This Teacher Used This One Awesome Trick When Teaching and You Won’t Believe What happened Next (or how I learned to get learners talking in fewer than ten photocopies)

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet¹

What do The Japanese Civil War, Batman vs Superman and “Tidying Guru” Maria Kondo have in common? No, they’re not my most favouritest things (though thanks for compliment that I’m tidy) but are, in fact, some topics that I’ve learned quite a lot about recently. And not because I looked them up. So where did I learn about them? Not from New Cutting Edge or Business Result, not from meticulous lesson preparation or seriously bespoke planning, nor from the estimable onestopenglish or Reward McNuggets Intermediate  Resource Pack, but from the remarkably able source of… my students.  I was all ears. And faces.

All the World’s a Stage

In 1957, Erving Goffman published his book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. In it, Goffman argues that an individual presents themselves to the outside world to try shape the way they are in turn perceived. Thus, all of us have a lot of selves and we choose which one we wish those around us to see, depending on the situation we’re in. A person does this for a number of reasons, such as wanting “[an other] to think highly of him, or to think that he thinks highly of them, or to perceive how in fact he feels towards them… he may wish to ensure sufficient harmony so that the interaction can be sustained, or to defraud… or insult them.”². Or, in teaching terms, to get them to learn.


@foster_timothy, ELTPics


So who I am when I teach is not who I am when I write this, work on a CELTA or Delta or meet a new colleague for the first time. I perform a self and put on a face in each instance, one I feel is the best fit for the social context. It’s not that I’m hiding anything; I’m just presenting another self because the stage has changed and the audience is different. I can’t be Anthony if there is no Cleopatra, but I could be Bogart to your Bacall, or Superman to your Batman.

Bat what? Bat who? What’s a Gotham? Who Cares?

I have a confession to make. I concede here, in front of these witnesses, that I know very very little about Batman vs Superman because I could not care less about Batman vs Superman. I’ve tried caring less, really I have, but it is actually impossible, making the fact that there developed a forty-minute scaffolded speaking activity about the film a seeming contradiction. The learner had been to see it, loves DC Universe stuff, and brought it up. I asked who won and found that it was a little more complicated than that. The learner tried to explain, faltered, kept going. A bat sign appeared in the sky above the lesson. My help was needed.  I put on one of my invisible masks.

That Awesome Trick

There is no trick – I defrauded you using a self I’m not proud of – but there are a couple of points to make about the practicalities of the above for language teaching. As a Dogmetic teacher, I’m supposed to listen to my students and take an interest in what they have to say. Sometimes I genuinely am interested, but not when superheroes are the topic. But it’s not about me; it’s about the learner. If they want to talk about superheroes, I will do two things that some people are not comfortable with (and which are my two top tips for teaching 121s, by the way), but which are part of a teaching self of mine:

  1. feign interest
  2. pretend to be more or less completely ignorant of the topic

Of the three topics I mentioned at the start, I was a combination of those two things for each one. The Japanese Civil made me genuinely really curious and I knew a little about it already.  I knew, for example, that Kyoto had been the capital of Japan for centuries, but I did not tell the learner this; rather, I used my ‘ignorance’ to encourage his explanation.  Batman vs Superman piques no interest for me, but I knew that Ben Affleck had directed it, roughly what the plot was and that some reviews had been less than favourable. I still pretended I knew virtually nothing about it and that I would like to see it to prompt some speaking. Marie Kondo was of mild interest in terms of the concept, but I genuinely knew nothing about her. My face was still enraptured with curiosity as everything from her best-sellers to how to part with sentimental items was clarified for me. Each time, I had to act to get the learner to speak; each time, the lesson developed in this direction and they talked a lot. Each time rapport was good and each time mini emergent syllabus points, er, emerged.

Person (n)… originally “mask, false face,”*

*(that’s true³)

So how to put on that mask and get away with it, without causing offence or hinting at any suggestion that you might just be faking it, a devious actor with a learning end in mind? Here’s some ten points to bear in mind:

  1. You’ve got to mean it – you might not be interested and you might know a lot about the topic, but you need to avoid that coming across and in a non-condescending manner.
  2. In 121s especially (but all classes if possible), take clear notes about the learner (family, job, etc.), with lists of topics discussed and return to these when necessary. Read them before every class so you can refer to them where necessary.
  3. Back-channel as you would if your friend was telling you something really interesting. Lots of “huh?”, “reaaaly?”, “I seeee” and so forth.
  4. Ask questions about the content of the discussion, questions someone might actually ask if they genuinely wanted to know more.
  5. Use your face and gestures to show curiosity, fascination, learning, astonishment, surprise, disappointment, disbelief, gratitude… all at the right (but not same) time. As if you really were all those things.
  6. Vary your intonation, but keep it risingly curious often.
  7. Maintain eye contact. Don’t stare anyone out, but keep the eye contact natural.
  8. Prompt and ask for further examples/illustration by getting parts of what’s been said deliberately wrong.
  9. Try not to yawn and get good at rubbing your eyes back to wakefulness (coffee?).
  10. Rephrase points and ask for further clarification: “you mean that… xyz?”, “so that was before the…abc”.

So there you have it. All your learners are different, so make sure you leave time to prepare a face for the those different faces that you meet. And if you think me cynical, you might be right; but, why not ask the learners if they enjoyed the lessons or whether they’d prefer page 28.


1. T.S. Eliot (1920) The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: (accessed 27/7/16)

2. Erving Goffman (1956) The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Monograph 2, Edinburgh.

3. Definition from The Online Etymology Dictionary: (accessed 27/7/16)

On Rapport

I do Bikram Yoga. There, I admitted it. Just to get that out there before we move on. I also need to tell you that I have as much flexibility as some thin steel at absolute zero (though without the steel) and am, concomitantly, rubbish at Bikram yoga. I’ve had about 45 classes now, still can’t even touch my toes and nearly die at least once during the arduous 90-minute lock-step torture that not even the Inquisition dared employ. Ok. Confession over.

