Posted by: Alastair Grant | December 15, 2013

School’s out… and so are ELT’s grand narratives

descargaHello again, world.

After a somewhat hectic year, I’ve been reflecting (hence blog title, for those of you who’ve just joined us) on what’s happened and what’s evolved in the world (to which, hello again) of ELT. I’ve been observing teachers at my institute and at a local school of English, which has been an education for me as Director of Studies and Teacher Development Manager – these local experiences therefore inform the following, feature-length, post.

Because you see, during said observations, I wondered whether there was any evidence that any new, Grand Narrative, single-approach style method can ever be THE chosen one. But then it’s funny, I was thinking, what did we talk about before Dogme came along? Quite apart from its off-the-wall approach (no coursebook?! Dammit, Carruthers, these fools should be horse-whipped etc. etc.) and perennially “mixed” reception, it at least provided something for ELT-ites to get excited about.

Demand-High? It seems too close to Dogme to even call another approach (no, Alastair, it’s just a way of teaching…) and nonetheless pitted itself against the “tired” methods of the past, seemingly to get attention like a child (of ELT) whose supermarket-weary parent (the student body. Ok, recherché, but stay with the metaphor) long lost interest in its squealing somewhere near the vegetable aisle.

We LOVE our debates in our little world, don’t we? And do said debates make a big difference to in-class practice, or are we, at the end of the day (or academic year) thinking to ourselves, “well… the students still don’t really get why we use Present Perfect, they can do 2nd conditional gapfills ‘till they’re blue in the face but get frustrated when they can’t talk about the same thing in the past because we tell them they  can’t see 3rd conditional ‘till next year, and there’s never enough coffee in the staff room… same as 2012 (11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6…), really.”

What are we doing?

We’re worrying about which methodology currently hogs the limelight whilst denouncing previous methods as being outmoded, useless, damaging. This isn’t The Communist Manifesto – we don’t need to beg constant revolution and constant overthrowing of previous methods and approaches in ELT, when a bright idea that a teacher once had in a class back in the 70s transformed the development of our students today. We don’t need no grand narratives or methodology-toppling revolutions – we need to listen to and observe our peers and our students and learn from them. This is the post-modern, post-methods era – we all teach at a local, nay, class level. Let’s not forget that.

The question is, beyond ELT’s slender and chalk-white ivory tower, what IS happening at a local level? At my school, we need to get the students through their syllabus, get them through their exams and get ourselves through the parent-teacher interviews and that’s ‘bout all we got time for, folks.

Hence, in my teaching environment, it can be common practice to march students through a stack of photocopies, which seems to be along the lines of the “throw enough mud (expletive deleted and replaced) and some of it sticks” theory. I am sure new generation ELTers would cross themselves and bring out the garlic at such a spectacle, but is this any worse than Demand High’s suggestion that students stumble through an explanation of how they got their answers to the aforementioned gapfills? (most of the time, the answer is “because it sounded right”). Is it worse? Really? How do you know?

 So five nuggets for you from in-class experiences of mine as both DoS and teacher this year, to show that we, as teachers and teacher-trainers have a lot to learn, mainly from our peers and our students, rather than dictating unilateral methods from a level that hasn’t seen the musky light of a classroom since baby velociraptors were being weaned off their fossilized errors:

1. The “Present Past”

We’re deep within exam territory in my hemisphere now, and that means revision classes. While looking at the dreaded Present Perfect (boo, hiss…), one of the students shouted with misguided vitriol, when I asked what tense it was, “Present Past!” to a chorus of hoots and catcalls from his peers. I said, “no…” and I felt that his face was saved by another student’s saying “Present Perfect” and so the class roared on, not stopping to the station of Unexplored Error. When I told my girlfriend (an English Teacher and Argentine) that evening about the experience, she said, “well, he was kinda right…” – she pointed out to my bemused face that, obviously, he had conceptually grasped the use of Present Perfect and I hadn’t Demand(ed) High enough to understand that. A student development opportunity squandered. The Present Perfect magically combines the idea of the past being present in the… present… and, of course, that’s what the poor chap had meant. He just hadn’t got his meta-language right. And frankly, who cares?

2. TPR

Hardly one of the big bogey men of ELT like the reviled spectre of PPP, but certainly not fashionable these days. But behold what happens when both a kinder and first form teacher I observed this year employed songs, dances, and actions with students with actions such as “brush your teeth” – how easy is it then to ditch the idea of cutting up language at word-level and gift students set phrases with which to grasp a concept. Speaking of grasping, I found myself doing this the other day when taking a Proficiency class when asked the meaning of “grasp” – I instinctively grasped at an invisible… stick or what have you, and the students grasped the concept. Thank you, kindergarten.

3. Grammar translation

My students were having a hell of time grasping Past Perfect until it was suggested by a colleague that I get the students to translate a simple sentence into Spanish, my students’ L1. So:

“María was tired because she hadn’t slept the night before”


María estaba cansada porque no había dormido la noche anterior”.

Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you can see the similarity between the tenses – the Past Simple and the auxiliary and main verb of the Past Perfect. Perfect. Sorted.

4. Audiolingualism:

Earlier this term I decided to do a traditional conditional transformation drill. A little old hat, I thought, but they were having trouble with the pronunciation of “would” (in Argentine Spanish, there is no /w/ phoneme). So I started with “If I won the lottery I would buy a house” (A+ for originality) and the next student had to start with, “if I bought a house, I would…” etc. Please don’t ask me how we ended the chain with, “if I died I would spank angels in heaven”, but they were transforming, getting the point and that’s what we should focus on. Not the spanking.

5. Dictagloss

An oldie but a goodie – a teacher I saw at the beginning of this year was reinforcing the narrative tenses by dictating a story three times to her students and getting them to compare notes to exchange information before trying to complete the story as fully as they could, using the aforesaid tenses. This was an adolescent class and boy, do they hate writing. But they loved this. Within twenty focused and engaged minutes they had written a 200 word story and enjoyed every minute of it.


All of the above experiences were gained from watching teachers, watching students, and learning from them. A veritable pot-purri of old tricks from old dogs. Principled eclecticism? Maybe. Call it what you like – but don’t give me that, “it’s just good teaching” line – we wouldn’t know what that was unless we’d got this “good teaching” from the old guard back in the day. And where did they get it from? An idea they had in class and then decided to base a whole methodology on it… sounds like preaching on the virtues of an all-fruit diet because you once bought a really, really scrummy apple.

Don’t get me wrong, I was delighted when I got a B for A-Level French, having been told I shouldn’t have taken the course at all (je ne parle muy bien le French, innit), but I am pretty sure that’s because I spent nights of pleasure and pain with my grammar book and wanted to beat my mate Andy in the final exam (I did, by the way. Sorry Andy if you are reading this, but it really was my only moment of true glory at the age of 17 and I’m going to bask in it, albeit twenty years late).

What I am getting it (thank the Lord, Alastair…) is this: we are forever being told that the world of ELT has evolved thanks to each new approach: Grammar Translation, Audiolingualism, the evil beast that is (apparently) PPP etc. and that there is always a new methodology that charges up the school corridors on a white horse, but have our students developed as a result? Are they getting better or… do any of the new methods we row about, far from developing our students, just posture and bicker under a different banner/brand name? The king is dead, long live the king. Where is the student-development happening? Well, it’s happening right under our noses, if we cared to take a sniff.

Come on ye gods of ELT, get yourselves out of the ivory tower and into the classroom. You can save the waffle for the pub night at the next conference. And leave it there.

Posted by: Alastair Grant | November 17, 2012

I’m ready for my close-up.


(Or – “the best thing about an ELT conference is the coffee break”).

Friday 2 November was a little while ago now. Two weeks ago… well, 13 days ago. Nevertheless, it still seems as though the event that took place on that day needs more said about it in terms of its significance for ELT teachers the world over.

International House World Organisation, spearheaded by the ever creative and dedicated Shaun Wilden and Neil McMahon, set up the third Teachers’ Online Conference: a gathering of ELT luminaries (Jeremy Harmer) and hangers-on (Alastair Grant), to deliver two days’ worth of free teacher training to an expectant world.

And boy, did they deliver. But a little peek at the IHWO TOC3 blog demonstrates the breadth of CPD on offer; from lesson shapes to tech in the classroom, from literature to classroom games, this conference had it all.

But was it really a conference? Where were the name tags? Where was the stewed coffee? Where was the hangover? Nowhere to be seen here, but I’d argue that the online conference beats a face-to-face any day.

Before you write me off as being an anti-social loser who probably spends most of his Saturday afternoons watching zombie movies in his mom’s basement when he could be out tango dancing in his adopted city of Buenos Aires, let me justify my existence:

1. The IHWO TOC3 allowed teachers worldwide to see some of the best CELTA, Delta, MA TESOL qualified ELT minds from arguably the most prestigious ELT organisations, for free, from the comfort of their sofas.

  • Score: Online 1 – 0 Face-to-Face.

2. The IHWO TOC3 used an online learning platform that allows all participants in the room to interact with the speaker directly.

Score: Online 2 – 0 Face-to-Face.

3. The IHWO TOC3 allowed people to personally participate with each other during the session without getting shushed.

  • Score: Online 3 – 0 Face-to-Face.

4. The IHWO TOC3’s sessions were always interactive, so people didn’t start daydreaming about lunch, football or sex. Not too much, anyway.

  • Score: Online 4 – 0 Face-to-Face.

5. The IHWO TOC3 had no pub to go to afterwards.

  • Score: Online 4 – 4 Face-to-Face.

Ok, so until someone invents a virtual bar, there are improvables…

Despite this gaping hole in the conference programme, it’s undeniable that this event was one of the best ways of teachers from all four corners of the earth to receive free, professional teacher development.

