Tag Archives: Scott Thornbury

A Dogme aproach to coursebooks: Part One

In 1995, two Danish film directors – Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg – created the Dogme 95 manifesto and said their vows of chastity. These were rules that they claimed they had introduced in order to stimulate a return to filmmaking based on traditional values of story, acting and theme. The idea was very much a rejection of the increasingly Hollywood-influenced approach that made liberal use of special effects and technology. Launched at an event in Paris intended to celebrate 100 years of cinema, the concept attracted a lot of publicity, with its insistence on a deliberate move away from post-production, from soundtracks and from visual trickery, generic predictability and so on. Dogme 95 promised nothing less than a way to reengage audiences sated and bloated by years of overproduction.


It was, however, three more years until the first two films bearing the official Dogme seal of approval were released – Festen and The Idiots. Interestingly, neither film adhered strictly to the ten tenets suggested in the original manifesto and a mere five years later, after the 31st film was officially verified by the original board as Dogme-valid, the movement was essentially dead in the water. Today, filmmakers inspired by the original idea can submit a form online and tick a box which states they “truly believe that the film … has obeyed all Dogme 95 rules as stated in the vow of chastity”. In other words, the revolution has become merely an opt-in badge of convenience.


You may of course be wondering what any of this has to do with ELT. Well, in 2000 Scott Thornbury launched his own attempt at revolution: Dogme Language Teaching. Initially intended as a partially tongue-in-cheek attempt to restore the communicative aspect to communicative language teaching and to reject the over-reliance on the seemingly endless material churned out by publishing houses, all of which were seen as a barrier to real communication between the social agents present in the classroom, Dogme has become the dogma that refuses to die – the methodological flag of resistance for countless teachers and the subject of much heated debate both in its defence and in opposition to its admittedly somewhat fuzzy precepts.

Scott Thornbury

Chief among these precepts are the importance of teaching being driven by conversation, the importance of a focus on emergent language and the importance of not allowing material to block the channels of communication between teacher and students. There is also a focus on interactivity, engagement and dialogue, scaffolding and what Thornbury terms ‘affordances‘.

In the 13 years since Scott’s original opening salvo, Dogme has come to mean many things to many people, perhaps unconsciously echoing the way Dogme 95 has ended up becoming an opt-in concept. Self-proclaimed dogmeticians blog furiously about so-called teach-offs where a teacher shackled by a coursebook struggles in vain against a teacher liberated from such chains and thus able to truly tap in to their students’ wants and needs. Apparently. Or is Dogme really about replacing materials with found objects and the conversations that may – or of course may not – emerge around them? Can Teaching Unplugged really involve plugging in and turning on? Are videos and Internet-sourced material allowed within a Dogme approach? If so, can some materials be deemed to be more Dogme-friendly than others? Or are all such approaches heretical and a digression from the one true path?

It has long been assumed that this approach – or group of sympathetically related approaches – is by its very nature anti-coursebook. Indeed, one of Scott’s original ten commandments insisted that “students and teachers are empowered by freeing the classroom of published materials and textbooks”, a statement that always struck me as slightly odd coming, as it did, from a man with his own name on several ELT coursebooks!

That notwithstanding, what I aim to do in this post, is not so much to pick holes in Dogmethat’s something I’ve already done in some detail earlier on this blog, after all – but rather to explore ways in which the main principles behind Dogme can actually inform both the way we use and the way we write classroom materials. I will be considering what a conversation-driven approach to teaching might potentially look like, how scaffolding might best be realized, what kind of affordances teachers might best avail themselves of, how and when we might focus on emergent language and how coursebooks can still be seen as materials light!

So let’s begin with the idea of teaching being conversation-driven. I think few people here would argue that in General English classes in particular it is the spoken language that is most desired by students and is most central in terms of placing students in the correct level. We’ve all met plenty of students whose written work or paper test scores may well be perfectly decent but who’s speaking condemns them to a lower level than maybe they’re happy with. The ability to speak and listen well is at the root of linguistic competence. However, in what might be termed a ‘pure’ Dogme approach, the conversation either emerges organically from the class and is then mediated by the teacher, who has to be incredibly alert and incredibly adept at paraphrasing, guiding, extending and so on, or else it develops in response to some kind of task – materials by default if you like – designed to get (or keep) students talking. The first strategy is risky and leaves the teacher at the mercy of the talkative or uncaring student who wants to discuss last night’s football match or engage in direct one-to-one with them; it also relies on endless reformulation and as anyone who does a lot of this knows, it’s all too easy to jump on something familiar when it comes up and then spin out a little teacher-driven section based on something we’ve taught before. The second strategy is bitty, gimmicky, recipe-driven and assumes that discussing, say, a sugar lump found on a chair is somehow more ‘authentic’ or worthwhile than discussing questions in a coursebook or a particular kind of conversation. And in both instances, the world is reduced to the here-and-now; students only get to learn how to say better things they need at the moment of communicating. There’s little going on that factors long-term needs or more abstract, less immediately pressing concerns into the picture.

None of which is to say that I don’t think we should be aiming to teach conversation. I just happen to think materials can help us do it better.  Interestingly, the Common European Framework also seems to be insisting far more of our teaching is focused directly on teaching particular kinds of communicative competences – or can-do statements – and thus provides us with a guide to what are widely deemed the most useful conversations students should learn how to produce and process at each level. When you consider that for A1 students, say (or Beginners, if you prefer) these conversations include things like ‘CAN understand straightforward explanations of the members of a host family and the layout of the house’ and ‘CAN go to a self-service or fast-food establishment and order a meal, especially where the food on offer is either visually illustrated or can be pointed to’, you realize that these conversations are highly unlikely to just develop organically, especially in classes of this level. As such, if we want our students to converse well and we want conversation to drive our teaching, material designed with these goals in mind can surely help us.

