Tag Archives: classroom interaction

How to Improve Foreign Language Teaching Significantly

posted by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

In my view, the theory and practice of teaching beginners is stagnating. One of the reasons for this stagnation are fundamental flaws or omissions in the language teaching theories of the mainstream. The four areas in which significant improvements can be achieved concern the communicative principle, the imitative principle,  the bilingual principle, and the generative principle. They are all based on our knowledge of how humans learn languages naturally, irrespective of educational arrangements.

(1) We are born and bred to communicate. It is our social talent that makes us smarter than all other living beings. Preschool children already have the expressive means for a magnificent array of speech intentions, using their voice, mimes and gestures. And they bring these communicative competencies to the task of foreign language learning. It follows that utterances, not words, are the primary reality of language, and dialogues, for which we need a partner, are the ideal basic texts for foreign language teaching. They define a specific situation and constitute a total communicative event. So let us teach learners to enact these situations in face-to-face communication as naturally as possible. If rightly taught, they perform them with verve and gusto no matter whether they are children, adolescent or adults, slow or fast learners. With our social brains we are naturally born performers and masters in make-believe. Most modern coursebooks are peppered with colourful pictures, but don’t contain enough short, actable and sophisticated dialogues with which learners can enjoy team work and create moments of excellence for themselves and their audiences.

(2) Imitation is our “motor for culture” (Gopnik); it forges the neuronal link between hearing and speaking. Language learning and teaching is at the very beginning strikingly physical: ear-training, articulatory training and body language combined. Listening plus imitating is therefore our most basic form of practice. It must first and foremost begin with short utterances in the context of the mimicry-memorization of dialogues. To achieve this, precision techniques have been developed. However, repeated intensive and noisefree imitation is often neglected. But without ears and articulatory organs attuned to the foreign language we cannot take much pleasure in it.

(3) Sophisticated dialogues are possible from the very beginning because we teach them with systematic mother tongue support, via the bilingual sandwich-technique. In a laudable effort to make teachers conduct classrooms in the foreign language, mainstream philosophy has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. However, a naturally acquired language is the greatest pedagogical resource that learners bring to foreign language classes, as it lays the foundations for all other languages we might want to learn. Two thousand years of documented language teaching, as well as modern brain research, have shown that foreign language learning is fundamentally a bilingual endeavour. Because, in a deep sense, we only learn language once. All languages help us to make sense of the world, so they all dance the same dance. All humans can talk about persons and things, time and space, past and future, basic event types like give & take, possession, number, instrument, agent, obligation, condition etc. etc. In our first five years we have accumulated a huge cognitive capital for the rest of our lives, usually via the mother tongue. It would be sheer madness to cut learners off from what is the very foundation of language. It follows that it is not just a more flexible and less rigid attitude towards own-language use which is needed, but the well-targeted, systematic exploitation of the explanatory potential of learners’ own language(s), however with the foreign language still being the working language of the classroom.

(4) In language, we make “infinite use of finite means” (Humboldt). A finite stock of words or word groups can be recombined again and again to produce innumerable novel sentences – and thus, new ideas. This combinatorial infinity is according to Chomsky the core capacity of all human languages. It means that the words and constructions of the basic dialogues, stories or songs must not remain encapsulated in those texts, but must be extracted, recombined and varied in order to fit new situations and personal communicative needs.  (What shall we do with the drunken sailor? => What shall I do with my hair? => What shall I do with my life?). Children are excellent pattern detectives, which is visible from the two word stage on. But 3- hours-per-week learners must be helped to shorten the process of pattern recognition – by mother tongue mirroring, for instance – and by repetition cum variation of basic constructions, which is also evidenced in child language. The practical solution proposed are semi-communicative bilingual pattern drills as stepping stones towards communication – so mother tongue support again. If constructions are fully understood, they can take root and learners feel encouraged to risk something new on the analogy of what is familiar. Bilingual pattern practice ought to be a cornerstone in our teaching methodology. It is conspicuously absent in our coursebooks.

After forty years of working with foreign and second language learners and observing them in and outside classrooms I have come to the conclusion that we must free ourselves from two dogmas which have harmed, and not helped, the teaching profession: The monolingual dogma tried to banish the learners’ native language from the classroom. The communicative dogma led to the wholesale rejection of pattern drills. Let us re-orient ourselves and make a significant step forward.

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.

The Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE)

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

Dortmunder Corpus Titelblatt Scan
(S = student; L = teacher)

About a decade ago, my extremely influential academic teacher and esteemed mentor, the late Helmut Heuer (1932-2011), asked me to drop by his office at the University of Dortmund, on short notice, when I happened to be in town. I had just received my first professorship in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) at Karlsruhe University of Education at that time, after about ten years of working as a high school teacher in Dortmund, one of Germany’s largest cities. Since he had left me completely in the dark why he wanted to see me, I thought he was simply going to wish me good luck, and provide me with some further valuable advice, as he had done so often in previous years.

