Is Dogme “really bloody difficult”?

I’ve just come across a video by Dmitriy Fedorov called Teaching Unplugged: Scott Thornbury versus Hugh Dellar where we see both Thornbury and Dellar talking about Dogme. Federov ends by siding with Dellar’s view, which is that teaching unplugged is “a huge ask” and “really bloody difficult”. The Dellar clip used in Fedorov’s video is from a 2017 presentation: Teaching House Presents – Hugh Dellar on Speaking, during which he offers a short rant against Dogme as evidence to support his view that speaking activities need careful preparation, including anticipating what students are likely to say, so as to avoid being caught “on the spot”, unable to offer the required pedagogic support. I’ll argue that Dellar’s “evidence” puts the limitations of his own view of ELT on show, and unfairly dismisses Dogme.

Here’s the clip. To start, click on the arrow, and to stop, click anywhere inside the video frame.

Here’s a transcript:

In Dogme teaching you’re kind of working from what the students say.

Seems a lovely idea, but it’s really bloody difficult to do because what you need to be doing is

  1. getting the students speaking
  2. listening to them all as they’re speaking and wandering around cajoling those who aren’t speaking
  3. noticing gaps in their language
  4. thinking about how to say those things better in a more sophisticated way
  5. getting that language on the board while they’re still talking
  6. thinking about what you’re going to gap on the board, what questions you’re going to ask about it, how you’re going to get the students to use some of that language

And you’re going to have to do all of that on the spot. It’s a huge ask and it’s one of the reasons why Dogme doesn’t exist outside of Scott Thornbury’s head.   

Let’s start at the end. Dellar’s jokey remark that Dogme doesn’t exist outside Scott Thornbury’s head was made five years ago, by which time Dogme was already famous. Today, a Google search on “Dogme and language teaching” gives approx. 327.000 results in half a second. Thousands of articles, blog posts, podcasts, and discussion groups attest to the growing popularity of Dogme among language teachers around the world. Among the first fifty results of the Google search I did, I found these:

  • Nguyen & Bui Phu’s (2020) article “The Dogme Approach: A Radical Perspective in Second Language Teaching in the Post-Methods Era”, which gives an interesting discussion of Dogme,
  • Coşkun’s (2017) article “Dogme: What do teachers and students think?”, which presents the findings of a study carried out at a Turkish school exploring the reactions of EFL teachers and their students to three experimental Dogme ELT lessons prepared for the study. Coşkun’s study includes detailed accounts of the lessons, and it serves to highlight the poverty of Dellar’s description of Dogme as “kind of working from what the students say”.

It’s important to note that, in a 2020 interview, Thornbury said he thought it had been a mistake to make conversation part of the  three pillars of Dogme. “What really should be said, is that Dogme is driven not by conversations, but by texts… texts meaning both written and spoken”. Meddings and Thornbury have made clear in a number of publications and interviews that the Dogme approach does not, pace Dellar, involve teachers strolling unprepared into class and asking students what they fancy talking about. It involves planning and extensive use of a wide variety of oral/ written / multimodal texts, some created by the students and some provided by the school. It also includes a lot of attention to different kinds of feedback, including attention to vocab., lexical chunks, pronunciation and grammar.

Dellar’s dismissal of Dogme as too bloody difficult stems from viewing it through the distorting lens of his own approach to teaching. He thinks that if teachers don’t have a coursebook to lean on, a coursebook that organises speaking activities around pre-selected bits of the language, provides lead-ins and warm-ups and post-speaking follow-up and consolidation work, then they’ll have to do all this stuff “on the spot” – which is, he thinks, “a huge ask”. In their book “Teaching Lexically”, Dellar & Walkley recommend working with a coursebook – one of the Outcomes series, for example – which provides a syllabus made up of activities designed to teach pre-selected bits of language (“items” as they call them) in a pre-determined sequence. The teacher uses the coursebook to lead students through multiple activities in each lesson, few of them lasting for more than 20 minutes and even fewer giving students opportunities to talk to each other at any length. The English language is presented to learners, bit-by-bit. via various types of grammar and vocab. summary boxes, plus carefully-designed oral and written texts. Activities include studying these language summaries, comprehension checks, fill-the-gap, multiple choice and matching exercises, pattern drills, and carefully-monitored speaking activities. The special thing about Dellar & Walkley’s coursebooks is that they pay particular attention to lexis, collocations and lexical chunks, and the special thing about Dellar is that he’s particularly enthusiastic about explicitly teaching as many lexical chunks as possible. The upshot of this approach is that the majority of classroom time is devoted to explicit teaching, i.e., to the teacher telling the students about the target language.

Dellar treats education as the transmission of information, a traditional view which is challenged by the principles of learner-centred teaching, as argued by educators such as Paul Friere, and supported in the ELT field by Thornbury, Meddings and other progressive educators. Compare this transmission of information view of education (the “banking” view as Friere called it) to the Dogme approach, where education involves learning by doing. Dynamic interaction among the teacher and the students and the negotiation of meaning are key aspects of language teaching. Students often chose for themselves the topics that they deal with and they contribute and create their own texts; most of classroom time is given over to tasks which involve using the language communicatively and spontaneously; the teacher reacts to linguistic problems as they arise rather than introducing, explaining and practicing pre-selected bits of the language.   

Dogme teachers reject the view that each lesson should specify in advance what items of the language will be taught, and they reject the view that some explanation of the new items is a necessary first step. Instead, they use a task -> feedback sequence, where working through multi-phased communicative tasks involves pair and group work which takes up at least half of classroom time. The unplanned language that emerges during the interaction among students and teachers as they work through tasks includes errors and communication breakdowns. Teachers use recasts and other types of punctual intervention to help students express themselves, and they subsequently provide more lengthy, explicit information about the lexis and the pronunciation and grammar issues which arose during the task peformance in the feedback session.

