Implications for teachers
- The importance of genuinely involving students and creating conditions for authentic interactivity
In language class, we as teachers want to give our students opportunities for real communication in the target language. Often we find the “personalization” activities in many course books hint at this, yet somehow fall short. Learners do these activities, but often, provide little beyond minimum output to complete the task.
Yet Dörnyei reminds us to “Find out what [our] students’ goals are and what topics they want to learn about, then build these into your curriculum as much as possible,” (2001: 63). If students are genuinely interested in something, they will want to talk about it. Asking students what they want to learn (and really listening) shows the teacher accepts students’ interests as valid. At the same time, it empowers students to make decisions about their learning, which becomes a collaborative process between all present.
Teachers may ask students to prepare a short presentation on a topic of interest and use those as lesson catalysts. If subjects are imposed by the school, a mandatory course book, etc., teachers can ask students their opinions on the topics or what they would like to know about them and build the lesson from there. The key idea here is to allow students to drive their learning.
- Balancing focus-on-form activities with focus-on-fluency activities
While many learners come to English class to practice speaking English, it must not be forgotten that they do not come only to speak. Learners expect many things from their class—opportunities to build fluency, help learning new vocabulary, pronunciation practice, error correction, grammar explanations, and sometimes more.
A study carried out by Ollerhead and Oosthuizen (2005) found that groups of learners who received form-focused activities and explicit error correction in addition to fluency activities outperformed groups of learners who only focused on meaning in terms of both accuracy and fluency. They pointed out though that this focus on form came “within a relevant, communicative context,” (Ollerhead and Oosthuizen 2005: 81) not in isolated grammar exercises.
In placing learning in a conversation-driven context, Dogme provides the relevancy that makes focus on form meaningful. Teachers must not be afraid to incorporate various forms of explicit study into class sessions at various points in the learning process. In his practical article “Why Study Language?” (1999), Jeremy Harmer provides several ways of doing so, all the while varying the form of study, as do Meddings & Thornbury in Teaching Unplugged.
- 3. Careful pacing to avoid slowness
Hess underlines the importance of pacing, noting that “without correct pacing, we can lose control and make our students either bored or frustrated (2001: 9). In Dogme lessons, this can present a challenge because not only must the teacher (perhaps in collaboration with the students) decide how to deal with emergent language but also when to change activities, if and how to scaffold, how much time to allocate to certain activities, etc.
In Dogme, these decisions all depend on what is happening and how learners react, which means teachers cannot pre-plan class rhythm. It may be useful for teachers using Dogme to consciously develop their pacing skills through feedback, reflection, and developmental activities like the ones included in Jim Scrivener’s Classroom Management Techniques (262-265).
Coming to class with a mental supply of activities that can be done with no extra resources can also help pacing. This way the teacher can offers extra ways of engaging with the target language to early finishers. Starting a teaching journal to record successful activities of this type can be useful, all the while contributing to reflective practice.
- 4. Materials can and do have a precious place in unplugged lessons
Despite its reputation, Dogme is not anti-materials. This experiment tested an extreme form of Dogme and while learner reactions were generally positive to the approach, the learners did indicate that they would have appreciated some texts, exercises, and other traditional tools of a language classroom.
The key to reconciling Dogme and materials lies in choosing those which “support the establishment of a local discourse community, and which foster the joint construction of knowledge,” (Meddings and Thornbury 2009: 12). This may mean inviting students to contribute materials or taking in materials as stimulus, vehicles of information and springboards for discussion. Texts as linguistic objects are equally acceptable (and even desirable) providing that the choice of language focus comes from the gaps in learners’ interlanguage noticed by the teacher.
Admittedly, this experiment is limited in scope—two monolingual groups of students, working over one semester, with one teacher. To have a more reliable understanding of Dogme as seen by learners, further research into their attitudes to and appreciations of an unplugged approach is needed. Ideally, this project would incorporate teachers in different countries to account for cultural differences in learner groups.
It would also be interesting to prolong the experimental period, in order to see how sustainable Dogme ELT could be. In the feedback, a few students mentioned that it was hard to get used to such a different approach, while others said they liked it because it was effectively different. Over a longer period—one or even two years—would they get used to Dogme and enjoy helping build the lessons or would it just become the next routine method?
A broader study would also help us better understand the qualities of a good Dogme teacher, possibly with the aim of incorporating these into teacher training programs. While I am in no way suggesting that all teachers should be formatted “Dogmeticians” offering trainee teachers concrete considerations for successfully unplugging as well as advice for seizing and exploiting “Dogme moments” in lessons could help them become more attentive to the gaps in learners’ interlanguage so as to find ways to best fill those gaps. It also has the potential to shape the way they approach the trade of teaching.
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