Dogme and the coursebook
Scott Thornbury & Luke Meddings
(published in Modern English Teacher)
A “Dogme” approach doesn ‘t necessarily exclude the use of a coursebook. After all, if you follow the first rule of dogme (Teaching should be done using only the resources that teachers and students bring to the classroom - i.e. themselves - and whatever happens to be in the classroom), you could argue that, in most teaching contexts, the coursebook is a naturally-occurring item of classroom furniture - as natural, say, as the blackboard or the cassette recorder. Love them or hate them, coursebooks are a fact of (classroom) life.
To be faithful to the spirit of Dogme, however, coursebooks should not be allowed to become the tail that wags the dog. They are the props, and not the screenplay, of the dogme “film”. When the use of the coursebook either dictates, or distracts from, the main “action” of the film/lesson, then learning opportunities are likely to be prejudiced.
This is particularly the case when coursebooks are allowed to set the language agenda, especially if the language agenda comprises a graded list of structures such as will and going to, or the first, second and third conditionals. There is no research evidence to suggest that such lists match the manner nor the order in which language is learned. It is more probably the case that such language items “emerge” naturally in real language use, through repeated cycles of exposure, attention, output and feedback. (Some writers now talk about “second language emergence”, not “second language acquisition”). This presents teachers who are using coursebooks with a dilemma. Do they flog away at the “unlearnable” grammar syllabus; do they abandon the book altogether; or do they try and thrash out a compromise?
Here is a compromise. The idea is to use the coursebook, but sparingly, taking its grammar syllabus with a pinch of salt. It does not mean, however, propping up the book’s weaknesses by bringing in yet more materials in the form of photocopied exercises, for example. At the same time, the idea is to include activities that provide optimal exposure, attention, output and feedback, thereby maximising the chance of language emergence. Whatever grammar work is done is based on what emerges as the outcome of the following planning strategies.
While their primary organising principle may be grammatical, coursebooks also include the three Ts: topics, texts, and tasks. Make these your starting point.
Real language is always “about” something - i.e. the topic. Ways of activating interest in the topic (without bringing in a load of other materials) and at the same time producing lots of language, include the following:
Monitor the question-writing stage, feeding in ideas and vocabulary. Note any persistent errors for a later review stage. Re-group the students so that each new group includes one representative each of the question-planning groups. You can do this by giving each student in the group a number (1,2,3) - and then grouping all the number 1s together, all the number 2’s together, and all the number 3’s together. They survey each other, making notes of their answers. They then return to the original group to report their findings. They can write this up in the form of a short text (Ten out of twelve students really like shopping… etc). They present their report to the class. You note, and give feedback on, any interesting errors. The results of the survey may trigger a more general discussion about the topic.
Teacher anecdote: Tell the class a personal story or point of view on the topic: “I hate shopping. If I have to buy new clothes I.... The last time I went shopping was...” In order to “capture” the language, ask the students in groups to write a summary of what you said. One or two can put their group’s summary up on the board and then you can correct it, with help from the class. And/or record yourself at the same time as you are telling your story to the class, and use this at the “correcting” stage, so that learners can compare their summary with your exact words. Deal with any interesting language points that emerge.
Student’s story: Interview one of the sts about the topic - their knowledge/ experience/attitudes. Others listen and then write up the interview, including the questions. (The “guinea pig” does the same). Monitor and check. Then they interview each other and report back to class.
CLL (Community Language Learning). Students sit in a circle and have a “conversation” about the topic. After each contribution is constructed and checked by the teacher, it is recorded. The teacher acts solely as a language “consultant”. Then the conversation is played back and written up on the board. Language points that emerge are highlighted and commented on.
Paper conversation: This is like on-line chat: students write their conversation (on the topic) in pairs/groups, passing a sheet of paper back and forth. This helps slow up their language processing, allowing time to pay attention to form. It also allows you to monitor and correct.
Real language always takes the form of texts. Language acquisition begins and ends in text. Exploit the texts that the coursebook provides, especially those that have generic features (i.e. a sample letter, postcard, joke, news report, conversational anecdote, party political broadcast etc etc). Some ideas for using the coursebook texts:
The successful management of learning involves providing a sense of purpose in classroom activities: this is achieved through the setting, monitoring and checking of tasks. Moreover, real life language use is always purposeful. The best classroom tasks are those that incorporate elements of real life language purposes - e.g. to win an argument, to reach a consensus, to finalise an arrangement, to confirm an intuition etc. Coursebooks often have activities that can be turned into language productive tasks, if they are not in that form already. Allow students to use all and any language resources they command, and push them to extend themselves by a) repeating the task (with different students for example) and b) “going public” - reporting on the task process and outcome to the whole class.
Some generic task types:
Remember: if the students are engaged in a range of life-like tasks about a range of real life topics and using/producing a range of real life text types, they will be “covering” all the grammar they need. Your job is to “uncover” this natural syllabus - i.e. let it emerge, shape it, before letting it submerge again, in the interests of automaticity and fluency.
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