There are two choices if you want to go down the road of focusing on conversations like these: either you get students to try them first, then teach the gaps, then get them to try again – an approach some call Test-Teach-Test, that other see as Task-based Learning, but which has also been claimed as Dogme . . . or you write material – or use material that’s been written – to present core lexis and grammar that will be useful in these conversations, to present model conversations students can hear before attempting them themselves and so on. I know which one I think works better! If you believe, as Dogme‘s original tenets seem to, that scaffolded conversations are important, and that teachers and learners need to co-construct knowledge and skills, I’d argue that material can frequently offer superior scaffolding myself.

Now possibly a teacher could conceivably flip the kind of material that a coursebook can provide scaffolding with when trying to encourage conversations like this, and could build up to the final conversation through a series of teacher-led tasks that encourage students to generate language that is then reworked or reformulated, but it seems like a demanding, actually very teacher-centred way of doing things when material could carry some of the weight of this load for all concerned.

So, materials can clearly be conversationally driven and classrooms using materials can be too. However, if we’re serious about our teaching being driven by conversation, then I think we need to always be looking for opportunities to allow conversations that suggest themselves to take flight and to flourish. In a sense, we need to take on board Scott Thornbury’s sixth commandment, which he dubs affordances and describes thus: the teacher’s role is to optimize language learning affordances through directing attention to emergent language.

Now, in what you might call a classical Dogme sense, this has widely been taken to mean picking up on things students are trying to say and helping them to say it better – whether that be by immediate reformulation or via subsequent boardwork or even by noting student utterances down and later sending them individualized voice recordings or notes via email. That’s all well and good, and I’m all for teachers doing more of this kind of working from what students are trying to say when engaged in meaningful communication – and will return to this shortly. However, surely the notion of ’emergent language’ could be taken to mean NOT ONLY language – or gaps in language – that emerge as students engage with speaking activities or slots or tasks, call them what you will, but also language that ’emerges’ from materials; language that is embedded in exercises or texts that has the potential to come out and be explored and discussed if the teacher is perceptive enough and sufficiently focused on language to ensure this actually occurs. I’ve taken to calling this kind of language ‘ambient language’ because in the same way as ambient music is music that floats in the background of our lives and may only really be noticed if we force ourselves to actually pay attention to it, this is language that tasks don’t usually force a focus onto, but which can be brought to the fore should we so desire it to be.

By being aware of the ambient vocabulary that lurks within exercises, we can move towards two or three Dogme-friendly goals: we can take advantage of the opportunities to teach and explore new lexis that the material affords us, we can frequently engage the class in further speaking – speaking that relates very directly to particular items of language – AND, by ensuring that we exploit the language on the page in any particular exercise, we thereby end up doing more with less – rather than the less with more phenomenon that seems to have been one of the original things Scott was railing against, as teachers all around him found themselves drowning in a sea of supplementary materials, or else ended up hooked on an endless string of things-to-do without much aim. This, in turn, ensures that whilst our classes may be materials-light, in that we may not cover countless pages of photocopiables or even of the coursebook, we still operate in a language-heavy – or rich – environment!

Let’s just consider what all of this might mean in real practical classroom terms, then. Let’s look at a specific piece of material.


The exercise you see here on screen is taken from an Intermediate-level coursebook, from a double-page spread that scaffolds and supports students as they learn how to better talk about their feelings. It’s exploring how we use copula verbs – like look, sound, and seem – to initiate conversations about feelings. On a very basic level, it’d be quite possible to ‘teach’ this exercise just by telling students to do it and by then eliciting answers and writing them on the board, before moving on to the practice sections in B and C. However, doing this makes us little more than glorified human answer keys and fails to take advantage of the many ‘affordances’ offered us here.

Firstly, there’s the ambient vocabulary: while the main focus of the task is clearly on the copula verbs and the adjectives used with them in 1-8, (adjectives which are all recycled from a previous vocabulary exercise) for me, when I’m planning a class, my eyes are also drawn to items like broke down, throw up, really behind with work, I don’t get, the spa, split up, upset and so on. I start thinking about what I’ll say about each one as I’m eliciting the answers from the class, whether I’ll add extra examples on the board, what I might ask students about each one – and which words might lend themselves to subsequent speaking slots.

With my current class, which is almost all female and quite well travelled and moneyed, I might, for instance, think spa is worth exploring. So I’d elicit Number 7? Right. F. I think her week in the spa in Prague really helped her. Yeah, what is it, a spa? OK, yeah, it’s like a health club where you can have beauty treatments and go swimming and that kind of thing. So, just quickly in pairs, three things you can get in a spa. Students then brainstorm ideas, which I listen to and try to reformulate onto the board, an act that in itself will recycle and refocus on grammar that’s already been touched on before, like have / get passives. As such, we might end up here with something like this on the board:

I spent the weekend in a spa. It was great.

I had a massage, which was very relaxing.

I had a body wrap. It’s supposed to make you look slimmer!

I had a body scrub to get rid of all the dead skin.

I had a facial.

I had my nails done.

The words I’ve underlined I would probably leave blank as I was writing these sentences up on the board, which I would do whilst listening to what the students were saying. After a few minutes of pooling ideas, I’d stop the group, say “OK, now let’s look at how to say a few things you were talking about better” and then run through the boardwork.

