Wednesday, February 29, 2012

From Unplugged to Unchained: On to a Balanced Approach

This post is a collection of thoughts about Dogme ELT (and the need for a balanced approach) from around the blog-o-sphere, beginning with a little of my own commentary, of course.

A balanced approach to language teaching is like a complete protein. 

picture from
When I took Nutrition 101 during my undergrad years, we learned about proteins. There are four different kinds of vegetable protein sources, but they are “missing” something. For example, proteins from the “bean” group are missing something that is found in the proteins from the “corn” group, and proteins from the “rice” group are missing something from the “nuts” group. You need to get proteins from multiple different vegetable sources in order to be sure that you have a complete protein. Teaching approaches are like vegetable proteins – they need to be supplemented with other approaches. Dogme ELT offers an incomplete protein...and that's not a bad thing--you can still use it to make a complete "teaching" protein in a balanced approach. Here are some quotations that support the need for a balanced approach to language teaching.

An obsessive focus on doing one style of teaching and of being a particular type of teacher is, I personally feel, a quick way to narrow the number of options available to you. (Richard Whiteside, I'd Like To Think That I Help People To Learn English)
Teaching isn’t a science. It simply isn’t. It’s not mechanical. It’s not like some intricate computation that is going to give you the same answer every time you enter it. It’s an art. It is constantly changing and shaping and being shaped by the students that you are working with. I won’t carry out the metaphor (we language teachers tend to over do it with similes and metaphors, I’ve noticed), but I will ask you to consider the truth of the statement... So . . . all of that to say. I’ve been examining methods recently. I’ve gotten a lot of good ideas, and I’m excited to mess them all up by mixing and matching and creating my own concoction. (K. Liz Barker, Just a Word
The Scandivanian [Dogme] filmmakers kept their vows for, oh, well about two or three films. And then they suddenly realised (duh) that music, lighting, tricksy editing, precisely all the artifice of film-making REALLY WORKS....So what do I believe in? I believe in the richness of techniques, approaches, materials and artefacts available to the modern teacher. I believe that an over-reliance on any of these to the exclusion of others is unattractive and unlikely to be in the best interests of all. I believe that everything – in a classroom – has to be grounded in the expertise of a teacher being able to find the best way of doing things for the benefit of (and with the help and guidance of) the greatest number of students. And often that may be unplugged, but there is no guarantee (or moral reason) why it should be. And sometimes that might be coursebook-mediated but there is no guarantee (or moral reason) why it should be. (Jeremy Harmer, Jeremy Harmer's Blog)
As Dogme ELT employs various EFL methods, approaches and techniques, teachers who might be unaware of teaching unplugged are, as confirmed by primary research, unknowingly incorporate aspects of Dogme ELT. Nevertheless, teacher participants suggested a balance be-tween Dogme ELT (also a form of Eclectic Teaching) with more traditional, yet structured, forms of teaching...A Balanced Approach to teaching would offer EFL teachers the best of both worlds: the prospect of struc-tured lessons or the opportunity to incorporate more explora-tory or experimental teaching techniques, dependent uponclassroom expectations. For example, some students andt eachers that participated in the survey indicated mixed opinions: that they preferred structured lessons or less structured lessons (Martin Sketchley, ELT Experiences) 
One of the benefits of coursebooks is that they give students something to hold on to. Their linear structure might be flawed and will often obstruct meaningful conversation, but at least they give some sort of structure. And don’t be mistaken, students WANT structure, they NEED structure. As much as intelligent scaffolding is useful for language instruction, it is central to many other aspects of your teaching and your students’ learning. By renouncing coursebooks the Dogme approach also gives up on their greatest strengths: visible and comprehensible – if sometimes illusionary – structure. (Christian Schenk, Mr. Schenk
I see the work we did on establishing lexical notebooks as important in the Unplugged framework. The retrospective discipline and meta-cognitive skills needed to keep such a notebook seems to make up for the ‘structure-on-a-plate’ that my course lacked by not working out of a coursebook. (Oli Beddall, An Experiment with Dogme)
Let’s continue to train our teachers and encourage our colleagues to be eclectic, to teach the context, to use a course book selectively if they and their students / institute want to, to encourage students to negotitate the syllabus and select texts, to structure classes with logical stages that achieve aims and to leave that structure when the context suggests it, to balance the focus on skills and language, to develop critical thinking skills, to encourage learner autonomy, etc. (Neil McMahon, A Muse Amuses
Any thoughts?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Why and How I Started Learning (Foreign) Languages

This blog post is a response to Brad Patterson's Blog Challenge - How and Why You Learned a Foreign Language. I've enjoyed reading the posts that have come out on the topic so far, so I thought I would join!

