Here be (Dungeons and) Dragons – Redux

You are in a classroom. There is a dais with a desk, behind which there is a blackboard. In front of you there are eight novices awaiting instruction.

I choose to engage the novices.

Go ahead.

Today, I have a plan. However, I am interested to know if you have a different plan. My plan can be for another day. Please imagine different situations that you and Rob or Vanessa (our regular Non-Player Characters) might be in. Use last week’s lesson as a planning guide. If you need help, please ask me.

Roll D10>3 and D4<4 for successful engagement and +1 courage.

D10=7,

D4 falls off desk… =1.

It went really well, actually. The students planned in two groups of 4. One group decided on explaining a road relay (and did very well indeed), and the other planned to teach how to make miso soup, which they underestimated the complexity of, but I see this as a good learning experience. I also think that by giving my students a metaphorical look behind the curtain that they can understand the success criteria for the tasks I create a bit better. I would still like a bit more linguistic complexity in their output, but today I am going to take this as a success.

XP +D6

D6=4.

Read Here be (Dungeons and) Dragons previous ‘chapters’: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

Dogme & TBLT – What do you do in the classroom?

This is a response to a post by Andrew Walkley of Lexical Lab on his about how teachers can use coursebooks in a principled way.

I am not actually getting into the back and forth about how evil/good they are as I have done so several times before.

Andrew has a couple of questions that seem genuine as opposed to discursive window dressing.

It seems to me, for example, that in choosing a task, TBLT practitioners must have some ideas of level and potential language in mind before the class.

Yes. Very much planned. There is a ton of planning, or at least gathering background information. There’s a needs analysis (NA) and a discourse analysis (DA) in the kind I do, based on Long (2014). I don’t have an applied linguist do my DA for me, though. I try to make a small corpus or at least gather some authentic texts (including videos or audio) to check how the tasks in the needs analysis would normally be done in the real world.

If I can’t access real-world examples then it comes down to reliance upon intuition. I dislike this but I feel that this gives me the chance to say that I have an idea about tasks ought to be performed but they should be co-constructed with learners’ knowledge of it. I certainly feel that writers rely on instincts at times, too.

The tasks to complete should be comparable to real-world tasks. Such tasks in my classroom may be (and I know that I diverge from orthodoxy from time to time) to engage in small talk in reception prior to a meeting in order to build rapport with a customer/client all the way to negotiating timescales with builders for renovation work so you can move into your house. It’s often (but not always) appropriate for learners to plan and repeat tasks. Focus on Form comes in as required. I know some people use Murphy (2012) for this. I don’t but that’s my preference. I use the board or have learners search for examples in SkELL and report findings or even just clean up a bit of lexis and grammar. It could be worksheets printed on the fly in higher tech classrooms. I like learners’ transcription of and reflection on parts of their own recorded tasks and reflection after focus on form and/or feedback in the lesson as a bit of homework.

Andrew also asks:

my questioning of TBLT/Dogme centres on how lessons actually work. I understand that a material-free classroom can work in principle, but I think we need to question the practice. What exactly are the tasks? How are those tasks chosen?

As for Dogme, I doubt I’m canonical here but knowing as much about the learners first helps the teacher pick tasks/topics that will pique interest as part of a negotiated syllabus. Then the syllabus gets negotiated and remains a work in progress. Tasks may even be chosen by learners seeing as they have an idea what they know/don’t know. It’s not an negation of the teacher’s role but information to support it. You negotiate a syllabus, rather than blindly accept “We want to talk about the philosophical underpinnings of the contemporary Russian state” with A2 learners. But who’s to say that talking about Russia or philosophy aren’t nice prerequisite steps towards this?

My Dogme lessons tend to start with a gathering of collective knowledge about the topic or reacting to a story or artefact. This output is then used to synthesise something else (even if it is merely a more crystallised opinion), taking the conversation to wherever it heads, focusing on form as and when needed. This requires neither coursebook pages nor the aforementioned Murphy (2012). Again, boardwork, negotiation of meaning in greater detail and work on nuance pay dividends. Grammar work could even involve a sentence jigsaw made from index cards or Post Its.

I hope this demystifies TBLT or Dogme classroom practices. Any questions, hit me up in the comments. Any comments, er, in the comments.

References

Long, M. (2014) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. New York. Wiley.

Murphy, R. (2012) English Grammar In Use (4th Ed.). Cambridge. CUP.

Travel Problems – a Dogme-ish lesson

 

In this post I’ll go over a bit of a Dogme-ish (and I say Dogme-ish because it’s kind of Task Based due to the syllabus that I knocked up based on the absolute lack of any definite needs for my university students other than ‘learn some English’). With that, I designed a bit of a travel-based task cycle, of which every lesson stands alone or links. This is the final one in the cycle and perhaps my favourite. This is a role-play lesson with a bit of a difference.

