Yesterday I stumbled upon a blog
post by Willy Cardoso, published on the British Council Teaching
English blog. In his post, the author argues that learners' writings are
one of the best raw materials any teacher can have. I totally agree with this, but what really resonated with me was the following tip he shares: "Start a new unit
from the last page!"
How come this had never dawned on
me before? Such a simple, clever idea... I'd always believed that the pure version of teaching
unplugged needs a lot of courage and experience on the teacher's part. Also, if the teacher's hands are tied by the administrators' restrictions and requirements, experimenting becomes much more difficult. Willy Cardoso's approach, though, looks
less daunting and does not violate any of the following key principles of the Dogme
- Interactivity: the most direct route to
learning is to be found in the interactivity between teachers and students and
amongst the students themselves.
- Engagement: students are most engaged by
content they have created themselves
- Dialogic processes: learning is social and dialogic, where knowledge is
- Scaffolded conversations: learning takes place through conversations,
where the learner and teacher co-construct the knowledge and skills
- Emergence: language and grammar emerge from the learning process. This
is seen as distinct from the ‘acquisition’ of language.
- Affordances: the teacher’s role is to optimize language learning
affordances through directing attention to emergent language.
- Voice: the learner’s voice is given recognition along with the learner’s
beliefs and knowledge.
- Empowerment: students and teachers are empowered by freeing the
classroom of published materials and textbooks.
- Relevance: materials (e.g. texts, audios and videos) should have
relevance for the learners
- Critical use: teachers and students should use published materials and
textbooks in a critical way that recognizes their cultural and ideological
Even if you have to follow a
syllabus (because your students are required to become familiar with a certain
number of specific grammatical structures/vocabulary/topics/whatever), you can
use this approach without failing to fulfil the red tape requirements. Even if you and your colleagues are expected to create a syllabus based on the coursebook you use throughout the course, you can
teach dogme-ish and still be sure that the administrators won't find anything
wrong with your suspiciously-looking methods.
Now I'd like to ask myself a question: How can I go about it in my teaching
context? I'm looking at the coursebook I use with my pre-intermediate students.
Unit 1 covers the following 1) topics: personality, teenage challenges, music,
hobbies, 2) language items: present simple vs. present continuous, verb patterns (verb
+ infinitive/-ing form), 3) functions: exchanging opinions (about hobbies, likes/dislikes), and finally, 4) a writing task: a personal profile.
So, let's say that I'll ask my Ss
to write a personal profile first. I'll see what my Ss already know and what areas they find problematic. Some of the problematic areas will probably overlap with the content of the current unit, so I'll make sure they will gradually be covered in detail. For instance, it's likely that I'll find out that my
Ss don't need to practise present simple because they can use it
confidently. Maybe they only struggle with some specific aspects; they, for
example, err when making questions and/or they keep forgetting to add an -s with the third person singular verb. So I will
focus on this a bit. Based on my experience, Czech learners can form the present continuous, but they tend to overuse it, so I might want to include some extra practice if necessary. In other words, I'll work on emergent problems plus I'll feed Ss the language items that pop up along the way.
The truth is, however, that some
language structures will have to be forced on Ss. For example, there is a list of about 30
verbs in Unit 1 whose patterns Ss need to be able to use at some point. It's unlikely that all those patterns will emerge naturally as we speak about personality traits, hobbies, etc. What could I do then? I could obviously use the texts from the coursebook or I can create my own personal
profile and deliberately include all those verbs my Ss need to acquire. The latter approach will undoubtedly be far more natural and relevant, as well as more interactive and dialogic.
All in all, I'm convinced that this selective
approach will give me more time to cover things which are engaging - those things which
I feel I have little time for. However, I believe there's no need to avoid the
textbook completely. In the first unit there
are nice texts which I know my students love to work on, such as a
personality quiz or an article called What does your musical taste say about
you? But again, I'll already know how much time to spend on these
sections. I will be able to get rid of the redundant stuff which I now feel obliged to go through, no matter how much of it my Ss actually know already. Having said that, I will finally end up with more time on my hands, which I could use more effectively.
I think it might be a good idea
to apply a cyclic approach here - to start with the last page of the unit, work on the emergent language/problematic areas and then come back to the last page again and
get Ss to write an upgraded version of the same written assignment. It might be very interesting to compare both versions and see all the progress Ss have made since the starting point. Now that I think about it, it seems I'm up to a little experiment ...