Yogi Bugbear

The reason I mention this is because there is a distinct difference between the two instructors I see most often. Let’s call them Rita and Laura. While both are technically very proficient and even gifted at what they do, know the 26 poses inside out (not an unapt expression for yoga) and offer helpful suggestions for getting a position right or improving your own practice, the classes with Rita are just much better than those with Laura. Why would this be so and what does it have to do with ELT?

The answer is: rapport. But just what is that? The MacMillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners defines rapport as “a relationship in which people like, understand and respect each other” (which suggests I failed to establish rapport with a couple of ex-girlfriends.. ). Narrowing the scope more to ELT, Jim Scrivener describes rapport as: “the quality of the relationship in the classroom: teacher – student and student – student. It is not primarily technique driven, but grows naturally when people like each other and get on together” (Classroom Management Techniques p40). So, basically, it’s about people liking each other and getting on well together, which is all very well, but how can it be achieved?

One of the problems with rapport is that some just seem to have it naturally, while others can struggle. While it’s difficult to say exactly why one teacher might have better rapport than another, there are certain behaviours that a teacher can work on to help them get there. To this end, Scrivener goes on from the above quotation to list “authenticity”,” good listening”, “showing respect and support”, and “a good sense of humour” as highly desirable in achieving a good rapport with a class. While in How to Teach English, Harmer adds “recognising students” to the list, as well as “being even handed” (pp26 & 27). So, now we have a fairly complete list, let’s see how it manifests itself in my yoga classes.

A rapport diagnostic: how to aid and hinder rapport-building

In this section, we’ll look at some of the ways that Laura manages to create a negative atmosphere at times, and some suggestions for how to remedy this.

Problem One

What the instructor does: singles late-comers out, stops the class to tell people off for being late and implies that they’re not taking the class seriously.

The problem: in a room full of adults, who are there to improve in some way, this sort of public reprimand is unhelpful, has a negative effect on the atmosphere in the room and can even be somewhat cringe-worthy.

What the instructor should do:  be understanding. Everyone coming to yoga has a job, often a high-pressure job in this part of the world, and the traffic is a nightmare.

It's hot, y'know
It’s hot, y’know

Perhaps they just got held up and couldn’t get there on time. At least they tried! Why not simply brush it off, continue and maybe after class have a quiet word, asking what the problem is and hinting that it’s not ideal to arrive late, but at least they’re making an effort to come.

Problem Two

What the instructor does: singles out only strong participants for praise

The problem: those less proficient at yoga are rarely – if ever – encouraged and can feel that they’re not up to the mark and that their efforts are futile (I know; I’m one of them!)

What the instructor should do:  Be even-handed. Distribute praise evenly throughout the group when the situation demands it. If someone has put in some extra effort, improved on a posture last week, is noticeably suffering (very common!) and needs encouragement, praise them. Don’t praise everything, or it loses its effect, but don’t just praise strong students as this can be counter-productive. Not all of us can put our foot over our head while balancing on one-leg and hold it for 25 seconds…

Problem Three

What the instructor does: reprimands people for getting things wrong or for, accordingly, “not listening”

The problem: mistakes are part of the learning process and just because someone makes one doesn’t mean they weren’t listening!

What the instructor should do:  show some respect and support. Demonstrate the posture again and highlight the part that’s gone wrong, not singling anyone in particular out. Simply deliver the ‘correction’ in a more supportive manner, telling a few students that they should continue to work on a certain part of the posture (nothing wrong with demand high yoga…). Perhaps offer some individual guidance while monitoring (yes, in yoga too) and don’t stop the class to tell people they’re not listening just because they’re not 100% perfect (I’m pretty sure this is actually some teacher insecurity hindering learning here, but that’s a blog post for another time..).

Problem Four

What the instructor does: knows the names of the stronger participants, but not the weaker ones (though oddly, she knows mine – must be a case of going long enough that she can’t not)

The problem: as with the praising, weaker students can feel discouraged or even slighted.

What the instructor should do: recognise students. It’s hard, very hard, to do, but a little more effort would go a long way. It’s particularly hard with a “drop-in” like event like this particular yoga class (an open group or rolling intake in ELT), but after a couple of weeks there really is no excuse. Even I know the names of some others I’ve barely spoken to. She could make some notes pre-class to help her remember or talk to people before they go in, asking how they are, etc. (she does this to a point, but only with the stronger ones or long-term regulars like me).

Problem Five

What the instructor does: delivers the class as if it were training session on how to kill enjoyment, rather than a collective exercise in, well, exercise.

I'm flagging at 23...
I’m flagging at 23…

The problem: there’s very little humour, or give, in her classes. They can be isolating. Sometimes it can seem monotonous, as if I have to get the most out of it for myself, without being gently nudged along by the rapport the teacher creates.

What the instructor should do:  have a sense of humour and reference the group effort. Rita has a good sense of humour and uses it well: “you’ve paid for the pain, make the most of it”, “only four postures to go before that glass of wine”, etc. I’m not saying she’s yoga’s Eddie Izzard, but in times of stress like the last third of a Bikram class, a little light banter goes a long way, helping you feel normal and part of a group. Yes, part of a group. This is exactly what Laura fails to do. And not having a sense of humour which, when used effectively can help create a group atmosphere, does not help.

Problem Six

What the instructor does: insists that postures are done by the book, regardless of individual issues with any one position in particular.

The problem: everyone is different and has different strengths and weaknesses and these should be catered for; it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, the human body: my bad ankle is your dodgy hip. I guess it’s the yoga equivalent of learning preferences, in ELT terms.

