V is for Vocabulary teaching

2 06 2013

Slovenian girl and teacherA teacher educator in Norway reports on how she has used ideas from my book How to Teach Vocabulary (2002) on an in-service course for local primary and lower secondary school teachers. Mona Flognfeldt writes: ‘I have shared with my students a lot of input that I have learnt from you, and a lot of our students have put their new insights to immediate practical use in their classrooms. … As a part of their course, these students have also learnt to make their own blogs.’ These blogs have become the vehicles whereby they report on how they ‘have tried out various activities and types of tasks in their attempts to help their students enhance their vocabulary in English’.

Reading the blogs I am struck by the way these teachers have implemented, in their own classes, a reflective task cycle as part of their ongoing professional development. This has involved background reading and discussion, classroom experimentation, reflection and – by means of the blogs – sharing with their colleagues the insights that they have gained.

To give you a flavour, here is a sample of the kinds of activities these teachers tried. I have grouped them according to five guiding principles of vocabulary acquisition. (Apologies in advance to those whose blog posts I haven’t included, but readers who are interested can find them at the link below).

1. The Principle of Cognitive Depth: “The more one manipulates, thinks about, and uses mental information, the more likely it is that one will retain that information.In the case of vocabulary, the more one engages with a word (deeper processing), the more likely the word will be remembered for later use” (Schmitt 2000: 120).

I picked out 8 words from the text that I wanted my pupils to learn. Then I had my pupils identifying the words in the text. Task 2 was a selecting task where the pupils had to underline the words that were typical for India. They shared their work with a partner, explaining their choices. As task 3 they were matching the words with an English description from a dictionary. They also found antonyms and synonyms. Task 4 was a sorting activity where the pupils had to decide whether the words were nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs. Finally, as a ranking and sequencing activity I had my pupils rank the words according to preference, to decide how important they thought knowing each word was. They discussed their ranking with a partner. (Mette B.)

Slovenian  two girls2. The Principle of Retrieval: “The act of successfully recalling an item increases the chance that the item will be remembered. It appears that the retrieval route to that item is in some way strengthened by being successfully used” (Baddeley 1997: 112).

My Vocabulary activity was “Categories” … The students worked in groups of four or five. They were handed out a piece of paper where five columns were drawn up. Each column was labelled with the name of a lexical set: Food, transport, clothes, animals and sport. I called out a letter of the alphabet (e.g. B!). The students wrote down as many words they knew began with the letter to a time of limit which was around 2-3 minutes. The group with the most words won (I did not demand that the words were spelled correctly. (Gunn)

There is also pictionary, where you divide the class into two groups, and one member of each team goes to the SmartBoard. The teacher flashes them a card with a word, phrase or expression and the pupils have one minute to make their team say the word on the basis of their drawing on the SmartBoard; no other clues are allowed. (Vanessa)

 Slovenian boy student 023. The Principle of Associations: “The human lexicon is believed to be a network of associations, a web-like structure of interconnected links. When students are asked to manipulate words, relate them to other words and to their own experiences, and then to justify their choices, these word associations are reinforced” (Sökmen 1997: 241-2).

Make true and false sentences about yourself using eight of these words.

I believe this is a good activity for deeper processing of words, because the learners have to relate to the words and phrases personally. I have tried it out in class and found it a motivating activity both for me and for my pupils. We all got to know each other better by sorting out the activities they liked more and liked less. This was a concrete task, easy for them to relate to and to make up sentences from a given pattern. The activity guessing what is false and true is fun and easy to understand. They have to use what they already know about each other to decide whether the statements are true or false. (Anne Katrine)

 4. The Principle of Re-contextualization: “When words are met in reading and listening or used in speaking and writing, the generativeness of the context will influence learning. That is, if the words occur in new sentence contexts in the reading text, learning will be helped. Similarly, having to use the word to say new things will add to learning”  (Nation 2001: 80).

I showed them the list of words on the projector and introduced the task to them. Their first task was to translate the words and write them in Norwegian. … When the pupils had finished this, they were asked to use at least five words/expressions from each column to write a paragraph on US politics. The task had to be finished before the lesson the week after. This sentence or text creation task required the pupils to create the context for the given words and phrases. In addition to the meaning of the words, the pupils also needed to think about word tense, grammatical behaviour and so on. (Sturla)

Slovenian male teacher5. The Principle of Multiple Encounters: “Due to the incremental nature of vocabulary acquisition, repeated exposures are necessary to consolidate a new word in the learner’s mind” (Schmitt & Carter 2000: 4).

