Listen – the Gist is in the Detail IH Webinar

Here’s my third blog post in the last 12 months. I really do churn them out, here at the blogging factory. But I digress. Below is the video for the IH Live Online Workshop I did in December on looking at decoding, as well as comprehension, in listening lessons. The webinar goes over some background to what is involved in listening itself and then looks at some minimal preparation listening activities to work on decoding in class. The slides are below the video. Hope you find it useful.

The Past Simple and Present Continuous Walk into a Bar. It was Tense.

This is a summary of a DELTA session I did recently introducing the notion that time and tense may not actually be the same thing. It largely follows Michael Lewis’ The English Verb, which comes highly recommended, and I touch on aspect at the end.

How Many Tenses Does English Have?

This may seem like quite a tricky question to answer, if you start counting all those coursebook tenses up: present simple, present continuous, past perfect… However, it’s actually much simpler than that. English has but a mere two tenses, which are present (or non-past) and past. This assertion may seem surprising, but should become clearer as you read on.

The reason that English is said to have two tenses is the definition of grammatical tense which, according to Lewis in The English Verb, involves “a morphological change in the base form of the verb” (p50). You can see why this limits English to two tenses if you then try to work out what morphological changes are permitted in English verbs. Take the verb say”, for example. In the present we can say “he says”, while in the past “he said”. However, for the future, we have to add something else, we can’t simply express futurity with a change to the verb and get examples such as “I’m going on holiday with Marion Cotillard next week” or “I’ll say yes when Marion proposes”.  Other languages, such as the Romance languages, have a conjugation to express futurity cf. “je dirais” in French or “yo diré” in Spanish, where there is a morphological change in the infinitives “dire” and “decir” (other ways of referencing the future can also be used).

Only 2 Tenses, But Time?

Of course, we have more than two ways of thinking about time. In the West, we’d probably say that time is conceived of in terms of the past, the present and the future (that said, Steven Pinker’s idea of our core notion of time in The Stuff of Thought is “before-or-after” and “at-the-same-time” (p 85), which is more or less the same idea, I guess, though I’m straying a bit from the point here). Thinking of past, present or future gives us three notions of time, but only two tenses, and so leads to the conclusion that time ≠ tense. After all, time is a semantic notion, whereas tense is grammatical. They can certainly correlate, as when I say “I hung out with Marion yesterday”, where I am clearly using the past tense to reference past time. However, consider the following and think about the tense being used and the time being talked about

  • “If I went for a drink with Marion Cotillard, we’d talk about the English tense system”
  • “So I go to meet Marion and she says to me ‘let’s talk tenses’”

In the first one, we have the past tense (went) but referring to a hypothetical present or future; in the second sentence, we have the present tense (go, says) referring to past time (I’m narrating a past event here). Indeed the present and the past tense can each be used to refer to past, present or future time. Another example of seemingly strange present tense referring to past time occurs in sentences like

  • “Marion Cotillard marries Chris”? [as a newspaper headline]

The event clearly happened in the past, but is referred to using a present tense.

Distance Relatives

Great, huh? It’s a total mess. Why is English so complicated? It’s ok, take a breath, breathe, there’s some underlying logic at work here. Following Lewis, this underlying logic is that of remoteness (or “distance” as Alex Tilbury labels it in IH LAC). If we look at some of our sentences from above again, this becomes clearer

  • “I hung out with Marion yesterday”
  • “If I went for a drink with Marion Cotillard”

In the first, there is temporal distance; that is to say, the past tense is used to show that the event happened at a point in past time remote from now, in this case “yesterday”. In the second sentence, the distance here is from reality: I use the past tense to show that I am not talking about reality, that I am distancing what I say from it and thus dealing in hypotheticals. Now think about the following sentence

  • “Could you pass me the claret, Marion?”

Here, “could” is seen as the past of “can” and is used to create a social distance between the speaker and the listener, which is interpreted as a more polite way of asking this question as it’s seen as less direct.