An example of a Dogme lesson is given in Meddings & Thornbury (2009, p. 41)

Slices of life

  1. Teacher draws a pie chart on the board and splits it in three: like, don’t like, don’t mind.
  2. Students ask teacher about their likes / dislikes. Teacher replies and students put things into the three categories depending on the response.
  3. Students then work in pairs repeating the same activity with each other, while the teacher moves around from one pair to the next, helping students with their language.
  4. The whole class comes together and different students’ likes and dislikes are compared.
  5. Teacher gives language feedback.

Also, see Coskun’s (2017) description of the 3 lessons involved in her study (the article is free to download).  

If we look again at the list of all the things that Dellar thinks a teacher “needs to be doing” when “working from what the students say”, it clearly reflects his belief in the importance of explicit instruction; it indicates that he’s thinking about the sort of speaking activities you find in coursebooks like Outcomes; and it suggests that he has little grasp of what a Dogme approach entails. Why should it be so difficult to deal with students speaking? When the class is together – in Part 2 of the Slices of life task above, for example – students speak one at a time, and the teacher can deal quickly with language problems as they arise, through prompts and recasts, putting new vocabulary and short grammar notes on the board. During pair or group work – Parts 3 & 4 of the example – the teacher moves from group to group, listening in, giving help with vocabulary and pronunciation, and making some quick comments on errors – through recasts, for example. The teacher takes notes of useful vocabulary and of pronunciation and grammar issues and these can be written on the board while the students finish up their discussion by going back over the main points. When the whole class comes back together to report on how they did the task and discuss their different likes and dislikes – Part 5 – the teacher reacts to what they say as in Part 2. In the final part of the lesson, the teacher goes through the points that have been highlighted during the session and makes a few final remarks.

There is a fast-growing collection of literature contradicting Dellar’s insinuation that a Dogme approach makes unreasonable demands on teachers. The evidence shows that increasing numbers of teachers find the Dogme approach not just more stimulating and enjoyable than using a coursebook, but also less complicated and less stressful.  When their students are engaged in a communicative task, Dogme teachers don’t report getting stressed out trying to think of “better”, “more sophisticated” ways of expressing what the students are saying, because they don’t share Dellar’s dedication to explicit teaching. While students work together in groups talking about a problem or topic they’ve been asked to discuss, Dogme teachers don’t wander around the classroom trying to think of the most appropriate language to fill the gaps they’ve noticed, or what gapped sentences they should write on the board, or what questions they should ask, or how they’re going to get the students to use the language they come up with. In other words, while the students are doing a task, Dogme teachers are not doing all the things that Dellar thinks they need to be doing.

The communicative tasks which make up a Dogme lesson don’t have the same aim as the speaking activities found in coursebooks. While the speaking activities in coursebooks are attempts to automate previously taught declarative knowledge, the communicative tasks that provide the backbone of Dogme teaching aim to give rise to unpredictable, spontaneous, emergent language which pushes the students’ developing interlanguage. Using current language rescources to carry out these tasks is how most of the learning happens; it’s the key to interlanguage development. It’s learning by doing – learning how to use the language by using texts and participating in authentic communicative exchanges, not by being told about it. This implicit learning leads directly to the procedural knowledge needed for listening comprehension, spontaneous speech, and fluency. So while Dellar’s question “How am I going to get the students to use this language?” is an important one for teachers using coursebooks, it’s a redundant question for Dogme teachers.

Still, we know that certain types of teacher intervention can speed up the rate of interlanguage development, and that it’s not enough to just get students talking about things in class. To do Dogme well, teachers need their bosses’ support: it’s not the teacher’s job to design and provide the curriculum. So they need access to a materials bank which includes a variety of texts to provide rich input, and a variety of tasks suitable to the varying needs and current levels of proficiency of the students. They also need experience in scaffolding tasks and giving feedback, and that calls for some expert training, on-going PD, including collaboration among colleagues, and lots of practice. But no teacher should be disuaded from putting down the coursebook and trying Dogme just because Dellar thinks it’s all “a huge ask” and too bloody difficult.  

References        

Coşkun, A. (2017). Dogme: What do teachers and students think? International Journal of Research Studies in Language Learning, 6(2), 33-44. http://doi.org/10.5861/ijrsll.20.

Dellar, H. & Walkley, A. (2016) Teaching Lexically. Delta.

Meddings, L, & Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Delta.

Nguyen, N.Q., & Bui Phu, H. (2020). The Dogme Approach: A Radical Perspective in Second Language Teaching in the Post-Methods Era. Journal of Language and Education, 6(3), 173-184. https://doi.org/10.17323/jle.2020.10563

Thornbury, S. (2020) Interview -go to the Wikipedia page on Dogme and click on Fottnote 8.

One thought on “Is Dogme “really bloody difficult”?

  1. Nice post Geoff.

    Personally, I find Dogme incredibly liberating. After all, what could be more “bloody difficult” than trying to select published materials that happen to suit the needs and interests of my learners? What could be more bloody difficult than beating my learners over the head with pre-selected bits of grammar that they aren’t developmentally ready for instead of engaging them with opportunities to communicate about things they care about? What could be more difficult than the uphill battle of trying to push learners’ language development along by using their very limited classroom time on explicit teaching instead of letting them interact with rich, compelling input?

    I will say that Dogme requires more from a teacher, but in a good way. Teaching in such a way has led me to be highly engaged and has certainly re-awoken my own enthusiasm for the craft, and the feedback from my learners is almost unanimously positive with the approach. But as you say, it requires an entirely different way of thinking about teaching and learning, and dare I say, understanding a few things about SLA.

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