All too often, conferences seem like a platform for egos to try and sell very little (or coursebooks) to a disappointed public who have shelled out a lot of cash and time to attend. Really, how many of us who have been to conferences have walked away from a session thinking, “interesting stuff, but nothing I can really use in the classroom there…”?

Admit it, it happens.

Here, you never have to worry about that – or if you get bored with a session, you can always jump rooms, or switch to Facebook.

So, for the IHTOC4, just… be there – it’s worth its bandwidth in gold and will ensure that you, as a teacher, are receiving some of the best professional development available. Did I mention it was free?

And getting back the latest one for a second, Shaun and Neil ensured that the sessions were recorded: you can see them all right here.

Personally, I hate seeing myself on camera. Given that we are all the stars of our own mental movie, I’d hoped that I’d be seen to have Woody Allen’s way with words and Jude Law’s way with close-ups. Sadly, I’d equally be the first to admit that’s a bit of a schlep from the truth, but vanity aside, here’s my session – the slides and the video recording:

I’ll provide an address for fan mail later.

Posted by: Alastair Grant | October 7, 2012

Dogme 2.0 – The Puppy Grows Up

Have you missed me?

After convincing myself that my new position as Director of Studies left me “too busy” to write a blog-post, this week’s just underlined for me that, a teacher’s gotta do what a teacher’s gotta do… so I’m back. With a confession-cum-mission statement.

I’ve always been sold on Dogme ELT, and I’ve always considered myself a Dogme teacher. But it’s time for the Dogme movement to, well, chill out a bit. Because I don’t think it really serves the students in its current form.

Why? Well, here’s what I was asking myself…  what is it about my coursebook-free class that STILL makes me kinda nervous when my students start turning up?

For nearly two years now, my institute has been running two Dogme-style courses, with, to be honest, varying amounts of success. In July, we had an inspection and both courses were observed – the upshot of which was that there was speculation that neither of them were really, truly, quite as Doggy-style as they could (should?) be. But I’ve decided that’s a good thing.

Honestly, it’s a toughie… how do I make sure that my class is:

  1. Materials light.
  2. Conversation-driven.
  3. Focussed on emergent language

…whilst still making sure that the students have enough variety of receptive and productive skill-tasks to focus on to, basically, keep them from going “oh no, not again!” when the day’s conversation gets underway. Sometimes… they don’t always want to talk.

Is this a failing of Dogme or a failing of mine? You decide, but what I’m sure about is that, while even the chattiest students don’t always want to talk, they DO always want to learn. That’s what they’re paying me for!

As evidence for my suggestion, here’s the latest Dogme class that I was really happy with. 

By the way, this is an advanced-level class, who are following a syllabus. I know, Scott, I’m sorry, but, really, which teacher doesn’t have a syllabus to follow?

Pre-class, I’d asked (told) one of the students (we’ll call her Fernanda – she’d like that) to email me with some options for what to look at next time. I told her it could be an article, song, video… whatever she wanted. Ok, not too Dogme so far. Bear with me…

  1. Fernanda sent me various options, including an article (see link) on how to deal with hangovers. If you’re not a student in my class, sorry to all 999,999,999,993 of you (via Facebook, anyway), this is a private joke about alcohol. The link has, as you can see, tips on avoiding hangovers and a short vid from the Oprah chat show.
  2. I looked over the article and watched the video pre-class and noticed many instances of verbs/nouns/adjectives collocating with specific prepositions (on their syllabus) and decided that’d be our language focus. Come on… which English student doesn’t hate prepositions with a passion?!
  3. All we did was talk about hangovers re. who’d ever had one, why, etc. Now, in my teaching context, as in many others, this raised questions about the moral-side of alcohol. Was I worried about this? No. Vetoing student-supplied lesson material seems utterly counterproductive.
  4. We then watched the video, before which I dictated three questions to focus my students:
  • · What should you do the night before the hangover?
  • · What should you eat the morning after?
  • · What medications should you take?
  1. We watched this twice and then went through the answers. Apparently my British accent isn’t as easy to follow as a US accent…
  2. I gave my students the article with the tips and gave them a tip each to read and then present to the class. The advantage of the tips was that they were short! This removed the “can’t we read it for homework?” loophole.
  3. We talked about all of the tips and discussed which ones we had used before ourselves and whether they actually work, discussing expressions such as hair of the dog and Argentine party/binge-related aphorisms such as “calavera no chilla”.
  4. I put up the following verb/noun/adjective preposition combinations, but without the … prepositions (all but one from the text):
  • women tend________ to have lower metabolic rates
  • pay attention ________ how different types
  • so stick _________ having only one or two
  • a hangover can make you feel down _________ life

The students then simply completed these, and their homework was to find other examples of the above in the text.

The idea of this was awareness-raising rather than anything else and I intend to follow up through the rest of our course by getting them to add to their “verb/noun/adjective preposition” list as we go.

