The Teach-Off – My reaction to coursebooks & Uncount Nouns

The following was originally my response to Varinder’s account of Coursebook Day 4 of the Teach-Off.

I had observed the second half of the class where Varinder was focusing on Countable and Uncountable nouns from the coursebook Global Intermediate, and was very honoured to be privy to the wonderful rapport she had with the students and the enthusiasm with which she taught the class.

After the lesson, Varinder and I had a discussion regarding the relevance of that particular grammar point and the way it was dealt with in the coursebook. Varinder mentions this discussion in her post, and this was my response.

As the response grew longer, and I grew more passionate about what I had to say,

I decided that perhaps this deserves a blogpost of its own after all.

Here is my response:

How on earth can money be uncountable???

First of all, let me first clarify a couple of things.

The issue at hand has nothing to do with being a Dogmetician or any teaching methodology for that matter.
It is about attitudes and views on grammar, on how languages are learnt (SLA), and on what is learnable and what is useful/relevant for the learners.

Taking the Dogmetician hat off and putting on my Grammar-fanatic linguist hat…

Over time, as we move from grammar translation through into the communicative approach, there has been more and more focus on communicative competence and the communication skills that enable such competence.

Meanwhile, on the SLA front, research started to show that presenting lists of discrete items of language in a linear fashion simply does not coincide with how the brain learns languages.

Language learning is emergent, feedback sensitive and non-linear (see e.g. Michael Long, Vygotsky, Krashen, etc.)

Moreover, spending an hour on generalised rules about countable and uncountable nouns when there are just so many exceptions to the rule might not be the best use of classroom time. As you said in class, ‘A lot of it can be used in both.’

In fact, many coursebook writers are now trying to get away from labelling them countable and uncountable nouns as the labels are a misnomer in themselves.
Some writers now use the terms ‘count’ and ‘mass’, while others choose to use ‘count’ and ‘uncount’ nouns, preferring to deal with how the noun in question is referring to an idea of an abstract mass, or an individual single entity.

Moreover, the design of the task in the coursebook had students filling in the gaps as follows:

Fill in the gaps with ‘countable’, ‘uncountable’, or ‘countable and uncountable’.

1. ________ can have the plural form.
2. ________ cannot go with ‘a’ or ‘an’.
3. ________ can go with ‘the’.
4. ________ can go with ‘some’ and ‘any’.

Now, I don’t have that much of an issue with numbers 1 or 2. They are fairly straightforward rules (aside from the fact that we can all think of many exceptions of nouns that are always in the plural but not necessarily countable e.g. ‘news’, ‘studies’).

But my gripe is with questions 3 and 4, to which the answers are ‘countable and uncountable’.

By making students fill in those gaps, the task is misleading the students into thinking that either ‘countable’ or ‘uncountable’ can go into the gap.
Although the answer at the end is ‘both’, by flagging this up, the students is made to sit up and take note of how ‘some’ and ‘any’ is used with countable and uncountable nouns.

Now, memory works in strange ways.
It is known that students will not remember all that is in the grammar exercise.
But what they will remember is that there was some issue with ‘some’ or ‘any’ used with countable or uncountable nouns.
This creates doubt in their minds when they are choosing to use nouns with ‘some’ or ‘any’.
Voila, we’ve created a problem where there wasn’t one before!

Now, we could argue that some students might have a problem with ‘some’ and ‘any’ before the exercise, and therefore the exercise serves to clarify the issue for those students.

Sure, but if these are only a portion of students, why not wait for the problem to arise in conversation, and then through the use of correction and scaffolding, the teacher can bring attention to this, solving it quickly, in context? This makes it more relevant and definitely more memorable to the student.

Taking the grammar-fanatic hat off, and putting my sociolinguist hat on…
ELF (English as a lingua franca) is not a methodology or approach. ELF is a global phenomenon that is happening all around us, a phenomenon that changes the reasons and the purpose for learning English. This is turn affects what and how we teach.

Apart from the very important fact that the misuse of countable and uncountable nouns is not going to alter meaning drastically in most cases, their use have also taken on special meaning with ELF research into NNS-NNS (non-native speaker to non-native speaker) communication.

Here’s an example:
The material in Global today said,
We don’t use ‘the’ with abstract nouns when we’re talking in general.
e.g. Love is important.
NOT The love is important.

But in extensive analysis of ELF use, it has been found that expert speakers of English as a lingua franca are using the articles ‘the’ with abstract nouns in order to give it emphasis.
e.g. The love is important; The life is good in Italy.

Whichever hat I choose to put on, at the end of the day, my point is this:
Using countable and uncountable nouns wrongly is not going to affect the meaning of what the speaker is saying. At an intermediate level of English (which these learners are at), there are lots of other skills and language (lexico-grammar) that would make a huge difference to their communicative abilities and their communicative competence.
This grammar area is certainly not one of them.

And if learners think they want it because that’s what their past learning experiences have taught them, then I think it is time to have an informed discussion with our learners with regards to how language are learnt, and the relevance of what they are learning.

Perhaps therein lies my issue with course books.

The Teach-Off – Coursebk Day 4

This is Varinder Unlu’s account of her 4th Day using the coursebook.

Click here if you need a refresher on what’s happened till now.

Meanwhile, let me hand you over to Varinder




26th April 2012

Today we had four observers visit us during the class.


To revise countable/uncountable nouns

To increase knowledge of abstract nouns

To practise reading

To practise speaking

Pages 82, 83 and 144 from Global Int

A few students were late coming to class as there were problems with the underground.  We talked briefly about the weather and transport system with the students that were there on time.

The lesson today was around a reading about motivation and what motivates people.  It was also introducing/revising countable and uncountable nouns.  On first look at the two pages, it doesn’t look as if there is enough to last a three hour lesson and I think if it were an inexperienced teacher sticking to the book, without exploiting the materials to the full, they would probably get through it in about an hour.

