A Dogme Question

5 Sep

The other day I was participating in an excellent workshop by a colleague demonstrating how an unplugged lesson might go. Having initiated an entertaining and fruitful speaking activity, and having got the ‘students’ to board much of the dialogue, groups then decided what possible language points could be focused on to improve the range of the output.

The teachers came up with all kinds of ideas including question tags, question formation, slang for phone conversations, etc. The workshop then went on to demonstrate various possible practice activities, using the initial language/context, that didn’t require photocopies. We all went away happy and satisfied.

Then my usual internal cynicism and nay saying kicked in and I started to wonder about how this would have worked with certain colleagues I have observed numerous times over the last few years…

Colleague A: Only teaches lower levels and loves to correct errors, particularly ones were ‘rules’ can be taught. Every delayed feedback session invariably leads to an explanation of the difference between present perfect and past simple. Without fail.

Colleague B: Has been experimenting with TBL and Dogme but on a few occasions has perceived that students need exponents for expressing certainty, whether or not it was really relevant to what they were trying to say.

Both are able teachers and have been doing it a long time but always seem to perceive the same student needs. Hmm…

Thinking back to the workshop I then questioned my own choice of language point to work with (elision and substitution) and those of my peers. Would I ever have opted to focus on the language points they had chosen? Would they have ever considered mine? Maybe, but maybe not, and if not are the students any worse off?

All of this has led me to ask myself a few questions to which I have no answers:

• As a teacher, what can I do to make sure I don’t get stuck only helping students with the areas of language I’m most comfortable with?

• As an observer, how I can I help other teachers to expand the range of knowledge gaps that they pick up on?

• For teachers who are seriously restricted in terms of what they can notice (inexperienced/stuck in their ways), is a syllabus/coursebook such a bad idea? What if this is the only way that they will cover certain language points the students want and need to communicate effectively?

It could very well be that this is all just my own misunderstanding about some aspect of unplugged teaching, but any clarification would be greatly appreciated.

Help me oh wise ELT gurus…


15 Responses to “A Dogme Question”

  1. dalecoulter September 6, 2011 at 1:46 am #


    I found your article on the Dogme workshop very helpful. I’m thinking of running a workshop in the near future and both your article and the synopsis of the unplugged session on ELT Reflections both provided some useful insights into the structure of a session.

    I’m no guru, but I believe I can have a go at answering one of your questions:

    “As a teacher, what can I do to make sure I don’t get stuck only helping students with the areas of language I’m most comfortable with?”

    I asked myself the same question just over a year ago, fearing that my language focus was too dependent upon my strengths and lesson focused on the students’ weaknesses. Since then, I’ve kept a journal of my experience, which serves as a record of each lesson and contains:

    Language Focus

    In this section I keep the emerging language and subsequent language focus. This comes in handy for recycling and forms part of any assessment. I can also look back over it and identify patterns such as the areas of language I’m most comfortable/knowledgeable with or skills I focus on the most.

    What I learned

    This part contains lots of information about how students learn best, noted learning preferences, notes on the classroom environment, why activities did or did not work well.

    What they learned

    What did they learn today? How did they leave with that they did have when they entered the room?

    What I’d do differently next time

    Considering all of this, would I change anything if I could do the lesson again? Or, what other areas of emergent language/topics were there that I could have used? This part makes me more flexible for the next time that language point or that topic comes up in class; the ideas I have here give me more options in the classroom.


    • Ben Naismith September 6, 2011 at 8:58 am #

      Thanks Dale, you’re definitely right – a record of what language points I´ve focused on would be the best way to raise a little teaching self-awareness.

      Naturally I´m not a diary-keeping kind of guy, but it looks like I’ll just have to bite the bullet (or in true teacher fashion just suggest that others do it!)

      • dalecoulter September 6, 2011 at 11:08 am #

        It really helped me in the first two years of teaching and heightened my self-awareness – the record of everything made me so much more comfortable in the classroom. Helps as well that it reduces your planning time significantly!


  2. grahamcoke September 6, 2011 at 8:20 am #

    From my own experience with Dogme I can say the hardest part isn’t teaching on your toes, but knowing what to teach; in other words, what to listen for. I guess one of the main reasons is that you’re not only listening and categorising things students shouldn’t be saying, but also the ones they’re not saying and should be—a “negative” listening, if you will. This can sometimes be overwhelming and may cause you to miss on the right cue.