Anyway… we all thoroughly enjoyed the class. Great. But… is it Dogme? Umm… back to the list…

  1. Materials light. More or less… a video and text – but all student-produced.
  2. Conversation-driven. There was certainly more talking than anything else. But not JUST conversation AGAIN… they are getting bored with that! The novelty has worn off!
  3. Emergent language. No… I decided what we were going to study. Should I have done? Well, I AM their teacher… kinda what they pay me for, isn’t it?

So here’s my “welcome back” challenge to you:

You cannot run Dogme-style classes, on a course-length basis, and follow the rules at the same time. You need to mix it up. The Dogme ’95 film movement couldn’t follow their own edicts either.

BUT… the above way of teaching is still Dogme for me. It’s teaching away from the hegemony of coursebooks, it’s totally student-centred, it’s engaging but it doesn’t rely on everyone being in the mood to chat.

This is “Dogme 2.0”. Dogme should be as “2.0” as the internet now is, i.e. the students have as much say in the proceedings as the teacher – even the “Dogme Light” 3-basic-rules-version doesn’t allow for mixing it up in class as much as you should for your students.

Why doesn’t it? Because language is about communication. And as there’s more than one way to communicate, there’s absolutely no need to deprive the students (or ourselves!) of the other three.

If we ignore the other skills, we ignore the following question: where are students going to encounter English apart from in the classroom? Um… outside of it! So why ghettoise the learning experience by insisting that the only English allowed in is that which is orally produced by the people in the room?

If language is a medium, not a subject, let the students bring in the English they find outside, just like Fernanda did. That’s what I call using the students as your best resource. That’s helping our students become more autonomous learners.

But is this still Teaching Unplugged? Well, it’s unplugged from any coursebook, it’s unplugged from any prescribed activity and it’s unplugged from any kind of dogmatic/exclusivist approach.

You see, the longer we Dogme-ticians stick to our puritanical guns, the more we isolate ourselves from the real world, and the less effectively we serve our students.

Yes, “Dogme 2.0” is still Dogme – but like all successful species, Dogme has to evolve.

Discuss. (that’s the 2.0 bit!)

Congratulations to all participants of this ELTChat above all others!

Why? Well, from the word (hashtag?) “go”, there seemed to be some debate over what exactly a false beginner is, but NONE of the participants reached for the Google + copy + paste link option! Hooray!

An ELTChat without 253 links? Gettaway. Yup. And hence it felt like a really collaborative chat, as chatters worked through their definitions of the term “False Beginner” and we were treated to some very helpful insights into:

1.    What a False Beginner (FB) is
2.    How to approach teaching FBs
3.    How to progress FBs learning
4.    Skills teaching for FBs
5.    The “D” word: or Dogme (dragons?) in the world of FBs
6.    Attitudes to errors with FB learners

So with no further ado – let the idea-fest begin (not falsely)…

What a false beginner is:

“they know Coca Cola but not fizzy drink” – @harrisonmike came up with my favourite definition!

The ideas bandied around were – (a) do they have zero English, (b) do they have a little which they have gleaned from environmental exposure or (c) did they learn English some time ago and want to start from scratch?

The answer seemed to be a combination of options (b) and (c). To make it clearer – see (yes I know, links…):

How to approach teaching FBs?

So, given the above definition, where to begin? The general consensus was that FBs tend to know more than they think they do, hardly surprising perhaps, given the prevalence of English globally.

It was also pointed out that many countries have a high influx of refugees and immigrants whose motivations are very high both integratively and instrumentally. Assessing motivations is thus perhaps even more important here than for higher level learners.

And with some learners, they may have no ELT background at all. Being “nice but firm” seemed to be the order of the day when it comes to teacher attitudes in class, to acclimatise learners to teacher behavior and class protocol.

With all this in mind:

a)    Teacher needs to bring to light FBs’ existing knowledge. “What words do you know?” Start with what they have seen and heard in everyday life. Very motivating!
b)    FBs may suffer from self-confidence problems due to perceived past failures and teachers must be alert to this.
c)    Grading language is essential.
d)    Asking learners what THEY need and personalisation is very important rather than forcing a syllabus on them (how Dogme).
e)    Bear in mind that some learner cultures may use a different script!
f)    Using songs in English – they all know some famous songs and may have their own ideas of the lyrics!

Using the L1

g)    Use of L1 might be more sanctioned but obviously not so easy in a multilingual classroom!
h)    Use what they know and remember – they know how to think in language from L1 – so help them express thought even if it jumps a unit!


i)    Don’t subscribe to one set methodology – feel free to use an eclectic approach for what you feel works for them.
j)    Lots of visuals / TPR.
k)    Oral drills (sounds a bit Audio Lingualism?) important as their “take home” from the class will be that they have the confidence of knowing they can produce phrases in English from day 1.

How to progress FBs learning

a)    Asking students about themselves, their day, their routines – will build confidence and trust. Lubrication of the pedagogical wheels, as it were.
b)    Building confidence in the teacher is essential with FBs so they don’t feel criticised or stuck from the outset.
c)    Keeping a written record essential.
d)    Use a moodle? Or will online tools in English be too tough for them? Could model in PC room or using IWB (if you’ve the luck of owning such a mythical beast).