  1. Give out slips of paper. Tell students to each write one different foreign travel problem on the slips. They don’t need to worry about spelling very much because it’s not the point of the lesson. Take all slips in.
  2. Put students into groups of 4 or 5 (I’d say groups of 3 might be too much work for one person – you’ll be assigning rotating roles to the students). The rotating roles are speakers who role play each travel problem and two or three listeners who listen to all or some of the following:
    • Grammatical accuracy;
    • Lexical appropriacy;
    • Pragmatic competence;
    • Pronunciation;
    • Communication strategies;
    • Fluency;
    • What they would do the same or do differently.
  3. Give the slips out, ensuring groups have as few duplicates as possible. Set the students to plan one role play (not script writing – focus on speech acts and reactivity) as a group for students 1 & 2 in the group to perform for 6 minutes. Then have students 1 & 2 perform the role play while 3 & 4 listen and then give feedback. Teacher monitors and takes notes.
  4. Focus on Form. Probably a good idea to cover things you noticed but the student listeners didn’t.
  5. All students planning again – 4 minutes this time.  Students 2 & 3 perform, 1 & 4 listen then give feedback.
  6. Focus on Form.
  7. As previous planning and roleplaying but with 2 minutes planning. 3 & 4 perform, 1 & 2 listen.
  8. Focus on Form again.
  9. No planning. 1 & 4 perform, 2 & 3 listen and give feedback.
  10. Student groups pick the most successful role play. Teacher randomly  (or not) selects pairs from each group to perform, gives feedback.

Omitting Others? A(nother) case for Dogme

During the last few months and to an extent the last year or so there have been a few bits and bobs about diversity in ELT. Two examples off the top of my head are:

The queering (or actually not) OF ELT materials by Angelos Bollas (talked about at Innovate ELT 2016 and this year’s IATEFL). 

Emily Hird’s post on diversity in ELT materials (by big publishers). 

All of this leads me to believe that one OF the best tools we have at our disposal as teachers is Dogme, going materials light. This gives greater opportunity to go to places prompted by the learners and teachers rather than hem in conversation by implicitly suggesting a norm in a textbook. 

A case in point would be the usual heteronormative, racially homogeneous family tree. One might get into hot water from bosses in very conservative institutions. If the work is learner centred, the basis of learners’ families is the basis of discussion. The way other families are portrayed on TV and in movies often come up in questions. How many learners have divorced parents? Step-siblings? Half-siblings? LGBTQ relatives that are married or living together? Heck, even straight people merely living together is risqué on coursebook land.  That’s just an example of what could come up when talking about one topic.

If you have a diversity problem in your materials, are you sure they aren’t overly simplistic? If they are overly simplistic in diversity, as well as language that learners may require  to meet their communication needs, why are we pussyfooting around the deficiencies of expensive dead trees and not instead boldly using our learners’ lives to teach real life. 

Needs Analysis for People Who Don’t Know Their Needs

“What do you need to do?” the teacher asks.

“Um, speak English,” the most outgoing student says.

“In what kinds of situations do you use English?”

“Business situations.”

So, not the most illuminating of exchanges to help plan a curriculum. There have been loads of times that this has happened to me, and to others. There’s a lovely post by Laura at Grown Up English about negotiating a task-based syllabus. You might also want a look at #TBLTChat 7 on syllabus design. Here, I’m going a bit hybrid.

With this group of learners I’m going to talk about, I asked their goals and what they usually use English for at work. I got that they want to work on fluency in speaking and listening, on the phone and face to face. There were no concrete situations, though.

Due to this, I get to use my imagination and have a bit of a daydream about other people’s work. Maybe this is due to too much Quantum Leap (“Oh, boy!”) as a boy. Not having the luxury of shadowing the students to find out about a typical day, I can only rely on what they tell me or what I can anticipate.

whiteboard

This board was based on my guesses what the students in this group might need based on knowledge that they work for a logistics services provider. I had the students in the group, of mixed level, rank the things that I chose according to how important they are.

It was interesting to find that answering complaints was not seen as important. I’ll leave this open for the rest of the course. It was also interesting to find that I don’t need to prioritise simple scheduling very highly. This means I’ll conflate the scheduling and queries lessons, with a bit of wriggle room by adding other things and renegotiating the syllabus again.

I leave one slot at the end for review or covering what crops up and then this is our syllabus for the rest of our 10-hour course. If you have any other ideas, feel free to share them in the comments.

 

Real Alternatives Need Alacrity

It’s that old Corporate ELT is killing me slowly trope. Hang on to your hats, comrades, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

So, the coursebooks palaver came up again on Geoff Jordan’s blog. I have written on this before. The main change in my ideas is that instead of Dogme or Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) being the utopia we should all aim for, what is needed to get teachers to go with something better than a textbook is an alternative.

In the aforementioned post, Steve Brown said that what is needed is not any other kind of alternative but for teachers to take agency: choose what the materials are, or choose to choose with the learners, or whatnot. He is right, but I think there needs to be a bit of handholding to get there.