    One of the things that can be done to make these unstated needs more apparent is recasting the language the students produced without error and eliciting paraphrasing. Their not being able to reword in more than a couple of ways should trigger your “teacher sense”. Role-play is great for this because portraying characters forces you to reword things to fit their moods or intentions.

    And, yes, sometimes Dogme just doesn’t work. In silly love as I am with it, sometimes it creates really nice engaging activities whence nothing teachable comes. Now, this isn’t necessarily bad—you could warm the class up that way or go with the old “we were just developing skills”—but one should always have a more traditional lesson planned as a back up.

    • Ben Naismith September 6, 2011 at 9:04 am #

      I agree – noticing gaps in knowledge is a lot trickier than just correcting errors, especially at higher levels. I also do like to get students to modify their own output (changing register/genre, adding emphasis, different roles, etc.) which helps to spot their current limitations.

      Not so sure about the last statement though that you should always have a traditional lesson plan as a back up! I always have alternative tasks, but I don´t think they necessarily have to be language-focused.

  3. phil September 7, 2011 at 7:18 am #

    Hi Ben,

    Great topic.

    I’ll pitch in on:

    As an observer, how I can I help other teachers to expand the range of knowledge gaps that they pick up on?

    Record/video a 1 to 1 activity/class or a small group one then replay it and analyse it to see what different teachers pick up on. You could also do this ‘live’ with observers teachers or even students. Getting students to notice their own and theri friends problems/weaknesses is half the battle.

    Comparing different speakers is also good. I like the old TBL idea of asking students to do a task and then comparing it to a sample. This then shouldn’t be “we are naff and they are great” but how and why they are different and how could the sample be better too? A live listening would work well too.

    Hope this helps.


    • Ben Naismith September 7, 2011 at 9:07 am #

      Thanks Phil – for helping other teachers, I like the idea of using videos (which they can do on their own) and having them compare the language points they noticed.

      I’m a big fan of the TBL task you mentioned and have to admit that a lot of my teaching tends to be more TBL than Dogme (although it seems to me there’s a massive amount of overlap).

    • Chris Ożóg September 8, 2011 at 9:15 am #

      Hi Phil,

      I like your idea of recording a group activity and then having different teachers analyse it and see what comes out of that. This is more or less what we tried to replicate in a workshop on Dogme (https://eltstew.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/dogme-workshop/), where we tried an unplugged style activity and then had teachers brainstorm potential language points that might arise from the text they’d created if they were in class. I think it went well and there many different language areas brought up, from question tags to ellipsis.

      Your idea particularly appeals to me as it could be incorporated into a larger scale training series on Unplugged teaching. These recordings could be kept and used in different workshops. It also has the benefit of being genuinely authentic, whereas ours was simulated using teachers as demo learners. Food for thought, certainly.

  4. phil September 7, 2011 at 9:25 am #

    Ahhh. I started like that but then was pulled in more and more.


    What if this is the only way that they will cover certain language points the students want and need to communicate effectively?.

    Luke Meddings talks about copying the contents of the coursebook for students and I can see how it would work given the typical EFL coursebook topics. Basically, if you had the CEF levels and some ‘can do’ statements which you would tell students they’d be working towards you’d be at a good starting point. Then working on say, technology will naturally lead into the future and modals. I wouldn’t suggest having a future lesson activity to hand but as things pop up(either errors from interlanguage or a blatant need for language) you could work on them and then at the end of the class tick them off.

    I’ve seen this approach used in nursery education where activities and resources are set out in themes and then teachers video kids doing things and then compare them to learning goals and tick them off, using the photos as evidence. Of course, each kid naturally works at his/her own speed and does whatever they want.

    I think this would ‘cover are behinds’ from the views of students and directors etc and it would be clear CEF-wise if there were any gaps left at the end of the term which students should need to go up a level or to pass an EFL test.

  5. Ben Naismith September 7, 2011 at 9:51 am #

    Funny you should mention it as I just finished watching the video of Luke giving his presentation and talking about doing what you described. Seems a practical way to handle institutional constraints and student expectations while still catering to their immediate needs. At the school here we do use a system of can do statments and CEF levels so this should work well. Also, as the DoS, I can start advocating that teachers try it out and get feedback on the results.

