defence and in opposition to its admittedly somewhat fuzzy precepts.

Scott Thornbury

Chief among these precepts are the importance of teaching being driven by conversation, the importance of a focus on emergent language and the importance of not allowing material to block the channels of communication between teacher and students. There is also a focus on interactivity, engagement and dialogue, scaffolding and what Thornbury terms ‘affordances‘.

In the 13 years since Scott’s original opening salvo, Dogme has come to mean many things to many people, perhaps unconsciously echoing the way Dogme 95 has ended up becoming an opt-in concept. Self-proclaimed dogmeticians blog furiously about so-called teach-offs where a teacher shackled by a coursebook struggles in vain against a teacher liberated from such chains and thus able to truly tap in to their students’ wants and needs. Apparently. Or is Dogme really about replacing materials with found objects and the conversations that may – or of course may not – emerge around them? Can Teaching Unplugged really involve plugging in and turning on? Are videos and Internet-sourced material allowed within a Dogme approach? If so, can some materials be deemed to be more Dogme-friendly than others? Or are all such approaches heretical and a digression from the one true path?

It has long been assumed that this approach – or group of sympathetically related approaches – is by its very nature anti-coursebook. Indeed, one of Scott’s original ten commandments insisted that “students and teachers are empowered by freeing the classroom of published materials and textbooks”, a statement that always struck me as slightly odd coming, as it did, from a man with his own name on several ELT coursebooks!

That notwithstanding, what I aim to do in this post, is not so much to pick holes in Dogmethat’s something I’ve already done in some detail earlier on this blog, after all – but rather to explore ways in which the main principles behind Dogme can actually inform both the way we use and the way we write classroom materials. I will be considering what a conversation-driven approach to teaching might potentially look like, how scaffolding might best be realized, what kind of affordances teachers might best avail themselves of, how and when we might focus on emergent language and how coursebooks can still be seen as materials light!

So let’s begin with the idea of teaching being conversation-driven. I think few people here would argue that in General English classes in particular it is the spoken language that is most desired by students and is most central in terms of placing students in the correct level. We’ve all met plenty of students whose written work or paper test scores may well be perfectly decent but who’s speaking condemns them to a lower level than maybe they’re happy with. The ability to speak and listen well is at the root of linguistic competence. However, in what might be termed a ‘pure’ Dogme approach, the conversation either emerges organically from the class and is then mediated by the teacher, who has to be incredibly alert and incredibly adept at paraphrasing, guiding, extending and so on, or else it develops in response to some kind of task – materials by default if you like – designed to get (or keep) students talking. The first strategy is risky and leaves the teacher at the mercy of the talkative or uncaring student who wants to discuss last night’s football match or engage in direct one-to-one with them; it also relies on endless reformulation and as anyone who does a lot of this knows, it’s all too easy to jump on something familiar when it comes up and then spin out a little teacher-driven section based on something we’ve taught before. The second strategy is bitty, gimmicky, recipe-driven and assumes that discussing, say, a sugar lump found on a chair is somehow more ‘authentic’ or worthwhile than discussing questions in a coursebook or a particular kind of conversation. And in both instances, the world is reduced to the here-and-now; students only get to learn how to say better things they need at the moment of communicating. There’s little going on that factors long-term needs or more abstract, less immediately pressing concerns into the picture.

None of which is to say that I don’t think we should be aiming to teach conversation. I just happen to think materials can help us do it better.  Interestingly, the Common European Framework also seems to be insisting far more of our teaching is focused directly on teaching particular kinds of communicative competences – or can-do statements – and thus provides us with a guide to what are widely deemed the most useful conversations students should learn how to produce and process at each level. When you consider that for A1 students, say (or Beginners, if you prefer) these conversations include things like ‘CAN understand straightforward explanations of the members of a host family and the layout of the house’ and ‘CAN go to a self-service or fast-food establishment and order a meal, especially where the food on offer is either visually illustrated or can be pointed to’, you realize that these conversations are highly unlikely to just develop organically, especially in classes of this level. As such, if we want our students to converse well and we want conversation to drive our teaching, material designed with these goals in mind can surely help us.

