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Lesson 11 – Exams and Phrasal Verbs

December 19, 2011

Today I was covering an FCE class of 5 intermediate level learners. Being unfamiliar with the group, I had prepared a fair bit of material. I didn’t use any of it.

Unthinkable until recently, my trips to the recycling bin at the end of my classes are become increasingly burdensome, to the point that I’m throwing out more paper than I’m printing out in the first place. Where does it all come from? The answer is obvious: the universe is conspiring against prepared gap fills and matching cards and planting extra in my classroom in order to hammer home the point.

The class started with checking of homework. The regular teacher had set a series of gap fill/matching exercises from the book on phrasal verbs containing the verb come, eg come about, come up, come round. Needless to say there had been problems all round and the predictable mural of blank faces persisted even after everything had been checked.

What does it take to know a word? What does knowing a word actually mean? What is the meaning of come when it is found delexicalised like this? How many matching exercises does it take for a learner to be able to not only recognise a phrasal verb but also use it convincingly and appropriately?

Exam coursebooks cram so much into their pages, you’d think customers are being charged ‘by the exercise’. There seems to be the prevailing view that because an exam is a serious affair, learning must be equally solemn.

In FCE, as in IELTS, speaking components require candidates to ‘interact’ with the examiner or other candidate and they have a very short window in which to demonstrate their competence.

This demands an ability to perform communicatively under pressure. More challenging than General English, you could say. It follows that an emphasis on spoken fluency is just as important in exam preparation as any other kind of class if candidates are to appear genuinely convincing and avoid struggling awkwardly through reems of specially learnt language in a bid to impress the examiner.

However, the huge amount of structural input in exam coursebooks would suggest the opposite to be true.

Consequently, an overemphasis on the type of discrete item exercise mentioned above can be disabling to the student if the teacher doesn’t go to some lengths to help them internalize the language. Why? Because the language in such exercises is abstract – without any meaningful context. In this bleak existence, language input does not become intake – it simply doesn’t get learnt by any useful measure.

Coursebooks often plant ‘new’ language within a written or spoken text, to be processed at the beginning of the unit. Fine, except how often do coursebook texts really interest your students?

I deeply dislike coursebook texts, even in the better books. I sympathise with the writers. It’s an impossible job – producing texts that will appeal to learners in all corners of the world. Despite their best efforts, in the act of compromise the results are bland and generic at best, a large scale imposition of western political hegemony or ‘regimes of truth’ (Gore 1993) at worst.

But to return to the topic, if students are to really get a grip on challenging new language such as this, we need to abandon the coursebook and provide extensive opportunities for personalisation. They need to work with real language, self-produced, and to internalize it gradually by an extended process of trial and error, with the teacher on hand to point out the limits of what’s possible, as well as what’s not. Only then will learners begin to own the language.

And therein lies the power of Dogme. You don’t have to be a ‘Dogme teacher’ to work in this way, of course. Anthony Gaughan said something to the effect of: ‘this is not about Dogme teaching, but good teaching.’ But what I have found in my experiments with Dogme is that it orientates the teacher towards entering the classroom well prepared to, perhaps with the sole intention of, helping learners with what they need here-and-now, not whatever comes next in the book or whatever you happen to have prepared that day. And insodoing, you are really teaching.

Intermediate EFC class
5 learners
3 hours

1. Learners check their homework together in groups (matching phrasal verbs to their definitions etc, it’s their first exposure to this language, they are lost). Checking and troubleshooting takes about 20 minutes. It’s at this stage I know I have to abandon my lesson plan. If I don’t address this need, learning will not progress logically.

2. It’s early days. Learners need to experiment with the language and explore what’s possible. The class split in two and write gap fill exercises for each other. Rules: groups write full, contextualised sentences first for each phrasal verb, ask me to check and sign off on them, then remove the phrasal verbs and write the gap fill for the other group. This takes a long time, but it’s gold. By discussing possibilities for the language together, moderated by me, they are at the first stages of exploring and internalising it.