So, we can conclude that when the past tense is used, it’s because of one of the three types of distance that we wish to express, namely temporal, hypothetical or social. The present tense would be used in all other cases and for this reason is also called the “non-past” by some. This helps explain the seemingly odd “Marion marries Chris” on a newspaper headline – the present tense is employed to make the event seem less remote and more urgent now, which is what the headline writer would try to do to capture the reader’s attention. The same could be said of the present tense being used in narratives, making the events being described more urgent for the listener or reader and thus keeping them on the edge of their seats, so to speak.

What distance is being employed in the following sentences?

  1. “What was the name, please?” [said by a receptionist in a doctor’s]
  2. “Jessica got a job in Turkey the a couple of weeks ago”
  3. “I wish Marion was reading this”

The answers are that the first is social, then temporal and finally hypothetical (she isn’t reading this, is she?). The last one, though, is different in another way too as the verb form isn’t simple.

That’s only one aspect of it

Ok, so two tenses which can be used to refer to the past, present or future. But what about the present perfect or the present continuous, I hear you cry? Well, these are examples of the present tense in conjunction with another grammatical concept known as aspect. Grammatical aspect is the speaker’s use of auxiliaries, affixes, etc. in the verb phrase to indicate their interpretation of events, such as whether the event is perceived as a completed or in progress. Take our sentence from above, for example:

  • “I wish Marion was reading this”

This would be analysed as the past tense with the progressive aspect to give a verb form described as the ‘past continuous’. As another example, the ‘present continuous’ would be the present tense combined with the progressive aspect, as in

  • “Marion is enjoying my blog posts”

English has two aspects, progressive (continuous) and perfect. The perfect shows “the relationship between one state or event and a later state, event, or time” (p391), while the progressive “indicates that an action is incomplete, in progress, or developing” (p427) (both quotations from the Longmann Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics ). Scott Thornbury has a couple of good videos discussing these in more detail on his blog here

Let’s take the progressive as an illustrative example. We form this by using auxiliary be and the –ing form of the verb:

  • “Marion is enjoying my blog posts”

If the auxiliary is in the present tense (is, in the previous example), then we have the present continuous; if, on the other hand, it is in the past, as in

  • “I wish Marion was reading this”

then we have the past continuous. Here, both examples probably indicate that the events in question were in progress (enjoying, reading), and so I use the continuous to express this. Compare

  • “Marion enjoys my blog posts”

This indicates that I see this as a timeless fact, that it isn’t temporary or in progress, and so I use an unmarked simple verb form. So, if we unpack all the meaning from “I wish Marion was reading this”, we see that the past tense is used to show hypothetical distance and the progressive aspect employed to indicate an unfolding event in progress. Note that it now seems natural that the past tense would be used after “wish”, as this automatically triggers a sense of hypothetically (you could look up colligation here too, which is the grammar that certain lexis triggers i.e. past tense after wish structures)

And with that, I’m off down the pub. If Marion weren’t so hypothetical,  she’d be present too.

Teacher Training Unplugged Part 2

About a month ago, I posted about a training session on teaching unplugged that I’d done (with my boss, Ben) in which we tried to recreate the conditions of the unplugged classroom – a sort of teacher training unplugged (you can read that post here). This was to be the first of two Dogme workshops at the school and the second of these, which I did a couple of weeks ago, is the subject of this post.

What was it all about?

The aim of the session was to demonstrate how unplugged techniques could be incorporated in our teaching and how we can analyse texts for language to focus on. The idea was to use a learner-generated text to stimulate discussion about language to focus on and possible things we could do with it. We would then select an area of language to work with and, after some analysis, do some activities to focus on the form. I had no idea what language would come up, so this part would be a bit of a challenge. The first hour of the workshop would be an unplugged ‘lesson’ of sorts, with the participants taking on a dual role of learner and teacher as and when each was required.

What’s this about using a text?

Borrowing an idea from Jason Renshaw, I arrived in the class and phoned a friend of mine, Colin (as it turned out, he didn’t answer. I tried someone else and, lo and behold, he was on his way to the workshop!). The teachers had to write down as much of what I said as they could. They then checked this in pairs and constructed the half of the conversation they hadn’t heard, basically writing a dialogue in which they already had one half of it. Having done this, in groups of 4, they compared their different dialogues and selected which they liked the best to write on the board. They could choose one of the dialogues as it was, or mix and match parts from each to create a final version. As the scribe wrote on the board, the others in the group helped, offering suggestions for changes, etc. When the dialogues were on the board, we compared them to look for any differences or similarities. Here we also highlighted the role of the teacher in all this, who would be monitoring, offering suggestions, checking the texts, taking part in the conversations, etc.

