Tag Archives: coursebooks

A Dogme approach to coursebooks: Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening text 1

Listening text 2

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

Boardwork:

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

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

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

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

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

She was a…………… €487,000 compensation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

screenwriter-lars-von-trier-director-thomas-vinterberg-set-586023

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.

VHSdogCHETZA2

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.

The long shadow cast by the curse of creativity.

Pablo Picasso: The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.

Vivienne Westwood: It’s all about technique. The great mistake of this century is to put inspiration and creativity first.

Michael Lewis: There’s nothing as practical as a good theory.

Despite the fact that I still struggle with the medium, and particularly with the notion of holding hour-long chats about serious topics in a mind-bending sequence of Tweets of 140 characters or less, I was still quite flattered that #eltchat on Twitter decided to include my recent blog post, The Curse of Creativity, as a kind of featured text ahead of their debate yesterday. I’ve managed to slog my way through a transcript of the whole thing, which you can read here if you’re that way inclined, and it’s made me want to just blog a few final thoughts on the whole thorny issue of creativity. So here goes.

In terms of students being creative with language – or, more specifically, in terms of students being asked to be creative – my immediate feeling is that it’s NOT why most students are learning English. The vast majority of native speakers (of whatever language) pass through days, weeks, even months, without saying anything strikingly interesting, original or creative. The vast bulk of most language in use is generic, predictable, consists of used and re-useable ‘prefabricated chunks’ and is, if you want to be harsh about it, not much more than fairly mundane. This is the stuff of life. Certainly, few if any of us will ever be creative with language in the way that, say, Dylan Thomas was when he wrote:

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
      And the mussel pooled and the heron
                  Priested shore
            The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
            Myself to set foot
                  That second
      In the still sleeping town and set forth.

Students can be creative, of course, and some may indeed desire to be seen as such, though as I suggest when talking about my Turkmenistani student who ‘broke’ his brain, the only real way to be creative is to know the rules and the limits and to bend them to one’s own purpose. Creative use of language certainly shouldn’t be seen as a given, though, or expected as something that all students may wish to come up with. I also have issues with the way that some teachers cling on to ‘mistakes’ that students make in an infantilizing “Oh, don’t they just say the FUNNIEST things” kind of way, and feel that this, coupled with a certain post-1960s construct of creativity being to do with freedom and no rules or limits, gets in the way of sensible correction or reformulation.

I think it’s a good thing if exercises / material does sometimes leave space for students to try and be creative if they wish. However, frequently when doing such exercises students simply try to say what for them seems to be the most normal thing in the context. A case in point: in Innovations Upper-Intermediate, which I don’t have a copy of to hand, we have an exercise that first looks at fixed similes – things like He drinks like a fish, She smokes like a chimney, The tube system there runs like clockwork, etc. There’s then an exercise asking students to complete sentences however they want. The rubric even states that they can be as creative as they want. It’s things like: I’ve been really bust today. I’ve been running round like . . . .  . Now, obviously, students COULD if they wanted here say something like I’ve been running round like Usain Bolt with two firecrackers up his arse or whatever, but actually most simply translate whatever they’d normally say in L1 and ask things like “Can I say a chicken which has no head? Does that sound OK?”My point is simply that the overwhelming majority of students simply want the most normal ways of saying whatever it is they’re trying to say.

In the Twitter chat, it was suggested that simply getting students to personalise language is ‘being creative’. It’s not! It’s just getting them to personalise. The language they’ll use – or try to use – to do this is generally fairly predictable, generic and mundane. The stories and personal interest generated, though, are obviously anything but!

So what about teachers and creativity, then? Well, a few thoughts and clarifications: (1) the fact that CELTA courses continue to encourage trainees to make their own lessons remains one of my personal bugbears and pet hates. It’s like giving Nim Chimpsky a guitar and watching the chaos that ensues as he cuts his first LP! Why on earth we don’t recognise the reality for 99.9% of teachers is that they’ll be expected to be able to use a coursebook – and use it well – is beyond me. I’d always far rather see a young teacher who’s able to use a coursebook – any coursebook – well than a teacher who tries to constantly reinvent the wheel in a random, unfocused, chaotic and often fairly pointless way. (2) Using a coursebook ‘creatively’ really doesn’t have to mean starting with exercise 8, skipping back to exercise 2, doing an extended sidetrack on a newspaper article, and then a song that’s loosely thematically related before jumping back to exercise 1. It can also mean working and exploring the language that’s present in the material in a thorough and interactive way and being open to sidetracks that students may suggest in their interaction with what comes up, as well as reworking students’ output during speaking slots and exploring and building upon that. (3) We’re still plagued by this culture of recipes and quick fixes. Teachers are conned into believing that if they add to their repertoire of tricks and gimmicks, they’ll somehow become ‘better’ teachers. Being effective and principled and working from a strong root in theories of both language and learning will always get you further and make you a better and more effective practitioner. (4) teaching is neither art nor science. Instead, it’s far closer to craft. The longer I teach, the less I use tricks or gimmicks or even particularly vary my basic approach. I don’t need to. The mechanics of what I’m doing are ingrained, leaving me free to observe the road I travel and to be aware of language opportunities that arise. Teaching to me is thus more like folk music: there are songs we can all sing, with the same basic melodies and lyrics, but all open to personal adaptation and embellishment. The Henry Ford quote about the fact that if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got can only be used to justify all manner of whackiness with limited end product, but also masks the fact that what you’ve always got may actually be excellent and nothing to be ashamed of attempting to reproduce.

