Tag Archives: boardwork

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

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

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

Collocations exercise

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

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

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

Alcoholism

Domestic violence

Drug abuse

Unemployment

Illegal immigration

Non-payment of taxes

A growing wealth gap

Digital connectivity

Illiteracy

Public and private debt

Now tell a partner which three issues you chose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers for now.

Hugh

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Working exercises hard

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

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

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

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

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.

Further thoughts on level, material and how to make things stick

A week or so ago, after having to go in and cover one of our summer school general English classes, I wrote a lengthy piece following some reflections on how a much younger version of myself might have handled the material I had to work with. The main drift of my last post was that the way I was trained to teach – the way and many, many others like me were similarly trained – resulted in a tendency to see materials in terms of activities / stages rather than in terms of language to be taught; it relied on a fairly mindless notion of supplementing, one very reliant on photocopied pages of grammar books, games, fun, idioms and overly colloquial lexical items, and – most seriously – it exacerbated the problems of helping students to move from one level to another that are brought about by the way the vast majority of coursebooks are structured and the emphasis THEY place on what students should do to progress.

Today what I want to do is to fast forward to the actual lesson I ended up delivering, try to unpick the way I approach these kinds of classes nowadays and consider the ways in which I feel my approach now is more likely to make language stick. Now when I’m planning – and in this instance I had literally five or six minutes to ‘plan’ – I basically copy the material I’ll be teaching and scan through it, looking at the SPEAKING tasks and predicting what might be said during them (I’ll often note down a few whole-sentence utterances on the photocopy), looking at what vocabulary is there and seeing how much attention the material pays to collocation and usage (again, I’ll jot down notes on common usage in the margins, and ready myself to explore things as we get onto them) and just generally making sure I’m on top of the answers and so won’t have to faff around worrying about that, and will thus be slightly freer to actually really focus on what comes out from the students. With my severely annotated photocopy in hand, I rush off and start the class.

When covering, one trick I’ve learned to buy myself a few minutes breathing space at the start of the class is to ask students to jot down five things they’ve learned in the last week. They then walk around explaining the items they’ve written and try to elicit them from their various partners. I go round, help out with the explanations, clarify / correct if anyone’s misunderstood what they’ve jotted down, and then get some boardwork up that looks at the language around the language being explained, and that gives me something concrete to round up with. It also gives me a chance to see what kind of language students have been learning and to gauge its utility. In this particular instance, I’d been told by the normal class teacher that the group had been finding the material easy and were maybe an Advanced group. The language they jotted down reflected the way of supplementing with random seemingly ‘high-level’ vocabulary I discussed in my first post. This was a group who, as I realised whilst I sat and chatted with them as they slowly filtered into class in the morning, were clearly nowhere near Advanced. I asked the first student to arrive if she’d ever been to England before and was told Yes, I’ve been in England two years before! This same student then jotted down – among other things – to let the cat out of the back, dog days and  to play gooseberry!! And we wonder why students struggle with levels. I rest my case.

Anyway, once we’d whizzed through this revision slot, and once the class had filled up sufficiently, I moved onto the coursebook material. As I said in my earlier post, we’re experimenting with Richmond’s new series, THE BIG PICTURE, this summer and I’d been given a couple of pages entitled A CAREER IN MEDICINE to teach. The spread began with some speaking. Students were told to work in groups and to discuss these questions:

1  Look at the images. What aspects of medicine does each one show?

2  Are any of your classmates doctors, or training to be doctors? If yes, what’s his / her specialisation?

3  What skills do you need to be a doctor?

Above were four images – these, I suppose, are the ‘big pictures’ the book’s title alludes to – an open Internet page with the words Trusted advice emblazoned across it, a paediatrics nurse holding a stethoscope on a young boy’s chest, some young doctors in some kind of training situation and some kind of traditional healer