As a child, I was fascinated by secret codes. I used to create messages in code for my sister to decipher, and any time I could get my little hands on a kids' book about spies and codes, I would read it at least 100 times, front to back.

Language as a secret code??
I grew up in various ethnically-diverse areas of San Diego, California, and many of my friends spoke languages other than English at home with their parents. Additionally, my parents, who both learned Spanish as a foreign language, would also speak to each other in Spanish if there was something they didn't want my sister and me to understand. I came to see these foreign languages as secret codes for English, and thus, my fascination began.

I began formally learning Spanish in high school, but--surprisingly--I ABSOLUTELY HATED it. In fact, I hated it so much, that I decided that I would take American Sign Language courses at the community college to get around my high school foreign language requirement. Spanish just seemed so...pointless. I couldn't understand why I needed to put so much effort into something that was so unnecessary. I mean, everyone speaks English, right?

The next summer, I went to Panama for three weeks to teach English, and an amazing thing happened: I saw (and heard) people speaking Spanish – there were actually communicating in it and it was the only language they knew! They weren't just using it for convenience. It was also then that I realized that a foreign language is not just a code for your native language. No, to speak a foreign language, you have to change the way you think about things. All of a sudden, hunger becomes something you have instead of something you are, and something you like now is something that pleases you.

So that's the story behind the to start on the how. Since I had stopped taking Spanish courses at my high school, I was a year behind the students who had decided to continue. I studied really hard all summer, and my teacher let me join the advanced course, where I had to work really had all year again to catch up. I read everything I could find in Spanish, and I spent time talking to my friends' parents to practice. When I got to the University, I continued my courses, but I also began having Spanish Game Nights with friends and listening exclusively to Spanish music. I wrote emails in Spanish, changed all the settings on my computer, on Facebook, and on my cell phone, and I watched as many movies as I could either dubbed in Spanish or with Spanish subtitles. I surrounded myself with others who had a similar interest in Spanish, and together we practiced. It was a lifestyle. 

All the work paid off, and the experience of learning inspired in me the desire to study other languages and also to study the science of language in general. Now, I'm living in Germany and learning German, but I admit—I'm not nearly as inspired as I was about Spanish. However, the process of learning a language in the foreign language context (as I did, learning Spanish in the US) is completely different than learning a language in the second language context (I even wrote a post about it), and I am constantly trying new strategies to increase my learning prospects. 

I'd love to hear more whys and hows of language learning for you, too!!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Dogmexperimentation and Reflections

I decided to give my Dogme ELT / Teaching Unplugged blog-quest a rest so that I could reflect on what I learned after my first three posts and the Dogme experiments in my own teaching. Like I mentioned earlier (here, here, and here, to be exact), Dogme ELT seems like the perfect solution to teaching.

There are very strong pro-Dogme views, mostly centered around the evilness of text books and the benefits of student-centered learning (ideas that I totally agree with!). However, there are also very strong anti-Dogme views. (I thought that Phil Wade at EFLthoughtsandreflections did a great job of rounding up some these criticisms of Dogme ELT / TeachingUnplugged and providing nice responses)

Overall, however, Dogme seems to come out ahead. So, if it's so great, why is it not a widely accepted strategy?

Experiments and Lingering Concerns

Over the last few months, I have been trying to implement pieces of Dogme ELT into my teaching. I am one of those teachers who (in 90% of my courses) is bound by administrative policies to a text book and a lesson plan. I believe this to be a disadvantage to my students and to my teaching, and I consciously try to add more authentic communicative activities whenever I can.

During this time of “Dogmexperimentation,” I have noticed that I am more willing to let the lesson “flow,” and more willing to change the activities to address learner needs on the spur of the moment than I was before. I have also had a lot of success using a Dogme-like approach to eliciting topical vocabulary and phrases. However, in the lessons that I have tried to create a more Dogme-like environment, I have been mostly dissatisfied with the outcomes. Perhaps it is my lack of training in emergent language techniques, or maybe it is my communication-over-grammar emphasis—I'm not sure. What I do know, though, is that I have some concerns about Dogme.

