Puppysteps to Dogme

(Note: despite its usage in the title, I dislike the term Dogme because it is a homophone of ‘dogma’ and hence carries the same negative connotation. Furthermore, I don’t think I would enjoy the Dogme 95 film movement – I am a big fan of Marvel movies, which heavily use technology and effects – so, I will be using the term conversation-driven learning as a synonym for Dogme..)

Conversation-driven learning has been on my mind lately. After reading a post by the Secret DOS a few weeks ago, I began writing a response in support of coursebooks, at least to some degree. After all, I am a coursebook user. Despite my use of the devil’s tools, my classes are enjoyable and effective according to both myself and my students. While a coursebook-free class could be very effective, it is not the only effective methodology available. To respond to the SecretDOS’s claim that most ideas and techniques that are proposed on blogs show no ‘academic rigour’, I was going to point out that conversation-driven learning (which has basically been developed in the blogosphere) has not been quantitatively tested, but methodologies using coursebooks have, and they have also been shown to be effective for learning.

I was going to write this, and more, but than I began to think about a classroom experience I had earlier that week. My class and I were talking about first impressions, a topic in the textbook. I had shown some seemingly nice looking people on screen and asked students to make judgments about them. I then revealed who these nice people were: Steve Jobs, Joseph Stalin, Kim Jong-un and Charles Manson (I used the latter 3 mostly for shock value). After some brief discussion I wanted to move on to the listening point of the unit. I could feel, however, that my students had more to say. Or they wanted to hear more. There was an awkward tingling sensation in the air. But, I moved on. I was looking forward to the listening; namely talking about consonant-vowel linkages. However, something kept niggling me as I moved on. Some feeling, that I could have and should have done less, let the students talk. And again this week, despite my effort to engage my students in the unit’s topic (crime), very few seemed interested. Could it be because of a mismatch of students and topic? So far, our topics have been very personal. This is the first unit outside the students personal sphere, or at least the most irrelevant to their lives thus far.

So, I’ve been thinking about conversation-driven learning more and more. I revisited my post reviewing and critiquing the book Teaching Unplugged, and continue to agree with everything I wrote. Yet, still, there is this feeling that there is something right about conversation-driven learning. I feel as though there is some lesson to be learned from it that I have not fully picked up on yet. So, lately, I’ve been experimenting with conversation driven learning and working with emergent language. I’m still not completely sold on the idea, and feel that it doesn’t necessarily jive with my innate teaching talents. However, it is something I feel I must explore. Therefore, I’ve slowly been taking aspects of conversation-driven learning and testing them out in my classes. I’ve been taking babysteps rather than jumping in whole hog (hence the title “Puppysteps to Dogme”). I’ve learned a lot, but really it’s left me with more questions than powerful insights. Below, I offer I breakdown/reflection of what I have been doing and some questions I have been thinking about:

BREAKDOWN/REFLECTION

  • Reading Up on Conversation-Driven learning
  • Note taking and “Boarding”
    • I have been taking intensive notes on what students say. This is by no means easy. I move around to different groups, focus on a single student, and mostly listen for errors and any lexis that is particularly interesting. I do this several times per speaking activity. Afterwards, I write anything interesting I heard on the board. The problem, though, is that I don’t hear interesting things every time. By interesting, I mean mistakes in the target language, mistakes in general accuracy, mistakes in lexis usage, interesting usage of lexis, pronunciation notes, etc – things that are useful for teaching. Maybe I focus too much on mistakes. In addition, some problems I hear seem to be idiosyncratic and I usually don’t like singling out students, so I note it for later and add it to my individual feedback reports.
    • I’ve also noticed that “to board,” which means to write something on the board, has become a verb in ELT circles and I’ve taken to using it. I’ve been boarding more and more, but I need to work on both my handwriting and board organization skills. This, like note-taking, is quite difficult for me.
    • Once I have boarded some language, I usually go over it with students, explain why I wrote it, have students suggest corrections or identify the errors, ask for similar errors/structures, and get students to make a few sentences using it. But, I feel like there is something more I should do with it. I will start taking pictures and typing up notes about it. That should be a start.
    • Note taking is extremely difficult and I think training is needed on this aspect of teaching. My MA did not offer me any practice, reading, or experience on this at all. I don’t know if the Delta courses do (I care very little for Delta) but I think it should be part of Teaching 101 in any program.
  • Individual Feedback Reports
    • Any notes I take that I do not use on the board I include as part of my gradebook. Students can access not only their individual grades, but also my individual feedback with comments. I try to extrapolate out what may be causing the problem and often give suggestions for how to avoid repeating errors in the future. The problem with this approach is that I don’t have comments for every student. Even when I sit down and intentionally listen to students who have had no feedback written about them yet, sometimes I have nothing to write down.
  • Corrective Feedback
    • I’ve been reading a lot more about corrective feedback (currently reading “Oral Corrective Feedback in Second Language Classrooms”). There are lots of different ways to give feedback (explicitly, implicitly) and there are lots of techniques (recast, direct correction) but the point is that corrective feedback is needed and conversation-driven learning gives many opportunities for providing such feedback. This doesn’t mean it is an easy task. Knowing when, where, and why to correct is very important. There is a large body of research on oral correction’s effectiveness and I will be exploring these sources more in my free time.
    • In the past, I’ve stuck to the accuracy-fluency dichotomy when deciding about providing oral corrective feedback. Basically, this dichotomy holds that one should correct during accuracy-based activities but not during fluency based activities. Instead, I’ve been correcting whenever the opportunity arises, regardless of the activity. I have been a little worried about my students’ affective responses to this feedback, but so far it hasn’t seemed to be a problem. I still am wary about correcting and am working on deciding how correcting best fits with my students and teaching style.
    • Corrective feedback is another area my MA did not explore. While my MA was an extremely valuable experience for both practical and theoretical teaching, there were some aspects that were just no covered.
  • Corpora Usage
    • Despite conversation-driven learning having an unplugged aspect, using corpora (WordandPhrase, COCA, or StringNet) with emergent language seems to be a smart and useful combination. These tools allows you to see more examples of a language point that has come up, answer questions students may have that you cannot necessarily answer off-hand, and allows you to verify your assumptions you do make on the fly. There are many different ways to exploit a corpus tool in and out of the classroom. One idea is to take some lexiogramattical item from the board, search for it on any of the corpus sites, have students notice and highlight the patterns, and then get them using it in a follow-up activity.
    • For corpus tool usage, it’s important that students see why and how to use a corpus tool. Then, after students understand how the teacher uses the tool, students need to use it themselves. Ample training and practice is necessary for corpus tools, but it is well worth the effort, especially since these tools move students towards more autonomous language work.
  • Tangents
    • I’ve been allowing myself and the class to go on more tangents: deviations away from the book and into language and content areas based on emerging conversation topics and language. It’s been much more enjoyable and I’ve been able to teach a lot of different things I would not have otherwise thought of. For example, today, I noticed a student used “me neither” in correctly during some activity. So, we went on a brief tangent discussion the differences and usages of “me too” and “me neither”. The word “hitchhiking” came up and I was able to regail them with my personal experiences with hitchhiking, which them seemed to enjoy.

QUESTIONS ABOUT CONVERSATION-DRIVEN LEARNING

  • How can conversation-driven learning be assessed?
    • Unless one is very prudent, it seems like conversation-driven learning, or at least the usage of emergent language, is one-off. In other words, it seems that language is encountered once and by chance. The place of the classroom is not only to provide an atmosphere where students can practice language, but also be assessed. So, how can classes or courses be assessed effectively? Related to this, how can the emergent language be recycled?
  • How can listening practice integrated?
    • It seems that most of the listening in conversation-driven learning is either listening to the teacher, or listening to each other. But that doesn’t reflect real-world listening. In the real world, there are lots of other things we listen to. Here, I’m thinking of media. However, from what I read, there seems to be little focus on listening to media in conversation-driven courses. Furthermore, since the classroom is a formal environment, and since listening is a skill that should be learned as well as acquired, there needs to be dedicated and explicit listening practice in the classroom. How is this tackled in a -conversation-driven classroom?
  • How do you make full use of the emergent language written on the board?
    • I find that the language written on the board doesn’t lend itself well to systematic practice or language tasks that ask students to use the language for both accuracy and (then) fluency.
  • Is discontinuity between language points and even discontinuity between classes a problem?
    • Emergent language, in my experience, has no pattern. So, what is boarded has no pattern either. There could be a jumble of lexis, grammar points, and pronunciation problems written on the board. This reflects how we naturally speak, but does it reflect how we naturally learn? Likewise, from class to class there seems to be no continuity. Is this a problem?
  • What can you do if you find nothing useful to write down?
    • I mentioned this above. What can you do if there is nothing useful to write down? What if you find that there are no major problems? Or that the problems you did here are very insignificant?
  • What can you do if you are tired?
    • I’m a father of two who basically only gets late nights to work on lesson planning. There are days where I am glad I have planned a number of student-based activities that often require little of my attention. Last week, I was extremely tired in class. I tried very hard, but had trouble focusing on what students were saying, so I had noted very little. I’m sure I’m not the only tired teacher. Are we all 110% engaged in our classrooms, every lesson, with every student?

