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.
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.
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.
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 Dogme – that’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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!