Friday, 24 May 2013

Teaching Unplugged - Dogme in ELT - The introduction - Interrogate your books

So what's it about? Dogme! I was vaguely familiar with Dogme 95, Lars Von Trier, Danish Cinema, rules regarding cameras and lighting and such, making movies that aren't enhanced by a musical score, that don't use externally applied visuals or audio. They were keeping it real, showing life how it was and not bowing down to false and dishonest tools of audience manipulation that detracted from or illegitimately enhanced the drama.

So I guess the name Dogme in ELT carries the name as it too REJECTS SUPERFLUOUS THINGS that have leeched onto and apparently seem inseparable from the pure art of teaching like a SYLLABUS and COURSEBOOKS and, to a degree, the fixed roles of TEACHER and STUDENT. Coursebooks stand in the way of the learning process as they rely on notions about education that don't stand up to modern ideas about language acquisition as well as being the seemingly innocuous propaganda for the cultural norms of the consumerist, capitalist West.  Scrap 'em. Keep that ELT classroom pure and simple and learner driven.

So, what's the introduction banging on about? Throw your books away? Have you lost it, I need those!
Well. Most generally, the authors Medding and Thornbury believe that coursebooks rely on the MATRIX MODEL of learning. You know, where Neo goes into that Judo room and they upload knowledge and then he suddenly knows karate, and the same with Trinity and the helicopter. Applying this model in the ELT classroom means that the coursebook is contains all the knowledge that needs to be transferred, and the students are empty receptacles, depositories to be filled up. The status quo does recognise the need for a lot inbuilt practice / recycling / and communicative activity. However, everything, ultimately, is geared around learning grammatical structures. Some of the time you might as well give students English Grammar in Use, so transparent are the coursebooks' attempts at "hiding" the learning and so little are the content of the texts tapped and explored. Look at content pages of books and they're still divided up into grammar and vocabulary sections which are the parts we consider the most important, the least sacrificible, basically, these fill the bulk of what we test.

You may ask, "yeah, so what. We need to cover everything on that syllabus, and students get adequate practise and opportunities to produce the target language. So what's the friggin problem???"

Well, the problem, right, is with this sentence : "here is your schedule, you need to cover this syllabus ".
Covering a syllabus involves carving the language up into pieces, and then handing it to the students, making it easy to swallow. But we're not asking if the students want it, if they're hungry, seriously gals, I've handed 3rd conditional potato pie to my teenagers and they vomit it up most of the time, and if they do learn the rules, even fewer can produce it adequately. Language is living, and the skill exists in using it, not knowing it somewhere in the back of your head or having it written it down in your scruffy notebook.

You need to "uncover" the syllabus based on mutual co-operation between teacher and student in a dialogue that involves engaged discussion on themes and topics chosen with the consultation of the learner. Students receive input on a topic, they get opportunities for output, and the teacher listens to the students output, the teacher focuses on what the students are TRYING to express, what they WANT to express, and the students are EXPERIMENTING and COMMUNICATING (not producing!) and the teacher then provides feedback, correcting students' accuracy problems or some useful language that better expresses what they want to say. Then this is the Ts most "teaching" moment. But the majority of the time the teacher is "scaffolding" the students, allowing them to ACTIVATE their learning capacities organically from the bottom up.

If we really had communication as the key objective, a syllabus would be thematic with no set grammar or vocab attached to each unit. It would be there of course, but it's only explicitly brought up when the students are receptive to it, when they need it. And in a class students are all thinking about different things and may be concentrating on different areas of production, so in one class you may cover a number of different structures or idiomatic phrases.

Of course, a lesson that goes by the book isn't necessarily preventing students to learn language. They still, hopefully get input, output, feedback. There is a spectrum with a total "hegenomic teacher" on one end, and the collaborative dialogue on the other. But coursebooks are designed with the principles that push lessons to the former, and this is why we burn books. Education is a dialogue. Education is conversation. Education is not following a code and it's not covering a linear syllabus.