When I arrived in his office two weeks later, he immediately drew my attention to a pile of three old cardboard file folders, presented in a rather ceremonious fashion on the tiny table where he used to invite students to sit with him during his office hours. I must admit that the three folders did not look particularly interesting to me. They were stuffed to their limits and covered with dust. One of them had almost fallen apart. When he urged me to open them, I recognized that they were filled with English as a Foreign Language (EFL) lesson transcripts, written on a typewriter, dating back to the early 1970s, with hand-written remarks scribbled here and there. The paper on which the approximately forty transcripts were written had turned yellow with age so that some parts were difficult to read.

“It may not be obvious, but this is a treasure trove for research on learning and teaching English as a foreign language,” I remember him saying to me in German, referring to the pile as the unpublished ‘Dortmund Corpus of Classroom English’. “I would very much like you to have it”, he continued, adding that “there might be a time when you wish to take a closer look at it”. In the following conversation, he gave me some very general information about this apparently dated collection of classroom data, emphasizing that all lessons had been conducted in comprehensive schools (i.e. in non-selective lower secondary schools for children of all backgrounds and abilities) in the federal (West-) German state of North Rhein-Westphalia between 1971 and 1974.

Since our meeting was crammed between two of his classes, we did not have sufficient time to talk about the origins and the genesis of the corpus material in all the necessary details. So I sincerely thanked him and took the material with me to Karlsruhe. Mainly, perhaps, because this was my first professorship and everything was excitingly new and challenging, I somehow lost sight of the folders, keeping them stashed away in a safe place in my office.

In March 2011, I was appointed Professor of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) at Justus-Liebig-University (JLU) Giessen. While thinking about ways to enhance evidence-based or data-driven research in the field of foreign/second language education in the widest sense, I came across Olaf Jäkel’s work at the University of Flensburg. As a linguist interested in how English as a Foreign Language is actually taught in classrooms in Germany nowadays, he had just published the Flensburg English Classroom Corpus (FLECC) (see also Jäkel 2010) which comprises a total of 39 transcripts of English lessons given by pre-service student teachers in primary and lower secondary schools in Northern Germany, most of them in parts of the federal German state of Schleswig-Holstein.

This reminded me of the ‘treasure trove’ I was still sitting on, the unpublished lesson transcripts Helmut Heuer had so generously passed on to me so many years ago. I contacted Olaf Jäkel on this and was pleased to hear his positive and encouraging feedback to my initial thoughts about creating a digital version of the old documents. We agreed that making this historical collection of classroom data available to the international research community in a computer-readable format, publishing it as downloadable open access material on the Internet as well as a print-on-demand corpus, would be of considerable interest and value to anyone interested in or involved in researching authentic foreign or second language classroom interaction and discourse world-wide, both from a diachronic and synchronic perspective. I am grateful to him for co-funding the digitization of the classroom data, and for his generous support with publishing the book online and in print.

Scanning the original corpus material and converting the images into more easily searchable text turned out to be no longer possible. So the entire corpus material (more than 400 pages) had to be retyped again manually.

Reconstructing the setting in which the initial ‘Dortmund Corpus of Classroom English’ was assembled turned out to be both fascinating and difficult. Based on evidence from a variety of sources, including personal correspondence with participants directly or indirectly involved in the project, it soon became clear that the corpus project was launched in turbulent times, i.e. in the context of the ubiquitous school and education reform controversy which had been raging in former West Germany since the mid-1960s. At the heart of the controversy lay the polarizing issue of what constitutes equality of opportunity and effectiveness in education. Fierce political battles and scholarly conflicts over the crucial need to restructure the school and education system of the time eventually led to a large-scale, funded experiment with comprehensive schools which has come to be known as the (West) German Gesamtschulversuch. The complex process of setting up and implementing the first experimental comprehensive schools was accompanied with extended research (Wissenschaftliche Begleitung). The pre-digital corpus project represents a remarkable example of such accompanying research.

There is a sizable body of literature available (in German) today documenting and examining the large-scale school experiment which began in 1968 and ended in 1982. However, much of the published material focuses on general issues related to the definition and interpretation of comprehensiveness in secondary school education, the general and specific structure, aims, and objectives of comprehensive schooling, the link between structural and curricular innovations and reforms, the development and implementation of adequate curricula and instructional designs, and the efficiency and effectiveness of the newly established comprehensive schools as compared with traditional German secondary schools. Comparably little has been published to date illustrating and examining how (subject matter-) learning was actually organized and promoted in those new experimental schools, as for instance in the EFL classroom.

