Category Archives: The Great Dogme debate

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.

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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.

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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.

Opening the heavens: religion, reformulation and reasons to roll with it

So much of teaching is about the second-by-second set of decisions we make, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the decisions we make are shaped by intuition, which as we all know is the product of our cumulative experience this far – or expertise, if you prefer – rather than being some nebulous innate talent.

So anyway there I was, twenty-five minutes from the end of a class with my upper-intermediate group the other day, more or less at the end of a reading – a Chinese folk tale about money. I was just rounding up some vocabulary that students had asked about while reading, vaguely wondering if ideally wanted to rush on to the injected grammar (I wish with past perfect and past simple) or whether there might be some other more upbeat way of winding up when opportunity knocked.

One of the items that had come up was THE HEAVENS – as in He clung onto the rope and was lifted up to the heavens. I’d explained that it basically meant ‘the sky’ and had given another example – The heavens suddenly opened and it started pouring with rain – when a student asked what the difference between ‘the heavens’ and ‘the heaven’ was. I told the class we don’t use articles with heaven – or hell – and that aside from their literal meanings, they’re often used metaphorically: it’s my idea of heaven / hell.

Justin Bieber Sighting In London - February 25, 2013

There was some banter about how going to see Justin Bieber was one student’s idea of heaven, but everyone else’s idea of hell and then a Moroccan student asked “So what about paradise?” “That’s usually used to talk about a wonderful beautiful place, like maybe Bali or somewhere, that’s maybe sold as a tropical paradise” before the student then explained that for Muslims it refers to the highest part of heaven, where the prophet resides. The student then jokingly added that he wouldn’t ever reach such heights and would be lucky to reach the bottom part of heaven. Another student, a Spanish guy called Mohammed, suggested that hell was a more likely destination at which point Sosan, a Saudi woman, demanded he retract this and claimed you should never say this! I pointed out it was a common joke among friends in English and, curiosity piqued, put students in pairs to discuss whether or not they talked about heaven and hell in their own languages. Out of this the most interesting thing that emerged was a discussion about the differing concepts of angels on shoulders that seemed to exist in different cultures: the Christian notion of good angels and bad angels giving you advice – and the Muslim idea of an angel on your right shoulder recording your good actions and another on your left noting down the bad (but only after an eight-hour pause which allowed the chance of repentance and righting the wrong), all of which were to be weighed on Judgement Day. Mohammed noted that with his Spanish-Moroccan friends it was common to joke that the left-shoulder angel was compiling a library, which aroused laughter from most of the class and looks of slight shock from the more devout Saudi and Senegalese women in class.

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The other thing that became apparent was that many students didn’t know how to ask ARE YOU RELIGIOUS (AT ALL?) and had gotten by thus far with their own bizarre improvised versions (“You have religion?” and the like!). For the next five minutes, students changed pairs and asked and answered this question before we rounded up with some board-based reformulation. On the board we ended up with:
She’s / he’s very devout.
He used to be Muslim / catholic, but he converted to Buddhism.
I was brought up Muslim / Buddhist / Catholic, but I don’t really practise.
All religions have lots of different branches.
I don’t really believe in God, but I do believe there’s some kind of higher power.

And that was that.

The grammar waited till the following day and students left the room still asking each other questions about each others’ beliefs.

So what, you may well be wondering? Why am I telling you all of this? Well, for a whole host of reasons, I think. Partly to illustrate how we ad teachers can take advantages of moments that present themselves – what Scott Thornbury has termed affordances – and how being alert to such moments can allow us to explore interesting , and sometimes less travelled, roads; partly to reiterate the fact that frequently the best way of doing this is via the exploration and exploitation of language that emerges from texts – what I’ve elsewhere termed ambient vocabulary. Partly also to remind the sceptics that a lexical approach to language – particularly one that takes on board the idea of working from what students TRY to say and helps them say it better, and one which reworks things in fully contextualised utterances, ensures far more exposure to – and far grater opportunities to engage with – grammar than traditional grammar-led approaches frequently do.

