Many moons ago, when I was first trying to get a foothold in the publishing game, I sent off a series of lessons I’d co-written with a friend I made on my DELTA course, Darryl Hocking. We felt that coursebooks didn’t begin to do enough to teach natural spoken English and had spent the best part of a year recording endless conversations, transcribing them, and analysing them searching for common themes, patterns and chunks. What we ended up with were a series of lessons with titles like TALKING ABOUT YOUR VIEWS ON THINGS, TALKING ABOUT YOUR FAMILY, ENCOURAGING PEOPLE, TALKING ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE BEEN UP TO, TALKING ABOUT WHAT YOU PREFER and so on. Each lesson had a scripted listening, some sound chunking pronunciation work (very influenced by David Brazil), some vocabulary and collocations, some spoken grammar, some conversation strategies and so on. We were very proud of our efforts and convinced of their revolutionary nature. We sent a few sample lessons round to different publishers and sat back and waited for the phone to start ringing. To cut a long story short, this all eventually led to our meeting with Michael Lewis and Jimmie Hill, which in turn led to a book deal with what was then Language Teaching Publications – better known as LTP. During our first meeting with Michael – in a pub in Hove (!) – he spent some time flicking through all our samples before turning to us and saying “Well, there are some nice lessons here, but I don’t see a course! Where’s the bridge, the arch, the umbrella?”
I’m often reminded of this conversation when I browse the Dogme blogs that abound: nice lesson, where’s the course? And that is, of course, because there isn’t one. A course, that is. Just a series of lessons that may or may not follow up on from each other and that may or may not recycle or develop what’s been covered earlier.
As part our the preparation for our own five-yearly British Council inspection at University of Westminster last year, I was in charge of getting together a presentable syllabus for each level of the General English classes. Our courses are predominantly coursebook driven, and in essence the contents of the book forms the bulk of the syllabus at each level. I made discrete enquiries about whether or not it would acceptable to the BC to simply type out the menu of contents for each level, and was informed it would not. I then spent a fair bit of time liaising with a friend who works at the BC Madrid and who’s done some astounding work on syllabus for all six levels defined by the Common European Framework, including a very thorough mapping of a range of coursebooks onto the stated CEFR goals for each level (which I’m very pleased to say INNOVATIONS scored particularly well in). What resulted from this was a 6-page document for each level we teach at Westminster based very much of the CEFR. The way I see it, if the CEFR defines, say, B2 in terms of can-do statements across a whole range of skills, then this means that in order to be placed at this level, the student must’ve spent the time at B1 acquiring these competencies, so the B2 can-do statements become by default the B1 syllabus. The BC ended up commending us on the syllabi we’d produced and the inspection went without a hitch.
Luckily, as it turned out, none of this work was in vain or was just simple window-dressing designed to smooth our passage through the inspection because as it happens, almost every week we have potential punters and sponsors calling, emailing or visiting and asking us not only what’s special about our centre, not only what qualifications do our staff have, not only the fees and dates, but also – crucially – the course content. We explain some of what we offer will be determined by our perception of what students need, but are also able to provide detailed descriptions of course goals and content.
As a coursebook writer myself, as well as a teacher on General English courses, syllabus is absolutely central. What has driven Outcomes first and foremost was a desire to teach towards CEFR communicative competencies. Sure we felt we had to try to cover the grammar expected at each level and found in the vast majority of competing titles, but what we wanted to drive the car was the pursuit of can-do statements, whether they be to do with speaking, writing, listening or whatever. We also spent a lot of time working out how we could incorporate as many of the core 3000 words into the syllabus as possible, a task which simply cannot happen by accident and which, even with the best will in the world, is nigh-on impossible to achieve with any degree of comprehensiveness.
