Category Archives: Experimental practice

Lesson 3: Blast from the past (vs. present perfect simple)

I’ve been thinking about how important it is to have some sort of continuity through a Dogme semester. Without it, we could run the risk of doing a series of one-off lessons and students would have difficulty seeing how it all builds up as a cycle.

This was one comment I got last semester when I tested a single Dogme lesson in a sea of planned, photocopied, and powerpointed sessions. The students said they had really enjoyed it, but they didn’t see how it fit in to the rest of the semester. Note taken.

So as a continuation of last week’s past simple vs. present perfect simple grammar point, I divided the students into 3 groups of 4 and had them concoct something to help another group with this dark zone of the English tense system.

And they set to work.

After about 30 minutes, we had a « spot the correction » activity with about 7 sentences, a biography of Steven Spielberg, and another of Goullom from Lord of the Rings. During this, I walked around and sat in on their group collaboration to answer questions, correct, and clarify as needed. I also noticed that one group was using a mobile phone to pull up info on Spielberg while another was gleaning ideas from one of those free “newspapers” they hand out on the trams and buses.

The students were discussing the grammar points! But they were doing it in French. For the moment, I let them continue, but it made me wonder “should we ask students to discuss and explain emerging grammar knowledge in L2?” One part of me says “yes,” it gives them good practice and they associate the language with the grammar. Another part of me says “no,” grammar is complex. They’re having a hard time with the concept, let’s not complicate things further.

What is your take on this?

Each group finished, gave their exercise to another group, and the second round of work began. It all went smoothly, many right answers, some a little less right. Each time, I pointed out the correct answers and the ones that needed to be reconsidered.

As each group finished, I asked them to formulate explanations for each tense based on what they noticed during the creation and the working stages. One member of each group also boarded the exercise they had completed so that we could go through them together.

Each group then had to explain the work they had done on the other group’s exercise, explaining why they chose whichever tense (this time in English!). The three volunteers seemed a little nervous about this part, so we applauded each one for their effort at playing teacher. Hopefully that created a bit of positive energy!

Students' board work

To round off the lesson, we ended by compiling some explanations of when to use the tenses and put them on the bottom of the board.

Students spent the last 10 minutes filling out and discussing what will become our weekly feedback session (this idea is pulled directly from Teaching Unplugged, p. 99). Students unanimously liked the grammar explanations and creating their own activities. However, I wonder if the affinity for grammar comes from some old scholarly comfort zone. I’ll have to be careful not to get sucked into the “talking about grammar” trap at the expense of “talking with grammar.” They’ll need some real, spontaneous use of the tenses, perhaps in a more discussion-led class next week. They’re off for a week of vacation, which means next lesson should be fertile with stories to tell!

I doubt the old comfort zone issue applies to creating activities for their classmates. While a few students pointed out that we spent a little too much time actually creating the activities (there’s my pacing problem creeping up on my again…), they all said they enjoyed doing it and would like to include it in future lessons.

So next time, perhaps we’ll put all this grammar to use and get them to spend the entire 2 hours just talking in L2 about things they’ve done. A challenge?

Lesson 2                                                                                                                 Lesson 4


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Lesson 2: Two simple tenses that are anything but

After an encouraging first lesson and positive responses on my “Will you do Dogme with me?” questionnaire, it was time to get into the nitty gritty of a semester of unplugged teaching.

I have to admit that I’m not really comfortable yet with waltzing into a classroom of 12 students with NOTHING prepared. Last night, I thought through a lesson catalyst: Write a few things I did this past weekend (celebrated my 5-year wedding anniversary, went to an exhibit on Italian immigration, jogged for an hour and half) and invite students to do the same. Then we would board some ideas, see how they related to bigger issues, and decide which topics would be most interesting to talk about. Big issues from my activities could have been relationships, immigration, and healthy lifestyles. After that, I would see where the students would take the class.

Perhaps the good news is we never got to that.

We started off by looking at their homework from last lesson. Amazingly, everyone had done it! I took this as a positive sign that they had actually engaged in the last lesson. I’ll have to see if this enthusiasm is real or if they were just afraid that I would collect their homework…

So, students compared their English translations with a partner, then in small groups to write a collective version. This led to three collective versions, which students then compiled into a single classroom version. As Ss worked on their collective versions, I went around asking about any variations between students. Preposition issues and a few tense questions came up—they were noticing!