There is a second, political reason for not liking your coursebook too. As mentioned above, the topics and themes that exist in a textbook are not specifically tailored for your students. Apart from Business English and ESP, it's seldom that you will consult with your students about what they're interested in doing with their English skills, how and where they want to use it, how it can relate to their lives. Instead, we use books that are produced by ELT publishing companies and the same copies are sent out all round the world. This has a number of consequences. Firstly, the topics might just be boring for your students, like really really dull. Every teacher knows the feeling that books are often dull, tedious and hardly ever "speak" to the students.

More pertinently, they contain a whole load of values and subtexts. What we are doing when we teach people Engish is that we are spreading not only a linguistic skill, but familiarising students with and promoting certain forms of culture and knowledge, namely pro-western, capitalist and neo-colonialist. Books aren't propaganda, but they are not neutral, and embody certain values. Sounds oppressive right? Well, it is, on an ideological level, but not necessarily oppressive to the students in the classroom, an extremely common reason students come to my classes is for work. They want to participate in the international business community, they don't want to play their small part in the international "fair" of a globalized free market. Granted, I've only ever taught in countries that have already climbed and kicked away the ladder, so a lot of my students have much to gain.

Remember before we were talking about how textbooks rely on the MATRIX MODEL? Well, we're not only uploading language data, but also a set of values that normalizes the values of the authors who reflect the values of their surroundings and replicate the systems that they participate within. Jeez, what I wouldn't give for a book that had a feminist, good-night-white-pride, anti-border, anarchist, queer-power, vegan-reich agenda.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Chapter 5 - The Nature of Lexis

So, a lexical syllabus would be one based on lexis, not structures or functions. And that this makes sense being that lexis is highly correlational. there's not smoke without...that other thing. Lewis argues that lexis is not vocabulary. Vocab, he believes, is high content nouns and low informational content prepositions. Learning these isolated or in semantic fields is a mistake he believes.

Lexis is viscorous, like a polycarbon, each molecule is chained up and wrapped around others. Let's have a look at how vocab and lexis is different, what lexis is composed of, and some characteristics of lexis.

Importantly, lexical units are not just words. They can be words, but they also include collocations, polywords and certain idiomatic phrases. So how come some words are lexical units and some are not?

Well, language, believe it or not, is not individually defined, but socially defined, and we as speaking communities prefer to hear language "done right". Doing language right is not a matter of referencing some generative grammar rules, but instead reading the right phrases from the phrase book.

There are many ways of getting your meaning across, but we often prefer to use a handful of the possible (including the more literal) options. This is because language is a social institution. We participate within it, choosing to interact within it according to norms and conventions that are expected, where the speaker is penalised for deviating from these rules.

Say you're at the dinner table and you want some salt or pepper or balsamic vinegar of some soya milk or whatever the hell it is, and you ask your friend, who's standing, to pass you that thing that you can't quite decide what it is, so you say...."pass us the.. / could you pass me the... / throw us the.... / would you mind....", but interestingly, you wouldn't say "give me the / get me the / hand over the / the "widget" please.
Even though these are simpler, they are just not done.

So, we often may often prefer idiomatic phrases to literal ones where the meaning is derived not from the lexis itself but its place in the discourse. this is lexis: the preferred, non-literal, pieces of language we use to communicate with other people rather than just...a list of nouns.

Lewis wants to avoid teaching vocabulary as just decontextualised nouns. He wants to present high content words in true nature, how they're actually used in relation to each other and low context words. teaching a list of nouns and collocations and functions as well as a structural syllabus isn't enough. Language should not be broken down and atomised but presented in its true natural communicative glory, students should see lexis, and the specific forms it takes, it's co-text, in relation to its pragmatic role in a dialogue and its intended meaning. it should be mastered as a whole, then only later, when it is familiar with the learner, can hypothesising and experimentation begin.