Now, my gut feeling on seeing this was that it wouldn’t go far in class: the vast majority of students would answer negatively to the second question, the first seemed fairly obvious and lent itself to one-line responses and the final question necessitated only a few lines more! Part of the problem is that there simply isn’t much to say about these questions. I’d struggle to find more than five minutes to say about them myself, and I have a big mouth! There’s also the fact that they’re asking students to discuss in L2 things they’ve probably never had to discuss in L1, which always seems optimistic to me. Finally, the questions are clearly not written with any sense of what kind of conversations people commonly have around topics like medicine – or even around careers in medicine; rather, they’re sort of pseudo-intellectual, perhaps designed to do what a sales rep might claim is develop ‘critical thinking’ or foster visual literacy or some such spurious skills! Given that I suspect this might not generate much speaking, I simply set the thing up by telling students to read through the questions and to look at the pictures, to ask if there’s anything they’re not sure of and then to chat in pairs. I monitor, listen in, help out and after maybe four or five minutes say Stop there! Let’s look at how to say some of the things you were trying to say better! Here’s what I wrote on the board – and note that – vitally, I feel – all this was got onto the board WHILE STUDENTS WERE TALKING, as this means we cut seamlessly from student speaking time into a focus on new language / better ways of expressing yourself. Sometimes, what I end up with on the board, gapped, will all be based on what students themselves have actually tried to say; in this particular instance, only three things were. For question 1, I heard one student say People now look more to the Internet for to find information about their health, which resulted in me writing up More and more people are t………… to the Internet in ………….. of medical advice; another pair were talking abut the pictures and clearly didn’t know the word paeditrician – but still got by on mutual understanding and the use of visuals – so I wrote up My sister is a p……………….; and finally for question 3, one students said doctors need to be sure to make nervous people not nervous, resulting in Doctors need to ……………….. to s……….. people’s nerves. The other sentences I just added in myself as examples of things I could’ve heard, or would’ve maybe said myself if I’d been answering the questions.

As I rounded up, I dealt both with the boardwork and some other general ideas. Here’s roughly what I said:

OK, so some of you were talking about the first picture and saying it shows the way people nowadays are more likely to use the Internet to look for advice or information about their illnesses – and be careful Italian and Spanish speakers, advice and information are uncountable in English, so it’s NOT advices and informations. So yeah, you said that more and more people are starting to look at the Internet, they’re moving away from doctors and books and they’re going to the Internet, so they’re? Anyone? No? They’re turning to the Internet because they’re looking for information, so they’re in? Yeah, that’s right. In search of advice. OK, in the second picture, you were talking about this kind of doctor, a doctor who specializes in working with kids. This kind of doctor is called a? Anyone? Yeah, OK, that must be the Spanish for it. It’s very similar in English. It’s a paediatrician. Where’s the stress? Yeah, the main stress is on the /pi:/ and then there’s a second stress on the /trI/, so everyone paediatrician. Again. Good. And in this picture, someone was saying maybe the little boy is just going to have his body looked at, to make sure he’s in good condition, so he’s going for? That’s right. A check-up. And if you have one every year it’s an? Yeah, an annual check-up. And notice – you HAVE an annual check-up. In the third picture, you were saying the doctors are getting training, right? You can also say it like this – We GET trained up / They’ll train us up ON THE JOB. It’s the same meaning. And what about the fourth picture? Yeah, it looks like some kind of traditional healer, like a traditional doctor, or something, doesn’t it? I don’t think any of you said Yes for the second one, did you? Nope. OK. So the third one, the qualities that doctors need. Some of you were saying doctors need to be good with their hands, especially if they’re like surgeons or whatever, as if they slip, it can be disastrous, so they need to have a? No, not stable hand. Stable is usually used to describe the economic situation, or like a stable relationship with someone or if someone’s very ill in hospital, but isn’t going to die, they often say they’re in a critical but stable condition, so not stable here. usually Yeah, a STEADY hand. Good. And you were saying they need to be able to see blood. You know, some people if they see blood, they can’t stand it, they faint or maybe throw up, but doctor’s need to have a? Yeah, a strong what? No-one? A strong stomach. Someone was also saying doctors need to be good at talking to you when you’re ill and lying there in bed, they need to be good at talking to you and making you feel things are OK. They have a nice relaxing manner, they have a good? Yeah, manner is the second word. And the first one? No-one? a nice or a good bedside manner. Finally, you were saying that they need to be good at making nervous people feel better, so they need to be? Yeah. be able to what? No, not solve. Or sort out. Usually you solve or sort out problems, but you soothe people’s nerves. In the same way, you can talk about soothing music or soothing colours.