My concerns are mostly questions, and maybe the future will bring answers. I want to know what the research will say about Dogme ELT. How is the long-term learning? Dogme provides nice situations for conversation and practice, but in the big picture, how much language information do students actually acquire through this teaching method/approach/attitude? Is Dogme merely whole-class tutoring or language consulting? How do we incorporate the issues that the students don't know they don't know? What is the relative “learning weight” of (semi-random) learner-fronted content vs. a progressive syllabus that covers important language functions? In other words, how important is immediate relevance really? What about graded grammar items? On the side of motivation and attitude, will students prefer this approach? Regardless of the possible benefits, is there a way to make this approach/method/attitude appear to be the same caliber of teaching as a textbook provides?

So, What's the Solution to the Dogme Question?

In my opinion, there is no solution, but not in a “OMG it's totally hopeless” sense. There is no solution because there needs to be no solution—right now. The critics need to keep being critical and the extremists need to keep being extreme. We need Dogme extremists to bring swing pendulum away from the set-in-stone, material-based trend we've gotten into, and we need anti-Dogme critics to bring us back towards reality, so that we don't go head-over-heels and forget about the lingering questions and problems. Now that both sides are doing their jobs, we can watch, and then we can catch the pendulum in the middle. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

eBook Review - Dogme ELT: Promoting Authentic Interaction in ELT

Dogme ELT: Promoting Authentic Interaction in ELT (2012), a FREE just-published eBook by Martin Sketchley (click here to see it on his blog), is a quick guide to the theory and practice of Dogme ELT in the classroom, as well as a brief summary of the results of Sketchley's survey research on the application of and attitudes towards this language teaching approach/method/attitude.

In Chapter One, Back to the Basics, Sketchley gives an introduction to Dogme ELT. Dogme ELT is a response to the current situation of language teaching materials, in which “much of the material that is developed by many publishers focus[es] on communication but not on authentic conversation.” He then outlines and explains the three key principles of Dogme ELT: Conversation Driven, Emergent Language, and Materials Light. The chapter ends with a recorded Dogme lesson, which provides a nice summary to the explanation. Chapter Two, Incorporating Dogme ELT into the Classroom, offers ten material-light, lesson activities in the style of Dogme ELT. The lessons include information about the level of the students, suggested words/phrases, and notes about the proper setting. My favorites were lessons three and four (“My Weekend” and “What Happened Next?”). In the last chapter, Classroom Best Practice of Dogme ELT (sic), Sketchley discusses the similarity of Dogme ELT as described by Meddings and Thornbury in Teaching Unplugged (2009) to other approaches/attitudes/methods that have been suggested in the past. Next, he discusses the results of his survey research about the three key principles and teacher and students attitudes. Sketchley concludes the eBook with a call to a balanced approach to teaching, noting that it “would offer EFL teachers the best of both worlds: the prospect of structured lessons or the opportunity to incorporate more exploratory or experimental teaching techniques, dependent upon classroom expectations” (22).

As with any teaching method/approach/attitude, Dogme ELT inspires a lot of criticism for its anti-establishment position and its non-traditional view of all learning materials. While many classroom materials (and teaching activities!) neither improve teaching nor promote authentic language, the (nearly) complete lack of materials called for by some “Dogme-purists” can be just as negative for teaching and learning. Sketchley takes a middle-ground approach to this problem, and by suggesting the Balanced Approach, he creates a bridge to Dogme for many who would have otherwise been unlikely to try it. I also appreciate that Sketchley brings some of the first actual research content into the Dogme ELT field with his applications and attitudes survey. As Dogme is a relatively new teaching trend, there is not an abundance of available research. He does a nice job of summarizing the results of the research without boring the practically-minded reader.

Despite my interest in the Dogme ELT approach, I would like to see this eBook developed into a cleaner, more detailed introduction to the Balanced Approach that Sketchley describes at the end. The combination of the Dogme ELT history, the practical applications, and the research summary makes this eBook a beautiful foundation for a call that could make Dogme ELT accessible to teachers who otherwise would not be willing to try it.

However, even with out that, this eBook is concise, instructive, and informative. It is a helpful resource for the classroom teacher who is interested in experimenting with Dogme ELT. It provides both a basic theoretical foundation and a practical guide to applying the theory, and I recommend it as a starting point on the path to more authentic and communicative teaching.  

Teaching Tool: Rory's Story Cubes

My husband and I recently bought a set of Rory's Story Cube dice to use in our English classes...and they are awesome.