The class was supposed to work with reading comprehension, but before starting the reading, the pupils were given a pre-reading task related to vocabulary in the text. … After a while, the teacher went through the task with the class, asking for the matching words and the definitions. The teacher repeated the answers to model the correct pronunciation.

Then the class was instructed to read the article and use the worksheet on vocabulary while reading and after reading when they were asked to answer questions from the article. This way the vocabulary was met several times.  (Anette)

Finally, the last word goes to Mette B. ‘I have also had the pleasure of practising Thornbury’s ways of putting words to work this year. What amazes me the most is how positive even the pupils with elementary skills respond to these types of activities’.

Music to my ears!

Again, heartfelt thanks to Mona and her trainee teachers.

Slovenian girl studentReferences:

Baddeley, A. (1997)  Human Memory: Theory and Practice (Revised edition), Hove: Psychology Press.

Nation, I.S.P. (2001) Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schmitt, N. (2000) Vocabulary in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schmitt, N. & Carter; R. (2000) ‘The lexical advantages of narrow reading for second language learners’, TESOL Journal, 9/1, 4-9.

Sökmen, A.J. (1997) ‘Current trends in teaching second language vocabulary,’ in Schmitt, N. and McCarthy, M. (Eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thornbury, S. (2002) How to Teach Vocabulary, Harlow: Pearson.

Illustrations from Grad, A. (1958) Vasela Angleščina, Ljubljana: DZS.

Mona’s blog, with access to her trainee teachers’ blogs, can be found here: http://monaflognfeldt.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/vocabulary-acquisition-and-development/

S is for Silence

10 06 2012

In Teaching Unplugged (Meddings and Thornbury, 2009) we have an activity called ‘The Sounds of Silence’, whereby the class simply listen in silence for one minute to whatever’s going on around them (open the windows or the door, if possible) and then share what they have heard.  You can see Luke demonstrating it here, on the shores of a lake in Austria.

Claire Kramsch, in her latest book (2009: 209), suggests that as teachers we are afraid of silence: ‘We like lively classes, we want to see the students participate, speak up, take the floor, contribute actively to class discussion.  Communicative language teaching puts a premium on talk and thus often rewards students who “do” conversation and self-expression rather than those who reflect and understand in silence.  But words have no meaning without the silences that surround them…’

In an interesting take on silence, Philips (1994) uses a framework devised by Jensen (1973) that identifies five different functions of silence, each function having both a positive and negative aspect:

a. linkage: silence can act as a bond or as a device to separate people.

b. affecting: silence can represent respect, kindness, and acceptance, and bring about a time for reflection and a healing period after a ‘confrontation’.  On the other hand it can be seen as embodying scorn, hostility, coldness, defiance, or even hate.

c. revelation: silence can lead to understanding and self-awareness.  It can also be used to conceal opinions and feelings.

d. judgemental: silence can lead to an assumption of assent and agreement with what has been said.  It can also be interpreted as disagreement and resentment.

e. activating: silence can communicate an attitude of thoughtfulness and consideration or an absence of thought or opinion.

Phillips uses this framework to suggest ways of intervening — or not intervening — during, for example, feedback sessions on teacher training courses.  The framework can also help make sense of trainees’ own silences.

The power of silence has, of course, being exploited in at least one teaching method: the Silent Way, in which the ‘the teacher is almost always silent’ (Stevick, 1980:45).  The teacher’s silence provides the cognitive and affective space within which the learner takes charge of his or her learning.  At the same time, by keeping quiet, the teacher is in a better position to ‘read’ the learner: ‘The teacher learns the student at the same time that the student is learning the language’ (op. cit.: 48-49).

Stevick incorporated moments of silence into his teaching when he was using other methods as well. For example, at the end of a Community Language Learning workshop, he asked the learners to sit in total silence for period of three minutes in order to reflect on the lesson, and he concludes that ‘the opportunity to sort things out free of distraction from the knower [i.e. the teacher] or other learners, and safe from competition from other learners, was evidently a very welcome relief to many’ (op. cit.: 154).

