Reflections on IATEFL Brighton and good teaching

After a hectic 4 days at IATEFL Brighton, followed by the come-down of those post-conference blues, I started to reflect upon the talks I had attended and the same message that seemed to be stressed and repeated again and again. And when I realised that I could no longer tweet these thoughts in 140 words, I gave in to the pull of starting my own blog, suppressing previous embarrasments and worries of the seemingly ego-centric nature of the extended airing of my own views and experiences online.

The conference started with Peter Grundy striking the perfect balance between humour, practical teaching tips and academic rigour as he spoke about the importance of Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance Theory and the creation of meaning through conversational implicatures.

The message: Communication is much more than literal meanings, for meaning comes from use.

In Dave Willis’s talk, he demonstrated the use of an authentic conversation used in a task-based classroom.

The message: Learners don’t systematically build up their grammar in the linear fashion that coursebooks would have us believe in.

Fiona James spoke about the use of visualisation to tap into the students’ imagination and inner lives and in doing so, develop the students intrapersonal skills, improve their self-concept, and most importantly for the language teacher, encourage lots of speaking and emergent language.

The message: Learners’ lives and imaginations are the most valuable resource that can be tapped.

Eugene Schaefer’s talk ‘Chuck the Book! Learner-generated Roleplays’ entertained the delegates with practical ideas and energised us with an array of drama-based activities.

The message (I got out of it) : A coursebook-less lesson could be filled with excitment and fun, and doesn’t have to resemble a chat in the pub.

Chaz Pugliese talked about using creativity in the classroom to motivate learners, reminding us teachers to have fun, or we might bore the students.

The message: Real-play, as opposed to Roleplay, allows learners to bring their own identity into the classroom.

Ultimately, they all point towards one thing. That good teaching is simply about supplying structures and frameworks that allow learners to bring themselves into the language classrooms, facilitating genuine interactions that put learners at the centre of their learning process, and providing opportunities for learners to encounter language in use. It is certainly not about letting coursebooks dictate which grammar point one needs to learn next, diverting learners away from what they truly want to talk about in favour of the perfect lesson plan we have created, or playing audio recordings of John and Jane Doe that learners do not care about in an attempt to enforce some listening practice. Ultimately, they all point towards a Dogme approach to teaching.

My conference experience was wrapped up appropriately by the Dogme Symposium, in which Luke Meddings, Anthony Gaughan, Candy Van Olst, Howard Vickers and Scott Thornbury talked about this conversation-driven, materials-light, and student-focussed approach to teaching. Amongst lots of laughter as we watched Luke drill us to say ‘Dogme’ in the Danish way and Anthony sing to get pairwork to stop, Candy hit the nail on the head when she said that we should let learners talk about what is meaningful to them as we learn to be the listener of stories rather than the storyteller. Why do we spend time contextualising our lessons, when the context is right there in front of our eyes? In Anthony’s words, why import interest into the classroom when we have real stories of people’s lives in the room?

During the gruelling Q&A session, less-convinced delegates started to question the effectiveness of Dogme in Business English classrooms especially for newly-qualified teachers, claiming that the teacher needed to plan the technical jargon that they were going to teach, and couldn’t afford to be caught out during the lesson. It took me a lot of effort to stop myself from yelling ‘In all my years of Business English teaching, I have never been asked by any of my students to teach them jargon!’ Most of my students know more business jargon than I do, and I see no shame in getting them to explain the concepts of their specialization to me. The most important lesson I had learnt when I completed my LCCI CERT TEB (a Celta-like qualification for Business English teachers) years ago was this: I am an expert in using English for business communication. I am not an expert in their business areas. Living by this motto has allowed me to humbly ask questions and listen to my Business English students tell me about their work and specialities. And in the process, I have learnt more about finance, marketing, human resources, sales, architecture, trade, law, politics, etc. than I could ever glean from a coursebook.

Ironically, Dogme is not a dogmatic methodology, as some might think, and as Luke Meddings said in his talk, isn’t new to teaching. Business teachers, for example, have been approaching their lessons in ways I have heard termed ‘Authentic Participation’ for ages. But the moment Scott Thornbury gave it the ‘Dogme’ label, it enabled us to start thinking about teaching in a different way. As Vygotsky would say, labels help us to process thought and concepts.

The message: Whether you call it Dogme or any other name (I will resist quoting the trite Juliet to Romeo speech here), it is simply about good teaching.

Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

12 thoughts on “Reflections on IATEFL Brighton and good teaching”

  1. Whoa Chia – fabulous stuff! I have to say, I was astonished by how many talks and discussions at IATEFL were about letting the student into the learning process. It’s so fundamental, I can’t understand why people find it so difficult to grasp. The way you teahc/train/coach your Business English classes sounds exactly how I teach/train coach mine as well. And I’m sure you will stand up with me and say “there is no other way of doing it.”

    Love that you have started a blog! I shall immediately put you on my blogroll!


  2. Hi Chia, welcome to blogland, Like Candy I’m so glad you’ve started a blog, you’ve got so much that’s interesting to say ! Really enjoyed your talk at Iatefl and of course was great to see you at the dogposium. And ditto – consider yourself blogrolled.

  3. Apart from seconding Luc’s comment, I’d like to add two things :
    As you point out, Dogme comes naturally in ESP where the students bring all their subject specialist knowledge with them ! As long as the teacher is interested in their specialist field, and willing to “leave go of the reins”, student-led discussions arise spontaneously. (hence the I’ve-been-doing-it-for-years cry of so many experienced teachers )
    And secondly, I’m afraid I have to put here (again!) the quote which is up on the wall in our staffroom:
    “We have been reminded recently of Von Humboldt’s statement that we cannot really teach language, we can only create conditions in which it will develop spontaneously in the mind in its own way”
    SP Corder’s The Significance of Learner’s Errors IRAL Vol V/4: 1967

    Or as we say around here “plus ça change…”

    1. That’s so true, Elizabeth. ‘We can only create conditions in which it (language) will develop spontaneously in the mind in its own way’.
      And in this age of niche markets, even the students of EFL are niche markets of their own. ‘General English’ might be quite a misnomer in a way, because everyone has a slightly different motivation for learning, a different field they might be interested in, and different communities that they will be using English with.
      The so-called student-centred methods of teaching are not truly student-centred if we walk in with presumptions of what they need to be talking about and what they need to learn.

      And yes, Candy, we must teach our Business English classes in similar ways. I believe many experienced teachers do. We facilitate discussions and work with the language the students produce. Yet, ironically, many who challenge Dogme are teachers who already use such learner-centred techniques in their teaching by adapting the coursebook and encouraging student talking time and cross-classroon interaction. Perhaps the idea of walking into class without any material or coursebook makes one feel insecure…almost naked…and that’s when people get defensive… I know from experience that it’s when I am most unsure about the subject I am teaching when I overcompensate with mountains of photocopies…

      Thanks, Luke, for the kind comments. BTW, what’s blogroll and how do you blogroll someone? Can I blogroll you and Candy?


  4. Very happy to be able to read more from you, Chia! I agree with you and Candy: if the buzz last year was tech, this year it was talk and connection (not that I wish to suggest that the former excludes the latter, mind…)

    Looking forward to more!

  5. Hi Chia

    I’m really glad you’ve decided to write a blog. I too will blogroll you (it’s on the links part of your wordpress dashboard).

    I look forward to reading more.


  6. Hi Chia,

    I don’t have much to add but echo those above in that I’m glad you’ve got a blog and will, I hope, share more about your approach to teaching and things you do. Luke tweeted a while back, and repeated the message when he was at the British Council at the beginning of April, about the way blogs and twitter seem to be invigorating English language teaching (or at least, it certainly seems that way to those of us who do either or both). I’m certainly glad to have to opportunity to read and learn from what people like yourself have to say.

    Mike =)

  7. Well the arrival of this blog was pretty inevitable I think – coming from someone like you Chia, with so much passion, experience and responsibility about what you do and that it should have a meaningful outcome for your learners. You already know how grateful I am to you to for opening my eyes to what matters on the Cert Teb course where we first met – and that is our students of course, (although we too need to feel good of course!). Stevick’s simple but wholly graphical reference to the importance of what goes on within and between the people in the classroom as being a fundamental backdrop for effective learning is always with me, whoever I am teaching – or better put whoever I have the honour to be facilitating in some way in their learning – and this was written back in the 70’s! Dogme, for me is a label, like any other, as we seem to need these lables to understand life more fully and categorise it into nice little boxes, which talks about caring about what we do and being interested in the lives of those who trust in us, in this case to further their knowledge of English – although I believe that there is so much more we can offer than the language. For me English is the medium with which we work to uncover FAR more meaningful, memorable even unexpected parts of ourselves and the lives we live.

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