W is for Wondering

21 04 2013

Liverpool programme coverThree excellent presentations at IATEFL this year, each of which referenced Dogme, got me wondering.

The first, Conversation-driven or dialogic methodology? ELT Classroom talk, was given by Dr Phil Chappell, from Macquarie University in NSW. Phil started out by asking the question: ‘If Dogme ELT is driven by conversation, yet natural conversation is not usually possible in the classroom, what kind of talk could best support its aims?’

Based on an extensive database of classroom interaction that he has amassed over time, Phil has identified five kinds of instructional classroom talk, two of which seem to approximate closely to the notion of conversation: discussion (defined as ‘the exchange of ideas with a view to sharing information and solving problems’), and inquiry dialogue. Inquiry dialogue is less about the exchange of ideas than the joint construction of ideas. It shares features with what Barnes (1976) called ‘exploratory talk’, which Mercer (1995: 104) describes as talk ‘in which partners engage critically but constructively with each other’s ideas… In exploratory talk knowledge is made more accountable and reasoning is more visible in the talk‘ (emphasis in original).

In comparing the two conversational modes, discussion and inquiry dialogue, Phil found that the former tends to be transmissive in style, involving the mere exchange of tokens of information or experience, with little in the way of follow-up, and which, in the interests of task completion, inclines towards early closure.  As Phil put it: ‘The students are seated in groups, but they are not always working in groups.’

Inquiry dialogue, on the other hand, tends to be more open-ended, more tentative, and displays greater contingency, successive turns building on each other in a process of jointly-constructed ‘thinking aloud’. Because this talk revolves around playing with, and exploring, possibilities, it has been labelled wondering by some researchers (e.g. Lindfors 1999).  Due to its collaborative and contingent nature, and because of the ongoing struggle to fit words to meanings in which the learners are heavily invested, this joint ‘wondering’ is, arguably, a prime site for language learning affordances, and hence a fertile source of ‘raw material’ in the Dogme classroom.

ken lackman

Ken in action

The second presentation that had me wondering was by Ken Lackman: CAT: A framework for Dogme. CAT stands for Conversation Activated Teaching and hence is consistent with the Dogme precept that teaching should be conversation-driven.

What Ken has devised (and what he engagingly demonstrated using his audience as pretend students) is a framework for constructing lessons that meet Dogme principles, but that at the same time provides novice (or nervous) teachers with a tight structure on which to map emergent language processing.

The demo lesson consisted of cycles of pairwork conversations (on a topic that had been selected by a class brainstorm and vote) alternating with similar conversations between the teacher and a selected student. As the teacher reformulated the guinea-pig student’s responses, and the observing students took notes, these ‘public’ conversations provided the ‘input’ for the subsequent closed pairwork stage. Key expressions were written on the board and their mechanics highlighted, in a way that replicates the language focus stage of Counselling Language Learning (CLL). The cycle of performed conversations, language focus and pairs practice can be repeated as often as time permits, allowing for optimal practice at ‘output + 1’.

In the light of Phil Chappell’s earlier presentation, however, my wondering took the form: ‘Could the same procedure be adapted for less transactional, and more exploratory talk? That is to say, could the goal of the conversations be less about exchanging travel experiences, say, and more about trying to explain why travel matters?’ My feeling is that it can, but I’d like to see this demonstrated.

Finally, Andrew Walkley’s talk, Language-focused teacher development, challenged the assumption (again, central to Dogme) that good teachers are well-equipped to deal with emergent language issues in ways that are non-trivial and challenging.

Andrew neatly demonstrated that many of our intuitions regarding the frequency of a word, or its most typical collocations, are flawed, to say the least. More importantly, he argued that teachers are ‘primed’ by traditional coursebook grammar syllabuses to see only (verb phrase) trees and no (lexical) wood. Hence, when it comes to reformulating learner utterances, we/they seldom provide the kind of productive co-textual data that a corpus search or even a well-written coursebook (like one of Andrew’s, presumably) might deliver. Using the example of the word ‘efficient’, he showed that a Google search for ‘efficient’ throws up many texts of the type ‘X [service, product etc] was very efficient. I had a problem but X sorted it out’. Andrew argued that the reactive teacher would be unlikely to link ‘efficient’ with the phrase ‘sorted it out’ in an off-the-cuff reformulation in the context of, say, one of Ken Lackman’s performed conversations.

