Chiew’s interview with me

Here’s an interview that Chiew (@acliltoclimb) conducted with me for his website http://iasku.wordpress.com/

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Learning English through a TV series

This is a true story I often tell my students.

Quite a long time ago, I went out with an Italian who was relatively new to London. He hardly spoke any English when we met, and we used to have conversations, negotiating meaning in Italian and the little Spanish I knew, with a huge Italian-English dictionary between us. Shortly after we met, I gave him a simple gap-fill exercise that required him to transform the verbs into the past tense, and he spent about 5 minutes understanding the instructions ‘Fill in the gaps with the suitable verbs’, and getting quite frustrated. I soon realised that it was quite impossible to teach someone whom I was involved with.

Watching TV together was always quite a challenge and the psychological block he had grew as he struggled to understand what he was hearing. Finally, I suggested that we watch DVDs of the American series 24 together and assured him that we would have English subtitles on, and that he should feel free to pause at any point and I could either try and explain what was happening, or we could check the dictionary together. Very reluctantly, he agreed and these subconscious English lessons began.

The first 5 episodes took us ages to get through as he would yell ‘stop’ every other second. But as the general plot and the characters of the series became clearer, it became easier for him to deduce meaning from the background information he now had. And as the storyline developed, he became more interested in what was going to happen, and was happier to deal with the ambiguity of certain words. He found himself not wanting to pause the DVD when he could grasp the gist of each scene, especially when it would interrupt the flow of the action on screen.

One day, as I was watching TV, he walked into the room and started watching the TV programme with me. About five minutes later, he exclaimed, ‘There are no subtitles on!’ I was quite amused as I had thought it was something he would have noticed immediately, but instead he said, ‘I understood everything! And I didn’t even realise the subtitles weren’t there!’

We went through 3 seasons of 24 in 3 months (that’s about 72 hours of TV) and a couple of months after that, he proceeded to take the Cambridge First Certificate in English. Bear in mind that he had not had any formal English instruction up to this point, and had not really spent much time reading or writing in English (aside from text messages to me). To my surprise, he not only passed the exam, but had an ‘Exceptional’ in his reading paper and an ‘Excellent’ in his writing!

So here’s why I strongly recommend watching TV series with subtitles to any student.

  1.  You don’t have to keep getting to know new characters and new plotlines as it is with films. The background knowledge of the story helps you deduce meaning from context more easily.
  2. Words, phrases and grammatical structures often repeat themselves in a TV series. We looked up the Italian translation of the word ‘to threaten’ and ‘threat’ about 5 times when watching the first 2 episodes of 24, but by the 25 time, he not only understood what it meant but also how it was used.
  3. Reading subtitles does help one’s listening skills. One is able to not only hear the words and phrases but also make the connection between how it’s said and how it’s written. After some time, the brain starts to associate the way things are pronounced and the individual words that actually make up the utterance.
  4. We often use prediction stages when providing receptive skills practice in the classroom mainly because the very act of predicting helps better understanding of the text, regardless of whether our predictions are right or wrong. We predict the end of the story as we read the beginning of it. We predict the end of a sentence before we finish it. We predict the other half of a collocation before seeing it. And this is a skill that everyone uses subconsciously in our L1. We often try to help our learners transfer those skills when reading/listening in an L2, but when watching a fast-paced TV series like 24, the learner starts to use those innate prediction skills automatically as they get more involved in the plot.
  5. There’s nothing like getting addicted to a good series. You will soon forget that you’re doing it to improve your English and become genuinely interested in the storyline. This interest motivates you and propels you to watch one episode after another as the excitement builds. Before you know it, you’ll have had hundreds of hours of listening/reading practice, alongside being exposed to hundreds of lexicogrammatical structures. That’s more exposure than any English course can provide.

So what TV series would you get your teeth sunk into?

Here are my top 3 criteria when picking a TV series.

