Can online teaching be a force for change?

Covid 19 has forced teachers of English as an L2 to switch to online platforms, Zoom being the most popular. One of the results has been a lot of discussion among teachers on social media about how best to adapt their practice to the new environment. Not surprisingly, most of the discussion is about technical issues, about the mechanics of how “usual”, “normal” classroom-based teaching practices can best be transferred to Zoom sessions. But I find it encouraging to see that a significant part of the discussion is about frustration at the unsatisfactory level and quality of student participation.  And from that, I dare to suggest, as an unintended consequence, come questions about the efficacy of coursebook-driven ELT.

In a normal classroom session, the teacher is in the same place with a group of students, and the fact that the teacher talks most of the time; leads the students through a set of activities which mostly involve them in working, often with their heads in the coursebook, on bits of the language; and gets them to engage in real communication among themselves for very short periods of time, goes unnoticed and unremarked. It’s normal! Still, everybody’s together, there’s often a good, shared atmosphere, and the skillful teacher moves around the students, checking and encouraging, making the classroom session friendly, purposeful, and well-structured.

But the online version of the same session is more likely to fall flat, and the lack of real communication among the group is thrown into stark relief. Typically, it’s the “production” part of the PPP methodology in online classes that doesn’t work, and, I suggest, that’s hardly surprising. If you use coursebooks in an online environment, their basic focus on talking ABOUT the language, of studying the language as an object, is magnified. Students perhaps feel more keenly that they’re here to study the language, to be told stuff, to learn that particular bit of the book.

The alternative is to use the online environment to talk IN the language and to organize the classes so that genuine communication among the group is the predominant ingredient of each session. Let’s suppose that the class is about job interviews. In a coursebook, this is, let’s say, Unit 3. The “Lead In” activity might be

“Have you ever been for a job interview? In pairs, talk about: What job was it? Who interviewed you? What happened?”.

The problem is, that activity is one of ten, it’s allotted 10 minutes, after which the REAL FOCUS of the lesson – selected bits of vocabulary and a grammar point (perhaps the present perfect) – is then developed through a series of activities, most of which involve students studying the language. How do you organize that on Zoom? Well, you use break out groups for group discussion, but that takes up a small proportion of the total time, and it’s rightly perceived as peripheral to the “real” job of learning.

In contrast, in a TBLT course, a series of lessons deals with job interviews, if this is identified as a need for those doing the course. In the first lesson, we concentrate on relevant input, and simple productive tasks. In subsequent lessons, we get students to talk to each other about various parts of a job interview, slowly leading towards getting them to do a simulation of such an interview. Every lesson is organized around their using the language, talking to each other, where the teacher gives help with vocabulary and grammar reactively, when it’s needed.

In a Dogme course, if the students expressed an interest in job interviews, the focus of the lesson would be their discussion of the topic. There would be no pre-planned focus on particular grammar points or other formal aspects of the language, and MOST of classroom time would be devoted to communicative activities.

If you emphasise learning by doing, as you do in TBLT and Dogme approaches, then you prioritise student participation, and you make it clear that that’s what you expect students to do. As a result, the online Zoom sessions are much more likely to be perceived by students as events where talking to each other is the main point.

There is no doubt that interest in alternatives to coursebook-driven ELT has grown dramatically as a result of the rise in online teaching, which has inspired teachers to take a fresh look at what they’re doing. Why is teaching English online with a coursebook such a drag? Because the vital, ameliorating effects of teachers working their magic in a classroom can’t rescue it.

On the other hand, TBLT, where tasks, not linguistic items, are the units of analysis for syllabus design, lends itself to online teaching, because tasks naturally involve students more – they demand active student participation, as they do in the classroom too, of course. Tasks are the natural organizing principle that Zoom is based on. Zoom is not the obvious home of a PPP methodology and the mentality that it encourages. Tasks can be organized on Zoom in such a way that they naturally lead to the kinds of interaction required for language learning – learning by doing.

Likewise, Dogme, in its rejection of coursebooks, its brave, inspirational insistence on the core values of communicative language teaching, offers an enticing alternative to Zoom sessions devoted to teaching “McNuggets”.

So, when we discuss online teaching, let’s not just discuss adapting what we do to an online platform. Let’s discuss radical change. Change from global, commodified, coursebook-driven ELT to local responses to local needs. There’s no doubt that Dogme and TBLT are leading the way, and I hope more teachers will join the rising numbers informing themselves about these exciting alternatives which might just, at last, threaten the thirty year old hegemony of coursebooks and the related paraphernalia of the CEFR, high stakes proficiency exams, CELTA, and all that and all that.

3 thoughts on “Can online teaching be a force for change?

  1. Hi Gulmira, You voice a widely-held befief among teachers that the language input needed for task-based activities is too complex for absolute beginners. Furthermore, it’s said that absolute beginners lack the basic speaking skills needed to exchange information, negotiate meaning or scaffold each others’ language output. And some teachers believe, having been persuaded by teacher trainers who write and /or promote coursebooks, that second language learners can’t possibly start using a language until they have been explicitly instructed about its basic grammar and vocabulary.

    As an advocate of Long’s TBLT, I reject those views. I know both Scott Thorbury and Luke Meddings reject them too. Obviously, right at the start, there will be a lot of input, an emphasis on receptive tasks and ones that require only very simple production. The “worlds” of the task must be very familiar, pictures, props, short, modified elaborated multimedia texts are used, teachers make abundant use of adjustments (redundancy, input elaboration, slow pace, intentional pausing, repetition, etc.), and the sequencing of the tasks ensures a great deal of re-visiting the same material. There are quite a few descriptions of task-based language learning for beginners, some better than others. Willis (1996), for example describes TBLT for young learners who are beginners. In our opinion the tasks she describes are too restricted and there’s too much explicit grammar work. Goedele Duran and Griet Ramaut have a chapter in Kris van den Branden (Ed) (2010) Task-Based Language Education. called “Tasks for absolute beginners and beyond: Developing and sequencing tasks at basic proficiency levels”, which I recommend. And there’s also Chapter 9 in Mike Long’s (2015) book SLA and TBLT, which gives examples of materials used in modules of TBLT courses aimed at true and false beginners.

  2. I’m an experienced teacher, and familiar with Dogme and TBLT. Most of the time I write my own materials, and an avid supporter of the communicative approach to teaching English. Thank you for your detailed response.

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