F is for Focus-on-form (2)

16 10 2011

Is dogme soft on form?

It’s a central tenet of the dogme approach to language instruction that, as we put it in Teaching Unplugged, it’s all “about teaching that focuses on emergent language” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009, p.8).  To this end we enlist the concept of “focus-on-form”, as defined by Michael Long (1991, pp 45-46):

“Focus-on-form… overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication”.

However, there are a number of problems inherent in this definition, such as how overt is ‘overtly’? And  which linguistic elements are drawn attention to – those that cause a breakdown in communication or those that are simply incorrect? But possibly the biggest problem is with the word ’incidentally’.

In an excellent (but oddly under-hyped) book by Roy Lyster (2007), based on extensive research into immersion and content-based classrooms in Canada, the writer challenges the prevailing wisdom that ‘incidental’ is good enough.  Lyster (who, admittedly, is firmly anchored in a cognitivist, rather than, say, a sociolcultural, learning tradition) pulls no punches:  “There now exists considerable evidence that the prevalence of implicit and incidental treatment of language [in immersion  and content-based classrooms] does not enable students to engage with language in ways that ensure their continued language growth” (Lyster, p.99)

Lyster is particularly critical of the tendency, in content-based classes – i.e. those where a school subject is taught in the learners’ L2 – to take learners’ non-standard utterances and simply recast them. Recasting means tidying up learners’ ill-formed utterances, but without any overt indication that they are wrong. For example:

T: Pourquoi pensez-vous qu’elle veut se faire réchauffer? Oui?

S8: Parce qu’elle est trop froid pour aller dans toutes les [?]

T:  Parce qu’elle a froid, OK. Oui?

S9: Elle est trop peur.

T: Parce qu’elle a peur, oui.

(T: Why do you think she wants to warm herself up? Yes?

S8: Because she has too cold to go into all the [?]

T: Because she is cold., Ok. Yes?

S9: She has too frightened.

T: Because she is frightened, yes. )

(Lyster, 2007, p. 102)

According to Lyster, recasting of this type seems to happen a lot in content-based instruction, and is probably motivated by a desire to maintain a focus on the subject matter, as well as to keep the lesson flowing along.  (Paul Seedhouse [2004, p. 163] calls this reluctance on the part of teachers to flag errors in teacher-student interaction as ‘The case of the missing “No”’).

But does recasting pay off in terms of language acquisition? Only in classes where there is already a strong form-focus, apparently.   In classrooms where the focus is primarily on meaning – as in these content-based ones in Canada , and, presumably, in a dogme one too – the linguistic information encoded in recasts goes largely unnoticed by learners.

But it’s not just recasts that Lyster takes issue with. He is also sceptical about the value of a purely reactive approach in general:

“If teachers were to rely exclusively on reactive approaches, students would soon be discouraged by being pushed in ostensibly random ways to refine their target language output, without the possibility of accessing linguistic support provided systematically through proactive instruction” (Lyster, p.137)

Dogme is very much a reactive approach, but, I hope neither random nor incidental (in the dictionary sense of incidental, i.e. “related to something but considered less important” [Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners]). In Teaching Unplugged we insist that the language that emerges in the conversation-driven classroom “must be worked upon. It must be scrutinised, manipulated, personalised and practised” (p. 20).

For an exemplary instance of this kind of rigorous focus-on-form, check out Chris Ozog’s blog post (‘If you were a dogme, would you regret barking?’) Chris describes how he orchestrated a spontaneous class discussion, after which

we got to the focus on form. We were 70minutes into the lesson and it had been pure conversation with lexis fed in where appropriate (sometimes the learners are surprised by how long and how much they speak in the class). This is where the ‘fight’ began. I am a firm believer that a focus on form is absolutely essential in the language classroom.

He then describes in detail this key stage of the lesson.  Read that, and then tell me that dogme is soft on form!


Long, M. 1991. ‘Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology’. In de Bot, K., Ginsberg, R., & Kramsch, C. (eds.) Foreign Language Research  in Cross-cultural Perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Lyster, R. 2007. Learning and Teaching Languages through Content: A counter-balanced approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. 2009. Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta.

Seedhouse, P. 2004. The Interactional Architecture of the Language Classrom: A Conversation Analysis Perspective. Oxford: Blackwell.

Illustrations from Alexander, A.G. 1968. Look, Listen, Learn. London: Longmans.



54 responses

16 10 2011
Declan Cooley

Dogme, it seems to me, is very form-focused via two different paths:

1. building on emergent fragments of language in post-fluency stages by reformulating and recasting [focussing on form(s)] and then using this language (which has been beefed up) in further controlled practice (or practised control)
2. making use of form(s)-focussed activities such as dictogloss that exploit the Big Words vs. Small Words dichotomy as a way of making all sorts of less salient features of the language more apparent

I would characterize the first path as reactive and the second path as potentially more pre-emptive (given the fact that dictogloss texts can be selected beforehand for the particular forms they contain, then this is one way in which Dogme can be pre-emptive if it so wishes).

Because Dogme is a sort of non-task-based conversation-driven approach, and thus the language that might emerge less predictable than a pure TBL approach, then indeed, taking the first path above, the language that arises is indeed incidental (in the 2nd sense of the word in Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners ) “in a way that is not planned” – this is the strength of the reactive approach with its “at point of need” stance. This post-fluency focus on form(s) can be extremely fruitful but I feel it needs to be considered further in relation to a few disparate issues:

a) will the form focus be more like Focus on Forms whereby teachers gravitate towards the much-maligned Grammar McNuggets as the items to look at given the fact that these are the Forms most teachers are familiar with ? if so is that beneficial or not ?

b) to what extent might a wider approach of Focus on Form be appropriate and to what extent is this dependant on teachers having a much deeper knowledge of language than is currently expected ? or do teachers do a mixture of the two ?

c) to what extent might post-conversation time be better spent on lexical enrichment of emergent fragments rather than form-focus ?

d) given the possible paucity of emergent language and / or institutional contraints – is it anti-Dogme for the teacher to have a Focus on Forms agenda on entering the class and weaving skilfully into a conversation ?

e) to what extent are emergent fragments of spoken language re-engineered in the recasting stage into structures that are perhaps more suited to written texts – and does that matter – or is it even a positive thing given links between orality and literacy ? http://www.cal.org/caelanetwork/pdfs/using-oral-language-skills.pdf

I guess there’s a lot there to chew on – but as the first poster – why not ? 🙂

16 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Declan – a lot to chew on indeed!

