The best improvisation is prepared improvisation

One of the great delights of the annual IATEFL conference is seeing young teachers find their own voices and deliver confident, well thought-out presentations. One of the talks I enjoyed most in Birmingham this year was by Sebastian Lesniewski, and he’s been kind enough to provide a brief overview of his main ideas. Over to Sebastian:


Stage actors often say that no two performances are ever the same – even when they appear in the same show every night for several months, and deliver the same lines, according to the same script.

As language teachers, we can definitely relate to this. We normally teach several groups on the same day, and we sometimes re-use the same lesson plan and the same teaching materials. Yet, it turns out that each time the lesson is a little different.

Whatever it is that makes our lessons lively, enjoyable, successful, etc. is somewhere between the lines of the lesson plan, and we haven’t yet been able to pin it down properly. All the unnoticed activities and interactions taking place during a language lesson have been labelled by Adrian Underhill as “the dark matter of ELT”.

At IATEFL this year, I gave a talk about teacher improvisation in class, understood as a diversion from the lesson plan in reaction to classroom dynamics. While the phenomenon is becoming increasingly recognised in ELT, I still can remember the days when it was regarded as an undesirable obstacle to realising the aims of the lesson.

Nevertheless, a couple of years into my teaching I noticed that reacting to students’ questions about how to say things in English and to their requests for explanations about things that they found problematic generated more engagement than simply ploughing on with my lesson plan.

It wasn’t until 2010 that I learned that there was a term for this sort of approach to teaching: DOGME.

With DOGME, the teacher’s skills in interacting with the students became formally recognised and appreciated. However, the approach was also criticised. Of the numerous points raised by DOGME critics, I find the following two particularly worth considering.

Firstly, where some teachers believe that they improvise and adopt a DOGME approach, in fact they often rely far more than they may be aware on their banks of tried and tested routines. As language teachers, we are asked the same questions over and over again by different students, and as we become more experienced, we tend to have some ready-made answers to most of these questions. Thus, simply waiting for a familiar question from the students in order to once again offer an explanation that we have recited many times before would hardly qualify as improvising.

Secondly, relying only on the students’ natural need of communication is not likely to result in them being exposed to a sufficiently comprehensive range of language areas, of the kind generally encountered in language courses. At IATEFL 2013, Liverpool Hugh Dellar gave a talk called “A DOGME approach to course books”, where he suggested that the two things – DOGME and course books – could be complimentary of each other.

This notion has been echoed by proponents of Demand High, whose recurring arguments are that teachers need to make the most of the resources used in class and ensure that each student is always challenged.

This means greater focus on the interaction between the teacher and the students, which Adrian Underhill has likened to that between two jazz musicians. The piece that they play together is centred on a theme. When one musician diverts from it, he makes an offer to the other musician, who can either take it or stick to the theme. When going with the offer, the other musician can either re-use one of his routines or try to react in a fresh and playful manner.

In this analogy “theme” is our lesson plan and “offer” is anything that comes from our students. The teacher can take the offer or stick to the lesson plan. And when going with the offer, he or she can simply re-use one of their routines or try to react in a new and fresh way.

I would argue here that having a repertoire of routines is a good thing, as this is what comes with experience and makes us better teachers. However, we should also reflect on our routines and re-use them in fresh and playful ways, so that our repertoires continue to evolve.

Now, a bit about my routines.

I was once asked by a student about the meaning and correct pronunciation of the word “aware”. Since this word on its own is rather tricky to explain, I wrote:

I’m aware of it. = I know about it.

I then prompted the student to say aloud the word “aware”. Then “aware of”, then “aware of it”, and finally the whole phrase: “I’m aware of it”. Subsequently, I asked the student to reply “I’m aware of it” to anything I say. Our dialogue went on as follows:
You know that it’s Tuesday today, right?

> I’m aware of it.

And it’ll be Wednesday tomorrow.

> I’m aware of it.

The necessity to drill a phrase by repeating it aloud stems from the fact that speaking is a physical activity, which engages motor skills. Also, the slight silliness of this activity may possibly make the drilled language item more memorable for the learner.

Since then, I regularly incorporate into my lessons improvised activities based around drilling the pronunciation of a word or phrase and then coming up with a little scenario where students can use this expression repeatedly.

For instance, to sensitise my students to the standard pronunciation of the word “comfortable”, I’d start by getting them to decide on the number of syllables in it (com – forta – ble), which I’d invite them to repeat aloud. Secondly, I’d want them to identify which syllable is stressed (COM – forta – ble), and again to drill the pronunciation for a while. Next, I’d put this word in a little phrase such as “I don’t feel comfortable”, and prompt the students to repeat it with a given rhythm. Then, I’d ask one of my students to reply “I don’t feel comfortable talking about it” to each question I ask. Our dialogue would be as follows:

How much do you earn?

> I don’t feel comfortable talking about it.

Are you happy in your job?

> I don’t feel comfortable talking about it.

Next, I might invite the students to ask me questions about anything they like, to which I’d give the same reply. Finally, the students could do a similar activity in pairs, and possibly write down their questions.

Apart from solidifying the pronunciation of a problematic word, this little activity teaches the students a new language pattern (feel comfortable doing something), and prompts them to produce language by themselves.

I’m absolutely certain that there is a lot of interactivity and improvising going on in our teaching already. To anyone who’d like to become better at it I’d recommend reflecting on our most successful lessons, identifying those improvised moments, and re-using them as routines.

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11 Responses

  1. Nataliya Vinogradova says:

    The procedures described don’t look like improvisation or something fresh to me. For Sebastian as a young teacher they might be, but not for those who have been teaching for 20 years. One should be careful about imrovising as you can end up spending half of the lesson on drilling one phrase. Is it really worth it?

