Category Archives: classroom interaction

MIDTESOL 2016 Conference: Innovation and Improvisation

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

Midtesol 2016 Conference Kansas City

The MIDTESOL Annual Conference 2016 will be held September 30 to October 1 at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown in Kansas City, MO. The conference theme is “Innovation and Improvisation“.  I have been doing qualitative research on improvisation and improvised speaking for about twenty years now, so I am very glad to say that my proposal for a paper entitled “Structure and Improvisation in the EFL Classroom” has been accepted for presentation. This is what I am planning to talk about:

Improvisation is a complex phenomenon that has attracted little attention in foreign language learning and teaching research until now. Since improvisation is not only related to cognition and competence, but to goal-directed and spontaneous behavior and performance as well, it is difficult to bring in line with the traditional view of teaching as transmission of knowledge and skills, i.e. of delivering a prescribed curriculum, attending to a particular methodology, following a specific procedure, actuating a lesson plan, and interacting in pre-arranged ways. Moreover, since it encompasses attunement to a situational context (including attunement to others, also referred to as ‘tact’ or ‘tactfulness’ in scholarly discussions), spontaneous decision-making, and problem-solving, improvisation also contrasts with current educational ideologies and trends that place extreme emphasis on standardization, outcome-orientation, and testing.

In my video supported talk, I am going to illustrate and discuss the potential of improvisation for flexible (or ‘adaptive’) instruction in the EFL classroom. I will also present an instructional framework for enhancing oral proficiency which is based on the assumption that increasing the improvisational demands on EFL learners by confronting them with progressively less predictable communicative settings and scripts can contribute substantially to the gradual transformation and expansion of their participatory repertoires in the target language English.

Technology: A Sea Change in Language Instruction

posted by Peter Smith, OpenExam

Economic success needs to be founded on an up-to-date education system.  Nowadays, this means keeping pace with the onward march of technology. With technology now at the forefront of education and economic development, what does this mean for language learning?


As shown in this illustration (c), the history of technology for language learning dates back to the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877. Since then, teachers and learners have made use of a variety of audio and video technologies for building language skills.

The most complex of these is the language laboratory. In the 20th century, these tended to be expensive, under-used accessories behind heavy doors at the end of long corridors. Today’s ‘software only’ labs, in conjunction with ‘1:1’ policies, offer constant, unlimited access on the latest online devices and are unrestricted by classroom, school or geographical boundaries. They deliver all the bells and whistles of their hardware-based predecessors. In addition, they offer the full gambit of tools for resource creation and assignment. These allow for differentiated learning through synchronous and asychronous student/teacher interaction.

This development heralds a major sea change in language teaching which is having a beneficial effect not only on the quality and frequency of student usage, but also on language teaching methodology. Language labs have always been suited to behaviourist procedures, reinforcement through repetition, instructional cues and practice routines assigned by the teacher. Nowadays there are more and more opportunities for activities orchestrated by the teacher but controlled by students in collaboration with peers and exchange partners. This is providing a cognitive style of language learning alongside the traditional drills.

Online labs are beginning to allow new language lab activities, such as structured collaboration with partners abroad, which are more natural vehicles for developing mutual understanding than traditional classroom exercises. Students’ a priori knowledge of social networking let teachers to use lab tools to set up real-life scenarios for more meaningful learning. By routinely bringing students together across borders, teachers can provide opportunities for helpful exposure to the language. As with conventional language lab activities, the level of difficulty can be geared from a basic vocabulary swap through to daily bains de langues. There are many obvious benefits of this controlled linguistic immersion, not least the likely osmotic intake of all-important cultural information, highlighted by Juergen Kurtz on this blog.



Now Available: The Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany


The Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE) is a digitally reconstructed duplicate of a hitherto unpublished collection of classroom transcripts compiled by a small research team at the former Ruhr University of Education, Dortmund in the early 1970s. It comprises a total of 36 originally typewritten and carefully annotated paper transcripts of English as a Foreign Language lessons conducted in several comprehensive schools in the federal German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Since all lessons were held before the inception and widespread uptake of the communicative approach in Germany, the transcripts provide a unique glimpse into an era of instructed language learning that still echoes today.

Brief extract:

Grade 9 (February 15, 1974; Transcript #22 in the Pre-Digital EFL Corpus)

16562 L. Our topic at the moment is Canada. So we have heard
16563 a little bit about the history of Canada already. Now,
16564 when you compare the history of Canada and the
16565 history of Germany … yes, please?
16567 S. The or no [ähm] the people are not [äh] so long in Canada.
16568 L. Hmm.
16569 S. The state is not so long … old.
16570 L. The state, the country as such is not
16571 very old. Anything that you can tell me about how old
16572 Canada as a nation is?
16573 S. [äh] 1967 they had had the … 100th birthday.
16574 L. Could you give the date again?
16575 S. [äh] 1967.

