Sunday, 24 October 2010

Could dogme work with Young Learners?

I’ve been pondering this question since last Wednesday’s #ELTchat on using dogme in a school setting. Whenever I come across an ELT-related discussion these days, I always ask myself if/how this could be applied to kids like the ones I work with. I generally view statements like ‘that would never work with kids’ as a challenge as I often find them to be assumptions rather than established truths. So, anyway, here’s a round-up of what’s been buzzing around my head for the last few days. By the way, when I refer to young learners (YLs), I mean primary school kids as most of my teaching experience has been in grade 3-6 (always worth making that clear as ‘Young Learner’ seems to be rather broadly applied to anything K-12!).


248876814_219df97e13Who wants to do dogme today?
Image courtesy of chrissuderman on Flickr 

 

In theory? Yes… possibly


The main points I’ve picked up from reading about dogme/teaching unplugged is that it should be student-centred, materials light and focused on emergent language. A student-centred approach is certainly something I advocate with kids. All too often I have seen classes of young kids sat silently in rows listening to the teacher, copying from the board and doing workbook exercises. No wonder they go crazy in the break times or when the ‘fun’ English teacher turns up! Once they realise that student-centred does not mean play time, they really value it. They appreciate being given choices and freedom as well as feeling involved in the learning process. This leads to increased motivation and willingness to learn. Kids also learn well from each other. They often zone out when the teacher is rattling on but listen more closely when their friends are contributing so a learning environment which is student-centred is desirable, whether it’s full-on dogme or not.

I’ve met many teachers who swear they would be lost without their course book. However, I’ve met just as many teachers who work with kids without ever using one! There is so much that can be done with kids that doesn’t rely on a load of materials – songs, chants, games, poster projects – these are all activities that really get students involved, working together and using the language and all can be done with a minimum of materials. A good collection of songs, some card and scissors and glue is all that’s needed (sounds a bit Blue Peter, doesn’t it?). Kids often enjoy these lessons away from the book much more than those centred around it.

Kids also love talking about themselves. Their favourite part of a unit is usually when they are given the chance to relate it to something personal like a collection, a hobby, family photos, summer holidays etc. They love bringing those things in for ‘show and tell’ style lessons. This could be exploited as an opportunity for focusing on emergent language. I have fed my classes some past simple chunks to talk about holidays for example. I’ve also moved into countries and nationalities to help them describe items from collections in more detail or professions so they can tell us more about their relatives. One problem with coursebooks in these cases is that they try to limit the language used to what the kids already know so when talking about a collection they are directed to say ‘This is my favourite doll. It’s from Japan.’ but not ‘I got it on holiday last summer’ or ‘It was a gift from my gran’ or anything like that.

However, despite the limitations of coursebooks, I have to say that kids (much more than the adults I’ve worked with) love them! I feel something would be lost if we didn’t have our recurring stories with cartoon aliens visiting earth or time-travelling kids visiting different historical and futuristic ages. What can be taken from those who push for a more materials light approach though is less-reliance on the book. It becomes all to easy to rely on the lessons provided and follow the units page by page. We can always make lessons more engaging by trying something different, stepping away from the book and seeing where the lesson goes.


In reality? No…. at least, not yet

 

There is another way to look at the debate, however. Those language teachers who work with kids most likely do so in a regular school setting and that brings with it syllabi, standardised testing, grading, report cards, progress checks, government targets etc all of which have an effect on what goes on in class. In my school, it works like this: the number of hours per week for each grade are set, publishers are invited to present their coursebooks, the syllabus is written based around the chosen book and the exams are set based on the syllabus. This where the problem lies: the exams are written based on where we should be in the book. Too much student-centred learning based on emergent language and the students may know lots of English but not necessarily what is relevant to the test. The exams often include specific vocabulary items from the book or references to materials from the book. So, for dogme to work, it would need much more than the individual teacher making some changes. The whole English department would have to be on board as would the school directors and parents. Such a major change would need a lot of time, debate and patience to bring about.

But it wouldn't end there. Although I work in a private college, it is still under the jurisdiction of the Turkish Ministry of Education and we have annual inspections. For those, a clear syllabus with a specific timeline and learning goals based around an approved coursebook is required. I very much doubt that an emergent curriculum would be accepted, meaning that persuading people to accept the changes would have to go well beyond the school itself. That would take more time.


So what can be done?

 

Maybe an all-out unplugged approach is unrealistic for schools, in Turkey at least, at present. It would represent such a major turn around in established teaching practice at so many levels that it would take more than a few experimental teachers to change things. However, some small steps could easily be taken in each class. Stepping away from the book every so often would be a good start; removing the extra grammar practice books or overly-simplified readers would be another; responding to the kids need to say something, whether in the syllabus or not, would also help; as would a more student-centred approach. Even if we can’t completely unplug, we can take many things which would benefit our learners from it.

5 comments:

  1. Yeah, exams and assessment are the biggest obstacles. The biggest issue, especially for older kids, is that the motivation becomes passing the test rather than learning English. And passing the test could determine the future of that child's life in many countries. As great as I believe dogme to be, we'd be doing a large disservice to the students if we didn't teach them how to pass the exams.

    When I'm in situations like that I keep the exam in mind at all times and try to incorporate the material in as naturally as possible. If the exam approaches, then I'll switch over to some lessons designed to cover that stuff.

    Lindsay Clandfield's list on subverting tests is good as well. It's always possible to teach the way you think is best and then basically give the answers for the exams (until your school finds out that is :) )

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  2. Thanks for the comment Nick.

    I think there is an important difference to highlight between those who work in adult language schools and those who work in the school system. In the language schools, the teacher can enjoy a greater degree of autonomy in terms of classroom practice and less pressure to gear everything towards exams. In elementary or high school, that's not the case.

    I do feel that more of a dogme approach is needed in those adult schools though, especially when you have students who been through the grammar-focused, textbook based school system but still need to advance their language skills. Time for a different approach instead of board presentations of present perfect continuous yet again!

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  3. Hi David! I have just heard about your blog through twitter and i have found your post really interesting. I live and work in Buenos Aires Argentina and I am in the same situation that you describe here. I work in a school with little kids, have to follow a syllabus and a coursebook. However, I have decided to devote part of my lesson to talk about what my students want to discuss (after learning English is about communication). In my post here you can read about my experience. http://sabridv.wordpress.com/2010/10/25/dogme-with-young-learners/ I believe it has been quite succesful.

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  4. HI David - thanks for the great post and for pulling together many of the pros and cons of dogme with primary aged children. I agree with you that the ubiquitous syllabus and testing regimes based on The Coursebook are what make it untenable in most situations. As you say though, there's loads of things we can do to intertwine a coursebook which may be imposed with other more materials light things such as building up a personal scrapbook, storytelling or using some element of a coursebook e.g. the puppet or characters that the children know and love as a springboard into doing other things. I think a kind of hybrid approach can work well and I understand the people who feel lost without the support of a course book - esp when you have 25 -30 kids or even more.

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  5. Thanks for the comments!

    Sabridv - I enjoyed your post as well. I like the way you have made such talks part of your class routine. Kids respond well to the stability of regular routines in class.

    Carol - An honour to have you drop by! The hybrid approach is the best way forward. Persuading the powers that be to drop coursebooks and/or testing is unlikely to happen in the near future. The best thing is to promote what can be done beyond merely page-turning the book. Thanks also for raising the point I forgot to include in my post - class size. I regularly deal with 30+ kids and some of the unplugged approaches are tough to manage with that many.

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