W is for Wondering

21 04 2013

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

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

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

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

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

ken lackman

Ken in action

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Venice. Liverpool.

Not Venice. Liverpool.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

M is for Mind

22 04 2012

Words come out of the mouth and go into the ear. But they’re stored in the mind. And retrieved from the mind. And understood in the mind. They’re also learned in the mind.

That, at least, is the conventional wisdom – especially from the point of view of cognitive psychology. ‘Language is instantiated in the minds and therefore the brains of language users, so that linguistics is to be regarded as a branch of psychology’. Thus argues Ray Jackendoff (2002: xiv). Chomsky, of course, took this view to an extreme: the observable messiness of language in use (or performance) ‘surely cannot constitute the actual subject matter of linguistics’ (1965: 4). Rather, ‘linguistic theory is mentalistic, since it is concerned with discovering a mental reality [or competence] underlying such behaviour’ (ibid.).

Theories of second language acquisition follow suit: ‘Second language acquisition is first and foremost a mental process – one that occurs in a behavioural and social context, to be sure, but fundamentally a matter of acquiring a new knowledge system.  Cognition and cognitive factors, therefore, are central to any account of how and why SLA works’ (Long & Richards 2001, p.vii) . Anything else, such as the social contexts in which language is used, or the physical stuff of the brain itself, or even the body in which the mind/brain is housed, are considered marginal, messy, uninteresting – mere noise.

The earliest example I could find of a computer in a coursebook: Headway Intermediate (1986)

Not only is language a mental phenomenon, according to this view, but the ‘mind’ of which it is a product is construed as a kind of computer (or as Pinker [1997: 92] charmingly puts it ‘the on-board computer of a robot made of tissue’). Hence, ‘mental life can be explained in terms of a computational process’ (Johnson-Laird, 1988: 26). Or, put another way, cognition – and, by extension, learning – is basically information-processing.  Furthermore, because of the limitations on the amount of attention that humans can allocate to any particular cognitive task at any one time, this processing is necessarily controlled before it is automatic. In short, humans are ‘limited capacity processors of information’.

This applies equally to language learning, both first and other. As McLaughlin (1987: 133) puts it:

Within this framework, second-language learning is viewed as the acquisition of complex cognitive skill.  To learn a second language is to learn a skill, because various aspects of the task must be practised and integrated into fluent performance.  This requires the automatization of component sub-skills.  Learning is a cognitive process, because it is thought to involve internal representations that regulate and guide performance.

Because learning is a cognitive process, this ‘information processing’ view of learning is known as a cognitivist one, and the metaphor that best captures it is MIND IS COMPUTER.  Associated with this model, therefore, we find a host of information-processing terms like input, intake, output, feedback, automatization, filters, as well as the term processing itself. And, because cognition is implicated, we find a further set of terms like noticing, attention, consciousness-raising, and restructuring.

from Reward (1994)

How does this actually impact on current methodology?  On the one hand, you could argue that all these various models of mind and language operate at a level far removed from actual classroom practice, and that teachers carry on doing what they’ve always done – that is, teaching effectively.  On the other hand, you could also argue that the ‘mind is a computer’ metaphor has percolated down (or up?) and underpins many of our methodological practices and materials, including the idea that language learning is systematic, linear, incremental, enclosed, uniform, dependent on input and practice, independent of its social context, de-humanized, disembodied,  … and so on.

It is a model of language learning that, arguably, turns the learner into an automaton –  ‘a robot made of tissue’.  As David Block (2003: 97) notes, ‘in the ideal world of cognitive scientists, the human mind is still conceived of as dependent on external stimuli to which it responds…The adoption of the computer metaphor of input-output does not disguise the fact that there is still a view of mental behaviour as systematic and mechanistic’.

Is there an alternative model – an alternative metaphor, even?

Block (2003: 93) goes on to argue that there are ‘a growing number of scholars who subscribe to the view that mental processes are as social as they are individual and external as they are internal’. (Some of these approaches I’ve referenced in previous posts, such as E is for Ecology, A is for Affordance and B is for Body). Contrasting cognitive with what they loosely call sociocultural approaches, Foster and Ohta (2005:  403) note that, for the latter

Language development is essentially a social process.  These approaches view mind as distributed and learning as something inter-mental, embedded in social interaction.  This means that individuals and environments mutually constitute one another and persons are not considered to be separable from the environments and interactions through which language development occurs.  In this view, knowledge is not owned solely by the learner, but is also a property of social settings and the interface between person and social context.

