The Dogme Approach to Language Teaching

Dogme is an approach to teaching that argues that teaching should focus on the learner and not be driven by the resources available, including course books. It is a recent movement in ELT, started by a group of teachers who are against ‘resource heavy’ teaching, arguing that if learners are not interested they will not learn and therefore all material should be generated by the learners and the lessons directed by them, rather than the teacher.

Learners, for instance, may come to class discussing something that is in the news. The teacher encourages and facilitates discussion and provides answers to questions about grammar and vocabulary as they arise.

In a Dogme lesson, the classroom as such does not exist, as there are no resources, course books, or lesson structures apart from those that learners bring. The teacher involves the learners in deciding on their priorities for each lesson, and takes the role of facilitator of their objectives.

Background of Dogme

The Dogme ELT approach emerged in 2000, following an article by Scott Thornbury in which he criticizes an overdependence on published coursebooks and the overuse of materials. In his article, Thornbury claimed that the materials overload hindered real classroom communication (Thornbury, 2000) and the core of classroom instruction should be based only on “resources that teachers and students bring to the classroom and whatever happens there”. This material-light, learner-focussed approach stemmed from the realization that teachers were too concerned about presenting grammar and “covering” units of the coursebook, but ended up overlooking learning opportunities that occurred spontaneously in class.

Dogme is a communicative approach to language teaching that was initiated by Scott Thornbury in his article, “A Dogma for EFL”. Dogme advocates a kind of teaching that doesn’t rely on published textbooks but relies on conversational communication that occurs in the classroom between teachers and students. The name of the approach comes from an analogy to the Danish Dogme 95 film movement which intended to “clean cinema of an obsessive concern for technique and rehabilitate cinema which foregrounded the story and the inner life of characters.”

Approaches combined in Dogme

Dogme ELT shares and restores characteristics of different approaches to teaching:

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT):

Like CLT, Dogme is also characterized by a focus on the interaction between learners and teachers and the learners themselves. The interaction is mediated through talk and facilitated through scaffolding. Both CLT and Dogme place importance on communication with an aim at social interaction.

Task-based learning (TBL):

In TBL, the context for the use of language is developed naturally and students are free of language control, which generates more opportunities for the free use of the linguistic resources that they already have. Language emerges from students’ needs and those build a springboard for learning opportunities, as opposed to pre-selected items by the teacher or a coursebook. Similarly, the learning outcomes in the Dogme approach derive from learners’ emergent needs – the idea is to build knowledge together, and not to have the teacher pass on the contents of a coursebook. A major difference between the Dogme and TBL, however, is the methodology employed in classroom practice: while TBL is largely associated with the performance of tasks, Dogme relies on the conversation that occurs naturally amongst teachers and learners.

Humanistic Approaches to Teaching:

Humanistic approaches to teaching support the importance of learner-centered instruction and emphasize that learning only takes place if learners are involved in the process. This notion that student-generated content is the core of instruction in humanistic approaches is in line with the belief that learners’ contributions should be the basis of the lesson, although we cannot state that the Dogme ELT approach bases its philosophy on humanistic approaches.

Characteristics of Dogme approach

  • The Dogme Approach is conversation-driven.

This comes from the belief that conversation is not a product of learning, but necessary for learning to happen. Conversation allows learners to come up with coherent ideas, and not isolated sentences that might not be relevant. A focus on conversation is believed to better prepare learners to use language in real life: they are more likely to produce utterances in the full context of a conversation than produce a series of pre-fabricated chunks or structures in isolation.

A conversation-driven approach may also help students learn through interaction and build knowledge together.

  • The Dogme Approach is materials-light.