What the instructor should do:  listen to the learners. It took about 2 months before I convinced Laura that I simply cannot do a couple of postures due to my knees. It’s not a case that I’m simply being a recalcitrant pest – that’s my knees. Rather than trying to push me to do a posture (three actually) in a certain way, help me round it by suggesting something else. I’m being slightly disingenuous here as she has now done this, but it took a while. Learners are individuals and should be treated as such.

Taking a Position

So that’s my list of ways in which rapport is not built in my yoga class, with the parallels for the ELT classroom needing no further explanation. I bet you never thought a Bikram Yoga class and, say, a pre-intermediate English class could have this in common, but they do. The same would apply to many other situations, such as group work, leadership, or even talking down the pub with your friends. If the rapport isn’t there, it’s just not going to work out as well. Of course, rapport can actually have a detrimental effect, and we’ve probably all seen those teachers who get by on it alone – the entertainers whose teaching may not be wonderful, but whose students sure have a good time in class (Scott Thornbury writes about this here). However, it’s clear that rapport is an essential element of good teaching, for me, and I enjoy my yoga classes far more with it, than without. And the same goes for my CELTA groups, my friendly games of doubles badminton, my office, my Spanish classes, my IELTS re-certification training… you name it. It really can be the rapport what makes it.

The Spanish Acquisition

I’m just back at work after a wonderful three week break. The first 9 days of this brief sojourn to pastures greener were in Spain, first Valencia for a couple of days and then a week in Andalucía. I was confronted for the first time with prolonged exposure to Spanish Spanish, in its various forms, (let’s not get into the politics of that here) which, for someone who learned their Spanish primarily in Costa Rica, was a fascinating linguistic adventure (isn’t this why everyone goes on holiday..?). However, it brought to my attention once more something which I’ve pondered before: the difference between learning a language and actually using it (I use myself as an example in this post simply as I have much more evidence about myself than anyone else – skip the next five paragraphs if that interests you not!).

A short anecdote

During my brief trip to Spain, I experienced something I’ve often struggled with in the past: Spanish. Ok, that’s not quite right. Using Spanish would be more accurate. I think I’m pretty good at learning Spanish: I know my subjunctives from my imperfects, notice things people say all the time, pick up on collocations, like the grammar and enjoy reading. My problem comes when I try to use the damn language (the same used to happen to my French too). It doesn’t happen all the time, but often when I try speaking Spanish I can become completely tongue-tied (or brain-tied), despite having passed the DELE C1 exam (which suggests I should be better than I am). I often just can’t think of how to begin to say the simplest thing and can’t quite seem to get over this in the moment.

In Sevilla, I had to buy an adaptor for my phone charger so I could plug it in. More specifically, I had to buy a USB adaptor which would then allow me to connect it to the mains. Having got to the centre of the city, I set of in search of one and within 5 minutes had stumbled across a small electronics shop. In I went and spoke to the man behind the counter, explaining what I needed.  He got an idea of what I wanted and then, when I said “I’ll show you it [the USB cable]”, he simply stared at me blankly. After eventually completing the transaction for a bargain 1.50, I left the shop and wondered why the breakdown in communication occurred.

Now, I hadn’t really spoken Spanish for about 6 months, but still, I should have the necessary lexis or ability to paraphrase my way out of most given situations. The grammar isn’t difficult for this type of description or request.  I was at a bit of a loss. I hadn’t been at my most fluent, but was out of practice with the language and felt a bit nervous due to this. Then it dawned on me, or rather, smacked me in the face so hard I could have been in Monty Python’s fish slapping dance. Instead of saying to the man “te lo muestro” (I’ll show you it), as intended, I actually repeated 3 times “te veo” (I see you), which makes so little sense in this situation as to be absurd.  Oddly enough, he was somewhat confused by my telling him in mid conversation about an adaptor that I could see him. Why did this happen?

Using Spanish?
Using Spanish?

The situation is made all the more frustrating for me by the fact that there are times when I’m really very fluent and have no problems at all speaking. I have puzzled about this a lot, trying to find reasons or spot a pattern and one or two things have suggested themselves. I principally have problems when I’m nervous or unsure, when I think a lot, with certain individuals,  when I’m with people I perceive to speak the language better than me, with L1 Spanish speakers who speak English to a high level. All of this really does point towards some sort of psychological/affective issue, but for the sake of writing something, let’s look at some other ideas.

In the following paragraphs, I’ll outline some potential theoretical accounts of why I might have the problems I do. This is not intended to be exhaustive or authoritative, merely some ideas that might be a useful introduction to such things for DELTA module 1 candidates.

Not So Smooth Operator

One of the aspects of speaking in an L2 which is difficult for learners is that, outside the contrivance that is the language classroom (to paraphrase Ellis), speaking takes place in real-time conditions or real operating conditions; that is to say, that instead of having time to prepare what I’m going to say about a given topic, for example, I’m thrown head first into the cut and thrust world of a real conversation in which, amongst other things, the topic may suddenly change, lexis I do not know may be used/needed, I may have to suddenly respond to something said, the grammar might be quite complex or there may be a group of native speakers having a good chinwag and I get lost. There is also the element of listening to consider, for spoken interaction wouldn’t really work without it (see ‘mansplainer’). In real operating conditions, there’s a lot for your brain to handle and so sometimes it’s just overload and you lose fluency or accuracy or both.

