Dogme through students’ eyes – Part two – Initiating the experiment

Initiating the experiment

Jane Zeni discusses guidelines concerning ethics and action research, noting that subjects normally are protected from risk and pressure from authority figures such as teachers “if they are first informed…of the general nature of the study and what is expected of them” and “they give informed consent” (Zeni 2006: 15) It thus seemed ethical to inform students of the nature of the proposed experiment.

Although I was aware that this could modify the teacher-student relationship, I felt that it would build rapport and contribute to creating a “psychological climate of…mutual respect and trust” (Shoemaker 1991: 10) beneficial to the experiment. In the pre-course surveys, the positive notion of teacher-as-learner was present in 80 percent of the feedback, comforting my decision to inform students of the course’s experimental nature. This also allowed students to provide informed consent to participating, all of whom did.

During the first lesson, students were introduced to the notion of Dogme ELT through a guided discovery activity. I distributed two sets of cards, one with the cut-up definition of the Dogme 95 film movement the other with that of Dogme ELT, both from Teaching Unplugged. Here it is sufficient to present the definition of Dogme ELT:

A teaching movement set up by a group of English teachers who challenge what they consider to be an over-reliance on materials and technical wizardry in current language teaching. The emphasis on the here-and-now requires the teacher to focus on the actual learners and the content that is relevant to them. (Meddings and Thornbury 2009: 6)

Students reconstructed the definitions and were asked “How can this relate to you and this semester?” This led to discussion and language work based on the students’ questions and emergent vocabulary, making this the group’s first Dogme-style lesson.

Involving the students in setting up a Dogme classroom in this interactive way seemed important for several reasons. First, it put the students at the center of their learning about Dogme ELT. They learned about a language classroom model different from previously experienced models by working it out on their own and coming to the teacher as needed. In the learners’ initial impression of Dogme, they seemed to pick up on this; 68% of the comments compared the approach to a more traditional approach with the most common comparisons being “more interesting,” “more interactive,” and “allows better progression” (Rebuffet-Broadus, 2012).

Second, it allowed them to understand Dogme by doing it. On the surface, a Dogme lesson may look unprepared and improvised—“winging it elevated to an art form,” some critics have said. In the French educational system (and it is certainly not unique in this aspect), students often expect a strong teacher-fronted approach where the topic, the exercises, and the pace of the lesson come from the teacher. If they do not adhere to this model, the students risk feeling cheated, that the teacher is unprepared, or that he/she is too lazy to prepare lessons.

Dogme through students ‘eyes – Part One

This is part one of Christina Rebuffet-Broadus’ paper on her experiment with Dogme that she carried out in 2012 for a semester. She has kindly donated this paper to the blog and for this I am very grateful. Due to its length it has been necessary to break the paper up into a series of posts. For more details about Christina, please click on the contributors page and check out her excellent blog, iLoveTEFL.


Before looking at learners’ feedback on Dogme, it is important to establish the context from which the feedback was generated. As part of my Cambridge DELTA module 2 (Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults) I chose Dogme for the Experimental Practice (EP). According the Cambridge DELTA handbook, completion of this assignment requires candidates to research and implement “a specific lesson approach/teaching procedure/teaching technique with which [he or she] is unfamiliar,” (52).

I wanted to choose an EP that could potentially impact my way of being a teacher. Having taught for seven years prior to undertaking DELTA module 2, I felt an in-depth experiment with Dogme would give me the opportunity to explore the “linguistic, learning, and social possibilities of unplanned classroom interaction.” (Cadorath and Harris 1998: 192). While spontaneous unplanned interaction was certainly no novelty, consciously opting for unplanned interaction was; constructing whole lessons around such interaction even more so.

A secondary aim of the EP was to explore the possibility of basing at least half of a course around unplanned interaction and to measure how students reacted to the approach. We would conduct the first six weeks of a twelve-week semester in Dogme conditions and then decide together whether or not to continue for the second six weeks.