Not Venice. Liverpool.

Not Venice. Liverpool.

I have to agree, although I think that the ability to think ‘outside the grammar box’ can be trained, by, for example, repeatedly unpacking texts for the constructions that they house (see C is for Construction for an example). The deft use of reference tools, such as learner dictionaries or online corpora, can also be developed. And, of course, teachers who (luckily?) have never used a coursebook are perhaps less prone to see everything through the prism of pedagogical grammar anyway. In the end, though, teachers will get better at reformulating effectively only if they realise that the success of their teaching depends on it. (And this, surely, is a skill that should be developed in all teachers-in-training, whether Dogme-inclined or not).

So, in the light of these three presentations, what (I wonder) might a more rigorous model of Dogme look like? Perhaps it would have the tight, reiterative methodology of Lackman’s CAT framework, but adapted to the wondering conversations favoured by Chappell, while – following Walkley’s example – the reformulation stage would gather in, not just sentence grammar features, but lexical, co-textual and generic ones as well.

Why not just use a coursebook? There are so many ways I could answer that question, but space doesn’t allow. Suffice it to quote the very quotable John Holt (1967: 124):

It can’t be said too often: we get better at using words, whether hearing, speaking, reading, or writing, under one condition and only one—when we use those words to say something we want to say, to people we want to say it to, for purposes that are our own.

References:

Barnes, D. (1976) From Communication to Curriculum, London: Penguin.

Holt, J. (1967) How Children Learn, London: Penguin.

Lindfors, J.W. (1999) Children’s Inquiry: Using language to make sense of the world, New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Mercer, N. (1995) The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

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26 responses

21 04 2013
Avi Darkbloom

Scott,

Thanks for the reading.

I am wondering (sorry!) about what you said about a more rigorous model of Dogme. Do you think a time will come when you’ll consider writing a sequel to Teaching Unplugged?

Thanks!

22 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Avi – it’s always an option. I think what I’d like to see is a collection of first-hand accounts of how teachers in different contexts have ‘practised’ Dogme/Teaching Unplugged, and then work backwards, inductively, to infer its common principles and practices. I know such a book has been mooted.

21 04 2013
J.J. Almagro

Thanks, Scott.

My wondering is about whether the role of less capable L2 users was somehow redefined by all three speakers in light of sociocultural theory (private speech, ZPD mediation, etc.)

22 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

None of the speakers referenced sociocultural learning theory specifically, although each talk was consistent with the notion of scaffolded instruction, and the transition from other-regulation to self-regulation. Phil Chappell’s handout makes the point that ‘Wondering Inquiry acts work better in whole-class discussions where the teacher is scaffolding the talk’. And he adds that ‘they can and will work in small group activity over time’. Ken Lackman’s CAT framework is a very clear example of teacher modelling and learner appropriation.

21 04 2013
mcneilmahon

Wonderful post, Scott, really inspiring ideas – promoting inquiry dialogue, T-S example conversation stages (very Demand High?) and training teachers to reformulate more effectively – brought together succinctly and convincingly. Lots to think about. Many thanks!

22 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your comment, Neil. Yes, I was excited about the confluence of Dogme-related ideas, as well as the training implications of a re-conceptualized focus on form within the three-pronged Dogme methodology (i.e. conversation-driven, materials-light, and a focus on emergent language). I’m not sure if the concept of ‘demand high’ needs to be invoked: there was nothing, for example, in Ken Lackman’s framework, or the way he demonstrated it, that was ‘demanding’ in any real sense, yet the cycles of teacher reformulation and learner (re-)trial seemed perfectly judged to motivate learners to go to the limits of their present competence, and then beyond: what I meant when I referred to ‘output + 1′. And extending and deepening the kind of reformulation offered would seem to place greater demands on the teacher than on the student. But I agree that Dogme/Teaching Unplugged does need to lose its ‘just talk among yourselves while I jot down some mistakes’ kind of image.

22 04 2013
Carol Goodey

I just wanted to second what Neil and others are saying. It sounds like you got to, and got a lot out of, some very interesting talks. Thanks for passing on the ideas. I’d like to find out a bit more about Phil and Ken’s work and I would agree that the more we notice how language is used, and the better we become at using the reference tools at our disposal, the better equipped we’ll be to help learners.

