P is for PPP

16 01 2011

Another video blog:

T is for Task-based Learning

13 11 2011

I’m off to this conference next week, where I’ll be attempting to situate Dogme/ Teaching Unplugged within the wider orbit of task-based language teaching (TBLT).

To tell the truth, I find the thought of it rather daunting, given not only the calibre of the other presenters (see the programme here) but also the fact that Dogme doesn’t have a shred of hard research evidence to support it.  TBLT, on the other hand, seems to be all research and very little actual practice. Yet I’m also intrigued as to why I’ve been invited, and wonder if this isn’t a sign that either Dogme has come of age, or that it is in danger of losing its edge. Or both.

It also comes at an opportune moment, as dogmetists start to engage with the need for serious research. In my presentation I will be indicating the kinds of research questions that I hope to see addressed. This in turn will involve highlighting, in the burgeoning research into TBLT, those particular studies that might also validate a Dogme approach. It’s always been my claim that Dogme shares many core principles with TBLT, but without the more elaborate ‘architecture’ usually associated with the latter. As Luke and I say, in Teaching Unplugged, “where a Dogme approach parts company with a task-based approach is not in the philosophy but in the methodology” (p. 17). Hence, a lot of the research that underpins TBLT, especially with reference to the basic claim that ‘you learn a language by using it’,  has more than passing relevance to Dogme.

Dogme in relation to TBLT and content-based instruction

All this has led me to re-visit the entry for task-based learning in An A-Z of ELT, in which I claim that TBLT

has been influential more at the theoretical and research level than in terms of actual classroom practice. One reason for this is that a focus on tasks requires a totally different course design, not to mention the implications for testing. Also, for many teachers, a task-based approach represents a management challenge.  How do you set up and monitor tasks in large classes of unmotivated adolescents, for example? And how do you deal appropriately with language problems that emerge spontaneously from the task performance?  A grammar-based syllabus and a PPP approach offer greater security to teachers with these concerns (p. 224).

This is a little ironic – cheeky, even – given that the same criticisms have been levelled at Dogme, i.e. how do you cope with unpredictability, not to mention students’ – and other stakeholders’ – need for a syllabus?  More to the point, are these criticisms of TBLT justified?  Is it really a laboratory artefact, or does it have a life of its own?  And is it so difficult to implement?

Information gap task

The literature suggests that it is. Rod Ellis (2003, p. 322) concludes that “overall, task-based teaching, while superficially simple, is complex”. One reason that it is complex – according to Ellis – is that, if their potential to promote language acquisition is to be realised, tasks need to have a linguistic focus as well as a communicative one. That is, it’s not enough that you describe this picture to me and I draw it. Rather, the task should require that you or I, or both of us, focus on some linguistic feature of the interaction that we haven’t yet internalised.  Engineering this dual focus is no mean feat.

It’s not just a management issue (e.g. how do I draw learners’ attention to form when their primary concern is on meaning?), but a course design issue: how do I design tasks that require the use of specific linguistic items, and how do I design a syllabus of tasks that covers the items that I assume the learners will need?

This is where the Dogme takes a more relaxed attitude, perhaps. By banking on the fact that, if you use language purposefully, intensively and communicatively, you will ‘uncover’ the syllabus that you need, the requirement for ‘focused tasks’ (i.e. tasks that target a pre-selected language feature) is obviated. The learners’ linguistic needs are met (so the theory goes) if their communicative needs are met.  And their communicative needs are met if they’re given the space, and the incentive, to realise them.

Besides, it seems to me that a lot of the literature on TBLT is aimed at finding the optimal configuration of task design factors – such as rehearsal, planning time, collaboration, and so on  – that in turn impact on accuracy,  fluency and complexity. Calibrating these different factors requires an almost obsessive attention to detail. Yet, as Michael Breen (1987, 2009) pointed out:

Perhaps one of the most common experiences we have as teachers is to discover disparity between what our learners seem to derive from a task and what we intended or hoped the task would achieve. Whilst the objective of the task will have been reasonably precise, actual learner outcomes are often diverse, sometimes unexpected, and occasionally downright disappointing (p. 334).

If task-based teaching is so fundamentally unstable, why not opt, instead, for maximising those features of the classroom ecology that really do have strong and predictable effects, i.e. granting learners some control of the agenda?  Where learners have some ownership of, and investment in,  their language learning  program, the fact that it’s task-based, or text-based, or even grammar-based, is of relatively little consequence.

But do I dare say this at the conference!?