To create conditions favorable to unplanned interaction, the EP revolved around “full Dogme” as defined by Luke Meddings in his article “Dogme still able to divide ELT”–a classroom where “learners are bringing their own material because they know they can and…nobody knows precisely what will happen when they walk through the door” (Meddings: 2003). In my experiment, concretely, this meant:

  • No pedagogical materials (coursebooks, cut-up grammar games, etc.)
  • Extremely limited or no planning. Any planning was limited to finding a “lesson catalyst”—something to jump start the conversation
  • Objects as stimulus such as a student union poster, a set of fiction books, a newspaper, etc. were allowed
  • Routinely negotiating lesson content and activities with learners
  • Allowing students to bring in texts to share if they volunteered to do so

Implemented during a semester, these conditions offered the opportunity to experiment with sustaining the approach. Trying full Dogme beyond a single class session would also help begin to understand learners’ feelings about learning in such “extreme” conditions.


Two groups were asked to take part in this experiment. Their profiles are presented below.



13 learners

12 learners

1st-year university students

2nd-year university students

French nationals (monolingual class)

French nationals (monolingual class)

Majoring in biology and chemistry

Majoring in art history

Tested and grouped at A2 level

Not tested—mixed levels

English course is optional

English course is required

The groups were similar in number of participants, age, and nationality. They differed in terms of subject background, homogeneity in language level, and obligation to enroll in the English course.

In this paper, we will look at the two groups together rather than at each group separately, in the sake of presenting a global view. However, in a future study, it could be worth looking at how feedback differs between groups to see if factors such as group homogeneity, obligation to enroll in English courses, and main field of study play a role in learners’ perception of Dogme.

These groups were chosen for several reasons. First, the teacher had total control over course content and evaluation methods, the only administrative requirement being a mark at the end of the semester. Second, I was sure to work with these students for the entire duration of the semester, which was key in carrying out the experiment. Third, experimenting Dogme with groups seemed more challenging than with one-to-one classes.

It is also important to note that prior to this course, learners in both groups had had 7-10 years of English classes in the French academic system in which many high-stakes English exams (including the French baccalauréat) consist of a text in L2. Learners must summarize and comment on the text through written essay, in L1 or L2 depending on the students’ field of study.  Pre-university English courses thus spend a considerable amount of time preparing students for this type of exercise, sometimes to the detriment of learners’ oral skills. For both groups, a full Dogme approach radically differed from their past English courses.

Throughout the experiment, feedback methods were identical for both groups and consisted of 3 questionnaires, presented further on.

Some core tenets for teaching unplugged.

This post has been written as part of a professional development project that is being run by Adam Beale at the school where he works in Spain, IH Madrid.

To give a bit of background colour and explanation as to where I’m coming from in writing the following words, there are a few things I’d like to make clear:

  • I teach at a Further Education college in the UK, and in this context it is a requirement to have schedules of learning in place to help with course management. Very basically, this consists of a week-by-week and lesson-by-lesson breakdown of items to be worked on in our ESOL lessons. A big reason why this is necessary is that there are often 3 or 4 teachers teaching the same group of students throughout the week.
  • The learners I teach come from a wide variety of backgrounds, both in terms of their origins (different countries, different language) and their socio-cultural backgrounds and educational or work experience. Some may have fleed from conflict zones, whil others may have moved to the UK because of better job prospects. As such, they can be poorly serviced by traditional EFL materials (more on that later).
  • Despite the fact that much of the teaching seems to be pre-planned and pre-determined, there is actually a lot of scope to include supplementary materials, which can be based on the language that the learners need for their daily lives.

With all of that in mind, these are key things for me to bear in mind when working in an unplugged way in the language classroom.

  1. Personalisation
  2. Not being afraid to follow the students’ lead
  3. Setting up tasks that are open-ended
  4. Not being afraid to use reference materials

1) Unplugged moments work best when the content and language is personal
We’ve all experienced those moments in class where it seems like something hits home, for the teachers as much as for the students. Suddenly everything seems to click in to place, the students are using the language, creating and negotiating meaning.