Previous research on the history of foreign language teaching and learning in Europe (and, perhaps, elsewhere in the world) has largely been based on cultural artefacts such as formerly used textbooks, workbooks, old school curricula, etc. Historical corpora of spoken classroom English such as the DOHCCE may help to shed some more light on instruction and learning in the past.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2013). The Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE). Flensburg: Flensburg University Press (608 pgs.)

The book is now available as a print on demand-publication. For further information, please click here.

A Paradigm Shift in Language Teaching – at long last!

by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

Goodbye Berlitz, goodbye Helen Doron, goodbye Rosetta Stone…
The fact that small children grow into their native language without the help of another one, has inspired countless reformers. Charles Berlitz proclaimed himself the inventor of the direct method (which he wasn’t), and in his schools any use of the learners’ native language was taboo. In our times Helen Doron schools similarly claim to be using „the only internationally acclaimed early English learning method that allows children to absorb English in exactly the same way they learn their mother tongue”, i.e. without translation of any kind. The central idea, the exclusion of the children’s own language, has also been adopted by many public school systems and official guidelines for teachers, although in a less strict and dogmatic manner. A methodological monolingualism became the mainstream philosophy, as evidenced in many textbooks. The use of the mother tongue was invariably cautioned against, generally downplayed and rarely recommended. English-only became almost a badge of honour.

However, commercial self-instructional courses today are curiously divided. There are computer courses which make “no translation” their central selling proposition (e.g. Rosetta Stone: “It essentially means that you learn German in German, without translations – like you picked up your mother tongue”), and there are others which make regular and systematic use of their learners’ native language in various ways (Assimil; Birkenbihl; Michel Thomas…), making the very opposite their central selling proposition.

For more than a century this most vexing issue has been discussed and has often generated more heat than light, and it has certainly generated an immense literature by now.  Although in many countries monolingual teaching with some modifications carried the day, a number of researchers continued to radically question the monolingual assumption. Interestingly, some of them started out as „monolingual“ practitioners (the students’ native language being only a last resort), but changed their minds over time. This is also my own case. As early as 1976 I pressed for a „paradigm shift“, building on C.J. Dodson’s Bilingual Method, a book which opened my eyes when I was a young teacher of modern languages. On reading Dodson I could put the new bilingual techniques immediately into practice, and thus came to understand them by experimenting and observing their effects in the classroom (for more on this, please click here).

In many ways what is now happening fits Thomas Kuhn’s description of a paradigm shift (in The structure of scientific revolutions), a significant change away from the monolingual doctrine in favour of a modern bilingual approach. Over the years, more and more researchers have challenged the settled view of their predecessors, and it seems that a paradigm shift is just around the corner:

„Die Zeit ist reif für eine neue Synthese … die bilinguale Revolution findet statt.“ [„The time is ripe for a new synthesis…the bilingual revolution is taking place“] (W. Butzkamm, Lust zum Lehren, Lust zum Lernen, 12004, p. 2)

“Making the mother tongue the corner stone in the architecture of FLT is a true paradigm shift.” (W. Butzkamm & J. A. W. Caldwell, The bilingual reform. A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching, p. 15)

“We live in interesting times: having lived through one paradigm shift, I now have the feeling this book marks the start of another.” A. Maley, Review of Translation in Language Teaching: an argument for reassessment by G. Cook. ELT Journal 65.2, 192–193.

„If their proposals are implemented, it will be a true paradigm shift.“  P. Scheffler, Review of The bilingual reform. A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching by W. Butzkamm  &  J. A. W. Caldwell.  ELT Journal 66/1, 2012, p. 119).

In the influential journal  Language Teaching  – (listed both in  the Arts & Humanities Citation Index and in the Social Sciences Citation Index) authors G. Hall & G. Cook come to the conclusion: „The way is open for a major paradigm shift in language teaching and learning“ (state-of- the-art article „Own language use in language teaching and learning“ , in Language Teaching, 45/2012, pp 271-308). With this authoritative review one can safely say that a century old tenet has been overturned. A dogma has been toppled.

According to Butzkamm & Caldwell the learners’ native language is ‘the greatest pedagogical resource’ that they bring to foreign language learning, as it ‘lays the foundations for all other languages we might want to learn’. While language teaching in many countries had to be officially monolingual with small concessions, it is now accepted that language learning is, and has always been, a fundamentally bilingual endeavour, as modern brain research has shown. Thus it is not just a more flexible and less rigid attitude towards own-language use which is advocated today, but the well-targeted, systematic exploitation of the diagnostic potential of learners’ own language(s), however with the foreign language still being the working language of the classroom. What is now needed is the knowledge and dissemination of those highly effective techniques in which the L1 is essential – techniques which are yet to filter into mainstream pedagogy.

Caution: A sophisticated bilingual approach does not give licence for the lax, unthinking or indifferent use of L1.  It is a highly purposeful, focused tool to promote L2 learning and communicative use in the classroom. We must at long last resolve the apparent paradox that with systematic mother tongue support an authentic foreign language classroom atmosphere can be created much more easily than in classes with a mother tongue taboo.