We have the "action" set. It's 9 cubes, with a different action (read: verb) picture on each side. I had a chance to use them with my class them other day. We rolled the dice and then I gave them 5 minutes to come up with a story in the past tense (we had just finished learning and practicing the past continuous verbs in relation to the simple past, esp. with "when" and "while"). The students also had to give me the names of the main character, the supporting characters, and the bad guy. They unknowingly named the bad guy after my husband, but when I told them, they graciously offered to change it to "Tom." We left it, though ;)

They put the dice in order made up the story, negotiating the process in English. When they were finished, I wrote it down exactly like they said it, and after, we went back to see what was right and what could be better. 

It was a good chance to practice the verb tenses in a fun way, but to still have natural language. I imagine this would also be a good activity if you were trying to elicit language from shy students. 

My only complaint is that some of the dice are obscure, but there are many options about what they are doing, so it is easy for learners to talk around it.

 Here is the story:

I highly reccomend the dice (or at least the "action" set). It's almost like they were made for language teachers. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Review: Foreign Service Institute's Language Courses

I came across The Foreign Service Institute's Language Course site the other day. Initially, I was really excited. It is a huge resource of language courses and materials in a ton of different languages. For free! Wonderful, right? Well, after perusing the site for a little while, I was less excited—but there is also good news.

The Site
Example of a language course page

The site itself is pretty bare-bones, which for me, is a plus. There are no complications and no dorky photos. Everything is relatively easy to find. You click on the language you want to learn, and then you are brought to the options. Many languages have several different courses. It looks like this site is trying to convert some of the old material into web-friendly content, as well.

The Material
Example Dialog - in German and English with vocabulary
Each course has a PDF student workbook that you can download, and there are lots of audio clips that you can listen to that go along with the book. Unfortunately, the material comes from a pre-communicative era of Language Teaching, where the main focus was on dialog repetition and drills (and since I wrote against dialog repetition and drills in my Master's Thesis, naturally, I can't support them now!). However, despite the old-fashioned methodology base and the inauthentic language, this website is still a valuable resource for language learners AND language teachers.

The Pros and Cons
First, the positives: My favorite thing about this site is that it contains a HUGE amount of language learning resources (for a wide variety of languages) that are completely free because they are in the public domain. There is a lot of material that could be used to build vocabulary and to develop listening skills. Also, even though the audio-lingual, drill-and-kill methodology is old and has been shown to have many flaws, it once helped people learn languages. It can't be all bad, I guess.

Next, the negatives: Since the material was developed pre-1980s, the vocabulary used and topics covered are pretty old. Pair that with the outdated methodology, and site starts looking like a 1950's grammar. Also, as I mentioned before, the dialogs don't represent authentic language use. Beyond all of these, however, my LEAST favorite thing about this site is that there is no English learning section (which is natural, since all the materials were developed by the US Government to help English speakers learn other languages).

How to best use this site as a Language Learner
Take advantage of the vocabulary practice. There are tons of new words that you could learn. It would also be helpful to read/listen to the dialogs for comprehension and language exposure. However, when you are doing this, realize that this language is NOT representative of cultural norms or real conversation. If you are learning English, you can the students book for a reverse vocab list if you use the material that teachers your native language.
Example Vocabulary List
How to best use this site as a Language Teacher
There are 2 major benefits of this site: the vocab building and the accent training possibilities. For Vocabulary, there is no lack of possibilities. In English courses where the students have the same native language, you can use the chapters for the reverse vocab lists I talked about in the student section. Also, it is pretty easy to take the vocabulary lists and create your own good content around the material. For accent training, focused listening activities, where you point out differences between student pronunciation and the speaker pronunciation, could help with accent problems. You could assign certain listening and speaking practices to individual students or to the whole class. Other ideas for using this site as a teacher include keeping the syllabus (grammar items, vocabulary) and redesigning the activities to be more authentic. Also, you use the inauthentic dialogues to point out differences in real conversation and to work with the students to create natural, authentic-sounding dialogs.

In conclusion, if you are eager to learn or willing to work, there is useful stuff on this site. Does anyone have an experience using this site or other ideas to modify it for the classroom?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Language Learning as Language Teacher Training

I forgot how much I forgot about what it is like to be a language learner. It's been 10 years since I was a beginninger language learner, and it takes a good dose of new language learning to develop student empathy once again.

