Tag Archives: classroom interaction

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The Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE) is a digitally reconstructed duplicate of a hitherto unpublished collection of classroom transcripts compiled by a small research team at the former Ruhr University of Education, Dortmund in the early 1970s.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.

Foreign Language Learning without the Foreign Language

posted by Engelbert Thaler, Freiburg University of Education, Germany

There used to be a time when English was actually spoken in the EFL classroom. The rationale behind this out-dated practice was to learn the language by using it. English language teachers did their best to make students use English as they regarded the development of students’ target language competence as the main goal of their profession. Things were bound to change, however. Scholars, teachers and administrators were no longer content with such a reduced raison d’ệtre.

In a first step they decided to enlarge the list of objectives students were supposed to attain. The four basic skills as well as the language domains of vocabulary, grammar and pragmatics simply were not sufficient. Much needed aid turned up in the form of the competence concept. Students should not focus on oral and written language use, but develop intercultural competence, method competence, inter-personal competence, intra-personal competence, media literacy and further indispensable assets.

In a second step the teacher’s role had to be redefined. The sage on the stage was replaced by the guide on the side, i.e. an EFL teacher was no longer a knower, language model, transmitter, corrector, linguist, expert, or giver (of information), but a counselor, facilitator, tutor, helper, learning manager, learner trainer, learner, and motivator.

The third step consisted of inventing alternative learning methods and approaches which allowed for ample use of the students’ native language. Innovative concepts like Freiarbeit (free work), Stationenlernen (learning at stations, carousel approach), project work, Wochenplan (weekly plan), drama approach, kinesthetic techniques, learning in motion, Community Language Learning, to name but a few, cater for manifold needs, among which the need to speak the target language may not rank highest. In particular, group work proved to be of utmost value, as it guarantees the immediate retreat into the mother tongue, with group members joyously chatting in German on private experiences they had the day before.

The triumph of pedagogy over language still needed support in academic discourse and school administration. That is why TEFL conferences abound with avant-garde scholars presenting high-flown projects which do not work in actual classroom situations; ambitious authors contribute to TEFL journals praising new methods and procedures which they have not tried out in class; young teachers are rewarded by their headmasters for projects which aim at everything but language development; teacher trainers and scholars are jumping on the language-free bandwagon leaving behind all those antiquated Sprachmeister associations.

In the post-language era the ultimate aim of foreign language teaching is the creation of an all-competent personality … who speaks German. May they live happily hereafter.

For Learners, the Mother Tongue is the Mother of all Languages

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

The mother tongue (MT) taboo – still the didactical correctness in many countries of the world –  is a patent absurdity.  There are practices bordering on the bizarre, which have been repeatedly reported in the literature. Personally, I have heaps of anecdotal evidence to support my claim. Here are just a few episodes taken from retrospective self-reports collected over many years from German university students of English who wrote about themselves as pupils and language learners:


  •  I really hated the fact that the teacher we had in grades 7-9 refused to explain English words we didn’t know in German. She just wrote the word up on the board, but only a few pupils understood her English explanations. Even when we asked her nicely if she could give us the German equivalent she became angry. But I’d better stop talking about her, as it makes me angry. Sonja
  • He very often demanded silence with the word (as I grasped it): [pikwait]. To me this was one word and I was absolutely proud when some day I recognized the words “be” and „quiet”, although I had already sensed before what he meant. Only then could I correct the pronunciation in my mind because I had identified the isolated words. Vanessa 
  • Mrs. [...] tried to explain the meaning of “tall” and “small” to us, by having a little girl standing next to a huge boy. We all had no clue what she wanted from us. She repeated “Henrik is taller than Carina. And Carina is smaller than Henrik.” In addition to this she waved about with her hands. These actions confused us even more. Corinna 
  • When someone dared to ask for an equivalent, he/she was reprimanded for not paying attention. He strictly rejected the use of the mother tongue, we were forbidden to use it; if we did, we had to do some extra homework. There  never was a relaxed atmosphere in his classroom. Nicole 
  • He tried to teach us by means of the direct method. I say he only “tried to” because it did not work. This became obvious whenever he tried to explain new words, especially adjectives which described emotions or someone’s character. As certain emotions are difficult to describe, we often had only a slight hint of what he could mean and still could not grasp the real meaning of the word. Bettina
  • He practised the direct method in an orthodox form. That meant from the very beginning our mother tongue was excluded […]. We did not have the possibility of talking about real interests, but about those things we had learned before. We did not ask real questions to get real answers, we just imitated the phrases we learnt from the teacher or from the textbook. Dagmar

This is madness. And it’s scandalous. Robert L. Allen once wrote: “I discovered that even though dragging an elephant into the classroom would undoubtedly make the lesson more lively, the students would still associate the word elephant with their own name for the animal.” 