Skills teaching for FBs

a)    FBs may be good at one thing (reading) and not another (writing) – is the distinction between receptive and productive knowledge more marked than usual?
b)    Listening is key – as with Jeremy Harmer’s example of the footballer Fernando Torres learning English in the UK:
c)    FBs will talk when they are ready to (very Krashen?) – Japanese learners can be very nervous about speaking from the outset of study.
d)    Learners should be allowed to speak as much as possible to increase confidence.
e)    Writing – is this a bit much to ask of FBs? Twittering friends / using Facebook in English might be a great start.

The “D” word: or Dogme (dragons?) in the world of FBs

This HAD to come up, if only to irritate Shaun. And to add to his chagrin, seemed a popular choice:

a)    Great for FBs as you work with what you have in the room which is the best starting point for these learners.
b)    Syllabus can be built around their needs.
c)    Get them to bring in the English they already have into the classroom.
d)    Task repetition and rehearsal so learners can see how much they are improving.

Attitudes to errorz with FB leaners

Another fave from @harrisonmike here: ‘“I ain’t happy”. Would you say this is an error?’

A range of ideas:

a)    Let it go! Life’s too short at this level!
b)    Correct it but, as @LukeMeddings suggested, by recasting and using a facial expression to signify they need to be “careful” of what they have produced. i.e. “You’re not happy?”
c)    Of course the above isn’t necessarily an incorrect – but alerting them to the full form seems important, innit.
d)    Let them know that errors are all part of learning – make them aware that your class environment encourages this and that they shouldn’t be afraid of criticism.

And one final word – don’t forget they’re adults! There really is something about ELT that is a “leveller” for people, no matter their age/background and they can tend to behave like kids! It’s the “we’re all in this together” type outlook.

But adults still need treating as such – their motivations and goals need to be constantly borne in mind.

There had to be some links, of course…

Here are three of the best:

Basic activities online

A very simple and very visual blog creating programme – well worth a look

Creating activities based on internet content – very interactive and tailorable (this word doesn’t exist, sorry…)

So there you have it. Another useful and challenging ELTChat, even Shaun found himself agreeing with a Dogme teacher on no less than TWO points during the hour. We made a miracle.

Thanks to everyone involved – it’s basically FREE teacher training we do here!

Please share this with your schools, colleagues etc.!

And your experts for the day were (Twitter names / aliases / false passports etc.):

Shaunwilden   Marisa_C
esolcourses    theteacherjames
AnthonyGaughan   TailormadeEng
AlexandraKouk   shamsensei
MarianSteiner   aClilToClimb
BobK99   harrisonmike
TeachEslToday   michaelegriffin
pysproblem81   ShellTerrell
SueAnnan   alastairjgrant
ChristosPas   kevchanwow
mercedesviola   eflresource
LukeMeddings   TituCabral
lu_bodeman   fionamau
JosetteLB   vickyloras
KelConway   lelioaraujo
naomishema   bnleez
vale360   yearinthelifeof
janetbianchini   JulieRaikou
bsmsenglish   tanyamister
eltbakery   Julian_LEnfant
brad5patterson   cunningcanis
vmorgana   mr_magyar
bamarcia   alexanderding

There was a children’s book I used to (ok… I still do) love, in which a young boy has a pet dragon.

Despite the dragon eating and sleeping in their house, the boy’s parents refused to acknowledge its existence, constantly reiterating the mantra “there’s no such thing as a dragon!”

Well, the dragon starts out small but gets bigger and bigger… and by the end of the book, has become so huge that it takes over the entire house… and the parents grow to love it.

This is what I what I mulling over when I attended one of the great events of the The IH DoS conference 2012 – the hosting of a match between two heavyweights, Communicative Language Teaching (the parents!) and Dogme (the dragon!).

This match has since been declared a draw by the conference’s main debate protagonists, Jeremy Harmer and Luke Meddings. I’m not convinced though, and here’s why.

The proof

Since, and indeed during, the debate itself, the worlds of twitter and blogs have been alive with debate about Dogme, which seems to me to centre around one myth – Dogme doesn’t really exist!

I’d cite Jeremy Harmer’s and Neil McMahon’s posts as exhibits “A” in this debacle. The crux of both arguments seems to be, “there’s no such thing as Dogme!”

Having just finished a very successful academic year of a Dogme course in my institute (my presentation on this topic from the conference will soon be in the IHWO blog, I believe), my students and I can promise you that there is such a thing as Dogme and until you try it yourself, your doubts are… only doubts.

But first… let’s bring on the Dogme-doubting arguments! These were propounded in Jeremy Harmer’s impassioned talk during the conference as well as a key objection raised by Neil McMahon in his excellent blog:

1. Any text from a coursebook can be adapted for the class by the teacher – students don’t need to bring in their own material.
Sadly we have to adapt the coursebook for every lesson – what a waste of time! But why should we have to if the students can simply bring in their own material?

