So it seems that some students have been complaining about their teachers not using the assigned coursebook and the discussion about whether the use of the coursebook should be encouraged/enforced has yet again risen.
With the Dogme approach to language teaching becoming more widely accepted in the TEFL world in the recent years, I had assumed that the debate was more or less over. That it was clear as day that a materials-light classroom where the use of students as the main resource was almost a given. I have taken for granted the fact that everyone knew that when done correctly, such lessons are rather taxing on the multi-tasking Dogme Practitioner, and that the benefits to their language learning process were for all to see.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been a Dogmetician teaching without a coursebook for over 3 years. Perhaps it’s because Thornbury and Meddings have given the approach an official label and wrote an award-winning book alongside countless journal articles and blogs with solid theoretical backup of the approach. Perhaps it’s because I’ve come to see Dogme not as an approach or methodology, but simply as improvised but principled eclecticism and good teaching. But all teachers apply Dogme in very different ways. After all, it is what a teacher has in their ‘bag of tricks’ and how principled their version of improvised eclecticism is.
I have always enjoyed analysing language, and been rather systematic in the way I clarify grammar, lexis or pronunciation, and perhaps this comes through in the way I conduct my Dogme classes. I have also invariably learnt my foreign languages in the same fashion. Whether it be Japanese or Italian, coming in contact with the language through authentic texts and real life communication (whether it be Japanese pop songs or arguments with in Italian with my ex) had been what motivated me to put the systems I’d learnt to use. Our own learning experiences undoubtedly influence how we see the language learning process. And most of our students have been students of language classrooms prior to our encounters with them. They, therefore, have certain expectations of what their classes should entail. And one of these expectations might very well be a structured journey through a coursebook.
But we know language learning is by no means linear, and that learners remember and use so much more of the language when they themselves have noticed the gap in their knowledge and have seen their need for it. Students clearly prefer communicating about themselves, their classmates and their teacher than doing predictions and receptive skills tasks about the faceless Johns and Janes in a coursebook. When I did my action research project on Dogme several years ago, students surveyed quite unanimously claimed that the Dogme lessons were much more motivating and effective. So how is it that we have students complaining about the coursebook-light classrooms at school?
Could it be that they find the lack of structure daunting? Could it be that they feel they are not learning anything in class? Could it be that skills work have dominated these lessons and that students are unable to recognise this as language learning when little grammar is involved? How is it that the clients of executive business classes who have never been prescribed a coursebook are not voicing the same complaints?
I hope I’m not preaching to the converted but here are some things that I do to try and address the above issues:
1. Needs Analysis
This is crucial in a classroom where a coursebook is not going to be followed. A detailed needs analysis needs to be carried out on Day One, and the interests of the students, their language needs and expectations need to be identified. I make sure I ask the following questions at the beginning of every course, and allow time for students to discuss them in pairs/groups:
- How long have you been here? How long will you stay?
- Why are you learning English? Why did you decide to come to this city/school?
- Who will you be speaking English to in the future? In what kind of situations?
- Do you find it more difficult to speak or to understand?
- Do you use English outside the classroom? When and who with? How do you feel when using English in these circumstances? Do you read the news or watch English TV programmes?
- Which skills would you like to work on? Speaking? Reading? Writing? Listening?
- Which systems do you think you need to work on? Grammar? Lexis? Pronunciation? Why?
- Do you find it difficult understanding native speakers? What about native speakers?
- What did you like about your previous language classes and what didn’t you like?
- How do you think you improve your English best? How do you try to remember and use the new lexis or grammar structures that you learn?
Because our school provides free coursebooks for General English students, when I give out these new books on Day One of a GE class, I would get students to turn to the content page and discuss the topics and language areas (grammar, functions, lexis) that they wish to cover. To add to the topics in the book, I’d put up several topics on the board e.g. Travel, Food, Current Affairs, Fashion, Health, Education, Politics & History, Technology, Music, etc. The negotiation process would then begin. Students would confer with their partners and the class would vote for the topics they would like to see in the coming weeks (each student gets five votes). This allows me to steer conversations towards the areas they are interested in, to ask more questions when these topics come up, and to be ready to use the appropriate activites/methods that I need from my teaching ‘bag of tricks’ to address their language needs. My end-of-day-one notes would often look like this.