Just for the benefit of those who may not be familiar with this (awkward sounding) distinction between focus-on-form (FonF) and focus-on-formS (FonFS) that Declan alludes to, the former is Long’s term for the reactive, incidental form-focus I was writing about, whereas the latter refers to the (traditional) pre-emptive approach, involving a syllabus of pre-selected items (typically, the justly maligned ‘grammar McNuggets’). Lyster (in the book I refer to) argues that – apart from anything else – the reactive approach (FonF) leaves too much to chance. Moreover, spontaneous grammar presentations (vs planned ones) require a degree of expertise on the part of the teacher that limits the effectiveness of a reactive approach to only a very select few. Lyster concludes “that much incidental attention to language is too brief and likely too perfunctory to convey sufficient information about certain grammatical subsystems and thus … can be considered neither systematic nor apt to make the most of content-based instruction as a means for teaching language” (p.27). For content-based instruction read dogme?

I was arguing that this is not necessarily the case, but it is a caveat that dogmetists need to take seriously, I think. Thanks, Declan, for taking it seriously!

(Let me chew a bit further before I respond to your specific questions).

16 10 2011

I’m not sure dogme can be construed as ‘content-based instruction’ since the content is learner-generated and, therefore, not as top heavy as formal instruction.

I also don’t find that impromptu grammar sessions or ‘presentations’ can be conveniently juxtaposed with planned presentations if the former occur in the context of a learner-driven conversation. I say this because a presentation imported by the teacher or coursebook is likely to be less motivational, memorable, and notice-able than is one that stems from the learners’ own needs and interests during a given ‘lesson’.

Lyster’s point about expertise is valid although it is our job to be grammar experts, isn’t it? When it comes to teachers who’ve not inherited the target language, aren’t we entitled to refer to a teacher’s book or grammar when in doubt? Or better yet, can’t the learners be set the task of discovery learning?

Sorry if I’m missing the boat entirely.

17 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Rob – no, a dogme approach is not a content-based one, but both approaches do share many key characteristics, primarily that the emphasis is on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’ of communication. In the content-based classroom, the ‘what’ is largely pre-specified (e.g. biology, yoga, literature etc), whereas in the dogme classroom it is generally not pre-specified: it emerges. But there the differences end, I think, and this is why Lyster’s call for a counterbalanced approach (i.e. keeping meaning and form in some sort of dialectic tension) is worth taking seriously.

16 10 2011
Declan Cooley

A summary of the distinction between focus-on-form (FonF) and focus-on-formS (FonFS) and the ambiguities thereof:

Click to access sheen.pdf

16 10 2011

I remember reading that during my graduate studies. Wasn’t it Aristotle who said all language is metaphor? We’re clutching at straws when we try to capture and convey meaning with these squiggly lines. 🙂

Taking up Declan’s astute questions (which is Scott’s job, really – sorry):

b) to what extent might a wider approach of Focus on Form be appropriate and to what extent is this dependant on teachers having a much deeper knowledge of language than is currently expected ? or do teachers do a mixture of the two ?

If, by ‘mixture of the two, you mean FonF and FonFS, I imagine teachers do both and dogme teachers tend to do FonF.

c) to what extent might post-conversation time be better spent on lexical enrichment of emergent fragments rather than form-focus ?

Good question given the correlation between grammar and lexis, which I ineptly addressed in the comments to Scott’s previous post on Problematizing. I think some teachers would say a focus on lexis is time better spent, while others might imagine it hard to separate big words from the little ones.

d) given the possible paucity of emergent language and / or institutional contraints – is it anti-Dogme for the teacher to have a Focus on Forms agenda on entering the class and weaving skilfully into a conversation ?

Not anti-Dogme, in my opinion, but not really Dogme either. For example, asking students to talk about superstitions around Halloween time, using “If – statements, eg ‘If a black cat crosses your path…’ could be taken from the day’s coursebook lesson, imported by the teacher, or emerge as part of a conversation about Halloween. The latter strikes me as Dogme; the other might be anathema to some dogmetics, but not anti-Dogme.


16 10 2011

Whehey! Great topic, I will be following this one.

One of my assignments this week was to choose a characteristic in SLA, in particular speaking, that poses a challenge in your speaking context.

I chose to look at fossilized errors because it’s something that truly fascinates me

a) on a personal level, my own errors and mistakes in Spanish versus German and how they are not of the same origin or made for the same reasons
b) because when I am teaching higher level adult learners long-term sometimes there are simple slip-ups (‘s /verb-subject order/false-friends) -me having to say “come on, M, you know that’s not right” or putting my irritated face on/slapping a cue-card on the desk when hearing something I have corrected 100 times already or watching one of my students pause, get a confused face – upon noticing hearing him/herself saying something they already know to be incorrect and know shouldn’t have come out of their mouths.

Sometimes tho’, there are more dramatic mistakes which go all the way back to their school days – things like “I looking forward” “I am agree” which just had never been corrected by their previous teachers (one assumes) and thus has became a part of their fixed working vocabulary.

I like to think of myself as a “stickler” for form because I believe that in many cases without form you can’t have meaning. Sometimes it leads, e.g. false friends misuse, to a complete breakdown in communication.

Dogme is so often considered “winging it” but because of the scaffolding, that you have us do, because of the feedback we need to give, it means that as a teacher you have to constantly be on the ball, totally focused on what is happening in the dialogues around you, discerning what can be “allowed to slide” for “now”, what needs to be corrected in that specific moment, what needs to be highlighted for review and followed up with grammar/lexical explanations. Exhausting but worth it!

As an aside, when I was combing the ‘net for a supportive article on the subject of fossilized errors, I came across a fascinating article* which also dealt with the concept of fossilization in general – (although I think I would rather call this ‘stagnation’) – where the learner goes no further than the level achieved.

My opinion, I think, is that this comes down to “having a defined purpose for continued study and a necessity for mastery of next level vs an ability to survive at the level already attained”… if this is an interesting topic and you’ve had thoughts on this, would love a follow-up blog post on the subject!

Take care, have a great week
*the article was by ZhaoHong, H. (2004) Fossilization: five central issues, International Journal of Applied Linguistics Vol14 no.2 pp. 212-239

17 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Karenne – and nice to hear that you are immersed in your studies! Your comment has inspired me to plan a post on fossilization, so I might withhold some of my immediate thoughts – except to say that if we assume that awareness is a prerequsite for destablisation (i.e. de-fossilization), then the degree to which teachers can influence and manipulate awareness – e.g. through their interventions during classroom interaction – must be a high priority for researchers. How exactly you track, measure and interpret these interventions is tricky, though, and depends on your theoretical allegiance, e.g. cognitivist, sociolinguist, sociocultural, emergentist, and so on (see the discussion with Rob, below, about conversation analysis, for example).

And then how these findings might impact on methodology is trickier still. In the end, is research able to tell us anything we don’t already know about how we should be interacting with our learners?

17 10 2011

Oh how I love that question, Scott! Could that be the subject of the post after next? 🙂

16 10 2011

Scott, a subject close to my heart! ☺

You point out how “there are a number of problems inherent in this definition [of focus- on-form], such as [1] how overt is ‘overtly’? “And [2] which linguistic elements are drawn attention to – those that cause a breakdown in communication or those that are simply incorrect? But [3] possibly the biggest problem is with the word ’incidentally’.”

