Hugh Dellar is one of those figures in ELT whose views are often controversial. For example, his belief that ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) is a phantasmagoria or his famous clashes with Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings over Dogme. One thing you can say about Hugh is that, whether you agree with him or not, he never ceases to be interesting and quotable, and that is why I attended the session in Łódź which featured him being grilled on a range of ELT issues.
Below I’ve written a summary of the questions which Hugh faced and the responses he gave. In order to make it more readable and avoid excessive and boring reported speech (he said, he claimed, he reiterated, he denied..) I’ve written his responses as first person snippets but <DISCLAIMER!> this is not what HD said verbatim, just my fragmentary synopsis of it, according to my notes.
1. Why did you become an English language teacher?
By accident. An ex-band member talked me into the idea that teaching could be combined with travelling. I hated the idea of teaching. In fact, that’s a good reason for becoming a teacher: teaching as a form of revenge.
When taking the CELTA, I realised this was the only thing I’ve done that allows me to be me. In other jobs, you’re required to reduce yourself down to the job, but teaching was different. It allowed me to create my own world in the classroom.
2. How do you engage in Professional Development as a teacher/trainer?
It’s a bit like learning a language, after an early surge the improvements you get are more gradual. After finishing the CELTA and DELTA, the assumption is you’re a finished product. I had to learn to overturn the straightjacket of CELTA and move beyond it.
In terms of keeping up with developments, I come to conferences, read journals and books on the theory behind teaching and learning.
3. What is your opinion of ELF (English as a Lingua Franca).
ELF doesn’t exist. What is it? It’s a reductio ad absurdum. It involves reducing language down to an insane core which means you get to the point of removing potentially everything because somebody else out there may not know it. I regard ELF as patronising. I keep asking myself the question: what do the ELF people actually want from us? Has Jennifer Jenkins ever taught a pronunciation class?
To me, the fear surrounding ELF is a fear of teaching itself. A fear of teaching the elements of language that students need or want to know. I think it does more harm than good.
4. Where do you lie on the Grammar vs Lexis spectrum?
We should try to move away from grammar teaching to teaching lexically. I’ve had Indonesian students who were terrified of talking because of their fears about accuracy and getting the grammar wrong. Many of the course books (e.g English File) have a structural approach. They’re not focused on natural language or lexical chunks. The idea is that learning a language is about learning grammar plus words. The other problem (again, with course books like English File) is that they’re tied to Sequence: let’s spend X hours on the Present Simple and then we’ll spend another X hours on the Past Simple. You shall not be allowed to encounter the past tense until you’ve covered the present tense!
Basically, grammar should be taught lexically. (Note: Hugh also gave a plenary speech on this very subject).
5. How do you handle students whose approach to language learning is at variance with yours?
You have to let them know that there’s a difference between what they want and what they need. Most learners have no idea what they need to do in order to become more proficient. We need to stress that we’re the language professionals, we’re the experts.
A good thing teachers can do is to train students how to think better about language, about language learning, and to move them away from the idea that language learning is mostly about doing grammar exercises.
6. What is your attitude towards Dogme?
Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings don’t spend long hours in classrooms. They don’t teach 30 hours a week. Course books are still necessary – the point is they need to be better. I can agree with Dogme if it’s about the idea of getting teachers to be less reliant on having an enormous bank of supplementary materials for each lesson, as their skill and confidence as teachers increases.
But Dogme as propagated is based on a series of lies, for example, that it’s more student-centred. In Dogme you can have the teacher walking into a class and saying: ‘Who wants to talk about X’? But it’s the teacher who often supplies the prompt for discussion. It’s the teacher who often brings in a youtube video based on their personal interests or their own tastes in music.
The problem with Dogme is that it’s based on asking learners the question: What do you need now? This is mistaken. Students always need much more than what they have (or want) at any random moment. What about the 3000 word list, etc. How do you approach that using Dogme?
I think Dogme appeals to young revolutionaries or teaching radicals, the sort of people who in previous eras would go round wearing Che Guevara t-shirts. I’d be willing to bet that not a single Dogme teacher is working in the Polish state system. The materials-free approach just doesn’t work in normal teaching contexts.
7. What’s the worst class you’ve ever had?
I remember teaching what was ‘English for Housewives’ to a bunch of Imelda Marcos clones. One of them offered me money as a gift, which I had to refuse. Another offered me a night at the Hilton hotel. Again, I had to refuse on principle and this caused offence.
The worst students were four guys from Fujian province in China (note: they were learning in the UK). They were illegal immigrants who spoke no English. They were working in a variety of other jobs to earn money and were so knackered in class that all they would do is sleep. I tried everything but nothing got through to them.
8. What is your advice on Teacher Training?
I’d encourage teachers to become trainers and presenters. If you can teach then you can present as well. The value of training is that it makes you more reflective as a teacher. You have to really break things down and ask why am I saying this or recommending that?
The best trainers should always retain one foot in the classroom (Note: Hugh teaches students of various levels at the University of Westminster). It’s important to avoid the trap of moving away from the classroom altogether.
9. What about using technology in the classroom?
We should remember that Teacher-Student interaction is the heart of teaching. I need to be persuaded as to why a given piece of tech, or a mobile app, needs to be used in the classroom. In my school we took the decision to ban mobiles.