I, however, did it in a three hour lesson with my class:

  1. For the lead-in I took the idea given in the teacher’s book: ________ is/are the most important thing(s) in the world.  I had this sentence on strips of paper to give to each student to fill the gap in however they wanted.
  2. In small groups the class compared what they had written down on their bits of paper and explained why they had done so.  This was followed by very brief class feedback.
  3. I then asked students to open their books to page 82 and focused their attention on Exercise 1 in the Vocabulary section.  Students filled in the missing letters to complete the words (abstract nouns).  They checked their answers in pairs before I played the listening for them to check their answers.  I then asked two students to come to the board and write the words.  We checked for spelling mistakes. (There was one – Wellthy).
  4. Students then read the Language note in the grey box about abstract nouns and completed the 5 sentences below it so that they were true for them.  In groups I asked them to discuss their answers and ask questions about why they had written what they had.   We conducted a brief class feedback.
  5. I put “Meeting our demands” on the whiteboard” and explained to the class that they were going to read a text with this title and asked them to predict what it might be about.  One student volunteered something about supply and demand (which we did in yesterday’s lesson).  Another student said something along the same lines.  I told the students that they had three minutes to read the text and answer the following question:  “What is the author’s intention in the text?”  (I didn’t focus their attention on the 3 options given in the book because I wanted them to figure out the answer without the options).   Students read the text, some took a bit longer as they were trying to understand every word.  I stopped class after about three minutes and asked them for the answer to the questions.  They were all able to tell me what the text was about but could not tell me what the author’s intention was.  I eventually managed to elicit the answer from them.  I felt that I needed to speak to the class about the importance of reading new text all the way through for the first time without worrying about the unknown words.  I explained that it was good to get into the habit of not getting stuck on every word and taking their dictionary out to check meaning and that this way of reading was particularly important in exam situations.  (During this stage I also found out that one of the students is a psychologist and was very familiar with the theory being described in the text).
  6. Next I asked the class to look at the words in the grey box and in pairs explain any words they knew to their partner.   Students read the text in more detail and completed the pyramid with the words from the box.  One of the Japanese students was very interested in what people had put in the top part of the pyramid and really wanted to discuss this in detail.
  7. When I grouped the students for the next activity, I made sure that the Japanese student mentioned above was in the same group as the psychologist so that he could ask questions.  This worked really well during the discussion activity when the students talked about the theory and whether they thought it was a good explanation of human motivation.  He was able to ask questions about the theory and the psychologist was able to explain it to him.
  8. We discussed their answers as a class and it was apparent from what they said that there were differences in their views about this theory.  The Asian students felt that for them the top part of pyramid was not as important as the bottom part and the European/Brazilian students thought the opposite.  We got on the topic of respect and the Asian students said that this was not something that motivated them as they were taught this from young age and the rest of the class felt that respect was very important as you had to earn it – be worthy of respect came out of this discussion.  The psychologist then told us that this theory was based on studies done with Western society and based very much on Western culture – which explained a lot about why there were differences.  During the discussion stage I had noted down student errors and we did some error correction.
  9. After the break we looked at page 83 – grammar section.  I wrote up all the words in white in the text on the board and asked the students to work with their partner to decide which was countable or uncountable.  As they were discussing their answers I realised that there were quite a few disagreements.  These were clarified during feedback and I asked the students to read the grammar explanation.  They then completed the sentences.  We checked the answers which raised more questions.
  10. I asked the students to complete the exercise on page 144 for homework.
  11. We moved onto the final activity of this lesson which was speaking – I asked the students what motivates them.  Then asked them what demotivates them.  After this I asked them to think about one time when they felt very motivated and to look at the questions in the speaking activity and make notes of their answers.
  12. In groups students discussed their stories and asked each other questions.  I conducted a brief class feedback.
  13. To wrap up the class I went through the lexis that had come out of discussions and checked if students remembered meaning and pronunciation.
  14. Finally we checked what we had done in today’s lesson.

The topic of this lesson was of interest to the students and they had their views on the theory which generated discussion.   At the end of this lesson, I heard one of the students say how good the lesson was.

As for the countable / uncountable noun tasks – these went down very well with the learners – they asked lots of questions to clarify.  My Dogmetician friends will obviously have strong opinions about why grammar, especially countables /uncountables should not be taught in this way.  It worked, the students were engaged, learning and asking questions and surely that’s more important than what we think we should be doing according to Dogme, ELF or any other approach/method.  This lesson and my discussion with Chia after the lesson left me thinking one question: What do the learners want?

We as teachers, trainers, writers, educational specialists and academics talk about what is the right and wrong way of doing things all the time.  We have conferences/events/seminars/workshops  where we have people who have done tremendous amounts of research into something telling us that this or that is what we should be doing or that we have been doing things all wrong.  If the learner is happy and learning is taking place, does it matter?

I’m tired and rambling now so I shall stop here!

The Teach-Off – Coursebk Day 3

This is Varinder Unlu’s account of her 3rd Day using the coursebook.

Click here if you need a refresher on what’s happened till now.

Meanwhile, let me hand you over to Varinder


25th April 2012

We had another student join the class today so that takes our total to 12 students now.  He is from Brazil.


Today’s objectives:

To increase students’ knowledge of lexis related to money and business

To improve students’ listening skills

To improve students’ pronunciation

To improve students’ speaking

To improve students’ reading skills


Pages 80, 81 and 144 of Global Intermediate


I was in the classroom before the students arrived this morning because I wanted to set up the listening and also a clip from Youtube about a lady who lives without money (one and a half minutes long).

Most of the students arrived on time.  I asked the students if they had done their homework (Pg 144 from Global).  They had done and I asked them to compare their answers with their partner. We conducted a brief class feedback to check answers as whole class.

I then wrote the word “Money” on the whiteboard and asked the students to give me as many examples as they could of how they could get money:

Answers from students:  Earn it, invest it and get interest, win it, find it, borrow it. I added steal it and inherit it to their list.    We then discussed ways of using money.  Answers from students: spend it, lose it, lend it, save it.  One student was trying to “give to someone take care of animals.” I told him that it’s donate to charity. 

We briefly discussed if students thought it would be possible to live without money.  Most of the students said no.  I played a short clip from Youtube of a trailer of a woman who lives without money.  I asked students to listen to how she manages to survive.  After the clip I repeated the questions and one said “she work for people to get food.” Another said “ people give her tickets” (for travel). I asked the class if they could live like this and all the students said no because it would be difficult.

I asked students to look at page 80 of Global and focused their attention on the first activity.  (Speaking Activity to put into order the best to worst way of making more money).  Students read the instructions and I checked that they had understood what they needed to do.  Students worked alone and ordered them 1-7 and then compared their answers and explained to each other why they had ordered them how they had.