In a similar spirit, Jim Scrivener, in his new book, Classroom Management Techniques (2012: 187) recommends that teachers withhold their responses from time to time: ‘Acknowledge student contributions, but don’t feel the need to say something after each one’ .  Scrivener comments that ‘often, the space and silence (i.e. the absence of the teacher saying something) is what students need to organise their own thoughts and find something to say’ (ibid.). Likewise Kramsch (op.cit.: 209-210) suggests that ‘we may want to leave time in class for students to write in silence, to have a silent, private contact with the shape of a poem and its silent sounds, to listen in silence to the cadences of a student or to our own voice reading aloud, to follow silently the rhythm of a conversation played on tape, the episodic structure of a story well told.  We may want to even foster silence as a way of letting the students reflect on what they are right now experiencing’ .

And, of course, there is evidence that at least some learners need time – the so-called ‘silent period’ – to process the second language in advance of producing it.  As Krashen (1987:26) describes it: ‘It has often been noted that children acquiring a second language in a natural, informal linguistic environment, may say very little for several months following their first exposure to the second language’.  According to Krashen, ‘the child is building up competence in the second language by listening, by understanding the language around him.  In accordance with the input hypothesis, speaking ability emerges on its own after enough competence has been developed by listening and understanding’ (ibid.: 27). These findings undergird the methodology of what are sometimes called ‘comprehension approaches’, such as Total Physical Response, in which learners are not forced to speak until they are ready.

However, as Ellis (2008: 74) cautions:  ‘There is some disagreement regarding the contribution that the silent period makes to language learning’ and there is considerable individual variation between learners, some opting for production even when it is not required.  One researcher concluded that ‘the initial silent period is in many cases a period of incomprehension that does little or nothing to promote acquisition and that if the silent period is a prolonged one it may reflect psychological withdrawal’ (ibid.). Ellis cites research by Saville-Troike (1988), on the other hand, that found that ‘while some child learners may use silence as a strategy for avoiding learning, many make active use of it to prepare for the time they begin speaking the L2’ (ibid). In fact, such learners are only outwardly silent: what they are in fact doing is engaging in unspoken or barely perceptible vocalising, known as ‘private speech’.

Maybe, as the composer John Cage ([1961] 1973: 191) tirelessly pointed out,

                                        There is no

such thing as silence. Something is al-

ways happening that makes a sound.

No one can have an idea

once he starts really listening…


Silence seemed an appropriate topic on which to end this cycle of blogging.  I have a busy summer coming up, a good excuse to take an extended break.  Also, I need time to re-work a selection of these blog posts for an e-book to be published by The Round in the next few months, and called Big Questions in ELT. Look out for it!

Thanks to everyone who has followed this blog, contributed to the discussions, and helped make it such a rewarding experience for me.

So, until we meet again, ‘the rest is silence’.


Cage, J. ([1961] 1973) Silence. Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Press.

Ellis, R. (2008) The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edition), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jensen, V. (1973) ‘Communicative functions of silence,’ ETC, 30.

Kramsch, C. (2009) The Multilingual Subject, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Krashen, S.D.  (1987) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.

Meddings, L., and Thornbury, S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching, Peaslake: Delta Publishing.

Philips, D. (1994) ‘The functions of silence within the context of teacher training’, ELT Journal, 48, 3.

Scrivener, J. (2012) Classroom Management Techniques, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stevick, E. W. (1980) Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Photos by ST.

A is for Approach

22 01 2012

A copious amount of blog ink (blink?) has been expended in the last week or so, arguing the toss as to whether – among other things – Dogme is an approach. In Neil McMahon’s blog, for example, he asks the question:

What is Dogme?  No one, even among the Dogme-gicians, seem to be able to agree on whether it’s an approach, a method, a technique, a tool, an attitude, a lesson type or an irrelevance.  And does it matter?  I think it matters if people are passing it off as something it’s not (e.g. an approach), at least to me.

At the risk of inducing another bout of blogorrhea, I thought I might try and rise to Neil’s challenge, and to do this by appealing to the literature on methods and approaches. I.e.