But the use of the mother tongue doesn’t stop here. All too often its role is restricted to meaning-conveyance. It should also be used to make foreign language constructions transparent. The technique of “mirroring” (as I prefer to call it) is a great way of making grammar learning fast and simple. See






We must be ready to fight a war on two fronts: against the teacher who conveniently lapses into the MT, which he shares with his pupils, simply because he is not fluent and flexible enough in the language he teaches; and against the native speaker with little or no command of his pupils’ MT.  Both groups of teachers are unlikely to know effective well-crafted bilingual techniques.


If we set things right here, millions of language learners will be positively affected.


TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (10)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

As described in the preceding posts, task-based improvisational enactments consist of scripted and unscripted communicative sequences: a) an opening part which functions as a scripted lead-in intended to ‘break the ice’ and to reduce speaking inhibitions, b) an unscripted middle part leaving enough space for a wide range of spontaneous ideas and interpretations, topics and improvised peer-to-peer exchanges, and c) a scripted final-part with which the improvised dialogue can be brought to an end once the participants feel that they cannot or do not want to go any further (in order to avoid embarrassment and speaking anxiety resulting from possible communicative breakdowns; this is the so-called ‘communicative emergency exit’ which is usually missing in traditional role-plays and simulations).

Each enactment is followed by teacher-guided or teacher-supported whole-class reflection. Here, the focus is not primarily on communicative problems and linguistic deficits, but on communicative success and on expanding the learners’ participatory repertoire in the target language. Explicit error correction is, of course, not neglected, but it is integrated in a way that is not threatening to the learners’ willingness to speak English. This then serves as a basis for subsequent enactments becoming increasingly more elaborate and flexible in terms of spontaneous target language use, as a number of classroom studies and scientific publications show (see, for instance, Kurtz 2001; Siebold 2004a (with DVD-/ROM video sequences), 2004b, 2006; Rossa 2007). From the teacher’s perspective, parts a) and c), i.e. the scripted communicative frame, can be and should be prepared in advance, whereas part b), the improvisational part in the middle, is unpredictable and emerges on the spot in the classroom. It is this part which requires teachers to distance themselves from what Sawyer has appositely referred to as educational “script-think” (2001: 36).

In this way, improvisation tasks seek to bring together two basic facets of authentic, natural, everyday communication in the EFL classroom: a) the predictability of socio-communicative scripts and behavioral patterns (unwritten scripts, socio-functional routines or event schemata) and b), the unpredictability of spontaneous ideas and topical shifts within a given socio-communicative framework.

All in all, improvisations are designed to bridge the (in some respects) artificial gap between acquisition and learning, direct and indirect, implicit and explicit foreign language instruction in secondary school EFL environments by providing a situated communicative infrastructure for classroom talk-in-interaction that is flexible enough to allow for systematic teacher-led instruction, mediation or support (scaffolding) as well as for more self-regulated, student-centered discovery learning, experimental target language use and, ultimately, the gradual emergence of communicative competence and performance in action-oriented, meaningful and challenging scenarios (see my previous post on Handlungsorientierung, i.e. on action-based / action-oriented foreign language learning and teaching on this blog).

For further illustration, here is another transcript of an improvisational enactment (9th grade learners of English at a secondary comprehensive school in Germany). Learners are sitting in a circle. (T = teacher; L = learner).

T: Ok, let me throw the dice now. Oops, that was an accident .. em .. I can’t see it from here. It’s behind that chair now. Yvonne .. Can you help? Can you see it?
L13: Yes .. em .. it’s fifteen.
T: Right .. thank you .. Who has got fifteen? Mario? Good .. Let’s give Mario a nice round of applause… Come on everybody… Clap your hands! … Applause … Yvonne, why don’t you throw the dice now?
L13: Me? Do I really have to, Herr Schneider?
T: Where’s the problem? Come on … go ahead.
L13: OK. Six.
T: Who has got six? Dennis? Fine, now we can begin.
Ls: … Applause
T: Oh yes. Sorry … right .. let’s .. em… let’s clap our hands for Dennis and .. em .. Mario. Mario and Dennis … Are you ready? .. OK, quiet please … go ahead.
L6: Em … Just a moment please. We must find out who begins first. .. 15 seconds. We are ready .. we meet us in a youth club, OK?
T: OK you two .. so you’re in a youth club now … go ahead. And the others .. listen please!