Well, CELTA, Trinity and whatever other teacher training course we embark upon, teaches us to use a coursebook from the outset. Now that’s what I call dogmatic.

I’m nonetheless confident that teacher training will eventually change once, instead of rejecting Dogme out of hand, people realise that Dogme isn’t about posturing but making teaching easier and more effective.

2. The footballer Fernando Torres “learnt” English by listening to the radio, not by talking.
Right… and what did he do after listening? Stayed silent for the rest of the day during football training? I rather think he used his English when speaking to team-mates, friends etc. i.e. listening and communicating. Very Dogme.

3. Dogme privileges learners with “people smart” intelligence over others, as it’s conversation driven.
I doubt that anyone learns a language to then not speak it… yes we have activists and reflectors, but even the quietest reflector would agree that learning a new language is fundamentally about communication. Let’s not second-guess our learners by denying them this right.

4. Suggesting that a coursebook disempowers students is wrong – many students have learnt brilliant English through coursebooks.
That hardly means it’s the best way of doing it… many students have doubtless learnt great English through Grammar Translation but we wouldn’t teach like that today!

If an approach comes along that gets the students putting their English to work and bringing their lives into the classroom instead of forcing topics on them, why not embrace it instead of criticising it?

5. What if language doesn’t “emerge” – you can’t just say “sorry, it didn’t come up!”
No need to apologise… if you make sure it DOES come up! If you see something that students need to know, either for their own use in class or for the syllabus – add it yourself!

Let’s say the students need to use a conditional and they have no idea how to structure them – well, that’s kinda your cue, teacher

And if you are following a syllabus (sorry Scott… but really, some of us DO have syllabi to follow!) there is no harm in introducing a text to a class yourself to cover this.

6. If you stray from the “10 Commandments of Dogme”, it’s not Dogme…

Really guys, we’re just splitting hairs now! As early as 2003 (nearly 10 years ago) Luke Meddings pointed out (as if it needed doing) that the commandments had been “tongue in cheek” (who could take commandment 10 seriously?!).

Despite the name, there’s no dogma to Dogme. Luke’s recent metaphor about the “three tent poles of Dogme” (IH DoS 2012) is a perfect description of why Dogme is so versatile: you can use it anywhere, it adapts to fit the terrain and works in all climates.

And what are those three tent poles?

  1. Materials light 
  2. Conversation driven
  3. Emergent language

If you look at my above points, I think we’ve covered all of these.

The reality

I’m sure there will be people who disagree with the above and who still disagree that Dogme teaching is simple, effective and totally engaging. I’ve crossed swords with both Jeremy and Neil McMahon on this issue on their blogs!

But it’s happening, guys… The dragon’s here and so is Dogme. Here to stay and to help students and teachers alike become independent from the coursebook.

Dogme teaching is simply about allowing the students to bring their lives and concerns into the classroom and letting them use these to learn English. Let’s not hide behind our doubts and miss the chance to give our students such great opportunities.

And let’s not deny Dogme’s existence – that seems just a bit contrary to me – let’s rather see how useful it can be.

In fact, once you’ve tried Dogme, you’ll see that it’s a bit like the old steak (Dogme) vs. Big Mac (coursebook) idea – which would you prefer?

Well, it’s steak for me all the way. And yes, you might catch me sneaking off to McDonalds occasionally… but I’ll feel guilty about it later, ‘cos I’ll always know there was a better alternative in my fridge.

Posted by: Alastair Grant | December 16, 2011

Corpora and other beautiful bodies: a summary for ELT Chat.

Using corpora in our teaching: what is available and how can we best use it? 

A quick word for the uninitiated! ELTChat is a twitter-based forum where keen ELTers meet on Wednesday morning and/or evening (depending on just HOW keen they are) and hotly debate a voted-for topic.

After which, some kind (if misguided) soul offers to write a summary of the chat, its pert points and lusty links.

So here’s what happened on Wednesday morning at 12pm GMT…

Many of us have either fallen in love with corpora or looked at them and gone, “wow, cool… err… now how on earth could I use that in class…?” Well fear not! ELT Chat is here to save the day – with ideas and links galore… millions of links, in fact…

Although Marisa Constantinides’ “smiley” emoticon was charitably humouring my calling Wednesday morning’s ELT Chat “linktastic” (I’ll get my coat) it kinda was. People seemed to be hitting the “paste” key as frequently as they were the “eltchat” hashtag.

This at least demonstrated the awareness of material out in the big wide webby world, and gave everyone (as now I give to you) a smorgasbord of yummy material to get browsing through for your classes.

Below is the summary, with the categorised links at the end of the text.

How to use corpora

This was the “show me the money!” moment…while many of us had seen and used corpora, there was some confusion about HOW to use them effectively.

A summary of the ideas and points raised:

Ideas for general use:

  • Many use corpora for teacher training but not so often with students – why?
  • Useful if the student asks a question about a word in a very specific situation and the teacher is not sure which way is most common.
  • Checking intuitions for academic English and translation.
  • We needn’t get too academic – Google is one of the best corpora around, put in the word or phrase, hit search and students can see the item in context. Although a little dodgy for younger learners as they could end up being directed to sites with more “X”s in them than most words do.