  1. Go for something that doesn’t feature too many social or romantic scenarios because they tend to be heavily laden with phrasal verbs, colloquialisms and slang. (Sex in the City is out then…)
  2. If you want to go for a comedy series, ensure that the comedy doesn’t depend too heavily on witticisms, plays on words or cultural references. (that immediately excludes The Thick of It and Yes, Minister).
  3. More important than the first 2 criteria is this: Ensure it’s a genre you love. Motivation rules.

So, what would you watch? Here are 20 suggestions I often give my students.

Are there any you would add to this list? I’d like to know what works for you.

Why I brought back the foreign language lesson to the CELTA

Many Celta trainers I know have taken the foreign language class out of their Celta timetables in favour of other more ‘practical’ input sessions such as classroom management. But looking back at the times when I was training up to be a teacher, I realised how some of the most valuable lessons I had learnt have come from those demo foreign language lesson and decided to give it top priority by dedicating a good 60 minutes to it on Day 1.

But before looking at the reasons why I’ve chosen to do so, let me first outline the foreign language lesson that I usually deliver. And for those teacher trainers out there who claim not to speak a foreign language, I hope this brief lesson plan would serve to reassure you that you do not need to speak a foreign language well to carry this out.

I usually do the foreign language lesson in either Chinese or Japanese, depending on the profiles of the candidates. Evidently, I’d choose the language that trainees are most unfamiliar with.

Materials: 6 items of realia – A box of English tea, a tin of green tea, a bottle of milk, a jar of coffee, a can of Coca Cola and a bottle of mineral water.

Procedure: I greet the students in the foreign language, and set out the items on the table. I start with one item, say, the English tea, modelling, drilling chorally and then individually. I then do the same with the second item, the green tea, before moving back to the English tea and the green tea again. Every time I introduce a new lexical item, I go back and drill those that I had done previously.

When the six items are drilled sufficiently, I draw a chair and a table on the board with a customer sitting and a waiter standing. Because my drawing abilities are so bad, I mime the waiter with my scarf over my arm just to ensure understanding of the context. I then mime the following dialogue line by line, but with the introduction of each line, I drill the phrase and everything I covered before.

Waiter: Hello

Customer: Hello

Waiter: What would you like?

Customer: I would like some English tea/coffee/water/etc…

In pairs, students role-play the dialogue with the help of the dialogue written on the board.

I then add  the rest of the dialogue.

Waiter: Would you like anything else?

Customer: I would also like some milk/Coca Cola/ etc…Thank you.

Waiter: Thank you.

Again, in pairs, the students role-play the dialogue. Just before they swap roles, I erase the dialogue off the board and have students do the role-play from memory.

At the end of the demo, the trainees discuss what they think each phrase from the dialogue meant in English and how they felt during the lesson.

During feedback, I take the opportunities to unpack the stages of drilling (model, choral, inidividual) and get them to notice other features of the lesson e.g. my seating position during the lesson, how I monitored, the effectiveness of pairwork, etc.

But one could argue that these are features that could be highlighted in any demo and not necessary through a foreign language lesson, but here are some other points that I find the foreign language lesson making very effectively.

1. It’s scary being a learner. 

Some of my trainees have never had the experience of learning a foreign language before. But even those who have might need a reminder of how it feels to be a learner – After my foreign language lessons, trainees often say they felt insecure and anxious when placed in a situation where they couldn’t speak the language. It brings attention to how language is such a core tool of communication to the rest of the world that without access to it, they experience a sense of panic and a loss of control over their surroundings. Some are surprised at how it makes them feel like a child and are better able to relate to how the high status professionals might feel being taken far away from their comfort zone.

2. Context is everything.

Choosing to do my foreign language lesson as a situational presentation, trainees are able to deduce the meaning of the lexical phrases without the need for any translation. But more importantly, it is good chance to draw attention to the fact words and phrases are often remembered through the context they were encountered in and are not stored in the brain separately, but in clusters e.g. with other related lexis or in lexical sets. When attempting remember the lexis a few days later, trainees will quickly realise lexis is more easily retrieved when the words/phrases are given a context, ‘a place to belong to’.

