Category Archives: Experimental practice

Walk on the wild side and fly free!

Book cover - walk on the wild sideIn case you missed the announcement from the round last week, I’m happy to announce that our first book was published this week ! I say « our » because it is the fruit of a joint collaboration between Jennie Wright (who runs the fabulous TEFL Helper blog) and myself (who runs this blog, but you probably know that already).

Before getting into the book itself, just a quick word on the launch. When we posted the news to Facebook and Twitter, we got so many messages of congratulations from colleagues around the world. We really felt how much the wider teaching community supports each other’s efforts and it was an awesome feeling! Thanks a lot guys (and gals)!

So, the book…

Inside you’ll find five chapters, one for each selected experimental area : Dogme, lexical chunking, corpora, translation, and CLIL. Within each chapter, you’ll get the history & background of the approach/method, lesson objectives, a (beautiful) sample lesson plan, the principles and explanation of that lesson plan, a list of dos and don’ts for testing the approach/method, opportunities and risks that come with it, and a toolbox packed with resources for finding out more. All that for about the cost of large fancy Starbucks! Sure it’s got less caffeine, but it’ll last longer and you can’t spill it while on the bus!

Where did the idea come from? It’s pretty simple and is really just another story of necessity being the mother of invention. Jennie and I were doing our Delta module 2 together at ESOL Strasbourg in 2012. When we got to the experimental practice assignment, our trainers showed us all sorts of resources for exploring possible experiments.Wouldn’t it be great to have a single go-to reference with resource lists, an overview of experimenting with a particular method, and a bit about its background? And wouldn’t it be even better to have a compilation of a few possible experiments laid out like that to be able to compare and choose? “Oh, we could write that book!” we thought. So we did!

As for the cover, that’s the fine work of designer Mark Bain. The cage is open. The bird is free. Imagine the metal bars as the rut that we all get into at some point of our teaching careers. We start relying on the same old exercises, going through the same lessons and slowly we create our own cage. Then one day, we decide we’re tired of being locked in. We want out. So we experiment, try new things and shake ourselves up a bit. The cage door flings open and we’re free, just like the bird you don’t see on the cover. We’re out of our comfort zone and walking on the wild side!

Experimental Practice in ELT: Walk on the wild side is available on all Amazon sites and on Smashwords.


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Holistic grammar with Cuisenaire rods (or 9 tenses in one lesson!)

Last week, a learner asked to do a visual tense revision in his next lesson. He told me “I need to see it to learn it” and that he kind of knew various verb tenses in English, but needed to organize and reinforce that knowledge a bit.

Thankfully, I remembered reading an article by Rod Bolitho in the May 2011 issue of English Teaching Professional on holistic grammar. This brilliant article (which unfortunately is not freely available online, but can be accessed through the digital archives if you have a subscription to ETp) offers several ideas for teaching several tenses in one lesson, in a very visual and memorable way, and without a lot of metalanguage. Just what I needed!

The original article, however, sets activities to do with groups of students. My learner has 1-on-1 lessons. Not to fear, the Cuisenaire rods are here! They came in handy to adapt Bolitho’s ideas to my 1-on-1 context.


  • 1-on-1 lesson
  • B1.1-ish, not afraid to analyze language to understand how it works
  • In-company lessons, but prefers general English. We had spent several lessons talking about his project of renovating an old farmhouse, so had built up lots of vocab
  • Last lesson, he requested to do some visual grammar revision

The lesson:

Photo 24-04-13 09 21 161. We established three points of reference in time: past (orange), present (blue), future (brown). Each rod represented a different reference point.

2. I asked basic display questions to elicit the continuous forms and the fact that these refer to temporary actions:

  • What are we doing now? (We’re studying English)
  • What were we doing this time last week? (We were studying English) 
  • What will we be doing this time next week? (We will be studying English)

Pretty obvious, context-bare questions, but the idea was to show that all continuous forms take -ing (this would come up later with present perfect), that continuous forms exist in past, present, and future, and that it’s the auxiliary that changes while the -ing verb part of the construction stays the same.

We used the green and magenta rods to show the “be” auxiliary + verb+-ing and for the future, magenta + beige + green = will be studying.

