The Dream, The Reality

I had a plan, and all that careful and slightly pretentious detail in the rationale, carefully graded materials to produce particular language focus, some chopped up and nicely paperclipped cards, and some clear learning outcomes to share and celebrate the achievement of.

Well, yes. I definitely had all those things. I even printed the plan, with LOs at the top. I went in with every intention of following through with it. Things started nicely – straight into adjectives and establishing the concept of opposites by talking about today “Today it is.. hot / cold,

sunny / cloudy/rainy, good / bad, etc.” I let the slightly inaccurate good/bad through because it illustrated the point I was trying to teach about opposites. Not the best decision, but it was a nice example, and the learners thought of itwhich counts for a lot.The room was stinking hot. I was about to say mean things about air conditioning when someone told me that in fact it had been fitted in there. But never mind.So we moved rooms to the other side of the corridor and it was quite literally like watching flowers perk up after a shower of rain. And it was about here all my carefully laid plans were carefully laid to one side.

Sort of.

As everyone was settling into their seats we chatted briefly about things people had done in the last week or so. I was curious, apart from anything, to see how they could cope with that kind of conversation. And we did fairly well. There was a little chatter, we identified new vocabulary like skyscraper and the distinction between the ground floor and the first floor. We used the dictoionaries to check some words and ideas, and for a few minutes I found myself hoping that perhaps we would be heading off on a motivating and useful tangent. You may be thinking skyscraper is not useful for a learner’s general life and should have been avoided, but my feeling in the lesson was that the learner needed to express the concept and I could enable that. Whether it’s useful for her when it comes to the passive consumer / service user contexts like the supermarket, the post office or the doctor more generally covered is another matter, but she needed it there and then. I would be willing to bet that that act will lead to greater vocabulary retention than any supposed functional language. (I’ll test her next week).

Anyway, like the lesson, I digress.

It sort of got back on track, I started with the cards which related to the text I was planning to teach, but due to the smaller numbers, there were only 2 groups. So they looked at the cards and after demonstrating with teacher they did a good job of thinking of the words for the different things. I ended up prompting them for a few by writing the words on the board, which evolved / developed / descended into me pretty much saying all the sentences and before too much longer learners were beginning to say their own things as well.

So the big reading task got dropped – I’m afraid that that learning outcome remains unachieved, but it would have been pointless, as far as I could see it, to press on with that. I think I could have done it, but it seemed redundant against the primary aim of the session.

So we moved onto the writing part, and soon enough errors around the indefinite article started to appear. So we jumped back to a little teacher led eliciting. I copied the nouns (with articles) they had started using onto the board in black and the adjectives in blue. I asked them what the difference was, was told “those have ‘a'”. Brilliant. So we dug a little deeper. And what is a teacher? Is it a thing or a person? But what about tall? And got (more or less) that it was something that something was, or if you like, a noun modifier. Hurrah. Double score. Back to writing and don’t forget the “a”s. I used the colours as classifiers, which worked well: we talked in error correction about the blue words and the black word, rather than the technicalterminology which would have been no help at all.

There was also a lovely moment where one learner wanted to write “I am British” He missed out his vowels, so we focussed on the sound, which worked for the first vowel. The second vowel was a real group effort, eliciting, suggesting, praising. Reminded me the achievement for a beginner in identifying that vowel was as big as a level 2 learner getting mixed conditionals.

Then on we cracked not far off the plan: finish sentences, then speak to a partner, the report back! All of which went more or less as planned, plus a couple of fillers and vocab recaps at the end.

Except the really good stuff started happening about now. Some learners felt more comfortable sticking to the language of the text

So the thing is this: did it make a difference having all that thinking and working out? Not really. I still ditched the plan and did it differently. Two things though: would I have done so if I were being observed for a course? Unlikely, I have to say. I think the plan would also have been more rigidly controlled, so I may not have felt the need to go off plan – I would have thought it through a lot more carefully and

But also, at risk of sounding smug, I already knew all the theoretical reasoning. The references were there just to show off really. So as a result, there was little or nothing actually new for me in what I was writing. And in the lesson I wasn’t doing anything new apart from the, well, OK, the whole lesson was itself new, but the fundamental guiding principles were the same as they have ever been. So the impact of writing it all was as an academic exercise, good for dusting off some thoughts and ideas, but there was little or no impact on the lesson. Concepts like affordances, are important for me and the thinking behind dogme ELT*, although unacknowledged, I think have been part of the way I teach for a while now, aided and abetted by my (occasionally misfiring) habit of spotting a rich vein of language and exploring it despite the planned lesson. As I said above, however, I don’t think I would be comfortably doing that kind of thing with a formal observer in the room because of the increasing importance of meeting / achieving teacher selected learning outcomes as laid out on a plan / scheme. I’m not saying I would abandon these LOs: even now I don’t think I have the confidence to do that in my current working context, plus I like a scheme of work – I like knowing what I have to teach on Monday morning so I don’t have to fret about it on Sunday night. Simple selfish reason, I know, but if that doesn’t “sell” schemes of work then I don’t know what does. And the principle isn’t wrong either – one of the criticisms of SMART targets for ESOL learners is that a language learner can’t describe in any meanigful way what it is they don’t understand. So by the same token, learners are unlikely to be able to identify what they can’t do and develop the course content beyond general statements. In which case, surely a teacher has a role in developing and deciding course content, in negotiation with the learners. So anyway, long may that debate rumble…

*incidentally it was only when I saw that link when I realised/remembered that dogme ELT is only a little younger than my own teaching career – I taught my first class on 27th September 1999 – and I remember reading one of Scott Thornbury’s original articles (reproduced here: http://www.thornburyscott.com/tu/Its%20magazine.htm) when it was first published and being, frankly, terrified by the prospect. But it’s certainly not new.

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