Obviously, students might also ask how to say other connected things, especially if they have experience of these places. Once we’d rounded up on all of this, I’d finish off by going through exercises B and C below and moving on. Obviously, this way of working the language that’s there takes longer and focuses on more than just the words present on the page. Its starting point is thinking about what students might want to SAY – or might heard said by others – using the words that are ‘floating free’ in the material. It works the content more deeply that simply checking answers (and maybe glossing or briefly explaining) words that crop up would do; it allows far greater recycling of grammar; it breaks the class up with lots of little bits of talking and it allows plenty of space for personalization and entertaining sidetracks, humour, anecdotes and so on to emerge.

So I’ve already talked a bit about how coursebook materials can themselves be conversation driven, and how teachers can utilize coursebook materials in a way that increases the potential for conversation in the classroom if they focus on emergent – or ambient – language in class. This latter approach will ensure that materials used in the classroom are explored more thoroughly, from a language point of view, and that the classroom becomes, therefore, relatively materials light. The language that’s already present forms the basis of subsequent exploration and exploitation, and students themselves are used as resource as a matter of course, thus minimizing the need for extra supplementary materials.

One other way in which materials can be exploited and conversation can be fore-fronted is obviously simply by the teacher using the speaking that is generated by materials as an opportunity to explore language on the periphery of what it is that students are able to say. The idea that somehow materials oppress students into silence or deculturalize them or fail to engage them in meaningful communication, and that somehow discussing found objects or photographs ensures more ‘authentic’, whatever that means, conversation in class is a pernicious one, I would suggest, and one that needs to be resisted. The questions we should be asking ourselves as teachers are much more to do with whether or not the conversations we do encourage students to have in the classroom are purposeful, interesting, related to the business of everyday life and – importantly – connected to other input they’ll receive across the course.

Take this exercise, for instance, from an Upper-Intermediate book.


This has always led to fascinating exchanges of opinions and ideas and plenty of anecdotes, especially if I begin by modeling what I believe the answers to be for the UK. As my students talk in pairs, I pick up on things they’re trying to say, but can’t quite yet, or hear things that I think could be said better. I use their talking time to get boardwork up and we round up by looking at the boardwork, eliciting gaps, giving students time to record and ask questions about what they see. In Teaching Unplugged, Scott and Luke recommend ten strategies that teachers can use to help students engage with emergent language, especially once it’s been reworked or reformulated, and I see absolutely no reason why repeating, recording, researching, reviewing and recycling, for example, cannot happen with language that emerges in response to coursebook material. Here, incidentally, is what ended up appearing on my board the last time I did this speaking in class – and all of this then fed directly into what followed, which was a listening from the coursebook where students heard five news stories related to five of the topics they’d previously discussed.


Much of what Dogme seems to have unleashed is a bitty, recipe-heavy smorgasbord of speaking activities and while speaking in class is all well and good, it seems to me at least to make more sense if the speaking is interspersed with other work on texts of different kinds – spoken and written, with connected language work, and if all of this can be made to cohere and hang together, both thematically and linguistically, thus ensuring greater coherence and continuity for students.

In this sense, there is clearly one of Dogme‘s original ten commandments that I find myself UNABLE to agree with or condone. The idea that students are most engaged by content they have created themselves seems spurious and unverifiable at best, and it’s hard to see how texts created by the students could be able to offer up language beyond their current level, unless they were reformulated by the teacher . . . which is exactly what students have already done here – created their own spoken texts BEFORE then hearing scripted texts slightly above their level – and, of course, they can then also be asked to record or write their own news stories or experiences later as well, which can uploaded to the Web or shared in class and so on.

Opening the heavens: religion, reformulation and reasons to roll with it

So much of teaching is about the second-by-second set of decisions we make, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the decisions we make are shaped by intuition, which as we all know is the product of our cumulative experience this far – or expertise, if you prefer – rather than being some nebulous innate talent.

So anyway there I was, twenty-five minutes from the end of a class with my upper-intermediate group the other day, more or less at the end of a reading – a Chinese folk tale about money. I was just rounding up some vocabulary that students had asked about while reading, vaguely wondering if ideally wanted to rush on to the injected grammar (I wish with past perfect and past simple) or whether there might be some other more upbeat way of winding up when opportunity knocked.

One of the items that had come up was THE HEAVENS – as in He clung onto the rope and was lifted up to the heavens. I’d explained that it basically meant ‘the sky’ and had given another example – The heavens suddenly opened and it started pouring with rain – when a student asked what the difference between ‘the heavens’ and ‘the heaven’ was. I told the class we don’t use articles with heaven – or hell – and that aside from their literal meanings, they’re often used metaphorically: it’s my idea of heaven / hell.

Justin Bieber Sighting In London - February 25, 2013

There was some banter about how going to see Justin Bieber was one student’s idea of heaven, but everyone else’s idea of hell and then a Moroccan student asked “So what about paradise?” “That’s usually used to talk about a wonderful beautiful place, like maybe Bali or somewhere, that’s maybe sold as a tropical paradise” before the student then explained that for Muslims it refers to the highest part of heaven, where the prophet resides. The student then jokingly added that he wouldn’t ever reach such heights and would be lucky to reach the bottom part of heaven. Another student, a Spanish guy called Mohammed, suggested that hell was a more likely destination at which point Sosan, a Saudi woman, demanded he retract this and claimed you should never say this! I pointed out it was a common joke among friends in English and, curiosity piqued, put students in pairs to discuss whether or not they talked about heaven and hell in their own languages. Out of this the most interesting thing that emerged was a discussion about the differing concepts of angels on shoulders that seemed to exist in different cultures: the Christian notion of good angels and bad angels giving you advice – and the Muslim idea of an angel on your right shoulder recording your good actions and another on your left noting down the bad (but only after an eight-hour pause which allowed the chance of repentance and righting the wrong), all of which were to be weighed on Judgement Day. Mohammed noted that with his Spanish-Moroccan friends it was common to joke that the left-shoulder angel was compiling a library, which aroused laughter from most of the class and looks of slight shock from the more devout Saudi and Senegalese women in class.