Maria – Nurse from Spain, been here for 2 months, staying for another 3.
Needs English to keep up to date with the advances in the medical field and to communicate with people from different countries when travelling.
Loves shopping and clubbing.
Lives and hangs out with other Spanish-speakers after class. Watches many English films with English subtitles.
Finds it more difficult to understand native speakers.
An organic learner who prefers to pick chunks of lexis up through frequent contact.
Thinks that she needs to work on her grammar because her last teacher told her it’s important and that she’s bad at it.
Hates activities that require her to stand up.
Yukiko – Flight attendant from Japan, been here for 1 month, staying for another 5.
Needs English for work and loves the sound of the language. etc etc…
Results of Needs Analysis and Negotiation
Systems : 1. Lexis; 2. Grammar; 3. Discourse; 4. Pronunciation.
Skills: 1. Speaking; 2. Listening; 3. Writing; 4. Reading.
Topics: Food (10 votes); Education (8 votes); Health (8 votes); Current Affairs (5 votes), etc.
Grammar Areas in Coursebook: Conditionals 2 & 3; Relative Clauses; Passive Structures; Story-telling tenses, etc.
2. Explaining why I do what I do
We do sometimes walk around with the ‘teacher-knows-best’ attitude assuming that our students will trust us no matter what approach we use. Students, however, often have a set idea as to how they learn best, and sometimes gently going through the hows and whys of the approach we’re employing (preferably backed up with a few sentences that start with ‘Scientific research into language learning has proven that…’) could not only take the mystery out of this unfamiliar way of teaching, and encourage them to see the benefits of it for their English, but resolve any false assumptions about language learning. I don’t just do this on day one but every time I employ an activity or method I haven’t done with them before e.g. progressive deletion, running dictations, TBL etc. I try to provide students with the pedagogic rationale behind it.
3. Working with emergent language and corrections.
Dogme has been accused of being ‘winging it elevated to an art form’. For it to rise above being merely a chat in the pub, it is crucial that the teacher is noticing opportunities to feed in new language, to board and extend upon the language emerging, listening for the language problems that students are having and finding the right moments to work on them to the appropriate extent.
4. Drawing attention to the language covered
In order to avoid a situation where students are unsure of what language input they have been given, I find it worth highlighting to students at the end of the class what lexical/grammatical work they have done that day (‘Look at all that grammar we’ve done today!’). Keeping a language column on the side of the board that is gradually filled out during the lesson does help, but I also get students to tell each other what they have learnt that day a la the end of a Sesame Street episode (‘Sesame Street was brought to you by the letter Z and the numbers 1 to 10’). Recalling the previous day’s lesson and carrying out recycling activities at the start of the next day also helps reaffirm this (shameless plug: my last blog on recycling in a Dogme classroom).
5. Taking notes
If students are not using the coursebook, it is all the more important to get them to keep an organised notebook. My students often have three notebooks. One for taking notes in class, a lexical notebook they keep at home where the lexis covered in class in re-organised into either an alphabetical order or by topic, and a grammar notebook which they also keep at home. The transferring of information from their class notebook to the home one helps students to remember and revise what they have learnt that day and allows them to have the time and space to raise questions about the use of that language. It is also important to make sure students are given time in class to write down what you have boarded and clarified.
6. Controlled-practice exercises
Coursebook-less classrooms don’t equate fluency-focussed classrooms. There can be accuracy work done too. This could take the form of pairwork e.g. Teaching an elementary level ‘there is/are…some’, ‘there isn’t/aren’t…any’: Tell your partner about the shops near where you live’; Teaching a mid-int class past modals of obligation: ‘Tell your partner about the rules you had when you were at school’; Teaching an upp-int relative clauses: ‘Bring a photo of your friends and family tomorrow and tell your partner about the people in the photo’.