But maybe more controversially to demonstrate how similar people – and the languages they speak – actually are, whilst also acknowledging how fascinating the slight and subtle differences can be. Further to this, to show how different people within what are often perceived as monolithic cultural blocks (‘Muslims’) can be – and maybe most of all to suggest that supposedly taboo topics such as religion can actually be tackled in an interesting way.

Despite the almost complete absence of reference to the realm of religion in most published ELT material and despite the fact that many oublishers explicitly ban any mention if its very existence, no one died during this part of the class, no rows erupted, views were exchanged and whole sides if students’ lives not typically allowed existence within TEFL-ese were given space to emerge.

Not bad for an ad libbed, improvised closing flourish to a lesson intended to explore a totally different semantic – and lexical – realm.

Thank heavens for intuition! Where in God’s name would we be without it?

A Dogme approach to coursebooks part one: Driven by conversation 1

Now the series of posts I want to move on to next may well come as a bit of a surprise to many of you out there, given the fact that I devoted a significant amount of my early energies on this blog to exploring the myriad ways in which I feel the whole Dogme movement, such as it is, has gone slightly awry. However, as I stated many times during those early rants, one of the things that most got my goat was the notion that somehow the concepts behind Dogme necessitated an anti-coursebook stance. Now, of course, this may not be a dominant position among the majority of those who see themselves as following Dogme principles and I may simply have been reacting badly to the explicitly divisive rhetoric behind Chia Suan Chongs’ dogme versus coursebook teach-off series, but it seems to me that many of the guiding principles behind the amorphous beast that Dogme has become are actually incredibly useful ways of thinking about classroom material – and especially when it comes to designing and using coursebooks effectively. As such, what I plan to do over the coming weeks is attempt the perhaps heretical task of showing how false the dichotomy behind the teach-off is and outline the ways in which I believe Dogme and coursebooks can mutually complement each other.

To begin, I’ll explore the way in which I feel the three main precepts of Dogme can work when it comes to coursebooks. Let’s begin with  the notion of conversation-driven teaching. Below is the way the Wikipedia entry on Dogme frames the central importance of conversation to Dogme:

Conversation is seen as central to language learning within the Dogme framework, because it is the “fundamental and universal form of language” and so is considered to be “language at work”. Since real life conversation is more interactional than it is transactional, Dogme places more value on communication that promotes social interaction. Dogme also places more emphasis on a discourse-level (rather than sentence-level) approach to language, as it is considered to better prepare learners for real-life communication, where the entire conversation is more relevant than the analysis of specific utterances. Dogme considers that the learning of a skill is co-constructed within the interaction between the learner and the teacher. In this sense, teaching is a conversation between the two parties. As such, Dogme is seen to reflect Tharp’s view that “to most truly teach, one must converse; to truly converse is to teach”.

Now obviously, there are holes that are easily picked in s0me of the above. One could easily argue that there is no particular reason why conversation is any more an example of “language at work” than written discourses such as emails, Messaging, etc. There’s also a real issue about whether the co-constructed nature of conversation means it has to be mediated by student AND TEACHER. Could it not also be between student and student or student and text? And just because true teaching must involve conversing, does that automatically mean that the opposite is also true? Is all conversing automatically some kind of teaching? Surely not. Is teaching ONLY ‘a conversation between two parties’? And so on . . . and on . . . and on.

However, the goal here is NOT to nitpick (believe it or not), but to acknowledge some kind of fundamental truth in the concept of good teaching (of English as a Foreign Language, at any rate!) being conversationally rooted. You might want to claim a slightly larger slice of the spoken pie for TRANSACTIONAL / GETTING THINGS DONE type conversations than the quote above seems to allow, but surely few teachers would argue that perhaps the ultimate goal of a General English course is to develop and extend students’ ability to speak (and listen to) English. The way we usually conceptualize ability in a foreign language is very much rooted in the notion of the primacy of speech. We’ve all met – and possibly moaned about – students who perform well on paper tests, but who are unable to really function in class as they fail to keep up with the predominantly spoken nature of lessons. This is, perhaps, reflective of the fact that the classroom is first and foremost a social space and that speaking is the one skill that is hardest to practise outside of its confines. Students WANT to talk to each other and when speaking is banned or discouraged in a classroom,. it is simply driven underground, resulting in whispering, note-passing and texting!