We then did a disappearing text exercise in which participants had to select 2 words each to remove from the other group’s boarded text. I frantically scribbled down some notes of the texts to help me remember them and we continued until almost all the text had been deleted. The groups then had to re-write them and compare with their originals, noting any differences and the implications of these in terms of focusing on form.

Looking for language and focusing on form

With the dialogues on the board again, groups then had to analyse these for language that could be focused on in the classroom. Obviously, with a group of teachers working on these dialogues, there were no areas of language which needed work or which would lend themselves well to expansion. However, this was useful in showing how rich a text is language and highlighting that teachers can analyse learners’ texts in class. Some of the diverse suggestions that groups came up with included past tenses, tag questions, substitution, ellipsis and reference, spoken discourse features and direct vs indirect question formation. All of this from a 12-ish line dialogue.

In the end, we decided to look at tag questions and, taking examples from the text, I improvised a grammar ‘presentation’, highlighting the form itself as well as intonation and so forth. This turned out to be quite good fun, as teachers debated the how tag questions are used!

You did some practice, didn’t you?

The next part of the workshop involved doing some tag question practice activities. All the practice used language from the dialogues or suggested by the participants. Afterwards, we also brainstormed other potential activities that I didn’t think of in the moment and how these could be worked in to the lesson.

The first practice we did involved using sentence stems of the sort “you like… don’t you?” which participants had to complete about other people in the room, before walking round and saying them to each other to either check or confirm their intuition about the person. They had to try using appropriate intonation and respond appropriately too. These mini conversations could then generate other language, but here we were simply focusing on a specific practice activity.

The final practice involved going back to the text and adding tag questions wherever it was possible. Here, participants discussed how this changed the meaning, if it all, or the overall effect it had on the text (you wouldn’t believe you could turn the text into an extended sexual innuendo, but one group managed to do so, which caused great hilarity). The idea here was to highlight that if learners could successfully do this activity, they would certainly have grasped the use of tag questions and that we were again working with the same learner-generated text as before.

Recreating the lesson

After the practice activities, we were at the end of the ‘lesson’. The groups then had to recreate the class from the beginning, writing the different stages and the aim of each one. I included this part to emphasise that lesson flowed, from meaning to form, using text generated by the participants. It was also to dispel the myth that Dogme is simply ‘winging it’. The lesson had a clear, logical flow and each stage had a point to it. I didn’t know what would come up during the class, but that didn’t stop the lesson having a feel of coherence. I also encouraged participants to think critically about the stages of the class and suggest any changes they would/could have made to improve it.

And then it was time for some reflection

The final activity was reflective. First in groups, then as a class, we discussed how useful or appropriate this approach to teaching is. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with a few caveats. The two most common, more negative responses were

  • I don’t feel experienced enough to do this

  • I’m not confident enough with my language awareness

We then discussed what we could do to overcome these doubts. To address the first, we said that you could start slowly, having a short section of the class unplugged before moving on to your planned lesson (or just going with the flow if it was going well). We also said that you could write down activities which worked well and start to build up a bank of unplugged exercises which worked and which you could draw on when you needed them. And, of course, have a read of Teaching Unplugged and get thee to the internet.

For the second point, we discussed how you could have an idea of what might come up in the class from certain activities that would naturally generate certain language and could thus read up on it in advance. Craig then had the great idea of taking a break before moving onto the focus on form so that he could run to the teachers’ room and quickly go over the emergent language he was going to focus on. We also said that you could use your coursebook for practice activities if the language you are focusing appears in the book.

For me personally, this stage of the class was the most rewarding and interesting. Some of the comments about unplugged teaching were really positive and the majority of people there seemed quite taken with the idea. I’m sure my demo lesson could have been better, the presentation tighter, the activities more diverse, but that was not the point of the session.