Approach refers to theories about the nature of language and language learning that serve as the source of practices and principles in language teaching.

(Richards and Rodgers 2001, p. 20).

In this sense, then, it seems to me that Dogme does qualify as a coherent approach, in that it is grounded in theories both of language and of learning – theories, what’s more, that have been widely broadcast and endlessly discussed.

In terms of its theory of language,  it takes the view, very simply, that language is functional, situated, and realised primarily as text, “hence, the capacity to understand and produce isolated sentences is of limited applicability to real-life language use” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009, p. 9).

Its theory of learning is an experiential and holistic one, viewing language learning as an emergent, jointly-constructed and socially-constituted process, motivated both by communal and communicative imperatives (op.cit p. 18). Or, as Lantolf and Thorne (2006, p. 17) put it:

… learning an additional language is about enhancing one’s repertoire of fragments and patterns that enables participation in a wider array of communicative activities. It is not about building up a complete and perfect grammar in order to produce well-formed sentences.

Of course, these theories of language and of learning are not original: they are shared by other approaches, notably task-based and whole language learning. So Dogme’s claim to be an approach in its own right is justified only if there are in fact distinguishable (and even distinctive) practices that are derived from these theories (check the Richards & Rodgers definition again). Anyone, after all, can dream up a couple of theories, but if no one actually puts them to work, they are dead in the water.

Putting the theories to work means that (Richards & Rodgers again) “it is necessary to develop a design for an instructional system” (p. 24).

It was the lack of a ‘design’ as such, and even of ‘an instructional system’, that prompted me, a few years ago, to suggest that another self-styled approach, the Lexical Approach, was an approach in name only. In this sense, Neil McMahon’s critique of Dogme (and its ‘evangelists’) echoes my own critique of Lewis (and his acolytes). You can read it here.

My argument went like this: while it is clear that Lewis does have a well elaborated theory about the nature of language (“Language consists of grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar” [Lewis, 1993, p.vi]) it is less clear that he has a coherent theory of how languages are learned. Nor is it clear how the learning process, in a Lexical Approach, would be actualised, e.g. in terms of a syllabus and materials.

So, while Lewis insists that he is offering “a principled approach, much more than a random collection of ideas that work” (Lewis 1997, p. 205), it’s never been very clear to me how this would work in practice, or how it would not look like any other approach that just happens to have a few collocation activities grafted on.

Is Dogme any less squishy? Is there a Dogme praxis? I don’t know, but I do know that – in the last year or so – there has been a veritable eruption of blogs (too many to list here), workshops, YouTube videos, conference presentations – and even a dedicated conference – that claim allegiance to the founding Dogme principles. There are descriptions of single lessons, sequences of lessons, one-to-one lessons, computer-mediated lessons, and even whole courses. What’s more, these descriptions of Dogme practice emanate from a wide range of geographical contexts – Italy, Germany, France, Russia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Korea, Turkey, the US and the UK, to name but a few.

Of course, if you were to subject these descriptions to close scrutiny, you may find that there are as many differences between them as there are similarities. But that shouldn’t surprise you: the way that any approach is implemented –  whether task-based learning or CLIL or whole language learning   —  is likely to exhibit a similar diversity across different contexts. On the other hand, if there were no common core of praxis, then Dogme’s claim for ‘approach’ status would, I think, be seriously jeopardised.

I believe that there is a common core of Dogme practices, but I also suspect that it is still somewhat in flux. This fuzziness (that many deplore) is both a strength and a weakness. A strength because it invites continuous experimentation; a weakness because it discourages widespread adoption.  But the more that Dogme praxis is described, debated, and even debunked, the more likely it is that its soft centre will coalesce, amalgamate, stablise and – however diverse its outward appearance  – solidify into an approach.


Lantolf, J., & Thorne, S. (eds.) (2006). Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. (1997). Implementing the Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.

Richards, J., &  Rodgers, T. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

G is for Gist

27 11 2011

A couple of weeks ago Patrick Huang, a teacher trainer in Toronto, wrote to me:

I was hoping you could help with this notion of ‘gist’ tasks, which I’ve always thought as helpful in the ESL classroom.  … A colleague in Seoul recently met Michael Swan, and he mentioned that Michael has reservations about the use or usefulness of gist tasks for students. I also seem to remember seeing an article along the same lines.