So where does Dogme fit into all of this? What does it have to say about syllabus apart from let’s wait and see what happens? How does it sell its vision to the BC or to punters keen to do what they’ll get out of the course? I’ve seen two possible answers to this questions from those within in the Dogme camp, both of which struck me as woefully inadequate. Firstly, I watched a Dogme talk which mainly seemed to be about how the teacher in question had constructed a ‘student-generated’ course (see my earlier post for my thoughts on that little myth) by asking his learners to bring texts in every day, work around which would form the bulk of each lesson. To counter any accusation of lack of syllabus, the teacher announced that every time he ‘covered’ (it wasn’t explained what ‘covering’ might mean in this sense) a grammar item, it’d be ticked off the list, so that if any parents or sponsors wanted to know what’d been going on he could point to the structures already dealt with. Now, not only is this based on an outmoded way of thinking of syllabus (i,e: competence = the ticking off of discrete structural items) that I would’ve thought anyone with any interest in pushing for a greater focus on spoken language would’ve been resistant to, but it’s also only possible retrospectively.
The second approach I encountered came dressed in many intellectual garments and garnished with plenty of scary quotes, but in essence boiled down to an ’emergent syllabus’ – or one that was ‘negotiated’. In the end, this turned out to be little more than a kind of simplified version of old-fashioned needs analysis, whereby the teacher asks the class what they want to do and constructs some (or, in this case, all (!!)) of the course around these desires. The killer for me was the first thing students said was that they wanted to go to the park – and so a park visit was pencilled in for Friday afternoon! Superb. Maybe another day could involve a pub lunch and then maybe Monday mornings could just be a lie-in! Genius.
When I first started teaching, I used to do needs analysis for my General English classes. I’d give them a long list of topics and ask them to mark their top three, count up the votes and prioritise that was round. Usually, there’d be 8 votes for food, say, 8 for sport, 7 for holidays, 7 for family and so on, and I’d have to make executive decisions on this basis. Now I’ve come to realise is that one of the things students pay us for is to KNOW what input they most need to take them to the next level. So much work has been done – by publishers, by the CEFR, by the BC – to define level that it seems plain arrogant not to take account of this.
I recently had to cover an Upper-Intermediate class at work, at very short notice. I literally picked the book up, went straight in to class and started teaching.
The class is doing OUTCOMES (hey, if you can’t use your own coursebooks at your own place of work, where can you use them, eh?!) and were on Unit Three – Things You Need. The goal of the opening double-page spread is to help students talk better about a wide range of objects and to describe what the objects are for. If any of you have used this book, you’ll perhaps have spotted a fair few typos in the first edition, which escaped the copy editor’s clutches. Beneath the obvious typos, though, lies another level of glitch: things that we as writers know have been missed out, but which may not be apparent to the casual observer! Typically, this lesson began with one of just such mistakes. The first exercise is vocabulary-focused and has students looking at a whole page of pictures at the back of the book and discussing some questions in relation to these. Students discuss if there are any things there that they have never used (and if not, why not); which objects they use all the time / regularly /now and again / hardly ever; whether or not they have any of these things on them now – and which they have at home . . . and, finally, which they did not know in English before. Now, here’s the catch. The pictures at the back were supposed to be labelled, like a picture dictionary, but somehow the labels went AWOL. The pictures show things like a hammer, a drill, a saw, a torch, a stepladder, a nail, a screw, glue, rope, wire, a plastic bowl, a cloth, a dustpan and brush, a mop and bucket, washing-up liquid, a corkscrew, a tin opener, a lighter, a rubber, correction fluid, staples and a stapler, scissors, clips, sticky tape, a charger, an adaptor, string, a needle and thread, an iron, (clothes) pegs, a plaster and a bandage. Obviously, not having the names of these objects isn’t a disaster because as a teacher you simply begin by asking students to work in pairs (or groups) and to see how many things they know the names of. You then round up and teach the gaps, drill any new words, write them up on the board (possibly with extra collocations / examples of use added in, so things like HAVE YOU GOT A CORKSCREW? I NEED TO OPEN THIS BOTTLE OF WINE or HAVE YOU GOT A STAPLER? I NEED TO STAPLE THESE BITS OF PAPER TOGETHER.) and THEN get students to do the speaking afterwards.That’s what I did and it all worked fine.