There are two choices if you want to go down the road of focusing on conversations like these: either you get students to try them first, then teach the gaps, then get them to try again – an approach some call Test-Teach-Test, that other see as Task-based Learning, but which has also been claimed as Dogme . . . or you write material – or use material that’s been written – to present core lexis and grammar that will be useful in these conversations, to present model conversations students can hear before attempting them themselves and so on. I know which one I think works better! If you believe, as Dogme‘s original tenets seem to, that scaffolded conversations are important, and that teachers and learners need to co-construct knowledge and skills, I’d argue that material can frequently offer superior scaffolding myself.

Now possibly a teacher could conceivably flip the kind of material that a coursebook can provide scaffolding with when trying to encourage conversations like this, and could build up to the final conversation through a series of teacher-led tasks that encourage students to generate language that is then reworked or reformulated, but it seems like a demanding, actually very teacher-centred way of doing things when material could carry some of the weight of this load for all concerned.

So, materials can clearly be conversationally driven and classrooms using materials can be too. However, if we’re serious about our teaching being driven by conversation, then I think we need to always be looking for opportunities to allow conversations that suggest themselves to take flight and to flourish. In a sense, we need to take on board Scott Thornbury’s sixth commandment, which he dubs affordances and describes thus: the teacher’s role is to optimize language learning affordances through directing attention to emergent language.

Now, in what you might call a classical Dogme sense, this has widely been taken to mean picking up on things students are trying to say and helping them to say it better – whether that be by immediate reformulation or via subsequent boardwork or even by noting student utterances down and later sending them individualized voice recordings or notes via email. That’s all well and good, and I’m all for teachers doing more of this kind of working from what students are trying to say when engaged in meaningful communication – and will return to this shortly. However, surely the notion of ’emergent language’ could be taken to mean NOT ONLY language – or gaps in language – that emerge as students engage with speaking activities or slots or tasks, call them what you will, but also language that ’emerges’ from materials; language that is embedded in exercises or texts that has the potential to come out and be explored and discussed if the teacher is perceptive enough and sufficiently focused on language to ensure this actually occurs. I’ve taken to calling this kind of language ‘ambient language’ because in the same way as ambient music is music that floats in the background of our lives and may only really be noticed if we force ourselves to actually pay attention to it, this is language that tasks don’t usually force a focus onto, but which can be brought to the fore should we so desire it to be.

By being aware of the ambient vocabulary that lurks within exercises, we can move towards two or three Dogme-friendly goals: we can take advantage of the opportunities to teach and explore new lexis that the material affords us, we can frequently engage the class in further speaking – speaking that relates very directly to particular items of language – AND, by ensuring that we exploit the language on the page in any particular exercise, we thereby end up doing more with less – rather than the less with more phenomenon that seems to have been one of the original things Scott was railing against, as teachers all around him found themselves drowning in a sea of supplementary materials, or else ended up hooked on an endless string of things-to-do without much aim. This, in turn, ensures that whilst our classes may be materials-light, in that we may not cover countless pages of photocopiables or even of the coursebook, we still operate in a language-heavy – or rich – environment!

Let’s just consider what all of this might mean in real practical classroom terms, then. Let’s look at a specific piece of material.

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The exercise you see here on screen is taken from an Intermediate-level coursebook, from a double-page spread that scaffolds and supports students as they learn how to better talk about their feelings. It’s exploring how we use copula verbs – like look, sound, and seem – to initiate conversations about feelings. On a very basic level, it’d be quite possible to ‘teach’ this exercise just by telling students to do it and by then eliciting answers and writing them on the board, before moving on to the practice sections in B and C. However, doing this makes us little more than glorified human answer keys and fails to take advantage of the many ‘affordances’ offered us here.

Firstly, there’s the ambient vocabulary: while the main focus of the task is clearly on the copula verbs and the adjectives used with them in 1-8, (adjectives which are all recycled from a previous vocabulary exercise) for me, when I’m planning a class, my eyes are also drawn to items like broke down, throw up, really behind with work, I don’t get, the spa, split up, upset and so on. I start thinking about what I’ll say about each one as I’m eliciting the answers from the class, whether I’ll add extra examples on the board, what I might ask students about each one – and which words might lend themselves to subsequent speaking slots.

With my current class, which is almost all female and quite well travelled and moneyed, I might, for instance, think spa is worth exploring. So I’d elicit Number 7? Right. F. I think her week in the spa in Prague really helped her. Yeah, what is it, a spa? OK, yeah, it’s like a health club where you can have beauty treatments and go swimming and that kind of thing. So, just quickly in pairs, three things you can get in a spa. Students then brainstorm ideas, which I listen to and try to reformulate onto the board, an act that in itself will recycle and refocus on grammar that’s already been touched on before, like have / get passives. As such, we might end up here with something like this on the board:

I spent the weekend in a spa. It was great.