‘But those are semi-controlled/freer practice activities!’, I hear you exclaim? I often find that controlled gap-fills, sentence transformations, matching and categorizing activities in coursebooks and grammar workbooks tend to use random de-contextualised sentences that have absolutely nothing to do with the topic you are discussing. Making up your own enables you to exploit the context that delivered that language and helps students to focus on not just the form, but the meaning and use as well.
Having said that, I recognise that with some grammar structures, it is quite difficult to keep all the practice within context (which is probably why the books too find it hard to produce contextualised controlled practice). In such cases, using the students’ names and their real experiences or making a friendly joke about the students in the exercises often help memory and retention. e.g. teaching Vanessa, who is a journalist and loves celebrity gossip, relative clauses, I wrote the following sentence transformation exercise on the board: ‘Vanessa wrote that article about Angelina Jolie. Angelina Jolie punched Vanessa during an interview’ This, of course, wasn’t true, but following Derren Brown’s maxims on memory tricks: Keep it visual and make it funny!
I remember teaching a Saudi student the structure ‘so+adj + that + clause) on the day after he had been to the dentist. Among the many sentence transformations about his classmates was one that read, ‘Ahmed looks so gorgeous with his new teeth that everyone standing beside him now looks ugly.’ Ahmed was writing the sentences on the board down in his notebook when he noticed this one and laughed, ‘I’m never going to forget this structure now!’
7. Ensuring variety
We tell trainees on the Celta in week one about different styles, and although I’m not a big fan of the VAK paradigm, the aim of that input session is to convey the message that we need to vary the activities we use in the classroom. But so many of us get lazy and start to rely on the same tricks day after day. Teachers might find their favourite boil-in-the-bag lessons much easier to execute than using a coursebook. As Chaz Pugliese said in his talk at IATEFL this year, ‘Teachers have fun! Or you might bore us!’
8. Not letting gimmicks and technology dictate
On a very different note from the last point, I have often seen teachers who spend a lot of time preparing their lessons and trying to spice things up, creating the most amazing materials using the plethora of features that the internet and IWBs offer. This is hardly materials-light to classify as a Dogme approach, but I simply felt that I needed to include something about that in this post. Arguably, one can still make lessons interesting and ensure variety by focussing on the lives of the students and the stories they have to tell us.
As much as I believe teachers should harness their creativity, the focus needs to be taken off the fancy tools of teaching and placed on the very people we are teaching. Several years ago, the British Council produced some telling results of a focus group research they conducted where students claimed that they felt that the use of IWBs and technology was taking their teachers’ attention away from them and onto the technology. The novelty of IWB gimmicks might impress students to start with, but when that starts to take centre stage, the development of our students inevitably suffers. We are not in competition to see who can create an all-singing all-dancing lesson about the present perfect continuous. We are in the business of helping students understand and use the structure. And I’m all for the most efficient way to go about doing this.
9. Giving homework
Homework in my classes often entail students keeping their notebooks up to date, reading an article their classmates have brought in, doing some research on a topic online, preparing presentations or writing emails/blogposts/journals/essays. Depending on the needs analysis of course, including writing skills work is essential in giving students a ‘rounded experience’ of learning English. Using the controlled practice exercises in coursebooks as homework can also placate students who feel like their coursebooks are going to waste, and help them to see that the language covered in the classroom does correlate to the syllabus in the coursebook.
10. End-of-course retrospective round-up
Speaking of correlation, at the end of my courses, after rigorous rounds of recycling and revision activities, I get my students to turn to the content page of the coursebook once again, like they have done on Day One. I then get them to discuss with their partners which topics and which language areas they have covered over the month that are in the coursebook. Students are often pleasantly surprised to find that not only have they covered everything in the part of the book they were meant to cover, they have also acquired structures and language beyond that syllabus.
If students are still complaining despite all this, perhaps it’s simply due to the fact that they’ve been given a free coursebook that they haven’t got to use. The solution then is simply: Stop giving them free coursebooks and save the school some money. *wink*