3. Another display question: How long have we been speaking together this morning? (We’ve been speaking for an hour).

Photo 24-04-13 09 28 43We added yellow rods to show how the present perfect continuous extends from the present back into the past. We talked about how long the learner had been working on his house, how long he had been moving boxes, etc. to show variations in how far the yellow rods extended into the past.

4. I added 5 rods lined up together to represent the five days of the current working week plus beige cubes to represent events in my schedule (we had talked about my schedule this week during pre-lesson small talk). I had the learner guess what the cubes referred to (my lessons this week).Photo 24-04-13 09 45 05

We established that I had 3 lessons on Monday, I had no lessons on Tuesday (these past days represented by 2 orange past rods), and I have one lesson today (represented by 1 present blue rod). This got us through the past simple for finished events in finished time and the present simple for facts.

5. Then we added I’m teaching 3 lessons tomorrow and I’m teaching 2 lessons on Friday (represented by two brown future rods)–present continuous as a future tense with a time adverbial.

6. Separating the weekday rods, we got on to the present perfect simple. I asked “How many lessons have I done this week?” and it took a bit of fumbling around, but we got to “You’ve had four lessons this week” since today is Wednesday and I still have more lessons to teach on Thursday and Friday.

As we were going through all these tenses, the learner was drawing his own timeline, noting examples from his own farm renovation project, and making notes about the tenses and their use. It wasn’t just me talking the whole time!

Then we removed all the rods except those first three past – present – future rods. The learner told me about his renovation project, trying to use the appropriate tenses we had seen.

Here’s what he came up with: 

Last week we were moving and we said to ourselves “Zut! the armoire is too heavy!” and we called a friend to help. We haven’t finished yet but we hope we’ll finish next week. 

On Monday night, it was necessary to take a box from the old house. I took a box on Tuesday too. This morning, I lost the key to the workshop, and we were looking for it all morning until we found it in my wife’s car. 

Tonight, I’m planning to fix the mirror in the bathroom because I can’t shave! I don’t have a mirror! I haven’t fixed it yet because I had lost the key to the workshop.

So, in about an hour and a half, we managed to address:

  • past continuous
  • present continuous
  • future continuous
  • past simple
  • present simple for facts
  • future simple
  • present perfect simple for events in a time period that hasn’t yet finished
  • present perfect simple for an event that hasn’t happened yet but will
  • present perfect continuous
  • past perfect simple 
  • present continuous as a future with a time adverbial


  • A very PPP (present practice produce) lesson, which maybe could have been introduced differently. What if I had started by letting the learner tell me about his renovation project and then building on that output? Would this have been more efficient? After all, we didn’t actually need the future continuous in the rest of the lesson and it isn’t really used that much in everyday speech (excepting English lessons on the continuous form…)
  • Some of the uses in the final output text don’t sound 100% natural to me, but we didn’t have time to go into them. At the same time, this short little text does make use of lots of different tenses, as does natural speech in many cases. I did like the fact that in the “production” part of the lesson, the student wasn’t forced to try to use 1-2 specific tenses, as is often the case in traditional grammar-focused production exercises (Think “Now use the past simple to tell your partner what you did last weekend.”)

Rather, we looked at a panorama of tenses and the learner used the ones he needed to tell me about his project. Does this mean he’ll be able to use them all correctly spontaneously? Um, let’s not dream. But it did seem to help clear some things up and give us something to refer back to in future tense work.

  • I liked the active, visual aspect of this lesson. Actually, I really liked it. It drew on the basic timeline that we all use to explain tenses, but made it more involving. Plus the fact that you can pick up parts, move them around, etc. is practical. 
  • As we built on, you can see that I took photos. I sent these to the learner so he can match them to his notes. This is also a good way of keeping track of what you’ve done with the rods, in case you need to go back and re-create a specific set up but can’t remember it.
  • Finally, maybe we could have done some sort of a wrap-up but I don’t know what exactly. I don’t know if having the learner summarize the tense rules we worked on would be very helpful. Plus, we all know that often learners are very good at reciting the rules, less so at applying them. 