Scripted part of the exchange, the lead-in (on OHT):
L15: “Hi [Dennis]!”
L6: “[Mario!] What a surprise! I didn’t expect to see you here today.”
L15: “Well, after last night I just had to come.”
L6: “Why?”

Unscripted, improvised, spontaneously created, and as such unpredictable part of the exchange:
L15: Well I don’t know .. em .. how I can tell you this .. em .. Meike was in the ‘Sound Garden’ (a local disco) yesterday.
L6: Meike?
L15: Yes, Meike .. you remember? Your girl-friend.
L6: Em .. But I don’t have a girl-friend.
L15: Never mind, now you have one and her name is Meike.
L6: OK OK .. 5 seconds.. Meike .. em .. my new girl-friend. .. 10 seconds… alone. Em … Was she alone in the ‘Sound Garden’?
L15: At first.
L6: And later?
L15: Later she wasn’t alone. (Outburst of laughter in class).
L6: Yes … I understand .. em .. but what did you saw? What was she doing? Tell me.
L15: Em .. well .. em .. I saw her .. em .. with Christian .. em .. and he kissed her.
L6: HE? (pointing at the ‘real’ Christian in the classroom)
L15: Yes … he.
L6: So YOU kiss MY girl-friend? (addressing Christian to include him in the improvisation)
L3: No, it wasn’t me, wirklich nicht [German] (honestly).

Scripted / ‘emergency’ exit (on OHT):
L15: “Well .. I can see you want to be left alone. I think I better go now.”
L6: “OK .. thanks for letting me know.”
L15: “See you then .. [take care].”
L6: “Bye.”
Ls: …. Applause

Follow-up / classroom discussion:
T: Now before we listen to Mario and Dennis again… before we listen .. em .. to the cassette .. let me first ask you what you think about their .. em .. conversation .. 3 seconds .. Let’s collect … yes … let’s collect your first impressions .. 10 seconds .. Yes, Simone?
L1: I think it was very funny.
T: Oh really? Can you say why?
L1: Because Dennis play so cool .. em .. when he was angry about Christian .. em .. after Christian have kissed his girl-friend Meike.
T: Mmh .. OK.. what about the others? What do YOU think of the conversation?
L13: Dennis was good but Mario not.
T: Mario wasn’t? Why not?
L13: Because Mario is the best friend of Dennis .. em .. so he .. em .. I think he… em .. he must not tell Dennis about Christian and Meike.
T: You mean he shouldn’t have told him?
L13: Yes .. it’s not fair. He is not a reporter.
Ls: … mumbling …
T: OK .. calm down please. We can’t go on if you all speak at the same time. Isabell .. you wanted to say something?
L7: Hey, hör doch mal auf [German] (stop that) Tim. I want to say something!
T: Tim! Come on! Stop teasing her!
L7: I think Mario and Dennis are good friends .. and good friends have no .. äh .. Geheimnisse [German]?
T: Secrets. (writes it on the board).
L7: Yes .. and Mario wouldn’t be .. ehrlich [German]?
T: Honest.
L7: Mario… he .. he wouldn’t be .. What was the word?
T: Honest. (writes it on the board)
L7: He wouldn’t be honest if he doesn’t tell his best friend.
T: So you think that friends should always be honest to each other?
L7: Yes.
T: Mmh .. in Isa’s opinion honesty … Ehrlichkeit .. honesty (writes it on the board) is very important .. you should always be honest to your friends .. do you all agree? .. No? … 3 seconds … Who doesn’t?

This was followed by a brief ‘focus on form‘-sequence which culminated in a contextualized target language exercise, based on L7: He wouldn’t be honest if he doesn’t tell his best friend. After that, a new improvisation sequence was initiated.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2001). Improvisierendes Sprechen im Fremdsprachenunterricht. Tübingen: Narr.

Rossa, Henning (2007). Improvisationen als interaktive Lernarrangements: Anwendung eines Konzepts zur Förderung spontansprachlicher Handlungskompetenz in der Zielsprache Englisch dargestellt auf der Grundlage eigener Unterrichtserfahrungen in einem Grundkurs der Jahrgangsstufe 11 des Gymnasiums. (2. Staatsarbeit). Available online, click to read here

Sawyer, R. Keith (2001). Creating Conversations. Improvisation in Everyday Discourse. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2001.

Siebold, Jörg (Hrsg.) (2004a). Let’s Talk: Lehrtechniken. Vom gebundenen zum freien Sprechen. Berlin: Cornelsen. [mit DVD-Videodokumentation].