What’s your current view on this? Do you include / recommend this in your MA TESOL course? Would you be able to refer me to sources where I can do more reading on the topic? I might then be able to give my students and trainees more useful and helpful ideas and practice.

Reading for gist is conventionally associated with the idea of skimming, which, in turn, is typically mentioned in association with scanning. In An A-Z of ELT these terms are defined like this:

  •  skimming (skim-reading, reading for gist): rapidly reading a text in order to get the gist, or the main ideas or sense of a text. For example, a reader might skim a film review in order to see if the reviewer liked the film or not.
  • scanning: reading a text in search of specific information, and ignoring everything else, such as when consulting a bus timetable for a particular time and destination.

Setting skimming and scanning tasks in the language classroom rose to prominence with the advent of the communicative approach, and its promotion of the use of authentic texts. Authentic texts were considered to be more in tune with a functional (i.e. non-structural) view of language, and lent themselves to a task cycle in which different skills were integrated in order to achieve a communicative outcome. Arguably, the only way to deal with such texts – especially at lower levels – was to skim and scan them. “You don’t have to read every word!” the long-suffering students were exhorted.

Very quickly, skimming/scanning became an end in itself, and teachers were misled into thinking that, by having students skim or scan texts, they were developing the skill of reading. How often do you see this expressed as an aim in examined lessons: “To develop the sub-skill of skimming a text for its gist…”

This overlooks two basic facts: (a) most students already know how to skim/scan texts in their L1, and will transfer these skills to their L2, when faced with texts whose purpose  precludes a closer reading; and (b) the skimming and scanning of texts (in the absence of a more intensive reading) is a characteristic, not of good readers, but of poor ones.

(These, I suspect, are Michael Swan’s arguments too).

Of course, it’s true that students, faced with a text in class, tend to ‘park’ their L1 reading skills, assuming that the text is a linguistic object, rather than a communicative one, and adopt a one-word-at-a-time strategy. Setting gist tasks, initially, is one way of discouraging this tendency. Giving students a time-limit to identify what the text is about, who wrote it, to whom, and why, seems an excellent way of ‘peeling off the first layer of the onion’, as it were. But this is less a skill-teaching strategy than a text-attack one. And, unless it is followed up by a more detailed reading, including some kind of focus on the linguistic features of the text (e.g. its lexical, grammatical, or discourse features), it would seem to be a singular waste of time and resources.

It’s also true that L1 reading skills don’t transfer automatically to the L1 if the text is beyond the learners’ present linguistic competence – particularly if it contains a relatively high proportion of unfamiliar words. This is what is sometimes known as the ‘threshold effect’. As Catherine Wallace (2001, p. 22) puts it,

L2 readers need a minimum threshold level of general L2 language competence before they can generalise their L1 reading abilities into L2. Where proficient L2 learners are good readers in their L1, the consensus view (based on a wide range of research studies and teachers’ observation) is that reading abilities can, indeed, be generalised across languages even in the case of differing scripts.

This would suggest that, in order to optimise skill transfer, the teacher should either pre-teach the unfamiliar vocabulary, or choose (or create)  texts whose lexis is within the students’ present competence. Researchers suggest that familiarity with 95% or more of the words in a text is the cut-off point. (The Vocab Profile tool on the Compleat Lexical Tutor website allows a highly useful test – based on word frequency data – of a text’s readability).

But pre-teaching vocabulary or using graded texts is not ‘teaching reading’. It is simply allowing learners to transfer existing skills into their L2 reading.  Why do it, then? Because texts are a useful springboard into other activities, including speaking and writing, as well as offering the opportunity for a more detailed analysis of the text’s grammatical or discourse features. Failure to exploit texts in these ways, by simply skimming or scanning them, teaches nobody nothing.


Wallace, C. 2001. ‘Reading’.  In  Carter, R.,  & Nunan, D. (eds.) The Cambridge Guide to TESOL. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

T is for Task-based Learning

13 11 2011

I’m off to this conference next week, where I’ll be attempting to situate Dogme/ Teaching Unplugged within the wider orbit of task-based language teaching (TBLT).