Listening activity:  I wrote the word “bubble” on the board and asked the class if they could give me a definition for it.  One student made held up his hands as if he was holding a ball and said “bubble”.  I asked them to look at the two questions and then read then the definition to answer them.  Students had two minutes to do this.  A class check confirmed that they had got the meaning.

I explained to that the class were going to listen to someone talking about the first known economic bubble: Tulipmania.  In pairs students discussed the meaning of the following words: bulb, guilder, outstrip, trader, profit. None of students knew the meaning of the first three and I explained these to them.  I put the gist question on the board and played the listening.  Students discussed their answer in pairs and during feedback asked if they could  listen to it again so I played the listening for a second time and we checked the answer.  The students then looked at the multiple choice activity (exercise  4). Once they had read the sentences, I played the listening for the third time, students checked their answers and I played it one final time to allow them to confirm their answers.  The students found the listening quite challenging and that’s why I played as many times as they needed it. I think they appreciated the fact that they were allowed to hear it more than twice.

For the next activity (5) on page 80, I put the class into two groups rather than have them working in pairs.  They had already done a lot of pair work – checking their answers to the listening and the first activity that I felt it would be better to change it.  In their groups, I could hear some interesting exchanges about why they agreed or didn’t agree with the statements.  There was quite a lot of disagreement about if the government should help people if the market crashes and the students had quite strong opposing views.  I allowed the discussion to develop with the following lexis emerging: bankrupt, greed, greedy, recession, mortgage, property boom, intervene, intervention, taxpayer, interest rates dropped/fell, vote, election, status symbol.

After the break, we continued working from the book and students looked at page 81 – Vocabulary and pronunciation.  Students worked in pairs to complete the tables.  I played the listening for them to check their answers.  I then asked them to mark the stress on the words and played the listening again for them to hear the pronunciation to check their answers.  We checked the answers by me writing the words on the board and students marking the stress.  A quick session of choral and individual drilling ensured that they had got the stress right.  They had quite a lot of fun with this by exaggerating the stress.  Students then completed exercise 3.  We checked answers and I asked students to choose one of the statements and write a short paragraph about it for homework.  The word “fairtrade” came out from the checking of answers.

On Monday I had asked the class to read the first story from the Sherlock Holmes book they had chosen and so in the final 15 minutes of today’s class we focused on this.  In two groups the students discussed what the story was about, what they liked/disliked about it and shared three new words/phrases they had learned.

We had a quick recap of today’s objectives and the class said they had found the listening challenging and wanted to know about ways of improving their listening skills.  We discussed different ways of doing this, ie watching tv, listening to the radio, going to the school Self Access centre and using the Language Lab

Today’s lesson felt very intense and full and I must say I was a little worried that it might be too much for the learners.  During the break I stayed behind in the classroom with three of the Japanese students and they said that up to that point they had found the class challenging as there was a lot of lexis related to the economy and business, something which they had not looked at before.  I asked if they thought it was useful for them even though they were finding it a challenge and answered yes!

At the end of the lesson I had three students approach me individually to say how much they had enjoyed the class and felt they had learned lot. 

I left out the grammar activity out on purpose because we had already looked at the grammar yesterday and the students had also completed an exercise for homework.  By doing this in class today would have been a slight overload for the learners.

I was also worried about the listening about tulips but did not allow my worries to be projected to the learners.  In fact I tried to make it interesting by giving them a little fact about tulips – they originated in Turkey (true!!).  The students were really surprised by this. And I also tried to make the language rather than the topic the focus of the listening.

Today’s class went better than I had expected and it took real skill to make it work as well as it did.  I walked out of the classroom with a big smile on my face and sense of real achievement knowing  that learning had taken place in my classroom.


The Teach-Off – Coursebk Day 2

This is Varinder Unlu’s account of her 2nd Day using the coursebook.

Click here if you need a refresher on what’s happened till now.

Meanwhile, let me hand you over to Varinder…

24th April 2012

These were my objectives for today’s lesson:

  • To introduce/revise language to describe objects
  • To introduce/revise defining / non defining relative clauses
  • To improve when writing a description  of an object
  • To improve students’ reading skills – gist and intensive
  • To improve students’ speaking skills when describing things

The class profile has changed slightly since last week.   We now have:  5 Japanese, 2 Brazilians, 2 Koreans, 1 Italian and 1 Iranian.  There are four women and seven men.  I noticed in yesterday’s lesson that one of the learners has a problem with his vision and this became more apparent in today’s lesson as he takes twice as long as the other students to read a text or when writing something.  He has to hold the page really close to his face when he reads and is almost touching the desk with his nose when he’s writing.  I’m going to photocopy some of the pages from the book onto A3 paper from tomorrow to make it easier for him to read.

I had planned a lesson around pages 78, 79, 144 and 145 of Global.  The two activities I left out from the book were Vocabulary and Speaking on page 79 as I felt that there was quite a lot to cover in the lesson and I would not have time to get to these.

When I entered the classroom today there was a much more relaxed atmosphere and I felt confident that I had a good lesson for the learners.  We talked a for a few minutes about what the students had done the previous evening and once most of the students has arrived I boarded my lesson aims so that they could see what was going to be covered.