The DOHCCE (Kurtz 2013) contains a total of 36 annotated transcripts of English as a Foreign Language lessons conducted in German comprehensive schools prior to the communicative turn. Currently in print, it will be available in fall, both as open access data on the Flensburg University server and as a book on demand, published by Flensburg University Press. More on this in a few weeks. Please stay tuned.

Jäkel, Olaf (2010). The Flensburg English Classroom Corpus (FLECC). Sammlung authentischer Unterrichtsgespräche aus dem aktuellen Englischunterricht auf verschiedenen Stufen an Grund-, Haupt-, Real- und Gesamtschulen Norddeutschlands. Flensburg: Flensburg University Press.

Call for Papers: 25th DGFF Conference, Session 7: Textbooks and Classroom Interaction

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

The 25th Biennial Conference of the German Association of Foreign Language Research (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Fremdsprachenforschung, DGFF) will be held at the University of Augsburg, Germany, September 25-28, 2013. The conference theme is: SPRACHENAUSBILDUNG – SPRACHEN BILDEN AUS – BILDUNG AUS SPRACHEN. The main thrust of the conference lies in looking both at the training side of language instruction ( “Ausbildung” = making people competent in languages for further study and jobs) and the idea that learning a new or additional language leads to self-formation (“Bildung” in German).

The conference program is now almost complete and available in English here. Session 7, chaired by Hermann Funk (University of Jena, Germany) and me, will be devoted to FL/SL textbook research, more specifically, to FL/SL textbook analysis, critique, and development, focusing in particular on the role of the textbook in orchestrating classroom interaction. This is our session abstract (in its English translation):

“If quantity and quality of classroom interaction are crucial factors for successful language teaching and learning, the factors surrounding and influencing classroom interaction, then, deserve our attention. In this regard, classroom management by the foreign language instructor is at the center of interest in today’s research. Textbooks, however, have not received much attention in recent classroom-oriented research in terms of analyzing their relevance for interaction. For this section, papers investigating the ways in which textbooks affect classroom interaction, both positively and negatively, are welcome. The following questions could be addressed:

• In what way does the textbook, with its numerous additional print and digital teaching resources, impact foreign language classroom interaction?
• In which ways can textbooks as a whole or particular additional teaching material be used to facilitate learning-centered classroom interaction? Which textbook-related competences (concerning lesson planning, instruction and reflective evaluation) should be taught and developed in academic teacher training?
• How do future textbooks need to be designed in order to be up-to-date with the current standards of foreign language teaching and modern technology? In addition to this, how can this design meet the conditions of learning-centered classroom interaction in the age of increasing linguistic and cultural diversity and the hybridity of language learners?
• Which qualitative, quantitative and mixed research methods can help systematically illuminate the complex relationship between what textbooks have to offer (in this case e.g. types and sequencing of tasks and exercises), the usage of textbooks in the classroom and the textbook-related classroom interaction?”

The call for papers is still open. For further details, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

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 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.

Improvisation and Creativity in EFL Classroom Discourse

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Today I finished reading From Corpus to Classroom. Language Use and Language Teaching (O’Keefe, McCarthy & Carter 2007). In my view, this is a well-written and in many ways thought-provoking book that provides a wide-ranging (largely introductory) overview of corpus-based research and its implications for foreign language learning and teaching. Since I am particularly interested in the role of improvisation and creativity in EFL classroom discourse (see Kurtz (2001) as well as the TEFLSPEAK-G series of posts on this blog), I found the following passage most interesting:

“There is a long way to go in understanding creativity in the spoken language and in exploring the applications to the classroom of such understandings, but the first steps have been taken in recognising that it has been generally underplayed within the language teaching classroom. It is something that we need to work on to bring the best out of us as learners, teachers and collaborators in the language classroom. It is a fundamental aspect of a more humanistic approach to language teaching. And it is the kind of evidence supplied by corpora of spoken language that enable these first steps to be taken.” (O’Keefe, McCarthy & Carter 2007: 197).

However, I did not find any references to research findings not published in English in this book. The more I read, the more I  became aware (once again) of the dominance of the English language in academic communication – which raises a number of fundamental questions (see, for instance, Gnutzmann 2006).


Gnutzmann, Claus (2006). Fighting or fostering the dominance of English in academic communication?” Fachsprache, 2006 (28), 195-207.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2001). Improvisierendes Sprechen im Fremdsprachenunterricht. Eine Untersuchung zur Entwicklung spontansprachlicher Handlungskompetenz in der Zielsprache. Tübingen: Narr.

O’Keefe, Anne; McCarthy, Michael & Carter, Ronald (2007). From Corpus to Classroom. Language Use and Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.