Reverse!

Yesterday I stumbled upon a blog post by Willy Cardoso, published on the British Council Teaching English blog. In his post, the author argues that learners’ writings are one of the best raw materials any teacher can have. I totally agree with this, but what really resonated with me was the following tip he shares: “Start a new unit from the last page!” 

How come this had never dawned on me before? Such a simple, clever idea… I’d always believed that the pure version of teaching unplugged needs a lot of courage and experience on the teacher’s part. Also, if the teacher’s hands are tied by the administrators’ restrictions and requirements, experimenting becomes much more difficult. Willy Cardoso’s approach, though, looks less daunting and does not violate any of the following key principles of the Dogme teaching

  • Interactivity: the most direct route to learning is to be found in the interactivity between teachers and students and amongst the students themselves.
  • Engagement: students are most engaged by content they have created themselves
  • Dialogic processes: learning is social and dialogic, where knowledge is co-constructed
  • Scaffolded conversations: learning takes place through conversations, where the learner and teacher co-construct the knowledge and skills
  • Emergence: language and grammar emerge from the learning process. This is seen as distinct from the ‘acquisition’ of language.
  • Affordances: the teacher’s role is to optimize language learning affordances through directing attention to emergent language.
  • Voice: the learner’s voice is given recognition along with the learner’s beliefs and knowledge.
  • Empowerment: students and teachers are empowered by freeing the classroom of published materials and textbooks.
  • Relevance: materials (e.g. texts, audios and videos) should have relevance for the learners
  • Critical use: teachers and students should use published materials and textbooks in a critical way that recognizes their cultural and ideological biases.


Even if you have to follow a syllabus (because your students are required to become familiar with a certain number of specific grammatical structures/vocabulary/topics/whatever), you can use this approach without failing to fulfil the red tape requirements. Even if you and your colleagues are expected to create a syllabus based on the coursebook you use throughout the course, you can teach dogme-ish and still be sure that the administrators won’t find anything wrong with your suspiciously-looking methods. 

Now I’d like to ask myself a question: How can I go about it in my teaching context? I’m looking at the coursebook I use with my pre-intermediate students. Unit 1 covers the following 1) topics: personality, teenage challenges, music, hobbies, 2) language items: present simple vs. present continuous, verb patterns (verb + infinitive/-ing form), 3) functions: exchanging opinions (about hobbies, likes/dislikes), and finally, 4) a writing task: a personal profile. 
So, let’s say that I’ll ask my Ss to write a personal profile first. I’ll see what my Ss already know and what areas they find problematic. Some of the problematic areas will probably overlap with the content of the current unit, so I’ll make sure they will gradually be covered in detail. For instance, it’s likely that I’ll find out that my Ss don’t need to practise present simple because they can use it confidently. Maybe they only struggle with some specific aspects; they, for example, err when making questions and/or they keep forgetting to add an -s with the third person singular verb. So I will focus on this a bit. Based on my experience, Czech learners can form the present continuous, but they tend to overuse it, so I might want to include some extra practice if necessary. In other words, I’ll work on emergent problems plus I’ll feed Ss the language items that pop up along the way. 
The truth is, however, that some language structures will have to be forced on Ss. For example, there is a list of about 30 verbs in Unit 1 whose patterns Ss need to be able to use at some point. It’s unlikely that all those patterns will emerge naturally as we speak about personality traits, hobbies, etc. What could I do then? I could obviously use the texts from the coursebook or I can create my own personal profile and deliberately include all those verbs my Ss need to acquire. The latter approach will undoubtedly be far more natural and relevant, as well as more interactive and dialogic. 
All in all, I’m convinced that this selective approach will give me more time to cover things which are engaging – those things which I feel I have little time for. However, I believe there’s no need to avoid the textbook completely. In the first unit there are nice texts which I know my students love to work on, such as a personality quiz or an article called What does your musical taste say about you? But again, I’ll already know how much time to spend on these sections. I will be able to get rid of the redundant stuff which I now feel obliged to go through, no matter how much of it my Ss actually know already. Having said that, I will finally end up with more time on my hands, which I could use more effectively. 
I think it might be a good idea to apply a cyclic approach here – to start with the last page of the unit, work on the emergent language/problematic areas and then come back to the last page again and get Ss to write an upgraded version of the same written assignment. It might be very interesting to compare both versions and see all the progress Ss have made since the starting point. Now that I think about it, it seems I’m up to a little experiment …  
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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
This entry was posted in Dogme teaching, Teaching ideas, Trying out something new, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Reverse!

  1. Zhenya says:

    Hi Hana

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post! I would definitely like to hear how your experiment with this specific unit goes (if you decide to try it), for several reasons: I think that letting students see the purpose, or the reason for doing certain language work is a wonderful idea. Moreover, the examples to clarify the difference between the Simple and Continuous aspects can also be given in the context of the Profile writing they are already aware of. You mentioned that some of the verbs in the unit might not be exactly what is needed for that task. My question (to myself mostly) would be if all writing is the only skill/focus of the unit, and if there are possibly other productive tasks (speaking?) where the students might need those verbs. Might not be in the book itself though. Thinking of something like a discussion of the created profiles? (could be another task on creating your own course book unit, as you were describing in your other post)

    Thank you for making me think – as always – and for motivating me to try the 'reverse' approach too!

    Zhenya

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  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for your comment, Zhenya.