In-class activities:

  • For EAP students – when they want to check if the verb+noun combo in their essay is correct or not.
  • For EAP/ESP – take most common collocation from business corpus and ask students to discuss why they are the most common.  And discussion on the intonation of these common expressions.
  • Ask students to choose 5 collocations from a text, then look to see how common/useful etc they are.
  • Incorrect collocations infogap – one learner has list of collocations, one learner has error-strewn text.
  • Get students to write up a corpus of their teacher to find the most common expression you use!
  • Just record one single lesson and tell them to create a corpus of common errors.

Dictionaries vs. concordances

  • Much more cognitive value so vocabulary is going to stick.
  • Dictionaries can be used with concordances to give students many in-context examples and then personalise them.

So a tricky topic but well executed – many thanks to all involved!

We even behaved ourselves when Shaun was out of the room dealing with a plumber.

A final thought… if corpus data reflects authentic use… and authentic use is not necessarily correct… are we causing problems for our students?

And now the promised links…

Articles on using corpora

Article on using corpora and whether it’s just a fad

Using corpus to write teaching materials – article

Jamie Keddie on the what and the how of corpora

Article by Nik Peachy on using concordancers

Article re. how to use the American English online corpus

Using concordancers in the classroom – how and why

Using a concordancer to create a vocabulary syllabus

List of corpora

British national corpus

Spoken language corpus

Massive corpus from Princeton

This website lets you search and browse pedagogic corpora in 7 European languages.

British National corpus base but more user-friendly

List of learner corpora around the world

Wide selection of concordance links

Bookmarks for corpus-based linguistics

Visual representation thesaurus

Corpus of academic spoken English

Great concordancer for learners – words in context with their collocations

Collection of spoken English

Concordancer with filters

Concordancer that compares two expressions – which is right and which is wrong?

Funny but useful:

21 English accents

Word games

US vs. Brit English accents

A dictionary of very, very modern English

Chav dictionary

Posted by: Alastair Grant | December 6, 2011

Testing times…

Yes kids, it’s that time of the year when we start to see furrowed brows, even more Blackberry activity than normal, pained facial expressions and we try to think of new and ingenious ways to avoid answering questions.

Nope, not Christmas with the family – it’s the end of year exams.

Last week in my Dogme-style class, I decided that it might be a good idea to throw the whole testing system wide open and let my students decide on the form of testing they would like for their reading, writing, listening and grammar exams.

Initially I felt like my students we a bit spooked by being asked for their input and after some uncomfortable paper shuffling and shoe-gazing, we decided on the following:

Grammar and vocab: an oral-style exam where each student would prepare a 1-minute topic to talk about and try to use as many of the language points covered that year as possible.

Reading and listening: many options discussed and all eventually rejected… we ended up going back to the IELTS-style tests they’d had for the mid-years.

Writing: topics of their choice, and again, trying to use as much of the language we have seen this year as they can.

Ok. So far so good. Then we got onto the scoring… one student suggested that we have the marks based on a class average, i.e. that the students all got the same mark based on their overall performance. Cue twenty minutes of debate.

Some students thought this was fair in a liberal, quasi-Marxist way, while others felt they wanted their own marks based on their own performance, or how were they going to know how much they had (hadn’t) improved over the year?

We let this hang.

Right, so far, so good (ish). Next class – all change. They decided that the abovementioned system for writing and grammar would be too complicated and they wanted the classic FCE-style writing choices and the good ol’ grammar gapfills.

In yesterday’s class I made a joke about the mood-change, only to be told that it was my fault for not just telling them what to do in the first place. And you know what? I think they had a point…

We hear a lot about the “ideal” teacher’s role being that of “facilitator” and about making the class student centred, but for us, this just didn’t work on this occasion.

I feel that if I’d stuck to my guns and justified the original testing system from the outset, none of this would have happened (wooo – third conditional). But then, at least it was them who made the choice, right?

But, as teachers, are we STILL in the default position of classroom manager, no matter what current methodology suggests?

Are students ready for control to be handed over to them? Perhaps we’ve some way to go yet…

Posted by: Alastair Grant | October 21, 2011

Teachers and students sharing lives

Facebook is not your friend.

Really?! It is my friend.

On October 5, I posted a poll asking everyone on my Facebook account (I even made the poll public) asking the question “should teachers be friends with their students on Facebook?”

I’ve so far had 38 replies, with people even writing their own choices to vote for.

One of these says “you can really get advantage of it and use it as another tool for your teaching” – this one is the clear leader with 20 votes so far.

Why? If Facebook is often portrayed as an invasive waste of time, where people you don’t know can find out all kinds of personal information, why would this seem like a good idea, especially for a teacher who presumably wants some disconnect between work and social life?