“I can’t control the way I’m movin my lips… it’s automatic, it’s automatic”

In order to cope with the above, learners have to develop a degree of automaticity. This lovely combination of six syllables basically means that, when speaking, the learner does not need to focus their attention on putting the language together, but rather can devote a greater degree of brain power to getting their point across i.e. they are what is perceived to be fluent. There are numerous aspects to this, such as relying on chunks, fillers and other discourse features, as well as having had enough practice at actually speaking to make it more automatic (like riding a bike, say).  If you think about recounting an anecdote in an L2, for example, you probably don’t do it so fluently the first time you find yourself doing it; however, by the fifth time, you’re probably regaling everyone as if you were a native. Why? You’ve thought about it, practised it and started to make the things you had to think about before more automatic; in other words, you’ve developed that degree of automaticity.

Performance Anxiety

Most teachers (and many learners) will be familiar with the problem I outlined above: the learner knows the language quite well in class and on paper, but when it comes to using it, it just doesn’t work out for some reason.  This seems to me to mirror what Ellis in SLA Research and Language Teaching, following Chomsky and Sharwood Smith, describes as the difference between “linguistic competence” (knowledge of the formal properties of the language) and “performance 2” (actually using the language receptively and productively). Thus, a learner may have a reasonable degree of linguistic competence i.e. I know the ‘rules’, lexis, quite well, but a low performance ability i.e. I can’t always turn that knowledge into successful language use to communicate, and hence comes across as not fluent to some degree.

Krashen Burn

Krashen proposed five hypotheses for SLA (Second Language Acquisition). I’m only going to discuss three here, as I feel these are the most germane to the topic of this post, but the other two are but a Google search away.

The first of these hypotheses is that there is a distinction between “acquisition” (all quotations from The Natural Approach pp26-27) and “learning”; that is, the former is “natural”, “unconscious” and achieved through “using language for real communication”, while the latter is “conscious, “formal knowledge of a language” aided by formal instruction (or ‘teaching’, to you and I). Krashen uses this distinction to suggest that fluency would be directly linked to acquisition, not learning, and so only that which has already been acquired would be used fluently in a given situation. How this is measured is anyone’s guess, but that’s more or less what he says.

The Medium is not the Monitor

Another hypothesis, the third, was that of the Monitor. This proposes that what we have learned in the L2 is only really useful in terms of monitoring what we have acquired and is thus not particularly useful for fluency, which relies on the acquired system. In other words, this implies that our fluency is directly related to what we’ve acquired and that our learning only comes in to check this (for Krashen, this can happen before, during or after an utterance – make of that what you will). So, if I over-use the Monitor, I will be thinking too much about being ‘correct’, this disrupting my fluency and, possibly, communicative success; if I under use the Monitor, I won’t be focussed on accuracy at all, but distinctly on the message. Furthermore, I have to be aware of any rule to monitor before I even use it i.e. I haven’t studied or been exposed to the present continuous at all, so I ain’t going to be using the Monitor to check my accuracy with it. However, for the purposes of this post, the thing to take away is that Monitor over-use can have a very negative effect of fluency.

Personal Affects

An affective filter?

The fifth hypothesis was the Affective Filter. Here, Krashen describes how affective factors i.e. factors linked to feelings or emotions, can affect language acquisition. His basic point is that if the learner is motivated, has a positive self-image and is relaxed, there will be “deeper” language acquisition if there is sufficient input as the Affective Filter will be low to allow the language in; conversely, if the learner is incredibly nervous, in no way open to learning or lacking in self-esteem (these can of course all be linked), then the Affective Filter will be high and the chances of acquisition severely dented.

Krashen is talking about SLA, but I see no reason why the same should not apply to performance (and indeed often see the term low Affective Filter used to describe having a good classroom rapport so that learners aren’t afraid to speak). You could then extrapolate that if a learner is nervous in any given situation, than their chances of being able to speak fluently will be severely dented due to a high ‘Affective Filter’. So, a learner may be very well aware of the language they need to communicate their message, but unable to access it and perform due to affective factors such as self-esteem, nervousness or pressure.

In Conclusion

So, there’s some ideas to think about next time you have a learner who’s having problems with their fluency. There are others and so why not mention one in the comments below. My own idea about my problems is that it is something affective and thus very much out of my language learning control. Perhaps NLP is the answer… or perhaps not.

Quick IELTS Academic Writing Task 1 Activity

I was reading something EFL-related today and thought of an IELTS writing activity that would be quick to prepare, with minimal materials and useful for the learners too. With the Academic Part 1, one of the biggest problems candidates can face (and I know this from my experience as an IELTS examiner) comes when they have to analyse the data. They have to pick out salient features and avoid writing irrelevant information like their opinion. In describing the features of the given information, they also need some quite specific lexis for describing trends, etc. This activity should help with both of these things.  So here it is…


  • To help learners prepare for Academic Writing Task 1 by developing their  skills for analysing the input material

  • To raise learners’ awareness of some common lexis for describing graphs, charts, etc

Sample IELTS Academic Writing Task 1

(Task taken from


  • Prepare a list of 10 statements about the chart, some true and some false (see below for examples)

  • Give the learners the chart and let them look at it for 30 seconds so they can get a feel for what it’s about and start mentally processing it

  • Now dictate the statements without the learners seeing the chart

  1. In general, Australian household spending was higher in 2001 than in 1991, though by a small margin

  2. Average expenditure on transport decreased by almost a third

  3. Average expenditure on transport increased sharply from $75 in 1991 to $120 in 2001

  4. The spending decrease on clothing can be explained by cheap imports from China

  • The learners now compare together what they’ve written down, thinking particularly about spelling and punctuation. You could hand out the printed statements here, display them or simply write them up yourself so the students can see the correct versions

  • They  now look back at the chart and decide which statements are correct, incorrect or inappropriate (see no.4, for example)

  • You can now do some language work by having the students analyse the dictated statements for collocations, fixed phrases, topic-specific lexis, etc, which they can use when they write their own version.