And after all that, here’s what we ended up with on the board.

There are many advantages to doing thins this way. Firstly, it doesn’t really matter if the speaking takes off or not. In a sense, the students aren’t speaking for the sake of speaking; they’re speaking partly to lead them in to the rest of the spread, partly to practise, but also partly to lead in to input, so there’s a language-based focus to what they attempt; using the whole class to elicit the missing words allows the truly strong students – and not just the chatty ones who love the sounds of their own voices – the chance to show what they know and to have their learning recognized and validated; everyone feels that there must’ve been plenty going on the class if this is what the round-up is like and thus, by extension, other students must be pretty good . . . and finally, old language gets revisited, new language gets fed in, and students get primed further in their understanding of how words work with other words.

Next came the listening. The first task asked students to listen to an interview with Laura, a Mexican doctor, as she talks about her medical career. Students had to number the four ‘big pictures’ according to the order she talked about them.This seemed easy to the point of being banal to me, and given that the second task included in the book – listening again and ticking the topics she mentioned: her home life and family, her medical training and specialisation, the role of traditional healers in the community, the most common illnesses that she treats, changes in the information patients can access nowadays, and her favourite and least favourite aspects of being a doctor, was also essentially a gist task, I put these two together and told the students to listen, find out which pictures they heard mentioned in which order AND to listen for which topics she talked about – and what she said about them. After playing the CD once, students compared ideas in pairs and I then elicited ideas from the whole class. I’m going to do a whole other post sometime son abut what teachers do when they round-up after first listenings, but I think the main point is that checking the answers is never enough; there has to also be some collective attempt to establish why the answers were the answers – what the students heard that helped that get the right answers (those who did!). In a sense, what now occurred was a kind of teacher-directed / filtered collective retelling. We clarified that first she talked her BASIC TRAINING, when she GOT TRAINED UP; then she talked about the year she spent in a REMOTE VILLAGE, where plenty of local people PUT MORE FAITH IN  traditional healers than in modern doctors; she then returned to Mexico City, where she SPECIALIZED AS A PAEDIATRICIAN. Finally, she talked about the number of people TURNING TO the Internet for advice and coming to her SURGERY ARMED WITH  loads of info. We then went through which topics she’d been talking about, and what they’d heard about each one, with me winkling out – or adding in – exact language she’d used about each topic, correcting – and rejecting – student ideas where necessary and writing up a few bits and bobs that emerged from this. I neglected to photograph the board at this stage, so can’t be sure of what ended up there, sadly.

Next, before the second listening, I told students to discuss in pairs whether they thought the 6 sentences below were true or false – and why. I didn’t really check ideas at this stage – simply said they should listen once more and check their ideas, and try to find out what the speakers said that showed the sentences were true or false.

1  Laura decided to become a doctor mainly because she liked Science subjects at school.

2  To qualify as a paediatrician, she did a four-year degree, a year of social service and a year of residency.

3  She did her social service in an isolated rural area.

4  Local people used the clinic a lot when they had medical problems.

5  She’s against the use of traditional medicine.

6  The parents of her patients often think they know more about the problem than she does.

After the second listen, students chatted in pairs, and compared their ideas, whilst I busied myself writing on the board. After a couple of minutes, my board looked something like this:

1    She was always good ……. Science subjects.

2    On …….. of all that, she then did a four-year s……….. to train as a paediatrician.

3    It was very isolated, very r………….. – very ……… off from the rest of the country.

4    Most people o…………….. for the traditional healer first.

5    She’s not ……………………. to it, especially if it’s used in c……………. with other forms of medicine.

6    She doesn’t say this directly, but she i……………. it.

I then elicited the answers and tried to elicit the words that were missing from my sentences, most of which were actually used in the listening, but a couple of which – a four-year STINT, in CONJUNCTION with – I’d added in myself to bump the level up slightly. I’d elicit the answers from the whole class and see if I could get the missing words by paraphrasing, so for example:

Right, so number 1. True or false. yes, true. Why? yeah, OK, so when she was at school, she was always good MMM Science subjects. Not IN. GOOD AT.