Maybe going back through the learner’s final text and saying why he used a specific verb tense in that part of the story would be more effective. At least it would give context that the learner could relate to.

What do you think? What’s a good, effective way to round off a lesson on tense revision?

And if you’re looking for more ideas with Cuisenaire rods, you may like this post. Still need convincing? Here are 7 reasons to use Cuisenaire rods.


Let’s start with a little Tai Chi. No, seriously.


Photo by Edwin Lee

This semester, I’m trying something I’ve never tried before with students. Tai Chi. Yes, that slow-motion exercise that makes most people think of older Chinese people in a park. Now before the rants of “you’re the English teacher, that’s not your role” start flying, let’s consider a few things. (And for a pertinent discussion of just what are our roles as TEFL teachers, see Chia Suan Chong’s post on

Group cohesion

Have you ever participated in one of those professional team-building seminars? You know, the ones where you have to do things like build spaghetti-and-marshmallow towers with your colleagues? It’s kind of ridiculous and you feel a bit silly but it’s fun. And you all do it together. That’s kind of the idea I had.


Photo by VictoriaB52

The idea of group cohesion in the classroom is nothing new. Help students feel like they belong, that there’s a common identity, and that everyone is pulling in the same direction and you’ll get better work out of the group. Evans and Dion did a study of this back in 1991 and found a direct relationship between group cohesion and group performance and found that cohesive groups tended to be more productive than non-cohesive groups.

After having a few groups last semester that just didn’t seem to “gel” quite right, I figured maybe creating a little classroom ritual would help. A secret handshake would have been too cult-like and we can’t exactly sacrifice chickens, so before the start and at the end of each lesson, we do a few minutes of Tai Chi. Together. I’m in front of the class feeling just as silly as they are. We have a few giggles at the start, but soon try really hard to focus. That’s next…


Tai Chi is one of the martial arts which “foster preparedness, control, and symmetry” (Donnelly, Hollenbeck, and Eburne, 2000: 85). The slow movement of the forms forces the practitioner to really concentrate on the movement of the body, breathing, and balance.

In my own experience, it helps clear your head of whatever is rattling your brain because you move all your focus to the movements and the breathing. Afterwards, the problems haven’t gone away, but they have been moved away from the front-and-center place in your brain (I’ve got no fancy brain scans to illustrate this but that’s how it feels).

For students, especially early morning groups, taking a few minutes to transition into the classroom helps them to mentally and physically make the connection with coming into English class—the tried-and-true ‘warm-up activity.’ Hopefully (because classes just started this week), doing so before the beginning of every lesson will lead to better concentration during the lesson. We’ll see over the course of the semester.

The first movement we do is called “opening the door” (I didn’t make that up!) which seems appropriate because it’s like we’re opening the door to the language classroom. After the lesson, we do “closing the door” (again, not my invention) to clearly mark the end of the lesson. Just before we “close the door,” the students get a few minutes of quiet time to reflect on what they learned from the lesson and write it in their notebook. Maybe it’s a grammar point or some vocabulary.

They know that if we haven’t done reflection and closing the door, there’s no point in packing up just yet.

Being yourself

At the 2012 TESOL France colloquium, Luke Meddings and Chuck Sandy did a talk on being yourself in the classroom. It really got me thinking. What if I shared something I enjoy with my students? Not just a TV series or some music I like, but something that I feel influences the way I am. Scary stuff.

Then I thought back on some teachers I liked during my own education. The ones that stood out were those who had their own unique personalities that set them apart from the rest. One teacher who always encouraged us to see ourselves as scholars, seeking learning. Another (recently passed away) who demonstrated the same drive and discipline he expected of us. And yet another who made philosophy seem like a course that was actually relevant. Oh, and who did Tai Chi in class. They were themselves with us, unafraid of what we might think of them.

It’s not easy to expose yourself like that with a group of students. After our initial tai chi sessions, I could feel the sweat drops literally rolling down my back. But the students were going along with it, concentrating, occasionally giggling, but doing it. And I was being me, trying something new.