3. Drilling isn’t boring… and it isn’t just about pronunciation.

The foreign language lesson is a good chance to introduce drilling, and to demonstrate the importance of drilling, not just for pronunciation practice, but for memory retention and getting their tongues round the language. Being on the receiving end can help trainees see that drilling is not boring for the learner at all, and is in fact confidence-building. It is often the teacher who feels bored because he/she already knows the language item well.

4. Pronouncing unfamiliar sounds in a foreign language can be frustrating.

Especially when trainees have not had the experience of learning another language, it might be hard to relate to how difficult it might be to first recognise and differentiate what might seem like similar sounds in one language but totally different phonemes in another, and then try to contort their muscles in strange ways to make sounds that don’t exist in their language. Repeated drills of more difficult sounds can drive that message home.

5. Language learning isn’t always about learning single words.

When covering the Lexical Approach and introducing language chunks like collocations later in the course, I refer to how they learnt the phrases in chunks during the foreign language lesson without necessary understanding what the individual words meant, and highlight the fact that it takes the brain the same amount of effort/energy to remember a chunk/phrase of words as it takes to remember a single word, and encourage trainees to present language in their chunks and collocations.

6. It can take multiple encounters with a language item before it is retained and produced.

Trainees get to have first-hand experience of how long it can take to remember a new lexical item and how quickly we can forget it. By asking trainees again a few days later for the lexical items they learnt (and having them admit they’ve forgotten quite a fair bit of it)demonstrates the difference between short-term and long-term memory and the importance of recycling language and how language acquisition is not a linear process. What is taught is not necessary learnt.

7. Don’t overwhelm learners with too much information at a go.

When trainees try to squeeze in too many language items into their 40-minute lessons, I often remind them of how many lexical items they covered in their foreign language class (6 nouns and 5 phrases) and how close to feeling overwhelmed they already were.

8. Don’t just say them, board those new lexical items.

Too often do I see trainees who attempt to deal with emergent language by simply telling the learners the word or phrase, and not actually bothering to write the words up on the board. This can be extremely frustrating for many learners who find it easier to process and to remember lexis when they can actually see how it’s written. This also gives learners a chance to copy the new lexis into their notebooks. In my foreign language lesson, trainees are drilled the lexical items first and are given the written forms much later. They often report feeling a sense of relief when they are able to see it written down. This is a feeling worth referring to in order to encourage the boarding of new lexis and keeping a column for emergent language on the board.

9. A tolerance for ambiguity is crucial to being a good language learner.

Trainees often see reading and listening texts as a mere conduit for new language and are often not aware of the different subskills and strategies used unconsciously when reading or listening in their first language. Very commonly, when reading for gist or specific information, trainees give their learners way too much time, resulting in the learner attempting to decipher every single word and feeling dejected when they encounter one or two unfamiliar words. Sometimes such a psychological block created by just a couple of words can lead to learners giving up and not feeling competent enough to carry on reading. This need to cling on to every single word and this intolerance of any ambiguity in the foreign language is a sense easily conveyed through the foreign language lesson. Trainees can then better understand the need to develop their learners’ tolerance of ambiguity and the importance of training train learners to skim and scan so as to enable the transfer of such skills from their L1.

10. This is what a beginner’s class looks like.

This is the only time they will see a beginner’s class. Arguably, when teaching English as a foreign language, there are very few real beginners, but nevertheless, learners will encounter elementary students when they go out into the ‘real world’ and need some idea how they might deal with teach the very basics, with the help of some realia and mime, while still maintaining a communicative approach in the classroom. Trainees get to see that it’s totally possible to teach such a low level class even when the teacher is unable to speak their learners’ L1.

Obviously, these points can still be made through the use of other demos and discussions, but aside from the fact that one demo conveniently embodies so many of the key issues surrounding language learning and acquisition, more importantly, I brought it back because I will never forget how much enjoyment we got out of the foreign language lesson back when I did my Celta.