Brief Analysis and Variation

This is done as a dictation for the listening practice, which may well help them with the types of texts that might appear in the listening exam. That said, you could easily get the learners to do this for each other, either dictating their own statements or simply writing them before swapping with another group and repeating the above. It would be more difficult to do follow on language work from this, but it would give them great practice in analysing data. You’d also have to monitor quite closely here to make sure their analysis was along the right lines.

Dogme Research in Costa Rica

My colleague Ben and I have recently started a Dogme research project here in Sunny Costa Rica. It’s called Pura Vida Dogme and you can get to our blog by clicking on the this link (not the picture below, which is just a picture..). The idea is basically to research learner motivation and dealing with emergent language in a 4 month project with a group of 10 local learners. We’ve been greatly assisted by the Academia Pi Mas here in San José, who have kindly let us use their classroom for free. Anyway, visit the blog and share your thoughts/ideas/suggestions/comments. All welcome!

Dogme, Lexis and Fiction

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged so it’s about time I did so again before I forget how. This time, a slightly different one once again. I’ve been meaning to start an occasional series of posts of my experiences as a language learner and relating these to wider teaching and learning issues, and so here’s number 1.

Some Background

I’m preparing for the DELE C2 Spanish exam and am in a class with two others, both of whom find themselves in the same exam boat (if you’re lucky, one day I might post a rant about the lack of validity of said exam, but I’ll save that for a rainy day..). The others are Ben and Dónal, both of whom are incredibly fluent and confident with their speaking, something which used to intimidate me somewhat. The class is taught by Fernando, who has been my teacher for 2 years.  The classes usually have an exam focus for about a third of the time and then, well, it’s quite difficult to describe in the remaining 80minutes. Ben has blogged about this class before.

There is usually a great deal of lexis floating around and I’d say that this would be what I take most from the class – chunks, new words, expressions. Given how lazy I can be as a language learner, this lexis is invaluable to me and the memorising of it very important, not just for the exam, but for my overall development as a speaker of Spanish.

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

A while back, I read one of Dale Coulter’s lesson skeletons on his blog, in which he described an activity in which the learners created a fictional story by adding one line to a text and then passing the pen to the next person. They continued this until it came to a natural end and then Dale analysed the emergent language with them. I then read the following comment from Scott Thornbury on this activity.

My tiny doubt: if the learners are taking turns to continue the text, whose ‘story’ is it? Presumably it becomes fiction after the first writer yields the pen. Does this matter?

This got me thinking. I consider myself very much a Dogmetist – though possibly not an absolute purist – and like to think I conduct my classes as much in this direction as teaching context and situation allow. Given that I would happily use an activity similar to Dale’s (I have blogged before a Mexican joke the learners came up with in class) I found myself asking if I am indeed a Dogmetist or whether I have misunderstood certain aspects of the approach (if it’s safe to use that word). Furthermore, as there have been various attempts to work on definitions of Dogme recently, I thought this might be of interest.

“Un Puerco Espín Con Un Pincel En Su Boca” O “Un Querubín Llora”

This all came back to me recently during a Spanish class in which Ben and I created a fictional story about a porcupine artist subject to persecution for his obvious artistic talent. Now, this is not an example of one of our personal stories, but was co-created and incredibly funny (for us, don’t ask Fernando..). This has made it all the more memorable for me and some of the vocabulary that came up seems to stick. I’m delighted I now know how to say “porcupine” and “paintbrush” in Spanish, two things that do not figure much in my daily life. Now, it must be said that this exercise was actually to recycle lexis that from previous classes, and that there was no focus on form. That said, there was the new lexis such as the aforementioned.

Another example from a recent class would be a segment in which Dónal, myself and Ben had to create new laws that should be introduced. I forget the characters now, but through a process of random selection I remember that Dónal was a Libertarian from Vanuatu. We then had to argue in favour of our laws, and against those of the others, from the point of view of these roles. This was another frankly ludicrous class that was thoroughly enjoyed by all and involved us “owning” the language in the room by being playful and creative with our ideas and indeed the language itself. I learned how to say “cherub”, the Spanish equivalent of “the straw that broke the camel’s back” and “labyrinth”. Again, this lexis is not likely to come up much if we were to exchange personal stories as there just aren’t that many labyrinths and cherubs in my life.

It’s Nothing Personal

So far, so good. So what’s this got to do with Dogme? Here’s a quotation from How to Teach Vocabulary, which goes as follows and is not discussing Unplugged Teaching:

“…the associative links in the second language lexicon are usually less well established than mother tongue links. To extend the metaphor: learning a second language is like moving to a new town – it takes time to establish connections and turn acquaintances into friends. And what is the difference between and acquaintance and a friend? Well, we may forget an acquaintance, but we can never forget a friend” (How To Teach Vocabulary p20)

If this is so, our job as teachers is surely to try and make lexis as memorable as possible to help strengthen the less well established L2 associative links. However, to do this as Dogme teachers, do we need to always and only work with learners’ personal stories in class or can we allow for more creative, fictional, texts to be used to focus on lexis, providing the learners a space to say what they want and supplying new lexis as a need arises?

To take it one stage further, what about other emergent language? The two examples from my Spanish class were not exploited into a focus on form, the first being a revision exercise and the second a fluency practice. However, would it have been ‘wrong’ in deep end Dogme to do so? Could these only be used as practices/revision, or not at all? Had I been the teacher, I certainly would have exploited these opportunities for a focus on form of some sort as the learners were really engaged in the exercises. Given how memorable the incidental lexis from these classes is for me, would other emergent language not be equally so? And would this not pass into the class ‘folklore’, as it has done with us, creating a class story that is equally as valuable as one of our personal stories – making it a “friend” rather than just a passing “acquaintance”? And would that be incompatible with Dogme? If so, it seems I may well be a Principled Eclecticist, but that’s a whole other debate…

So a Mexican walks into a bar…

Just back from a weekend in the Caribbean (Costa Rica has its advantages..) and I thought I’d blog about another Unplugged class I had recently, as it’s a little different to the last two I’ve written about. I set myself a challenge this bimestre (2-month long term) of not opening the coursebook before I arrived in the class (I’ll blog about this mini research project another time), and in this lesson, things were no different. The difference came in the form of a learner-generated text, which just hadn’t come up before with this group. The following is the lesson report in the usual style.