Though not as purely ‘unplugged’ as the first session, this workshop was nevertheless in the spirit of unplugged teaching and I think that this was apparent throughout. I’m now looking forward to hearing how teachers have taken some of these ideas into their classes.

Teacher Training Unplugged?

The Story

Due to popular demand here at International House Costa Rica, our professional development workshop was on the topic of Dogme (also called Teaching Unplugged here) last week. I had already done a Dogme session on a recent CELTA and so was simply going to repeat it, with a few modifications, for our teachers. However, our DoS, Ben, suggested that we try to approach the session in a fashion similar to how Dogme would work in the class.

And so, why not? After all, my own teaching certainly leans towards the unplugged direction and I’d been reading about the upcoming Unplugged Conference in Barcelona. Anthony Gaughan had blogged just the other day about unplugging staffrooms and suggested the following: “Could you offer to run workshops for colleagues who are interested but want some “training”?”. And not to forget the guest post by two participants on Jason Renshaw’s site about a recent Teaching Unplugged session he’d given at a conference in Korea.

Ben’s idea seemed to catch the mood of the Unplugged world and so, in short, it seemed like a germane moment to experiment a bit. Ben and I had a couple of planning discussions and came up with what we thought would be an appropriate structure: a warmer relating Dogme ELT to Dogme 95; a paper conversations activity ending with groups displaying their top 5 principles and then a class selection of a top 3; reflection on what had been learned. (Here it is, briefly reconstructed after the workshop. The original was a piece of A5 paper with things like ‘follow up activity’, “?” and “4 groups max?” written on it.)

This was to be the first of two sessions, and possibly and on-going series of Unplugged workshops, with the next one(s) focusing more on practical activities teachers can use. This session was to highlight the underlying principles behind an unplugged approach.

Was it an ‘unplugged’ workshop?

I would say that it had an overwhelming sense of the unplugged about it. To take the three core precepts of an unplugged approach into account, we could analyse the workshop in the following way

  • The classroom dynamic was conducive to learning, with good humour throughout and with everyone participating. The teachers worked in small groups throughout and, in response to answers from myself and Ben, discussed further questions to ask. All the questions came from these mini conversations

  • These questions were answered in the form of a conversation with those leading the session, though I should say “participating” in the session, rather than “leading”

  • The above is where the conversations were scaffolded

  • Even the warmer, the least unplugged part of the workshop perhaps, served to introduce the topic and stimulate conversations

  • In changing the pairs, these conversations served a social purpose too, helping to integrate some new teachers into the group and ensuring that everyone’s voice was heard

Materials Light
  • The only materials were the people in the room, some strips of paper, some pieces of recycled A4 paper and the big piece of paper to cover the Dogme 95 manifesto

  • The teachers took notes throughout and created the class materials through the questions and creation of the 5 key principles of Dogme

  • The whole workshop addressed teachers’ needs and interests, was directly relevant to those present

  •  The workshop was a challenge to the structure of the usual style of workshops in teacher training.

Emergent Language
  • The questions the teachers wanted to ask emerged as the session went on. Starting with the warmer to introduce the topic (a topic suggested by teachers, remember), the teachers gradually uncovered the precepts that lie behind Dogme – rather than simply being lectured –  by constantly engaging with each other and the information flying around the room

  • To this end, process took priority over product, with interaction being the fertile ground where these questions emerged

  • The feedback stages addressed further and expanded upon the ‘emergent language’ and acted as a ‘focus on form’ moment

  • The ‘teaching’ was responsive. Ben and I had only a minimal idea what would be asked, how long activities would take, where one discussion would lead, etc. and had to constantly adapt to this

What the Teachers Thought

Following the workshop, I interviewed some the participants to find out their reactions to this style of training session. Here’s a few of their responses (in no particular order).