I hope to respond to all three points, collectively, in a way that makes sense to everyone reading. Fingers crossed…

Let’s look at the *next line in the snippet you’ve extracted from Chris’ blog:

“I am a firm believer that a focus on form is absolutely essential in the language classroom. *Not in every class, but in many.”

Chris’ observation seems in line with Karenne’s comment (above): [Dogme] means that as a teacher you have to constantly be on the ball”.

So, as teachers, we are alert but discerning in our approach to focus-on-form. Unless a student calls attention to a particular form, isn’t it then the teacher’s uniquely intimate knowledge of learner personalities and language development that should determine how overtly emergent language forms need to be addressed?

Taken together, Chris’ and Karenne’s ideas imply to me that the unplugged teacher is unplugged for a reason; namely, because Dogme is a sort of ‘folk methodology’. Chris hints at this later in his blog post:

“You simply do not see the humour and creativity in people when you force them to work with language from a coursebook. I believe that doing things this way makes the language more memorable and the study of it more enjoyable. This lesson is now part of the class ‘folklore’ and the themes recur in almost every class…”

By personalizing the content of the classroom interaction (ie, consulting the folks in the room), and thus making the emergent language memorable and meaningful, Chris’ focus-on-form contributes to the group’s story, a true folk tale, which originates in the popular culture of the classroom and is passed on by word of mouth.

A popular musician, in a video featuring acoustic instruments, remarks how such instruments are unplugged because they were made to travel with the musicians, who carried them from one gig to another, performing live, often impromptu, in union halls, at parties, etc. This is what I think Declan is getting at with the point about Dogme’s “at point of need” stance.

Dogme, a folk methodology, is unplugged to accommodate the impromptu narrative that weaves the unique tale of a singular constellation of players (as in, ‘All the world’s a stage…’) within the context of a language-learning environment, typically a classroom. As I’ve mentioned before, being on the road is the goal with language learning, as I see it, so any focus-on-form should be impromptu – a much more appropriate term than ‘incidental’ or ‘reactive’, in my opinion – to accommodate anything other than the destination travel of the grammar syllabus.

“If teachers were to rely exclusively on reactive approaches, students would soon be discouraged by being pushed in ostensibly random ways to refine their target language output, without the possibility of accessing linguistic support provided systematically through proactive instruction” (Lyster, p.137)

Here, Lyster seems to make the assumption that:

a) learners are motivated and supported by systematic linguistic instruction;
b) learners are unable to work out the patterns of the target language without such instruction.

When Chris highlights the emergent language of the conversation, it is fair to say he reacts in a proactive way, while he, thankfully, avoids ‘instruction’ (deduction) and chooses instead to tease out the patterns of the second conditional form through a more inductive (He does drill a bit.), learner-centered approach a la Dogme.

In summary, every action can be seen as a reaction, and the reactive vs. proactive dichotomy, while serving Lyster’s agenda, seems less accurate than does a holistic view of unplugged teaching as a sort of ‘folk methodology’ that incorporates an impromptu focus-on-form at the discretion of, in the first instance, learners, whose attention to form is then either reinforced or supplanted by the knowledge and experience of a more ‘expert’ user of the target language, a ‘significant other’ if you will, who has a uniquely intimate understanding of the learners personal needs and language development, a.k.a. the teacher.


16 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Wow, thanks Rob – a lot to think about here! I just want to pick up on one point (because it connects with something I read just yesterday) and it is this:

“Unless a student calls attention to a particular form, isn’t it then the teacher’s uniquely intimate knowledge of learner personalities and language development that should determine how overtly emergent language forms need to be addressed?”

Is the teacher really privileged to this extent? I.e. can the teacher – however expert – really get inside the heads of the learners and ‘do their noticing’ for them? The text that got me thinking about this was the Seedhouse one (also referred to in my post) in which he argues that “there is a major conceptual problem inherent in the literature on focus on form: Whose focus is it?” (p. 249). Is it the researcher’s? Is it the teacher’s? Or is it the learner’s? Presumably — as Seedhouse goes on to argue — it should be the learner’s. However, most research into focus-on-form episodes in the classroom is ‘etic’ — that is to say, it is the observer’s perspective not the learner’s ’emic’ one.

So, I guess my question is, to what extent does the dogme approach recognise – and take into account – the learner’s unique and idiosyncratic learning processes (aka heuristics)? And/or does it do this (potentially) better than any other ‘method’ on the block?

17 10 2011

That would seem to me to be an area that until we know a lot more about how we cognitively process language we are only ever going to be guessing at. What we can say, is that dogme allows the learner to choose a lot more, and this should therefore put them more in control of the heuristic conundrum you mentioned above. I would also suspect a dogme teacher is by necessity more highly attuned to the people in front of them – the very nature of emergent work.
However, I am equally sure we have our favourite methods for dealing with emergent text, the standby ‘activities’ that we like for the same reasons – they seem enjoyable and we see value in doing them. What I like about your approach in teaching unplugged is that you try to vary these, and again allow the learner that agency – YOU decide what you want to do not me. This at least nods towards the learners unique and idiosyncratic learning processes by recognising that no teacher could possibly know that.

16 10 2011

I really don’t think we teachers can get inside the heads of our learners to do their noticing for them at all! I do think we can get to know learners though, reflecting on our understanding the relationship between their affective and linguistic needs to inform our approach to a focus-on-form(s).

I haven’t read the Seedhouse text, but I would agree with his argument that the learner’s focus (on form) matters most. As for the anthropological terms ‘etic’ and ’emic’, Seedhouse seems to be saying we need more qualitative research whereby learners tell us how they view their learning. But, back to your point about noticing, can researchers, or anybody else for that matter – a psychoanalyst perhaps? – get inside learners’ heads?

“So, I guess my question is, to what extent does the dogme approach recognise – and take into account – the learner’s unique and idiosyncratic learning processes (aka heuristics)? And/or does it do this (potentially) better than any other ‘method’ on the block?”

Assuming there is simply one (“the”) dogme approach – not convinced of that – I find dogme to be uniquely qualified to take into account the singularity (in both senses of the word: beauty and eccentricity) of individual learning processes. Dogme incorporates learner idiosyncrasy into the classroom narrative rather than deconstruct the learner, does it not?