3. Swap sheets and complete the other group’s exercises. Discuss. Here they are:


4. I ask the group: “do you feel more confident with the language now?” Predictable reply: “a bit.” “So then, what’s next? Imagine you’re the teacher, what do you give your students next to learn these phrasal verbs?” They’re taken aback by my question, they’ve never been consulted on their own learning process before. The group think and decide they want to start using the language in speaking. I agree. “Do you ever have discussions in class, maybe based on discussion questions?” “Yes, very often.” “Ok, so work together and write your own discussion questions using this language.” They work through, writing questions. I step in from time to time to correct and scaffold, but also making sure that their questions will be conducive to a good milling activity. Here’s what they came up with:


5. After the break I drilled the questions, got everyone standing up, milling and discussing their questions. (I remind them what we are practising and encourage them to use the phrasal verbs in their answers and ensuing discussions.) Some wonderful stories come out, and I take notes in the background.

6. Learners report back on interesting stories they heard. Delayed error correction at the board of language from the discussion.

7. I ask again how well they feel they’ve learnt the language. They’re much more confident now but naturally still not quite there yet. I repeat the question on what’s next in the learning process. They respond that they need freer practice, something creative.

8. I hand out blank cards to groups and ask them to write one of the phrasal verbs on each card. “Now, you’re going to make stories using the language. Arrange the cards however you like to make a story and prepare to tell it to the other group. Be as creative as you like, and try not to write anything down.” (This activity is based on Scott’s Terrible Life from Lewis 1997.)

The groups make their stories surprisingly quickly. “It’s a bit abstract,” one student warns me. Tables swap their stories, which are wonderful and creative. This is a spoken activity and there are mistakes, but what is apparent is how freely learners are using the target language.

Homework is to write another story with the same language and email it to me.


A long time was spent on each of these activities. Looking back, it may all seem quite light for a 3-hour class. What’s important to note is that, at all points in the process, students were discussing and experimenting with language. It’s important to slow down, resist the temptation to always be teaching. Learners need the time to work things out for themselves.

Dogme places a large burden on the teacher and is not easy to do. Being able to fashion meaningful lessons ‘from nothing’ that respond to emerging needs and develop alongside them, is without doubt the biggest challenge facing a teacher wishing to experiment with the approach.

One problem I faced in this lesson was that I didn’t really get to grips with ‘come about‘. I couldn’t really tell learners how best to use this language and you probably noticed that their ‘come about‘ phrases in the exercises above are slightly unnatural. Does an earthquake come about? Perhaps very colloquially, but I wasn’t happy with it. I don’t know how many years it will take for me to be able to effectively deal with anything that may come up. That’s a challenge for the long term and with teaching unplugged – you don’t know what’s going to come up.

But of course the lessons are not ‘from nothing’. They are drawn from everything you’ve ever done in the classroom, your accumulated experience, your reading and your own language learning. Something that has helped me greatly in the process has been keeping a log of useful activities for working with language. I take it with me into lessons sometimes and refer to it if I’m stuck for the best way to develop the lesson.

If a teacher nurtures these aspects of their own development, teaching unplugged should be well within their grasp.


Gore, J. 1993. The struggle for pedagogies: critical and feminist discourses as regimes of truth. London: Routledge.

Lewis, M. 1997. Implementing the lexical approach. Heinle.

  1. Good food for thought! I’m very much into the dogme approach and have had a few powerful class sessions with it (nd also some chaotic failures, but you learn from your mistakes). I might just pinch this great idea from you to try in one of my classes! Thanks for posting such a detailed log of your experience!

    • Hi Christina, thanks for commenting. For every successful lesson that I post about, there is another that really doesn’t take off! The ones that work are usually due to the bravery and initiative of students to take control of the lesson themselves, and the more familiar my they become with this approach the easier they become to work with. It’s much more challenging to pull this off with less motivated groups, and I agree with you that we learn more from the ‘failures’!