OK, and number two. yeah, it’s false, because FIRST she did a four-year degree, a year of social service and a year of residency. Then, in addition, as well as that, she did four more years, so ON? Yeah, ON TOP OF ALL THAT, she did a four-year? No-one? A four-year period of time working, so a four-year STINT. We can talk about people DOING A STINT IN THE ARMY or DOING A BRIEF STINT AS A WAITER IN NEW YORK.

And 3? Yes, it’s true. She said the area was very isolated. How do you pronounce it again? No, not isoLAted. Listen Isolated. Everyojne. Again, Good. So, it was very isolated, very? Yeah, remote. Where’s the stress. Good. reMOTE. Which means it was very MMM off from the rest of the country? No, not broken off. Anyone? Cut off.

And so on. Again, what this does is move beyond just ‘doing a listening’ for the sake of ‘doing a listening’ and recognizes that the main factor that affects listening ‘skills’ is knowledge of the language. It turns the listening in on itself and focuses the class on the actual words used to convey the meanings they’ve been processing. And again it ensures students get the chance to show what they know, and if they DON’T know, they get the chance to learn something new, in context, with meanings clear, and with co-text made clear.

So next we were onto the vocabulary section, which began like this:

The exercise started as follows:

1 a  Look at transcript 2.2 on page 162. Which of these words can you find?

1  paediatrician     paramedic

2  patient                surgeon

3  nurse                  midwife

4  ward                   operating theatre

5  bandage             plaster

6  self-diagnosis   self-medication

I decided to skip the part where students had to find these words and instead simply moved on to exercise B, where students had to discuss the difference between the pairs of words. I gave them five or six minutes to compare ideas in pairs, went round and listened in and helped out, and used this time to get my boardwork up. At this juncture, I should make it clear that I really hate these kinds of exercises. They covertly encourage a single-word focus, they are written wit little thought to how students’ communicative competence will develop as a result of doing them, they are hard to know what to do with in the classroom for most inexperienced teachers and even if meanings are successfully tackled (and they’re often NOT for the desire to be ‘student-centred’ kinds of reasons I explained last post around!), then students glean little or nothing about how to actually use these words themselves. If I have to do these kinds of exercises, it’s the last issue that I try to make my main focus: fine, tackle meanings and ensure that’s clear, but above and beyond that, ensure that usage is clarified and exemplified.

Whilst eliciting ideas on meaning from the whole class, I’m obviously getting meanings, but also seeing if they know co-text, words connected to the words being looked at, and feeding new items in where necessary, eliciting others and writing them up. Here’s more or less what I said whilst rounding up student ideas:

OK, so what’s the difference between a paediatrician and a paramedic? Well, we’ve talked already about paediatricians, haven’t we? They’re doctors that specialise in kids, they work mainly with babies. And a paramedic? yeah, OK. a bit like a travelling doctor, yeah. They’re like doctors trained to give care to people at the scene of an accident, so they often travel inside ambulances, they’re part of the ambulance team of people, so part of the ambulance? yeah, good. CREW (write this in to the gap). And patient and surgeon? Yeah, right, so the patient is the person who’s receiving the medical treatment, while the surgeon is a special kind of doctor who – not DOES operations, but – anyone? Yeah, performs (write in gap on board). And three different kind of surgeons. OK, yes, heart and brain. OK. Yes, can also have neuro-surgeons. I forgot about that one. Surgeons who deal with the nervous system, yeah. And? The ones who do like correction or reconstruction of various parts of the body? Yes, plastic surgeons. (I wrote all these up as I was eliciting). OK. Next. Nurses you’ve all already talked about, but midwives? Right, they’re nurses who look after women when they’re having babies, so they MMM babies? Anyone? No. Deliver (write it up), yeah, that’s right. Like for letters. The same verb! Sorry, what was your question. Can men be midwives? Yeah, of course they can. It’s not very common, but it happens. No, they’re not called mid-husbands, but I can see your logic there. I guess they’re just called male midwives. They’re can’t be that many, though. So what about ward and operating theatre? No? Well, a ward is one particular part of the hospital, so when women are giving birth they go to the? No, not the mother’s ward. Anyone? The maternity ward (wrote this up). And you also have – if people have severe mental health problems, maybe they go to the? Not psychiatrist ward. They might to SEE a psychiatrist, but they go to the psychiatric ward. And old people sometimes go to? No? The geriatric ward. And the verb? When you arrive at hospital and they say Hi and sent you to these wards, you are? Yeah, that’s right. Admitted to a ward.  (wrote all this up). An the operating theatre? It’s where the surgeon performs the operations. And if someone is taken into hospital and very quickly taken to the operating theatre, we often say they were MMM to it. No, not run – rushed to the operating theatre (which I then wrote up). OK, so what about bandage and plaster? Right. A bandage is a thin piece of cloth that you wrap round a part of your body that’s hurt or injured, so maybe after you get a tattoo you have to wear a bandage over it, and like some people wear bandages for support when they’re jogging, round their knee joints or whatever. And plaster . . . plaster has two meanings. One is when you cut yourself – like a small cut – you have to put a plaster on. Yeah, Band-Aid is the same. It’s just the brand name. It’s more common in American English, but I know what you mean. And if you break your arm or your leg, you have to have it IN PLASTER for a few weeks. Like here, in this example (pointed to the board). And finally, self-diagnosis, like you said it’s when you decide yourself what you think is wrong with you, maybe after reading about the symptoms on the Internet, and self-medication? Yeah, it’s when you give yourself – or order for yourself – the medicine you think you need, so you bypass the doctor. Increasingly now, you can order what used to be prescription-only drugs online. And the verbs from these nouns? Right. Self-diagnose and self-medicate (which I wrote up) people sometimes say you self-medicate if you drink really heavily or take LOTS of drugs, like you’re trying to calm your brain or control you mind or whatever with these ‘medicines’. OK. Anything from here you’re not sure of? No? Right. I’ll give you a minute or two to copy down the boardwork.

Next, we moved on to some speaking, designed I guess to encourage practice and personalization of some of this new language. The questions were fairly weird, yet again, and certainly not things I’ve ever discussed myself in English or indeed any other language, and so I had low expectations of how much speaking they might generate. You might like to consider for yourself what you’d have to say about these:

Work in pairs. Discuss the questions.

– Are you a good patient? Why/Why not?

– Which would you prefer to be, a midwife or a surgeon? Why?

– What are the advantages and disadvantages of self-diagnosis and self-medication?

As per usual with these little speaking slots, I gave the class a minute or two to read through and check they understood the questions and then gave a model of sorts from my own perspective, which ran something like this:

OK, for example, for me . . . I’m a pretty bad patient. I really hate going to the doctor’s or dentist’s and try to PUT IT OFF for as long as possible. I mean, I’ll only go for a check-up if I absolutely have to. I don’t like having injections, I don’t like people prodding and poking me (which I acted out whilst saying them), I don’t like the smell of hospitals. Basically, I’m maybe fairly typical in that I’ll avoid being a patient unless it’s really urgent. Now you guys try. Two, two, two, two, three.

Students then chatted in pairs / groups and I went round, asking questions, chipping in, correcting pron errors, pointing out small grammar slips and – crucially, I’d argue (and have many times before, I know!) – getting gapped sentences up on the board so that after five or six minutes I could stop the group and say we were going to look at how to say some of the things they were trying to say in better English.

You can see the boardwork we ended up with following this section below. The words I chose to gap – though I’d usually give the first letter, and would sometimes add in the second if students were struggling – were being, slip and well-paid in the first example; wimp, incision and layer in the next couple. The sentence that followed cast an interesting light on level in itself. Whilst my younger self may well have felt the speed at which the class raced through the material was a sign of their being a higher level than the book, my current self is far more attuned to student output and the many, many glitches within it. The sentence follows stemmed from a student discussing surgeon or midwife and saying I don’t want both of jobs! The words I gapped here were wouldn’t and either – which I (eventually!) managed to elicit, and which resulted in a brief discussion of the sentence being hypothetical or imaginary and a reminder that not . . . either means not this one or that one. Finally, I recycled rewarding, which was successfully elicited.