Men, women and chickens

The class began in the usual fashion, with a conversation about whatever. This class enjoys talking so much, that there’s often no need for a warmer, and so off we went for the next 50minutes, with me joining in and feeding in vocab where and when it was necessary or requested. Here’s some of the lexis

  • hormone (n)

  • loss(n) / lose (v) / “sorry for your loss”

  • Christmas Hamper (n)

This particular conversation was all over the place. I discovered the Josefinos’ (people from San José) widely held belief that in the afore-mentioned metropolis there are 10 women for ever man. It is apparently a paradise for men, though I have to say I’d never noticed this discrepancy between the numbers of each sex. But there’s more… this difference between the numbers of men and women is due, not to emigration, luck or any particular social factor, but to chicken. Yes, women apparently eat far more chicken than men and the hormones in the chicken kill off the male chromosome meaning fewer male births. You can make up your own mind about the veracity of that claim…

Cuando La Migra llega, corra hacia KFC

At this point, clearly inspired by the chicken, Claudia decided it was a germane moment to tells us a terrible joke. No-one got it until she repeated it and then explained it, as it really made little sense.

  • I decided it would be good to work with this, and so gave the pen to José Maria to write up a negotiated class version on the board. You can see it in the picture.

    The Joke
  • We then went over some language that came up, such as reporting questions, which they seemed to know quite well and so I didn’t feel that it would be best to focus exclusively on these in this class.

  • Noticing this was a short text, I asked them what other information could be included. They came up with things such as the Mexican’s age, background, appearance, feelings and reason for being there, the weather, a description of the place, etc.

  • I then asked them to re-write a fuller class version, with Claudia elected as scribe and everyone contributing to this next negotiated version. This took an incredible 40mins, but wasn’t all plain sailing as Laura complained to the others that they weren’t listening to her. We got over this hurdle and continued, with me feeding in language and contributing when called upon. This extended text, which I collected, is below.

The Mexican in question?

“Two years ago, a Mexican guy went to Miami for a week. Even though he barely spoke English, he crossed the river into Texas, looking for the American Dream. In spite of the fact that the ‘Migra’ was chasing him he realised that KFC could be a good hiding place.
Then he took a break. Meanwhile, he was in the queue. The waiter asked what he wanted to eat. He saw the menu and realised that the only two words he could understand were “coke” and “chicken”. Then he started to feel nervous. He took too long and people behind him was pushing him until he tried to order. Finally, his order was “one coke and one chicken”. The waiter asked “Alone, sir?” and the Mexican was like “Alón? No, pechugón!””

Then it was break time, later than every other class as usual.

But what to focus on next?

Before reading on, ask yourself what you would have looked at with this learner-generated text. What leaps out as lacking or in need of expansion?

At this point, I still did not know what to focus on in the next part of the class. This is unusual, as I usually pick up on something quite quickly, but not this time. The extended text they’d written seemed quite good to me for learners just beginning B2 and I really didn’t see any gaping holes. There are the usual Spanish L1 errors such as “people was”, but nothing really meaty on the grammar side. The vocab seemed well-used and there were some lovely flourishes like “Even though he barely spoke English, he crossed the river into Texas, looking for the American Dream”, which, by using “even though”, incorporated language from a previous class. In the end, it was on the level of discourse that I concluded we could do some work, specifically some inaccurate use of connectors.

That said, I still wasn’t convinced. Help! I took the text to the teachers’ room and showed it to my friend Skip. He agreed it was pretty good, but pointed out the jaw-droppingly obvious lack of any relative clauses. We then went through it and decided where they would most naturally go.

This might be interesting for those who are not so confident with their language awareness or their ability to react immediately to learner output. What’s the morale of the story? If you’re unsure, ask someone. Or something, an external source like a dictionary, grammar or the cyberwebz. You don’t need to do it all yourself in the room there and then. If you can get a learner-generated written text, you have lots to work with and lots of time to do it – after break, next lesson, lesson after that. You could even plan your next class around it in a more ‘traditional’ way, working with the emergent language from the text.

Jokes are all relative

And so, armed with this, the lesson continued into the focus on form stage…

  • While the learners were on their break, I took advantage of the time to write 4 passages from the extended joke up on the board, on the left-hand side.

  • When they came back, I congratulated them on their output, highlighting some excellent phrasing such as “barely spoke”, for example.

  • I then said that we could work with this text to improve it even more and drew their attention to the board

  • Here, in the focus on form stage of this class, I asked the group all sorts of questions about essential information, extra information and connections between clauses and we re-worded their versions into connected versions making use of non-defining relative clauses (NDRCs) and defining relative clauses (DRCs), highlighting which relative pronouns referred to which prior noun phrases (who /that – person, where – place, etc). We also ‘fixed’ any connectors on the way.

  • We re-wrote all 4 together, and they copied them down. For example, “in spite of the fact that the ‘Migra’ was chasing him he realised that KFC could be a good hiding place.” was re-worded along the lines of “Due to the fact that the ‘Migra’ was chasing him, he decided to hide in KFC, which was nearby”

  • After re-writing the examples together, the group copied them all down and I asked them to think, individually, about any other variations they could think of for the story or for the sentences we had re-worded together.

  • They then compared their ideas and helped each other out, asking me questions when they felt it necessary. We did some feedback of their variations at the board.