However, just accepting that we want our classes to be driven – at least by and large – by conversation is only the starting point. Out of this pour a whole host of questions that need serious consideration: what’s the difference between conversation and talking / speaking? If we are to place conversation at the heart of our teaching, then what kind of conversations should be helping our students to have, and what should guide us in making decisions about this? And if we are to be DRIVEN by conversation, then how exactly will this driving occur? What does it imply in terms of the way we structure and conceptualise our teaching?

So, the first of these questions: is conversation different from just speaking and if so, how? Well, in ELT terms, students ‘doing some speaking’ can involve – at its most banal – the kind of monotonous structural drilling that Callan specialise in, and that nervous students from educational backgrounds that have prioritized a very limited notion of grammatical accuracy over any kind of communicative competence are often suckered into believing may help them improve fluency; you know the type of thing: Is this a pen? / No, it’s a bucket. Is this a pen? / No, it’s a mindfuck. And so on. Close cousins to such drills, though perhaps not quite as inbred and possessed of scary monobrows are the kind of essentially grammar drill oriented spoken practice activities that books like Headway and English File have spread across the known world – and possibly even beyond it. These are perhaps best epitomized by the Have you ever . . . slept in a cave? / been to Paris? / tried Thai food? / been asked a more ridiculous question? type of exercises that are predicated on the somewhat optimistic belief that if only students could master the use of individual structures one at a time then out of this conversational competence will somehow emerge. At the other end of the spectrum is that rare beast, the naturally emergent fully participational whole class conversation, where everyone suddenly gets swept along by a tide of enthusiasm and all struggle to voice the ideas in emergent English – or interlanguage, as it used to be called (!!). This, it seems t me, is the sort of idealised state that at least Dogme proponents would like us to believe exist at all times, perhaps with a little shaking and stirring, in their classsrooms, and I’ve already blogged at some length explaining why I feel this is something of a myth.

However, I think it’s a mistake to see these two approaches as stark black and white dichotomies. Instead, I’d argue that speaking in the classroom actually exists much more along a spectrum, running the gamut from semi-nonsensical drills to fairly rigid controlled practice at one end to free flowing unplanned chat at the other – and that it’s actually the middle area that should be of most interest to teachers. In this interzone lie the kind of everyday conversations around relatively generic themes, some more interactional, some more functional, that are to a degree predictable and yet which also always have space for twists and adaptation. In the same way as good musicians learn the songs of others first, before working out how to write with their own voice, so too many learners who acquire language outside of the classroom develop a repertoire of a limited number of conversations, often based around recurring question prompts, and build on their fluency from there. In a sense, this is an inversion of the aforementioned Headway / English File model, where you learn the grammar first and then hope conversational competence will somehow emerge; here, you learn the conversation first – albeit WITH the grammar and lexis necessary to allow it to run smoothly – and then slowly watch grammatical accuracy emerge as you broaden your range.

Note that this does not mean completely doing away with the occasional more artificial drill using only one structure in isolation (especially at very low levels) – and nor does it mean stamping on any more naturally emerging conversations that may occur either. What it does mean, though, is that a major change of mindset is needed on the part of many teachers in order to see the presentation and practice of certain kinds of conversation as being one of the most crucial parts of a General English teacher’s job.

So, if you accept this, the next question is really what kinds of conversations should we be encouraging our students to get better at having. The Common European Framework provides a useful sounding board for any ideas about this that we may have, and has the added benefit of offering some kind of common frames of reference through which we can all understand level, and within which we can place our students. Through its can-do statements, it also covertly subverts the traditional notion of grammar in and of itself being the driving force behind a syllabus. The way competence is defined within the CEFR is (predominantly) conversation driven. The statements are NOT ‘I  CAN . . . do exercises manipulating the present perfect simple’ but rather, for instance, ‘I CAN . . . talk about travel experiences’. A subtle shift, perhaps, but one that, as we shall see, has serious implications.