I’m looking forward to seeing how a more rigorous model of Dogme develops by incorporating some of the ideas presented here (as well as by ensuring that the principles outlined in Teaching Unplugged are more fully incorporated into Dogme practice and not just selected from randomly) and to the shedding of that “just talk among yourselves” image.

22 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Carol…. I know that Phil is hoping to publish an article on his findings, and you can find out more about Ken’s doings by visiting his website at http://kenlackman.com/

21 04 2013
Rob

Ahh, ‘noticing’, ‘wondering’… how seemingly pedestrian words blossom in the ELT garden!

The other day, a fellow film enthusiast and I were trying to recall the title of a great classic movie (The Best Years of Our Lives). When I pulled out my iPhone to “just google it”, I was surprised to hear my twenty-something interlocutor quip, “Wonder killer!” and subsequently come up with the title sans appareil électronique.

I would ever so unempirically claim that there are scores of unplugged language teachers practicing ‘inquiry dialogue’ and ‘conversation-activated teaching’ without knowing someone’s invented a name for what they do.

And then again, my bold claim could itself be a wonder killer. :-)

Thanks for wondering, Scott.

22 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Rob. Your riff on the word ‘wonder’ makes me wonder if at least part of the answer to the challenge presented by Andrew Walkley’s doubts about effective on-the-spot reformulation may lie in the teacher’s capacity to get the learners to wonder about language – and to use their iPhones to mediate their wondering. ‘You don’t know how to say that? I’ll give you all two minutes to go online and see which group can come up with the best solution, starting now!’

Yes, there are scores – even legions – of teachers doing wonder-ful things without knowing there is a name for it. The many mentions of Dogme in the IATEFL program suggest, though, that the name has a certain utility, as a way of labelling this motley set of good practices – practices, I might add, that are never so good that they can’t be improved upon.

21 04 2013
Jonny Lewington

“Hence, when it comes to reformulating learner utterances, we/they seldom provide the kind of productive co-textual data that a corpus search or even a well-written coursebook (like one of Andrew’s, presumably) might deliver”

Coursebooks can’t reformulate at all, though. Reformulation is about taking what the learner wanted to say (their ‘notion’) and giving them words to express that notion clearly. I think of the process a bit like how being a detective is portrayed in films: its about getting inside people’s heads. You have to think ‘what did they want to say?’ and then think ‘if I was in their position, how would I say it?’.

Coursebooks might provide new language, but it is very unlikely to be language which the students actually wanted to produce at the time that they study it. So, even when a coursebook provides a decent model of language (which is very rarely) it isn’t likely to be either as relevant or memorable to the learner as a teacher’s reformulation.

22 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

I have to say, I think you’re right, Jonny, and would argue that the best mediation is the mediation that occurs at ‘the point of need’. The concept of ‘noticing’ – so fundamental to cognitivist learning theory – doesn’t happen in a void: it is motivated. As Dwight Atkinson(2010: 34) puts it, ‘we devote attentional resources to something not because it exists, but because it is potentially important for our survival and prosperity – i.e. attention is adaptive’. And he adds: ‘what really matters to a person – what is adaptive’ – is what gets attended’ (p. 35).. A pre-selected syllabus of language items as enshrined in a coursebook, will, at best, only accidentally ‘matter to a person’.

22 04 2013
Andrew Walkley

Thank you so much for your mention. I have now written a write-up of the talk on my blog, with the updates and fuller examples of tasks, which with time short at IATEFL, I didn’t really explore properly. It’s here if anyone’s interested. http://blog.westminster.ac.uk/celt/2013/04/22/iatefl-talk-language-focused-teacher-development/

As you will see in this fuller text I absolutley agree with you that the language awareness and skills we both want can be trained, and that’s very much the focus of my blog. However, where I would disagree is that fundamental to this training is the coursebook and a critical awareness of all the language that is available in coursebooks and the affordances they provide (not just those written by the authors).

Jonny, I also agree that coursebooks do not reformulate – technology hasn’t quite got that far! I think Scott meant that some coursebooks (and I would include my own, Outcomes and Innovations, Scott ;-)) give better examples and are closer to language students may wish to speak. You can predict many of the kinds of things students may wish to say or importantly hear about more controversial topics and this seems to me a good starting point. They can be written as a formal vocab exercise or could be in a text in a kind of TBL frameowrk if that’s your thing. This is scaffolding. It doesn’t mean they won’t come up with something totally different and unexpected for the teacher to work with.