  1. I started the lesson by using an activity from Reward Resource Pack Intermediate – How many uses can you think of?  Each student was given a card with an object written on it: an old toothbrush, a teaspoon, an old newspaper, a lipstick, a saucepan etc. I asked the students to write down as many uses for their object they could think of and emphasised that they could be as silly as they wanted to be with their answers.  Feedback generated laughter as students gave their answers because they had some funny ideas.
  2. Next I asked if anyone knew what an auction was. One student gave some examples: e-bay, Christies, Sotheby’s and another student tried to explain it by saying “you bid for things”. Looking at the students’ faces I could see that some had still not quite understood what it was so I gave another example and they all started nodding.
  3. I asked the students to think of an item then would like to sell and gave them a piece of card to write a description of it.  As I went round monitoring I could see that the descriptions were quite minimal and as each student finished their description,  I asked them to open their book to page 78 and focused their attention on the “Useful phrases” .  I suggested that they look at the description of their item and add some of the phrases to it so that it was a bit more detailed.   They all really appreciated having the phrases to refer to and before long we had some very detailed descriptions.
  4. Students were put into two groups and they had to read out what they had written and try and sell their item to the rest of the group and try to get as much money as possible from their “sale”.  Everyone managed to sell their items.  The highest bidders explained why they bought the item.
  5. I wrote: “A good swap” and “Trash or treasure” on the board explained to students that they were going to read a text each.  I elicited what they thought the texts were going to be about.  “Changing things” was one reply.  I set up the jigsaw reading and explained that they needed to complete the table in exercise 2.  After the reading I asked the students to tell their partner about their text from their notes.
  6. While students were talking I put the following questions up on the board: What do you think of the two systems?  What disadvantages can you think of?  We discussed these questions as a class.  The following lexis came from this part: can be misleading, antiques, unfair.  We also got on the subject of buying second hand and ex-display goods. Students were quite vocal about why they would/wouldn’t buy these.
  7. After the break we looked at the grammar section – students read the explanation for defining and non-defining relative clauses and completed the gaps in the texts below on page 78.  A check with their partner and class feedback generated quite a few questions about the grammar so I asked the students to turn to page 144 and students read a more in-depth explanation.   Once they had finished reading I asked students to tell me the differences between the two types of clauses and how you can see when it is non-defining relative clause. They explained fairly accurately and I asked them to do Exercise 1 & 2 on page 145 for homework for consolidation.
  8. As a final activity I too another activity from Reward Resource Pack Intermediate – Holiday crossword.  In two groups students had to write clues for their words using defining relative clauses.  Then I asked the two groups to sit in two rows facing each other. I elicited how they would ask for the clues to complete their crossword: What’s ___ down/across? Students spent 15 minutes asking and answering their questions.  I did notice that once they had read out their description they would use another way of explaining if their partner had not understood.
  9. At 12.05 (lesson ends at 12.00) we had a quick recap of the lexis that had emerged in today’s lesson – pronunciation and meaning and asked students to tick off the aims, put on board at start of lesson,  they thought we had achieved in this lesson.  They ticked them all.

I think that I can safely say that this was a course book led lesson with little adaptation and supplementation in which the students were able to express themselves freely whenever they wanted to.  We had a vocabulary column on the board with about 15 new items of lexis which had emerged from their speaking activities.

The Teach-Off – Coursebk Day 1

This is Varinder Unlu’s account of her 1st Day using the coursebook in the Teach-Off at IH London.

Click here if you need a refresher on what’s happened till now.

Meanwhile, let me hand you over to Varinder…

23rd April 2012

Ok, can’t say that I wasn’t nervous this morning. I had already met the group several times when I observed Chia last week and I was sitting at the back of the classroom when Chia conducted feedback on Friday. I knew the learners had already developed a really good rapport with their teacher and my biggest challenge today was to create a tiny bit of that rapport.
Today was an intake day and we had two new students join the class after the break. I didn’t want to dive straight into the course book as that’s not what I would normally do when starting a new class. So this is what happened:
As I walked into the classroom at 8.55, three students were already there. I was introducing myself to them when four more students arrived.
Stages of my lesson:
1. Introductions – in order for students to learn something about me I invited them to ask me questions. Two out of the six students actually took this opportunity:
“Where are you from?” was the first one.
“What do like doing in London?” was the second.
The rest of the class looked at me with suspicion. This was going to be harder than I thought.
2. I explained what we were going to be doing in today’s lesson and boarded my lesson objectives:
• Needs analysis
• Choosing the topics of interest to them from the course book
• Learning to learn – being a better learner

3. Students answered their needs analysis questions. They were keen to do this and put quite a lot of thought into their answers. What surprised me was not their answers but the number of spelling mistakes, lack of punctuation and lack of structure in their written answers. Their speaking is definitely stronger than their writing.

4. I put the class into two groups and explained that we were going to be using the course book that they had been given the week before. I asked them to look at the contents page and discuss in their groups which topics appealed to them. I told them that because we only had two weeks together we would not be able to cover all the topics in the book and that each group had to decide to two. Interestingly, the two groups choose the same topics! So the two units we will be looking at this week (and possibly carrying on into next week) are: Unit 6 and Unit 7 from Global intermediate.

5. Now it was time to move on to learner training – we talked about what the students do to help improve their English outside the classroom. This discussion led to the importance of reading and we established that most of the class likes to read books about history and detective stories. So during the break I took the opportunity to get a class set of Edgar Alan “A collection of short stories” and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes – short stories”.

6. After the break students were given the books and I asked them to choose one that they would like to read over the next two weeks. They chose Sherlock Holmes. They will be reading the first story in the book this week and we will discuss it on Wednesday morning.

7. As I was so surprised at the lack of sentence structure in their needs analysis answers, I decided to do a quick test of present simple and continuous – page 17 (gap fill) from the course book. They actually found this challenging. We discussed the differences between the two as we checked the answers. As we were doing this, I dealt with language that was emerging as a result of some of the vocabulary in the text, for example: a student asked me what “sense of humour” meant. I threw it back out to the class and someone said “to make fun”. So I had to explain the difference between to “make fun of sbdy/sthg” and “to have fun”. We also discussed what the word “Liverpudlians” is used to describe leading to “Mancunians” “Geordies” etc.

8. We then moved on to exercise 2 – questions. During feedback, we looked at subject/object questions.

9. It was now 11.50 and we had ten minutes to re-cap the lexis that had come up in the lesson. We went through pronunciation and meaning of the words and phrases that I had written on the whiteboard.

So we got through quite a lot in three hours. I’m happy to say that as the lesson progressed, the learners relaxed and started responding better. They asked me for clarification when they were not sure about something and they even asked me a few personal questions as lesson went on.
Tomorrow we start using the course book properly…….

The Teach-Off – Introducing the Coursebook Round

It’s round two of the Dogme-versus-Coursebook Teach-Off, and today, my General English DOS, Varinder, starts teaching the same group I had for the last two weeks using the coursebook Global.

Varinder kindly volunteered to tell us a little bit about herself before embarking on posts about her coursebook-based lessons.