O - H - E is the watch-word. Not P P P. But more essentially, try not to break down language into its consituent parts. It's unhelpful, it's like showing someone a glass of water and saying, look, i got this from a river, and hoping observing the water will put across what the river was actually like.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Chapter 1 of the Lexical Approach. What's the big idea? What are the big ideas?

It took a small while to get through the first chapter in intermittent readings on the Metro. When I sit down to make notes in a big study session, I fell straight back into the old University routine days, within 30 minutes I'd doodled pictures of dogs captioned with in-joke-quotes from the texts I was reading.
No facebook likes.

So this is what I've gathered. Michael Lewis, the author is AGAINST a lot of things. But it's cool, as he's offering what he's FOR too. He believes that linguistics as a field of study has offered us a lot of insights into how learners LEARN, and that the educational establishment has bowed down to SOME of these developments in some important ways, but change has been somewhat superficial, largely ignoring the more radical, and in his mind, important changes.
         So the first chapter is delineating the old and the new to more clearly position the values and principles of his approach, by creating a set of dichotomies (e.g. learning and acquisition, use and usage) and states why, as teachers, we should be acting on principles that are more in line with the tenets of contemporary linguistics and away from old school and outdated notions that our teaching practices are directly drawn from. I think the most major distinction he makes is between acquisition and learning, and all the other distinctions follow naturally once we understand the wider system of learning we want from students.

Firstly, thank Glob, he immediately attacks the Behaviourist influence in the classroom, no one likes to pander to the mass-rat murderer F. Skinner any more. Firstly, as I mentioned before, mistakes are an inherent part of the learning process, you shouldn't be cutting off student's mistakes and correcting them as they happen (something I believe that has been incorporated into the orthodoxy, you're taught about delayed error correction in the first couple of days on a CELTA). You'll damage their confidence. This leads into the distinctions between learning and acquisition and accuracy and fluency. Which we'll get into now. Bear in mind, Lewis writes in his sagest tone, a symphony is not just a collection of notes, and language is not just a collection of words and sentences.

Learning and Acquisition - Learning is conscious, the teacher explains a rule to you, or lets you work it out yourself, you memorize it. And then forget all about it when you're in the real world. Acquisition is the internalisation of the rules of language. You "pick up" a piece of language and then you instinctively and intuitively use it when you're speaking. The a competent teacher can make you learn something quite well, but have trouble making you acquire something. Case in point, the third person singular -s. Students all know it, beginner text books are full of rules about it, but I have advanced students who regularly omit it. It's annoying, but as Lewis points out, understandable, that it is redundant, the meaning is carried elsewhere in the sentence. If learning and acquisition coincide, mint. But this is difficult.

It's difficult because the PPP methodology and the linear syllabi we follow are geared toward learning, and not acquiring. If language were a Tekken game, and each grammatical structure / functional language area  were a level, and students advanced in a linear fashion level by level by learning, then things would be great. But the orthodox "Tekken-game" model of language learning isn't accurate to reality. To stretch the metaphor further, "learning" a language is like playing Tekken blindfolded on an radically different games console with unfamiliar controls with the teacher shouting out the buttons you need to press. Then the teacher goes home and you have to do it all again on your own. And you can't, and you sit there trying to half remember the secret combo moves and then you get KO'd by Nina.

What we need to be doing is letting students play the game on their own for a week, giving them advice and tips where necessary. It sounds too simple. This translates to the classroom by feeding students a large supply of lexis and comprehensible input.(Lewis heavily references someone here, Kishen? Kashen?) Students should be exposed to a lot of comprehensible listening, notice things in the language, and be encouraged to react to content and speak when they wish with a focus on content rather than language. Learning a language is not a linear process, and if you're trying to focus on a linguistic area, students may be listening and benefiting from the language, but in a totally different way to the one you intended, and each student will also be focusing on and understanding different things. Or they'll be on their smart phone. Anyway, the whole thing is heterogeneous.