Elementary Matters (1997)

The distributed nature of mind is a core tenet of theories of ‘situated cognition’, neatly captured here by Clark (2011: 70):

Extended systems theorists… reject the image of mind as a kind of input-output sandwich with cognition as the filling….  Instead, we confront an image of the local mechanisms of human cognition quite literally bleeding out into body and world.

What, I wonder, would be the characteristics of a methodology that subscribed to this distributed, ‘leaky’, and co-adaptive view of mind? And, specifically, what are the correlates of input and of noticing, in this alternative to a computational, information-processing model of language learning?


Block, D.  (2003) The Social Turn In Second Language Acquisition, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Clark, A. (2011) Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press.

Foster, P. and Ohta, A. (2005) ‘Negotiation for meaning and peer assistance in second language classrooms’, Applied Linguistics, 26, 3,

Jackendoff, R. (2002) Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson-Laird, P.  N.  (1988) The Computer and the Mind: An Introduction to Cognitive Science, Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Long, M. and Richards, J. (2001) ‘Series editors’ preface’, in Robinson, P.  (Ed.)  Cognition and Second Language Instruction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McLaughlin, B. (1987) Theories of Second-and Language Learning, London: Edward Arnold.

Pinker, S. (1997) How The Mind Works, London: Penguin.

A is for Affordance

1 01 2012

Last week I went for a walk with friends in the Swiss Alps – seven kms along a marked trail with panoramic views of mountains, lakes and mist down below in the valley. We were five people, and as we walked we talked, in different groupings and in different languages, stopping frequently, to rest, snack, and note interesting features of the landscape, such as the ripple effect in the snow from recent rain, the way the snowcap on a rooftop was slowly sliding off as it thawed, footprints of a fox (or some other animal) in an otherwise immaculate snowy field, and so on. But always talking.

It was the kind of conversation you don’t have sitting down.  Rather, it was a conversation that,  in the words of the poet,  se hace al andar – it was made walking. It was a product of its trajectory through time and space.

Which made me think: we invest a lot in the learning opportunities afforded by conversation (it’s a core tenet of the dogme approach, after all). Yet conversations in classrooms are necessarily constrained, both by the relative immobility of the participants and by the lack of the kind of stimuli you get simply by taking a walk.

In short, classroom talk (as Leo van Lier has frequently observed) is challenged in terms of contingency and affordances. By contingency, I mean a sense of connectedness – where everything that is said is connected both to what has already been said, and to the context in which it is said – taking context to mean everything from the ‘here-and-now’ to the ‘then-and-there’, i.e. the  knowledge and experience that the speakers have in common.

And by affordance, I mean (to quote An A-Z of ELT)

a particular property of the environment that is potentially useful to an organism. A leaf, for example, affords food for some creatures, shade for others, or building material for still others. It’s the same leaf, but its affordances differ, depending on how it is regarded, and by whom. The term has been borrowed from ecology to describe the language learning opportunities that exist in the learner’s linguistic ‘environment’…

And all this reminded me of something I wrote a while back about what I called ‘The Robinson Crusoe Method’ of language learning. If you recall, Crusoe meets and befriends the “savage” Friday on his island:

 I was greatly delighted with him, and made it my Business to teach him every Thing, that was proper to make him useful, handy, and helpful; but especially to make him speak, and under stand me when I spake, and he was the aptest Schollar that ever was…

Unfortunately, Defoe/Crusoe does not go into the details of what he did “to make him speak”, but it is not difficult to imagine how it evolved. As the two went about their daily business – hunting, fishing, gardening, exploring – conversations would splutter into being.    At first these conversations would tend to focus on the “here-and-now” and be mainly lexical, of the ‘Me Robinson, you Friday’ type.  But the continuous contact between “teacher” and “learner” would ensure optimal opportunities for interaction, feedback, and recycling, while the situated nature of the talk would guarantee comprehension. Repeated phrases would start to release their internal structure, and grammar would begin to emerge.  Over time – and propelled by their need to do things together  – their individual idiolects would align and merge (although the power imbalance would mean that Crusoe’s language would exert the greater attraction and, ultimately, predominate).

All in all, the Robinson Crusoe method, enriched and enlivened by the learning opportunities offered by real talk in the real world, must surely be the best language learning method ever devised.

So the question is: how can you replicate these conditions in a typical classroom? How can you turn the classroom into a hike through the snow, or a walk around the island? How can classroom talk achieve the degree of contingency that Crusoe and Friday achieved?