5 thoughts on “Puppysteps to Dogme

  1. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Anthony,
    This is a very good read and as I already implied on Twitter, I also have that feeling that there’s something right about conversation-driven learning. Like you, though, I understand there are a few ‘buts’ and questions that need to be answered, or at least pondered.
    I feel I also need to work on both my handwriting and board organization skills. There’s one option which I’ve been playing with recently; I use the computer where I type notes of everything that comes up in the lesson and project it on the screen. The advantage is that it’s legible, well-organized, and visible, and I can save it for later reference and revision (the documents can be sent to students as well). This solves the problem of recycling and assessing language, which you mention in your post.
    This brings me to another question you raise. If you keep notes of all that language that popped up in the lesson, you can easily find follow-up activities (on the internet, in magazines, simply any authentic sources).
    And the last point, I’d like to elaborate on; ironically, if I’m tired, I usually get energized by unexpected, emergent content and language. And I’ve noticed this also happens to the students. By the way, I like what Ceri Jones does on her blog; she demonstrates how she stores what they did in the lesson, and she does it in a very organized way. I feel this may be the solution of many of the problems you’ve discussed here.
    Hana

    • Anthony Teacher says:

      Thanks for the comments!

      I am an avid tech user and have all my lessons based in PPT, but you have a good point. I should probably take more notes on the computer rather than the board but for some reason I equate the computer with pre-planned and the board with emergent language. A bit silly. If I use the computer, I can keep all the notes in the shared folder on Google Drive that all students already have access to. Thanks for the idea!

      “if I’m tired, I usually get energized by unexpected, emergent content and language”
      This hasn’t happened for me yet, but I’m sure it could.

      I took a look a Ceri’s blog. It gave me a great look into a conversation driven class. I prefer these types of blogs as opposed to more abstract ones where the focus is on what could be done rather than what is actually done. I hope that my blog gives any interested readers a picture into what I do in class (rather than what I think should be done).

  2. Tom Smith says:

    Hi Anthony,
    I enjoyed reading this. I agree with you about note-taking, it is difficult to record what happens during a speaking activity and the teacher needs to have a highly organised note-taking system as well as a fast pen and consummate eavesdropping skills. From my own perspective, which is firmly situated in task-based learning, I know that I can’t maintain the monitoring and note-taking phase for more than fifteen minutes without my hand dropping off! However, a short speaking activity with a clear aim should produce plenty of material for language feedback. Sometimes, with critical moments scenarios, the activity may be limited to one minute. Longer discussions can be conducted around a framework on a specific topic, or a simulation where there is an agreed outcome to be achieved. I think it is important that the aim is clear and that students understand the point of the task and the importance of completing it. The last thing we want to hear from our students is: ‘Why are we doing this?’ I am not really sure that I ‘get’ what dogme (or conversation-driven learning if you prefer) is about, but I sometimes wonder if it is a kind of task-based learning but without the task.

    • Anthony Teacher says:

      Thanks for the comments.

      I agree that having a clear aim is one good way to kind of target precise features and have a better aim while note-taking too! Can you explain what you mean by “Longer discussions can be conducted around a framework on a specific topic”?

  3. Tom Smith says:

    Hi Anthony,
    When I refer to a framework within the task-based learning context I mean a discussion in which target language can be elicited for an upcoming task. The aim of the framework is to initiate free and spontaneous speaking but there are certain structural elements applied to the exercise too. Frameworks have the advantage of being able to generate a lot of language very quickly around a specific topic. I describe the process as one of ‘sowing seeds and harvesting language’ here:

    http://eltcriticalmoments.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/discussion-frameworks-sowing-seeds-and-harvesting-language/

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