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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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.

10 Things Teachers Should Never Forget

My flatmate recently decided to sign up for Spanish beginner classes and his experiences on it shed light on the language learning processes that students go through, and reminded me of certain basics that perhaps might have got buried within our discussions of methodology and language teaching. Basics that might have been taken for granted in our quest to get learners communicating and using the languge in this era of
communicative approaches.

But first of all, a little learner profiling.

My flatmate (Let’s call him Rod) is British, in his 40s, and has never learnt a foreign language. Nor has he ever been taught English grammar when he was back at school. His wishes to study French in Secondary school were squashed when he was told that he was ‘too stupid to learn a foreign language’. Those words inevitably still have an effect on him,
as he continues to think that the ability to learn a language is connected to an intelligence that he didn’t think he had. Upon encountering lots of expert speakers of English as a foreign language in London, he started wondering if he too could expand his view of the world through learning a foreign language himself, and attempted to study some Spanish since it’s one of the most widely spoken modern languages in the world.

The Spanish learning experience was filled with lots of frustration and anger and by lesson 3, he decided he dreaded every classroom minute too much to contiue. I spoke to him throughout the experience, and remembered the importance of the following:

1. Meeting new classmates can be a scary experience.

We teachers know the feeling of trepidation when meeting a new class for the first time, especially back when we were new to teaching. That feeling must be a 100 times more intense for students who have never been in a language class before. While sussing out the different characters in the classroom, Rod also knew his classmates were making
judgements on him, and for someone who didn’t like performing or being the class clown, the short getting-to-know-you activities were really more about not showing up oneself as an idiot.

2. Having the teacher chat away in a foreign language is confusing and intimidating.

This myth that the teacher should never use the learners’ L1s and should only speak in the language being learnt really needs debunking. When Grammar Translation methods became the common evil, we swung so far towards the other end that we have forgotten the usefulness and inevitability of translation. Useful because it can make the understanding of language explanations and instructions so much more straightforward and clearer. Inevitable because learners (especially beginners) will translate what
they hear into their own langugage anyway, whether this takes place vocally in class or in their own minds. But most importantly, having some L1 being used makes the learner feel secure and more confident. For beginner Rod who could not even say ‘How are you?’ in Spanish, having to sit uncomfortably while the teacher yabber on in what could have been gibberish for all he cares was not at all confidence-building.

3. It can be even more difficult for people who are confident in their own language.

Perhaps it has to do with an ability to be tolerant of ambiguity. For the high-flier who has been confident in his own language and secure in his predictable surroundings for over 40 years, being plunged into an environment where everything is confusing, unpredictable and incomprehensible is a nightmare. This is compounded by the fact that he has never been in a language classroom and does not know what to expect.

4. Being nominated to answer questions is also scary.

Added to the feeling of being lost, getting pulled up to answer when you didn’t even understand the question can be extremely intimidating. Then there is a feeling that the whole class thinks you are a useless git who really shouldn’t be there slowing the class down. I understand the need for nominating students in open class stages, but there’s a fine balance between giving shy students an opportunity to speak up and putting
someone on the spot. This leads me to my next point.

5. Fostering a cohesive and friendly classroom atmosphere is crucial.

The leader of a group or manager of a department often serves as a sort of ‘energetic antenna’ for their team. They set the atmostphere and in a way, allows the forging of relationships amongst the team members. Think back to a time when you experienced a change of management and how that impacted on group morale, on how members of staff related to one another, and on the general staffroom atmostphere.

In similar ways, the teacher serves as the ‘energetic antenna’ of the class, and if your students get along marvellously, gossiping, joking, sharing personal stories, whether it be in their L1 or the L2, you should definitely take some of the credit for that. In contrast, if
students spend their classroom time sitting in silence, afraid of being judged by their fellow classmates, it’s time to put language aims aside and do some team-building.

Meanwhile, continuously encouraging students to make mistakes everyone can learn from, praising students openly for good language that everyone can imitate, asserting that students are not expected to produce new language instantly, and sharing the odd classroom in-joke could do wonders for boosting confidence and motivation.

6. Clear instructions is the first step to a successful task.

Being a beginner at Spanish and having the instructions to class and homework tasks written in Spanish and not properly clarified was nothing short of frustrating. In addition, there is also being unfamiliar with the kind of language tasks that we teachers take for granted.

Here’s a typical example: Rod was given a ‘jumbled words’ task as homework, and
although the Spanish instructions stated that he should unjumble the letters to
make words, he had never encountered such a task before, and proceeded to check
the list of words given in a dictionary. They, of course, weren’t really words as such, and when he couldn’t find ‘afec’ (cafe) or ‘uqaotn’ (quanto) after searching through all the online dictionaries and translators, he lost heart and decided that he was indeed too stupid to complete the simple task. (I never understood the point of these unjumble-the-letters exercises anyway. What is it supposed to practise?)

We stress time and again on teacher training courses that trainees should ask ICQs (instruction checking questions) and do a demo or example when setting up tasks, but some are still embarrassed when doing so, worried that they might come across condescending to learners. But such instruction checking procedures are necessary for learners who might be too shy to ask or who were momentarily distracted (it is impossible to be 100% attentive in the classroom all of the time) so that they are able to follow
what is going on. Perhaps the issue of sounding condescending has more to do with the tone of voice and the paralinguistic features used when checking those instructions.