Although much has been said about the Dogme approach being anti-material and anti-technology, Meddings, and Thornbury state that “what it rejects are those kinds of materials and aids that do not conform with the kind of principles” which are the basis for the Dogme approach. They claim that most coursebooks provide learners and teachers with texts that are aimed at reinforcing a grammar syllabus but neither promote communication nor engage learners. In this sense, Dogme ELT defends a critical look at materials and assessment of whether the materials, resources, and coursebooks adopted are culturally appropriate for learners and relevant (both in terms of cognitive and affective needs). As an alternative to published materials, Dogme advocates the adoption of student-generated and locally-created content.

  • The Dogme Approach focuses on emergent language.

In Dogme, it is believed that, if provided with the right conditions for language to emerge – interaction, collaboration among teachers and students – it will. The teacher’s role is to help learners engage with emergent language – that means the teacher should facilitate the analysis, manipulation, and practice of language, without having established grammatical or lexical items prior to the lesson. To achieve this goal, teachers should be able to set up activities that are language productive, identify learning opportunities in learners’ output, and give them the chance to retrieve, recycle, record, and review language.

Key Principles 

  1. Interactivity: the most direct route to learning is to be found in the interactivity between teachers and students and amongst the students themselves.
  2. Engagement: students are most engaged by content they have created themselves
  3. Dialogic processes: learning is social and dialogic, where knowledge is co-constructed
  4. Scaffolded conversations: learning takes place through conversations, where the learner and teacher co-construct the knowledge and skills
  5. Emergence: language and grammar emerge from the learning process. This is seen as distinct from the ‘acquisition’ of language.
  6. Affordances: the teacher’s role is to optimize language learning affordances by directing attention to emergent language.
  7. Voice: the learner’s voice is given recognition along with the learner’s beliefs and knowledge.
  8. Empowerment: students and teachers are empowered by freeing the classroom of published materials and textbooks.
  9. Relevance: materials (eg texts, audio and videos) should have relevance for the learners
  10. Critical use: teachers and students should use published materials and textbooks in a critical way that recognizes their cultural and ideological biases.

Classroom implications and challenges

  • Teachers’ and learners’ expectations:

The idea of a fixed syllabus and the adoption of a coursebook when learning a language is widespread all around the globe. Both teachers and students expect a course designed on the basis of materials and coursebooks. In some contexts, like exam preparation classes, this is even more desired, as an organized syllabus might “guarantee” that learners will reach their goals and be successful.

Dogme’s criticism of published materials has definitely contributed to a reflection on the effectiveness of their exclusive use in the classroom and, from my personal point of view, has encouraged publishers and writers to rethink the accuracy of the language presented, the authenticity of spoken and written texts, and the cultural relevance of the topics presented. Yet, it is important to remember that no coursebook is a perfect fit for a learner/group of learners without the intervention of a teacher.

  • Teacher training and development.

One of the challenges posed by Dogme ELT is “the element of surprise”: since there is an enhanced focus on emergent language, the teacher needs to be even more prepared to teach lessons “without previous planning”. The use of the inverted commas here is to show that although there is no formal lesson planning for Dogme lessons, that does not mean that the teacher does not need to prepare for the lesson. Knowledge of the learners and a high level of language awareness, as well as knowledge of teaching techniques and a wide repertoire of classroom activities, are essential for the teacher to be confident when employing the Dogme approach in lessons.

Criticism

  • Dogme can be a real challenge for teachers in low resource contexts
  • Many teachers question the appropriateness of Dogme in situations where students are preparing for examinations that have specific syllabi.
  • Dogme creates problems for non-native and novice teachers who find textbooks a safe guide.
  • The initial call for a “vow of chastity” not to use textbooks is seen as unnecessarily purist and hinders the adoption of a weaker version of Dogme.

References:

Meddings, L and Thornbury, S. (2003) “Dogme still able to divide ELT”. The Guardian

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2003/apr/17/tefl.lukemeddings

Meddings, L and Thornbury, S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged. Surrey: Delta Publishing.

Richards, J. C. and Rodgers, T. S (2015) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thornbury, S. (2000) “A Dogma for EFL” in IATEFL Issues 153. February – March 2000.

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