To tell the truth, I find the thought of it rather daunting, given not only the calibre of the other presenters (see the programme here) but also the fact that Dogme doesn’t have a shred of hard research evidence to support it.  TBLT, on the other hand, seems to be all research and very little actual practice. Yet I’m also intrigued as to why I’ve been invited, and wonder if this isn’t a sign that either Dogme has come of age, or that it is in danger of losing its edge. Or both.

It also comes at an opportune moment, as dogmetists start to engage with the need for serious research. In my presentation I will be indicating the kinds of research questions that I hope to see addressed. This in turn will involve highlighting, in the burgeoning research into TBLT, those particular studies that might also validate a Dogme approach. It’s always been my claim that Dogme shares many core principles with TBLT, but without the more elaborate ‘architecture’ usually associated with the latter. As Luke and I say, in Teaching Unplugged, “where a Dogme approach parts company with a task-based approach is not in the philosophy but in the methodology” (p. 17). Hence, a lot of the research that underpins TBLT, especially with reference to the basic claim that ‘you learn a language by using it’,  has more than passing relevance to Dogme.

Dogme in relation to TBLT and content-based instruction

All this has led me to re-visit the entry for task-based learning in An A-Z of ELT, in which I claim that TBLT

has been influential more at the theoretical and research level than in terms of actual classroom practice. One reason for this is that a focus on tasks requires a totally different course design, not to mention the implications for testing. Also, for many teachers, a task-based approach represents a management challenge.  How do you set up and monitor tasks in large classes of unmotivated adolescents, for example? And how do you deal appropriately with language problems that emerge spontaneously from the task performance?  A grammar-based syllabus and a PPP approach offer greater security to teachers with these concerns (p. 224).

This is a little ironic – cheeky, even – given that the same criticisms have been levelled at Dogme, i.e. how do you cope with unpredictability, not to mention students’ – and other stakeholders’ – need for a syllabus?  More to the point, are these criticisms of TBLT justified?  Is it really a laboratory artefact, or does it have a life of its own?  And is it so difficult to implement?

Information gap task

The literature suggests that it is. Rod Ellis (2003, p. 322) concludes that “overall, task-based teaching, while superficially simple, is complex”. One reason that it is complex – according to Ellis – is that, if their potential to promote language acquisition is to be realised, tasks need to have a linguistic focus as well as a communicative one. That is, it’s not enough that you describe this picture to me and I draw it. Rather, the task should require that you or I, or both of us, focus on some linguistic feature of the interaction that we haven’t yet internalised.  Engineering this dual focus is no mean feat.

It’s not just a management issue (e.g. how do I draw learners’ attention to form when their primary concern is on meaning?), but a course design issue: how do I design tasks that require the use of specific linguistic items, and how do I design a syllabus of tasks that covers the items that I assume the learners will need?

This is where the Dogme takes a more relaxed attitude, perhaps. By banking on the fact that, if you use language purposefully, intensively and communicatively, you will ‘uncover’ the syllabus that you need, the requirement for ‘focused tasks’ (i.e. tasks that target a pre-selected language feature) is obviated. The learners’ linguistic needs are met (so the theory goes) if their communicative needs are met.  And their communicative needs are met if they’re given the space, and the incentive, to realise them.

Besides, it seems to me that a lot of the literature on TBLT is aimed at finding the optimal configuration of task design factors – such as rehearsal, planning time, collaboration, and so on  – that in turn impact on accuracy,  fluency and complexity. Calibrating these different factors requires an almost obsessive attention to detail. Yet, as Michael Breen (1987, 2009) pointed out:

Perhaps one of the most common experiences we have as teachers is to discover disparity between what our learners seem to derive from a task and what we intended or hoped the task would achieve. Whilst the objective of the task will have been reasonably precise, actual learner outcomes are often diverse, sometimes unexpected, and occasionally downright disappointing (p. 334).

If task-based teaching is so fundamentally unstable, why not opt, instead, for maximising those features of the classroom ecology that really do have strong and predictable effects, i.e. granting learners some control of the agenda?  Where learners have some ownership of, and investment in,  their language learning  program, the fact that it’s task-based, or text-based, or even grammar-based, is of relatively little consequence.

But do I dare say this at the conference!?