It’s interesting to note that the terms ’emic’ and ‘etic’ “are derived from the linguistic terms phonemic and phonetic respectively” and that the person who coined the term, and others, “have argued that cultural ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ are equally capable of producing emic and etic accounts of their culture.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emic_and_etic


17 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Rob, once again for your insights. On the question of the emic (i.e insider’s e.g. learner’s) perspective vs the etic (e.g. researcher’s) one, Seedhouse in fact makes the interesting claim that his chosen tool, conversation analysis (CA), provides a more reliable measure of what’s going on in classroom interactions than any other research method. “One principal aim of CA is to characterize the organization of the interaction by abstracting from exemplars of specimens of interaction and to uncover the emic logic underlying the organization” (2004 p.13). It follows (he argues) that, “given the emic goal of CA, there is no substitute for detailed and in-depth analysis of individual sequences [of classroom talk]; interviews with participants, questionnaires, and so on are not able to provide this, which is why triangulation is not normally undertaken [by CA researchers]” (2004, p. 260). Hence, how a learner responds to a recast is – from a CA perspective – all you need to know about the matter.

Proponents of systemic functional linguistics make a similar dodgy claim (it seems to me), i.e. that you can ‘read off’ mental processes from purely linguistic data. I’m not sure that human interaction is so transparent.

17 10 2011

Scott, this seems to be Seedhouse’s general research interest, doesn’t it?

“The knowledge which is created by my research is of how people communicate in professional settings. Specifically, I uncover how the organisation of interaction in an institutional setting is related to the institutional goals. Close examination of the detail of the interaction can reveal issues and problems which can then be tackled through policy or training.”


17 10 2011

Scott, in the blog you referred us to Chris writes:

“At this point, we got to the focus on form. We were 70minutes into the lesson and it had been pure conversation with lexis fed in where appropriate………… This is where the ‘fight’ began. I am a firm believer that a focus on form is absolutely essential in the language classroom. Not in every class, but in many. This group had been enjoying the discussion so much that it was difficult to keep them focused on the focus.”

One cannot help noticing that the class were very happy doing it their way but Chris met some resistance following his convictions about the importance of focus on form.

He then goes on to say:

” Later, using using the solutions the group had agreed on,, we re-wrote them as 2nd conditional sentences, highlighting the use of past simple and continuous tenses as well as the modals would, could, might + infinitive. We discussed the contractions and drilled them, as well as going over ways to start conditionals that aren’t if, such as providing that/as long as……….”

I would dearly like to know,if the learners took away permanently remembered and actively used language from the first part of the lesson or the second. Because they had so much fun, I would guess there is a high chance that it was from the first part.

I simply cannot shakes off the feeling that, as in this case, concern with and preoccupation with form is a teacher characteristic and not always a student concern.. And even if one happens to believe that grammatical correctness – that is what form is, isn’t it? – is sometimes important for the accurate portrayal of meaning – that still leaves the question – Is dealing with it in the ways described effective, i.e. leading to acquisition?


17 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Dennis – the question as to what the students might have enjoyed and what they might have resisted (in Chris’s lesson) finds a sort of answer in Nick Bilbrough’s post below, viz: “My sense was that the class was hungry for a focus on form and appreciated the challenge of having to remember the utterances and try to reactivate them”.

As for your final question,i.e. “Is dealing with it [i.e. form] in the ways described effective, i.e. leading to acquisition?” – to paraphrase Larkin,

Ah, solving that question
Brings the applied linguist and the researcher
In their long coats
Running over the fields.


17 10 2011

Only a brief comment considering the really indepth contributions, but almost all the way through I was mentally saying ‘yes, but what about “incidentally” ‘. I just found myself thinking that you could easily take “incidentally” to mean “resulting from or connected to incidents”? Which is (by my understanding) at the basis of dogme – building on and developing from incidents either in the classroom or out of it.

17 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Sam. Yes, I wonder what Michael Long oriignally meant when he talked about forms that ‘arise incidentally’, and whether he intended that incidental form-focus should equate with ‘incidental learning’.

Incidental learning is defined by Ellis (2008) as “[the] learning of some specific feature that takes place without any conscious intention to learn it” (p. 966). Incidental learning is well attested in studies of vocabulary acquisition. Indeed, Nation (2001) goes so far as to claim that “incidental learning via guessing from context is the most important of all sources of vocabulary learning”. But he qualifies this by adding that “many [learners] do not experience the conditions that are needed for this kind of learning to occur” (p.232). Put simply, these conditions are ‘massive exposure’, e.g. through extensive reading — but lots of extensive reading. In short, “second language learners should not rely solely on incidental vocabulary learning from context; there needs to be judicious attention to decontextualised learning to supplement and be supplemented by learning from context” (p.238). Again, this seems to reflect what Lyster calls his “counterbalanced approach”. Nation (op. cit) actually quantifies what this balance might be: “A well-designed language learning program has an appropriate balance of opportunities to learn from message-focused activities and from direct study of language items, with direct study of language items occupying no more than 25% of the total learning program” (p.232).

Dennis, if you are following this, would you concede 25% of lesson time on form-focused activities? 😉

Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition (second edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nation, P. 2001. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

17 10 2011
Marisa Constantinides

Great post and love the sound of your title – especially when I say it very very quickly…. 😀

It’s good to have these discussions. The gospel is often preached (and not ‘praught’) by evangelists in whatever way they have perceived, processed and intepreted it so I really like it when you talk about this or that aspect of dogme and how the responses and the conversations in the Yahoo group and blogs are reshaping or fine-honing, if you like, the thinking and perceptions around it.

I don’t know of any conclusive research about what causes acquisition and what evidence there is, doesn’t always ‘travel’ well.

Still, I am happy to experiment and try out everything (well, not quite, but almost), borrowing ideas from every approach and trend, playing with and reshaping these ideas and techniques, as all teachers ought to do, imoh, to find what fits their education philosophy and individual teaching persona – doing their own class research and investigating what works best with particular groups or learners.

Deep down, I also believe in the value of form focused moments – one might ascribe this to a variety of factors, educational background and the penchant for grammar which led me to the MAAL at Reading… but I can control the urge – quite easily 🙂 as every professional teacher does, I’m sure.

I was interested in the expression ‘pop up grammar’ which Stephen Krashen used in a recent interview after Kotesol – sounds a little bit like what you are describing.

The most interesting issue in the many heated and passionate grammar denial comments related to dogme, is that people feel they ‘own’ it well enough to be able to tell the rest of us what to do and what not to do – sometimes I may react to certain evangelical overtones, but surely, this must be a positive thing, overall.

To me, what it boils down to is – if you are building a skill, you sometimes have to know something about the mechanics, the nuts and bolts of it, but not always at a very great depth – a ballerina does not need to know about velocity and a cyclist how to construct a bicycle, but they do need some basic facts about their performance, especially when they got it wrong.

Many thanks for all these great posts and discussions you have generated.


17 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Marisa, for joining the discussion. I too am interested in Krashen’s comment about ‘pop-up grammar’. Presumably (coming from him) this was meant disparagingly. Or has he mellowed?

Your point, too, that dogme has accreted proselytisers – but that this may be a sign of its maturity – is a generous one. Nobody likes a fundamentalist, and I guess what interested me about Lyster’s book is that he makes a good case for moderation. (Have I mellowed?)