Next we were onto the dread grammar. As I stated in my first post on this lesson, for me any book that is stupid enough to lump be used to, get used to and used to all together does not deserve to be ordered, but needs must in this particular instance.

The opening exercise was this one:

1A  Work in pairs. Read sentences a-d. Underline all the examples of used to.

a  I used to work as an assistant to a paramedic.

b  I wasn’t used to living in such a small community.

c  In the beginning it was frustrating, but now I’m getting used to it.

d  Doctors are more used to dealing with this situation these days.

B Answer the questions about the sentences in 1A

1  Which sentences talk about a) the present? b) the past?

2 Which sentences talk about a) a past habit, state or situation? b) a situation that is becoming normal? c) a situation that was strange or unfamiliar in the past?

I decided the first exercise – the underlining – was too basic and asked the class instead to start with the matching in B. Students raced through this individually, then compared in pairs, before I ran through the answers with the whole group as follows:

So which ones are about the past? OK, yes. A – I used to work as an assistant. In the past I worked as an assistant, but now I don’t. And? Yeah, B. When Laura first moved that remote village – in the past – she WASNT USED TO livING in such a small community, but then it became normal for her, she GOT USED TO it. And which are about the present? Yep. C – At first, Laura found it frustrating when patients came to see her armed with loads of info from Wikipedia, but now it’s becoming more normal for her, she’S GETTING USED TO it. And D, yeah. Doctors today find this fairly normal, they ARE more USED TO dealING with it. OK. And which one is past habit or state or situation? Yeah, A. This was her work state in the past, but not now. We also often use another structure in conjunction with USED TO as well, like in this example here. I used to have really long hair. I MMM only get it cut once or twice a year. Any ideas? No, not COULD. That’s more for ability. No-one? I’d – I would. Here’s another example: I used to work in a restaurant. I’d wait tables and serve drinks and stuff. So we use USED TO to introduce the story and then give details of common past actions / habits using WOULD. Right. A situation which is becoming normal? Yeah, C. In the beginning, patients coming to her with loads of info from the web was annoying, frustrating, but now it’s becoming normal. She’S GETTING USED TO it. OK. And c? yeah, the one about how she WASN’T USED TO livING in a small community. It was weird for her and IT TOOK A WHILE FOR HER TO GET USED TO it. OK, let’s move on and do a quick practice of making the form, then we’ll do some talking, OK?

We then skipped all the exercises in the book asking students to complete the grammar reference section with various missing words – the kind of things shown below:

A  Used to

We use used to + the …………… to talk about situations, habits or repeated actions in the past. often they are things which we no longer do.

+ I ……………. to live in Paris.

– I didn’t use to speak French.

? Did you ……….. to eat out a lot?

Yes, I did. / No, I didn’t.

There seemed little point given that they’d successfully identified both meaning and form already and were about to do a form-focused exercise anyway, where any issues with form / meaning would get flagged up anyway. This was what we moved onto instead – a form-focused exercise, where students had to complete sentences with the correct used to expression and the verbs in brackets. Here’s a taster of what the book provides:

1  I’m still not ……………. to …………….. spicy food. (eat)

2  I’m ……………. to ……………… my shoes off in people’s houses, but I still forget sometimes. (take)

3  When I first arrived I ………….. to …………….. friends so late at night, but now it seems normal. (meet)

4  I didn’t …………… to …………… by waterbus when I lived there. (travel)

5  I’ll never …………… to …………… on the wrong side of the road. (drive)

I gave the students a few minutes to try on their own; went round and pointed out where things were wrong; got students to compare ideas in pairs and – where they had different answers – to try and work out who was wrong; and then ran through the answers very much as follows:

So, number 1? Right, I’m still not used to eating spicy food (I wrote the answer on the board.) What do you think the situation is here? Who might be speaking where? yeah, OK. Maybe a foreign person living in India. Or Mexico, yeah, and they find the food there, which is really spicy, difficult and strange. OK. Number 2? Right. I’m used to taking my shoes off, so it’s normal for me now to do this. Who’s speaking where? Yeah, OK. Maybe an English person living in Japan. Could be, yes. It’s normal for them, biut sometimes they still forget to do it. Old English habits die hard. And 3? No, not I didn’t use to meet. That means the speaker never did that. The meaning here is they did it, but it was weird for them, so? Right. I wasn’t used to meeting. It was strange for them, but now it seems normal. Who’s speaking where? Yeah, OK. Maybe an English person living in Spain, where friends often meet for dinner much much later than here in the UK, like maybe at 10 or 11! And 4? Right. I didn’t use to travel. No -d on use to. So in the past, when they lived in this place, it wasn’t their habit to take the waterbus. Maybe they used to walk or cycle instead. Any idea who’s taking about where? No, me neither really. Someone who used to live – in the past – somewhere where they had a waterbus! And 5? I’ll never? Right. Get used to driving. So driving on the wrong side of the road is weird for me now – and will always feel weird for me. I’ll never get used to it. It will never become normal. Who’s speaking where? yeah, OK. It could be a foreign person living in London (laughter) . . . or of course a British person living in Spain or China! (more laughter)

I was about to move onto the practice, but quickly asked if anyone had any problems – and at this juncture, one student asked one of the classic Grammar Anxiety questions these kinds of exercises seem to promote: “I’m still not sure of the difference between not being used to doing something, getting used to doing and being used to doing!” I pointed out they were often part of a process – the change from things feeling weird to things becoming normal slowly to then being totally normal, and there were common time phrases used with them. I wrote up on the board: AT FIRST / TO BEGIN WITH, I WASN’T USED TO LIVING IN A BIG CITY, BUT NOW I’M USED TO IT / BUT I’M SLOWLY GETTING USED TO IT – and explained this may be similar to this particular student’s own experience of moving to London – from a small town in Japan – and asked which of the two possible asnwers best described his feelings now.

Finally, we moved on to some speaking. In the book, students were told to write true sentences for each of the following situations:

1  something you used to believe as a child.

2  something you’re getting used to, but it’s still difficult.

3  something you’ll never get used to.

4  something you weren’t used to at one time, but now it’s fine.

5  something you’ve slowly got used to over the years.

I gave students a minute or two to read through and gather thoughts, then gave my own model answer which took in slowly getting used to having grey hair, after a few years in my mid-30s of dyeing it; how when I was a kid I used to believe that the tress from the graveyard I grew up opposite had dead people’s fingers in them and that when the wind brushed them against my window, it meant they wanted to get in – and get me; and how years ago when I first started eating Japanese food, I wasn’t used to natto – fermented soya bean – but now I love it. Students then chatted a bit – struggling with most questions after 1, in all honesty, as it’s often hard to come up with these things on the spur of the moment – and some great stories emerged about how one student used to believe there were ghosts behind the curtain, another used to believe that if she stepped on money dead soldiers would come in the night and rip her fingers off, and so on! There then followed some reformulation, some retelling and much laughter and banter. This was one of the boards we ended up with, but I seem to also recall some other bits and bobs emerging that I forgot to take snaps of. You get the gist though.

So there you have it. How I survived my morning of cover; how I’ve changed in the way I push the material that’s available to me and how I insist on a whole-language focus; how I try to compensate for coursebook’s relentless single-word focus; how I use the board to ensure students go away with plenty of new – and reworked – language noted down and available for them to revise from; and how upping the level to me now means NOT supplementing, but digging deeper, working language and asking questions.

Not the best material I’ve ever used by any stretch of the imagination, nor the best lesson I’ve ever done, BUT one from which students went away having learned new language and having shown they’d remember plenty of previously taught language; having done lots of speaking and feeling that they’d been pushed. Not one complaint about level ensued – and there was not a single idiom in sight!

The perils of striving for an input-rich class: when more is less!

Two fundamental beliefs I’ve long held about language teaching are that input in the classroom is more important than output – and that language teachers have a responsibility to teach language, which means ensuring the classroom is a language-rich environment, in which new items are explored in a meaningful, interactive, involving and – perhaps above all – useful way. Implicit in this is that we need to be aware of what you might call ‘ambient vocabulary’ – vocabulary which is available to be taught in the material we’re using, but which isn’t the focus of the exercise and which the material doesn’t DEMAND a focus on. Often this ambient vocabulary may be embedded in a grammar exercise, or a model written text students are looking or, or a tapescript, and so on.