So, here’s introducing Varinder Unlu:


Thought I had better introduce myself to everyone.  I work at IH London and I am the one who very foolishly challenged Chia to a Dogme v coursebook teach-off.    Just a little background information about me:

I’ve been in the world of EFL for about 20 years and started teaching in Turkey.  After five years of teaching there, I returned to the UK and began working in a private language school in Greenwich where I spent twelve years, eight of which were as a DOS and Trinity teacher trainer.  I’d always had an interest in ESOL and wondered how it was different to EFL teaching and so in 2009 I thought I’d try my hand at ESOL and got a job at Greenwich Community College.  It was a really developmental time for me and I thoroughly enjoyed it every minute of it.   I learned that, yes, ESOL teaching is different in many ways but there are also many similarities to EFL.  Just as I was settling into the world of public sector teaching and environment, the private sector enticed me back with the role of DOS at IH – an opportunity that could not be overlooked and I’ve now been working here for just over eighteen months.  It’s an amazing place to work and I’m surrounded by so many talented and creative people with a real passion for teaching and developing. Oh, and I’m also an examiner for Cambridge ESOL, ESB and an inspector.

Dogme is something that raised my interest as an approach because I’ve never really followed one method or approach in my teaching.   I’m curious as to why some people feel so strongly about using it exclusively in their teaching.  So I hope some of the following questions will be answered for me:

Is it the best way to teach?

Does it work better than course books and materials for teachers? What about newly qualified teachers?

What do students think?  Do they/can they see the difference?

Are the learning outcomes increased by using this approach?

Is it good to use just one method/approach  in teaching?

Does it matter which approach you use?

Of course there are many more questions in my mind and there are many factors involved in why the results/answers will be what they are.  However, I am really excited and a little nervous to be teaching with Chia.


The Teach-Off – The Dogme Observer’s POV

During this entire Teach-Off, we’ve decided to implement a open-door policy in which any teacher who wanted to watch the class could walk in at any time. As a result, we’ve had Shelly Terrell, Adam Beale, Emi Slater, several of colleagues at IH, and my DOS, Varinder, who will be teaching the coursebook lessons in the second half of this teach-off, come watch the class unfold.

On Thursday, Emi Slater sat in with us for the whole three hours, from 9am to 12noon.

So far, all of the blogposts on the Teach-Off have been from my point of view (POV).

We thought that it would perhaps add some objectivity to the experiment if we could hear the observer’s POV.

It is in this spirit of objectivity that I invited Emi to guest blog about her POV…

So, here is Emi Slater:

Thursday 19th April 2012-04-20

In the spirit of trying to learn more about Dogme I was lucky enough to be allowed to observe a 3-hour lesson by Chia today. I loved it. The overall impression was one of intimacy and lots of laughter. The students talked almost continuously.

Intimacy and Warmth

When I arrived bang on 9 am about 3 students were already there and Chia was sitting closely with them eliciting language already. She was asking them intimate questions about their journey to school, their home life for example

What time do you need to leave home? If you live near St. Pauls where do you do your shopping?, Who do you live with?” – within minutes she was spotting problems with ‘live’ and ‘leave’, eliciting past tenses and dealing on the spot with any little grammar or lexis issues that came up. As the other students gradually dribbled in, she gently drew them into the conversation saying things like “Oh Hello, we’re just talking about….” It is only about ten past nine by now, and she has already created a lovely, warm, sensitive atmosphere where the students clearly feel comfortable and totally engaged. And a lot of language has already come up. Chia listens intently to the students and sometimes engages with one student for quite a long time helping them reformulate what they want to say. The other students listen carefully and chip in with questions and write notes constantly.


She moves on to a recall of yesterday’s lesson. The way they support and help each other is testament to how involved they are with the lesson. James Zull of Glasgow 2012 Plenary IATEFL fame talked about  “not forcing knowledge into the brain but about motivating and creating circumstances for students to learn”. Well, in this case, Chia has certainly done that. How involved the students are in the lesson surely depends on the teacher?

Of course this could apply to any teacher, using a course book or not – that old adage – is Dogme just good teaching?

One student says to another “Oh, I wish I had your brain!” – much laughter from all. The point is, they are very enthusiastic, and it’s only 9.30 am in the morning.

Natural Conversation/Authenticity

While one group recalls and discusses the huge amount of lexis from yesterday’s lesson (Chia urges them to remember the discussions they had), she spends quite a long time with one of the groups. There are two groups of 4/3 at this point. The other group seem quite happy to continue discussing while she attends to the questions of the other. This made for a very intimate interaction between Chia and the students. She answered their questions and fed in new language and supported them carefully. The conversation is flowing naturally and fluctuating between many different topics and both groups are now discussing different things. This means that before long both groups are singing from different hymn sheets because that is of course how conversation goes. This naturally makes it difficult for the teacher whose job it will be to eventually bring all the students back together again. It is the sign of an experienced teacher that Chia was able to do this effectively later on in the lesson. By allowing this to happen, she was able to wait for the language to emerge naturally rather than from an imposed piece of text or a course book “topic”.

Of course, this begs the other old Dogme adage – do you have to be an experienced teacher to teach Dogme style?


Never let it be said that Dogme lessons are all lexis and no grammar. In this lesson, the students were exposed to, discovered for themselves and practised, so many of what Scott Thornbury calls ‘Grammar Mcnuggets’ (check out his excellent video on G is for Grammar Syllabus) that any course book would have been put to shame. The structures emerged from the natural conversation and were ALWAYS RELEVANT. The students were trying to express something – Chia reformulated and then elicited or focused or did a guided discovery on the relevant grammar point needed to help them express their point – The students naturally wanted to know how to form the relevant structure (in this case the passive), because they needed it to say what they wanted to say.

Bingo! Motivated students learning the passive form with enthusiasm. This doesn’t happen everyday does it? I’ve heard teachers marching around where I work, on more than one occasion, muttering, “Why do the students hate the passive so much? I don’t understand. They keep asking me why they need it.”

The grammar forms which emerged, and which Chia teased out and focused on when necessary, were passive, causative structure – have something done, past participles in general, adjective forms ed/ing, and at the end a little review of present perfect and past simple. She didn’t spend hours on each form – when it was obvious that it was a new one, for example the causative structure “have + noun + done”, she created on-the-spot discovery exercises and got the students to repeat and practice.

Perhaps the students might have benefitted from more time to practise the new structures – perhaps giving them a mini role play on the spot or asking them to describe different situations in pairs – or to share their experiences might have been good. But I suppose this comes from the course book mentality of imposing a conversation topic on the students in order for them to repeat and practice. I don’t know whether Chia is planning to give them time in another lesson to practice the grammar structures she focused on more, or whether she believes that the students will do this anyway themselves. There is something to be said for the fact that these are all adults with extrinsic and intrinsic motivation to learn English so the chances are if they are introduced to a new grammar structure in Chia’s lesson, then they will probably try and practise it further themselves later in the pub, or in a conversation lesson or in the break. If Chia is relying on this motivation, it’s a risk and a very controversial one, but I quite like it!