17 10 2011
Nick Bilbrough

Very interesting post and discussion Scott. I wonder whether a Focus on Forms is more well suited to out of class work (but can feed nicely into what happens in class), whereas a Focus on Form is more naturally suited to what happens when a group of people come together in a classroom.

By way of an example, here’s the outline of a lesson I taught last week. There were 15 learners, mostly between the age of 17 and 20, and all from China apart from one Korean and one Saudi. I’d set them lots of vocabulary exercises for homework on the topic of holidays from English Vocabulary Organiser (fairly standard matching and gapfilling type exercises)

1) Everyone goes through the homework in pairs – identifying difficulties and clearing up discrepancies. We clarify outstanding issues in plenary.

2) Learners who are from the same or nearby regions work together in pairs. Their task is to imagine they are travel agents and have to design a one week package holiday with an itinerary for each day. I go round and feed in language where it’s needed

3) One person from each pair now becomes a person looking for a holiday. They visit two different travel agents and find out about what is on offer.

4) The tourists now report back to their original partners about which holiday they preferred and why.

5) I invite the people who’d been looking for holidays to feed back to the whole group about the holidays they’d heard about, and which one they preferred and why. While they do this, I frantically write down on a piece of paper some of the things that they say.

6) The class have a five minute break. During this break I write up on the board about 15 of the things that were said but as reformulated versions.

eg There’s lots of seafood available (instead of ‘have many seafoods there’)
It’s a long way from the sea (instead of ‘very far from sea’)

7) We go through them as a whole group, checking understanding and asking them to try to remember who said each one about which place.

8 ) I give them a bit of time to look at the board and try to remember what is there. I then rub out everything but the first letter of each word.

eg T l o s a
I a l w f t s.

9) They try to remember each utterance in pairs using the letters on the board as prompts and we check this afterwards in the whole group.

10) Again in pairs they then discuss the place where they are living now using the utterances from the board and adapting them where necessary.

A few things which struck me after the lesson in the light of this post

a) There was a real sense of flow in focusing on the language that had emerged from their conversations at stage 7. My sense was that the class was hungry for a focus on form and appreciated the challenge of having to remember the utterances and try to reactivate them. This was much less evident in the checking of homework stage.

b) There was actually very little crossover between what was studied at home and the language that emerged in class.

c) Despite both of these points the Focus on Forms stage seemed useful in priming the learners for the class, providing a link between in class and out of class work, and in fulfilling the learners expectations about what kinds of activities language learning should include.


17 10 2011

Nick, just to say this was a pleasure to read. Reminds me of some of my classes, and I agree about the hunger for form at some stage. I’m sometimes surprised just how ravenous learners become even after a long, intense conversation. Cheers, Rob

17 10 2011
Nick Bilbrough

Thanks Rob and I think that a hunger for a focus on forms, as well as a focus on form, can also be very much there – certainly in the learners I’m working with at the moment, who are in exam oriented, intensive classes, where there’s quite a lot of pressure to achieve both from within, and from the system they’ve landed in.

I’m attempting to satisfy their appetites, and fit in with the constraints of a pretty prescriptive syllabus, by trying to work as much as possible with emergent language inside the class, and by giving lots of quite traditional forms focussed homework for outside the class. So what do you think? Is dogme compatible with such an approach? Maybe I’m just scared of putting all my eggs in one basket!

I am currently quite drawn to the idea (which I think I first read in your article about learning Maori, Scott) where learners go away and learn words around a particular topic and then come to class and try to use them in conversation. Is this a way to give the dog(me) more meat or is it just making more dog biscuits?

18 10 2011

What do I say? We each have to make Dogme work for us within our particular contextual constraints. Sounds like you’ve got a good thing going.

17 10 2011
Jessica Mackay

There was a really interesting debate at the Language Learning round table at Eurosla 2010, involving Johannes Wagner, Paul Seedhouse, Roy Lyster and Alison Mackey which touched on some of these issues. There’s a link here:


It’s well worth watching the whole thing as it’s fascinating stuff, but if you’re pressed for time you can FF to the discussion at the end. Interestingly, it’s Lyster & Mackey, supposedly on the same side of the Cognitive / Social divide who seems to disagree most, especially when it comes to noticing.

17 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jessica, for this link. I ought to add that when Jessica first sent me this link, I watched the whole thing all the way through AND ordered both the Lyster and the Seedhouse book. So, this post should really be dedicated to Jessica!

17 10 2011
Luke Meddings

I picked up on something in my SLA primer that resonated with a theme that’s been running through recent training sessions, and which may be of interest here.

First the training theme, which is there are essentially two modes of interaction in unplugged/dogme classrooms – one which is conversational and communicative (using language), and one which is conversational and instructional (looking at language). These motivate each other, like cogs. Someone neatly described this as a ‘rolling dynamic’, which I rather like; I also use ‘play’, ‘pause’ as an analogy. But it’s not as if we avoid drawing attention to language in the first, communicative mode; and it’s not as if we avoid communicating in the second, more instructional mode. That way methods, and madness, lie.

What caught my eye in the SLA primer (a source Scott will be very familiar with by now – Key Terms in SLA, VanPatten & Benati, Continuum, 2010) was a reference to Ehrman and Leaver’s (2003) notion of there being essentially two learning styles – ectenic and synoptic. Ectenic learners, VanPatten and Benati explain, ‘prefer or require conscious control over their learning; synoptic learners leave more to unconscious processes’. Or, as Leaver, Eherman and Shekhtman imply in ‘Achieving success in second language acquisition (CUP, 2005, and thank you Google books), an ectenic learner is likely to make too much use of the dictionary, the synoptic learner too little.

It strikes me that the ‘rolling dynamic’ of an unplugged/dogme lesson, with its varying emphasis on interaction and instruction, and with each woven into the other, is a good way to engage both learning styles. (Frankly the idea of there being only two basic learning styles comes as a tremendous relief, and makes intuitive sense – I guess I must be synoptic with ectenic tendencies.)

17 10 2011
Declan Cooley

Good to bring in an important factor (cognitive style) that might decide which noticing-inducements might work in certain circumstances (the saliency of the language items (or the form-meaning mapping) probably being another – their “notice-ability”).

[A personal theory is that the two main cognitive styles may come down to left-brain / right-brain usage or at least some type of modularity – thus, learners may simply lean in the direction of one hemisphere or the other (possibly based on what they attribute worked in the past as well as the “soft-wiring”)].