The other thing that became apparent was that many students didn’t know how to ask ARE YOU RELIGIOUS (AT ALL?) and had gotten by thus far with their own bizarre improvised versions (“You have religion?” and the like!). For the next five minutes, students changed pairs and asked and answered this question before we rounded up with some board-based reformulation. On the board we ended up with:
She’s / he’s very devout.
He used to be Muslim / catholic, but he converted to Buddhism.
I was brought up Muslim / Buddhist / Catholic, but I don’t really practise.
All religions have lots of different branches.
I don’t really believe in God, but I do believe there’s some kind of higher power.

And that was that.

The grammar waited till the following day and students left the room still asking each other questions about each others’ beliefs.

So what, you may well be wondering? Why am I telling you all of this? Well, for a whole host of reasons, I think. Partly to illustrate how we ad teachers can take advantages of moments that present themselves – what Scott Thornbury has termed affordances – and how being alert to such moments can allow us to explore interesting , and sometimes less travelled, roads; partly to reiterate the fact that frequently the best way of doing this is via the exploration and exploitation of language that emerges from texts – what I’ve elsewhere termed ambient vocabulary. Partly also to remind the sceptics that a lexical approach to language – particularly one that takes on board the idea of working from what students TRY to say and helps them say it better, and one which reworks things in fully contextualised utterances, ensures far more exposure to – and far grater opportunities to engage with – grammar than traditional grammar-led approaches frequently do.

But maybe more controversially to demonstrate how similar people – and the languages they speak – actually are, whilst also acknowledging how fascinating the slight and subtle differences can be. Further to this, to show how different people within what are often perceived as monolithic cultural blocks (‘Muslims’) can be – and maybe most of all to suggest that supposedly taboo topics such as religion can actually be tackled in an interesting way.

Despite the almost complete absence of reference to the realm of religion in most published ELT material and despite the fact that many oublishers explicitly ban any mention if its very existence, no one died during this part of the class, no rows erupted, views were exchanged and whole sides if students’ lives not typically allowed existence within TEFL-ese were given space to emerge.

Not bad for an ad libbed, improvised closing flourish to a lesson intended to explore a totally different semantic – and lexical – realm.

Thank heavens for intuition! Where in God’s name would we be without it?

Dissing Dogme Part Seven: a dogma in search of a mantra

If you stop and think about it, calling an approach to teaching DOGME is probably not the greatest idea.

Firstly, and of course this could just be my filthy tabloid-polluted mind, it looks like DOG ME and as if that didn’t sound sufficiently saucy enough already, there’s the whole  concept of dogging that was brought into the popular imagination by one-time Liverpool striker and violently abusive ex of Ulrika Jonsson, Stan Collymore. On a more serious note, there’s the fact that the Dogme 95 group of Danish film directors who so inspired Scott Thornbury with their manifestos, their vows of chastity and their desire to purify film making by rejecting special effects, post-production modifications and other technical gimmicks actually soon ran out of steam, splintered into arguing factions and was defunct by 2005! What started out as a clever metaphorical construct ended up being a bit of an albatross around the neck, especially when you learn that today if you want to claim you’re a Dogme film maker, you simply submit a form online and check a box which states that you “truly believe that the film … has obeyed all Dogme95 rules as stated in the vows of chastity”. Now surely a smarter person than me can see some kind of metaphor here involving the Internet? No? For shame! Finally, of course, there’s the fact that Dogme is Danish for dogma. Now, whichever way you slice it, dogma is not a great thing. My Macmillan dictionary defines it as “a belief or set of beliefs that people are expected to accept without asking questions about them” whilst Wikipedia defines the concept as “the established belief or doctrine held by a religion, or a particular group or organization. It is authoritative and not to be disputed, doubted or diverged from by practitioners or believers.” It is, as the old cliche has it, like punk never happened! I could well go into yet another post lambasting the creeping influence of the old hippies and attempt to paint Dogme as a sinister cult with its inner circle of True Believers, its guru, its tenets of faith, even its communes . . . but I won’t because that would just be childish, wouldn’t it?

What I WILL do though in this my final Dissing Dogme post, you’ll be pleased / stunned / devastated (delete as applicable) to hear, is really question what on earth Dogme is offering us that it feels in a position to be so dogmatic about, to query why smart and innovative teachers feel the need to wear group colours and to attempt to move the debate towards saner areas of discussion, which I hope to then go on and explore over the coming weeks.

Talk to folk outside of the loose collective that embrace the term Dogme and reactions range from amusement to bemusement to outright hostility. Simon Kent, who kicked this whole saga off way back when emailed me recently and let slip this little gem: “I’ve very much enjoyed the recent stuff, and I’ve also come to realise something else about the Dogme ‘community’, which I think  one of the earlier  Dogme  people themselves  mentioned . It is a group of people who openly share their ideas. Agreed. However, essentially what they are doing is saying  “Here’s a good lesson I did (maybe  using few materials).” Really, it’s nothing  more (or less)  than  that. It does seem a bit ridiculous to claim or extrapolate a whole way of teaching from this, and to then go on to  peddle it as a complete philosophy!”

This, in turn, is kind when compared to a comment made to me at IATEFL this year . . . “Dogme . . . or winging it, as we used to call it!”

Or, as my co-author Andrew Walkley puts it, “Dogme . . . isn’t it really just correction?”