An interesting debate related to how much we expect from our students perhaps related to Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill’s High Demand ELT question

A question many people ask about Dogme often is – how much of a chance do the students get to practise the language that emerges from a conversation driven lesson? I would say as much or as little as a course book lesson – it all depends on the teacher.

The language work at the end of the lesson on reformulating sentences emerging from the students’ presentations was a chance for the students to really go in depth into all the possibilities, and in depth they did go. This was a real chance for them to analyse the language.

For those that are wondering, there was no doubt in my mind that the amount of grammar structures that Chia discussed with the students was appropriate. Much more was covered than in a “normal” course book lesson as the structures were linked together rather than separated into Scott Thornbury’s sliced up omelette, but it was not too much. The students were totally engaged and keen and not overwhelmed in any way. On the contrary, I think they were glad to be exposed to grammar they clearly already had questions about.

 Lexis/Language Retention

One thing that struck me was the amount of lexis the students remembered. They had so obviously had memorable conversations during the week and this way of teaching lexis clearly works! It has to be the way to go.

Dogme for lower levels

I cannot understand where this idea has come from that Dogme cannot be done with lower level classes. In my limited experience, I would say that Dogme with lower levels is probably easier for the teacher. She/He can draw out and focus on grammar structures and lexical sets, phrases, functional language, chunking, sentence structure, and so on and so forth, in a much more controlled way. What becomes complicated is when Advanced students are asking about more complicated language, and the teacher has to have a much wider range of idioms, collocations, complex structures, and so on, at their fingertips.

It is also inevitable perhaps that at lower levels the teacher is going to manipulate the conversation more simply because the students don’t have the language or the confidence to initiate much. Chia initiated simply by being the one that kept asking them questions. Initiating the questions made her the one in control, I suppose . But even so, I think her questions and the students’ responses made for a much more natural and motivating conversation than if she had been using a course book.

Teacher as person/hiding behind the course book

The teacher is after all a person too and very often students are really interested in the teacher as a person (and the questions he/she asks) and I have never understood why so many teachers don’t want to reveal their real selves in lessons. With teenagers I can understand but these are adults. Teachers often hide behind the course books. Surely this is verging on the downright stupid?

If a teacher reveals something of themselves, then the students will do likewise. Course books are constantly asking students to talk about quite personal and intimate topics. We are always being told personalize! Personalize! If a teacher shares his/her own experience and then asks the students to do the same, surely it’s obvious that it is going to work better?

Also, perhaps more importantly, the teacher can tell very quickly if the topic is not appropriate or relevant and can switch and move on much more quickly than if the students have all just started a task on page such and such of the course book. Chia was super sensitive to this and was able to assess quickly whether students were responding or not.

Student hiding behind the coursebook

One student came to the class who had been moved from another group. After she had been in the class for about 15 minutes, Chia asked her if she had brought her notebook and pen. The student replied “No, I haven’t been given the book yet (meaning the course book)”. Chia replied “No, we’re not using a course book so you’ll need your notebook and pen more than ever. It is very important in these lessons.”

Does this reveal that perhaps the student was relying on the course book and was not thinking of taking notes. This has wider implications I think – course books certainly make teachers lazy (I know this from my own experience. When I am tired or have had a difficult week or am covering a class, I know I often rely on the course book, find me a teacher who doesn’t) but do they also make students lazy? They think “Oh, it’s ok I don’t need to write that down it’s in the book. “ The chances are they won’t look in the book after class and the action of writing the language down during the lesson will surely be better than nothing.

Style, Confidence and Content

Chia has a very sensitive teaching style. I really liked the way she gave positive delayed feedback. She said things like “That’s a great way to start a presentation but how could we change it to make it better?” or “How have you reformulated that sentence? I have chosen to change three things and you?”

It came across as respectful to the students and not patronizing. I think this style of error correction makes for more confidence building, rather than just ripping apart what the students have just said. She managed to elicit some great functional language for the students to use in their future presentations and all the language work for the last half of the lesson was based on language emerging from the students themselves.

To summarize, she covered about 5 grammar structures, a huge range of lexis and expressions ranging from topics such as money, clothes, shopping and phrasal verb, pronunciation (she drilled regularly and elicited stress patterns throughout) and some functional language for presentations plus a review of lexis from other lessons all in a three-hour stint. You could tell the students were hungry for it. None of this “Oh, we’re not doing that today, wait until tomorrow” stuff – she covered pretty much everything the students wanted to know there and then. It was full on for the teacher – never let it be said that Dogme is an easy way out.


It is incredibly brave for any teacher to have an open door policy for two whole weeks – I am not sure I know any other teacher who has ever done that. Chia has left the door of her classroom open throughout the Dogme teach-off so any teacher can come and observe at any time. This kind of generosity in the spirit of research and sharing should be applauded and a lesson to us all.


If this style of conversation driven teaching is the way to go, and teachers and schools finally admit that language isn’t linear and cannot be divided into bit- size chunks…If they read Vygotsky about language acquisition and start listening to what Scott Thornbury has to say about all of the above…then the CELTA will have to be completely redefined in the way that Anthony Gaughan has been saying for the last few years

Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill want better quality, higher demand learning and teaching both from the teachers and the students. It seems to me the CELTA has allowed too many of us to get away with/hide behind low quality teaching for too long. Isn’t this where it all begins?


The Teach-Off – Dogme Day 8

It’s the last Dogme day of the Teach-Off.

I walked into class with a huge stack of coloured cards that I had cut up.

On each card is a word, phrase or sentence that contains the lexico-grammar the class had covered over the past two weeks.

After a brief greeting, I put split the class into groups of 2-3 and gave them 15 minutes to work together on a massive recall session, going through what we had covered with the help of their notebooks. I reminded them of the practice they could get by testing each other through describing the phrases to each other, and left them to their own devices.

This was followed by a 2-hour long revision session.

The students were split into 2 groups, and were told to give their groups names.

