L is for Lockstep

12 04 2010

I’m preparing a talk for a conference next week, to be held in Palestine, and the subject I’ve chosen is “lockstep activities” – specifically “Six Lockstep Activities and How to Improve them.” (Shades of Lindsay Clandfield’s “6 Things” rubric, I know, but then, I’ve never been very original!) I figured that the topic would be an appropriate one in contexts where classroom management is a challenge, where classes are large, furniture fixed, and resources minimal. From experience having observed classes there (see the attached photo taken on my last trip), that description fits the Palestine context fairly accurately.

Classroom in Palestine (photo by Gavin McLean of Macmillan ELT)

In my abstract I’ve defined “lockstep activities” as “whole-class activities, in which the class ‘marches in time’, as opposed to group, pair or individual work”. In their Dictionary of Language Teaching & Applied Linguistics (3rd edition, Longman, 2002) Richards and Schmidt hyphenate the term, and define it as “a situation in which all students in a class are engaged in the same activity at the same time, all progressing through tasks at the same rate” (p. 315). (Regrettably, there is no mention of lockstep in An A-Z of ELT – an oversight I hope to redress in a future edition).  Lockstep is the default setting for much traditional teaching and in all subject areas: the teacher at the front of the room, the students seated in rows and dutifully attentive.

Now I’m wondering where the term “lockstep” originated. According to the Free Online Dictionary, it is “A way of marching in which the marchers follow each other as closely as possible”. It also has a figurative meaning, and one with negative connotations, as in “A standardized procedure that is closely, often mindlessly followed.” It is this negative aspect that permeates the literature on lockstep activities in methodology books. Jeremy Harmer, for example, in the 1991 edition of The Practice of English Language Teaching (Longman) wrote: “Students working in lockstep get little chance to practise or to talk at all”.  And added: “Lockstep always goes at the wrong speed!” (p. 243).  However, Jeremy concedes that “we should not abandon the whole-class grouping completely”. It is, for example, the best grouping for giving instructions and for checking the answers to a reading or listening task.

Given the ubiquity of this grouping, especially in contexts such as in Palestine, I’m looking for more ways of ‘accentuating the positive’, and specifically for ideas for making the most of such standard lockstep activities as drilling, reading aloud, dictation, and checking understanding of reading and listening tasks. The dynamic of reading aloud activities, for example, can be improved if – rather than the teacher nominating turns – the readers themselves nominate who the next reader will be (and so long as it isn’t anyone who has read before).

So, if you have any ideas of ways of jazzing up lockstep activities, please let me know! All suggestions will be gratefully attributed.



20 responses

12 04 2010

How often do all students progress through a task at the same rate?

Something I’d like to focus on would be utilizing the early finishers, especially in terms of seeing how they’ve approached and / or completed the task, and how they may give feedback on that to the rest of the class as to how they were able to finish early (prior knowledge / method of tackling the task / effectively understanding instruction, etc..).

12 04 2010
Nick Bilbrough

I think activities based around Total Physical Response lend themselves very nicely to lockstep. Here’s an example –

1) The teacher tells a simple story that can be physicalised (I was walking in the forest, I saw a box on the ground in front of me, I bent down and picked it up etc, etc.)

2) Learners physicalise each stage of the story as it is told. Those who don’t understand follow those who do. If no one understands, the teacher demonstrates herself. The story can be repeated several times, or speeded up etc.

3) The first letter of each of the words in the story is written on the board. For example instead of I was walking in the forest -I w w i t f.

4) The teacher points at each of the letters in turn and the whole class retrieve what each of the words represents.

5) This can be followed up by pair/group work – One person tells the story from the prompts on the board whilst the others physicalise it, or they can write their own simple stories to be used in a similar way etc


12 04 2010

Great topic to explore, Scott. Obviously you will already have thought of Jazz Chants and the like for drilling, but the previous post about TPR reminded me of something I haven’t done in years.

Remember clapping games? where you and a partner stood face to face and beat out rhythmic patterns with your hands (your hands clapping theirs, for example)? This is a fun way to “physicalise” natural rhythm and stress.