17 10 2011

I once read a paper on how the times we live in affect the meta-language used in ELT. Cognitive scientists jargon leaves me dry, I must say, since they see the Brain as God in the same vein as Hendrix/Paige/Clapton(take your pick) is God. Human can play, use imagination and feel emotions. Can cognitive scientists? 🙂

17 10 2011

Makes sense, Luke, and well articulated by you. So now we have emic and. etic, ectenic and synoptic (cycloptic and panoptic?)… I wonder how much dualism there has to be in the Western mind before it starts to crack. 🙂 It’s nice to at least have an image of cogs working together, I suppose, although something less industrial would be more appealing (to me). Multiple intelligence is out then? It’s down to two – Whew! 🙂

So what does a synoptic sort like you say to Nation (2001) cited in Scott’s post above?
“A well-designed language learning program has an appropriate balance of opportunities to learn from message-focused activities and from direct study of language items, with direct study of language items occupying no more than 25% of the total learning program” (p.232).


17 10 2011
Declan Cooley

When it comes changes in approach to Form-Focus, perhaps we are seeing the same types of changes that have happened in the human-digital interface (analogy-alert!).

In chronological order:

Approach 1. The traditional classroom (TI) with its sequential FonFs McNugget approach very decontextualised
::::::::::::>like TV – preprogrammed,little choice, fixed times, no interaction with viewer, like-it-or-lump-it attitude from broadcaster (transmission model of teaching).

Approach 2. incidental “pop-up grammar” chosen by teacher as remarkable and therefore brought to students attention in form-focus/post-activivity correction slot
::::::::> like Web 1.0 lots more to look at, more choice of items to look at but still less interactive, no way for user to “upload” and a tendency that what the teacher focusses on in these pauses are occasionaly tending to be grammar mcnuggets rather than the subtler patterns (since the teacher’s language awareness has also been focussed on McNuggets).

Approach 3. : items for noticing chosen by learners, direction of focus indicated by learners, variagated choices – different learners choose different things and research them seperately (online corpuses etc)
::::::::> like Web 2.0 with users more actively creating content

As usual I am stretching an analogy beyond breaking point – but in the hope that it sparks further discussion.

17 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

I love this analogy, Declan (well, I’m an analogy buff) – and I’d want to add to your Web 2.0 ‘approach’ some reference to the socially-situated and -mediated nature of the interaction – the classroom as a social network.

I suppose the next stage (analogous to Web 3.0) will be when, based on a history of previous ‘noticing’ experiences, the learning context and the learner co-adapt, so that the latter is provided with customised learning affordances and at the optimal moment. In some ways it’s probably how Man Friday learned his English, as he wandered round the island with Robinson Crusoe, who would answer his every question, and point out things to him that he figured he was ready to take on board, a fusion of learner and context, interaction and instruction, teacher and student, form and meaning… ‘the whole consort dancing together”.

Oh my, I’m getting completely carried away!

17 10 2011

Rob to Scott: Please get carried away more often. 🙂

17 10 2011

Hi Scott,

Brilliant post and I like it even more as I used Lyster a lot in my MA dissertation on CBI. I definitely agree with the importance of keeping the lesson flowing in content classes and this is probably one reason why teachers don’t stop and do a focussing activity. I’ve taught a bit of foundation/pre-MA content courses and I was often the only TEFLer. The others were subject specialists who just taught the subjects. From observing classes I did see some recasting and some lexical correction but very briefly.

My own research was based on a CBI debate discussion course and it showed that most students did not consider the class as an English teaching/learning one but most did say their English had improved via researching and debating topics. The general concensus was that they were appreciative of focus on errors/forms in very small doses when used to help them speak/debate. Any venture into ‘grammar lecture land’ was not.

One student said:

“The teacher is nice. He helps me make good sentences”


17 10 2011
Luke Meddings

Ah Rob we build this city on rock n roll and dualism! Well I agree – which is why I suggested that a) I’m a bit of both, like everyone and b) the interactional and instructional modes, which are both also conversational, are interwoven. But there is a lot to be said for different dynamics within an experience, or for different rhythms within the same dynamic; the refusal of much modern architecture to account for this explains the dreariness of many of our city centres. There might even be more than two!

I think the notion of ‘direct study of language items’ needs to be unpicked with reference to the dogme classroom, because the items emerge from interaction. Even if we’re looking at the same items, doing so from an emergent perspective is not the same as doing so from a top-down, pre-selected language exponent point of view. In the same way – going back to Nation (2001) as quoted by Scott in the comment thread above – I’m not sure how ‘judicious attention to decontextualised learning’ applies when the learning is contextualised. I mean, I accept that there is meta-language, but noticing, highlighting, and refining a form that has emerged in class – even if we give it a label in the process – doesn’t strike me as decontextualised. Nor does inviting the learners to generate more from the pattern we’ve identified.

Sorry about the cogs. Mechanical. Feeble in the light of complexity theory. But easy to draw on a flip-chart!

17 10 2011

Luke my brain has stimulated my hand to write that it agrees with 97.6% of your cognition.

I Rob-ert

17 10 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Well, there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who accept dualism and those who don’t…

Taking Declan’s and Scott’s web analogy a bit further, we are all aware, I suppose, of the increasing concern about the way the web and associated technologies, instead of broadening our horizons, are actually delimiting them. Here’s a recent TED talk on the matter, though the contents will come as no surprise: http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html

What has this got to do with Dogme, or focus on form? Well, let’S assume that an unplugged classroom may prioritize focus on incidental emergent language and it may even do this FoF(s) well enough to satisfy critics of less rigorous approaches to this work (as Scott mentioned in CLiL classrooms, for example).

However, with the focus self-consciously on “the people in the room” – ie a closed group – this may (it could be argued) lead to impoverished affordances in the sense that people tend to talk about a delimited set of all that is possible, in a form of words delimited from all that is possible, and this may lead to learners never having a need emerge for specific forms (or lexis, for that matter) in the classroom, and hence perhaps never explore them. “How many years could go by”, the critics ask, “before an affordance for the will- future continuous passive may occur? And can we afford to wait that long?”

Well, perhaps we can, and perhaps we can’t… But the idea of Dogme potentially acting as a delimiting filter bubble (while I find it hard to accept, but need to consider) is one that struck me as I read Declan, Rob and Scott’s exchange.

Connect that to the other idea in this thread that teachers, at least those teachers less open-minded and “alert to all possible affordances”, may end up focusing on the same obvious areas instead of the less obvious, because rarer, but perhaps richer for all that, pickings in the learners’ discourse, and you have the basis of my (albeit highly theoretical) concern.

So the question is: how far has the development of technology and its impact on how we access information (and what information we access at all), and the accommodation of such technologies by Dogme, led to a more nefarious question than “is Dogme compatible with materials?” or “is Dogme ‘soft’ on form?”, namely: “No matter how well a Dogme classroom does Focus on Form, does it necessarily delimit which forms get focus in its own way in the process according to the audience?”…

in other words, “is Dogme the Google of ELT?”
And “is that good or bad?”

