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.

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.

P is for “Point of Need”

14 11 2010

I wish I could remember – so I could thank – the person who recommended At the Point of Need: Teaching Basic and ESL Writers, by Marie Wilson Nelson (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann 1991). This book deserves to be a classic, not least because it’s about more than simply the teaching of writing. It makes a convincing case for a pedagogy that, rather than trying to second-guess and thereby pre-empt the learners’ learning trajectory, is entirely responsive to it: that is, a pedagogy which is wholly driven by the learners’ needs, as and when they emerge. As Nancy Martin writes, in the Foreword:

The concept of teaching only at the students’ perceived points of need, and as they arise, presents a different view of learning from that of planned and sequenced series of lessons. The former view depends on recognition of the power of the person’s intention as the operating dynamic in writing — and in learning (p. ix).

The book describes a five-year experiment at a college in the US, where writing workshops were offered to small groups of mixed native-speaker and non-native speaker undergraduates, each with a tutor, and where there was no formal writing – or grammar, or vocabulary – instruction. Instead, the students (all of whom had scored below a cut-off point on a test of standard written English) were – in the words of the program publicity – invited to:

  1. Choose topics that interest you and your group
  2. Freewrite without worrying about correctness on the first draft
  3. Revise your freewrites.  Your group will help you […]
  4. Learn to copy-edit your writing for publication

Instead of pre-teaching or modelling the skills of writing, “this writing program was set up on a dynamic of retrospective planning” (p. viii) whereby “the tutors found that the most acceptable and effective teaching was to give the help the students asked for when they asked for it — that is, as the students perceived the need” (p. ix).

Despite some initial resistance (by both students and instructors alike), the results were spectacular (and carefully documented by the 40 or so tutors over the 5-year period). As Nelson describes it:

Despite the loss of drive some suffered at first without grades, motivation surged when they experienced writing’s rewards: pride of publication…, feelings of accomplishment, influence on others, better grades in other courses, competence, empathy and praise from friends, and … emotional release (p.85).

The program was based on the principle that “less is more“, and that effective writing instruction involves simply:

  • motivating students to want to practice and improve
  • giving students control of decisions about their work
  • limiting teaching to what students needed or wanted to learn

(p. 189)

Testimony to the success of the program are the many student ‘voices’ scattered throughout the text. One student, Kamal, for example, recalls:

In WTC [the Writing Tutorial Center] I’ve found that even though my writing is not very good, it’s very important to me, and I like to read it over.

Also, when I read it aloud, my friends said, “Wow, that’s good!”  So when they do, my tutors said, “Let’s publish that in Excerpts,” and I felt, “God, I am a writer!”

That feeling makes me come to WTC all the time.  I attend five semesters, twice a week.  And each time I attend WTC, I learned.  That’s why I love it.


Teaching “at the point of need” is, of course, a principle that underpins whole language learning, including ‘reading recovery’ programs: Courtney Cazden writes about “recognising the need for temporary instructional detours in which the child’s attention is called to particular cues available in speech or print” (1992, p. 129, emphasis added). It would also seem analogous to the reactive ‘focus on form’ promoted by proponents of task-based learning, described by some researchers as ‘leading from behind’ (e.g. Samuda, 2001), whereby the teacher intervenes to scaffold the learners’ immediate communicative needs. As Long and Norris (2009) write:

Advantages of focus on form include the fact that attention to linguistic code features occurs just when their meaning and function are most likely to be evident to the learners concerned, at a moment when they have a perceived need for the new item, when they are attending, as a result, and when they are psycholinguistically ready (to begin) to learn the items (p. 137).

In language learning, as in life, perhaps ‘the readiness is all’.


Cazden, C. 1992. Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ. New York: Teachers College Press.

Samuda, V. 2001. ‘Guiding relationships between form and meaning during task performance: the role of the teacher’.  In Bygate, M.,  Skehan, P.  & Swain, M.  (Eds.) Researching Pedagogic Tasks: Second Language Learning, Teaching and Testing. London: Longman.

Long, M.  & Norris, J.  2009.  ‘Task-based teaching and assessment’.  In van den Branden, K.,  Bygate, M.  & Norris, J.  (Eds.)  Task-based Language Teaching: A reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.