Siebold, Jörg (2004b), “Interaktion und Sprachproduktion in improvisierten Schülergesprächen.” In: Deringer, Ludwig (Hrsg.). Innovative Fremdsprachendidaktik. Kolloquium zu Ehren von Wolfgang Butzkamm. Aachen British and American Studies. Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 149-166.

Siebold, Jörg (2006), “Unter der Lupe: Improvisierte Gespräche in einer 6. Realschulklasse.” In: Praxis Fremdsprachenunterricht, 4, 27-32.

More to come. Stay tuned.

Philip Zimbardo’s “The Lucifer Effect” – How to Resist Questionable External Influences in Everyday Foreign Language Classroom Practice

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlruhe University of Education, Germany

Social psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo is perhaps best known for his “Stanford Prison Experiment”, a world-renowned simulation study of the psychological and behavioral effects of imprisonment carried out in 1971. The study had to be terminated after only a few days because the situation in the basement of Stanford’s psychology building created inhumane and unacceptable dynamics between the male college students who participated voluntarily as either guards or prisoners. As is well known, the experiment showed that students participating as guards became increasingly authoritarian, cruel and sadistic, while their ‘prisoners’ became increasingly depressed and rebellious, showing signs of extreme stress. In The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo (2008) attempts to unearth “how good people turn evil” by coupling a detailed review of the “Stanford Prison Experiment” with a rigorous analysis of the real-world situational dynamics and the appalling, inexcusable behavior of some of the American soldiers and military police officers that became apparent in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq a few years ago. Zimbardo argues convincingly that the destructive or ‘evil’ instances or patterns of behavior surfacing in Abu Ghraib were to a large degree predictable, and, more generally and rather worrying, that certain social settings and situations are likely to influence and transform normal, everyday people in ways that are detrimental, or as was the case in the Abu Ghraib prison, even scandalous and barbarous.

In my view, this book is a ‘must-read’, especially (though, of course, not only) for educators, school administrators and education policy makers, because it provides readers with a number of eye-opening insights into the origins, dynamics and sometimes extremely negative and occasionally even fatal consequences of human behavior in complex social settings and situations, especially in high-pressure contexts. As Zimbardo (2008: 445) points out, “[...] human behavior is always subject to situational forces. This context is embedded within a larger, macroscopic one, often a particular power system that is designed to maintain and sustain itself.” In order to fully understand how and why people behave and act the way they do in a certain (institutional) context, it is therefore essential to view not just the individual person, but the specific situation and the power system in the background, as these factors determine behavior in a number of often subtle ways as well (see also Kurt Lewin’s field theory).

How does this relate to foreign language education in the 21st century? It would be absurd, of course, to compare classrooms with prisons, teachers with prison guards, and learners with ‘inmates’, etc. But does this mean that what teachers do to foster foreign language learning is not subject to situational forces, and not influenced by the political / administrative system of the day? And should we not keep in mind that particularly from the point of view of the pupils, there is by definition an asymmetrical distribution of power in any classroom setting?

Research on foreign language teaching and learning has been dominated by psycholinguistic paradigms for many years, focusing primarily on the cognitive processes involved in target language instruction, but the foreign language classroom is much more than just a ‘society of individual minds’ (see Minsky 1986). It is an institutionally organized social microcosm which is also embedded in a larger setting – in a macrocosm of the socio-political, socio-economic and educational ‘systems’. This ‘mega-system’ is extremely powerful, and in recent years has wielded a massive influence on individual teachers that increasingly (at least partially) runs counter to the promotion of Bildung and Erziehung in foreign language classrooms, i.e. to academic and personal development in a holistic sense. Teaching to the test is just one example (for a more detailed discussion see my personal view on foreign language education in Germany today on this blog).

Zimbardo’s most recent book which deals with contexts and aspects of human behavior that are definitely not comparable to foreign language classroom settings is nevertheless thought-provoking. He encourages readers to think about “how to resist influences that we neither want nor need but that rain upon us daily.” (2008: 446). “Learning to resist unwanted influences” (2008: 446) is probably a recommendation too vigorous with regard to foreign language education, but teachers need to be aware of the influences exerted by the ‘mega-system’. They should distinguish carefully between what is based on research and what is predominantly politically and/or economically motivated by influential stake-holders and specific interest groups, and then rather base their foreign language instruction on scientific facts and expertise.

Minsky, Marvin (1986). The Society of Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Zimbardo, Philip G. (2008). The Lucifer Effect. Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House.