Well, I for one agree with the majority voters. Teaching seems to be moving ever further away from the “banking method” of education, whereby students are merely receptacles for information and where the knowledge is locked away in the magic coursebook.

These days, teachers seem to be more like counselors for their learners, being interested and involved in what Scott Thornbury calls the “inner life of the student”. So why not use Facebook to develop this connection?

There are currently over 800 million active users of Facebook in over 200 countries. Apart from the local students that I have on Facebook, there are hundreds worldwide who have “friended” me and have asked me questions related to ELT.

I love this. I love the feeling that I can interact with all these people and further what I do on a larger scale.

Self-congratulatory? Maybe, but the point is made: students are people – people have lives – Facebook facilitates new global connections like nothing else has ever done. So let’s take advantage of this, right?

Yes, there are privacy issues, but making sure my students can’t see photos of me on holiday in Thailand ten years ago (really, you DON’T want to see) is very easy to do.

One-to-one interaction with my students will always be paramount, but using social media as a means to answer questions, help them with homework, remind them of deadlines, is immediate in a way that even email can’t match. This is because it’s a place where we all socialise and further our professional lives – it’s not a gimmick, it’s part of life now. Let’s use it.

Or should we? Are we dissolving the boundaries that should arguably exist between students and their teachers?

What do you think?

Posted by: Alastair Grant | October 6, 2011

Teaching without prejudice

Teachers are just children who have never grown up. Discuss. (120-180 words)

The other day in an adolescent class (we really didn’t have that many students), I allowed what was supposed to be a lead-in for a listening task to develop into a discussion (fight) about TV programmes.

Amazing the ire that something as utterly mindless as a programme like “Show Match” can inspire.

For the grateful uninitiated, “Show Match” is an Argentine… show… in which the contestants (usually a C-list celebrity female model) dances with a partner, discarding various items of clothing as she goes and is then judged by a panel on their performance, such as it is. It pulls in ratings of millions here, presumably due in no little part to the little clothes worn by the contestants.

Ok, whatever, that’s just the background – follow the link to make your own mind up and/or place value judgments (and trust me, this one is very clean in comparison to most!).

The point is that one of my students who was talking about a male dancer declared “it’s just so GAY for men to dance!”

It’s not the first time I’ve heard a comment like this in class and I have to admit to my shame that I’ve usually let it go by or even smiled – WHAT?? – why would I do that? Because I still have this secondary school urge to be “one of the gang – accepted by the kids and not seen as a nerd (you’ve seen my blog pic – imagine that at age 13).

But this time was different.

I said, “why is it gay for a man to dance, and why would that be a problem anyway?” Came the reply, “because… it’s disgusting!” Again, pressed I, “why?”

The conversation then got serious, and no bad thing. The fact was that while most of the class had laughed at the “gay” comment, none of them seemed to have any real problem with anybody being gay at all.

I’m happy I did this. I’m happy that for the first time (I know, I’m ashamed) I didn’t allow myself to be “one of the gang”.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a “pat myself on the back” post… it’s just because I realised that when people’s preconceived ideas are challenged, they show themselves to be no more than hollow masks misguidedly put on to please peers. We’ve all done it. And I wasn’t preaching, honest, I was just asking “why?”

Similar experiences? Come one, you must have had one in pretty much every class!

Posted by: Alastair Grant | September 19, 2011

In trouble again…

I was speaking at a conference on Saturday morning (WHAT?! Saturday morning is for sleeping, surely!) and I got asked a question which, incredibly (if you know how much I usually talk…), left me lost for words.

A bit of background… (and excuse the hubris) usually at conferences, people come up to me and say that they liked the talk and ask me what I think about [X] matter and I’m very happy to talk away about it, happy that my session has been well received.

Saturday’s had a twist to it though!

One of the delegates asked my why I’d used some phrases in Spanish in my talk (I do it to foster rapport – my Spanish is, frankly, hilarious) and, didn’t I think I should be using English all the time, as I should be helping local non-native speaker (NNS) teachers (of which the conference was mostly made up) improve their English?

The question evolved into: didn’t I think that local NNS teachers should have a level of English that was at least as good as NS teachers such as myself?

After a little thought, my answer was “no”, which was received with shock.

I said that, while any responsible English teacher should always be learning English (I’ll never stop learning, I’m sure!), a NNS did not have to have an NS level to be able to teach the language.

All the NNS teachers I’ve encountered here tend to be at least (if not more) dedicated and keen to improve their skills as the NS teachers are.

I don’t think NNS teachers should have the same level to NS teachers. All this also depends on WHAT we think an NS is… are they British? North American? Would Indian English not be just as qualifiable as NS English, given that it’s the lingua franca of India (they have so many languages, that the national news tends to be in English)?

My point was (is) that NNS teachers don’t have to be “as good” as NS speakers to teach – if they have the level to teach even basic English, the ability, the enthusiasm, and they strive to improve (as NS teachers should!) isn’t this enough?

Or was my speaking in the L1, at a conference primarily for NNS teachers, irresponsible?

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