    You say: “I think that letting students see the purpose … is a wonderful idea”. You hit the nail on the head and I actually forgot to mention that this should be the primary goal of this approach. If you show your students where they’re headed, from the very start, they will be more motivated to achieve the goal you want them to achieve. The truth is that we usually keep our students in suspense – we lead them, blindfolded, step by step towards something they can’t see yet; we are the knowledgeable ones and they follow us obediently.
    In my post I only mention writing but I would obviously include other productive skills throughout the cycle. I chose written assignments because, to me, they appear as the most tangible products. However, there’s no reason to believe that you can’t replicate the process with speaking (you can record your students to make the outcome more tangible/permanent and then you come back to the recording at some point).

    I like your idea of discussing the profiles. This would certainly be the icing on the cake.

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  3. Zhenya says:

    Hana, thank you for the reply!

    You said: The truth is that we usually keep our students in suspense – we lead them, blindfolded, step by step towards something they can’t see yet; we are the knowledgeable ones and they follow us obediently. ' – I think this approach is the 'reverse', and I equally like it (I mean, there is this 'surprise' element for students to discover that there is a meaning/purpose in everything they are doing – and the teacher is leading/scaffolding them to the final aim.

    You are right though that the 'transparent' approach you are describing in your post is a little more challenging (for some teachers) because there is responsibility to let students consciously participate in their own learning (and even give feedback as to which tasks were, or were not helpful to achieve that goal?)

    Agree that the writing product/result is a great visible 'mark' or achievement at the end of a unit. And I like how you called the speaking discussion follow-up 'the icing on the cake'!

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  4. Teaching 'dogme-ish' – I like it. I agree with you, Hana. There's always a way to be selective with the materials we use, including when we have to work through a course book or some kind of syllabus. Something I always wanted to do but never managed to was use a circular syllabus, as explained by Meddings and Thornbury in Teaching Unplugged. I made one, but never ended up using it very extensively http://www.mikejharrison.com/2011/10/circling-the-square/

    I think Dave Dodgson also has some good things to say about a cyclic approach to organising a language course programme – http://www.davedodgson.com/2015/03/introducing-language-academy-of-ruban.html (scroll down to 'dual stream assessment')

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  5. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for the links to your and David's posts. Well, this is an intriguing topic. As far as Circling the Square concerns (by the way, I once wrote a post called My attempt to square the circle :-), I really like the idea of cutting the lexico-grammatical syllabus up and tossing the scraps of language to your learners. I also like your circular syllabus template. Ironically, while looking at the circle, I caught myself making a conscious effort to find the starting point; I guess I was looking for the present simple, which means that linearity is deeply ingrained in my mindset.

    Now I'm thinking … why not to have a list of grammatical features you are required to teach in a course (in the form of your circle template, which seems to be drawing on some coursebook syllabus, right?), and cross each item out one by one as they occur throughout the course. I mean, you meet your Ss after the holidays and naturally ask them where they’ve been and what they did – you’ve just done the present perfect and past tense so you can cross them out for the time being and see what pops up next. No matter how attractive it sounds to me, I’m not sure if this is impossible in my teaching context. I have a class book where I must record the matter that has been discussed in each lesson and this should correspond with the syllabus that we create *before* the course starts. Anyway, thanks for your comment and for some food for thought.

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  6. Hana Tichá says:

    Absolutely, Zhenya. I agree that the element of surprise is equally important, especially with young learners. So I guess that extremes are not the best way to go. Thanks for making me realize, once again, that balance is the key. 🙂

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  7. Hi again Hana,

    You're right – my circle was derived from a course book contents page (although I don't think I included absolutely every item).

    Interesting that you mentioned trying to find the start of the circle! The linear syllabus can be quite ingrained I guess. A case of being presented with 'this is the way it is' so many times, I suppose.

    I like the idea of reviewing the syllabus after lessons – I thought of it like a menu/check list. You wouldn't cross them off, I don't think – you can't really say something is 'done'. But you could tally every time a grammar or lexical area is looked at or arises in a lesson.

    Thanks for the prompt in your post 🙂

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  8. Hana Tichá says:

    Just a little note: when I mentioned that I would/could cross the items off one by one, I didn't actually mean that I would consider them learnt or mastered. This is obviously not how languages are learnt. I thought of this procedure as more a practical approach to what administrators expect us teachers to do – we need to provide tangible proof that a particular item (grammatical or lexical) has been discussed with a particular class. So if the inspection asked for the proof, I could point to a certain moment/occasion.

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  9. Pingback: Reverse! (A reblog and a welcome) | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

  10. laurasoracco says:

    I can’t find the like button on your blog, Hana, but I came to this post after reading Mike’s post about your blog. Hadn’t realized that you moved to WordPress, and I missed your posts. Glad to know you are here now. I’d be curious to hear your take on Geoff Jordan’s post on coursebooks: https://canlloparot.wordpress.com/2015/05/13/dellar-defends-the-coursebook/comment-page-1/#comment-2777

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    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi, Laura.

      Thanks for stopping by. I read Geoff’s post earlier today and was about to comment, but then changed my mind. It’s quite interesting and I like reading the blog, but there’s some accusation going on in the comment section, so I decided to abstain in commenting in this case. Anyway, I do use coursebooks and I think I use them sensibly. I change and tweak a lot of the content, but I’d say coursebooks are my invaluable allies. I disagree that they are strictly linear; if you use different levels of the same book, you’ll see that they recycle and elaborate on the content in a cyclical, or rather spiral manner.

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