“9pm closes all: but something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done”

It was now 8.55pm and we finish at 9 (I clearly need to work on my timing…). As homework, I set them a unit from the coursebook that deals with relative clauses (a reading leading to a guided discovery section and then some controlled practice). Again, as in previous classes, I did this as they have bought the book and I feel I need to make at least some use of it so it seems like a worthwhile purchase. My preference would have been to set them homework of trying to write a different joke in English, in as much detail as possible, using relative clauses (are we back to the task cycle, I wonder?). I would probably still do this as revision, but regrettably today is my last class with this particular group, and so I can’t. This will, thus, be my last post for a while about what happens in my classes.

And so, to finish, here are my questions about this particular post.

  • Was there enough practice of the RCs, a sometimes complicated and difficult area for learners?

  • Would you have set the homework I did and why (not)?

  • And of course, what else would you have done different or not done at all and why (not)?

If You Were a Dogme, Would You Regret Barking?

I have finally managed to find a minute to scrawl another post about an Unplugged lesson I was recently part of here in Costa Rica. I have to say, it was one of the most enjoyable classes I can recall and one in which there was so much language floating around, it was tricky to know what to focus on. Here’s what happened, complete with tortuous html bullet points…

Class of 27th September

This was originally a class of 12 adults just starting B2, which was then split into two groups of 6 and then became more or less a group of 3 for me as 2 never showed up and there’s usually one of the remaining 4 off. This lesson had the 3 who usually attend and who are fast becoming one of my favourite ever classes.

Crack your bones and the ice

Some conversation to start a class? Whatever next…?

  • “Hello!”, at which point I was informed I am a Scottish cowboy. I never really got to the bottom of why, but it might have something to do with Scottish Highland Coos

    The Teacher
  • Discussion moved on to what we’d done earlier in the day. Played yes/no questions guessing game – to provide some impetus to the conversation – until they managed to guess I’d been to the chiropractor, which led to an interesting discussion about alternative medicine, malpractice, sleeping positions, yoga and so on. Here’s some sample lexis which came up

    • Mattress (n)

    • Spring (n) (as in the thing in your mattress)

    • Stretch (v/n)

  • We then heard about a robbery in the city of Limon, which I can’t remember how we got on to, but I think it had something to do with a related story about Tai Chi. This led to a discussion about common daily problems here in San José de Costa Rica. Some related lexis that appeared out of thin air

    • Put up with sth (v) / tolerate sth (v)

    • Mug sb (v)

    • Break in  (v)

Dog Day Afternoon… and morning… and night….

From here, it was all dogs dogs dogs. It has become a class joke the amount of moaning I do about the amount of barking the dogs in my barrio of San José, Sabanilla, do.

  • Taking the dogs as our basis, I asked individuals to come up with 5 solutions to my dog/noise problem.

  • Then, as a three, they had to discuss the merits of each problem, justifying their opinions, and selecting a group top 5.

    • This was lively 20-minute discussion in which there was loads of language flying around. In the end, I noticed that they could improve their range and accuracy of sentences such as “if he *do that, then he would to be happy” and so went for 2nd conditionals as a point of emergent language to focus on. This was cheating slightly, given that I have to follow a coursebook and that this language point comes up in unit 3 but, well, you’re only young once…

    • While this part of the lesson was a structured conversation, it shares a great deal with a TBL task cycle. The first part here was brainstorming, the second a negotiated ranking task.

  • The group then reported their top 5 solutions to me, which I wrote on the board and discussed with them as they were read out.

‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’

The board near the end

At this point, 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. Not in every class, but in many. This group had been enjoying the discussion so much that it was difficult to keep them focused on the focus. This isn’t to say that they didn’t enjoy it; as in, the problem was that they kept joking and laughing and making me laugh.

  • Using the solutions the group had agreed on, we re-wrote them as 2nd conditional sentences, highlighting the use of past simple and continuous tenses as well as the modals would, could, might + infinitive. We discussed the contractions and drilled them, as well as going over ways to start conditionals that aren’t if, such as providing that/as long as (though I have to confess some help here as Rob, who teaches next door, just walked in and sat down. The students then asked him if he’d kill a noisy dog, to which he replied out of the blue “providing that it died… etc. Bingo!), suppose/supposing/imagine, assuming that and even if. We also looked at changing the order of the clauses and removing the comma.

Imagine you were a dog, would you feel sad if you couldn’t bark?

Having taken a quick break, it was time for some practice. Speaking to people, I often find this is the area most teachers have the most trouble with in Dogme. How can we practise something without materials? Here’s an idea or two.

  • I then asked the group to take their original 5 solutions and re-write them using the language we had just discussed, with me buzzing around and helping out where they

    Jose Maria helping Laura at the board

    needed it.

  • Next, as a 3, they had to analyse these re-written sentences and decide if they were correct, as well as deciding on a favourite of each person. This led to a highly amusing feedback session that largely took care of itself as they debated the merits of each sentence. Who would have thought that 2nd conditionals could make students laugh so much?

  • They then wrote these favourite sentences on the board and we discussed each one in turn, highlighting excellent use of language such as collocations, as well as correct grammar. We also went through what parts of the sentences could be changed while keeping the same meaning i.e. replacing if with suppose in questions and writing up these options too.

    • Some collocations that came up included “sleep deeply”, “beat sth/sb to death” (I didn’t suggest it; Claudia wanted to write it…), “stop + Ving”.

  • The group then copied down these sentences with the highlighted language

  • The final practice involved me asking the group to close their eyes. I then rubbed off some select language. First of all, all the past tenses and modals. The group then opened their eyes and re-created the sentences together.