17 10 2011

I think this question came up on the Dogme forum (Yahoo!) once or twice. I’ll see if I can locate that post or thread in the archives. Playing devils advocate (I was dragged offstage by demons, after all :-), won’t learners, trying to make meaning, naturally tend toward the language that suits their needs? Isn’t opening up the discussion more learner- and learning-friendly than trying to hit all the possible structures. Can’t I learn as much – if not more – about a country by spending a week there, doing the things I want to do rather than trying to visit every city in a month as part of a package travel plan designed by someone who thinks they know what I should do? Sure, a lot depends on my interests and motivation, on my memory (I’ve got a camera, too), and my noticing!


17 10 2011
Declan Cooley

Rob, if I could jump on board the travel analogy (and thanks for responding to my earlier questions ) – I think there is something to be learnt from both; on taking a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of Budapest recently I got a three-route (one of which was a river-trip) tour package which I could take advantage of over two days – there was actually a lot of flexibility built-in and having covered all three I was in a much better position to notice which places I wanted to explore in more detail (and in fact discovered locations I would never have known otherwise or at least would not have realised their significance); in the same way the teacher may take the students on a magical mystery tour of language/texts/topics before they decide for themselves where to hop-on-hop-off to form-focus on the details or explore subtopics or relate it to their lives.

By the way, tour buses are not usually my MO but deferred to my company on the trip. I usually prefer the wander-the-streets approach – which has its own pros and cons.

17 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

I’m not sure if the question came up on the yahoo group discussion, but a similar issue – the potential trivialization of content – has been mentioned here before. In the post C is for Conversation, I quoted Luan Hanratty, who suggested that “Dogme has the danger of becoming like the people who tweet about what they had for lunch. Pleasant but not very inspiring, especially in an learning context. Surely we can do better by giving more time to transactions and performances, i.e. speech acts rather than coffee chats”.

As someone who tweets about what he had for lunch, this critcisim really struck home!

17 10 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Ouch! But I think I was getting, not at trivialisation through Dogme, but at the parocialisation (if that’s not a word, it is now…) that it may (has?) been accused of.

I agree with Rob that even a small group of learners is likely, through its interactions, to give rise to any and all cases of relevant language need for their purposes, likely in order of urgency and in terms of frequency, in terms of importance.

Still wanted to ask the question, though, to see what you all thought about the risk (however small) of any localising pedagogy actually reducing the scope of learning when its intention is to broaden it. Or actually, is Dogme not about broadening outlooks wider than the pages of a delimited coursebook at all, but rather simply about choosing a more appropriate local horizon, even if it is in objective terms no less limiting at the end of the day (the only difference being who does the limiting and at what stage of the game)?

Sorry, off topic!

17 10 2011
Declan Cooley

Anthony, this is exactly one of points I was attempting to make earlier (in post 1) – i.e. focus on form stages may be delimited by a lack of teacher awareness of anything but Grammar McNuggets and therefore may scupper or at least hamper a wide-ranging Focus on Incidental Forms approach due to its limited scope of patterns looked at and built upon.

{although surely not all McNuggets are unpalatable and may be more like Hot Wings (less pre-processed) when they arise as emergent items in a dogme context; this is the point I believe Luke is getting at above: “because the items emerge from interaction. Even if we’re looking at the same items, doing so from an emergent perspective is not the same as doing so from a top-down, pre-selected language exponent point of view.”} Correct me if I got the wrong idea, Luke.

So a related point is about teacher language awareness and training/development in this regard. Doesn’t there need to be a much greater emphasis (“health warnings”) given to dogme-novices about the need to have a broader and more in-depth knowledge of language items and patterns both within and beyond the sentence-based Mcnuggets (to discourse features and word formation prosody etc) in order to be able to handle the diverse offerings of a class ?

Exceptionally, I am heartened to see on a dogme-novice teacher’s (Dale Coulter’s) boards [http://languagemoments.wordpress.com/] real evidence of full exploitation of the “richer pickings” and lexical enrichment of emergent language as well as dealing with sentence stress etc and we need many more exemplars of these types of lessons, if discussions of dogme are not to be held in a vacuum (and I’m sure the Yahoo dogme site has more – can anyone systematize them for mass consumption ?)

However, this leads to another similar concern that I feel could be raised in relation to the use of emergent language in the unplugged classroom.
If we take it as given that much of language use is based on formulaic chunks – then are these chunks really going to emerge from your B1 class ?
I agree that capturing emergent language + scaffolding + reworking + recasting may lead to all kinds of bootstrapping of language learning so that students may start chunking-up language from their smaller components (or the opposite, benefitting from the slow-release of chunks offered by the peers/teacher/texts), and may start patterning and colligating their fragmentary utterances into longer and longer turns and with increasing complexity with subsequent interlanguage development. This is all well and good, creates a more engaging classroom culture (and what Lyster calls a form-oriented classroom primed for noticing [http://bit.ly/hIyEyB see Lyster discussion]) and a damn sight better than much of what goes on in coursebook-fraught and Mcnugget-choked classrooms.

But [chiming in with your point Anthony) (a) is the dogme classroom regularly enough going to provide the fertile soil and seeds necessary to create on opportunity for a focus on statistically frequent chunks and formulaic language and (b) can a teacher be reasonably be expected to dredge these from his/her teacher mental corpus of language (an important teacher resource that is not mentioned much) when it comes to building on these fragments ? and can he/she model these naturally ?

For you analogy-lovers, is dogme overemphasizing and requiring too much of students to design and tailor their own clothes (perhaps socially odd and unfashionable items) rather than take off-the-rack items that are generally accepted as fashionable and can therefore concentrate on helping students mix and match their wardrobe – as well as accessorize ?

17 10 2011
Marisa Constantinides

I think he mellowed quite a while ago – and process never stopped. So have you… I think. 🙂

Lots of learning in this post and subsequent discussion, too, and thanks for responding and to Jessica for sharing that link.

Great talks!!!!

17 10 2011
Luke Meddings

Anthony – when you ask, with more than a touch of devil’s advocacy, ‘How many years could go by … before an affordance for the will- future continuous passive may occur?’ – we need to be strong here. Every day conversation yields a wide range of verb forms (admittedly perhaps the tip of the iceberg) if we just keep the outputs open. Learners know how to predict, how to reminisce, how to speculate in their own language. They don’t need to wait for the unit on conditionals to be shown how to think. I know you know this!

17 10 2011
Anthony Gaughan

That’s just it, isn’t it, Luke? As Lance Armstrong (might’ve) said: “It’s not about the verbs” – and glad you noted the devilish advocacy 😉

I agree that given time and space, a person will end up attempting to say anything that they want to say – and whatever they don’t say under those circumstances isn’t our brief as teachers, anyway, as our job is not to put words into students’ mouths that they haven’t started to develop a taste for anyway (food metaphor, anyone?) Now, as Maynard Keynes (in a different context) said: “in the long run, we’re all dead” – and that being so, provision-driven teachers (as opposed to emergence-driven teachers) will see justification for pre-empting learner need with a fixed syllabus and attendant FoF.

