Just How Incompatible are the CELTA Course and Dogme?

On Friday, 3rd Febrary, Scott published the Tweet, above. I replied

Scott replied:

And I replied:

Finally, Scott:

The exchange between Scott and me went on for a bit longer, and there were quite a few comments from others. We all, I’m pleased to say, kept it courteous and I think most of those who followed the discussion agreed with Scott’s point of view  – no surprises there.

In this post, I’d like to make to my case more fully. I’ll restrict it to ELT, but it applies also to teaching other additional languages.  

I want to start by saying (again!) how much I respect Scott, and how much I value much of his work. We agree about a lot, but we disagree about quite a lot, too. I hope that airing our disagreements will help promote constructive discussion and change.   

Scott, Peter Watkins and Sandy Millin have just published a second edition of Scott and Peter’s best-selling books on The CELTA course. As is evident from Scott’s reply to my initial Tweet, the 2nd edition attempts to address many of the criticisms made about CELTA, but I suggest that it remains a woefully inadequate pre-service course.

The CELTA website (Cambridge Assessment English, 2019) states that “tens of thousands” take the course every year at more than 2,800 centers in 130 countries around the world. A full-time course typically involves about 120 hours of work (homework apart) and lasts between four and five weeks.

The CELTA Syllabus consists of five modules:

  • Topic 1 – Learners and teachers, and the teaching and learning context
  • Topic 2 – Language analysis and awareness
  • Topic 3 – Language skills: reading, listening, speaking and writing
  • Topic 4 – Planning and resources for different teaching contexts
  • Topic 5 – Developing teaching skills and professionalism.

Assessment is a combination of marked written assignments, and continuous assessment of participation in tutorials classes and teaching practice, which is a vital part of the course, with trainees being required to teach students at two different levels.

The only attention given to learning a second language is in the first written assignment, but even here there is no requirement for trainees to investigate the process of second language learning or to discuss teaching implications.

Some general weaknesses of the course are:

  • It is far too short in duration.
  • While there is no requirement in the CELTA course that coursebooks be adopted, coursebooks are, in fact, widely used in the tutorials, class discussions and teaching practice.
  • The CELTA course descriptions make no mention of the distinction between synthetic and analytic syllabuses, or of the need to engage in any critical evaluation of the methodological principles which might inform pedagogical procedures.
  • The teaching practice fails to give trainees any real opportunities to learn how to teach
  • The course makes isolated practice of the four language skills a major part of the syllabus and a crucial influence on materials design. Skill separation makes little sense and is in fact, a remnant of the audiolingual era with little empirical or theoretical justification. All SLA research points to the need to integrate language skills for effective language teaching.
  • Brandt (2006) reports a number of problems with the teaching practice. Most trainees feel that success in teaching practice involves being seen to adequately use key techniques, such as transformation drills, marker sentences, counselling responses, concept questions, elicitation, and Initiation-Response-Feedback (IRF) routines. But since  different tutors have different, often contradictory, views about teaching techniques, trainees’ success or failure depends on keeping in tune with the particular preferences of whichever tutor is observing them.
  • Brandt also found that trainees felt they were not free to experiment and make mistakes without being judged; that they were given few opportunities to reflect on their performance; and that they perceived the purpose of their short teaching practice sessions (lasting from 40 to 60 minutes) as being to show what they could do, rather than to help the students to learn. This feeling among trainees that the teaching practice was something of a sham, that they behaved more like performing monkeys than genuine teachers, was echoed by responses from tutors who complained about experiencing “a dual, conflicting, role: that of guide (to the practising, developing teacher) and that of assessor (of the trainee’s performance)” (Brandt, 2006, p. 256).
  •  Brandt concludes that the CELTA framework fails to recognize the diversity and opportunities of each language learning classroom, and also fails to take into account the distinct contexts in which the course is offered around the world. The course encourages a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, restricting trainees’ opportunities to adequately prepare for the challenges they will face in their local environment, and promoting a view of teachers as “contextually-isolated technicians” (Brandt, 2006, p. 262). Furthermore, the teaching practice tends to treat language learners as ‘tools’ and ‘guinea pigs’, expecting them to jump through a set of hoops for the teachers’ convenience, and the lessons given by the trainees are thus a means of assessment, rather than opportunities for genuine practice.   

Regardless of all the efforts the authors of the 2nd edition of The CELTA Course  books have made to address these weaknesses and those highlighted by Scott in 2017 – the widespread assumption that a grammar-based, structural syllabus as laid out in coursebooks provides the framework for ELT; the predominance of IRF exchanges and display questions; the superficial treatment of texts, the high activity turnover and the prioritising of ‘fun’; etc., – the CELTA course remains an almost insultingly short preparation for the job of teaching English as an L2.

We arrive at the question: Just how incompatible are the CELTA Course and Dogme?  

I suggest the answer is: completely! Most importantly, perhaps, is Dogme’s underlying view of language learning. Scott, following Larson-Freeman, Nick Ellis and others, adopts an emergentist view of SLA which, pace  Krashen and a great many other prominent SLA scholars, claims that languages are not “acquired” but rather, language “emerges” through use. Without going into details here, the implication is that the kind of pedagogic grammar you find in coursebooks is a fiction, and that using a grammar-based syllabus as a framework for teaching English as an L2 contradicts the way emergentists understand language learning.