Google and the like can also offer support language-wise for teachers, just as it can for language learners. However, it’s a slow process within the class whatever the connection and will still need reformulating in many instances. Long term, you want teachers to be able to build up varied repetoires as we expect our students to do. It’s difficult having a conversation where a student is constantly refering to google!

22 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Andrew – the ‘full’ version of your talk (as outlined in your blog) provides some excellent ideas as to how the reactive language awareness skills of teachers-in-training might be developed. And I so agree with this point: ‘If we want to be Dogme-like teachers or lexical teachers, then the tasks and discussions need to be embedded in teacher training and a constant and ongoing feature of our careers…’

A couple of other websites that I think could provide ‘instant relief’ in a smart classroom, or via students’ phones, are

http://forbetterenglish.com/index.cgi – which will deliver relatively intelligible authentic examples of a word very quickly, organized under collocations – I tried it with ‘efficient’ and got ‘Most welcome is the simple , but remarkably efficient , currency converter’ as one of the examples – as good as anything in a dictionary.

http://nav.stringnet.org/ – brilliant syntactic search engine which delivered efficient use of N as the most common string for ‘efficient’

and http://www.netspeak.org/# which instantly displayed the nouns that complete the phrase ‘efficient use of’ in order of frequency (viz: resources, energy, time, water...)

An interesting training activity might be first to have the trainees devise 1. dictionary-type examples, 2. typical strings, and 3. collocations for sample words (e.g. those in the Academic Word List) and then check these intuitions against these three sites. Well, that’s more or less what Andrew suggested in the first place!

22 04 2013
Andrew Walkley

I shall check out the sources. I’m always looking for a variety of sources to refer to when teaching and writing. I guess the big area which these things are less able to work out are the things that go beyond these and dictionary definitions – I think the point 2 of your training or the “i emailed them with a small problem and they sorted out immediately” addition to ‘a very efficient service’. I’m just starting to explore this with Hugh and other CELT colleagues, through what we hope will be a weekly youtube video. I’ll let you know when we are online.

22 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Yes, I agree that these kinds of textual collocations (I can’t think of a better term for lexico-grammatical associations that extend over the boundaries of sentences) are extremely interesting, and potentially very productive. I guess it’s really an application of Hoey’s notion of ‘priming’, whereby certain words and phrases are primed to co-occur within texts of a particular genre. As Hoey himself says ‘The evidence is that priming does not stop at the clause boundary. It is my claim that as we encounter words and combinations of words…, we subconsciously recognise their textual uses, such as their characteristic textual positioning (their textual colligations), their contribution to the cohesion of the text (their textual collocations) and their function in terms of the developing textual semantics (their textual semantic associations)’ (2007:13-14).

My own study of a corpus of 140 ‘cringe stories’ in teenage girls’ magazines (don’t ask!) found that the pattern: one day…this guy … suddenly …. so embarrassed! recurred repeatedly, and always in that order.

Reference: Hoey, M. (2007) ‘Lexical priming and literary creativity’, in Hoey, M., Mahlberg, M., Stubbs, M.& Teubert, W. (eds.) Text, Discourse and Corpora, London: Continuum.

23 04 2013
Andrew Walkley

Nice to have a hobby!

23 04 2013
Patrick

Hi Scott,

This is my first time posting on this blog. I have enjoyed your work (books, blog, vids) for some time. As they say on talk radio in the states, “Long time listener, first time caller.”

Great post. The quote at the end stirred me.

My first reaction was, reactionary! I wanted to say, “Well, that has nothing to do with my students.”

Then, upon reflection, I realized it has everything to do with them.

Indeed, we are challenged in our classroom by a great deal of environmental needs: invalid testing, course books without representation, lack of time, impractical learning objectives, complex cultural expectations and all the rest. Nonetheless, my students are creative, funny, bright, complex, interesting and talented people with a great deal of valuable and important things to share, who I am there to help.

This concise quote has helped me to reposition my perspective on these challenges, and seek new ways to work within then for empowering the people in my classes, “for purposes that are [their] own.”

Thank you Scott, enlightening as always.

23 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thank you, Patrick. It’s always gratifying to have a lurker come out of hiding ;-) especially when the comment reflects a personal ah-ha! moment like yours.

