W is for (language learning in) the Wild

17 09 2017

japanese hitchhikerYears ago, driving from the west to the east coast in New Zealand’s South Island, we picked up a Japanese hitch-hiker (pictured in the centre above) who, once settled in the back seat, proceeded to ply us with questions from a notebook he carried. ‘What’s your favourite snack?’ ‘When did you last go to the movies?’ Even: ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ It transpired that he had been studying at a language school in Christchurch and these were questions that his (prescient) teacher had encouraged him to formulate, in order to pursue his language learning experience ‘in the wild’.

The term ‘in the wild’ has recently been co-opted from cognitive science (e.g. Hutchins 1995) to apply to a series of projects in which a number of Nordic countries are participating. As their website describes it,

Language learning in the wild is about using the resources available in the second language life world of the newcomers to a language[i].

This, of course, is not an entirely new idea. As long ago as 1956, Peter Strevens argued that ‘language is not a sterile subject to be confined to the classroom. One of two things must be done: either life must be brought to the classroom or the class must be taken to life’ (1956: 69).

Arthurs Pass

The call of the wild

What is perhaps new in the way that this principle is being applied in places like Sweden and Iceland is that, not only are learners (or ‘newcomers’ as they are termed) being sent outside the classroom to perform certain routine tasks ‘in the wild’, but that they are encouraged to use their smartphones to record the interactions they have, as well as to collect any other linguistic data, such as signs, menus, etc, and bring these back to the classroom for analysis, discussion and strategizing for future encounters.

Moreover, many of their potential interlocutors (e.g. shopkeepers) have been primed in ways to ensure that these interactions provide optimal opportunities for learning. For example, they are encouraged not to switch straight into (global) English when interacting with the newcomer but to persist with the (local) target language. They also allow the newcomers to ‘hang out’ and watch the way the locals negotiate basic transactions.  In this way, learners learn to cope with the unpredictability of even quite routine operations, such as ordering a coffee. As Wagner (2015) explains,  ‘this means… that language experiences often are memorable and tellable, in a negative or positive sense’, such that, ‘in language encounters in the wild, newcomers create their own history of the second language and that history may linger for a while with new words and constructions’ (p.85). As Eskildsen and Theodórsdóttir (2017: 160) argue,

This, in effect, breaks with a long tradition of teaching language as a decontextualised object in classrooms and instead entails a mutually constitutive relationship between L2 speakers’ everyday practices and the classroom which then comes to be a pedagogically enhanced world in which a view of language as situated and locally contextualised is propagated.

Nevertheless, ‘long-term language learning in the wild is understudied’ (Esklidsen & Theodórsdóttir 2017, p. 160). One small study that does attempt to track the language development of such a learner over time (Barraja-Rohan 2015) reports how a Japanese-speaking university student in Australia improved her story-telling skills through repeated interactions with an English speaking fellow student. The researcher calls such interactions ‘conversations-for-practising’, which, essentially, is what our Japanese hitch-hiker was also doing. Barraja-Rohan (2015, p. 299) concludes:

Conversations-for-practising, centred on the participants’ needs to build social relationships rather than on curricular considerations, seem to be a valuable arrangement to bring the L2 speakers into situations of authentic, everyday social interaction and language use, i.e., into the wild.

She adds that such conversational  ‘affordances’ don’t normally occur in conventional classrooms. A pedagogy based on the conversations that emerge in meaning-focused activity might redress this lack. And especially if it was a pedagogy that – like my Japanese hitchhiker’s teacher in New Zealand – equipped ‘newcomers’ to become legitimate users of the local language.

Even so, I guess the question is: how do you provide ‘in the wild’ experiences – including socialization into an English-speaking community – for EFL-type learners studying in their home country and hence lacking the direct contact my Japanese hitch-hiker was able to exploit?

sea scouts oamaru

Where the wild things are


Barraja-Rohan, A-M., (2015) ‘“I told you”: storytelling development of a Japanese learning English as a second language.’ In Cadierno, T. & Eskildsen, S. W. (eds) Usage-based perspectives on second language learning. Mouton: De Gruyter.

Eskildsen, S.W. and Theodórsdóttir G. 2017. ‘Constructing L2 learning spaces: ways to achieve learning inside and outside the classroom.’ Applied Linguistics. 38/2.

Hutchins, E. (1995) Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Strevens, P. (1956) Spoken language: an introduction for teachers and students in Africa. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Wagner, J. (2015) ‘Designing for language learning in the wild: creating social infrastructures for second language learning.’ In Cadierno, T. & Eskildsen, S. W. (eds) Usage-based perspectives on second language learning. Mouton: De Gruyter.


[i] http://languagelearninginthewild.com/


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.