I felt intimidated by it all. As a theory, I really like it, but as a participant in it, I felt out of my depth. Personally, I prefer structure, as I feel I can follow it better. I prefer a tangible outcome that I can see coming” (Hana)

I was sketchy about the whole idea, but we did kind of fill in each other’s gaps. I felt I was asking questions before I knew what it was all about, but then that’s the whole point I suppose, what the questions were for” (Sarah)

I thought it was great, dynamic, I really enjoyed it. It was a good way of using Dogme to demo what it’s all about, with you more or less eliciting what it was about from us. It was very practical” (Becky)

It was a new methodology, well, one I’d used in my classes, but without knowing it had a name” (Craig)

The last part was really excellent. When we came up with our own ideas, the 5 principles, and put them up on the wall and then chose a class top 3. It was an example of how we can use this in the class. We were working with our own ideas and seeing other’s. I could see myself using those things in class. For me it was good that you did it in a Dogme style; I need to see these things in action, to see how you worked the room, to visualise it in my own teaching” (Robin)

It was very ‘Zen’. It was worth a try. It was theory-based, but the activities will be memorable as we spent most time on them. I’d never been to a workshop like that before” (James)

I thought it was good because you demonstrated for everyone what it would ideally be like in the classroom. The opening activity wasn’t the best of introductions to Dogme. It wasn’t so clear for those who didn’t know so much about it as it was for me.” (Robin)

During the first activity, I couldn’t contribute much as I didn’t know anything about Dogme – my partner knew much more than me and I didn’t feel great. I worked it out through the pairwork in the paper conversations activity. It was applicable to me in that context. It was a little uncomfortable until, all of a sudden, it became clear and I could see how applicable it was”. (Craig)

I liked writing the 5 principles from our own impressions of Dogme, then condensing them into 3 by reading everyone else’s. I came out feeling much more knowledgeable and less skeptical as I could see how it would work in class. I think I use many of the ideas in my teaching already“. (Sarah)


Overall, a very well-received, enjoyable and useful workshop for the participants. The feedback was positive and the practicality of the larger part of the workshop really appreciated by all those who attended. A sense of learning was also palpable, both during the session itself and in the feedback. Those who knew very little about unplugging their teaching benefited from gaining at least an initial insight into the principles behind Dogme, while those with more knowledge saw how this knowledge could be transferred into a classroom context through the conversations activity.

As a trainer, I enjoyed the session and the unpredictability of what would come up. It was a good experiment, to take unplugged-ness from the classroom to the training room. I think this workshop also served a good basis on which to work with unplugged activities in future workshops. My sessions tend to be called things like “minimal materials activities for developing oral fluency” but now I feel I can move on and start calling them “unplugged activities”.

That said, the first activity didn’t suit everyone and consequently didn’t go down as well as I’d hoped. The reason for this seems to have been the ‘mixed ability’ of the group i.e. that some teachers already knew some principles of Dogme and other’s none. This activity worked very well in my CELTA session, but there we had a level playing field of knowledge – it was new to everyone. If I repeat this workshop, I’ll take this into account and try something different (feel free to suggest anything you like!). I’ll more than likely start with a demo activity and take it from there, discussing how and why this activity could work and move into the principles from this. Go unplugged right from the get-go.

Ben’s Reflections

Heading into the workshop I was unsure as to how it would be received and had some doubts about whether it truly was loop input, i.e. Dogme about Dogme.  Regarding the first concern, I was pleasantly surprised by how useful the participants found it in terms of knowledge gained, but also how well they responded to the style of workshop; it is very encouraging that many of them mentioned how practical they found the workshop to be.

As to the second concern, I feel that for the most part it was in the spirit of Dogme, and that the justification in terms of the three core precepts is a sound one.  Of course it was always going to be a bit of a stretch since the focus is on ‘emergent knowledge’ rather than ‘emergent language’.  Like Chris, I considered the warmer to be the least successful part of the lesson, as it did feel more like teacher input, albeit in a guided discovery manner.  I would concur that an actual Dogme speaking activity followed by participant discussion and reaction would have been a better lead-in.

One other point to consider for next time – before doing a workshop on Dogme, a workshop on TBL might be one way to accustom new teachers to many of the principles inherent in Dogme, whilst still affording them a bit more structure.

The Moral of the Story?

If you’re going to unplug training, unplug it right from the start. Keep the session as much about what the participants want to know as possible, rather than bringing something in for the warmer. Keep it practical and engaging; the learning will follow. Be on your toes. Try it yourself!