Once I’ve become aware of the fact that students have underlined these words, or when I notice them looking the words up whilst processing the larger task at hand, I always try to find time to get an example or two up on the board – whilst students are busy doing whatever it is they’re doing – so that it can be returned to at a later point and clarified and expanded upon. The problem comes with knowing how far to push the examples, and being aware of what aspects of the words are worth bothering with at this juncture – and with this level – and which aren’t. If anything, this is the one main area within which I most frequently retrospectively critique my own teaching: I’ll look back and wonder whether I gave too little, or – as in the instance I’ll go on to describe – too much; and think about how I might’ve handled the word differently (and, as such, how I might handle it better next time it comes up).

Yesterday, I was doing a writing lesson with an Intermediate class, and we were looking at ways of making requests – things like I was wondering if you could possibly . . . ? / Do you think you could . . . ? / Is there any way you could . . . ? / Could you do me a favour and . . . ? We had looked at these sentence stems / starters and were working on four short emails, some more formal and business-related, others less formal and more personal. Students had to read them, add what they felt were the best  missing words to three gaps in each email and consider whether they felt the requests made in each email were reasonable, and whether they’d ask them themselves. One email was as follows:

Hi Zarina,

Just a quick one to ……………….. thanks for the email. I love the photos! is there any ……………….. you could print them out, though, as my printer isn’t very good and I’d ……………….. to frame the photos and put them on my wall?

Michaele

As students were filling the gaps, I noticed a few students underlining frame and decided it was worth focusing on once we’d finished going through the tasks. Students completed the task, compared gapped words in pairs, and discussed how they felt about each request. I then rounded up by eliciting missing words, clarifying why they were the answers, pointing out extra examples such as Just a quick one to say congratulations on passing your exam / Just a quick one to let you know I can’t make tonight and so on. We then discussed the requests before finally rounding up by exploring some of the ambient language.

I explained what frame meant in the context students had encountered it, drew a little picture and pointed to the example in the middle below. I said it could also be a verb and that it’s often used in the passive, as in the example at the bottom. Then, in a moment of wild optimism, I launched into a detailed explanation of the top sentences and tried to convey the idea of the police framing people – and was met with utter bemusement and confusion. Clutching at straws, I tried suggesting that the police needed a face that matched the crime, so they put anyone they could into ‘the frame’ and photographed them and said they were guilty. I was on one of those rolls that are so hard to get off once you’re on them, despite the fact that within thirty seconds of embarking on them you know in your gut that you have to exit stage left pretty pronto!

Here’s the board my poor, baffled weak Intermediate students were left with afterwards.

On reflection after class, it sank in that not only was this clearly a bridge too far, a classic case of more being less from the students’ point of view, but also in a sense a missed opportunity, as other far saner examples could’ve been focused on. Frame is a two-star noun and a one-star verb in the Macmillan dictionary, meaning that as a noun it’s among the 5000 most common words in the language, and as a verb among the most common 7500. Clearly this makes it worth a moment of attention.

However, it’d make most sense to focus on FIRST the word as it’s found in the context it’s encountered it, then maybe the verb – and the fact it’s frequently passive, as above – so I could maybe have added We had it framed in this shop near our house or something similar. It may well have been wise just to stop there, quit while the going was good, but if expansion was worth doing, then parallel meanings less oblique than being framed by the police would’ve worked better. I could’ve pointed to a window frame, mentioned the IKEA bed frames you have to put together yourself, talked about bike frames or choosing the best frames for a pair of glasses. All of these retain a basic and transparent conceptual similarity with the word taught, in a way that other minefields I could also have stumbled into – frame by frame, a shiver shook her small frame, frame a proposal, frame a question – really don’t.

Of course, had there been any super bright students who’d asked if you can also say frame a person, it might’ve been worth dealing with it. As things stood, though, rather than spiraling ever outwards, perhaps drilling deeper and staying closer to home may well have been best practice.

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 Two: Carrying TBL to its demented logical extreme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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