Breen, M. 1987. ‘Learner contributions to task design’. In Candlin, C., & Murphy, E. (eds.) Language Learning Tasks. London: Prentice Hall. Reprinted in van Branden, K., Bygate, M., & Norris, J. 2009. Task-based Language Teaching: A Reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Ellis, R. 2003. Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


27 07 2011
  1. A is for Accent
  2. A is for Accommodation
  3. A is for Accuracy
  4. A is for Affordance
  5. A is for Age (of onset)
  6. A is for Aims
  7. A is for Approach
  8. A is for Articles (1)    
  9. A is for Articles (2)
  10. A is for Aspect
  11. A is for Aspect (2)
  12. A is for Attention
  13. A is for Authenticity
  14. A is for Automaticity
  15. A is for Autonomy
  16. B is for Bad language learner
  17. B is for Backshift
  18. B is for Blogging
  19. B is for Body
  20. C is for CLT
  21. C is for Commodification
  22. C is for Communicative
  23. C is for Conditional (the Third)
  24. C is for Construction
  25. C is for Contrastive analysis
  26. C is for Conversation
  27. C is for Core Inventory
  28. C is for Core vocabulary
  29. C is for Corpus
  30. C is for (COCA) Corpus
  31. C is for Coursebook
  32. C is for Coursebook writing
  33. C is for Creativity
  34. C is for Critical pedagogy
  35. C is for Curriculum
  36. D is for Dictation
  37. D is for Dictionary
  38. D is for Discourse
  39. D is for Dogme
  40. D is for Dreams
  41. D is for Drills   
  42. E is for Ecology
  43. E is for eCoursebook
  44. E is for ELF
  45. E is for ELF (and the Phonological Core)
  46. E is for Eliciting
  47. E is for ELT in Spain
  48. E is for Emergence
  49. E is for English
  50. E is for English in the world
  51. E is for Error   
  52. F is for Facts
  53. F is for Feel
  54. F is for First Lessons
  55. F is for Flow
  56. F is for Fluency     
  57. F is for Focus on Form
  58. F is for Focus on Form (2)
  59. F is for Forensic Linguistics
  60. F is for Forty years on
  61. F is for Fractal
  62. F is for Functions
  63. F is for Futurity
  64. G is for Gender  
  65. G is for Genre
  66. G is for Gerund  
  67. G is for Gesture
  68. G is for Gist
  69. G is for Gossip
  70. G is for Grammar lesson
  71. G is for Grammar McNuggets
  72. G is for Grammar(s)
  73. G is for Grammar syllabus
  74. G is for Grammar-Translation
  75. G is for Granularity
  76. G is for Grice (and his Maxims)
  77. G is for Guided Discovery
  78. H is for Holistic
  79. H is for Homework
  80. H is for Humanistic approaches
  81. I is for Identity
  82. I is for Idiolect (and Intimate discourse)
  83. I is for Imitation
  84. I is for Innovation
  85. I is for Input
  86. I is for Intelligibility
  87. I is for Interdisciplinarity
  88. I is for Intersubjectivity
  89. I is for Intonation
  90. J is for Jargon
  91. J is for Jokes
  92. K is for Krashen  
  93. L is for Language
  94. L is for Language arts
  95. L is for (Michael) Lewis
  96. L is for Learning Styles
  97. L is for Linguistic landscape
  98. L is for Literacy
  99. L is for Lockstep
  100. M is for Machine translation
  101. M is for Manifesto
  102. M is for Masters
  103. M is for Mediation
  104. M is for Memorization
  105. M is for Metaphor
  106. M is for Method
  107. M is for Mind
  108. M is for Minimal pairs
  109. M is for Mobility
  110. M is for Model
  111. M is for Monolingualism
  112. M is for Mother tongue
  113. N is for Native-speakerism
  114. N is for Neoliberalism
  115. N is for New edition
  116. N is for Nora
  117. N is for Not Interfering
  118. O is for Open Space
  119. O is for Othering
  120. O is for Outcomes
  121. O is for Ownership
  122. P is for “Point of Need”
  123. P is for Passive
  124. P is for Pecha Kucha
  125. P is for Pedagogic grammar
  126. P is for Personalization
  127. P is for Phoneme
  128. P is for Phonemic Chart
  129. P is for Phonics
  130. P is for Phonotactics
  131. P is for Phrasal Verb
  132. P is for Poetry
  133. P is for Postmodern Method
  134. P is for Poverty of the stimulus
  135. P is for Power
  136. P is for PPP
  137. P is for Practicum
  138. P is for Practised Control
  139. P is for Predictions (Part 1)
  140. P is for Predictions (Part 2)
  141. P is for (Thomas) Prendergast
  142. P is for Prescriptive
  143. P is for Presence
  144. P is for Pre-service training
  145. P is for Primate language
  146. P is for Problematizing
  147. P is for Problematizing (2)
  148. P is for Profession
  149. P is for Pronunciation
  150. P is for Push
  151. Q is for Queer
  152. Q is for Quote marks
  153. R is for Rapport
  154. R is for Repetition
  155. R is for Repetition (again)
  156. R is for Representation
  157. R is for Research
  158. R is for Reticence
  159. R is for (Wilga) Rivers
  160. R is for Rules
  161. S is for “Strategies”
  162. S is for (Earl) Stevick
  163. S is for Scaffolding
  164. S is for Sentence
  165. S is for Sexist language
  166. S is for Silence
  167. S is for Situation
  168. S is for SLA
  169. S is for Small Words
  170. S is for Soaps
  171. S is for Speaking (1)
  172. S is for Speaking (2)
  173. S is for Student-centredness
  174. S is for Subjunctive
  175. S is for Substitution table
  176. S is for Sylvia (Ashton-Warner)
  177. T is for Taboo  
  178. T is for Task-based learning
  179. T is for Teacher Development
  180. T is for Teacher Knowledge
  181. T is for Teacher Training
  182. T is for Technology
  183. T is for Text    
  184. T is for Text-based curriculum
  185. T is for Time
  186. T is for Translation
  187. T is for Transmission
  188. T is for Turning point
  189. V is for Variability
  190. V is for Visualization
  191. V is for Vocabulary size
  192. V is for Vocabulary teaching
  193. V is for Voice setting
  194. W is for (language learning in) the Wild
  195. W is for ‘Wabi-sabi’
  196. W is for Women in ELT
  197. W is for Wondering
  198. X is for X-bar Theory
  199. Z is for Zero Uncertainty
  200. Z is for ZPD