So is it my role as just the English teacher to be doing Tai Chi in English class? I don’t know, I have to admit. I’m not there to teach them tai chi (and I’m certainly not claiming to—we’re simply using the movements as a tool) nor to encourage some sort of meditative introspection. But given the benefits that could potentially come from it, maybe it is worth trying. We’ll find out in a semester…


Evans, Charles R. and Dion, Kenneth L. (1991). “Group cohesion and performance: A meta-analysis.” Small Group Research, 22. 175-186.

Donnelly, Joseph, Eburne, Norm and Hollenbeck, Wendy. (2000). “Redefining Classroom Management Through Tai Chi: It’s All About Fluidity and Balance.” The International Electronic Journal of Health Education. 3(2): 84-88.


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Hyperion resurrected and the end of the Dogme experiment

ImageLast Monday was the final lesson with the science students. The end of a semester of experimenting with Dogme. The chance for the students to tell me what they thought about the experience.

Before getting into this, though, we had to go through their exam. I wanted to go through their exam with them, to take the time to let them see their mistakes and what they had done well. In correcting their work, I made sure to include both, in red and green ink, respectively, as I thought it was important to point out where improvement still needed to be made, but also when they had used some new vocabulary or a particularly challenging structure. Plus, since part of the exam was to write a short story, I could add my comments, questions, and reaction to their story without bleeding all over their papers.

For the corrections, I used the marking symbols out of J. Harmer’s How to Teach Writing. The idea was for them to figure out the correction themselves. Beforehand, we spent some time trying to guess what the code meant. Some, like “sp” or “g” were easy to guess, while we had some discussion about “c” for concordance, “wo” for word order, and “λ” for something’s missing.

Then, they spent nearly an hour working on correcting their work (which was a reaction to a text + writing a short story). I circulated to help with questions, reformulations, and checking their work. I noticed that they seemed particularly into the activity, looking from their paper to the symbol key on the board, to their paper, and sometimes asking each other for help. It’s difficult to say if the energy poured into the effort was because this is a group of good students or because they liked the challenge and the personalized activity, but it felt like gold.

We transitioned with end-of-semester feedback forms. I wanted to make sure that they took the time to think about and complete the forms, and I’ve learned that the quantity of feedback given runs pretty much in proportion to how close the end of class is. In other words, don’t expect a novel when the group has to rush to their next class right after filling in your feedback form. (P.S. their feedback is in another postJ

After I had collected their forms, we rounded off the semester with a final performance by one of the groups who hadn’t been able to show us their work last lesson because half of their pair was absent. We followed the same format as in the last lesson, as it seemed to encourage both communication between the groups and an opportunity for language work.

Surprisingly, the story seemed quite complex, with a narrator to recount the background to the plot and a few character swaps to manage 4 roles with 2 people. The story built on the poem Hyperion that we studied in Lesson 9, but didn’t just bring the poem to life. It rewrote the story completely!

In short, Hyperion, who was the keeper of the sun, had fought and lost against Atlas. To show his despair, he hid the sun from the humans. One day, a farmer realized that without the sun, his crops, and thus his family could not survive. The farmer went to see Atlas (on a chair-mountain, with a heavy backpack on his shoulders) to explain the dire situation. Atlas told the farmer that he would have to walk for many days (symbolized by the student pacing in circles around the room) to do plead his case directly with Hyperion. He found Hyperion, who offered to turn provide light to humans by setting the farmer’s body on fire and allowing it to burn in place of the sun. As the farmer climbed on a desk, his arms outstretched like a crucifixion, the narrator told of the farmer’s brave sacrifice for mankind and why the sun we see today is in fact a burning farmer’s body. Not bad, huh?

And thus we ended our semester of an experiment together with Dogme.

Students, I thank you for your willingness to try this out with me and for your valuable feedback. Let’s hope it will help us better understand what you, the learners, think about how we teachers do our job.


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Lesson 9: Hyperion by John Keats (suggested by a student)

Admittedly, I don’t exploit poetry enough in class. So maybe it was a good thing that the second text Student A chose to bring in last lesson was…a poem. John Keats’ Hyperion to be precise.