Now obviously, all of these cheap shots fail to nail the big beast that Dogme has become, but part of the issue is just that. Dogme has become a kind of amorphous moveable feast that seems to mean different things to different people and that spectacularly fails to really define itself in any coherent and universal terms. In a sense, of course, this may be its fundamental power, and yet on occasion, it has started to remind me of a scary talk I once saw by an NLP snake-oil seller who proclaimed “If it works, it’s NLP”. If Dogme is to be anything other than a flag of convenience for a loose scattering of the rebellious and the disaffected, the earnest and the intellectual and if it is ever to be taken seriously as a meaningful movement then it needs to maybe focus more on clarifying exactly what it is – and isn’t – about. Alternatively, of course, it could be that teachers start stepping out from under its protective banner and saying what they think individually without invoking groupmind and stand / fall on their own two feet.

Let’s just briefly look at some of Scott’s original Ten Commandments.Again, these were clearly originally intended to be a humorous device, aping both Dogme 95’s vows of chastity and of course the basic ground rules as brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses (allegedly). However, the idea of Ten Commandments is an interesting one. How many is one able to break or abandon before one no longer can really claim to be of the faith? One? Two? Five? At what stage does one’s faith become something other than the One True Faith Of The Book is one jettisons commandments at will? My (admittedly sketchy) understanding of Christianity is that just breaking ONE – if it goes unrepented – is quite sufficient to get you a one-way ticket down the highway to hell. Where do today’s self-proclaimed Dogmeticians stand in relation to their own ten commandments? Are they pure in intention and action? Or have they erred away from The Path? Are they really still even of the same faith? Or are they rather sub-cults, splinter groups and factions?

Well, let’s go back to where it all began, when Scott Thornbury arrived with the tablets of truth. Firstly, there was Interactivity and the belief that the most direct route to learning is to be found in the interactivity between teachers and students and amongst the students themselves. Well, any teacher worth their salt tries to make their classes interactive – and there are many many ways of doing this. Coursebooks have been suggesting ways of making classroom activity interactive for donkey’s years, as have all manner of methodological tomes. Secondly, there’s the bold – and totally impossible to prove or quantify – claim that “students are most engaged by content they have created themselves” and yet as we’ve seen from these debates here, very few Dogme-rooted teachers seems to adhere to this in any kind of disciplined or consistent way, with most preferring either to simply ride the conversation and spin out their own teacher-led board-based input repertoires or else bring in their own material. Next up is the notion that “learning is social” – well, no kidding. Was anyone claiming it was anti-social? – “and co-constructed”. Indeed. This can surely mean anything from students discussing guided discovery questions about grammar to a teacher asking questions about language in a book to whatever else you want it to mean. Next came the idea of scaffolded conversations – in some corners, this has become twisted and taken to mean that learning in class can ONLY really take place through a never-ending ongoing conversation and that nothing can explicitly be taught – a kind of perversion of Krashen’s now discredited ideas carried to their logical end-point – whilst others prefer the idea that ‘conversation’ can mean not only what we normally think of as a conversation, but a conversation between an individual and a text, say . . . or what used to be known as reading in class! Yet surely a scaffolded conversation can be exactly what good coursebook material can offer teachers help with. The first double-page of every unit of every level of OUTCOMES aims to teach conversations specified in the CEFR, and aims to scaffold students to the point where they are better able to have these conversations. Unless I’m missing something, one thing scaffolding cannot mean, however, is letting students try first and THEN feeding back. That’d be like building a house, seeing if it stands or falls and only erecting scaffolding when it starts to shudder and shake! The fifth commandment focused on emergence and the belief that “language and grammar emerge from the learning process”. Again, this is essentially Krashen-lite and is based on his notion of acquisition over learning, a theory which has been widely shredded in the years since it was first propagated and which has little or no support within the literature. Are there still Dogmeticians out there who believe that learning is ONLY possible through some kind of negotiated and emergent process and that the more formal study of lexis or grammar, whether that be in class or outside of it, is less or completely non effective? If so, where’s the literature ti support such claims? And I’m NOT asking for a rehashed adapatation here of Vygotsky and his zone of proximal development theory.

So where are we? Oh yes. Halfway through. the sixth commandment is about Affordances and is rooted in the notion that one of the the teacher’s roles is to “optimize language learning affordances through directing attention to emergent language” – now, it may be me, but I can’t see how this differs much from ideas about noticing, which have been developing for the last few decades. In fact, the only real difference seems to be that Dogme limits itself to ONLY encouraging noticing of new language as it becomes ’emergent’ when in fact much evidence seems to suggest that it is when the language is NOT immediately pressing that students may perhaps have more brain space free to actually pay attention to form and function. No serious writer on noticing has ever suggested, as far as I know, that it only has impact under the limitations suggested here. Next comes voice and the idea that the learners’ voices be given recognition along with their beliefs and knowledge.Well, again, there’s nothing exclusively Dogme about such a notion. Surely any teacher who cares about their students, regardless of their approach to materials, grammar, etc. attempts to encourage learners to voice their own sense of self and ideas and opinions, and many published materials go out of their way to tap into these impulses. We’re left with a woolly notion of students and teachers being empowered by being liberated from the shackles of published materials. Clearly, Chia Suan Song’s students who said they enjoyed having a coursebook as part of their course or those teachers unwilling, unable or unhappy to abandon materials are just stuck in their slave mentalities and haven’t fully grasped this great gift of freedom they’ve been proffered. The fools! Personally, and to get all religious on your ass again, I always liked the Subud notion that freedom is free of the need to be free! Ninth is the notion of relevance and the idea that materials should have relevance for the learners – ironic really as it seems to suggest that relevance is an inherent quality rather than something meditated and faciliated through interaction in the classroom, and that it is possible for materials brought into the Dogme class to be in and of themselves ‘relevant’ to all the many students in the room. Relevant how – culturally, linguistically, grammatically, intellectually, etc. – is never gone into. leaving us with the tenth and final diktat, one rooted in Norman Fairclough and the Nottingham School: “teachers and students should use published materials and textbooks in a critical way that recognizes their cultural and ideological biases.” So I’m guessing that this is what the Dogmeticians are all busy doing, right? Counting the ratio of white faces to non-white, men to women, etc? Writing sociological treatises on sexism within ELT listening material? Dissecting the hetero-fascist subtexts? No? Thought not. If anything, the closest I think the ELT classroom gets to this most of the time is actually through coursebooks such as Ben Goldstein’s Framework. But of course Dogme cannot go there, can it!