C is for Conversation

8 05 2011

A core tenet of the Dogme philosophy is that classroom learning should be ‘conversation-driven’, and that, out of the language that emerges from this conversation, language learning episodes can be co-constructed.

But what do we mean by ‘conversation’?

In a recent comment on Diarmuid Fogarty’s blog, Luan Hanratty wrote:

Conversation is the word we really need to define. Jack Richards wrote that interactions fall into three basic categories: small talk, transactions and performances. For me, small talk is the most important because it constitutes a difficult social skill that is often least practised among learners. But small talk is too mundane to base a whole class around, hence the need for materials.  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.

This is a fair criticism, especially if we construe conversation as being synonymous with ‘chat’, which by definition is largely interpersonal in terms of its function, and local – even trivial – in terms of its field. If learning opportunities are based solely upon this fairly restricted register, it’s unlikely that most students will find their communicative needs are satisfied – especially if these needs include more formal registers, such as academic or technical writing. (At the same time, it’s worth noting that even written registers are becoming increasingly ‘conversationalized’, especially since the advent of digital media).

So, effectively, a classroom conversation needs to be more than chat. And it also needs to be more than the teacher-led question-answer sequences that characterised Direct Method courses, and which are so easily ridiculed: How many fingers do I have? Do I have a nose on my face? Is this your neck? etc.

Causeries avec mes élèves

Incidentally, one of the prototypical Direct Method courses was called Causeries avec mes élèves [Conversations with my students, 1874)]. Its author, Lambert Sauveur, describes the first lesson: “It is a conversation during two hours in the French language with twenty persons who know nothing of this language. After five minutes only, I am carrying on a dialogue with them, and this dialogue does not cease.”

While this dialogue might, in many ways, not have resembled natually-occuring conversation (the first five lessons of his course dealt with parts of the body), one principle that Sauveur rated highly was coherence, his intention being “to connect scrupulously the questions in such a manner that one may give rise to another”. As Howatt (1984) comments: “This principle probably explains his success in communicating with his students better than anything else. They understood what he was talking about because they were able to predict the course of the conversation” (p. 201).

Conversation is predictable, because one turn follows from the other. At the same time, because it is locally assembled, and takes place in real time, it is unpredictable. This tension between the predictable and the unpredictable makes conversation – real conversation –  an ideal medium for instruction.  As Leo van Lier (1996) argues, “learning takes place when the new is embedded in the familiar, so that risks and security are in balance… Conversational interaction naturally links the known to the new. It creates its own expectancies and its own context, and offers choices to the participants. In a conversation, we must continually make decisions on the basis of what other people mean. We therefore have to listen very carefully… and we also have to take great care in constructing our contributions so that we can be understood” (p. 171).

At the same time, for such conversations to provide a site for learning, there need to be strategic interventions on the part of the teacher – interventions that distinguish normal conversation between peers from what has been called ‘instructional conversation’ (Tharp and Gallimore, 1988):

The task of schooling can be seen as one of creating and supporting instructional conversations… The concept itself contains a paradox: “Instruction” and “conversation” appear contrary, the one implying authority and planning, the other equality and responsiveness. The task of teaching is to resolve this paradox. To most truly teach, one must converse; to truly converse is to teach” (p. 111).

The notion of instructional conversation has been further developed by scholars such as Neil Mercer (1995), who writes of the ‘long conversation’ that constitutes the dialogic curriculum, and Gordon Wells (1999), who calls it ‘dialogic enquiry’.    In fact, dialogue may be a better term than conversation, not least because it echoes Paulo Freire’s insistence on putting dialogue at the heart of pedagogy: “Whoever enters into dialogue does so with someone about something; and that something ought to constitute the new content of our proposed education” (1993, p. 46). In a similar manner, Sylvia Ashton-Warner yielded to – and exploited –  the hubbub in her infant classroom: “I harness the communication, since I can’t control it, and base my method on it” (1963, p. 104).

Individual presentations

So, really, conversation stands for all the talk, the dialogue, the communication (both spoken and written) that is generated by the people in the room, and that is shaped, scaffolded, supported and signposted by the teacher. It could take the form of formal debates, individual presentations, small group tasks, or a plenary discussion. It could be mediated by means of an online chat function, or Twitter, or SMS messages, or pieces of paper that are traded back and forth across the class. In the end it is simply the ‘stuff’ (to use Ashton-Warner’s phrase) out of which learning episodes are moulded. In its most basic, common-or-garden form it is simply conversation – the most natural form of communication we know.

Formal debate

And, as Gordon Wells concedes, “conversation may not be perfect as a means of information exchange… but when engaged in collaboratively, it can be an effective medium for learning and teaching. In any case, since there is no better alternative, we must do the best we can” (1987, p. 218).


Ashton-Warner, S. (1963, 1980). Teacher. London: Virago.

Freire, P. (1993). Education for Critical Consciousness, New York: Continuum.