Desired Side-Effects of a Bilingual Approach

by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

One of the desired side-effects of a bilingual approach (notably, the sandwich-technique, see my earlier contributions or Wikipedia) is to allow teachers to use authentic texts sooner. Here are two examples of Peanuts cartoons I used with a group of grade 4 primary students in Germany. One of them starts out as follows:

Linus: “School President?  Me?”
Lucy: “Why not? I’ll be your campaign manager.”

In the other one Linus says: “I’m an average pupil in an average school. What’s wrong with being average?”

Because of the will-future and the gerund both texts would be considered too difficult for beginners. But they are not difficult at all, although German expresses these ideas differently. For “I’ll be your campaign manager” I simply gave an idiomatic translation plus a brief explanation with a literal translation:

Teacher: “Ich mach / ich bin dein Wahlkampfmanager. Im Englischen heißt es nicht „ich bin“, sondern „ich werde sein“, um anzuzeigen, dass sich Lucys Versprechen auf die Zukunft bezieht. Wir können uns das im Deutschen sparen, weil wenn man etwas verspricht, sich dies immer auf Zukünftiges bezieht.“ (= In English it is not „I am…“ but “I’ll be…” in order to show that Lucy’s promise refers to the future. In German, we can do without this because  promises always refer to the future).

That was all the grammar they needed at the time, and the children acted the sketch out with verve and enthusiasm. So why not use a future tense or a past tense form in the very first English dialogue?  Didn’t we learn the ideas of pastness and future time roughly at the age of three? And why not use a useful phrase like  ”I don’t know” right away which Germans can easily handle? The mother tongue has paved the way although German doesn’t use do-negation. But a literal translation is all we need to clarify the construction.

In a British context, a teacher of German once remarked that many students never learned to say “Ich hätte gern ‘ne Cola” (which is normal for “I’d like a coke, please”), because “hätte”is subjunctive, and since most pupils dropped German after two years, they never got as far as the subjunctive. But we could use this phrase in the very first lesson of German, couldn’t we? The error – too much emphasis on grammatically graded texts –  seems to be world-wide. I’m not saying that grammatical grading should completely be given up. But we should take a fresh look at it. The thin language soup served up to beginners is the price paid for the mother tongue taboo.

The mother tongue taboo, or a watered down version of it, must go. It is self-crippling. Yet it still seems to be the mainstream philosophy, which I find scandalous. Well, as John Maynard Keynes wrote: “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones…”

For further  discussion see the article “We only learn language once. The role of the mother tongue in FL classrooms. Death of a dogma”, downloadable here.

The Sandwich Technique

by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

Let me share with you what I think is the most important single technique in foreign language teaching, i.e. the sandwich technique. It is a prominent feature of C.J. Dodson’s bilingual method (1967) and was probably invented by him. When modeling a dialogue sentence for students to repeat, the teacher not only gives an oral mother tongue equivalent for unknown words or phrases, but repeats the foreign language phrase before students imitate it: L2 => L1 => L2.

German teacher of English: Let me try. Lass mich mal versuchen. Let me try.
Students: Let me try.

With this simple trick, interference from the mother tongue is avoided and students can fully concentrate on repeating the foreign phrase correctly. This bilingual technique makes it easier to establish the foreign language as the working language of the classroom. By and by, the teacher introduces important classroom phrases (bilingually, but just once) in order to create a foreign language atmosphere:

Teacher: Your job is to match the sentences – die Sätze zuzuordnen – to match the sentences.

He/she can also use richer and more authentic texts sooner, for instance in telling stories:

Teacher: And her stepmother scolded her without mercy – schimpfte sie erbarmungslos aus – she scolded her without mercy…

Mother tongue equivalents are always and immediately given in contexts, which is a far cry from isolated vocabulary equations. We have to understand the apparent paradox that by using the mother tongue skillfully we will eventually manage to conduct whole lessons in the foreign language only. For more information see Wolfgang Butzkamm & John A. W. Caldwell (2009). The bilingual reform. A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching. Tübingen: Narr.

A review of the book, written by Alexander Arguelles and published in the RELC Journal 41, 3, 2010 is available here.


The Role of the Textbook in the EFL Classroom (6)

by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Here’s another voice in the ongoing debate on the role of the textbook in the EFL classroom – “My Take on the Unplugged/Dogme/Coursebook Debate”  (Dave Dodgson):  

“After a week or so reading some very interesting posts detailing various people’s stances on the ongoing discussion about the usefulness of coursebooks, the merits of an unplugged/dogme approach (assuming those terms can be used interchangeably) and everything in between, I thought I’d pitch in my two pence with some reflections on what I’ve taken from it all. Of course, this discussion has been going on for much longer (and will probably continue for a while yet!) but recent posts on the blogosphere have really got me thinking.” Click here to read more.