F is for Focus on Form

13 03 2011

In his absurdist, mildly funny novel Nowhere Man (Picador, 2004), Aleksandar Hemon describes a scene where the protagonist, a Bosnian, has applied for a job as an English teacher (‘strictly out of despair’) in an ESL school in Chicago. He is given a tour of the school, and visits an advanced class where there is a discussion in progress about Siamese twins:

“I must say,” the man whom I recognised as Mihalka said, “that it is not perfectly pleasant when I watch them.”

“They are monsters,” said a woman in a dark, stern suit…

“They are humans,” Mihalka said, then lifted his index finger, enunciating an important statement.  “When I had been a little child, I had had a friend who had had a big head…. Every child had told him about his big head and had kicked him with a big stick on his head.  I had been very sad,” Mihalka said, nodding, as if to show the painful recoil of the big head.

“We are learning Past Perfect,” the teacher said to us, and smiled benevolently…

“I must know Past Perfect,” Mihalka said, and shrugged resignedly, as if Past Perfect were death and he were ready for it.

The scene nicely captures a number of the tensions that characterise interaction in the ESL/EFL classroom, not least the tension between, on the one hand, meaningful interaction (“Let’s talk about Siamese twins”) and, on the other, a focus on form (“Let’s use the past perfect”).

(Normally, of course, the focus on form is engineered by the teacher, not the learner. What’s interesting, in this case, is Mihalka’s dogged – if flawed – attempts to use ‘the structure of the day’. Is this because he is conscious that the teacher’s agenda is primarily form-focussed? Or is he the kind of learner who likes to try new forms out for size? Well, we’ll never know.)

Just to remind you, a focus on form “overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication” (Long 1991, quoted in Doughty and Williams 1998, p. 3). Typically, this might take the form of overt correction, or of gentle nudging, e.g. by asking for clarification, or by re-casting (or reformulating) what the learner has said. This incidental approach contrasts with the more traditional and deliberate approach, where teaching is based on a syllabus of graded structures (or forms), and these are pre-taught in advance of activities designed to practise them – what Long called (somewhat confusingly) a focus on formS.

A focus on formS (plural) entails the pre-selection and pre-teaching of discrete items of language (it is thus proactive), whereas a focus on form is essentially reactive, entailing “a prerequisite engagement in meaning before attention to linguistic features can expect to be effective” (Doughty and Williams, ibid. p. 3).   A focus on formS presumes a PPP methodology, where presentation of pre-selected and pre-graded items precedes production, and where it is assumed that fluency arises out of accuracy.  A focus on form, on the other hand, fits better with a task-based approach, where learning is driven solely by the need to communicate and where, as in first language acquisition, accuracy is late-acquired.

Focusing on the form of learner language that has emerged in classroom interaction is also a mainstay of the Dogme philosophy. As Luke Meddings and I point out (in Teaching Unplugged):

Focussing on learners’ lives means that the language that emerges in class will be relevant to them, but there is still work to be done if both you and they are to make the most of it. This is where a focus on form comes in (p. 60).

In our book, we offer some strategies as to how to exploit the language that emerges in classroom interaction so as to incorporate a focus on form, without sacrificing real communication. These include:

1.                  Retrieve what the learner has just said.  Otherwise it will just remain as linguistic “noise”. This might mean simple making an informal note during a speaking activity, or, at times, writing the learner’s utterance on the board.

2.                  Repeat it.  Repeat it yourself; have other learners repeat it – even drill it! Drilling something has the effect of making it stand out from all the other things that happen in a language lesson.

3.                  Recast it.  Reformulate the learners’ interlanguage productions into a more target-like form. This is not the same as correction. It is simply a way of indicating “I know what you’re trying to say; this is how I would say it”.

4.                  Report it.  Ask learners to report what they said and heard in group work. Apart from anything else, knowing that they may have to report on their group work encourages learners to pay attention to what is going on.

5.                  Recycle it. Encourage learners to use the emergent items in new contexts. This may be simply asking for an example of their own that contextualises a new item of vocabulary, or it may involve learners creating a dialogue that embeds several of the new expressions that have come up.

I’m now wondering: in the case of Mihalka, in the ‘Siamese Twin’ lesson quoted above, which of these – if any – might have been the most effective strategy?


Doughty, C., & Williams, J. (eds.) 1998. Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition. Cambridge University Press.

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