This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA). After all, it’s always healthy to rethink our views and justify them.
The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype. The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project. You can find previous instalments of DA here.
Dale currently finds himself in Rome where he is an English teacher. He specialises in Dogme and reflective practice in teaching, both of which he has spoken about at ELT conferences in the past year. You can find out more on his blog here. Or follow him on Twitter here.
Chia: Hi Dale, are you ready to be DA-ed?
Dale: Hi Chia, great to be speaking to you, I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be for a DA-ing.
Chia: It is a well-known fact that you are a Dogmetician who have been practising Dogme ever since you finished your Celta. Many would argue that newly-qualified teachers (NQs) should not be attempting Dogme. What would you say to that?
Dale: Interesting point, Chia. As a teacher trainer what would you say are the reasons why you’d be skeptical about your trainees attempting Dogme?
Chia: Answering a question with a question…very cunning, Dale… Well, there are several reasons for the CELTA trainers’ skepticism.
For starters, NQs are not experienced or skilled enough to be dealing with emergent language and reacting to spontaneous and specific needs…
Dale: True, the teaching practice element in CELTA courses does not provide enough classroom time to prepare a teacher thoroughly to react to emergent language. Mind you, attempting a Dogme lesson doesn’t mean throwing the book out the window and unplugging your whole course. For instance, my first Dogme lesson was a 1 hour 15 minute slot as part of a three hour lesson. I think that somewhat minimises the the risk of ‘failure’, wouldn’t you say?
Chia: Not really, because you could still have a 1 hour 15 minute flop, which could lose your credibility and destroy your confidence…something that NQs don’t need. NQs need confidence-boosting experiences, don’t you think?
Dale: Definitely, a complete flop using any teaching method or approach is a big dent in the confidence of any teacher, not just an NQ. You need to be prepared for the lesson. Emergent language doesn’t just emerge on its own; the teacher needs to know how to exploit language opportunities in the classroom. It is also about the language the teacher selects to deal with, and how it is dealt with. I was definitely reassured by the fact that I had some experience of being guided towards learning to deal with emergent language from my teaching practice on the CELTA. We can’t underestimate the importance of knowing what ‘emergent language’ is and what it means to deal with.
Take an experienced teacher who tried Dogme, for example. What if their lesson was a failure and they failed to react to students’ emerging needs and the language they were producing? I don’t think this is a criticism that can be soley aimed at NQs.
Chia: On a CELTA, one can get experience of dealing with emergent language through teaching practice, but they are mostly lexical items. What about grammar? Most NQs don’t know their grammar well enough to be able to deal with the questions or the emerging reformulations that are needed.
You said so yourself in a post on your own blog on November 12th (reflections on Tesol France) that NQs often think, ‘There’s so much I don’t know about grammar, I am terrified that my students might ask me questions’. This is from your blog.
Dale: I knew that one would come back and bite me one day. Jokes aside, what’s to say an NQ can’t pick up a grammar book and read it? Take a proactive approach to it by dealing with the lack of knowledge. Obviously you can’t read up on the grammar of the English language in one week, which is something I realised too, so I chose to do Dogme with a class that is least likely to throw up difficult questions: an intermediate level. After all, when teaching Dogme, you can always guide the conversation towards areas that you know students may have difficulties with – to make your life easier, and secondly, research those areas and make sure you feel confident to answer questions about them.
You know they don’t know X or Y and you can guide them towards that, almost like leading them towards a cliff then when they reach the edge, building them a bridge to the other side
Chia: Is that then not really Dogme? It sounds more like a planned lesson where you have manipulated the needs…
Dale: In that case, I guess I’m not a Dogmetician then, I just manipulate conversation driven lessons around the needs of my students and work with the language they produce. Guilty as charged…hahaha
Chia: Stop acting cute, Dale. But in all seriousness, conversation lessons can sound like a chat. As many opponents have said, Dogme could be seen as ‘winging it elevated to an art form’… Couldn’t students get that from sitting in a pub? Where’s the structure?
Dale: Of course, I’ve heard that one a million times before… for me Dogme has always been a manifestation of principled eclecticism in the classroom. It’s not like you’re hashing a lesson together at random, you’re providing the most suitable solution to what has emerged, which, obviously a NQ would have some difficulty with on a long-term basis, but generalising that all of them couldn’t I think is a bit of an insult to the ability of an NQ.
By the way, I remember one of my trainers saying that to me “a speaking activity should give students something more than they could get in the pub” …
Chia: And how do you give them that extra that they can’t get in a pub?
Dale: Well, firstly I think there’s a difference between conversation-driven and a conversation lesson. The former implies that conversation is the vehicle with which learners and the teacher arrive at their destination, the latter is like conversation as a road to learning, which is where some cynics have their doubts.
It’s a teachers’ job to pick on thematic or linguistic elements of conversation-driven time and use them for lesson content, that way what is taught is immediate and contextualised.
