A little less conversation….?

After the disappointment of my last lesson with the class. I really wanted to prove to myself and the class that we could have a class based entirely around conversation, that is student centered and with minimum input from myself.

Recently, I have been following the #eltbites minimum materials challenge . http://eltbites.wordpress.com/ The idea is in the title, but click the link to find out more, a great challenge from Richard Gresswell. (@inglishteacher)

Jason Renshaw, a.k.a @englishraven, posted a very simple but intriguing idea about handing the board pen over to the students and allowing them to, in effect, dictate the class proceedings. Along with this, I had received a comment from @jemjemgardner regarding my last post, in which she suggests that simply writing something on the board and using gestures to get the students talking, without actually talking yourself, is a great way of making things more student centered. I had nothing to lose!

The class was half-full as I entered. I didn’t say anything. I simply picked up the I.W.B pen and handed it to the nearest student. I smiled and gestured to the board. I sat down and began filling out the register, making sure not to look as though I was going to assist in any way. There were a lot of strange looks, shoulder shrugging and general confusion. The first student wrote hello on the board, it was a start, he then clicked on and started to ask the class how their weekend was. After they had finished, I motioned for someone else to take over, and instead of writing on the board they asked another question for the group, “what are you doing for the holiday, next week?” Some more people came in to the classroom and the others told them what was happening. The speaker changed, and this time the question immediately caught my attention, “what do you want to talk about today?” I quickly noted down the answers:

  • The passive (I know, I couldn’t believe it either)
  • Everything and nothing.
  • Can we watch a film?
  • Grammar
  • Can we do some listening and just talk?
I stood up and asked for the pen back. The class looked a little bit relieved that I had decided to join in. I was pleased that they had taken the initiative and got the ball rolling, now it was time to keep it going. I paired up the students. I gave them all something to talk about, two students were on the same course at university so I asked them to talk about their course and what they had learned so far that week. The other group contained the student who asked to watch a film. I told him to tell the group about the last film he watched, the other student had to talk about why he wasn’t in the last lesson and the third had to talk about a conversation he and I had before the class started. The final pair, included the student who wanted to talk about grammar. I asked her to tell her partner why she wanted to do that and then I noticed that her partner had come straight from the gym, so I asked her to talk about what she did at the gym. The class room was full of conversation. I sat in the corner of the room listening in to the various conversations, writing down some notes and errors.
When the conversation naturally died down, I got each pair to report back. From this I would decide the next topic for conversation, depending on how the other students reacted to what they heard. Sometimes I got the groups to report back to other groups, I swapped the pairs around, if I heard a group reverting back to Spanish, I got them to tell me what had been said and found another question from that to get them started again. The board started to fill up, vocab, phrases, words marked for pronunciation at the end of class. I started to write down errors on post-it notes and hand them to the students, who would immediately repeat the sentence but this time with the correction. These were the topics we talked about:
  • Reasons we go to the gym and what exercise we enjoy
  • Reasons why we don’t have time to go to the gym
  • What we would do if we weren’t all so busy
  • When was the last time you had a bad nights sleep and why?
  • When you can’t sleep, what do you do to get to sleep?
I barely had to do anything, bar deciding what the next topic would be, and that was generated by the students themselves. I finished the lesson by reviewing what had come up in the class. Vocabulary, phrases, ‘used to’ and why we use it, drilling of some particularly difficult words and finishing with some praise relating to the way some of the students were responding correctly and accurately to some 2nd conditional questions.
In the end we had talked about everything and nothing, just like one of the students had wanted, they listened and talked a lot, just like another had asked to do, we had dealt with some grammar, although not the passive, as another student had suggested. The students left the class happy and content. I should have been feeling the same. I was happy with the amount of talking we had done and the fact that it was all student centered and generated, yet what had they really learned from this lesson, and what had I actually taught them.
For me the class was nothing more than a glorified conversation class. At least I achieved my aim, but what about the emerging language? This is something I have struggled to deal with and identify from day one. Trying to listen to 4 different conversations at once, writing errors, good language use and also trying to figure out what the learners need to work on or what language they are lacking is extremely difficult. Especially for someone who is lacking in experience, such as myself. While I understand that from teaching in an unplugged/dogme style a lot of the planning comes after the lesson, via reflection and what emerged in the lesson, should I not be seizing on these teachable moments there and then?  Are my students missing out on something, that perhaps a more experienced teacher could give them? My process of post planning has been extremely useful. It has allowed me to reflect on my lessons with my D.o.S and then plan for the next lesson. Yet, this planning has become more about teaching a particular language point in the next lesson and planning a range of activities that will achieve that aim. Taking away the control of the lesson from the student and becoming a teacher centered lesson. Although, very useful for the student, it isn’t really teaching in the true dogme sense. Also, it is much more comfortable for someone of my experience to feel as though I have slightly more control of the lesson and that I am actually teaching them something. A lot to ponder over the winter break.
The project will be changing slightly after the Christmas holidays. A large amount of students want to take the Cambridge PET exam, so the dogme teaching will be week on week off with exam prep classes taking place in-between. It will be interesting to see if this has any effect on how I teach my future dogme classes and also how the students react in the classes, especially after going back to a more structured exam class.
Happy Christmas. See you in the new year.


12 thoughts on “A little less conversation….?