Intercultural Dining Etiquette and Table Manners

This week, a future mother-in-law wrote a enraged email to her step-son’s fiancee criticising her fussy eating habits and lack of table manners after her visit to their family home. The email went viral and was published in the Metro on Wednesday, and this piece of authentic material soon found its way to the English language school. In the staffroom, a debate ensued as to whether the future mother-in-law or the supposedly impolite girl in need of finishing school was to be blamed, and it soon became apparent that this would make for great discussions in our classes. Nevertheless, my colleagues weren’t sure if the article would be suitable for my low-intermediate class. Determined to grade the tasks (and discussions) and not the text, I brought the article into my classroom, and the discussion that actually emerged was more interesting than I could have ever expected.

It soon became obvious during the reading and discussions that the mother-in-law’s perception of what was good etiquette and appropriate manners was very culturally biased. And the following questions regarding etiquette arose:

When you are a guest at someone’s family home,

1. Do you normally wait for everyone (including the female hosts) to be seated before starting on your food? Should you say something before starting?

2. If you don’t like something, should you force yourself to eat it or do you find a way to refuse? What would you say?

3. Do you normally take small helpings of the side dishes (e.g. the potatoes, salads, etc.) throughout the meal, or do you take one big helping that will last you for the rest of your meal?

4. Should you finish everything on your plate or can you leave some if you have had enough?

Question number 1 initially seemed to invite unanimous responses of ‘yes’es’ but after some probing, it was revealed that in Japan and Thailand, the female hosts of more traditional families often remain standing, waiting to serve the guests, and don’t sit down to eat until everyone else has finished.

Question number 3 brought up some interesting cultural differences. Most Europeans thought it appropriate to pile on one big helping  onto one’s plate right at the start of the meal, but most Chinese students found this rude. A meal was meant to be an occasion for sharing, and the ‘this is my share and that is yours’ attitude didn’t go down very well with them. Taking just one piece from a side dish and eating it before going for another piece was the accepted approach.

In response to question 4, the Arabic students agreed that in some families, finishing the food on a plate would mean more is desired, and this would prompt the host to refill the empty dishes with more food. This would usually be pre-empted with an offer to refill the plate, which the guest can politely refuse, but if the host is unable to speak English well, they might enthusiastically refill the plate without asking.

This discussion prompted more questions about guest etiquette to be written up on the board and the discussion continued in groups.

5. What should you bring when you are invited to someone’s house? What should you bring when you are invited to someone’s wedding?

Most students agreed that something should be brought but the items ranged from wine to food, and even flowers. As for weddings, most Asian and Arabic students agreed that money should be given as a present, much to the surprise of the Europeans. The Japanese, Chinese and Korean students all insisted that the start of a couple’s life together would cost a lot of money, and therefore, the guests should be obligated to give more than the cost per head. A wedding would therefore bring in a profit for the happy couple to have a headstart in life. The Europeans, however, saw it as the happy couple treating their friends to a meal, and shared concepts such as wedding lists.

6. Where should you sit when at the dinner table? How should you sit? Where should you place your hands?

Some cultures had elaborate rules when it came to seating positions, which was often based on seniority, and which direction the host should face. The Japanese and Koreans agreed that it was rude to cross one’s legs in front of those more senior than oneself, but they disagreed as to how to place one’s hands. In the Japanese culture, both hands (and arms) should be seen above the table at all times. One hand ought to be holding the bowl of rice while the other hand held the chopsticks. The Koreans, on the other hand (no pun intended), found the holding of the bowl to be ‘beggar-like’ and insisted that the bowl should be left on the table, while one hand picks from it either with chopsticks, or more commonly, a spoon. Elbows, we all agreed, should be kept off the table.

7. Where do you place the cutlery to indicate you are still eating? Where do you place them to show that you have finished your meal?