Chia: Yes, but NQs will not be able to differentiate between conversation lessons and conversation-driven lessons, needless to say have the confidence or ability to pick out linguistic elements to use as lesson content simultaneously and spontaneously.
Having linguistic aims prepared and how these aims are to be achieved in each stage of the procedure does not only provide structure for the NQs but also for the students. Jeremy Harmer said that Dogme is like ‘jungle-path teaching’, i.e. a lesson with no plan and structure, and therefore no continuity…
Dale: So you are going to quote Harmer at me, are you? Let me quote one of my classes back to you. They said they believed I prepared more than any other teacher and that my lessons were very structured and organised. Doesn’t that pay tribute to the fact that Dogme is a form of principled eclecticism working on a materials-light level. Didn’t you yourself call it Improvised Principled Eclecticism?
Chia: Sshhh, don’t tell anyone, Dale. I’m trying to play Devil’s Advocate here.
Dale: No, you’ve raised a good point there about the perceived lack of structure. I think it’s a criticism levelled at Dogme very frequently.
Chia: So what do you do in your Dogme classes that helps students to feel that they are well-prepared and well-structured?
Dale: I have always applied a lot of what I learned in CELTA and then subsequently in DELTA. You see, lesson stages, as such, still exist: there is still a stage in which you check meaning or form, practice, review, drill, feedback, practice. The difference is that they are not rigid in a Dogme lesson; stages are at your disposal when they are necessary, if they are necessary. Students feel like it’s structured because it is structured.
Chia: Are you therefore saying that it is important to teach CELTA trainees to write lesson aims and and execute the procedures and lesson stages they have planned? Isn’t that contradictory to Dogme principles?
Dale: Well, the teaching of linguistic aims, lesson plans, lesson procedures, achievement of aims etc is easier to teach directly to trainees, in the sense of transferring information from A to B.
By the same token it’s easier to assess and benchmark to decide on a general standard. Is this contradictory to Dogme? Without the foundational backbone that lesson aims and procedures provide, a lesson lacks structure, which is why I consider them to be important as a foundation to build on.
However, identifying positive teaching behaviours in trainees like dealing with emergent language, building on them and reinforcing them with positive feedback corresponds more with the demands on a Dogmetician. I’d say a lot of the cynicism about Dogme and NQs stems from the fact that training does not cover these areas. The ability however is there, it just needs pulling out.
Chia: The thing is Dogme requires the teacher to have a certain rigour and an ability to deal with emergent language, correction and reformulation whilst combining structuring, multi-tasking abilities and knowledge of language in order to come across as organised and well-prepared. NQs often are still struggling with these aspects and are not going to be as able to cope with combining them in a flexible and improvised manner.
Dale: Exactly, it takes a long time to become an expert in these areas, which required years of practice, positive models to follow and experience in the classroom, so why are we not focusing on these things right from the beginning, to give trainees a better start?
Chia: You sure you’re not digging yourself into a hole there, Dale? You’re right, it takes lots of years of experience honing the skill of dealing with emergent language. If done badly, it could either result in all talk and no language work, or even worse, teacher-centred explanations and lectures that are contradictory to the communicative approach to teaching.
Dale: But Chia it takes time to refine the skill and the road is a long one. Which comes back to my point that why aren’t we starting the journey straight away?
And on the topic of communicative language teaching… many teachers work under different definitions of ‘communicative’, and there’s disparity between their ideas and what others consider it to be…but that’s another topic for a sequel to my first DA, perhaps?
Chia: So you’re enjoying this grilling enough to come back again then? ; )
But, honestly, a common point made by CELTA trainers is the fact that many coming on courses like the CELTA already think that teaching English should be relatively easy simply because English is their native tongue. Introducing NQs to Dogme and dealing with emergent language at such an early stage of their teaching can mislead them into thinking that chatting with their students in English is all they need to do…into mistakenly believing that Dogme is easy.
Dale: A very good point. You could also say that trainees may be misled into thinking that following the instructions in the teacher’s book, doing the practice exercises in the back of the book and teaching from page 1-100 is all they need to do. Coming back to Dogme though, I think in these cases the better-judgement of the trainer is needed. As I’m sure you know, each group of trainees is different from the last; some groups are stronger, some are weaker. Introducing elements of Dogme to a stronger group, pushing them to deal with emergent language and use their knowledge of the English language to help students pushes the trainees to their i+1. To a weaker group though, I will admit that it is not a good idea to encourage them to use Dogme and could lead to such opinions. Like a hierarchy of needs, Dogme lies at the top and lower levels need to be satisfied first.
Chia: Are you therefore saying that Dogme can or should only be attempted if and when trainees are able to use the coursebook and when they are able to deal with shaping a traditional PPP/Test-Teach-Test/Guided Discovery lesson from pre-assumed lesson aims?