Now, quite possibly, you’re wondering why I’m telling you all of this in what’s billed as being another bash at hardcore Dogme, right? Well, afterwards, I was discussing the class with a colleague and we were discussing how hard it’d be to access and teach such language through a Dogme approach. There is a whole slew of language that’s useful for students that simply doesn’t come up in everyday conversation and is unlikely to appear in a conversation-driven class unless the teacher really goes out of their way to guide the conversation towards it in some cunning way. I was reminded of something I heard Willie Cardoso say at Spain TESOL this year. He claimed that essentially language only exists in the here and now, and only comes into being – or becomes relevant to students – through communication and as a result of communicative needs. At the time, this struck me as a short-sighted thing to say as clearly all manner of language exists all around us. Even when we’re sitting silently, not engaged in communication at all, language is everywhere: in books, on posters, in newspapers, on the web, in the conversations of others and so on. Much of this language – and actually much high frequency lexis – occurs far more commonly in written language than spoken, and actually in specific kinds of written language, chiefly journalese or the language of academia. Much other language that may well be high-frequency in certain contexts only occurs in those particular contexts and is unlikely to be needed in general chat.
If you doubt the frequency of some of the words above, think on this: in the MACMILLAN ADVANCED LEARNERS’ DICTIONARY, string is a three star word; ladder is a two star word, as are cloth, needle, rubber, rope and nail. I could go on, but the basic point here is that almost all of these words are relatively high frequency and thus deserve to be taught. I’m obviously not saying frequency is everything, but at the same time it’s not nothing either. What’s important here is to have some kind of principled approach to what we teach across a series of lessons, or across a course as a whole, and to ensure that we pay heed to such crucial factors as word frequency.
Now of course, I’m sure that the more skilful Dogmeticians could come up with contexts in which some of the language mentioned above could be introduced (though I have to say, could is certainly not the same as do – and I’d bet good money that most actually don’t!). You could perhaps ask students to brainstorm problems around the house and reformulate their ideas onto the board; you could then ask them to discuss all the tools they’d need to deal with these problems – and maybe encourage to walk around explaining things they don’t know the words for to see if anyone else in the class knows the English words. It’s obviously not impossible for at least some of these tools above to thus emerge and get taught, but it’s not strictly conversation-driven to approach a class this way and the emergence of these words depends on the teacher choosing tasks with a specific language goal in mind. Which, when you stop and think about it, is basically what materials often do, isn’t it! And there’s the rub.
Perhaps a truly skilled Dogme teacher, who’s incredibly well informed linguistically, could even manage to ensure conversations veer in all manner of different directions over a period of time and thus ensure coverage of a large number of high frequency words more commonly found in written English. I have nothing but admiration for the one in a thousand teachers who may be able to manage this. I simply ask them whether or not well thought-out materials might not be able to bring those words to the students in a faster, more focused and more efficient manner?
As a coursebook writer, one of the major changes I’ve made is to shift from the colloquial, informal spoken style of INNOVATIONS to the more complex, broader range of language contained within OUTCOMES. Now you could easily argue that for many students, the former is more what they require. That’s fine. I fear, though, that for many more, they also require (either now or in the future – the great forgotten time by Dogmeticians, for the need then has by definition yet to appear!) language used in more niche kinds of speech (presentations, business, academic discussions, etc.) and also in writing (and its close cousin reading). One of the things we obsessed over with OUTCOMES was ensuring coverage of as much core lexis as possible. The Macmillan stars proved an invaluable guide and helped us countless times to decide on which words to include – and which to not bother with yet. And such decisions are at the heart of what we do as language teachers. Written well, coursebook material is far better placed to bring this kind of language to the students – and to test how much of it they know already and to then give opportunities to practise it – than Dogme is.
Dogmeticiains will argue that their approach somehow creates ‘a real need’ in students for the language, yet actually whether the task is brainstorming tools required or trying to name tools in unlabelled pictures, both tasks are an artifice, a kind of game, and in neither situation do students REALLY need these tools. By starting our planning with a goal in mind – a place you want students to have got to by the end of the class – you’re far more able to introduce such language, though, than you are if your goal is go with the flow and see what comes up.
The only time a student in a true Dogme class may actually REALLY need to ask for a hammer is when they reach boiling point and flip out in frustration at their teacher, who has no clear notion of where the minutes are leading or of what they intend to teach – and a blow to the head with a blunt instrument seems to be the only possible way to end such tedious torture.