So anyway my closing questions really are these: what does Dogme actually believe these days? Is there any sense of adherence to the commandments outlined above? If so, to how many of them? If not, then what’s the point? Admit you’ve lost your religion and embrace your atheism! If you’re clinging to a few choice concepts, is there there ANYTHING inherent in these beliefs that actually sets it apart from other more generalised statements about good practice? And on a broader level, why do people even feel the need to invoke and protect the whole concept? Is it a misplaced sense of brand loyalty? Is it just because you get to hang with the cool kids, even if only online? Or is it simply a cover. a shield to hide behind in case the flak flies too hard and fast?

I guess in a sense what I’m asking is why don’t the smart, young, motivated teachers who use Dogme as part of their calling card simply ditch the badge and start talking about what they believe about teaching instead? There’s a kind of collective madness inherent in jumping to the defence of a tag or a label that’s out of your control and that others will take to mean whatever they want it to mean. If you believe that classrooms would be better off if we all stopped using any published materials and all just had loads of conversations and reformulated, why not just pitch those ideas as exactly that? If you’re interested in critiquing published materials whilst using them, then great: write a paper or conference talk or a blog post about that: recognise these ideas were around before Dogme and have a life outside of their appropriation. Know your roots and talk your own truth. It is, of course, The Only Way (TM).

Dissing Dogme: Part One

In the greater scheme of things, there are obviously many many things about ELT that annoy me way more than Dogme does – or should! There’s the continuing dominance of the atomistic structure-by-structure building block approach to syllabus design that dominates (the great irony being, of course, that Dogme is born out of an antagonism to many of these coursebooks in much the same way as my own career as a writer was!); there’s the tech evangelists for whom technology in the classroom is the magic bullet that will heal all ills . . . and don’t even get me started on the NLP snake oil salesmen, whole brain training charlatans and multiple intelligence madness! I’ve always enjoyed watching Scott Thornbury talk, and would like to say I regard him as a kind of friend, on the TEFL conference circuit at least, and have good relations with many of the other folk involved in spreading the Dogme dogma. I think anything that encourages teachers to listen more to their students, to treat them first and foremost as people rather than language-producing machines, and to use student output as the basis for reformulated whole-class input is essentially a power for good and should be encouraged, as there’s still way too many teachers unable – or unwilling – to do such fundamentals in class. And yet somehow the way in which Dogme has become such a noisy sub-culture and so prone to self-aggrandizing claims (or boasts, if you prefer) gets my back up. Since unleashing the crude attack dog approach of Simon Kent on Dogme the other day, I’ve been trying to articulate to myself exactly what it was that was bugging me about something that in so many ways I’m in broad agreement with.

What I aim to do over the next couple of weeks is to go through a kind of blow-by-blow account of my grievances, and to see how (or, indeed, IF!) folk out there respond.

My first gripe could perhaps cynically be seen as the sour grapes of a materials writer in desperate need of more love and affection, I suppose, but one thing that particularly annoys me is the way much of the debate has become framed around coursebooks versus non-coursebooks. Dogme has always had a ‘vow of chastity’ element that forswears coursebooks or, indeed, originally, any materials, and recent blog phenomena such as Chia Suan Chong’s ongoing ‘teach off‘, whereby a Dogme teacher takes on a coursebook-driven teacher drive this angle home with a vengeance.

The root of my anger here is that such rhetoric reduces all coursebooks to a homogenous whole, all are seen as equally bad, and as a result teachers are essentially encouraged to disengage from learning how to ‘read’ coursebooks and to assess and discuss the differences between them, the agendas that drive each one, the angles they have, and the reasons why they are the way they are. It seems blindingly obvious to me that a good teacher can manage a good lesson with even poor classroom material, and can do great things with better materials, whilst a less experienced or competent teacher can barely scrape by even if supported by great materials – and would surely struggle to do anything of any value in a Dogme-style lesson. Part of the problem is that Dogme is founded on a kind of cult of the individual, a belief deeply rooted in both British ELT and, as I argued earlier on this blog, the 60s and 70s counter-culture. There’s a feeling that material is there to be messed with: and in this age of Web 2.0 and all the interactivity it offers, this has become the general modus operandi of many younger teachers in their life at large as well. This is all well and good, and obviously all good teachers mediate material for their learners. One of my fears is that actually the twin rhetoric of the individual over all else and of anti-coursebooks actually inadvertently influences the way teachers think about materials, and leads to desperate attempts to reinvent wheels that have not even been fully understood as such! It’s depressing to count the number of times I’ve observed teachers using coursebooks in weird ways – starting with exercise five, say, then doing the final practice before finally going back to exercise 1 – and, on asking why, I’m usually told something along the lines of ‘Well, you can’t just teach it as it is, can you? You have to interpret it and do it the way that suits you best’.