What still makes me chuckle most in this whole debate is the fear teachers have of somehow NOT being seen as ‘creative’. The concept has become so cherished and fetishised.

Me? Despite having written a whole series called Innovations, I’m happy just to tie myself to a tree with rots and work firmly within a tradition.

This doesn’t mean, though, never doing anything new. This term, for example, I’m busy experimenting with ways of using Vocaroo as a homework tool. However, my use of it and my experimentation is rooted very firmly in certain beliefs I have about both language and learning, as I said already. To my mind, this is the only way experimentation makes pedagogic sense.

Finally, it was suggested that “being creative is what keeps teachers interested” – a notion I found fairly depressing, I have to say. If being creative is what you most crave as teacher, go become a painter (though even there of course, you’ll find yourself shackled by what has been done before you!!). What should be keeping us interested is two-fold: the never-ending fascination of meeting new people and finding out about their worlds . . . and the never-ending fascination of learning more and more about language, and the way it works.

I’ll stop there for fear or replicating the monster post that started this whole outpouring of ideas, but would love to hear any further feedback from you all out there!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPEAKING

The student can . . .

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

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

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

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

Dissing Dogme: Part One

In the greater scheme of things, there are obviously many many things about ELT that annoy me way more than Dogme does – or should! There’s the continuing dominance of the atomistic structure-by-structure building block approach to syllabus design that dominates (the great irony being, of course, that Dogme is born out of an antagonism to many of these coursebooks in much the same way as my own career as a writer was!); there’s the tech evangelists for whom technology in the classroom is the magic bullet that will heal all ills . . . and don’t even get me started on the NLP snake oil salesmen, whole brain training charlatans and multiple intelligence madness! I’ve always enjoyed watching Scott Thornbury talk, and would like to say I regard him as a kind of friend, on the TEFL conference circuit at least, and have good relations with many of the other folk involved in spreading the Dogme dogma. I think anything that encourages teachers to listen more to their students, to treat them first and foremost as people rather than language-producing machines, and to use student output as the basis for reformulated whole-class input is essentially a power for good and should be encouraged, as there’s still way too many teachers unable – or unwilling – to do such fundamentals in class. And yet somehow the way in which Dogme has become such a noisy sub-culture and so prone to self-aggrandizing claims (or boasts, if you prefer) gets my back up. Since unleashing the crude attack dog approach of Simon Kent on Dogme the other day, I’ve been trying to articulate to myself exactly what it was that was bugging me about something that in so many ways I’m in broad agreement with.

What I aim to do over the next couple of weeks is to go through a kind of blow-by-blow account of my grievances, and to see how (or, indeed, IF!) folk out there respond.

My first gripe could perhaps cynically be seen as the sour grapes of a materials writer in desperate need of more love and affection, I suppose, but one thing that particularly annoys me is the way much of the debate has become framed around coursebooks versus non-coursebooks. Dogme has always had a ‘vow of chastity’ element that forswears coursebooks or, indeed, originally, any materials, and recent blog phenomena such as Chia Suan Chong’s ongoing ‘teach off‘, whereby a Dogme teacher takes on a coursebook-driven teacher drive this angle home with a vengeance.

The root of my anger here is that such rhetoric reduces all coursebooks to a homogenous whole, all are seen as equally bad, and as a result teachers are essentially encouraged to disengage from learning how to ‘read’ coursebooks and to assess and discuss the differences between them, the agendas that drive each one, the angles they have, and the reasons why they are the way they are. It seems blindingly obvious to me that a good teacher can manage a good lesson with even poor classroom material, and can do great things with better materials, whilst a less experienced or competent teacher can barely scrape by even if supported by great materials – and would surely struggle to do anything of any value in a Dogme-style lesson. Part of the problem is that Dogme is founded on a kind of cult of the individual, a belief deeply rooted in both British ELT and, as I argued earlier on this blog, the 60s and 70s counter-culture. There’s a feeling that material is there to be messed with: and in this age of Web 2.0 and all the interactivity it offers, this has become the general modus operandi of many younger teachers in their life at large as well. This is all well and good, and obviously all good teachers mediate material for their learners. One of my fears is that actually the twin rhetoric of the individual over all else and of anti-coursebooks actually inadvertently influences the way teachers think about materials, and leads to desperate attempts to reinvent wheels that have not even been fully understood as such! It’s depressing to count the number of times I’ve observed teachers using coursebooks in weird ways – starting with exercise five, say, then doing the final practice before finally going back to exercise 1 – and, on asking why, I’m usually told something along the lines of ‘Well, you can’t just teach it as it is, can you? You have to interpret it and do it the way that suits you best’.