  2. Anthony Gaughan permalink

    I love this lesson, especially what you cautiously call its “lightness”. The weight in a lesson should not be in its material content, but in the sweat that it generates: learner workrate. This lesson appears to have had that in spades.

    I wish I could have had the privilege of watching it. It sounds like real teaching to me.

    Re. “come about”, I’d’ve been tempted to cut it from the lesson. Call me a wimp, but if I can’t make sense of it, and if I don’t have access to resources (such as a dictionary) which may give me a hint of appropriate use (such as the frame “It came about that…”), I’d ditch it on the arrogant grounds that if I’m not familiar enough with it to make sense of it, it can’t be all that high frequency and can therefore wait at least a week!

    Sorry I get over here to comment less often than I would like, and certainly less often than I am tempted to.

    • Thanks Anthony. ‘Learner workrate’… I like it.

      When I think back to my training courses and how I (everyone) had to cram so many stages into a 40/60 min lesson, it seems to run so counter to how I teach now.

      As a trainer, I wonder how you deal with the time factor. To nurture ‘real teaching’ in trainees, you need a framework that allows for considerable flexibility within a 40 min lesson. Do you seen ‘time’ as a limiting factor in unplugged teaching?



  3. Great detailed reflection, Oli. Come about has given me problems in the past, too! Maybe I’d have done what Anthony suggested and to tell them we’d do that one in the next lesson. And critics still believe dogme is winging it? I personally have no qualms admitting that I am not sure about something, but I know there are others who think teachers should be able to answer all student’s queries on the fly… I’m no walking Internet… 😉

    • Thanks for your comments Chiew. I appreciate the comments about saving it till the next lesson, however one of the things about Dogme is that you have the scope to really explore language in a lesson – the teacher is also a learner – and I’d expected to get a grip on ‘come about’ by the end of this one. Didn’t happen though! 🙂

  4. Great write up Oli. This has been sitting in my inbox for a while now and I’m glad I finally got to it. I would agree with Anthony, reference the lightness of the lesson. It sounds like the students got more from this lesson than they would if they had stuck to the book.
    It’s interesting you did this with an exam class. I have a CAE class and I’m always worried about leaving the book, worried that if i don’t cover certain things in the book then that might be the reason for those students failing the course. Yet, If I could I would probably never use the coursebook for certain higher level groups, where I know they can facilitate their own learning and be willing to generate their own material.

    • Thanks Adam. I know what you mean.. I think it’s a question of balance, as ever. I don’t teach regular exam courses. If I did, I also wonder just how much I would feel comfortable leaving the book. What’s for sure is that by opening up a pedagogical dialogue with the students you are creating space for yourself to experiment. They’ll never resent you for trying something out if it’s been co-constructed by everyone in the room.

  5. I liked your lesson which is clearly not “winging”, but an example of good teaching, call it Dogme or not. While I still haven’t been won over by Dogme – actually posted two critical comments on other blogs today – I see the benefit of making students reflect on their learning process and write their own questions which I will certainly should and will do of more with my students. Thank you for your reflection and ideas.
    Re Anthony’s comment re ditching “come about” – why not ask students to look it up in the dictionary themselves? That’s what I’d do when I can’t think of appropriate examples. Or is consulting a dictionary a no-no in the Dogme tradition since it’s printed material? 🙂

    • Hi Leo. Thanks for your ideas and I appreciate the feedback. There’s no proscription of dictionaries in Dogme as far as I know! 🙂

      I can’t remember exactly why I didn’t go to dictionaries at that point. It may have been a sensible thing to do in hindsight, perhaps more for my benefit than for theirs!

      The issue I think was that they’d already done a definition-matching exercise and gap fills etc for homework, and it hadn’t got them very far. As a learner myself I know that I have an extremely hard time with definitions and that may lead to my avoiding them in class. I think I was really aiming for that ‘lightness’, but perhaps took it too far! 🙂

      Incidentally, from the Cambridge online dict:

      Come about (phrasal verb)
      – to happen, or start to happen
      – ‘how did the problem come about in the first place?