I’ve never studied this particular poem, which created conditions for authentic discovery and reflection. The teacher didn’t have the “right” interpretation of the work. I put the students in groups of 4-5 and asked how they wanted to approach the poem. They suggested:

  1. Reading it again silently (good way to start—gives them some thinking time)
  2. Working on new vocabulary (it’s a 19th century poem, so there is a bit of fluffy vocab)
  3. Discussing their ideas in L1 to make sure everything is ok (Thanks, Ken Wilson for the reassurance that this is not ELT heresy)

Activity 2 was particularly useful on two levels—first it introduced students to a bit of culture générale as they say here in France. They found out that Hyperion was not just a Dan Simmons character but also figure of Greek mythology and I learned that it’s also the name of one of the moons of Saturn. Same goes for Saturn—not just a planet, but a mythological figure.

It also led to a class discussion on how to handle unknown words. They suggested using context  or the gist of the text to help (good) and looking for familiar roots (impressive!). When I picked up a student’s smartphone from her desk, though, her first reaction was “Sorry. I’ll put it away immediately.” Funny that for 1st-year university students, no one had thought to use mobile technology as a learning tool.

After dealing with necessary vocabulary, they discussed their ideas in groups and each came to a consensus. Interestingly, some of the groups had very different interpretations.

To inspire them and create continuity from our lesson on color symbolism, I had created Wordles with the poem with various color schemes that could be associated with the interpretations—black, gray and red for a darker interpretation; pinks and lavenders for romance; sky blue, sea green, light gray for tranquility. You get the picture.

Each group chose the color-scheme Wordle that best matched their ideas about the poem and amazingly, each group chose a different one. I asked each group to then create a Hyperion-inspired story, script it, and come to class next time ready to act out their story and explain the link with the Wordle they chose.

In feedback, many students said they enjoyed working with the poem but that it was very challenging. I could feel that as they worked to find meaning in the obscure language and the unfamiliar references to Greek mythology. It wasn’t the most comfortable class we’ve done, but one that got me thinking about quite a few things.

Thank you, Mr. Keats.

Lesson 8


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Lesson 8: Surrendering power

This week, I took a step into the unknown.

At the end of every lesson, we spend the last 15 minutes or so doing structured feedback. By that I mean, the students have a form that they fill out every lesson with four criteria, based on the suggestion in Teaching Unplugged:

  • What I liked about this lesson
  • What I didn’t really care for
  • What I found useful
  • What I found less useful

Students fill out the feedback form, I flip through them, and we discuss their feedback. Last lesson, one student suggested working with a text in class. So, naturally I asked for a volunteer to find a text for the next class. And the next class was today.

StudentA sent me the text by email the evening before the lesson. His last-minuteness maybe was a good thing, because it meant I wasn’t tempted to create all sorts of worksheets to scaffold, pre-teach vocabulary, etc. It was a short text, about 3 short paragraphs, easy enough vocabulary.  Oh, and the title was “An Introduction to a Modern Theory of Color.

I gave the students the title and asked them to think of any words that came into their heads. We mind-mapped their concepts and ideas, then they got into small groups to read the text and sort out the ideas.

Then I asked them how they could relate to the text. What did color mean for them? How do we use color in our lives? Here was where the ideas flowed.

Each group spent about 20 minutes preparing a presentation on their ideas. Some mentioned cultural aspects of color–how red meant luck and happiness in China, while black was worn for funerals in Western cultures. Some mentioned how we use color when decorating our homes to encourage different moods or how “blue and white in the bathroom reminds of beaches in Brittany.” Another group took a more artistic perspective, talking about high-contrast, b & w, or sepia-toned photos and how they effected the way we saw the photo.

After each presentation, I encouraged questioning to find out more and then I asked the listeners to summarize what they had understood to check that they had indeed followed what was said. In most cases, they got a surprising amount of info right!

Then the last group, which included StudentA, explained the real modern theory of color–that artists should use opposing colors on the color wheel to create deeper and more natural shadows in their art. This was the most interactive presentation, where the other students really seemed to want to know more (because I didn’t have to prompt them to ask questions afterwards!)

I was relieved that the students took to the subject. The night before, I was worried that the text was too narrow in scope, that some students just wouldn’t care for the subject, or that it would be so “everyday” that they would have nothing to say. I guess you don’t always need the “big” topics to get students’ ideas flowing.