Dale: I think trainees should have the benefit of a ‘backbone’ to English language teaching, as I mentioned earlier, it gives them an invaluable introduction to the profession. With a stronger group that grasps these concepts with ease, and one whose beliefs about teaching fit with the ideas behind, then I would say yes. I think it’s up to the trainer(s) to assess the level of the group and provide suitable challenge for them. I think I’ve touched on another point here that’s important: how Dogme fits with a teacher’s developing belief structure.
Chia: What do you mean by that?
Dale: Well, let’s face it, everyone believes languages are learned and taught in a different way and some teachers just don’t see Dogme as a way of playing to their teaching strengths and/or compatible with what they believe about SLA.
If there is a group containing many trainees who have the experience of learning another language, the experience of being a language student, and from this have understood the need for communication, immediacy and sensitivity to students needs, then it makes a more fitting environment in which to attempt Dogme.
Chia: Hang on, Dale. I’ve got two questions I’d like to ask here…
1. Are you saying that if the trainees do not believe in the need for communication and immediacy, that if they believe in that languages are learnt by grammar translation or the Direct Method, or by completing countless gap-fill exercises, then we should not encourage them to attempt Dogme?
2. Are you saying that native speakers who have never learnt another language and have no experience of being a language student would be far less suited to Dogme?
Dale: Ok, I’ll take your first question. No, I’m not saying we should settle for this and simple pander to their needs. I referred to a kind of hierarchy earlier. In this case, guided-discovery, test-teach-test etc would be the next level on the hierarchy. In this situation, a trainee must train to level and encouraging them to attempt Dogme would be pitching too high, don’t you think?
In response to your second question, I think that non-native speakers or native speakers who have had some form of language instruction/experience of learning another language have in their possession key abilities for Dogme and for teaching. One of them is empathy with their students, which makes a teacher more sensitive to students’ needs, both emotional and linguistic.
Chia: Interesting points there. Can I take this debate on a slightly different direction?
We have so far been arguing about the ability for NQs to use Dogme in conversation-driven lessons with language focus. How about the other skills like reading, listening and writing?
Dale: As a Dogmetician, I’m sure you’ve considered this as well yourself.
Chia: Dale…I keep telling you, I’m not talking to you as a Dogmetician at the moment…only as a DA…
Dale: Sorry, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference, especially when I’m used to you playing the role of DA consistently in daily life anyway.
Back to the point, we bang on about being sensitive to our students’ needs and responding to them, but what if these needs are specific to writing/reading/listening? This throws up another question: how does a NQ handle these without coursebook materials?
It’s a good question and it focuses us even more on the difference between attempting some Dogme lessons and being a Dogmetician. Materials-light is sometimes confused with materials-free, and it would be wrong to think you can’t use materials altogether. Certainly if this were the case, skills that require materials would not receive focus. A Dogmetician, in my opinion, selects materials to teach skills which can be exploited for conversation, engage learners and provide space to deal with difficulties learners have when practising those skills.
I think some NQs would have trouble teaching reading, writing and listening skills without the supportive framework of materials. On the other hand, if a NQ wants to use authentic materials, use learner generated and produced materials, then shouldn’t we be supportive in this pursuit? After all, isn’t that what assignment 3 of CELTA is trying to encourage anyway?
Chia: What kind of materials could an NQ use to focus on such skills that still keeps the lesson a Dogme one?
Dale: I would recommend short texts, both listening and reading, and authentic. Your ideas for using BBC news were very helpful for me, also short newspaper articles, parts of short stories or even teacher-written texts. In creating tasks, try and move away from testing comprehension and encourage students to interact with the text, pick out language they identify as useful, share ideas about a text, have them create the questions, have them respond to the text, rewrite it.
Chia: NQs would have greater difficulty in selecting authentic texts and creating tasks for their learners, in addition to the previously-discussed ability to pull out appropriate language for learners to focus on and dealing with them in sufficient detail.
Dale: You’re right there Chia, in selecting appropriate language and creating tasks, experience puts you at a great advantage. That’s why, just like emergent language, it’s better to get NQs practising asap.
Chia: Wait…if you are using such materials, what then is the difference between a Dogme lesson and a non-Dogme one?
Dale: Maybe there isn’t much of a difference.
Chia: Maybe it’s just good teaching.
Dale: Maybe the labels aren’t important.
Chia: Yeah, maybe it’s the learners’ motivation and needs that should take centre stage.
Dale: Maybe Dogme is a platform that provides the most space for this in the classroom.
Dale: Wow. That was intense.
Chia: Thank you for letting me put you in the hot seat.
Dale: It’s been a great pleasure, Chia.
Epilogue: Dale and Chia still argue like siblings at a family Christmas dinner. They also love each other, especially when the exchanging of expensive gifts is involved… Dale was only expressing his own views and does not represent any organisation he’s associated with. Chia is, in fact, a Dogmetician too. She was only playing DA.