This is born out of a materials illiteracy – a failure to grasp why things are structured in the way they are – as much as a desire to break free of perceived shackles. For me, mediating materials is far more about teaching what’s there, but exploiting the LANGUAGE that comes up – both within the materials themselves AND as part of the students’ own output / speaking in response to questions in the book. For my own teaching, in many ways I could be accused of being stuck in that I generally just pick a book up (and, admittedly, I am frequently in the rather singular position of those books being things I’ve co-authored myself!) and start with exercise 1 and move on to 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, regardless of the class. Where the tailoring to class needs and interests and desires comes in is through their responses to questions, through the way they respond and the anecdotes that emerge as a result of this interaction.

I recently observed a class where the teacher was doing a double-page spread based on injuries and illness. It began with some speaking, which asked students to discuss a few questions related to the topic. The teacher I saw began with a complicated running dictation which resulted in students writing down questions – and then discussing them – before starting the book. When we were discussing the lesson afterwards, I asked what the point of the intro had been only to be told it was a warmer, to help generate interest in the topic. When I asked what the teacher thought the point of the speaking in the book was, the teacher looked nonplussed before the penny finally dropped!

Now, obviously, this isn’t Dogme’s fault and many Dogmeticians would just say the fault is relying on coursebooks and that it would’ve been better if the teacher had gone materials-free. However, by refusing to engage with published materials, you close off a large part of teachers’ potential learning and development. Whether you like it or not, most teachers around the world use and rely on coursebooks in class. Dogme is but a tiny drop in a much bigger ocean in this respect, and as long as it sticks to such rigid ‘rules’ as materials-free has little to say about the realities of these teachers. One great irony is that there are countless teachers out there who would kill for books and classroom materials. A mate of mine is running an incredible project across two schools in the tiny blighted West African nation of Guinea Bissau, and I recently shipped over a container full of ancient EFL and French teaching books, which have been received by teachers living on five dollars a day as if they were manna from heaven. Presumably, though, they’d all be better, more committed teachers if they just burned the lot and made do on the resources they have?

Coursebooks are a lifeline for many teachers: they provide structure, content, language, pacing, support. To deny this is to dismiss the realities of these teachers’ lives and realities. This isn’t to say that helping teachers learn to improvise and riff off students is bad. Far from it. It’s just saying that is is not – and cannot ever be – the be all and end all.  The pursuit of good teaching would be better served by trainers also thinking about how to make teachers more aware of what’s happening with materials – and why and how best to exploit the material – and of course this must include leaving space for students.

Another issue, as mentioned above, is the assumption that all coursebooks are equally bad and all equally ill-suited to tackle students’ needs and desires in anything other than a crass and superficial way. Ask anyone who writes published ELT materials seriously, as opposed to mainly for money, and they’ll tell you they’re driven by agendas not dissimilar to those the Dogme folk are interested in. For me personally, much of my early writing was driven by the conviction that coursebooks failed to represent language – and particularly spoken language – as it was truly was: lexico-grammatical. More recently, whilst sticking with this theme, I’ve also become much more interested in cultural issues, representation and so on. Ben Goldstein, with things like Framework and The Big Picture, is exploring issues around representation, imagery and taboos; Lindsay Clandfield is interested in bringing literature to the fore, fronting serious issues over pop trivia and so on. All of us, in our ways, have tried to challenge the status quo brought about by the huge success of Headway, though I’m sure all of us would also be honest enough to recognise the craft and skill that’s gone into the creation of successive generations of Headway as well, and to accept that, on its own terms, it’s  a very well-written book. It’s just one whose key ethos I don’t buy into. My point here is, I guess, that OTHER key driving forces and beliefs are available!

Finally, there’s a failure to recognise that coursebooks act as agents of change. There was a great article on this subject many moons ago in the ELTJ that I’d recommend you all read. The gist, though, is that coursebooks are ways of presenting change by numbers, of reducing the fear the majority of teachers have of change and making slow shifts of focus in the broader field accessible. To give just one example of how this works, think of the fact that Outcomes, Global and Framework all feature plenty of non-native speaker accents, a phenomenon that was inconceivable just twenty years ago. Through such publications, these issues move from the leftfield and the avant garde into the mainstream in a way that would be nigh-on impossible otherwise.

To live in a world in which coursebooks are the devil is to deny all of the above.

I defy any of you to justify the existence of such a world!

Some foggy notion? Dogme in ELT

Today I’m pleased to present my first guest blog post, written by an old friend of mine called Simon Kent.

Simon is a teacher at London Metropolitan in north London, but may perhaps be better known to some of you as one of the authors of both the Market Leader and Language Leader series. What follows are his thoughts on the Dogme trend that’s been sweeping hipper circles of ELT these last few years. I’ve plenty to say on the matter myself, but thought this might serve well as an opening salvo.

Take it away, Simon . . . .

Much has been made of Dogme in ELT since Scott Thornbury’s initial article in 2000. It now counts as a ‘movement’ in ELT , with a discussion forum, conference papers  and  its own very well attended symposium at last year’s IATEFL conference In Brighton. Followers and more recent converts also have a holy text in the award winning ‘Teaching Unplugged’   (Delta publishing 2009). But, what does it really offer?  If I understand correctly, in essence Dogme (like the Danish film movement it derives its name from) is all about a return to basics, originally a focus on the uncluttered purity of film making, or in this case, teaching.  Set free from the tyranny and excesses of the modern course book, the idea seems to be that this will herald a new age of awareness among teachers and students.

Although at first glance these ideas may seem attractive, underneath there lurks another agenda, or more reactionary subtext.