The Lexis part of things
But how will they learn how to string things together, they won't be able to do it!!!!
this is where the LEXICAL aspect of the Lexical Approach comes into play. Lewis argues, and I suspect he'll go into great detail about this in the book, that vocabulary is not the building blocks of language, with grammar being the cement. Different lexis is not just random and interchangeable but highly inter-relational. Lexis highly correlates with other lexis, and if you familiarise students with certain lexis including already grammaticalized lexis (such as verbs not in their infinitive form) students will be quite able to piece the pieces of the jigsaw together in the long term. (Short term losses lead to long term gains) When they have enough confidence and familiarity with a wide set of lexis. We're really imitating here natural language acquisition. Starting slow and then building up rapidly after a while once students have got the right skills and are familiar and confident enough.

Receptive skills are hugely important in acquisition, just like in L1 acquisition. But students need to be relaxed, not stressing, just listening a lot and picking things up. The teacher's role is to provide an environment rich with vocab and comprehensible input, and allowing students to produce language when they wish. Only after to selectively pick out common problems, give you some delayed error correction and some advice on form and grammatical structure. (I assume Lewis is really thinking about anything before Intermediate here, once you get to intermediate I think you can get a little bit more fussy with students)

This idea of a input and intake rich environment sounds attractive to me, and I see how coursebooks pay lip service to this idea in the presentation part of the class (or through language from the text). "Hey, here's an article about fish! OK, 3 comprehension questions, (15 minutes)  OK present perfect (40 minutes). This first part, the focus on the lexis and the listening/reading, should take up the majority of the class.

I'm looking forward to presenting some structured ways in which acquisition can be fostered. I guess TTT can easily fit into this framework. I am however skeptical about how applicable this is to all students. Some people are just bad learners, they wish to be spoon fed structures, and are very bad at taking any sort of initiative, and are completely passive, and will never seek to improve their own language in an active way. The PPP model of "learning" a language provides a more clearly defined set of options for these students.

All the other distinctions

Fluency v Accuracy : if "acquirement" is the goal, then we should be fostering fluency over accuracy. (we are focusing on both really) but we should not prioritise accuracy over fluency. Let students speak to their hearts content, being communicatively competent with errors is better than being accurate but unable to understand or interact.

Input and intake : We want a large selection of language exposure (input) for students. How much they actually take in and benefit from (intake) depends on how how motivated, interested, tired students are and also that there is a good level of comprehensible input. Gone are the days of "master-what-you-meet" audiolinguism philosophy where you are presented with very limited amount of language and do activities to master it perfectly before moving on. This isn't necessarily a bad system, I've used it to great benefit with Michel Thomas and the Pimsleur Approach, but it needs to be highly controlled and is very, very repetitive. You don't even need a teacher, just a CD that goes on for hours.

Use and Usage : How accurately you use language (use) and how well an utterance is appropriate within a particular discourse and the wider context (usage) are quite important differences. We really want to students to know, particularly at higher levels, the nuances of register, tone, formality.

Coherence and Cohesion : we're also focusing on ways to enable students to use string together many pieces of information (cohesion) and for these pieces of information to relate to each other appropriately (coherence) so we as teachers can focus on these skills.

Learning and Teaching : Lewis' main beef was that we as teachers are focused on teaching things, and we have a very dim understanding about the way students actually learn. His whole approach is more student centered, about putting yourself in the students shoes. I may have thought one of my lessons was about the present perfect, but I have no idea what the students did!

Some abstract linguistic notions : Lewis is famous for saying that Language is "a personal resource rather than an abstract idealization. This attacks Chomsky's notion that we as native speakers have a natural "competence". We are competent at generating language from a set of principles that our brain creates and follows. It relies on "language" existing on some meta or cerebral level, unobservable, and that our "performance" is what we can actually hear and observe.

Learning a language stems from this model, grammarians dissected the principles they induced and taught them to language students who use them axiomatically to produce language. But language being a "personal resource" sees it that we have a huge bank of lexical currency in our brains that we draw upon in a quite a structured and patterned way. We teach students this lexical currency, and they're sorted.