However, on the feedback forms, the “less useful” activity that came up most was the reformulating stage. They didn’t really seem to see the point in it. I could tell as we were doing this–I either had to do hardcore eliciting or let the class sit until the silence got, well, awkward. Not sure if this is the route to go, but I know that I do thave a bad tendency cut thinking time short after asking questions.

Perhaps this activity would have been more engaging had there been a real need to summarize what was said. We may have relapsed into “display chatter” here, which would explain the reticence.

Overall though, I was pleased to see their reaction to the text. They even thanked StudentA for bringing it in. That’s powerful feedback.

Lesson 7                                                                                                                           Lesson 9


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Lesson 7: A recipe for better Dogme lessons

This morning, I started class with the question I usually ask this Monday morning group: “Did you have a good weekend? What did you do this weekend?” Sometimes the answers are less than enthusiastic but this morning one student seemed enthusiastic to tell me that he had made a cake.

Aha! Here was the beginning of a true Dogme moment! And we went with it.

“Who else cooked something good this weekend?”

We got vocabulary for broccoli and apple quiche, fish with sauce (and not fish sauce, as was pointed out), lasagna, and Ramen noodles (after all, they are students!). Another student admitted he had eaten chicken nuggets, but that it didn’t really count as cooking to him.

Of course, the discussion generated a board full of food vocabulary and some interesting bits about American vs. French cooking. We even worked on trying to find a satisfactory American equivalent of French lardons and settled on chunky bits of uncooked bacon.

I shared a life tip that I saw on a cooking show once: always have three dishes that you master, that are quick, easy, and cheap to make. That way, when friends just pop over, you can impress them with your improvisational kitchen skills.

Students worked in groups to prepare a recipe exchange. Each group brainstormed a recipe or two and wrote it out. As they worked, I put my own recipe, bananas poached in coconut milk with lime juice, on the board. Again, lots of food vocabulary emerged.

Students compared their recipes to mine for genre conventions, cooking vocabulary, etc. and made any necessary changes as I walked around to help them spot any differences.

To round off, students explained (and I insisted that they not read) their recipes to the other students. We got some basics like chocolate chip cookies and crepes, but also tiramisu, tomato and comté quiche, tuna peaches (a curious one indeed!)

This activity went well in my opinion for a few reasons: It emerged naturally from a real conversation, gave students something they could actually use in life, and let them share their own knowledge. On the daily class feedback forms, they all cited this as something they liked and found useful.

After, though, I think I artificially steered the class in another direction L

Last week’s homework was to choose a book from a bag I had brought in and write a story loosely based on the book’s subject. Since I had assigned it for homework, I wanted to make sure that we did something with it. After all, what’s the point of giving homework if it just sits in students’ binders afterwards?

Not all students had done the homework, and a few were absent last week so they didn’t have a book, but each group had 1 or 2 students with a story to tell. They shared their stories in their groups, I circulated to help with language.

I asked what they would like to do with their stories next and someone volunteered “listen to each others’ stories and guess the book that inspired it.” OK.

The books were all displayed in the front of the class and students shared their stories while others guessed. They all did the activity, but we had lost the energy of the first part of the lesson. I encouraged the listeners to ask questions to know more about the stories or to get clarification and some did, but it felt less authentic than before. Meef…

I think we could have saved this activity for another lesson and I’m sure the students would have understood. In my desire to show that they hadn’t done homework just for the sake of doing it, I think I prematurely aborted a lesson that was going well. Lesson learned—in Dogme, you really do have to roll with what comes up, maybe explaining to students the reason for delaying the homework-based activities. We could have just as easily started up next lesson with the story –telling and then branched out from there, in a more natural way.

What do you think? What should I have done?

Lesson 6                                                                                                                            Lesson 8


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Lesson 6: Judgment Day!

The lesson started with the same error correction as in lesson 5 and everything went smoothly—student corrections and explanations, with a little teacher intervention as needed to clarify.

Then came the big question. Will we continue using a Dogme approach during the 2nd half of the semester?