  6. oh and how can you be throwing out more paper than you’re printing ? or is it a hyperbole?

  7. Very enjoyable and interesting dissection of your class and your thoughts and reflections. Many of them echoed mine. I’ve been dogging for a year or so at every opportunity and like you have said, some classes leave you feeling like you haven’t pulled it off. However, isn’t that the same for all teachers – Dogme practitioners or not? Thing is, we have to experiment and try new activities, apply our new found knowledge and try things from a different angle. Learners may be unaware of this but hey…that’s par for the course.

    I dog every day more or less and we have IWBs as standard so I always have the excellent Cambridge online dict available online and the webcorps website open too. Nothing anti-dog there: it is an available resource. I also save every single lesson via the IWB and can convert them to pdfs. (I shall upload one soon.) When I return to them, I more or less remember every part of the lesson by looking at the vocab. I’ve got hundreds of classes saved! 🙂 Luke Meddings (co-author) of Unplugged says that each class is a unique experience and I believe this to be so and I love recording them.

    As for ‘come about’ – it’s a synonym for happen but with an emphasis on process with an informal register. OK, I’m dogging here but hey…:)

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Gary. We have IWBs too, but despite the fact I’ve got pretty good at using them, I find myself using them less and less in favour of the white board. I find that I can’t be creative on the IWB – it’s too chunky. I also like to keep a record of language in a column on the side of the board viewable at all time and I haven’t found a good way to do that with the IWB. However, your point about creating PDFs with lesson content is very interesting. With the about of language that comes up in a Dogme lesson I often find that Ss spend too much time scribbling everything down, and I have been experimenting with ways of pooling class notes digitally after the lesson. A colleague of mine uses Moodle for this, I’ve heard of others using a class Dropbox. Im starting to think that I should be making retrospective lesson notes after each class containing language covered and references to where they can find practice in their coursebook (got to use it or something!). This document could then be emailed to them or left in a class blog. Having all the language stored on the IWB would make this so much easier. I just don’t like using it for spontaneous notes! Maybe I should cut down what I write, or else use IWB for ‘stage summaries’.

      Thanks for stimulating the ideas!

      • Ever thought of using a Google Doc for the class? You can always post the image you snapped on the doc although you may have to make it a bit brighter for eligibility. Students can post questions, etc as comments. I find GD a much underused super tool by teachers.

      • Emi Slater permalink

        Hi Oli
        At last I have found your blog!. Your comments above about the IWB exactly reflect the way I feel about it and I often find myself using the whiteboard instead. I also wish there was some way of having a permanently viewable vocab list on the IWB which remains stationary as it were throughout the lesson so you don’t have to flick back and forth to refer to previous language. On the other hand having a record of language you use is gold dust for past lesson planning! Also interested in turning it into a PDF – didn’t know you could do that. Thankyou all

      • Hi Emi

        Yes, it’s a deceptively annoying problem isn’t it!

        What I’ve started doing now, rather than simply printing the board into a PDF, is making my own summary of the lesson (grammar point, words and phrases etc) and giving it to the Ss in the next lesson (could also be emailed in a pdf or a google doc as Chiew advocates!) It’s much neater. Having a record of everything in a IWB file is handy, but a quick photo of the whiteboard does the same job.

        I think it’s a great discipline to get into, and it follows the idea of the teacher’s planning time coming after the lesson rather than before.

  8. Getting back to you after a while…
    Yes, I do agree the IWB is chunky and clunky.
    I do missing putting the language/lexis that emerged in a nice list on the white board.
    Although, I’ve saved loads of lessons into PDFs, I haven’t really done enough of the planning after the lesson and recycling of the language in a systematic way. Thanks for reminding me.

    • Hi Gary

      That’s the thing about all this language isn’t it… the real work for the teacher starts after the lesson!

      I’m about to start a research project on strategies for recycling language over a course. Maybe we could share ideas at some point?

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