Scott is famous for lampooning the way teachers serve up innutritious “grammar McNuggets” to students and he applauds Long’s description of teachers haplessly throwing students bits of grammar as if they were zoo-keepers throwing fish to seals at the lunchtime show. Cutting up the target language into items and then presenting and practicing them in a pre-determined linear sequence on the assumption that this will lead to communicative competence is anathema to emergentists like Scott, who believe that language emerges when learners engage in communicative interaction.

The learner talks; others respond. It is the scaffolding and recasting, along with the subsequent review, of these learner-initiated episodes that drives acquisition, argue proponents of task-based instruction, with which Dogme ELT is, of course, aligned. ‘In other words, the emphasis shifts from the traditional interventionist, proactive, modelling behaviour of synthetic approaches to a more reactive mode for teachers – students lead, the teacher follows’ (Long, 2015, p. 70). Or, as Michael Breen (1985) so memorably put it: ‘The language I learn in the classroom is a communal product derived through a jointly constructed process’ (Thornbury, 2017).

It follows that teachers should not follow an externally-imposed syllabus; rather, they should scaffold student engagement in communicative activities and allow the syllabus to emerge as the course progresses.

It’s difficult to exaggerate the difference between the Dogme approach and the CELTA approach to ELT: they comprehensibly contradict each other! I know that Sandy Millin takes a different view, and I suspect Peter Watkins does, too. I assume that they are both sympathetic to organizing a course of English around a synthetic syllabus, to using a coursebook, to the use of drills, to explicit grammar teaching, to separate skills development, and so on. But Scott is not. Scott is the original creator of Dogme which, on the basis of an alternative, well-articulated understanding of language learning, urges teachers to free the classroom of published materials and coursebooks and to adopt a learner-centred approach where the L2 is treated more holistically, and where the learners and teacher co-construct an emergent knowledge of the L2 and how to use it.  

Scott says that he can live with the contradiction between the CELTA approach and the Dogme approach because “I’m confident that experience has taught me what is needed and feasible on preservice courses”. This is nonsense (sic). What is needed and feasible on preservice courses is an understanding of how languages are learned, an understanding of how to organize a course (i.e. syllabus design) and an understanding, gained partly thru guided practice, of classroom management. The CELTA course imparts no adequate understanding of any of this. It encourages participants to study English morphology, grammar and pronunciation in order to teach an English course which involves the teacher treating the language as an object of study, talking for most of the time, explaining the language, and organising the students to do some whole class / group /pair activities to “practice”. And let’s be crystal clear about one thing: despite everything Dogme has to say, the vast majority of CELTA courses worldwide use coursebooks in the teaching practice component of the course, and assure that when they’ve graduated, teachers will go on to use coursebooks in their jobs.  

There is, IMO, no rational way that Scott can reconcile writing this new edition of The CELTA Course while simultaneously writing books and doing courses which promote Dogme. To claim that CELTA gives a good foundation, while Dogme can help experienced teachers to improve their teaching is no justification for encouraging teachers to do a course whose methodological principles and pedagogic procedures flatly contradict those of Dogme. Dogme is a brave alternative, a rejection of the status quo in ELT, a call for radical reform which offers a bright, vibrant, efficacious learning experience. CELTA is an important pillar of established ELT practice which commodifies language education, fails students, and leads to de-skilled teachers doing precarious, badly-paid jobs.

CELTA makes an important contribution to current ELT practice. More than 90% of those currently teaching English as an additional language are non-native English speakers (British Council, 2015). Most of these teachers have done pre-training courses which echo CELTA’s reliance on the use of courseboks which implement a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus, and it’s shocking how many of them fall down in their ability to communicate fluently in English. The fault lies with the way they themselves were taught. Various studies cited in Jordan and Long (2022) give support to the view that, despite being told of the value of CLT in helping students use English for communicative purposes, and despite stating in their answers to researchers’ questions that they firmly believed in the value of spending classroom time on communicative activities, when the teachers’ classes were observed, it became obvious that their lessons were teacher-fronted, and that the vast majority of the time was spent using a coursebook to instill knowledge about English grammar and vocabulary. When asked to explain the mismatch, the teachers explained that they lacked confidence in their command of English.

A 1994 study by Reves & Medgyes (cited in Braine, 2005) asked 216 native speaker and non-native speaker English teachers from 10 countries (Brazil, former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Sweden, former Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe) about their experiences as teachers. The overwhelming majority of participants were non-native speakers of English, and in their responses, 84% of the non-native speaker subjects said that they had various difficulties using English and that their teaching was adversely affected by these difficulties. Difficulties with vocabulary and fluency were most frequently mentioned, followed by speaking, pronunciation, and listening comprehension. 

Unless we reform ELT practice, by taking Dogme, TBLT and other alternative approaches more seriously, this vicious circle will continue. Scott needs to appreciate that he can’t have his cake and eat it without damaging his own credibility and the hopes of a brighter future for ELT.