Howatt, A.P.R. (1984). A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mercer, N. (1995). The guided construction of knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Tharp, R.G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and schooling in social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy and authenticity. Harlow: Longman.

Wells, G. (1987) The Meaning Makers: Children learning language and using language to learn. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Wells, G. (1999). Dialogic Inquiry: Towards a sociocultural practice and theory of education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

C is for Curriculum

20 06 2010

I’ve been co-teaching on a curriculum design course these last two weeks, and the question has inevitably come up as to what’s the difference between a curriculum and a syllabus. The A-Z has this to say:

The terms curriculum and syllabus are often used interchangeably, but it is useful to distinguish between them. The curriculum is concerned with beliefs, values and theory (all of which may be captured in some kind of “mission statement”). The syllabus represents the way these beliefs, values and theories are realised in terms of a step-by-step instructional programme. The curriculum is, therefore, both larger than the syllabus, and more general.

The distinction seems to be born out in the corpus data. A quick check of their respective collocations shows that (in US English) syllabus very often collocates with course, whereas curriculum hardly ever does. On the other hand, curriculum collocates with school much more than syllabus does. In British English, syllabus is often associated with particular subjects (language, mathematics, sciences) whereas curriculum collocates with national, core … and hidden (more on that one later).

However, this distinction between the general and the specific, and between principles and practice, is not one that all writers on the subject adhere to.

David Nunan

David Nunan, for example, argues that the curriculum is the totality of what actually happens in an educational setting:

Traditionally “curriculum” is taken to refer to a statement or statements of intent – the “what should be” of a course of study. In this work a rather different perspective is taken. The curriculum is seen in terms of what teachers actually do; that is, in terms of “what is”, rather than “what should be.” (1988, p. 1)

According to this view, the curriculum is instantiated in classroom practice, whether or not this practice actually reflects the (often lofty) intentions of program designers and materials writers.   Douglas Barnes (1976) makes a similar point, with reference to mainstream education:

When people talk about ‘the school curriculum’ they often mean ‘what teachers plan in advance for their pupils to learn’. But a curriculum made only of teachers’ intentions would be an insubstantial thing from which nobody would learn much. To become meaningful a curriculum has to be enacted by pupils as well as teachers …  A curriculum as soon as it becomes more than intentions is embodied in the communicative life of an institution .. In this sense curriculum is a form of communication. (p. 14).

Applebee (1996) extends this line of thought to argue that we need to re-construe the concept of curriculum, not as disembodied ‘knowledge-out-of-context’, but  as  ‘knowledge-in-action’:  “A curriculum provides domains for conversation, and the conversations that take place within those domains are the primary means of teaching and learning” (p. 37). He adds: “If curriculum is approached in terms of the significant conversations into which students enter… the emphasis form the beginning will be on knowledge-in-action”. (p. 118).  This echoes Neil Mercer’s (1995) notion of teaching and learning as being a ‘long conversation’, as well  as being a key tenet of Dogme philosophy, i.e. that language teaching should be ‘conversation-driven’.

Nevertheless, the notion persists that a curriculum articulates an institution’s principles and goals, made operational through syllabuses, lesson plans, etc.  At this point you may be wondering what the curriculum of your own school or college is. Where is it written down? Is there a ‘mission statement’? Who wrote it? Who has access to it?  And, if there isn’t one, shouldn’t there be?

Of course, it is often the case that the curriculum is implicit.  In the case of public-sector schools, the curriculum of the school may simply be that of the education ministry itself, and it will be embodied in such things as acts of parliament, policy statements, and official bulletins. These in turn will determine the nature of public examinations and the way materials, such as coursebooks, are specified and prescribed.

In fact, examinations and officially approved coursebooks offer insights as to the real values that the curriculum designers espouse, irrespective of how these are actually articulated. This ‘hidden curriculum’ can often be inferred by “reading between the lines”. Thus the blurb on a coursebook – or the publicity for a language school – might profess a communicative methodology, but at the same time the small print will extol its ‘step-by-step grammatical syllabus’. Likewise, a school’s website might promote its internationalist and globalised values while elsewhere boasting that it employs only native-speaker teachers. The very fact that a school uses coursebooks at all might suggest that it subscribes to a reproductive, ‘delivery model’ of education, rather than a  critical or transformative one.   More insidiously, an institution may claim to be commited to educational excellence, but in reality be nothing more than a lucrative exam prep factory.

A useful exercise might be to ask your colleagues: What is our curriculum? That is to say, what is it that we value, and to what extent are our practices consistent with these values?


Applebee, A. 1996. Curriculum as Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning. University of Chicago Press.

Barnes, D. 1976. From Communication to Curriculum. Penguin.

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

Nunan, D. 1988. The Learner-Centred Curriculum. Cambridge University Press.