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.

G is for Grice (and his Maxims)

28 03 2010

H.P. Grice

What would the language philosopher H.P. Grice have made of Twitter, I wonder? If you recall (and if you don’t, you have only to check the A-Z!) Grice formulated what is perhaps the most influential theory in the development of pragmatics, now best known as the Cooperative Principle:

The cooperative principle is the principle that speakers try to cooperate with one another. When people take part in conversations they do so on the assumption that the other speakers will observe certain unstated “rules”… (An A-Z of ELT)

 These rules (popularly known as Grice’s Maxims) are:

 1.         Maxim of quantity: Make your contribution just as informative as required.

2.         Maxim of quality: Make your contribution one that is true.

3.         Maxim of relation: Make your contribution relevant.

4.         Maxim of manner: Avoid obscurity and ambiguity. Be brief and orderly.

Of course, speakers frequently violate these maxims, but they do so in the full knowledge that they are breaking the rules – and they will often signal that they are doing so, by, for example, prefacing a statement with “This is totally beside the point, but…” or “I’m sorry to bang on about it, but….” As I point out, in An A-Z, “Without the shared belief in a cooperative principle, we would be compelled to ask, after any utterance, Is that all? Is that true? What has that got to do with it? and Can you be any clearer? The fact that this only normally happens in a court of law suggests that, for day to day purposes, Grice’s maxims apply.”

Twitter seems both to affirm and to challenge Grice’s cooperative principle. In encouraging concision, the 140-character limit works brilliantly to enforce Maxim 1 (The maxim of Quantity) and, to a lesser extent, Maxim 4 (The maxim of Manner). But how do you explain the relevance (maxim 3) of tweets like the following:

Went out and bought a plastic lining for the compost frame and put that in.

Chicken burger with avocado and blue cheese, accompanied by butternut squash wedges.

Sitting with my brother discussing the weather. 

By what possible standards could the above texts be considered relevant? And yet a significant proportion of tweets that are sent are of this nature. Perhaps the assumption is that, if you’ve chosen to follow me, everything I tweet is relevant. And that, in the absence of a shared world (which would confer a degree of relevance), trivia helps to create one.

Be that as it may, Grice’s maxims have helped in the formulation of some ground-rules for Discussion Board postings on the on-line MA TESOL that I teach on. For example:

1.         be brief – 250 words max.

2.         be relevant: stick to the topic; if you need to digress, signal the fact in your subject line;  

3.         be explicit: change the subject line to make it clear whether your posting is a new response to the main DB task, or a digression (see above) or simply a social intervention;

To which I’ve added:

4.         be original (i.e. no plagiarism)

5.         be appropriate (i.e. this is an academic context even if the medium tolerates a degree of informality) and

6.         be courteous (i.e. no flaming)

So far, these rules seem to have worked fine, on the Discussion Boards, to encourage both cooperative interaction and critical thinking. What chance of imposing them on Twitter!?