Those that used knives and forks agreed that placing them side by side on the plate indicated that one had finished with the meal, but there was less agreement as to what to do with cutlery in the middle of the meal. Some suggested we should cross our knives and forks on our plates to indicate that we were not finished, but some were adamant that this was rude. The use of chopsticks was less familiar for the non-Oriental students, who were surprised to learn that one must never stick the chopsticks in their rice bowl as it resembled the incense used when praying to the dead. The Oriental students all agreed that placing the chopsticks back down on the table beside the bowl was the most polite way to do this, although the Korean and Japanese students reacted in horror when the Taiwanese students remarked that they also placed them together across the top of the bowl.

8. How many courses are usually served, and in which order?

Talking about courses reminded me of an experience I had with some Spanish visitors who came to London some years ago. They had wanted to try some Chinese food, so I had some dishes delivered. You probably already know this, but the Chinese don’t typically do ‘courses’, except for dessert and tea/coffee. All the dishes are placed in the centre of the table, and each person gets their own bowl of rice. One then takes what they want to eat from the dishes in the centre and ‘shares’ the meal with everyone at the table. But when I placed the dishes in the centre of the table, my Spanish friends started to eat out of the vegetable dish until it was empty, and then proceeded onto the Lemon Chicken. Despite my continual insistence that they had to mix all the dishes together, they stuck to their belief that the ‘salad’ had to come before the meat dish, and the rice came last. Imagine my shock when they finished off the meal chomping down on the plain rice in their bowls once all the dishes were done with!

9.  What do you normally drink with your meal? Are there any codes of behaviour to observe?

The Chinese students were keen to state that Chinese tea was usually drunk after the meal and not during, contrary to what Chinese restaurants in London would have you believe. The Japanese students, however, saw drinking green tea during the meal as totally normal. While the tea at the Chinese table should be refilled by the person seated closest to the teapot, when it comes to alcohol at the Japanese and Korean table,
it is customary for people to refill each other’s glasses/cups, and not one’s own. But the most interesting comment came from the Koreans, who said that when drinking alcohol in front of someone more senior, one should always turn away (about 90 degrees from the person with more seniority) and sip from their glass with their hands covering it.

10. How much time do you usually spend at the dinner table?

This brought up some stark differences. Most Europeans and South Americans saw dinnertime as time for communication with the rest of the family, and would spend anything from 1 hour to 4 hours at the dinner table. Those from the Far East were more efficient with their meal times and would typically finish a meal in 5-20 minutes, unless a guest was present.

This lesson went on for about 3 hours, throwing up lots of useful lexis and grammatical structures in addition to very useful speaking practice. The discussion/debate was definitely not about what I had expected it to be, but going with the flow definitely allowed us to learn so much more about each other. In a time of international business dealings, an understanding of the social norms and etiquettes of different cultures is becoming more important than ever. And lessons could be made so much more fruitful if we could kill two birds exchanging such information whilst providing practice of English. Meanwhile, on a more selfish level, I’ve learnt lots too.

Making Student-Centred Dogme Student-Friendly

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.

Student Profiles

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*

Recycling Language in a Dogme Classroom

I have often have teachers asking me, ‘If language just emerges, how do you ensure learning takes place? How do you recycle the langauge?’

Many of you have read, or written blogposts on the same subject, but I thought I’d share my favourite ways of recycling language (which I’ve, of course, stolen and adapted from all the wonderful teachers and colleagues around me).

First things first, I find a retrospective record of my Dogme lessons useful in helping me keep track of what has gone on, so as to revise the language covered, and also to enable me to provide the appropriate scaffolding for subsequent lessons. To do this, I simply take a photo of my boardwork (with my mobile phone) at the end of each lesson. (The other advantage of taking photos is that when students tell you that they have no recollection of a language item being clarified, mainly because they had forgotten to take notes of it, there’s photographic evidence in your pocket!)

Here are photos of three different days of my Low-Intermediate lesson. Pardon my bad handwriting… *cringe*

(You’ll need to click on the picture to enlarge it.)