I put 5 questions on the board to get students thinking about the approach:

  1. Describe your vision of a Dogme approach.
  2. What is your opinion of it?
  3. Say one thing you like about it.
  4. Say one thing you don’t like about it.
  5. Do you want to continue using this approach for the rest of the semester?

The questions were in English, but I let students know that they could respond in French or English. The important thing here was the information and if they felt too limited in English, French was ok.

After about 10 minutes, I asked students to discuss their answers in small groups then as a class, taking about 10 minutes total. I, however, would leave the room during this time so as to let them express themselves more freely about their feelings towards the approach.

Of course, I glued my ear to the classroom door. I couldn’t make out exactly what they were saying, but it sounded more like English than French! I left them be and headed toward the coffee machine.

10 minutes were up so I popped my head in. “5 more minutes, 5 more minutes!” they shouted. So I slipped back out to wait until a student opened the door to let me back in.

Here’s a condensed version of what they reported:

The postives:

  • Students bring their questions to the class and the professor helps them with them.
  • It is easier to memorize the rules and explanations because they have to find them on their own and work out the explanation.
  • They like choosing what they want to work on, because the class centers on their difficulties
  • They enjoyed being able to vote on the format of the final exam
  • Lots of opportunities to speak to each other.
  • Speaking is easier because they feel comfortable with each other

The criticisms:

  • They would like to go faster through some of the grammar—it takes a long time to work out the rules on their own
  • More interaction on a specific topic would be nice, maybe divide the time more evenly between working on language and working with language
  • Needs more focus during the student-created explanations. It’s not always easy to understand the correction.

I’m glad they feel comfortable about speaking and I have noticed that overall the students are more forthcoming than in some of my other classes. I’m not sure if this is due to the students’ personalities or to the approach, because there are also a few shy students who voluntarily contribute rather little.

As I imagined, we have been spending too much time talking about the language and not enough actually conversing. I think we’ll start lessons with a more topic-based discussion rather than a grammar-based activity, which has been the case.

Their feedback shows that this approah works for this group of students, but the first few weeks haven’t been perfect.

Grammar focus has been a bit too dominant and I need to include little grammar bubbles, but as they come up and as needed. Or as that golden opportunity for a meaningful discussion of the language strikes. Or at students’ requests. However, the lessons need now to move towards a real exchange of ideas, with communication at the core.

Which is just what we’ll get a chance to do—they voted unanimously to continue Dogme for the next 6 weeks!

Lesson 5                                                                                                                          Lesson 7


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Lesson 5: SAYA A (as in again)

Last week’s lesson ended with half of the class sharing their personal “headlines” with the other half of the class. Based on our daily feedback form, they enjoyed this activity, so we started with it in yesterday’s lesson.

It ran on and then the listeners retold the parts they remembered to piece together the stories about events ranging from a class lawn bowling star to a heavy metal band member’s noisy run-in with the neighbors. As last week, I popped in and listened to make notes on things that could be improved. Like last week, this would become homework—try to correct the errors.

After the discussion, we spent some time on last week’s error list. Rather than just going through the list with “Julien, what’s number 1? Marie, do you have the correction to number 2?” I split the students in small groups and gave them a few of the mistakes to correct for the class. The twist was that they were also asked to go to the board and explain why the correction was correct and why the error was wrong. They did this fairly well, using their own words. Sure sometimes we got explanations like “It’s not “like” it’s “liked” because it’s past” which seemed pretty obvious stuff, but for the activity, I figured such simplicity was sufficient.

Then back to the students’ stories.

Homework was to write the article to go with their headlines either as a recap of last week or to prepare for this week, depending on what group they were in. In pairs, students helped each other with language questions and I encouraged them to proofread, but they seemed a bit shy on this. I would have liked them to help each other organize their ideas, but criticism, even constructive just wasn’t flowing.

I’ve found though, that students can be very timid about critiquing classmates’ ideas. Correcting language doesn’t seem to bother, as it is more a question of correct or not. Ideas, though, they’re a different matter…

On to some SAYA focus to carry on from last week then. Again in pairs, students looked for examples of since, already, yet, and again, along with any present perfect continuous tenses in their text and that of their partner.

I was building up to an class-created example corpus to see if they could get the use without having to explain any rules (after all, they had already explained a lot of rules with the error correction activity).