  1. Excellent. Don’t know what to say. I think the questions are more important than the answers (meaning I am finding myself arguing contradictory points!). Very often in non-English speaking countries, learners enjoy “just talking”, sometimes less so when they’re in the UK and talk with each other outside class in English.
    You say: “…Although, very useful for the student, it isn’t really teaching in the true dogme sense”. My understanding is that dogme activities can be used to find what language they are missing, and then to work on it in some way, which is what you did.
    I really enjoyed this post.

    • Thanks for the comment David.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this post and that it helped inspire you to write your own. I often hear my students saying they just want to talk, and I’m more than glad to encourage and allow them to do that. It allows you to sit back and enjoy the teaching experience, although I find that sometimes I find myself more interested in what they’re saying rather than, as my D.o.S pointed out, concentrating on what they aren’t saying, i.e what they want to say but don’t have the tools in order to say that particular thing, skipping over that part or simply reverting back to their L1. It’s all about finding that balance I suppose.

      Many thanks,

  2. You’re not alone! I have the very same feelings. Lately I’ve been going to lessons with a plan, book and CD in hand but if the students are talking I allow the conversation to go in the direction they take it. I know they enjoy it and leave happy but I share the same worries as you; knowing I can do better but not having the experience to be better, yet. Reading your blog and many other great ones like it really helps me to think about my teaching and how I can improve. My DoS tells me that the most important thing I can do is listen to the students, that’s what I do and I guess the rest will follow and improve in time – with lots of reflection and reading.

    • Hi Josie,

      Thanks for commenting again. Have you thought about learner diaries? I am currently using them in a couple of classes and I find they are a really good way of listening to the students and also excellent for some extra writing practise. A simple notebook for each student usually does the trick. Your DoS sounds like a smart cookie. My DoS has been amazingly supportive with me this year, sometimes i feel like i take up too much of her time, but I always leave her office feeling as though i have learnt something new.


      • Yes, same here. We do encourage the students to keep diaries as part of their coursework but I’d never thought to ask them to write about the lessons, usually they write about their weekends or daily life – it’s a good idea, thanks.

        Enjoy your holiday!

  3. Pingback: Coffee and Chechen « language garden

  4. Ask 10 learners what they consider their weakest point, and I bet you’ll get 9 if not 10 out of 10 saying ‘Speaking’. It’s possible to learn grammar on your own, but ‘learning’ speaking? Sure, it’s useful to note emergent & needed language, but if you’re unable to review them there & then, the very same language will most likely reappear. We don’t use that much vocabulary nor form in day-to-day speaking do we? How often do we use the 2nd, let alone the 3rd, conditional? What about the future perfect?
    What is most important, for me, is making sure everyone in the class gets the chance, and makes the effort, to speak. It’s easy for the shyer or the less confident to take refuge behind the more talkative ones…

  5. Thanks Chiew,

    I really enjoy receiving comments from you. Undoubtedly, your statistic is correct, yet what always gets me is when you give the students that opportunity, they don’t always take advantage of it. I have had that a few times recently, more specifically in an advanced class of mine, where they talk almost in whispers, as if they are afraid that someone might hear them. Next week I will mostly be ………. talking!


  6. Hi Adam,

    Thanks for this post. Your honesty and obvious emotional attachment to this project is inspiring.

    I agree with what Chiew says above, speaking shouldn’t be over looked as a bad use of time etc…

    This idea of Focus on Form is a toughy, though. The way I deal with it depends on the class. Bear in mind, my classes are probably a bit smaller than your’s, and I am not sure if this makes it easier or not to deal with emergent language. I suppose you could see it that smaller groups equal less language to play with, but I would argue that larger groups risk diluting the emergent language. Oh, there’s a post that would be interesting….! Anyway… if I really have no agenda, then I let conversation happen from the start of the lesson, students know my style and know that at some point I will add some direction to a conversation, but that at the start, anything goes. I make notes as I listen, thinking about possible extensions, which of these structures fits best to what the conversation is about etc… I cross things out if something better comes up. What do I write down? Well, I divide my paper into 4. One box for good use of language, one for mistakes, one for language that is accurate but could be expanded, one box for pronunciation issues. (This is the same format I use when collecting language for delayed feedback too.) To use an example from last week – one of the students in a group was soooo incredibly stressed because of things happening a work and she said something like “It was a very strange day. All my colleagues were angry.” I knew from the context that she didn’t mean “strange” or “angry”, and because the discussion was based upon emotions in the workplace (Teacher as counsellor, anyone?!), I thought adjectives would be a good place to start. This lead onto strong and normal adjectives, and the adverbs which collocate. After a focus on this form, the students then described the work situation again, along with some other situations which make them feel completely stressed-out, very angry etc… (It was a very negative lesson focus, yes!) I think it’s important to have this cyclical format so that they get to use the language for the reason it came up in the first place.

    Sometimes I might be “lucky” and the same bit of language comes up from more than one student. Often though, I hear something interesting and it’s my decision to focus on that. I think there’s a difference between being totally Marxist about our classroom behaviour and taking control. We are being paid to make decisions that facilitate learning. We can still be student-centred and Dogmetic whilst making such decisions. And this decision-making can also mean allowing a lesson to have more of a speaking focus than a lexis/functions/grammar focus (although a bit of this is obviously a good thing!).

    I know how you feel when you say you wonder if they learnt anything, I’ve had/I have the same doubts. But remember that language skills focused lessons are equally as important as language systems focused lessons.


    (Ok, this is a pretty long distraction from writing my own blog post. Whoops!)

  7. This is just to say that I regret not commenting half as often as your posts have given me cause to. I plan to do better in the New Year!

    Thank you for blogging.

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