One problem with the CEFR is the fact that the descriptors for each level describe what students should already be able to do in order to be placed at said level, which means that the things that students are supposed to be able to do at one level should actually play a significant role in determining tasks and input at the level below. Let’s consider what used to be universally known as Intermediate, but which is now slowly being re-branded as B1. Here’s a list of the competencies explicitly expected for students at the level above:

SPEAKING

The student can . . .

  • take an active part in discussions on a wide range of subjects related to their interests
  • explain their viewpoint on a topical issue, giving the advantages and disadvantages of various positions
  • construct a chain of reasoned argument
  • describe experiences, events, hopes, dreams and ambitions
  • narrate a story
  • relate the plot of a book / film and describe their reactions to it
  • deal well with situations likely to arise while travelling
  • communicate well on matters pertinent to everyday life (family, friends, hobbies, work, travel, current events, etc.)
  • explain problems – and describe why they are problems
  • describe symptoms to a doctor
  • summarise and give opinions on talks, discussions, documentaries, articles and short stories
  • describe how to do something, giving detailed instructions
  • highlight the personal significance of events and experiences
  • convey degrees of emotion
  • speculate about causes, consequences and hypothetical situations
  • use stock phrases to gain time and keep their turn, while formulating what to say
  • give announcements on most general topics with a degree of clarity, fluency and spontaneity which cause no strain or inconvenience to the listener
  • give a clear, prepared presentation in support of – or against – a particular notion
  • take and give follow up questions with a degree of fluency and spontaneity
  • correct slips and errors if they become conscious of them
  • use circumlocution and paraphrase to cover gaps in vocabulary and structure
  • invite others to join in, say what they think, etc.
  • take initiatives in an interview, expand and develop ideas with little help from the interviewer
  • intervene appropriately in discussion, using a range of stock phrases
  • can ask follow up questions to check understanding
  • speak with clear, natural pronunciation and intonation

Several interesting points emerge from the above: the centrality of stock phrases, the fixed, the general; the importance of the personal; the focus on the negative – and the acceptance of the fact that there’s much more to say about problems than about their absence; the need to think about more than just grammar and lexis, and to take on board the flow of conversation, the way we add follow-up questions, the way we intervene, manage discourse, and so on. However, what also emerges is a slight haze and fog surrounding content. Some of the above seems to suggest a focus on explicit kinds of conversations / exchanges (describing symptoms to a doctor, say, or dealing with situations that may arise while travelling), whilst much else is bitty, incidental, embedded.

In content terms, what this means is some of the above will need to be covered within the broader framework of a focus on commonly recurrent conversational types, so, for instance, whilst helping students to be better able to narrate the plot of a film or book and to give their reactions to it, you may also want to focus on some follow-up questions, teach a few stock phrases and do some pronunciation work.

HOW this may pan within one particular class, or across classes and levels, is obviously the next question to address – but one that, given the unruly length this post has already attained, will have to wait until the next post!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVISION

Complete the sentences with the best missing words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One student asked what loss and longing meant.

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

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

Now discuss these questions with a partner.

– Why might someone be feeling a bit rough?

– When might someone be in bits?

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

– What happens in a meat market?

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

– Why might someone hassle you?

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

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

– Say three things you could take up.

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

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

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

Speaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

money

time spent together

careers

exes

silly annoyances

household chores

kids

sport

stress and tiredness

homework

work

religion

politics

in-laws

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

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

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

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

Listening

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

A                  Ω Listen and answer these questions about each conversation.

1                  What’s the relationship between the people?

2                  What are the conflicts about?

3                  What happens in the end?

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

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

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

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

Native Speaker English

I hasten to add

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

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

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

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

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

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

Developing conversations

Giving negative / private information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grammar I wish

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

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

2                  I wish I’d never started this conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student: The past. past simple.

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

Student: So it’s like a second conditional.

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

Student: Past simple

Me: OK, and it’s 2 and?

Student: 4.

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

Student: Had.

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

student: so 4 is would?

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

Student: past.

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

Student: past perfect.

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

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

Student: And finds her chatting on facebook!

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

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

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

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

be                  can                  have                  leave                                    sent                  think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope this has proved interesting.

It’s nearly killed me writing it.

Looking forward to seeing your comments and questions!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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