In the first revision activity, students from the groups then took turns coming up to the front, and were each given the stack of coloured cards and 2 minutes to describe as many of the phrases on the card to their group members as possible. Each correct answer was worth a point, each card that was passed was made available to the opposing team for a guess after the group’s turn was over. Passed cards that were not described or not guessed correctly were put back into the stack.

In the second revision activity, students were asked to sit on the floor in a circle around a bottle of mineral water which I had put in the centre of the circle. I would describe the word or phrase or grammatical structure, and students who knew the answer had to grab the bottle. Only those with the bottle in hand were able to guess. If the guess is incorrect, the student would have to put the bottle back and allow for someone else to grab the bottle. This fast-paced activity often descends into chaos….and a lot of laughter.

Wrapping up the two weeks we had spent together, I explained to students that we had not used the coursebook this week and that I would like to know about how they felt about this teaching approach as compared to their previous learning experiences. I asked for their permission to place a Dictaphone in the centre of the room and conducted a 15-minute focus group session where students were given time to talk about their experiences as I stayed as quiet as possible. So as to give the shy and quiet students a chance to voice their opinions in private, I also gave students a questionnaire that asked for their comments on the Dogme lessons they had experienced.

In order to avoid skewing the results of the following two weeks, I’ll refrain from letting you into what was said/written today and withhold the results till the end of this ‘teach-off’.

Instead, l shall leave you with some photos taken by the lovely Shelly Terrell, who was one of the many observers that took advantage of the open door policy I had all week and came to watch the class.

Photo by Shelly Terrell
Photo by Shelly Terrell
Photo by Shelly Terrell

The Teach-Off – Dogme Day 7

Before I summarise today’s lesson, here are the ‘answers’ to the loan words featured in yesterday’s post.

  • Rajicase (Japanese) is a shortened form of Rajio Casetto Pureya…or Radio Cassette Player.
  • Pasocon (Japanese) is also another shortened form. This time, it’s of Pasonaru Computa…or Personal Computer.
  • Salaryman (Japanese) refers to an office worker who draws a monthly salary.
  • Office Lady (Japanese), also known as O.L., refers to women who work in offices whose duties include making tea, photocopying and dealing with meaningless admin. Rather politically incorrect, I know… Oh, and did I mention that they have to wear a uniform too? Does ‘Girl Friday’ ring any bells?
  • Face Pass (Japanese), or KaoPasu, uses ‘pass’ like in ‘student pass’, refers to good-looking people who can get into clubs or bars for free.
  • Skinship (Korean/Japanese) is a physical intimacy shared through a display of affection, e.g. hugging, kissing, holding hands, etc.
  • Fighting! (Korean) is what you say to someone going for an exam or about to face a difficult challenge. The closest equivalent in English would be ‘Go for it!’ or ‘Come on! You can do it!
  • Show off (Persian/Farsi) has the exact same meaning in Farsi as it does in English. Interesting though that an English loan word is needed to describe such behaviour.
  • Site (Brazilian Portuguese) is short for website.

And here’s the boardwork for today. You know the drill.

Boardwork 1
Boardwork 2

Today’s lesson consisted mainly of a recall and revision of yesterday’s language, which in turn led to further questions and lexis, and the rest of the mini-presentations by the students, followed by some delayed correction of all the student presentations.

After giving students about 15 minutes to do a recall in pairs and to fill in the new student on what she missed yesterday, I gave each pair a mini-white board and described the lexis, while they discussed the answers in their pairs and kept score. The discussion of the word ‘tailor make’ used as a verb led to questions like ‘What’s the opposite of “tailor make”?’ (‘to buy something off the rack’) and this was further extended to me eliciting from the students if we could say, ‘I went to a tailor and I tailor made a shirt’.

The students and I agreed that it wasn’t I, but the tailor, who tailor made the shirt, and so I fed in the causative structure, ‘I had the shirt tailor made.’

After asking the concept questions, ‘Did I do it myself?’ (No)

‘Did I ask someone to do it?’ (Yes)

Did I pay someone to do it?’ (Yes)

I then elicited the form ‘to have + something + past participle’

The Japanese students got rather confused at this point, probably because in Japanese, the causative has its own tense (and by tense, I mean conjugated verb form). In addition, seeing the past participle threw quite a lot of the students off.

A few more concept questions later, I wrote:

I need to paint my walls.

I need to book a holiday.

I need to print these photos. 

I need to clean my house.

I then established that I was very rich and didn’t want to do these things myself.

I was going to pay someone to do it.

The students worked in pairs, changing the sentences into causative structures, and later in open class, I asked,

‘I need to paint my walls next week,’

eliciting the answer, ‘I’m going to have my walls painted’.

As I varied the time adverbials in each sentence, the students were made aware that the time element was signaled by the first verb ‘have’ and the past participle remained the same.

After some more controlled practice, we went back to our mini-whiteboards and revision. But when the phrase ‘loan words’ came up, a student asked about the noun ‘loan’. This led to me eliciting several words connected to banking and loans as the students bounced off the new language, sharing the words that they would use in their language, e.g. while we say ‘to be in the black’ and ‘to be in the red’, some languages used ‘blue’ and others ‘green’, instead of ‘black’!

Perhaps another noticeable point of today’s revision session was the fact that all the students were better prepared and had clearly been going through their notebooks and revising at home. The setback of yesterday’s Back-To-Board for a particular team had clearly jolted the students into putting in some work at home! Success!

After the break, our only Iranian student in the class gave a excellently-prepared presentation on her country and aroused quite a bit of interest during the post-presentation Q&A from the Japanese and Korean students. Following that, our two Japanese girls told us about Japanese Kabuki and Ukiyoe, and although I am quite confident about my knowledge of Japanese culture, they filled me with all kinds of interesting trivia that I had never known.

The delayed correction slot basically consisted of me writing sentences that I had heard over the last 2 days during the student presentations and having students discuss in pairs as to how they might reformulate the sentences.
I then went through them, sentence by sentence, having students write their reformulations on the mini-whiteboards, and then sharing it with the rest of the class. What I like about this is the fact that very often, there really isn’t one correct answer to these corrections. By getting all the students to write their versions on the mini-whiteboards, we can not only acknowledge the different ways of reformulating the sentences, but it also provides the students with a chance to have in-depth discussions with their partners as to how to change the given sentences, raising their awareness while consolidating their knowledge of how language works, on top of providing the teacher with an insight into how much the students are able to handle. (Have a look at the sentences in Boardwork 2. How would you reformulate them?)