Take a simple question (like”how are you?” “or a statement like “that’s a good idea!”and have the class practise it on your command, while clapping out the rhythm with a partner in a pattern you teach them. The learners can then suggest new clapping patterns, teach them to the group and then take over the drill. They can then select a new class member who creates a new clapping pattern for a new item to drill, and so it goes…

Clearly, this is an extension of the schoolyard, which is why I haven’t done it since leaving a YL context. That said, I might try it with the next group of businesspeople I get, just to see if they recall their schooldays 😉

All the best,


12 04 2010
Fernando Guarany

As you mentioned, dictation activities work superbly well in lockstep groupings. One of my all time favourites is as follows:
1. Teacher dictates 10 words: (for instance) castle – forest – dragon – princess – love – sword – love – forever – horse – together;
2. Sts check spelling in pairs, then dictate words back to teacher (or another student) who writes them on the board for final spell check; (Teacher may want to focus on pronunciation here, i.e. silent letters or any features that emerge);
3. Sts have to write an unconventional* story (individually, pairs, trios) using all the words (in any order they like) – teacher monitors and helps if necessary;
4. Students get into groups and tell stories, (and possibly elect one story to be told (and acted out) to the whole class);
5. Teacher collects stories and uses them for feedback in the next lesson.

* one of the stories my sts have produced ended with the Kind Dragon killing the evil prince and princess and marrying the horse! 😀


12 04 2010

Hi Scott,


I am sure this is nothing new but I like to make the most of dication by making it more active and less passsive by invloving the students. Imagine you are going to do a drawing dictation to review There is/are and prepositions. You the teacher can start the dictation with a few examples eg. Draw a table. One the table there is a book. Next to the book there are three rulers….. and then call on students to help you. You can either leave it open to your students if you feel confident in their abilities or you could have the sentences printed down to give out and be read aloud by individual students. You could do the same with a traditional dictaion but by getting the students to read out sentences you are making it a it more fun!

Have you seen the question loop activities on onestopenglish? I’ve done something similar for non-CLIL classes. Imagine you want to practice listening and recycle language structures that you’ve been teaching recently. Cut up questions and answers on different coloured card. The teacher can begin by asking a question. Students read their cards and decide if they have the answer. The next person reads a question and the person with the corresponding answer reads it aloud. You can also do a simliar thing with two halves of a sentence.

Nothing amazing but they both work well and can be done as a whole class activity.


12 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Adam, Nick, Anthony, Leahn and Fernando, for your great ideas regarding lockstep activities. Yes, jazz chants are definitely one way of jazzing up drills – literally!

On a related subject, does anyone else have good memories of “choral speaking” at primary school? It used to be one of the highlights of the week: we’d all stand around the board where there’d be the words of a poem on a kind of home-made flip chart. The teacher would conduct, using a yard-rule – tapping at each word so that we kept the rhythm. Sometimes the chant would become dialogic – each half of the class interacting with the other. Maximum expression was added through vocal effects. We learnt the poems off by heart. I can still remember the first lines of Vachel Lindsay’s ‘Congo’ – which, now that I google it, I realise is hideously racist. But how we loved rising to a deafening crescendo on this bit:

“BLOOD” screamed the skull-faced, lean
“Whirl ye the deadly voodoo rattle,
Harry the uplands,
Steal all the cattle,
Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, Boom,”

Less exciting, but also less dodgy, was the doleful “Sands of Dee” by Charles Kinglsley, whose first stanza I can still recite by heart:

‘O Mary, go and call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home,
Across the sands of Dee.’
The western wind was wild and dark with foam,
And all alone went she….

Not exactly the most useful language (interesting that both poems mention ‘cattle’, though – were they chosen because Hamilton, NZ, where I grew up, is one of the most densely bovine places in the world?). But fantastic fun and ridiculously memorable.

13 04 2010
Laura Ponting

At my terribly Church of England school we used to have “choral speaking” often – usually to learn prayers. I have bad memories of being told to stay behind because I wasn’t saying the Lord’s Prayer as if I meant it. I never knew what half of it meant, so how could I? I remember to check learners actually understand what they’re saying when drilling now.