  • We then repeated this, until almost all the language had been removed. In feedback to each reconstruction, we highlighted the alternatives for if and the meanings of using different modals.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Classroom

By this stage, we had regrettably run out of time. This was a real shame as I wanted to complete the task cycle with another related task which, in the end, had to wait until the next class (not that there’s any harm in that). To finish in the last 8 minutes, I asked the group to select the lexis they wanted to keep for the vocab envelope and write these words down on the cards. Everyone went home happy, except that I gave them 2 exercises from the coursebook for homework (they have bought it after all and at $40, that’s no snip in Costa Rica).

As I hinted at in the introduction, I really enjoyed this class. You simply do not see the humour and creativity in people when you force them to work with language from a coursebook. I believe that doing things this way makes the language more memorable and the study of it more enjoyable. This lesson is now part of the class ‘folklore’ and the themes recur in almost every class and while I have no proof of it, it certainly “confirm[s] [my] own intuitions that  Dogme, if not more effective, is more engaging, more memorable, more motivating  – more fun!” (Scott Thornbury here)

So, what would you have done differently? What did(n’t) you like and why?

I’m the Responsible of this

I thought today that I should finally post again and so, rather than a long report on a training session, I’ve opted for a shorter description of something equally as successful and important: an unplugged lesson.

Out there in the interwebz, there’s a lot written about Dogme, but it often tends to be in the form of for and against posts, or theoretical debates. There’s not so much about concrete examples of classes that I know of (though English Raven is good here – he even has a couple of videos; The Dogme Diaries is worth a look for some examples of classes; and Dale Coulter has a section of Unplugged ideas). This makes sense to a certain extent: you can’t exactly write boxes of lesson plans for Dogme classes. The closest we’ve got is Teaching Unplugged, which does an excellent and much-needed job of filling a gap. Anyway, I’ll try and post reports of my classes which take this form more often to try share some ideas.

So just what happened there?

The group has 6 adults (L1 – Spanish) registered, but only 3 showed up (and one of them 25mins late). The class has just started an upper int book and so is at the beginning of B2. We started, as you might expect really, with conversation and I fed in lexis as and when it was needed. The beauty of this, for me, is the diversity of this lexis in a flowing, natural conversation. Here’s some examples

  • “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop”

  • Apatheist (n) (rare)

  • “Come to life”

  • Perfect (v), Perfect (adj), Perfection (n)

  • Identify with sb/sth/a cause

A pretty eclectic mix of lexis then. Why? It followed the conversation and what the learners wanted to express, hopefully making it all the more memorable.

It’s all work work work

As the conversation turned towards jobs and how busy everyone is, I started to notice a lack of lexical range in terms of describing the responsibilities of the their respective jobs. There were repeated utterances of chunks such as *”I the responsible of…x” or *”I’m in charge for…x”. Thinking along these lines, I then decided to focus on helping the learners expand this area.

I wrote my job on the board and asked them to guess my top 5 responsibilities. They were remarkably good at this, I have to say. I think my job – Teacher Training Coordinator – must be pretty transparent. The only one they didn’t guess was… teach English! What that says about what happens in that room is for you to decide…


After this, I asked them to write a list of their own top 5 work-related responsibilities. They then said their job and the others guessed. This was quite good fun and they got quite into it, continuing the conversation. This was repeated until we’d guessed them all or been told them if we couldn’t guess and the discussion moved on to who’s job seemed most difficult or which responsibilities were shared by everyone, etc.

Returning to the board, I wrote “I’m in charge for logistics” (a sentence I’d noted down earlier) and asked if we could improve it. Lots of prepositional guesses later and we got the correct form up – “I’m in charge of logistics”. I then asked if there were any other ways we could express this and they were able to tell me “I the responsible of logistics”, which we adapted to “I’m responsible for logistics/organising logistics”, highlighting the option of a N or a Ving after “for”.

I then fed in some other ways of expressing more or less the same meaning. These were (not written exactly like this on the board)

  • I manage/coordinate/run/organise logistics (+ N)
  • It’s me who/I’m the one who organises ( + 3rd person verb form)
  • It’s my job/responsibility to organise logistics (+inf.)
  • I have to organise logistics (+inf.)

This gave us a nice lexical set of around 10 chunks of language, which we examined for pronunciation issues too (stressed words mainly). The learners copied these down and then I asked them to write 5 sentences about their jobs, using their list of responsibilities and the new language. I asked them to focus on language that was new to them, or interesting in some way, or that they wanted to learn. They each produced 5 sentences which we shared as a class and I had only 1 correction to make, which we did together at the board.

Having done all of the above, I then moved the topic on to responsibilities at home, telling them that I don’t have very many (I do live with a chef, after all…). This had them outraged as they evidently have more. I asked them to write a top 5 list but not to say what they were. I handed out strips of paper and they had to write one sentence on each, using the new language and the domestic responsibilities they had. Once they’d done one, they handed the sentence to me for correction. I kept the strips of paper. Again, there was only one correction to be made, which surprised me.

After having collected all the slips of paper, I read them out at random (I’m the one who takes the trash out every week; it’s my responsibility to cook during the week, etc.) and we tried to guess who’d written it. This was a bit easy with only 3 learners, but fun nonetheless. We discussed each one as it came up and asked follow up questions.

Finally, I gave the sentences back and asked the learners to write them in their notebooks for future reference. This all took 90mins and we took a break. I recorded the new language to revise in a future class.


This was, in my assessment, an enjoyable and useful class for the learners. They participated fully, spoke at length and worked with some new lexical chunks expanding ways they already knew to express things they wanted to express. Sure, it wasn’t the most demanding language, but it’s applicable in more situations than described here and it was based on a topic which came up in the natural ebb and flow of conversation.

So, what do you think? Is this a good example of Unplugged Teaching? Would you have done it differently or at all? How could it be improved? Would you try it?

Did I say this would be shorter? Oops..