And for beginner/elementary learners or learners new to the language classroom, what’s the harm of delivering instructions in their L1 alongside the L2 instructions?

7a. Jumping from context to context, exercise to exercise can be highly confusing.

7b. We are not here to transmit information. Pick judiciously.

Sounds almost common-sensical to us language teachers but in our attempts to ‘cover the syllabus’, ‘transmit’ as much information as possible during the short classroom time we have and justify the huge amounts of money our students are paying for the course , are we sometimes guilty of doing the above?

In Rod’s first 2-hour lesson, he was introduced to making introductions (How are you? I’m fine, thank you. What’s your name? My name is Rod. Where are you from? I’m from Britain. What’s your surname? My surname is Smith. How do you spell it? S-M-I-T-H) which led them to learning the Spanish alphabet and then the masculine and feminine singular and plural names of countries and nationalities. Rod had never encountered the concept of masculine and feminine nouns but there was simply no time for the teacher to
explain.

In Rod’s second 2-hour lesson, the teacher looked at a whole range of classroom language (How do you say it in Spanish? How do you write it in Spanish? Can you repeat it? I don’t remember. I don’t understand. Louder please. Slower please. I don’t know. – Rod made sure he remembered the last one so that he could give it as an answer whenever
nominated) before going through about 10 lexical items to do with food and drink, and then 8 useful phrases used in a waiter-customer dialogue in a cafe. The lesson ended with learning the numbers 1-20 in Spanish.

In Rod’s third lesson, the teacher plunged right into saying the numbers (1 to 100!), asking for the time (it’s quarter past, it’s half past, it’s twenty to, it’s 27 minutes past), doing some
pairwork/roleplay regarding asking for the time at a train station, learning nearly 20 verbs and how to conjugate them, then doing a guided discovery task labelling the different parts of the Spanish verb (La Raiz, La Terminacion, Verbo Infinitivo, Verbo Reflexivo, Verbo Conjugado, Verbo Regular, Verbo Irregular…) For someone who did not even know what a verb was, every second of the lesson did nothing but confirm his suspicions that he was indeed not cut out for learning a language. By the end of this lesson. Rod had lost the will
to live.

…And 7 c. We can only guide learners to discover what they are ready to discover.

8. Every learner in the class is different and some having more difficulty following does not mean they are less capable.

Rod’s class was made up of about 6 students. One was Italian, another two spoke French and another had learnt Spanish before. Having knowledge of the Romance languages had a huge influence on how easy it was to follow the grammatical explanations in class, but also the language learning experiences the other students had also helped them understand what language learning entailed. Rod’s idea of language learning had been a very bottom-up one where he needed to understand every word of a phrase before feeling
comfortable in using it. When encountering ‘Como te llamas? Me llamo Rod’ he instinctively seeked to understand which part of the phrase was ‘what’, which part was ‘are’, which part was ‘you’ and why ‘called’ was different in both phrases. The Lexical Approach may state that language is learnt in chunks and we should not encourage learners to string individual words together to create meaning, but perhaps our knowledge about Second Language Acquistion and the language learning process needs to be made explicitly clearer to learners instead of carrying on about tasks in a mysterious ’I-know-why-this-is-good-for-you-even-if-you-don’t’ sort of way.

When I tried to comfort Rod, he exclaimed, ‘Telling me the others have a headstart over me is not going to make me feel any better in class when I am stumped by the teacher’s questions. I still feel like an idiot.’

I don’t believe in pitching the class to the lowest common denominator, but a better understanding of each learners’ background and the obstacles that face them in the learning process is key to providing the ‘+1′ for every single student of the class. Although ‘acknowledging students’ previous language learning experiences’ is a phrase found in both CELTA and DELTA criterias, how much attention do we give to it on teacher training
courses?

9. Just because some of the students understand (while the others sit in silence) is not a green light for the teacher to move on.

Along the same lines as the above point, the teacher tended to ask the taboo question ‘Do you understand?’ and the Italian student would cheerily nod away and/or shout ‘yes’. The teacher took this to mean that the whole class was now ready to move on to the next
exercise/language point/context. Many might not insist the teacher spends more time clarifying because they might (a) think they understand but they don’t, or (b) are too shy/embarrassed to admit they don’t understand. Admitting such a thing requires bravery and a large dose of self-awareness, and should be met with patience and encouragement. Of course, a relaxed and non-judgemental classroom atmosphere can also lower inhibitions and allow students to voice their feelings of confusion more openly (see point number 5).

10. Repetition Repetition Repetition (Drilling is not just about pronunciation)

I’ve left this for last because I’m so passionate about this that I could dedicate a whole blog post to this point alone. We all know the importance of repetition but in practice, we sometimes worry that repeated drills could be boring for the students and too reminiscent of the Direct Method. I am unashamed to admit that I came from the Callan School of
English, where drilling was the only method of teaching. Although I am a strong believer that one single methology should not dominate one’s teaching, I have taken away lots of good drilling practices that I still use in my classroom today. I have found drilling to be necessary in helping learners get used to getting their tongues round the language and absolutely useful in terms of aiding memory and retention.