The emergent language is then transferred onto cards. Lovely coloured cards provided for by the school… On each card is either a lexical item or a structure in the form of a model sentence/phrase. These cards are brought into class every day for language recycling, and the pile grows quite rapidly, to everyone’s amazement and satisfaction.

Here’s how I use them.

1.  Recall

This is something I have adapted from an idea that originated from  my colleague, Melissa, and have done it every lesson since. (Thanks, Mel) At the start of every lesson, students tell their partners what they remember from the lesson before. It is important that the recall is not simply focussed on language, but also what was talked about, who said what, and how those emergent language items came about. This could last anything from 5 minutes to 15 minutes, and is also a great way for students who were absent to have a chance to catch up and be taught by their peers. I sometimes distribute the language cards as prompts for students to remember the contexts they arose in.

2.  The traditional and much-loved Back-to-Board

You could do this at the start of every lesson, and students seem to love it all the same. Divide the class into 2 groups, have one represetative from each group sit in front of their groupmates with their back facing the board. The teacher writes the lexical item (collocations, phrases, even sentences) and the group members have to describe and explain the language item to their representative without using the words on the board (or related words e.g. made-make, friendship-friend), without spelling any word, and without using ‘sounds-like’ clues. The first rep to shout out the answer wins a point for the group.

3.  Taboo (without the taboo words)

As the pile of cards stack up, this activity is ideal for a end-of-week revision. Again, divide the class into two groups. One representative from one group comes up and takes the stack of cards. They have 2 minutes to explain as many words as they can for their group members to guess. Rules for Back-to-Board applies. If they choose to pass a card, the opposing team will have a chance to guess when the 2 minutes is up. One point is awarded to each card guessed right.

4.  Fastest hands first

All the students sit on the floor in a circle with a ball/bottle of water/soft toy in the middle. The teacher explains the word/phrase/sentence, the fastest person to grab the ball/bottle of water/soft toy gets to answer. If they fail, their group will have one point deducted from their total score.

5.  Sabotage

All the cards are placed faced up around the floor. The teacher leaves the room (or turns away from the students and cards) Again, in groups, students will have to pick the word/phrase/sentence that they think the other group might have trouble with. The other group will then have to explain the language item to the teacher. If the teacher guesses it right, they win a point. If the teacher can’t guess it (e.g. because they’ve got the meaning wrong), the group that picked the card would have to take over the explaining. A right guess at this stage wins a point for that group. A bad explanation would mean 2 points deducted off that group’s total score.

6.  Board Rush/ Mini-Whiteboards

Ever since I’ve bought a set of mini-white boards, the traditional board rush has taken on a new meaning. The teacher explains the language item, the students have to write their answers on the board as quickly as possible (and flip them over for the rest of the class to see if you’re using mini-whiteboards). Correct answers scores a point. A great way to check for spelling errors. The teacher could always vary this by giving one part of the collocation and have the students write the other, or giving the context in which this language item occurred and have the students remember what was said/reformulated.

7.  Charades/ Win, Lose or Draw

Students pick a card and act/draw out the language item for their team to guess. You know how this works.

8.  Language Auction

Students are divided into 3 or more teams (This could also be done in pairs). Each team/pair is given a set amount of money to invest/gamble e.g. £10,000. The teacher could explain the language item, give a gapped sentence, or write up a sentence using the language item wrongly. The teams/pairs then bid to answer the question. The highest bidder wins the amount they bid if the answer is correct. If they get it wrong, that same amount is deducted from their pot.

9. Tell me a story

This could be done in pairs, or groups of 3. The groups are given a random number of cards and have to use the language item on the cards to make up a story. They write it up and the story is then posted on the wall for a gallery activity.

10. Pick it up, Take it home

At the end of each week/course, my students help me to place all the coloured cards face up on the floor. Students then walk around the classrooms in pairs discussing the different language items, explaining to each other the contexts they came up in and exchanging opinions about which ones they found easy or difficult. Students then have a chance of picking up the cards containing the language items they have trouble remembering or using, and take those home with them. I find that the physicalisation of actually picking up the cards and keeping them really helps with students’ memory of the item.