Great April Fool lockstep drilling memory at school was when the Rev. Canon Johnson taught us the ‘Siam’ national anthem (to the tune of ‘God Save the Queen’)… It was to greet the ‘Siamese Prime Minister’ who was coming to our school. (not)
200 Church of England angels were recorded singing:
“O Wata Na Siam!” … (or Oh what an arse I am.)

We were all hugely embarrassed at the time…but the vicar thought it was funny and so do I now! 🙂

13 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Haha, great story, Laura. I also remember how a a choral speaking text was subverted. It was another Vachel Lindsay poem, which began “Darius the Mede was a king and a wonder…” This became “Darius the Mede had a kink and no wonder…” At the time we thought this was hugely funny!

12 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

As a footnote, I’m intrigued to see that – in the latest edition of PELT (2007) – Jeremy has adopted the terms ‘whole-class teaching’ and ‘whole-class grouping’, in preference to ‘lockstep’, for which there is no longer an index entry. But he makes the excellent point that whole-class teaching reinforces a sense of the classroom as ‘community’ and that ‘twenty people laughing is often more enjoyable than just two’ (p. 161).

Which made me wonder if lockstep activities are not positive contributors to a healthy classroom dynamic.

In their book Interpersonal Dynamics in Second Language Education (Sage 1998) Ehrman and Dörnyei, in attempting to define what a group is, argue that a key constituent of ‘groupness’ is focused interaction, and they cite Goffman (1985) who maintains that this occurs “when people effectively agree to sustain for a time a single focus”. They conclude that “a group is more than a mere collection of people; it is a psychological reality with a life of its own” (p. 71). This “life of its own”, one could argue, is often nurtured by lockstep activities.

13 04 2010
Anthony Gaughan

Spot-on about lockstep activity building a sense of “group”. They have been popular in drama and many other fields for centuries, and look at the cohesive power of a mass demonstration (“Hoch! Lebe! Die Internationale Solidaritaet!!!” chanted out by massed thousands in unison never fails to stir the blood!) Naturally, such power has been abused throughout history, and continues to be so, but for forging community it is extremely powerful.

On YouTube there are videos from Asian countries where ELT goes on in stadiums, with thousands of attendees chanting in unison after a chorus leader on stage. While watching it is estranging for anyone from a western communicative context, the force of the event and the focus cannot be ignored.

What say you, Scott, shall we organise a rally in Hyde Park next summer? 😉

Of course, it isn’t always very easy to control, as you pointed out yourself, so I’ll leave you with this sweet video I ran into where a teacher does a great job – and the kids are lovely: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LetqQAWsTcE


13 04 2010

Hi Scott

Love the Six theme, although you are being very gentlemanly by saying you aren’t being original. I believe you were using the number six in talks before my blog even appeared … 🙂

One favourite lockstep drill activity of mine was something I picked up from Paul Seligson (of English FIle fame). It was a “repeat after me if it is true for you” drill. Devise a series of statements and drill them, but tell students to repeat ONLY if it is true for them. This forces them to listen and process the meaning of what is being said, rather than just parrotting. And trust me, many will still just parrot, in which case you stop and ask questions.

Me: I live in Spain
Class: (a group of Spanish students answer in chorus) I live in Spain.
Me: I am not Spanish.
There should now be silence, but there are always a few who dutifully shout out I am not Spanish. In which case, I say:
Me: Really, you aren’t Spanish? Where are you from?

It always raises a laugh, especially if you get the right sentences. Students can be invited to come up and lead the group in future activities.

13 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Lindsay – I love the true/false drill idea, and, now that you come to mention it),I think I recall Paul demonstrating this at a conference in Lisbon, with much resulting laughter. I’ll definitely be using it in my talk in Ramallah. It assumes, of course, that the students are already well “trained” in conventional drilling, and will respond quickly to prompts from the teacher.

13 04 2010

Hmm. Lockstep. Where does it come from, where did it go?

Well I have always said that the old-fashioned language lab (perhaps not a good model for discussing web 2.0?!!) actually DID ‘lock’ students into a one-size-fits all drilling sequence. The little buttons and levers the teacher pulled set the time, the pace and the student response, all together.

Two questions arise, for me: is one-size-fits-all ever useful? and is the term ‘lockstep’ useful?

