I is for Input

8 01 2012

Question: where does the input come from in an approach like task-based learning, or Dogme, where there is no syllabus of forms as such, and in which any focus on form is incidental?

This is the gist of the question sent to me a short while back by Anthony Elloway:

My concern about Dogme … is this – is the input rich enough?… My intuition is that, though there are advantages to working with student output, bringing more language into the class seems to be very valuable. And a coursebook – if given life by a teacher – might just do this job… Having an external syllabus/ coursebook does seem to provide a great deal of (organised) input for learners, perhaps more than the learners could produce themselves.

Good question. One possible answer is that the input comes – not just from the learners’ output – but from the texts that they (or the teacher) bring to class. Texts would certainly enrich the input quotient.

But the problem still remains that the form focus is incidental, in the sense that it is not necessarily pre-determined by a structural (or lexical or functional etc) syllabus.  And not just incidental, but – with teachers whose language analysis skills are still rudimentary – it’s more likely to be accidental.

Roy Lyster, in putting the case for ‘a counterbalanced approach’ (in a book referred to in a previous post), sees a similar danger in content-based teaching (i.e. of the CLIL type), and cites  research that suggests that, in content-based teaching, ‘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 of teaching language’ (2007, p. 27).

It’s true: as teachers we know that, when a really good conversation is up and running, the last thing we want to do is wade in and correct errors or suggest better ways of saying the same thing. Yet it is precisely at these moments that, allegedly, corrective feedback is at its most effective.

Michael Swan (2005), in a withering critique of task-based learning, makes a similar argument to Lyster’s, but even more forcefully:

I suggest that naturalistically-biased approaches are, in important respects, pedagogically impoverished, favouring the development of what is already known at the expense of the efficient teaching of new language.

That is to say, where there is no pre-selected input, the existing ‘pool’ of language just goes round and round. He adds:

It is difficult to see how, in many classrooms, interaction can reliably promote the acquisition of new material during task performance. Unless the teacher is the interlocutor, task-based interaction may more easily uncover gaps than bridge them.

Of course, there is no reason why the teacher can’t be the interlocutor, and a Dogme approach has always argued for the teacher being a co-participant in the conversation. But, clearly, the teacher’s ability to provide optimal input is a function of class size, not to mention their classroom management and language management skills.

But can’t learners provide each other with input?  Swan accepts that there is some evidence that  learners can pick up new language items from one another, but rejects this as being a sound basis for a methodology: ‘If one was seeking an efficient way of improving one’s elementary command of a foreign language, sustained conversation and linguistic speculation with other elementary learners would scarcely be one’s first choice’.

Nor, for that matter, would being subjected solely to teacher-fronted grammar explanations be one’s first choice either, especially where the grammar being explained has been selected arbitrarily from a pre-established syllabus, and bears little or no relation to one’s communicative needs.

Hence Lyster’s argument for a counterbalance: ‘Both proactive and reactive approaches need to be counterbalanced in complementary ways’ (p. 137).

How? Lyster argues for the inclusion, within a meaning-driven approach, of more form-focused options. These would include explicit attention to form, through noticing and awareness tasks, plus practice activities for production, and explicit feedback on error.

Would the inclusion of form-focused interventions such as these circumvent the need for a coursebook and, by extension, a pre-determined syllabus of grammar McNuggets?  I hope so.  But, for those teachers who opt for a more experiential methodology, such as Dogme, a counterbalanced approach may require more rigour, and more finely-honed teaching skills, than are normally required either teaching from a coursebook or simply chatting with the students.

Or is the term ‘input’ itself a non-starter? Isn’t it a relic of a mechanistic, computational metaphor of the mind that is giving way to a more ecological one?  Shouldn’t we be thinking less of input as such, and more about the learning opportunities that become available in authentic language use – in other words, the affordances (for which see the previous post)?


Lyster, R. (2007) Learning and Teaching Languages through Content: A Counterbalanced Approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Swan, M. (2005). Legislation by Hypothesis: The Case of Task-Based Instruction. Applied Linguistics, 26 (3): 376-401.

Illustrations from Oxenden, C., and Seligson, P. (1996). English File 1: Students’s Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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.