So there you have it. These are the 10 things I do on a regular basis to enable recycling to happen in my classroom. In fact, I tend to do one of the above activites on a Tuesday to revise Monday’s language, on a Wednesday to revise Monday’s and Tuesday’s language, and so on and so forth. On a Friday, I dedicate more than half of my 3 hour lesson to recycling all the language covered thus far (that week and the weeks before that)…

You probably already do some of them (if not all) yourself. But if you haven’t, do give it a try and tell me how it goes! If you have some that I haven’t mentioned, please feel free to share your ideas!

In Defence of Callan (and other behaviourist methodologies)

Like many TEFL teachers, I used to be an actor. And like most actors, I couldn’t get arrested and had to find a way to pay the bills. While working in a pub, one of my punters who worked for Callan School London suggested that I could make a good teacher and that one conversation propelled me into the world of TEFL.

For those unfamiliar with the Callan Method, it is not dissimilar to the Direct Method, Audiolingual Approaches or other behaviourist methodologies. Second language acquisition is seen to be similar to first language acquisition, which in turn is seen to be achieved through imitation and Skinner’s stimulus-response psychological theories. Rigorous repetition and non-stop drills dominate classroom time. I remember a sign in the classroom that said summarised the Callan Method quite perfectly :

‘Repeat Repeat Repeat.
Don’t think. Just Repeat.’

Teachers are expected to:

1. Ask set questions from the Callan book (1-7) and  nominate students to give the set answers to the questions. Each question is repeated twice.

2. Answer the questions with the students. For weaker students, the teacher would be one word ahead of the student.

e.g.

Teacher: Where did you go yesterday? Where did you go yesterday?

(Teacher points her pen at the student she’s nominating)

Teacher: I…

Student: I…

Teacher: went…

Student: went…

Teacher: to…

Student: to…the shop…

Teacher: yesterday.

Student: yesterday.

At the beginning, all the student is doing is simply repeating what the teacher is feeding them. The idea is for the student to get to the point of being able to say the answers at the same time as the teacher after multiple repetition of the same question-answer set
over the next few days.

3. Speak quickly so that students get used to listening to the fast speed of speech in the real world.

4. Not try to explain grammar points. The grammar is explained through question-answer sets that are repeated.

e.g.

Teacher: What’s the difference between the present perfect and the past simple?

What’s the difference between the present perfect and the past simple?

Student: We use the past simple when the action is finished and the time is finished.

We use the present perfect when the action is finished but the time is not finished.

The learning of grammar is seen to be linear and the Method prides itself in its ‘calculated and systematic’ approach to language learning. Students are taught more complicated grammar structures ‘step by step’ as they go along.

5. not explain lexis too much. Each student has a Callan book that contains translations of new words in their own language. New words are drilled on their own and then put in question-answer sets.

e.g.

Teacher: Repeat ‘storey’.

Students: Storey

Teacher: If you fell from a one-storey building, would you die?

If you fell from a one-storey  building, would you die?

(Note: The teacher is also providing practice of the 2nd conditional, which they had previously learnt the rules of.)

Student: If I fell from a one-storey building, I wouldn’t die but I would be injured.

(Note: The student is also practising the word ‘injured’, which she has previously learnt)

6. Give writing practice in the form of dictations. Students check their spelling by looking at the same dictations in their books.

After one week of training, we were thrown into 8 hours of 50-minute lessons a day where we would drill the hell out of the students.  In the process, I lost my voice by the end of that week since I was asking and answering every question at break-neck speed for 8 hours every day. I worked at Callan for nearly 2 years, and was eventually roped in to do placement testing and FCE classes. I started to experiment with the lessons over time, breaking the rule of never explaining grammar points to the students and trying different ways of adapting the Callan books to enable more clarification of meaning and form to take place, but always looking over my shoulder to see if one of the directors might walk past and catch me deviating from the method. At the end of my time in Callan, I was
poached by another school, where I was allowed to explore other ways of teaching while still doing some Callan drilling for a quarter of my teaching hours.