1 It is Anti teacher

As the Dogme proponents themselves say, the three guiding principles are that it is (a) conversation driven, (b) materials light, and (c) focused on emergent language. Well, I take this to mean that teachers need to engage with, and talk to, their students, and listen to what they say, and deal with the results. Well, what’s new about this? Isn’t this what any sensible teacher does, and what goes on in classrooms anyway? No material, course book or otherwise, is unmediated. The teacher is a conduit. Where are all these teachers who blindly follow course books without reference to themselves or the students sitting in front of them? The assumption to me seems a bit insulting. Can the world really be full of unprofessional teachers who spend hours after hours slavishly following course books without reference to their students’ language needs, interests and desires. All teaching is a voyage of discovery for student and teacher alike. It’s a bit like what my friend Hugh Dellar said to me about a class some years ago: “I never thought I could have anything in common with someone who likes Phil Collins.”

In fact ‘Teaching Unplugged’ is chock full of activities which any teacher worth their salt should have at their disposal, but which are not really enough on their own. The Dogme proponents seem to be saying to teachers who may use a course book, “you’re not doing it right”.

2. It is Anti student

The ideology is really pretty unmediated. Underpinning the three principles is the notion that somehow the students are fully formed in terms of their ideas, opinions and thoughts, and simply lack the language to express them. I would suggest that some students fall into this category (perhaps particularly, though not exclusively, in a Business English environment), but that many people are in a language classroom for much more than just language. They are there to learn ‘stuff’’, develop an aesthetic, interact with others, and expand their knowledge of the world and the way they feel about it. Some students even attend language courses as a way to sort out their personal lives, and indeed their motives are far removed from pure language learning The idea that all students lack is the language they need to communicate what they already want to say is absurd. Part of learning is language but also exploration of things not seen, heard or thought about before.

In some cultures the idea that the student ‘teaches ‘ themself is seen as confusing, contradictory and a dereliction of duty on the part of the teacher. Materials may be seen as a key part of the learning process. In some parts of the world the idea of developing a conversation in front of a class of people is simply alien. I can imagine a new teacher bounding into a class of Japanese students head held high and saying “ right, we’re going to have a real good time together- let’s have a conversation.” It’s almost inviting the teacher to fail.

3. It is Anti industry

Now, I’m no apologist for the EFL publishing industry, quite the opposite in fact, however it is part of the lifeblood of the profession. Who sponsors and helps pay for many of the key industry conferences and events? It is not perfect, far from it, but there is probably enough good stuff coming out each year to indicate a vibrant industry. This is important. It is a sign of health that all sorts of courses and books are coming out.

It is easy to see course book writers as the lackeys of publishers, as most EFL publishing these days is market- driven. With their focus groups and research questionnaires, publishers are loath to do anything without prior market approval. However, it all comes down to teachers in the end.  In my experience publishers rarely listen to anyone other than the markets (teachers) about anything. Dogme is a negative approach in the sense that it sees publishing as corrupting rather than aiding teaching. It seems to see published materials as trying to come between student and teacher rather than helping to bridge the gap.

The image which is invoked by the self-styled Dogmeticians is an MTV one of being Unplugged (see above), so at the end of last year there was an opportunity to see a ‘Dogme’ lesson by Luke Meddings ‘live and unplugged’ at the British Council, London. Filmed for posterity, it was a 45-minute class with a group of 13 students from the Wimbledon school of English.

(See link below)


It began, a little unfortunately, with squalling ‘ White Light/ White Heat’ era Velvet Underground feedback noise, due to microphone problems. To teach a live lesson is to be admired, but really what we saw was the information gathering part of the Dogme approach. What would have been more interesting would have been to see the following class and how the raw material provided by the students was developed into teaching material. There wasn’t much ’ conversation ’. The students were asked how they felt, and predictably “ nervous” was the almost universal one word response. A series of communicative tasks were then built around this single piece of information. It was all very nice, if quite teacher directed. However, the students didn’t seem to actually learn anything new. At the end, when someone in the audience asked what it was the students had got out of the lesson, and they were asked directly- one Japanese girl gave the biggest shoulder shrug I’ve ever seen- I thought her arms were going to come off.  Ironically, the only new word learned by the students was ‘feedback’, (rather than ‘horrible noise’ as one student called it.) They did, understandably, all look a bit horrified when, at the end , Luke slipped into the more  usual  teacher use of the word and said “Now , let’s have some feedback! ”


I confess that I do have some sympathy with the Dogme proponents in the sense that there does seem to have been a concentration on fewer and bigger courses by publishers. Where we differ is that, far from discouraging teachers from using coursebooks, we should be encouraging teachers to demand more of, and from them, their publishers, and writers. After all, these days publishing is “market driven”, full of focus groups and research teams hell bent on re-purposing content, and ‘offerings’. The point is publishers cannot do it alone – they need input from teachers i.e. people at the coalface, to produce lively stimulating and relevant material.

Finally, to return to the musical analogy, the title ‘Teaching Unplugged’ also seems misplaced. It obviously comes from the series of MTV concerts where musicians played their songs ‘unplugged’ and acoustically. However, as many of these performances were not actually acoustic, the title is more about the atmosphere, intimacy and perhaps purity of the experience – i.e. unfettered by technology. The point is ‘plugged ‘or ‘unplugged’ you need some songs to play. Dogme to me is a bit like bad jazz. It seems to elevate technical ability over ideas, virtuosity over original thought, at worst a directionless self-indulgent meandering, mainly for the practitioner’s benefit.

So, to conclude, I’m not really sure what Dogme is offering teachers and their students. Although, at first glance there is an attraction, it is at best an illusion, an idea that is all presentation but which lacks substance- a ‘foggy notion’.  To use another musical analogy, what I’ve always liked about the Velvet Underground is the fact that their songs were much better than their own ability to play them. Dogme in ELT seems to me to be the opposite of this.