Breen, M. 1987. ‘Learner contributions to task design’. In Candlin, C., & Murphy, E. (eds.) Language Learning Tasks. London: Prentice Hall. Reprinted in van Branden, K., Bygate, M., & Norris, J. 2009. Task-based Language Teaching: A Reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Ellis, R. 2003. Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

J is for Jargon

6 11 2011

A student on my MA TESOL course posed the following question last week:

“Before becoming a teacher OF teachers, how much did you find yourself grappling with jargon specific to the discipline when teaching your students? … I guess my main issue is that I have an internal conflict with theory and jargon … and when I find it difficult to apply a concept in a concrete manner, it tends not to stick with me very well.”

In response, I paraphrased this extract from the introduction to An A-Z of ELT:

Training and development involves not just the acquisition of new skills and techniques but also a specialized language to talk about them and to make sense of how other professionals talk about them. Specialized language – called jargon by outsiders, but terminology by those who use it – is the discourse of any particular group of professionals. It facilitates communication within the group, and it identifies individuals as belonging to the group. Professional training and development, therefore, means becoming a member of a discourse community, and becoming comfortable with its language (p. vi).

Becoming a member of a social or professional group, then, means learning to ‘talk the talk’. Inevitably, as seen through the lens of an outsider, this ‘new language’ can at first seem obscure, even perverse. In an illuminating study of the development of professional discourse, Heather Murray (1998, p. 3) comments that “it is a common phenomenon on English teacher training courses that trainees regularly complain about the EFL jargon used by trainers at the beginning of the course, but rarely do so at the end”. The initial resistance not only gives way to acceptance, but the jargon becomes part of the trainee’s active vocabulary. Jargon becomes terminology.

Murray tracked this transition on a pre-service course over a seven-month period. In describing classroom events, initially the trainees would use non-specialist wordings, such as a foreigner or mistakes in the verbs. By the end of the course, however, they were substituting these for more specialist terms such as non-native speaker and poor control of tense.

Murray makes the important point that the use of the terminology may constitute the first step towards an understanding of the concepts that these terms encode: “Not only is the acquisition of professional discourse a sign of concept development, but seems in fact to drive concept development” (p. 6, emphasis added). That is, you need to be able to talk the talk before you can walk the walk.

This (Vygotskian) notion of speech preceding, and determining, thought is nicely captured in the following extract (that I came across by chance when researching ‘ownership’ for the previous blog post) in which Courtney Cazden (1992, p. 191) quotes from one of her graduate students’ journals:

As I began work on this assignment, I thought of the name of the course [Classroom Discourse] and thought I had to use the word ‘discourse.’ The word felt like an intruder in my mind displacing my word ‘talk.’ I could not organise my thoughts around it. It was like a pebble thrown into a still pond disturbing the smooth water. It makes all the other words in my mind out of sync. When I realised I was using too much time agonising over how to write the paper, I sat down and tried to analyse my problem. I realised that in time I will own the word and feel comfortable using it, but until that time my own words were legitimate. Contrary to some views that exposure to the dominant culture gives one an advantage in learning, in my opinion it is the ownership of words that gives one confidence. I must want the word, enjoy the word and use the word to own it. When a new word becomes synonymous in my head as well as externally, then I can think with it. I laugh now at my discovery but realise that without it, I would still be inhibited about my writing.

This is the processs that, with reference to other, sometimes less benign, contexts, Fairclough (2003) calls ‘inculcation’: “Inculcation is a matter of, in the current jargon, people coming to ‘own’ discourses, to position themselves inside them” (p. 208). And he adds that “people may learn new discourses and use them for certain purposes while at the same time self-consciously keeping a distance from them” (ibid.). This seems to me to be where my student is at, at the moment.

In an attempt to facilitate this process of inculcation, last summer on a methodology course that I was teaching, I gave each of the 15 trainee teachers a card with a key word on it, such as authentic, communicative, performance, fluency, inductive, etc. Their task was to individually research their word, paying particular attention to its specialist meanings, and, at strategic moments on the course, I would call on the ‘owner’ of one of the words to briefly gloss it. In so doing, they became the ‘expert’ with regard to that particular concept. This seemed to work well, and I plan to repeat the procedure next time round, but with the additional instruction that they should be prepared to compare and contrast the non-specialist and specialist meanings of their selected word. (This also raises the question as to how the same activity could be engineered during the online version of the course).