After about 8 months, I decided that I liked teaching enough to make it a proper career, and proceeded to do the Celta course. It was then I realised that the Callan method was sneered upon and the butt of many jokes in the TEFL world. I kept my head down and tried the different approaches to teaching that were thrown my way, but all this time, never forgetting the things that Callan school had taught me.

Now looking back, I’ve realised that perhaps there is a good reason why Callan still boasts of extremely high student numbers and why schools that claim to use the Callan method as a marketing tool seem to attract agents and students from all over the world. If you don’t believe me, try standing outside the Callan school on Oxford Street in London when the school bell rings, and count the hoards of students that stream out onto the streets. And that’s just one time slot out of the 12 that the school runs every day.

Okay, some of you cynics out there might say that there are still lots of people out there in the real world who believe that language learning is simply about imitation and rote learning, and that these misguided ones fall for Callan School’s claim that they can get students learning English in a quarter of the time. But before we get up in arms about this, let us first consider some of the arguments against the Callan Method.

1.       Rote learning isn’t everything. Students need to get cognitively involved in their learning process.

 This is absolutely true. But although rote learning isn’t everything, it is still something. Alongside the cognitive processing to aid language production, motor skills need to kick in at some point. We need to get to the point when we stop thinking about how a tense or
verb pattern is formed and use it instinctively.

Perhaps the Callan Method is the Lexical Approach of the 1960s. It saw language as chunks and by repetition, these chunks are acquired.

2.       Sentences are presented without a context.

I myself preach that context is everything in determining meaning and use in my teacher training courses.  Having said that, I remember times when I’ve tried to speak a language I’m not very good at, desperately trying to translate my thoughts into the language, and wishing I had stock phrases to do that with.  Learning ‘Callan-style’ would have given me the stock phrases to use in whichever context I needed them in, for as long as I know what they meant in English, I could pick and choose the phrases to suit the context.

 3.          We would never say sentences like ‘Have you got one ear?’

There are two sets of language being learnt here.

One being ‘Have you got + noun?’ and the other, the lexis ‘ear’.

These two chunks might not occur together frequently in real life, but the repetition of the structure enables students to substitute the noun ‘ear’ with any word they need depending on the context and conversation they find themselves in.

Despite agreeing with the logic of what I like to call the ‘Substitution theory’, I would prefer to present the structure ‘Have you got…’ with a noun that is more likely to occur with that structure.

4.       The Callan Method requires students to give long answers like, ‘No, I haven’t got one ear, I’ve got two ears,’ or ‘This isn’t a pen, it’s a pencil.’ This is unnatural. We usually say ‘No, it’s a pencil.’

 One could argue that students would naturally formulate short answers when using English outside the classroom anyway. So it’s better to get them learning to use negative and affirmative forms of the structures in the drills. That said, I tend to have students use
short answers and the like in communicative activities (see 6 below).

5.       Teachers shouldn’t repeat each question twice. It’s not how language works in real life.

Interestingly, Callan justifies this by saying that questions are asked once for students to grasp the content of the question, and once for students to pay attention to the construction of the question. Since Callan questions always use words and structures that students have previously learnt, there might be something to be said for how the repetition of questions can encourage the noticing of previously learnt structures.

6.       There is no real communication happening in the classroom.

Okay. I’ll give you this one. This, to me, is one of the huge flaws of the method. But if used in a communicative classroom, in and amongst discussions and other communicative activities, this method could have its use.

I am certainly not advocating the sole use of the Callan Method in the language classroom, but when used appropriately (I love using Callan method drills when getting students to remember and use irregular past tenses or helping students get used to forming negative
sentences with the dummy auxiliary ‘do’), it can add pace and energy to a classroom, bring my shy students out of their shell (especially oriental students who have done tons of grammar exercises in their countries but just don’t have the confidence to get those sentences out of their mouths), and encourage students to notice the chunks and patterns in the language.

After all, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.