We divided the board in two and one student wrote the class version. I wrote the original version from last week. There were only a few differences, but sufficient opportunities to address emerging language: present simple vs. present continuous; past simple vs. present perfect simple; American vs. British spellings (traveled vs. travelled); the Oxford comma in lists; work AT vs. working ON, for which the DELTA was a good example—If I’m working on the DELTA, what’s my job? If I work at Delta, what could my job be?


The biggest issue that came of the discussion was the thorny past simple vs. present perfect simple. French learners (and I’m sure they’re not the only ones) have real problems with this because the French passé composé tense is used like the English past simple, but looks like the present perfect simple. So French Nous avons testé un nouveau resto hier translates to “We tested a new restaurant yesterday” but looks like it should translate to “We have tested a new restaurant yesterday.” See the problem?

Remedy: I asked them to think of a famous person, still alive, that they knew fairly well. Silence. So we narrowed it down—celebrity or politician? Celebrity! French or American? French! Man or woman? Woman? Any suggestions now? Vanessa Paradis! Maybe my initial request was just too broad and no one wanted to look like they were dominating—helping students narrow down choices may be a good thing sometimes.

Short Vanessa Paradis bio and comparative columns

So we brainstormed a short bio of Vanessa Paradis, with blanks for the verbs that Ss filled in as a class. This gave the grammar a context. We then made columns of past simple and present perfect simple sentences to compare the two tenses.

Ss grouped together to try to find an explanation, which they shared with the class. Two groups had on-target explanations, using words that maybe I wouldn’t have used but that may have been more accessible to their peers. Someone from each group even went to the board to draw timelines and explain their ideas.

One group, however, came up with an explanation that I wasn’t sure what to make of: past simple=activities that everyone can do: She was born in 1972; she got married in 2003, etc. and present perfect simple=activities that are more rare or not for everyone: she has released one hit song since then; she’s had three kids (yes, most people have kids, but not THREE kids).

I have to admit that I didn’t really know what to say. I didn’t want to discourage them too much, but clearly the explanation was askew. I thanked them for the effort and pointed out that the choice in tense really depended on the time and how much we knew about when/if the action finished.

And we noticed time had run away. Class was over. We hadn’t touched what I had planned the night before. That was fine by me. Next week, maybe we’ll go back through the tenses and I’ll invite the students to create some activities to reinforce what emerged in today’s lesson.

Lesson 1                                                                                                                           Lesson 3


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Lesson One: Thanks Oli and Luke!

First day with a new class. List of names. Check. Keys to the room. Check. Markers for the board, pens, pencils, blank paper for making notes. Check. Coursebook…coursebook…nah, not this time.

A few days before meeting the new class, I spent some time trawling the many Dogme blogs. One in particular grabbed my eye: Oli Beddall’s An Experiment with Dogme. Great account of how he’s experimenting with Dogme, apparently in Japan.

Since Dogme is a new path for me, I thought I needed some sort of classroom compass while honing my teacher instinct. I printed Oli’s Lesson One and took it in as a sort of road map to show students what Dogme meant. I wanted to show them, but tell as well. Or rather, lead them to finding out.

We started with cut up cards of the definition of Dogme ELT from the first pages of Teaching Unplugged by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury. Ss worked to piece the definition together followed by a class discussion of various words in the definition. First lexical set of the day (classroom materials) and a quick word family (Merlin–wizard–wizardry) came of it.

Me: “So, how can this relate to you and to this semester?”

Ss: blank stares

Right, so the question was a bit abstract. I told the students not to worry, that we would uncover the answer as the hour-and-a-half lesson progressed. And we did.

We worked through Oli’s first lesson, which brought up the fact that I was doing the DELTA, that it involved an Experimental Practice research project, and that I wanted this group to help me along. It also led to a look at past vs present perfect simple and continuous tenses, as well as a little “make” vs “do” collocation work.

Ss actively participated, more than expected. Maybe I was on the right path…so, back to the abstract question, supported with Luke Medding’s drawing from the  IATEFL Brighton conference. Ss worked out that they were going to supply the content and create the lessons, but still didn’t know exactly what that meant.

More visuals: a comparative chart of Dogme ELT and Traditional courses, filled in collaboratively. They were getting it and even better, they looked interested!

Last step: a questionnaire in L1 (here, French) on students’ views on continuous teacher development, taking part in my DELTA experimental practice research, and trying a different approach for at least the first half of the semester.

This first encounter wasn’t completely material-less (Question: does a true Dogme lesson have to be? Comments appreciated!) and having a little map to follow made me feel more confident.

Now that I have the learners’ green light to explore the exciting world of Dogme, maybe next week, I’ll leave the classroom compass at home!

Lesson 2


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