I had a massage, which was very relaxing.

I had a body wrap. It’s supposed to make you look slimmer!

I had a body scrub to get rid of all the dead skin.

I had a facial.

I had my nails done.

The words I’ve underlined I would probably leave blank as I was writing these sentences up on the board, which I would do whilst listening to what the students were saying. After a few minutes of pooling ideas, I’d stop the group, say “OK, now let’s look at how to say a few things you were talking about better” and then run through the boardwork.

Obviously, students might also ask how to say other connected things, especially if they have experience of these places. Once we’d rounded up on all of this, I’d finish off by going through exercises B and C below and moving on. Obviously, this way of working the language that’s there takes longer and focuses on more than just the words present on the page. Its starting point is thinking about what students might want to SAY – or might heard said by others – using the words that are ‘floating free’ in the material. It works the content more deeply that simply checking answers (and maybe glossing or briefly explaining) words that crop up would do; it allows far greater recycling of grammar; it breaks the class up with lots of little bits of talking and it allows plenty of space for personalization and entertaining sidetracks, humour, anecdotes and so on to emerge.

So I’ve already talked a bit about how coursebook materials can themselves be conversation driven, and how teachers can utilize coursebook materials in a way that increases the potential for conversation in the classroom if they focus on emergent – or ambient – language in class. This latter approach will ensure that materials used in the classroom are explored more thoroughly, from a language point of view, and that the classroom becomes, therefore, relatively materials light. The language that’s already present forms the basis of subsequent exploration and exploitation, and students themselves are used as resource as a matter of course, thus minimizing the need for extra supplementary materials.

One other way in which materials can be exploited and conversation can be fore-fronted is obviously simply by the teacher using the speaking that is generated by materials as an opportunity to explore language on the periphery of what it is that students are able to say. The idea that somehow materials oppress students into silence or deculturalize them or fail to engage them in meaningful communication, and that somehow discussing found objects or photographs ensures more ‘authentic’, whatever that means, conversation in class is a pernicious one, I would suggest, and one that needs to be resisted. The questions we should be asking ourselves as teachers are much more to do with whether or not the conversations we do encourage students to have in the classroom are purposeful, interesting, related to the business of everyday life and – importantly – connected to other input they’ll receive across the course.

Take this exercise, for instance, from an Upper-Intermediate book.

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This has always led to fascinating exchanges of opinions and ideas and plenty of anecdotes, especially if I begin by modeling what I believe the answers to be for the UK. As my students talk in pairs, I pick up on things they’re trying to say, but can’t quite yet, or hear things that I think could be said better. I use their talking time to get boardwork up and we round up by looking at the boardwork, eliciting gaps, giving students time to record and ask questions about what they see. In Teaching Unplugged, Scott and Luke recommend ten strategies that teachers can use to help students engage with emergent language, especially once it’s been reworked or reformulated, and I see absolutely no reason why repeating, recording, researching, reviewing and recycling, for example, cannot happen with language that emerges in response to coursebook material. Here, incidentally, is what ended up appearing on my board the last time I did this speaking in class – and all of this then fed directly into what followed, which was a listening from the coursebook where students heard five news stories related to five of the topics they’d previously discussed.

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Much of what Dogme seems to have unleashed is a bitty, recipe-heavy smorgasbord of speaking activities and while speaking in class is all well and good, it seems to me at least to make more sense if the speaking is interspersed with other work on texts of different kinds – spoken and written, with connected language work, and if all of this can be made to cohere and hang together, both thematically and linguistically, thus ensuring greater coherence and continuity for students.

In this sense, there is clearly one of Dogme‘s original ten commandments that I find myself UNABLE to agree with or condone. The idea that students are most engaged by content they have created themselves seems spurious and unverifiable at best, and it’s hard to see how texts created by the students could be able to offer up language beyond their current level, unless they were reformulated by the teacher . . . which is exactly what students have already done here – created their own spoken texts BEFORE then hearing scripted texts slightly above their level – and, of course, they can then also be asked to record or write their own news stories or experiences later as well, which can uploaded to the Web or shared in class and so on.