In short, what I’m arguing is that teacher development and professionalization is the process whereby jargon becomes terminology. But is there a danger that the terminology functions to exclude, as much as to include?  Do teachers and academics really speak the same language?


Cazden, C. 1992. Whole Language Plus: Essays on literacy in the United States & New Zealand. New York: Teachers College Press.

Fairclough, N. 2003. Analysing Discourse: Textual analysis for social research. London: Routledge.

Murray, H. 1998. The developement of professional discourse and language awareness in EFL teacher training. IATEFL TT SIG Newsletter, Issue 21, pp. 3-7.

Illustrations from Kucera, E. 1947. Método Kucera Inglés: Curso elemental. Barcelona: Enrique Kucera.

O is for Ownership

30 10 2011

Can you own an idea?

In the lastest issue of Voices, the IATEFL newsletter, in a page of teaching ideas, there appears the following activity:

Holiday photos

1.Teacher borrows a notepad from a  student and draws 2 big rectangles.

2. Teacher imagines these are family photos and describes the people and the event.

3. Students draw 2 big rectangles on their notepad page.

4. They do step 2 with a partner or small group.

5. Report back to group about their partners’ photos.

(Gobel, 2011, p. 11)

Nice activity. Except that, apart from one or two small details (only one rectangle, not two, and the fact that the teacher doesn’t describe the ‘photo’ so much as invites questions about it), this is my idea. I happen to know it’s my idea because, unusually, it came to me in a dream. (I swear!)  I’ve never written it up, but I’ve often done it in Dogme-style workshops.

So what? No one owns an idea. Moreover, there’s such a thing as synchronicity, when several people think of the same good idea at the same time. Maybe that’s what happened.  So I’m not losing sleep about losing ownership of my idea. But it has got me thinking.

Several years back I was at the other end of a more serious breach of ‘intellectual ownership’. In a methodology book I wrote, I used a term that had recently been coined and popularised by an American academic of considerable repute. Not only did I use the term, I used it in the context of describing a view of linguistics that this writer herself had recently developed and was busily promoting. I felt it was right, therefore, to acknowledge her influence by putting her name at the head of the list of the people I wished to thank.

Imagine my surprise, however, when – having received a complimentary copy – the writer in question emailed me to express her (barely concealed) anger that I had not credited her sufficiently, particularly with regard to the term she had coined.  My response – that my book, not being an academic text, was deliberately thin on referencing – didn’t wash. “We are nothing if not our ideas, Scott,” she wrote. After a hastily convened conference-call with my series editor and publisher, the aggrieved academic was somewhat mollified by the promise that – in the next edition – the wrong would be righted (a promise that was fulfilled, I might add).

“We are nothing if not our ideas”. At the time I thought this was somewhat pious, pretentious even, or just plain sad.   Having since spent time on the fringes of the US academic community, I now understand better where she was coming from.  There is a very different professional culture operating there than, say, in Britain or Europe. It is both more competitive and more proprietorial. Ideas matter.

But for how long?   On yet another occasion, I was taken to task by a reviewer of another of my books for not acknowledging the fact that one of the practice activities in that book had been invented by (the late) Donn Byrne, way back in the 1970s. I honestly didn’t know.

But be reasonable: how long does an idea have to be around before it enters the popular domain?  Does anyone have a patent out on Alibis, for example, or on dictogloss? Who owns running dictations? At what point can you safely stop referencing Stephen Krashen when you talk about comprehensible input, or Jerome Bruner when you talk about scaffolding?

Nevertheless, ideas do matter – some ideas, at least. I’m not going to lose sleep – as I say – about the holiday photos activity. But I did tick off a fellow blogger, a few months back, when he mentioned ‘teaching unplugged’ without attribution. And this – from a post on the Dogme discussion list last week – caused a brief but sharp spasm of wounded pride: “The founders, the producers, actually don’t “own” this story [i.e. Dogme], this story is time-old: it belongs to life and language learning itself”.

So much for one’s precious ideas.


Gobel. G. 2011. ‘Practical Teaching Ideas’. Voices, 223. Pewsey: IATEFL. p. 11.