This is born out of a materials illiteracy – a failure to grasp why things are structured in the way they are – as much as a desire to break free of perceived shackles. For me, mediating materials is far more about teaching what’s there, but exploiting the LANGUAGE that comes up – both within the materials themselves AND as part of the students’ own output / speaking in response to questions in the book. For my own teaching, in many ways I could be accused of being stuck in that I generally just pick a book up (and, admittedly, I am frequently in the rather singular position of those books being things I’ve co-authored myself!) and start with exercise 1 and move on to 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, regardless of the class. Where the tailoring to class needs and interests and desires comes in is through their responses to questions, through the way they respond and the anecdotes that emerge as a result of this interaction.

I recently observed a class where the teacher was doing a double-page spread based on injuries and illness. It began with some speaking, which asked students to discuss a few questions related to the topic. The teacher I saw began with a complicated running dictation which resulted in students writing down questions – and then discussing them – before starting the book. When we were discussing the lesson afterwards, I asked what the point of the intro had been only to be told it was a warmer, to help generate interest in the topic. When I asked what the teacher thought the point of the speaking in the book was, the teacher looked nonplussed before the penny finally dropped!

Now, obviously, this isn’t Dogme’s fault and many Dogmeticians would just say the fault is relying on coursebooks and that it would’ve been better if the teacher had gone materials-free. However, by refusing to engage with published materials, you close off a large part of teachers’ potential learning and development. Whether you like it or not, most teachers around the world use and rely on coursebooks in class. Dogme is but a tiny drop in a much bigger ocean in this respect, and as long as it sticks to such rigid ‘rules’ as materials-free has little to say about the realities of these teachers. One great irony is that there are countless teachers out there who would kill for books and classroom materials. A mate of mine is running an incredible project across two schools in the tiny blighted West African nation of Guinea Bissau, and I recently shipped over a container full of ancient EFL and French teaching books, which have been received by teachers living on five dollars a day as if they were manna from heaven. Presumably, though, they’d all be better, more committed teachers if they just burned the lot and made do on the resources they have?

Coursebooks are a lifeline for many teachers: they provide structure, content, language, pacing, support. To deny this is to dismiss the realities of these teachers’ lives and realities. This isn’t to say that helping teachers learn to improvise and riff off students is bad. Far from it. It’s just saying that is is not – and cannot ever be – the be all and end all.  The pursuit of good teaching would be better served by trainers also thinking about how to make teachers more aware of what’s happening with materials – and why and how best to exploit the material – and of course this must include leaving space for students.

Another issue, as mentioned above, is the assumption that all coursebooks are equally bad and all equally ill-suited to tackle students’ needs and desires in anything other than a crass and superficial way. Ask anyone who writes published ELT materials seriously, as opposed to mainly for money, and they’ll tell you they’re driven by agendas not dissimilar to those the Dogme folk are interested in. For me personally, much of my early writing was driven by the conviction that coursebooks failed to represent language – and particularly spoken language – as it was truly was: lexico-grammatical. More recently, whilst sticking with this theme, I’ve also become much more interested in cultural issues, representation and so on. Ben Goldstein, with things like Framework and The Big Picture, is exploring issues around representation, imagery and taboos; Lindsay Clandfield is interested in bringing literature to the fore, fronting serious issues over pop trivia and so on. All of us, in our ways, have tried to challenge the status quo brought about by the huge success of Headway, though I’m sure all of us would also be honest enough to recognise the craft and skill that’s gone into the creation of successive generations of Headway as well, and to accept that, on its own terms, it’s  a very well-written book. It’s just one whose key ethos I don’t buy into. My point here is, I guess, that OTHER key driving forces and beliefs are available!

Finally, there’s a failure to recognise that coursebooks act as agents of change. There was a great article on this subject many moons ago in the ELTJ that I’d recommend you all read. The gist, though, is that coursebooks are ways of presenting change by numbers, of reducing the fear the majority of teachers have of change and making slow shifts of focus in the broader field accessible. To give just one example of how this works, think of the fact that Outcomes, Global and Framework all feature plenty of non-native speaker accents, a phenomenon that was inconceivable just twenty years ago. Through such publications, these issues move from the leftfield and the avant garde into the mainstream in a way that would be nigh-on impossible otherwise.

To live in a world in which coursebooks are the devil is to deny all of the above.

I defy any of you to justify the existence of such a world!