I ought to say that I owe the John Holt quotation to Joel Hanson, who I met in Marrakesh earlier this year and who, over a conference dinner, reminded me how great Holt’s books (especially How Children Learn, and How Children Fail) really are. I promptly went out and ordered them – hence the quote. (It’s kind of neat to follow the path of a meme: one of the reasons I love blogging – and conferences!)

23 04 2013
Lexical Leo

Thank you for summarising the talks by some of my favourite presenters, none of whom, ironically, I got to listen to this time.
Leo

23 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Leo – I was toying with the idea of weaving you into the plot too, especially your very clear breakdown of the factors (such as collocation, register, semantic prosody etc) that serve to distinguish synonyms, and which help explain why a word just feels wrong in particular contexts, even though its (denotational) meaning is correct. This kind of heightened degree of language awareness is what makes dealing with learners’ non-standard use of language so much more satisfying for both parties.

23 04 2013
Lexical Leo

Thanks! I am sure you can weave me into one of your future plots :)
I really enjoyed our constantly interrupted but nevertheless interesting chat at Penny & Simon’s event – thank you.

24 04 2013
philchappell

Hi Scott,

Thanks for the feedback on my talk and for weaving it and the other two talks together. Just a couple of points on your post and others’ feedback.

Your question: “Could the goal of the conversations be less about exchanging travel experiences, say, and more about trying to explain why travel matters?” is for me significant. In my short talk there was much I had to leave out, and one point was answering this question. The classroom data I’ve looked at suggests to me that being explicit about the outcome of the “conversation” is key – not just saying that “you need to have shared ideas…” but letting the students know what the new knowledge that they will be generating is going to be used for in the next stage of the lesson. If it’s just to brainstorm some ideas and get those recorded on the board, then the conversation will be more transactional and “final draft”, as students know that’s what’s coming up next, and they’ll work towards that object. If it’s to use the open-ended inquiry in order to move to a follow up task in which the students’ “first draft” thoughts are to be privileged by being the raw material, then when the students know this, it seems they work toward that object.

Rob ponders the thought that “there are scores of unplugged language teachers practicing ‘inquiry dialogue’ and ‘conversation-activated teaching’ without knowing someone’s invented a name for what they do”. While I certainly hope this is the case with many teachers, I’d also suggest that many teachers are very much unaware of the kind(s) of talk that they are “doing” with their students in their classes, and a lot of it is restricted to recitation, elicitation and telling, with lots of IRF involved. There’s nothing bad with these kinds of talk, though what I’m suggesting is the balance needs to be strategically managed. I don’t have the answers to how to do this, but one possibility is for teachers to record, transcribe and analyse their classroom talk to develop their awareness and look for ways to include more inquiry dialogue.

My own point to wonder about is whether Ken Lackman’s CAT could be a very useful tool for modelling inquiry dialogue? One of my conclusions was that inquiry dialogue can occur in small groups, though it seems to require modelling/demonstrating for students to develop that form of languaging activity over time.

Cheers,

Phil

24 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Phil – and for clarifying the point about the way that task design – and the learners’ understanding of the outcome – can have an important effect in terms of their level of cognitive engagement (I hope I’m paraphrasing correctly). And, yes, I do think that what Ken was doing provides a very useful framework for modelling pair and group work – both in terms of the overall discourse structure as well as the topically-relevant ‘routines’ embedded within it. By routines, I mean the kinds of useful phrases, sentence frames, formulaic utterances etc that are commonly associated with a way of talking (or, for that matter, writing) about a topic and which are made available to learners in a kind of DIY spirit.

26 04 2013
J.J. Almagro

Coursebooks seem to leave a lot to desire in terms of reformulation-rich affordances, demand-high implementation, and conversation-oriented practice of the exploratory kind.
Why do most students prefer to have one?
Would it be too far-fetched to say that an EFL coursebook is the first visible and tangible reformulation of students’ L1 cognition?

26 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Would it be too far-fetched to say that an EFL coursebook is the first visible and tangible reformulation of students’ L1 cognition?

If you mean that a coursebook puts into words what the learner wants to express, I would think that this could only be accidental, at best. If I were learning a second language with a teacher, I would tell the teacher what I want to say, not wait to be told what someone who is not there thinks I might want to say.

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