My answer to the first question (in 2010, not 1991) is an unequivocal yes. Drilling has its uses (and, of course, its misuses). In a recent edition of one of my books I devote 1 page to its advantages and 1 page to what’s wrong with it. But Whole-class grouping? Well it’s a must a lot of the time, especially with large groups. When I was asked to talk about teaching large classes by the ministerio de educacion in Chile recently I found myself making a kind of 3-category plan: teacher-controlled activities to be done by the whole group at the same time; teacher ‘started’ activities leading to student-student activity; teacher organised activities leading to student group activities. The first two of these categories can include amazingly effective learning, and they don’t mean that individual things aren’t happening in the students’ heads! Recently, for example, I have become convinced of the usefulness of poetry recitation as a provoker of fluency (another time, OK?), and that certainly includes some speaking-all-together.

But the term itself? Well it’s true, I hardly use it – although it is a convenient way of describing a particular kind of drilling. I think it is much better to talk about ‘whole class activities, or drilling itself.

Any of that make sense?

13 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Yes, perfect sense, Jeremy – and thanks for clarifying – and elaborating on – your position. I agree – perhaps ‘whole class activities’ is a better term, not having the negative (and militaristic) connotations of ‘lockstep’.

13 04 2010
vicki hollett

Might those videos of teachers drilling vast, vast numbers of students in China inspire?

13 04 2010

what about adding shadow reading? a good lockstep challenge for more advanced students too, especially with texts that have been chosen to be read aloud – and with professional models. One of my all time favourites is the Bezerk Evangelist gag by Woody Allen in his stand up days – it’s all in the timing, obviously, and it’s fun to get it right, lockstep along with the man himself. I like using it with poetry too, obviously – or extracts from novels or short stories or vouce overs from films – let the students chose which stanza/extract and discuss where to pause, stress, what feeling to add – or it can be fun to try and read along with a newsreader, a weather forecast or a trailer of a film, keeping in step with their particular brands of stress and intonation.

I think I love shadow reading because it harks back to my Welsh training in choral recital – and the buzz and energy of being part of the group performing on stage.

14 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Ceri, for this idea. I’d heard of shadowing (i.e. the immediate vocalising or sub-vocalising of audio input) as an individual activity, but not as a group (i.e. lockstep) idea. It sounds great. How do you actually set it up? Do the students hear the whole text first and then shadow it on re-hearing? Have they seen the text at any point? Do they vocalise or sub-vocalise (i.e. murmur)? It sounds like a neat idea but I can’t quite get my head round the mechanics!

14 04 2010

sorry – here are more details!

This is how I’d do it with the Woody Allen joke:

1. as a listening activity: 1 show photos of the main elements in the joke – Gideon bible, bullet, hotel window, chest pocket – ss predict that the story might be (they don’t as yet know it’s a joke) – they predictably come up with the predictable story – ie the bible saved someone’s life 2 ss listen and check (text at http://www.ibras.dk/comedy/allen.htm#Bullet – haven’t been able to find an audio clip online yet – I use an old CD)

2. setting up the shadow reading 1 ss get text and predict where Allen pauses and which words are stressed – marking this on their scripts 2 they then listen and check, comparing and confirming with partners, listening again intensively (ie stop, rewinding etc as mucha s necessary)

3. the shadow reading 1 they listen and mutter along individually 2 they listen and recite chorally along with the CD 3 (totally optional – depends on energy levels and ss’ response) bring the volume of Allen down so the ss chorus and drown him out

obviously the text is very short and very dependent on pausing, timing and stress – works nicely with film trailers too (the more dramatic the delivery the better) – but turning it slightly on its head i.e. looking at the text first, ss predict pauses and stresses before listening . listen and check and then follow the shadow reading steps as above

hope the mechanics make sense now!
I think I should probably credit someone from CALS (as was) in Reading for first introducing me to the idea (sorry can’t remember who – it was a long time ago!)

21 04 2010

My list of six:
– charades
– silent way activities
– yoga
– listening activities with different sets of questions to make accommodations for different language levels
– imagery activities with eyes closed as a lead-in to another activity to build up confidence and boost concentration
– and there’s always the “find someone who…”

15 04 2015
mrs, zaheer

what is difference between lockstep lesson and lockstep procedure

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