I was first introduced to the concept of Dogme ELT a few years ago. It was a very foreign concept to me at the time, but its attractive promise of an Materials Light approach was invigorating. This was at a time when I wanted to make lessons more Learner Centred and I wanted to spend less time on Lesson Planning in order to spend more time on the learners and on my Professional Development.
As you can probably imagine, Dogme seemed to offer all of that and more. Its only requirement was a group of learners and a knowledgeable teacher. Although since then I have learnt far more about the English language then I could have ever thought possible, at the time I felt confident in my understanding of the mechanics of English linguistics.
After purchasing the seminal piece on the topic, Teaching Unplugged by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings, I immersed myself into the world of dogme-esque ideas, activities and approaches.
Since then I have completed further training, including a course in Advanced Methodology, a Teacher Training certificate, and the Cambridge Delta, all of which has led me to re-evaluate my beliefs and principles about teaching and learning.
As a result, I have found myself coming back to Dogme, with varying results. However, I think this time I have come to a principled conclusion about going materials light.
What I have been trained to do
In all of my training courses, I have been instructed in one form or another to deliver lessons whose sole purpose is to meet Lesson Aims. This means that the direction, the rationale and the materials as well as the staging are pre-determined by the final aim: what is it the learners are supposed to be getting out of this lesson?
While there might be a number of issues with this approach, I have found three advantages:
- Most of the effort is made during the planning stage – delivering the lesson is remarkably easy, light and stress free
- Learners tend to notice a particular structure and focus, which gives them the impression of having learnt something
- Successful lessons can be saved and used again in the future
However, it isn’t all perfect. There are disadvantages, with the main one being the fact that a huge chunk of my time and effort is consumed by preparation and planning. In fact, by the time it comes to the lesson, I’m rather grateful that it can simply be delivered, giving me the chance to allow the learners to get on with the tasks and activities at hand and I can step back and watch the learning take place in this pre-planned and orchestrated environment.
Another disadvantage is the fact that veering off the pre-determined plan is pretty much unacceptable. The aim is to hit the Learning Goals, so doing anything else will mean not recaching those targets, which will have further ramifications for future pre-planned lessons in the syllabus. Each lesson has an aim; each lesson works towards covering all the nuggets of Language Learning.
What the problem is
As Scott Thornbury and others in the field have reiterated time and time again, the dissecting of language into bite size chunks simply isn’t conductive to building an effective Learning Process.
The reason for this is that while language does require some knowledge about the mechanics of the language, a significant proportion of the acquisition process is a question of automation: developing the skill to put language knowledge into actual use quickly and fluently. This usually cannot be achieved, or achieved with great difficulty, by guiding learners through a series of discrete language items, followed by revision sessions and summative assessment.
What’s more, the acquisition process is so complex and unique to each learner that in any given group, no matter how well they are placement tested, each individual will be at a different stage in the process. In fact, even with a typically standard Pre-Intermediate group, there will be some who are ready to acquire the Present Perfect, some who may have already acquired it but require further practice, and some who are not ready to acquire it. However, following the “McNugget” approach to language teaching, the lesson on the Present Perfect will be taught once, and if the group is really lucky there might be a revision session.
Following this approach, how can a teacher possibly ensure that all the learners have been given the opportunity at the right moment of their learning to acquire this tense? The answer is simple: they can’t.
What the solution might be
The solution to this problem will never be simple nor easy: language learning is hard work, teaching it is even harder. However, I have generally found that a Dogme approach has allowed me to do several things to help the learners:
- Teach them what they need at the current stage of their learning
- Allow them to engage in the Learning Process, using questions and queries to guide the direction of lessons and the course
- Develop tasks which view language from a holistic perspective, allowing all aspects of grammar and lexis to be revisited numerous times
However, this approach has left me still stuck with two persistent issues:
- Learners usually don’t identify a clear purpose or learning aim to a Dogme lesson
- This approach doesn’t conform with the principles of learning which schools, observers and course designers subscribe to
In fact, I have had observers basically been unable to comment on observed lessons due to the lack of a clear aim. While part of this will fall down to the abilities of the observer, what I can appreciate, however, is that the lack of focus in such lessons.
This has led me to wonder whether Dogme lessons should remain materials light, and thus very learner centred, but perhaps include an aim. Instead of going into the classroom with the question what should we learn today, what about going in with the thought today we need to cover the Present Perfect and then asking yourself: how can I make this happen with this group of learners?