Where’s your evidence?
Monday 11 May 2009
“Where’s your research evidence?” The question comes up periodically (and it came up last night in a discussion on Dogme at Dennis Newson’s villa in Second Life). That is to say, is there any evidence that a Dogme approach does what it claims to do?
It’s a fair question, and any pedagogical innovation should be able to answer its critics with credible evidence. (Of course, there are always critics who will dismiss any research evidence, if they’ve got a mind to, but that – as they say – is their problem).
What kind of evidence would be needed, then? In the past, method analysts used test data to compare the effectiveness of different methods. But test scores are inconclusive, as it’s difficult to control for all the variables that might have affected the outcome. As Richards (1990) observed, “studies of the effectiveness of specific methods have had a hard time demonstrating that the method itself, rather than other factors, such as the teacher’s enthusiasm, or the novelty of the new method, was the crucial variable” (p. 36).
Nowadays researchers prefer to observe actual classes, using different kinds of instruments to capture evidence of the behaviours that are likely to influence learning, such as interaction, feedback, or “language related episodes” – i.e. moments during a communicative activity where learners pay explicit attention to a feature of the language. Many of the arguments supporting task-based learning (TBL), for example, are based on these kinds of findings. And since a Dogme approach shares affinities with TBL, these findings would seem to be relevant.
It’s been found, for example, that when learners are engaged in communicative tasks they tend to interact, negotiate, produce output, scaffold one another’s utterances, demonstrate fluency, and so on (Skehan 1998; Edwards and Willis, 2005). Likewise, studies of classrooms (not just language classrooms) where the interaction is modelled more closely on naturally-occurring conversation (another Dogme principle) suggests that conversation also embeds similar kinds of interactional adjustments (Ernst, 1994; Nakahama, et al. 2001; Bannink 2002). More than in classrooms which are not task- or conversation-based? Well, again, it’s difficult to compare across classes. But there’s been quite a lot of research to suggest that certain kinds of tasks do promote these behaviours more than others (e.g. Bygate, et al. 2001; Ellis, 2003).
So what? How do we know that conversational interaction, meaning negotiation, output, scaffolding, fluency, and so on, are good for you? This is where a certain leap of faith is required. We still don’t know what are the optimal conditions for language learning. But I take heart from Rod Ellis’s statement (in his monumental Study of Second Language Acquisition, 1994) to the effect that “it is not yet clear which kind of instruction works best but there is evidence to suggest that focusing learners’ attention on forms, and the meaning they realize in the context of communicative activities, results in successful language learning.” That is to say, where ‘language-related episodes’ are embedded within a communicative process, successful language learning results. This is an approach that is central to Dogme methodology.
So far, we haven’t mentioned affective factors, such as motivation. Research into learners’ attitudes suggests that learners are more motivated if content is personalised (Dörnyei and Csizér, 1999), another basic Dogme tenet. Again, you then need to show that motivation positively affects learning, but this is virtually a given.
An area, though, that is under-researched, but would be of crucial interest to a Dogme teacher, is whether there is any correlation between low materials use and the kinds of behaviours I have mentioned (interaction, meaning negotiation, personalisation, etc). Again, it would not be easy to set up a study in which all other possible variables were controlled. This is where an ethnographic study, based on learner diaries and interviews, alongside classroom observation and interaction analysis, might be more feasible, and at least provide some rich data on learners’ attitudes. It would be reassuring if learners were able to confirm our own intuitions that Dogme, if not more effective, is more engaging, more memorable, more motivating – more fun!
Bannink, A. (2002) Negotiating the paradoxes of spontaneous talk in advanced L2 classes. In Kramsch, C. (ed.) Language acquisition and language socialization. London: Continuum.
Bygate, M., Skehan, P and Swain, M. (eds.) (2001) Researching Pedagogic Tasks: Second Language Learning, Teaching and Testing. Harlow: Pearson.
Dörnyei, Z., and Csizér, K. (1999) Ten commandments for motivating language learners: results of an empirical study. Language Teaching Research.
Edwards, C., and Wills, J., (2005) Teachers Exploring Tasks in English Language Teaching. Palgrave Macmillan.
Ellis, R. (1994) The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ellis, R. (2003) Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ernst, G. (1994) “Talking Circle”: Conversation and negotiation in the ESL Classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 28, 293-322
Nakahama, Y., Tyler, A. and van Lier, L. (2001). Negotiation of meaning in conversational and informational gap activities: A comparative discourse analysis. TESOL Quarterly, 35, 377-406.
Richards, J. (1990). ‘Beyond Methods’. In The Language Teaching Matrix. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Skehan, P. (1998) A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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