Me, learning language and learning teaching at the same time

If I was developing a teacher training course for beginning language levels, I would add a co-requisite beginning-level language course for a language that has not been previously studied, and I would have the trainees keep learner journals. In class, we would develop a methodology for effective beginning language learning. Here are some of the things I have learned (and re-learned) about language teaching from the first two weeks of my intensive German course (3 hours a day, 5 days a week):
  • Life outside of class. Students have lives outside of class. If I'm not paying attention or am having an "off" day, it doesn't necessarily mean that you are boring or that you are a bad teacher. It means that my work schedule is hectic this week, or that my husband is sick, or that I'm worried about having to go to the grocery store after class and make it through without messing up the language.
  • Course books have a time and place. I like the activities in the textbook. They help me make sure that I've really understood the point of what is happening. However, I don't like working only in the textbook. It gets boring and predictable, and then I can miss class and do everything on my own at home. If a class is set up so that it is individual work all together, it is not an effective use of time.
  • Pronunciation is important. It is hard for me to perceive the difference between some sounds in German, and I imagine it is the same for English learners. Sounds that don't exist in my language are not only practically impossible to produce, but I can't even tell what they are supposed to sound like. Moreover, many of my classmates bring their foreign sounds into the classroom, and I can't understand them either. Perhaps a nice dose of basic phonology would be helpful.
  • Speaking Slowly. What you say slowly and clearly sounds COMPLETELY garbled and incomprehensible to me. Remember, what sounds to you like a basic answer to my question sounds to me like a long steam of sound with no distinguishable word separations. Repeat everything, multiple times. It doesn't make me feel stupid, but even the opposite: being able to understand makes me feel successful.
  • Grammar. Clear grammar explanations help...if you know grammar in your own language to begin with. For me this is no problem, but I see the grammar explanations that my teacher gives failing miserably among my classmates, many of whom are older Russian and Turkish women with little formal education. Perhaps a basic grammar review would be helpful.
  • Smile and be encouraging. This is my favorite thing about my teacher. I never feel bad to make an error in class and I never feel like there is absolutely no hope for me.

Are there any other language learner language teachers out there who have pulled some insights about teaching from their learning??

Monday, February 6, 2012

Foreign Language vs. Second Language Contexts

Just kidding about the Snow Penguins :)
I studied Spanish in the foreign language context for 7 years. During this study, my teachers and all my classmates spoke English for their daily communication needs, and Spanish was the "extra" language on the side. After studying Spanish, I spent my time studying language teaching with the goal of teaching English as a second language in the US. And naturally, I thought, that as a language learner, I would have more insight into the needs and goals of my students. I learned a foreign language. I know the frustrations involved with not remembering vocabulary and the embarrassment of having to speak in front of classmates.

I live in Germany now, and two weeks ago, I began an intensive German course, studying German in the second language context. In this class, almost none of my classmates speak English, and the teacher's English level is high enough that if I am confused about something, I can ask in English and she can understand and explain in German. German is the language around me. It is the only way to communicate with my classmates. I look around the room, and I see tons of language-to-language dictionaries, but instead of German-English, they are German-Turkish, German-Spanish, German-Portuguese, German-Russian, German-Romanian, etc.

There is a huge difference between the second language context and the foreign language context. My experience with Spanish is similar to the experience of my German students learning English. The experience that I am having now as a learner, however, is probably closer to the experience of my earlier classes, where the students were learning English in the US. There is a new level of stress and different style of trying to understand. All this to say that it has become painfully clear to me that just learning a language in one context doesn't necessarily mean that you can identify with the needs of your students in another context.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What Bad Days in EFL can Teach You

Friday was my first "bad day" as a teacher. I was running behind from weekend travel and stressed about 4 new courses that are beginning. My first course was normal, but not particularly great. At the end of the second course, however, my student became very angry. I'm not sure that she was initially angry with our (one-to-one) session, because she only expressed to me that she was unhappy with the content and materials (General English vs. Business English) of another group course she had started taking with me. When she complained to the office, however, she told them that she was mostly unhappy with the one-to-one session.

This threw me off and I felt really bad. The rest of the day I spent trying to get through the remaining lessons, and going over it in my mind (and trying not to cry!). It took a while to shake it, but in that time I was able to take a valuable lesson from her anger (which, incidently, I still believe to be unjustified....perhaps that is my defensive mechanism at work).

And that lesson is this: Students are not teachers. Despite the systematic planning and the theoretical background that informs your practices, students will not always see the purpose in your lesson. If it falls outside their experience of learning, it may seem like a lazy lesson, like a boring lesson, or like a useless lesson.

Perhaps explaining the point of what you are doing can help them see the value of the activity???