    • Sebastian Lesniewski says:

      Thanks for the comment Nataliya – especially for the question whether there is value in “spending half of the lesson drilling one phrase”. I would argue that there is. The time spent with a pre-fabricated chunk of language is time well invested, as engaging motor skills makes the drilled piece of language more memorable, and it contributes to developing automaticity of use. Of course, I wouldn’t necessarily do that in every single lesson. I also find it useful to ask myself how I would like to be taught if I was my own student. I would want to spend time in class doing activities that I wouldn’t be able to do as effectively on my own. And I would rather go home having really learned a few useful pieces of language, which I’d be able to use actively, than with several pages of notes and lists of words jotted down in my notebook. Cheers!

      • Svetlana Skrynnik says:

        I quite agree with you Sebastian. If the chunk is really useful it is worth spending half a lesson drilling it. Moreover the students do it in a conversation which can be enjoyable and funny and thus more memorable. They practise asking questions which is never a waste of time. I love it! And I am sure the students enjoy it as well. Lively and lovely! Thank you!

      • Nataliya Vinogradova says:

        Many men, many minds, Sebastian!) I don’t mean “several pages of notes” but still I’d opt for variety. At least a minimal one. I’d definitely get bored with one phrase drilling. So would my students. Then calculate the number of “pre-fabricated chunks” for one level if the approximate number of classes is 120.Moreover, there’s much more to teaching a language than drilling one pattern. The way I see it. But it’s ok if it works for you. You confidence and firm position appeal to me! Good luck with your future endeavors!

        • Lexicallab says:

          I don’t think I’ve ever enbcountered the phrase ‘many men, many minds’ before, so thanks for that. I like it! And I’m not sure what the ‘English’ equivalent would be!! Each to their own? Doesn’t really capture the meaning you’ve gone for there, does it? Gap in the language, clearly.

          I agree with you, Nataliya, both that drilling one chunk for too long can get boring, and that there’s much more to teaching than drilling one pattern. I suspect Sebastian would be in agreement too, myself.

          I guess what I took from the talk I saw (and bear in mind that the above is very much a redux version of the talk) is the idea that thinking about the language you planned to teach before a class, thinking about examples you’ll give, how you’ll involve students in the examples and so on, is a good way of preparing for greater ‘spontaneity’ in class.

          This can include drilling (a bit) and playful mini-conversations, but can also include many other things as well.

          • Nataliya Vinogradova says:

            It’s from Leo Tolstoy and stands for ” Different people have different opinions.” I like it that you like it! 🙂

      • Lexicallab says:

        I’d personally see ‘spending half the lesson’ on one chunk as useful only if you have very very short lessons! 🙂 I totally agree that drilling and playing with chunks is useful, but as i said above, I think this can be done – and you seem to suggest this in your post above – far more quickly and efficiently than the ‘half a lesson’ claim suggests!

        • Sebastian Lesniewski says:

          So nice to see this little debate! Hugh’s comments very aptly and eloquently (and concisely) summarise what I attempted to convey in my post (once again, massive thanks Hugh!). It is also useful to hear what more experienced colleagues think, so thank you Nataliya. What I had in mind when replying to Nataliya’s comment is that the idea of spending a bit more time (even a whole lesson) working on the students’ spoken performance shouldn’t be automatically rejected and regarded as less important than “normal” classroom activities. Though I realise that this can be done badly, as it was probably the case in the lesson that Nataliya observed.

          Coming back to the situation where my student asked about the word “aware”. I’m afraid that some teachers could tell the student to look the word up in his dictionary (most likely bilingual) and move on. The student would vaguely understand what the word means, but probably wouldn’t be able to use the word correctly himself. Taking a moment to drill the pre-fabricated chunk “I’m aware of it” is time well invested. Ideally, the teacher should also return to it later in the lesson, and possibly on another day.

          Working on the students’ spoken performance by playing around with chunks of language, applying different rhythms etc. (a bit like in an acting class), is something that students wouldn’t be able to do as effectively on their own. As Svetlana pointed out
          (thank you Svetlana for your kind words!), it’s not just drilling one chunk, as it leads to students’ producing language, practising asking questions, and it can also be fun and make the drilled piece of language more memorable. Some elements of this can be usefully incorporated into all our lessons to add variety to the more typical activities. I’d simply like to encourage everyone to pay more attention to those classroom situations where our “going off the script” leads to some good learning.

    • Lexicallab says:

      Hi Nataliya –
      Thanks for reading and for commenting. As one who’s also been teaching 20+ years, I hear you, but think maybe you’re being slightly harsh. I think you can still quite easily define improvisation in the way Sebastian has done – playful, fresh diversions from a main theme. And I’d imagine as an experienced teacher yourself, you do plenty of that kind of thing in your own classes, perhaps using knowledge / repertoires you’ve built up over time.

      I also don’t think Sebastian was suggesting anyone should spend half a lesson drilling one phrase, was he? It seemed more like he was suggesting ways of spending a couple of minutes here and there looking at phrases that ‘come up’ (as a result of preparation) and simply asking for slightly more teacher and student engagement with the language that’s to hand.

      That’s how I read it, anyway.

      • Nataliya Vinogradova says:

        Hi Hugh,
        You’re right I might be harsh.I didn’t mean to. I’m apologising to Sebastian for that.
        My remark about being careful while improvising originates from my experience.I happened to observe some classes where improvisation resulted , like I said, in drilling one word or phrase. And this is what it’s really about)

  2. Lexicallab says:

    The whole of Sebastian’s IATEFL talk can be seen here:

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