Rod’s teacher simply provided lists after lists of lexis and 1 or 2 controlled practice exercises of the language (like the jumbled-word exercise) and never offered the chance or time for the learners to actually learn them. And learners were never explicitly told that it can take up to 25 encounters with a new piece of lexis before feeling even remotely
confident in trying it out in spoken production. Repeated drills interjected throughout the lesson could have reinforced the idea that learners are not expected to remember or produce the language after just the first encounter. And to teachers who think it’s boring, I would say, it’s probably boring for you, the expert user of the language, but not for the learner. Pacey and snappy drills can be really invigorating and confidence-building.

Of course, drills are not the only way to get students repeating. Creative recycling activities like ‘Back to Board’, ‘Charades’, ‘Board Rush’, ‘Language Auction’ etc can all be used to increase the number of encounters learners have with previously taught language items. I
spend one of every three hour class I take purely on recycling activities, and the incidental language that goes up on my board every day is no longer incidental, but part of my learners’ lexicon.

I have indeed noticed that the length of this post is looking more like a dissertation than a blog and I hope Rod feels slightly more vindicated having his point of view heard and understood, albeit vicariously. But most importantly, I’d like Rod to know just this:

Language learning is less about intelligence and more about determination and perseverance.

The Best Laid Plans…

I don’t like covering other people’s classes.

Well, who does? You arrive at work and are informed that you’ve got a class to cover. You are presented with a lesson plan that you’re supposed to teach and you walk into a room with 10 pairs of eyes staring at you wondering where their teacher is. You know nothing about them, and there just isn’t time to get to know them.

I often have full intentions to follow the plan I have been given and teach what I am supposed to. But once I get into class, my instincts seem to take over and unplugging takes place. Today wasn’t so different.

The lesson plan I was given this morning was clearly meticulously prepared. A reading text had been careful copied and cut into neat pieces, ready for a jigsaw reading, and a detailed procedure was written out for me. I started to feel guilty and decided to that I should follow the plan this time.

But the students were just too interesting…damn it!

The conversation started with me asking the Pre-Advanced students what they did for a living and one of the ladies was trying to explain the fact that she owned furniture shops selling furniture that was specially aged to create an antique look that was fast becoming popular in her country. We talked about the ultra-modern, minimalistic designs so characteristic of single male households and the collocation ‘bachelor pad’ came up. One of the students mentioned ‘Bachelor’s Party’ and more lexis about bachelors went up on the board. A student wanted to know the opposite of bachelor and another student volunteered the word ‘Spinster’. I quickly clarified that ‘spinster’ had a very negative connotation, and the conversation soon became about the sexism inherent in our language.

I boarded the words ‘Master’ and ‘Mistress’ and asked for the different meanings and connotations they had, and then we looked at the words ‘Mr’ versus ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and the more modern and politically correct ‘Ms’ and the reasons why these terms were considered inappropriate by some and why they were used in the past.  We started to think about the names of jobs ending with ‘man’ and found their politically correct substitutes, and decided that the words ‘doctor’  and ‘nurse’ didn’t need any changes as it was already de-gendered.

This led a student talking about the experiences he had with a male nurse and the conversation moved towards injections and vaccinations. When a student struggled to express that she had had an operation on her knee, the following sentences went up on the board:

I have had an operation on my knee.

I have had my knee operated on.

A doctor operated on my knee.

My knee was operated on several years ago.

We looked at the causative structure in the second sentence and students were reminded of the meaning and form before being given some quick practice. We then examined the rest of the sentence and I thought it was a good time to bring up the Textual Metafunction of Halliday’s Systemic Functional Grammar. The departure point (i.e. the subject) of each sentence was identified and we look at which parts of the sentences were Given and New, forming likely questions that preceeded each statement. We then started to look at separable phrasal verbs and why we would never put the pronoun ‘it’ at the end of a sentence like ‘I switched it off’ (because ‘it’ is a given piece of information and not new).

A student then asked about placing the stress in a marked position and we started looking at Contrastive Stress and how we can give information a ‘new’ position in a sentence by placing a marked intonation stress on the word. This led to us practicing intonation changes in sentences and then chunking longer sentences and playing around with prominence.

At this point, I started to feel bad about those nicely cut-up texts that were sitting in a corner and decided to use them for a chunking activity. Instead of a plain jigsaw reading, students had to read the short passages to their partners with the appropriate intonation changes while their partners took notes. The catch is they weren’t allowed to write words in their notes. They were only allowed to draw. Using their drawings, the students were then re-paired with different partners and had to re-tell what they had heard using only their drawings to help them remember.

Time was running out at this point and I had to leave the students at that point…

But I felt a bit more at peace with my guilt this time having used part of the plan given to me, albeit only a small part of it…

So who says cut-up cards were only for Tommy and Tina TEFLS and can’t be used in a Dogme class?

Reflections on IATEFL Brighton and good teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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