We divided the board into squares, one for each element, and filled them with corresponding examples from the students’ own work, correcting as we went. In feedback, they said that they had enjoyed this, perhaps because it allowed them to see examples they could relate to and had already experimented with.

They seemed more comfortable with SAYA and one student admitted that he also had issues with the infamous “for” and “since.” He unknowingly set their homework: try to write a few sentences with these two, which we’ll use for the catalyst of next week’s lesson!

Lesson 4                                                                                                                       Lesson 6


Posted by on February 28, 2012 in Experimental practice


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Lesson 4: The SAYA dilemma

Since, ago, yet, already. These four little words seem to plague French learners and for obvious reasons. Since translates to depuis. So does for. The idea of ago has a structure that when translated looks like there are four years, I went to the US for vacation. As for already, well, its French equivalent can also translate to yet. In some contexts, that is.

Not what I had predicted doing, but it came up and incidentally SAYA could fit well with the jump-start idea that I had chosen (thank you, ELT gods!)

We began the lesson with a little revision from the regular “Lesson That Was” form that I fill in and photocopy for everyone at the end of each lesson (See Teaching Unplugged, p. 63). Students made mental notes of questions they still had about any language. We boarded this and then students grouped in 4s to try to answer some of their classmates’ questions by going to the board and playing teacher. I monitored and corrected as needed. Although the students seemed reluctant to take the place of the teacher, they do it and they really try. Best thing is they explain in their own words, which are probably better understood by their peers than my explanations.

This was when SAYA came in, probably sparked by last lesson’s work on the present perfect simple.

I explained it to one group, who then went to the board to explain it to the rest of the class. We elicited a few examples together, and I circled the words in red to set up for the next activity. Maybe we could have done some more SAYA-specific work here, but I thought the activity I had planned would lend itself nicely to some natural emergence. I was hoping this would be shed light on these little linguistic trouble-makers in a more organic, holistic way. Did it?

My own "headline"

I asked if any of the students had a newspaper on them. Since they give out freebies near the tram stop, I was pretty sure the answer would be yes. Bingo! We opened a page, I read the headline and asked if they could guess what the article was about. Luckily, this one particular headline was a bit enigmatic–something about a Salkin-Magnani face off. Then I pulled out my grassroots “front page” based on “Headlines” (Teaching Unplugged, p. 38) about my weekend spent purging my apartment of unneeded clothes, books, papers, and general clutter. Students asked a few questions about what sort of home purification took place, but I stopped them before they could get all the details (oh, the suspense building up to next week’s lesson!)

Students were encouraged to create their own headline, and if desired, to exaggerate their exploits. 6 of them lined up with their own front pages, the other half stood in front of a partner to ask him/her questions to learn more about their headline.  After a minute or so, the questioners rotated until they had spoken to each headline-holder. All the while, I circulate to help with vocab and make notes on what I hear.

Afterwards, group summary of the stories to check what they had understood and to consolidate the stories.  We went over some of the new vocabulary as we pieced together the stories and I pointed out where SAYA could have been used to try to tie the day’s bits together.

During the Headlines activity, SAYA didn’t come up as much as I would have liked, but I think that I was less disappointed than if I had done a traditional PPP lesson. In a way, it was a bit liberating and at the same time, a signal to say that this aspect would need some recycling in future lessons.

Which is why their homework is to write the “article” to match their headline, making a special effort to incorporate since, ago, yet, and already when possible. In the meantime, I’ll try to think of a catalyst likely to draw out this language again for next week.

Any suggestions?

BONUS: A few memorable headlines and their stories:

–On a Culinary Quest for Taste: about a girl making crepes with her mom

–Boomerang Rock Strikes: one guy threw a rock against a wall when he was a kid. It bounced back and left a small scar on his lower lip.

–Nightmare in the ER: this poor girl spent her week of vacation at home with stomach flu that required a trip to the hospital

–Young Painter Wins Prize: one of my students won his height in paint thanks to a miniature octopus woman figurine he created.

Lesson 3                                                                                                                       Lesson 5


Posted by on February 21, 2012 in Experimental practice


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