But if I pop my clogs before ever needing the will future continuous passive, what will I lament more: never having learnt it, or having wasted hours of my life in classrooms mastering it in theory?

I agree with Keynes when it comes to the economy, but it’s a poor model for pedagogy.

Interesting point that Declan makes (above) about about the “teacher mental corpus of language” and the challenge of “keeping the outputs open” for teachers. Based on my observation of (admittedly inexperienced) teachers, spotting finger-holds in learner language and realising how to use them to clamber up to a more secure stance in the sheer face of language (to borrow Adam Beale’s climbing metaphor…) is a tricky business.

So many conversations out there on the DogmeNet right now are about how to help teachers attune to these FoF/L opportunities and make use of them…

Maybe the time is ripe to really get down to business and help lots of teachers – worldwide – how to work in this arena (OK, Scott, now it’s me who is getting carried away … 😉 )

17 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

On the question of verbs – and what, in another context (i.e. FLA), is called ‘the poverty of the stimulus’ – the evidence from content-based classrooms that Lyster quotes is not encouraging. He cites a study of over 28 hours of observations of 19 French immersion teachers in Canada which showed that “76% of all verbs used were restricted to the present tense or imperative forms, whereas only 15% were in the past tense, 6% were in the future, and 3% were in the conditional mood” (p. 32).

It would be interesting to see if other ‘whole language type’ methods, such as task-based learning or community language learning (CLL) yield similar results. If so, it places a considerable onus on the teacher either to push learners to produce a wider range of exponents (output + 1), or to reformulate (upgrade?) the learners’ utterances to provide input + 1.

All the more reason to heed Anthony’s call to “get down to business and help lots of teachers – worldwide – how to work in this arena”.

17 10 2011
Declan Cooley

I disagree that these proportions of tense use are cause for concern – I recall that corpus-based “Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English” which analyzed the frequency of tenses reported similar statistical findings when it came to conversation. I think it in fact shows us that 15% of lesson-time/lessons/courses probably OUGHT to focus on past simple use and so on. I agree with Luke that “Every day conversation yields a wide range of verb forms” and with Anthony above that if the need for an outlandish tense/voice/mood etc, does not come up, it is for the very good reason that it is so infrequent as to be neglible.

But what about the poverty of the inventory of deployable formulaic chunks – and does dogme allow space for a more lexically-flavoured provision (gasp!) of these within a richer substrate of dialogue-based texts/models (from outside the classroom) as a source of chunks and springboards for emergent learning (since learners’ talk will not reliably provide them nor will teachers be always able to supply them ad hoc/impromptu).

18 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Declan – fair point (that the relative frequencies of verb forms in content-based classes reflect their frequencies in naturally-occuring conversational data – and are certainly more representative than the ‘all verb forms are equal’ approach of most coursebooks). But the figures do not reflect the proportions found in more restricted registers (e.g. formal writing) and hence suggest a risk of a sort of classroom pidgin developing – fine for chatting about the weekend – but not necessarily helpful for long-term – and more specialised – language development. But I agree with you that perhaps the more acute challenge is the lexical one, specifically the acquisition of a phraseological lexicon which will contribute not just to communicative range but to spoken and written fluency. How this is developed in the dogme classroom seems to be a challenge still to be addressed.

18 10 2011

“I agree with Keynes when it comes to the economy, but it’s a poor model for pedagogy.”

Is that because Keynesian economics, perhaps like Dogme, works well in practice but rather poorly in theory?

17 10 2011
Luke Meddings

I think we can legitimately – as Scott puts it – ‘push learners to produce a wider range of exponents (output + 1), or … reformulate (upgrade?) the learners’ utterances to provide input + 1.’ The question is, how should we go about this?

As Anthony and Declan suggest, we often don’t need to push (because this wider range occurs naturally), or shouldn’t (because, in a given communicative context, it doesn’t). But I do think this is another reason for turning to models from outside the classroom.

It is fascinating to look with learners at written texts (from, say, newspapers) and observe the relative infrequency of – say – continuous or perfect verb forms when talking about the present or past. But acknowledging their infrequency – or rather, perhaps, admitting the prevalence of simple forms – allows us to explore a very interesting question: why, when we use simple forms to express so much, do we need to use other verb forms? This is in my experience a motivating question for learners at elementary level and above who have been taught as if all verb forms were equal(ly frequent).

I think dogme does allow space for a more ‘lexically-flavoured provision’ of formulaic chunks, as Declan puts it, but I think the texts that supply these chunks can also be used to exemplify the use of verb forms that lie outside the conversational mean.

18 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Luke, I think you have gone some way to answering the quesion I posed earlier, as to how you provide the (dogme) learner with sufficient (lexico-phrasal-grammatical) fodder. The close scrutiny of short authentic texts (short because you don’t actually need long ones, and because the unpacking of long texts tends to consume a lot of valuabe useful lesson time, and authentic because only authentic texts accurately instantiate authentic usage, including item frequency and distribution), followed up with recycling tasks such as reconstruction from memory, adaptation, elaboration, peer testing, etc seems the way to go. Where do these texts come from? Well, not from coursebooks necessarily – we all know the problems with coursebook texts. No, just send the students foraging. There’s no shortage of texts out there. You do have to make copies though, which is a drag.

18 10 2011

Dear Scott and all,
During the early hours of this morning I put the finishing touches to a course designed to prepare German accountants for an English for Accountancy language test. The f2f classroom time is limited but luckily supervised self-study time is generous. The students all work in accountancy firms and so have access to the documents that circulate in such companies (perfect for building a personalised mini-corpus).

Inspired by a review of ‘Pattern Grammar’ (Hunston and Francis, 2000) by Johnson (2001) in which he states that “this approach uses large amounts of corpus data to make discoveries about lexical items and the specific phraseological and grammatical patterns in which they regularly occur” (2001: 318), I set about trying to incorporate this into the course. The final course, still untested, should provide a nice link between what Anthony asks above about “the accommodation of such technologies” and your point about the scrutiny of authentic texts. Hopefully, too, the problems associated with length of text can be solved by showing students how to exploit analysis tools like the Compleat Lexical Tutor to do most of the work, leaving them with lovely rich examples to explore. And the problem of tedious photocopying can be solved by shifting the analysis and discussion over to a wiki, which will be where the interaction occurs during the self-study periods. Seemed to me to be a fairly decent way to develop a ‘Focus on (lexical) form’.

19 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Nathan, for sharing that. The idea of building a course around a lexicon of phrases that the learners themselves construct, using their workplace language, is brilliant, and is perhaps the 21st century equivalent of my Robinson Crusoe method, described above (i.e. one where the learner and the linguistic context are co-adaptive). I’d love to know how this gets on, and hope you will post/blog/write about it.

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