Is this perhaps where technology comes into its own? Can, for example, Second Life or video games offer a simulacrum of the mountain walk? Or are simulacra, by their very nature, insufficient?

Or is this  (yet another) argument for task-based learning, where the focus is on collaborative activity, with language, not as the goal, but the means?  Because, as van Lier (2002, p. 159)  notes, “when we design our lessons using activity as the focal unit, language becomes a constituent alongside movement, gesture, experiment, manipulation, focusing, planning, judging, and so on.  Language is naturally supported by and supportive of social activity”.

Or, in the end, is there no getting away from the fact that classrooms are just not good places to learn languages in?  And that, instead of flogging the present perfect continuous to death, it might not be better simply ‘to take a walk around the block’?


van Lier, L. 2002. ‘An ecological-semiotic perspective on language and linguistics’. In Kramsch, C. (ed.) Language Acquisition and Language Socialization: Ecological Perspectives. London: Continuum.

A is for Aims

24 04 2011

Ready, aim.... (Vital Imagery Ltd)

“Yes, but what were your aims?!

This must be one of the most frequently voiced questions in the discussion that follows an observed lesson. The trainee – with little or no idea of how language learning is managed – is pitted against the trainer, convinced that learning can be manufactured according to precise specifications, and with the reliability of a Swiss watch.  It’s all about planning, anticipating, predicting and pre-empting.  Hence, the need for aims, and hence, the kind of advice on lesson planning of which the following is typical:

“To write an effective plan the teacher needs to think carefully about what exactly the aim of the lesson is. What will the learners learn?” (Watkins, 2005). 

Yes, but what will the learners learn? Will it be someting entirely new or simply consolidation of existing knowledge – in which case, will the improvement be perceptible? Will all the learners learn the same thing, and at the same pace? And what does ‘learn’ mean here? Is this conscious or unconscious learning? Are we talking about the acquisition of inert, declarative knowledge, or is this knowledge available to be proceduralised, and, if so, how can such proceduralization be realistically achieved in the space of a 45-minute lesson? And how, in the end, do you measure it?  How do we know when someone has learned something? And so on and so on.

The concept of aims seems to be based on the fallacy that language learning is the incremental accumulation of discrete-items of linguistic knowledge. But, as Diane Larsen-Freeman (1997) reminds us, “learning linguistic items is not a linear process – learners do not master one item and then move on to another. In fact, the learning curve for a single item is not linear either. The curve is filled with peaks and valleys, progress and backslidings” (p. 18).

Not only that, the classroom – being essentially a social organism –  is a complex dynamic system, where small effects may have unintended consequences, and where major interventions may produce only trivial results. As Dick Allwright (2005) points out “What learners get from a lesson is not predictable merely from what is taught in that lesson and certainly not just from the teaching points covered… We cannot now sensibly measure the overall success of a lesson simply in terms of the percentage of teaching points successfully learned because the learners may have learned little from the teaching points and a lot from everything else that happened in the lesson” (p 12).

Hence, it might be better to start with the assumption that learning cannot be programmed, in any deliberate sense, and that, as Leo van Lier puts it “it might be a good idea to design … lessons as if they formed a small organic culture (or an ecosystem) in themselves, where participants strive to combine the expected and the unexpected, the known and the new, the planned and the improvised, in harmonious ways” (van Lier 1996, p. 200).

What advice should we give trainee teachers, then? Allwright suggests that we should not abandon the idea of planning, but that we should replace the notion of ‘teaching points’ with that of ‘learning opportunities’: “I see planning as crucial to language teaching and learning,  but planning for richness of opportunity and especially for understanding,  not planning to determine highly specific learning outcomes” (op.cit, p. 10). That is, rather than defining the aims in terms of pre-specified outcomes (typically grammar McNuggets), trainees should be encouraged to think in terms of the desired learning opportunities, or what van Lier calls ‘affordances’.

Moreover, evidence from research into expert teachers’ planning decisions suggests that effective teachers seldom start their planning processes with a clear conception of an ultimate aim. Rather, they start with a somewhat fuzzy notion of what will feel right, for this class, at this stage of their learning, at this time of day, and given such-and-such contextual factors – what I call ‘fit’.  I now tell my trainees to try and esatablish a ‘fit’ for their lesson, and work from there, while at the same time incorporating plenty of elasticity into the design. And I tell them to be prepared to adapt or even abandon their plan in light of the response of the learners.