I’ve seen comments saying that it takes bloody ages to plan a TBLT lesson, and it does when you first start. Similarly CELTA-type lessons take bloody ages when you first start. No qualifications? Think to your first week on the job. Lesson plans took forever. Anything takes ages when you first start.You need to think about whether the initial time investment will pay off or not. You are reading a blog about teacher development, so ostensibly you are open to this seeing as you are reading this instead of playing video games or trolling Trump supporters.

So, let the handholding begin. Or the push to start.

What can I use instead of a coursebook?

Have a think (always a good idea) about what your learners need. Asking them is often a good idea, though teenagers might tell you they need about 3 hours in bed and that they need to do gap-fills of A1 vocab. They don’t. Assess. What can they do? What can’t they do? What aren’t you sure they can do? The answers to this should rarely be “They can’t do the past tense with regular verbs” or something. Maybe “They can’t answer questions about the weekend” is better. Cool. That is something we can chuck into the syllabus, if we think that our learners need this. If they don’t, don’t put it in. But why did you bother assessing it otherwise?

With all this information, you can create a syllabus/course. Sequencing it is a bit of a bugger because you want to think about complexity, what is likely needed toward the start and middle to get to the end, recycling language and such. However, you and your learners have control. This is not the kind of thing to put on a granite tablet. If it seems to need a bit of something else, do that.

But what do I do?

Teach the skills you need to teach. Potentially this is all four skills of reading, listening, writing and speaking. There are books about ways to teach these. You might want to browse Wayzgoose press. Also The Round minis range has some very interesting stuff, as does 52. If you get a copy of Teaching Unplugged, I find it useful.

You and your learners can then source texts from the internet (which a lot of textbooks do anyway so you are cutting out the middleman), edit for length (nice authentic language) or elaborate and spend longer with (that is, put in a gloss at the side or add clauses explaining the language). You can create your own, too, which sounds time consuming but might not be the pain in the arse you think it is. You can also put in some stuff that is rarely covered in textbooks like pronunciation and how to build listening skills, microlistening, and more (a bugbear of mine).

There are also lots of lesson plans on blogs (including here). If you have some good lessons that have worked for you, they might work for others, who can then adapt them. With a book, there are sunk costs and learners will want to plough through the lot if they have bought it. If you have a lesson plan to manipulate, without having sunken money into it bar some printer paper, you and your learners get more control and hopefully smething more suited to them than something chosen by an anonymous somebody in London or New York.

If I’m going to use texts, I might as well use a textbook!

You could, but think of all the pages of nonsense you have to skip. Think of the time spent with learners focussing on pointless vocabulary like ‘sextant’ (thanks Total English pre-intermediate). You have an idea. You know your learners, or at least the context. There is also a ton of stuff on the internet. May I point you to the Google Drive folder at the top of this blog. All the stuff in there is Creative Commons Licensed so you can change it if it isn’t perfect, copy it for your learners, and because I already made it and was going to anyway, it’s free. There is also Paul Walsh’s brill Decentralised Teaching and Learning. There are also ideas to use from Flashmob ELT.

So

You have these ideas to use, modify, whatever and put into timeslots. You can move them around. You have the means, now, if you decide it’s worth a go, stick with it for a few weeks at least, so you can get into the swing of it. If you like it, leave a comment. If you hate it and I’ve ruined your life (and be warned that not all supervisors, managers and even learners are open to this at first. Check, or at least be aware of this. If your learners say they want a book they might just mean they want materials provided and a plan from week to week) leave a comment.

If you think I’m talking nonsense, I’d seriously love you to leave a comment. Tell me why.

If you want help with this, I’m thinking of using Slack for a free (yes, really, at least initially) course type thing, say an experimental three weeks, where I help you sort out how to go about things (together; top-down isn’t how I do things), help with any teething troubles and so on. If you’re interested, contact me.

Well, Sunday night, eleven o’clock and 1000 words. I’m going to bed. Let’s sleep on it.

Your Secret Weapon

For loads of us in a (largely) monolingual EFL setting, there is an amazing resource available under our noses. I’d argue that a lot of people feel it’s a bit rude but I’m going to argue that rude or not, you get to maximize engagement in lessons through greater relevance and also at least partial schema activation.

Eavesdropping on your learners when they’re using L1.

If you can do it, this pays dividends. You get to give them what they are already thinking about but may not be able to do in English. For example, are people on your business class complaining on the phone? Can you help them do it in English, with appropriate language and pragmatic competence? How about the young learners talking about cartoons? Can they explain the plot, the characters or the appeal by involving you in a real conversation?

“What about the syllabus?” you might say.

Can you postpone that item? Work it in? Abandon it? I think we need to remember that syllabi are guides not commandments. And if we make things a bit closer to learners real lives they might want to work through that syllabus a bit more.