Tomorrow is the last Dogme day of the Teach-Off.

Tomorrow is the day of the student questionnaire and focus group.

And then it’s on to my DOS and the coursebook, Global…

The Teach-Off – Dogme Day 6

Today’s boardwork – You know the routine by now, don’t you?

Boardwork 1
Boardwork 2

As the weather forecast had predicted, it was cold and rainy this morning, and my student was quick to point that out to me as I walked into the class. I replied by saying that we were lucky to have a sunny afternoon yesterday when the rain cleared and asked if they got up to anything special.

One student said he went to the British Museum and that seemed to spark the interest of a couple of his classmates. They wanted to know what he thought of it and he said, ‘I like it.’

I gestured for him to put the sentence in the past tense, and he looked at me, puzzled, and said, ‘But I did. The past tense of “like” sounds like the present.’

So, I wrote,

I like it.


I liked it.


and highlighted how the initial vowel of the following word meant that the last letter got transferred phonologically, meaning that the /d/ was pronounced a lot more clearly.

After a bit of drilling, I asked him, ‘So how did you find the British Museum?

He hesitated, and then said, ‘I look at the map, and then…

So, I quickly jumped in and elicited that ‘How did you find ~?’ often means ‘What did you think of your experience with ~?

The conversation then moved on to students talking about the wildlife in the neighbourhood they lived in, the different museums and galleries they had been to in London, how it was best not to cover the whole of the British museum at one go or it may get overwhelming, and the fact that the Tate Modern used to be a power plant. I took this opportunity to feed in the phrase ‘~ is well worth + -ing’, knowing fully well that later, the students were going to do mini-presentations about their countries.

(How did I know that? Well, you obviously haven’t read yesterday’s post! Click here for a quick catch-up)

As we had covered quite a fair bit of lexis and structures in the last two days, I decided to put students in their pairs to do a recall of those two days for about 5-10 minutes, and conducted a 30-minute long Back-to-Board of those language items.

(I wanted to spare you TEFL teachers of an explanation of Back-to-Board, but for the benefit of those not in the know, here goes:

Students are put into groups, in this case, 2 groups. Each group sends out a representative who would sit on a chair with their back facing the board. The teacher, in this case, moi, writes a word, phrase, or sentence on the board. The rest of the group describes or explains what is on the board to their representative without saying the words on the board or spelling them out. The first representative to shout out the correct answer wins a point for their group.)

One team, who called themselves Team Asia (because they comprised of students from the Far East) started to struggle in the middle of the game as their group members were used to thinking carefully before speaking and not speaking for the sake of filling silences. Their opposing team was clearly coming up far in front and their confidence started to lag.

After the game, I thought the need to explain that the purpose of the activity was not only to help them revise the language items, but to give them practice in paraphrasing and describing what they mean because there would be plenty of times in real life where this would be a useful skill.

The students nodded readily, and I’m hoping this might mean that the next time we do a Back-to-Board, Team Asia would jump into the deep end a little more and be adventurous with their use of language, as much as it might initially go against their cultural instincts.

After the revision session, I had students form groups with classmates from their own countries, and share the research they had done as homework about their countries in preparation for the presentation they would give after the break. I offered my help with any emergent language and suggested that they should feel free to use the computer and the IWB if needed.

Although some students chatted away in the corner, the class was generally faced with a lull.

And this was something I was not used to.

I know the theory and all:

  • Students need silent moments too – preparation time, absorption time, and thinking time.
  • Students from certain cultures have different discourse strategies, and are more comfortable with preparing what they are going to say thoroughly, and less likely to blabber away.
  • A need to fill classroom time with chatter is sometimes a sign of a teacher’s need to control and an inability to let go.

Yet, it was something I was not used to, and had to remind myself to leave the students to their own devices and let them get on with the task in their own way, even if it meant a classroom that was not filled with talk.

After the break, we all settled in our seats and got ready for the first student to present. He had clearly done his homework and spoke to his Brazilian classmates about the Portuguese loan words used in Japanese (see Boardwork 1).

Seeing the level of interest in the classroom at this point and the potential for expansion, I wrote the words ‘karaoke’, ‘entrepreneur’, and ‘latte’ on the board after his presentation, and told the following stories.

Karaoke’ originated in Japan, and ‘kara’, as in ‘karate’, meant ‘empty’. ‘Oke’ was short for ‘orchestra’. Therefore, karaoke really means ‘empty orchestra’.

Entrepreneur’ originated in France and refers to a businessman, one that takes risks in the spirit of business. George Bush has been known for saying, ‘The French don’t know how to take risks. They clearly don’t have a word for “entrepreneur” in their dictionary.’

Latte’ originated in Italy and means milk in Italian. However, in English, its meaning has changed to refer to a type of coffee made with a lot of milk, and this definition is now found in English dictionaries.

I then asked students to think of 3 English loan words in their language and see if their meanings have changed from the original English word.

Here are some of the words that came up. See if you can figure out what they mean (some of them have retained their original meanings).

  • Rajicase    (Japanese)
  • Pasocon    (Japanese)
  • Salaryman    (Japanese)
  • Office Lady    (Japanese)
  • Face Pass    (Japanese)
  • Skinship    (Korean)
  • Fighting!    (Korean)
  • Show off    (Persian/Farsi)
  • Site    (Brazilian Portuguese)

(Answers in tomorrow’s blogpost)

Next up were two Korean students, the first of whom had carefully prepared a speech about the Korean writing system and the popular places to visit in Korea. The second student had prepared some wonderful pictures to demonstrate Korean pop culture and Korean food, and had the whole class salivating and looking forward to lunch.

The two Brazilians were on right after, and spoke about the importance of the coffee trade in their country. While I fed in some words about the economics of demand and supply, the rest of the class (including myself) were fascinated to see photos of the coffee plant and fresh coffee beans. I don’t think I had ever seen coffee beans that weren’t roasted!

The lesson that day ended with an energetic discussion about the rare and expensive coffee beans that had passed through the digestive tracts of a bird, and the Brazilian students reacted to their classmates enthusiasm by showing them a Youtube clip of said bird.

Lots of language and fluency practice resulted from the presentations (which needs to continued tomorrow) and the energy of the students rode high as they left the class…

I could only laugh at myself and my inability to let go.

I should have trusted the silence.

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