A coursebook

Such an approach, of course, sits uncomfortably with the ‘teaching point’ culture imposed by coursebooks. But coursebooks (mercifully) consist of more than simply a syllabus of teaching points. They include topics, tasks and texts – all of which, with only a little ingenuity, can be usefully detached from the teaching point that might originally have motivated them. If trainees can be encouraged to see the ‘affordance potential’ of coursebook tasks, for example, they may be some way towards designing lessons that maximise learning opportunities, even within a coursebook-driven paradigm.

In the end, as the man said, we cannot cause learning; we can only provide the conditions in which it may occur. And maybe, therefore, we should learn not to fear unpredictability, even to celebrate it. As Stenhouse put it, a long time ago now, “Education as the induction into knowledge is successful to the extent that it makes the behavioural outcomes of the students unpredictable” (1975, pp. 82-3).


Allwright, R. 2005. From teaching points to learning opportunities and beyond. TESOL Quarterly, 39, 9-32.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 1997. Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics 18.

Stenhouse, L. 1975.  An introduction to curriculum research and development. London: Heinemann.

Van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the language curriculum: awareness, autonomy and authenticity. London: Longman.

Watkins, P. 2005. Learning to Teach English: A practical introduction for new teachers. Addlestone: Delta Publishing

S is for Scaffolding

4 04 2010

In An A-Z I include an entry for scaffolding, but don’t mention the fact that it has become such a buzz term that it’s starting to lose all significance. Teachers and trainers regularly talk about their role in ‘scaffolding’ learning, but if you unpick their examples, it’s difficult to distinguish these from simple question-and-answer sequences that have always characterised effective teaching. Here, for example, is an extract that Rod Ellis uses to exemplify scaffolding:

1 Teacher         I want you to tell me what you can see in the picture or what’s wrong with the picture.

2 Learner            A /paik/ (= bike)

3 Teacher            A cycle, yes. But what’s wrong?

4 Learner            /ret/ (= red)

5 Teacher            It’s red yes. What’s wrong with it?

6 Learner            Black

7 Teacher            Black. Good. Black what?

8 Learner            Black /taes/ (= tyres)

 (Ellis, 2003, p. 181)


Ellis explains that “the teacher is able to draw on his experience of communicating with low-level proficiency learners to adjust the demands of the task and to scaffold the interaction so that a successful outcome is reached” (p. 182).  But I’m not convinced. It seems that – far from being an instance of co-constructed learning – the teacher and the learner are talking at cross-purposes, and that all this is mapped on to the traditional IRF (initiate—respond–follow-up) model of classroom discourse. This does not seem to embody Bruner’s (1978) definition of scaffolding as “the steps taken to reduce the degree of freedom in carrying out some tasks so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring” (quoted in Gibbons, 2002).

What, then, are these ‘steps’? Looking at the literature on scaffolding, a number of key features have been identified. Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) in one of the first attempts to define the term, itemise six:

1 recruiting interest in the task

2 simplifying the task

3 maintaining pursuit of the goal

4 marking critical features and discrepancies between what has been produced and the ideal solution

5 controlling frustration during problem solving

6 demonstrating an idealized version of the act to be performed.

 (quoted in Ellis op. cit)


What they seem to leave out – and what is so attractive (to me) about the metaphor of scaffolding – is the relinquishing of the teacher’s role as the learner appropriates the targeted skill – what Applebee (1986) calls ‘transfer of control’: “As students internalize new procedures and routines, they should take a greater responsibility for controlling the progress of the task such that the amount of interaction may actually increase as the student becomes more competent” (quoted in Foley 1994). Also missing is what van Lier (1996) calls the “principle of continuity”, i.e. that “there are repeated occurrences, often over a protracted period of time, of a complex of actions, characterized by a mixture of ritual repetition and variations” (p. 195). That is to say, scaffolded learning is not a one-off event, but is embedded in repeated, semi-ritualised, co-authored language-mediated activities, typical of many classroom routines such as games and the opening class chat. Finally, any definition of scaffolding needs to highlight the fact that this kind of interaction is a site for learning opportunities, and is not simply a way of modelling, supporting, or practising interaction.

Does this tighter definition of scaffolding improve matters? Or is it now so tight that it deprives teachers of a useful metaphor for a whole range of classroom interactions?


Ellis, R. 2003. Task-based Language Learning and Teaching, OUP.

Foley, J. 1994. ‘Key concepts: Scaffolding’. ELT Journal 48/1.

Gibbons, P. 2002. Scaffolding Language Scaffolding Learning. Heinemann (USA)

van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the Language Curriculum. Longman,