  6. Anthony Gaughan September 7, 2011 at 3:14 pm #


    Very thought-provoking post! Here’s my tuppence’ worth:

    • As a teacher, what can I do to make sure I don’t get stuck only helping students with the areas of language I’m most comfortable with?

    delayed feedback (in extreme cases delayed til the next class) would afford the time to research areas where a teacher feels on thin ice. Naturally there is an opportunity cost in terms of immediacy and therefore potentially uptake, but as one of the more powerful tools in an unplugged toolkit is repetition and summary, re-establishing the context for a language exploration could become productive work in itself.

    • As an observer, how I can I help other teachers to expand the range of knowledge gaps that they pick up on?

    A simple observation protocol might help (thinking here either of a simple “lexis/structures/(semi-fixed expressions/functional chunks”-type grid.) The observers could each focus on a specific area for the duration, while the teacher (or another observer) notes what was actually targeted. These field notes could be triangulated to see where the teacher tends to focus and this can aid them in steering against this tendency in future – Tom Farrell has something to say about stuff like this: http://www.reflectiveinquiry.ca/

    • For teachers who are seriously restricted in terms of what they can notice (inexperienced/stuck in their ways), is a syllabus/coursebook such a bad idea? What if this is the only way that they will cover certain language points the students want and need to communicate effectively?

    This is interesting; it suggests that the teacher is less aware of the students’ specific linguistic needs and wants than the student body itself. In that case, why not ask them? If they know what language they want, and the teacher feels it’s in a blind spot for her or him, then delegate the monitoring and note-taking to the students. After activities, they can board examples of language they heard and discuss with the teacher how it could be refined or leveraged.

    Thanks again – hope these ideas are of some use!

    • Ben Naismith September 7, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

      Thanks Anthony, I’ll definitely be taking your advice regarding the observation protocol. It’ll be simple enough to put together a template that I can use myself when watching colleagues, but also as an observation task for Celtees watching TBL/Dogme lessons.

      Regarding the last point, I like the idea of having the students monitoring and giving feedback to the teacher. In some cases though it seems that neither the teacher nor the students can pinpoint what language points would be beneficial for them to study. For example, if the class are telling each other exciting stories but they are lacking language for emphasis, it might be userful to look at extreme adjectives, adverbs, so/such, emphatic do , etc. What happens then if neither the teacher nor the students recognize this, but just feel that ‘it could have been better’? I suppose by implementing the ideas everyone here has mentioned it’s possible to reduce or eliminate these occurences. With a little luck anyways…

  7. Chris Ożóg September 8, 2011 at 9:23 am #

    Good morning Mr Naismith,

    Here’s my quick thoughts about one of the questions you pose. One way for teachers who are interested in moving towards a more unplugged approach to start off is to start by working with coursebooks and using their syllabus to, dare I say scaffold, their thoughts on what to look for. Take for example the following situation, which may sound familiar:

    The C1 coursebook starts with reviewing the various uses of the present perfect before moving onto compare time expressions such as ‘this morning’ used with both the present perfect and past simple.

    Now, to most teachers just starting out, this would certainly be a problematic area, regardless of a coursebook or not. If the teacher unplugs the first half of the class either through conversation or setting up an unplugged activity and then listens for learner language related to the grammar point, they can then work with that later and use the book for any controlled practice activities they might want to employ. The advantage is that the language generated in the first half would have come from the students and the teacher would know exactly what they were looking for.

    • Ben Naismith September 8, 2011 at 9:37 am #

      Allo sir

      Your idea has lots of the things I like – using student ouput, not using the coursebook, conversation, but is it really dogme if you’ve already selected the language point you’re going to focus on? Still, I agree, it might be a manageable first step into the unknown for some teachers. It´s like when people trying out TBL for the first time pre-plan a couple of language points based on the task they’ve selected. Trick-based learning one trainee called it.

  8. phil September 8, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    I think Anthony is ‘the man’ when it comes to Dogme training but I would be VERY interested in seeing what and how you we go about training teachers in Dogme without the boundaries of the CELTA course. After the Barcelona Unplugged weekend it seems that there may be demand for Dogme training in some form but this seems to go against the whole idea for some. Stripping it down to teaching skills and ideas, like in the book, may be useful but as a teacher/learner I would love to try and discuss Dogme teaching with the FB of peers and TTs.

    I’m sure many people will go white when they think of this and possible ‘Dogme crash courses’ but I really think having some kind of course/seminar/conference/training would be popular. Or am I wrong?

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