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Learning Their Way: Dogme ELT

Dale Coulter

Learning Their Way: Dogme ELT - One Teacher's ViewpointIn an article published in 2000, Scott Thornbury called into question English language teaching's (ELT) over-reliance on published materials in classrooms, which Thornbury argues may actually make learning the language more difficult. The article quickly found sympathizers, who voiced similar concerns about language learning principles they considered to be restricting students' communication time with an overzealous use of published materials.  Their counter-proposal took the form of Dogme ELT, a materials-light approach to teaching, driven by the people in the room, their lives and their language.



These three ideas became the language learning pillars behind the approach with the publication of the first Dogme book, Teaching Unplugged, in 2009.

  • Dogme is about teaching that is conversation-driven
  • Dogme is about teaching that is materials-light
  • Dogme is about teaching that focuses on emergent language

(Meddings & Thornbury, 2009:7)

What is Dogme?

Dogme is an approach to teaching that goes beyond the traditional way of considering the language classroomin three important ways. First, students' language needs and their interests take the place of materials containing prescribed language points to be delivered by the teacher. Second, grammar and vocabulary work arise naturally during the lesson, but do not drive the lesson. Third, the classroom becomes a no-go zone for the English language textbook. In other words, Dogme puts the learner back at the centre of the language learning process.

The thinking behind this move is that students can recall and internalize language with more success if it is immediate and relevant to them. Practitioners of Dogme say that ELT classrooms had experienced an invasion of materials in the form of copious photocopies, workbooks, tapes, tape-scripts, flashcards, transparencies, and technological gimmicks. They argue that students, however, find personalized contexts much more engaging,, so teachers should strive to encourage students to find their own reading and listening texts in addition to the conversation they provide.

Some Theoretical Aspects

Some of the linguistic theory behind the approach is as follows:

  • Language learning is an emergent phenomenon—self-organizing and coming from the learner, not imposed by some external structure;
  • Teachers engage learners in real-life communication, pushing them to produce more language and become more engaged in the accuracy of their message for genuine and authentic social interaction;
  • The environment created in a Dogme classroom is even more conducive to learning because it lowers learners' affective filter enough for them to feel uninhibited in a second language;
  • Language is more personalized and gives learners more ownership over their utterances in class, which can lead to higher motivation.

Dogme from a teacher's perspective:

Dogme involves putting the learner back at the center of the language learning process. Previous communicative language teaching methods relied on teacher or syllabus decisions regarding classroom content, with a traditional table-and-chair layout to the classroom and rigid lesson plans. Dogmeticians, on the contrary, generally express a preference for more equal, circular seating( giving students the power to decide the day's language focus or topic for class) and using very few materials—many opt for board pens, a pen, and some paper.

Such a minimalist pedagogy undoubtably puts more strain on what Thornbury refers to as “inflight teaching skills” (Thornbury, 2010), which tend to be masked by the use of ELT materials. It requires the teacher to listen very carefully and make on-the-spot decisions regarding language focus, skills focus, and practice activities. What’s more, teachers lacking classroom experience could find such a task overwhelming and therefore may choose to shy away from putting their necks on the line.

Nevertheless, a well-prepared and earnest attempt to teach in this way pays high dividends for both parties involved. On the teacher's side of things, there's a lot to be said about the confidence boost you can get from the knowledge that you can use your teaching skills to deal with students' difficulties learning English on-demand. On top of that, you might just find out something brand new about your students, so why not give it a try?

For further information on Dogme Language Learning:

And of course, my own blog,


Thornbury, S., & Meddings, L., Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching', DELTA Publishing, 2009.

Thornbury, S., Doing a Dogme Lesson, 2010

Thornbury, S. A Dogma for ELF, IATEFL Issues 153, Feb/March 2000


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