How often does that happen when you set a discussion or reading text about David Beckham???

If you said ‘every time’, then I’d say you were lying. Bringing in imported materials or teaching using lofty language aims as a starting point doesn’t turn people on so that they start using their language. Rather it is a much better idea to get the students to talk about something that matters to them, or at the very least something they can relate to. Talk about what they did at the weekend, what they had for breakfast, what they think about X, Y or Z. There really isn’t a need to bring anything in to class to get people motivated other than an open ear and interesting questions.

2) Don’t be afraid to follow the students’ lead
Even coming to teaching through a route slightly removed from the ‘standard’, that is a short initial teacher training course heavy on teaching technique and lesson planning, I have experienced the feeling that everything that happens in a lesson should be thought out and planned in advance. Writing lesson plans follows this way of thinking, asking teachers to allocate time to particular stages of a lesson and say what will be achieved by the end. In my experience, the best lessons have not been those where everything is so meticulously mapped out. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if I whenever I have written down what I wanted to get through in an hour or two hour session, I have found myself again and again head down, checking the plan rather than the faces of those in the room. Instead of granting me peace of mind, perhaps even a dangerous thing as a teacher or learner, lesson plans have taken my attention away from those who really matter in the classroom, the students.

No, the best moments in lessons have come from following my students lead, perhaps nudging them at times into areas I think need focus, but generally taking the cues from them.

To give you an example of what I mean, this is a description of what happened in one of my lessons:

I ruined the shirt I was wearing in my morning lesson (it got splattered with board pen ink).
This prompted discussion about my problem (a ruined shirt) which led to the students talking about their own problems and then offering each other advice.
One of the pieces of advice given, to one student with money problems, was ‘you should put (keep) some under the mattress’. This lead to a quick debate on the advantages of saving money in this way.

From one initial stimulus, much more than an hour’s worth of discussion, writing, and language was generated, all of which could be potentially mined to help students with their language learning.

3) Set up tasks that are open-ended
Just as there is limited language that is prompted by using closed questions, if you lock down what happens in the classroom, there is much less scope for students to push themselves or be pushed to use their language.
‘Do you like coffee?’ How many possible answers are there to that question? Two, or maybe three perhaps: ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know’.
What about ‘What kind of coffee do you like?’ The number of possible answers shoots right up.

It is exactly the same when we question students and give them different tasks. True or false and grammar gap-fill activities will yield a very small amount of language, while open ended tasks like ‘What’s the best way to cook an egg?’ will result in a lot more language being produced, and with different purposes – some of the possible functions of language that would crop up include explaining, clarifying, exemplifying, and negotiating.

Isn’t this a far richer resource for language teaching that a photocopy of the course workbook?

4) Don’t be afraid to use reference materials
The dictionary, thesaurus and grammar reference are not your enemies as a teacher trying out an unplugged approachr. Nor should they be ignored by any teacher. Ever.

There is a misconception that in the classroom, the teacher is the font of all knowledge. While this is an unrealistic expectation in any situation, even if the subject being taught is content-based (think about a history teacher know all the dates being studied off the top of his or her head), it’s just not fair on our poor teacher minds. In a language classroom it’s even less possible. Language isn’t solely content. Even things that some would see as clear-cut, like some grammar rules, are really murky concepts at best.

It is far more profitable to consult these references, and teach students how to use them effectively.

However, this is speaking from my own point of view, and coloured by my experience. I encourage you to have a go, and find your own tenets for taking your teaching off on an unplugged path.

A beginners guide

This is an excellent resource produced by the British council. A very simple to follow, step by step guide to Dogme/Unplugged teaching. Giving information on the background to the approach in an interactive way, while also providing questions and activities to promote reflection on your own teaching and how Dogme can be introduced into your classroom. A great starting point for anyone new to teaching unplugged.

Thank you to Mike Harrison (@harrisonmike) for suggesting this post.

Teaching grammar ‘at the point of need’

As the first post, I am very grateful to have Scott Thornbury allow me to reproduce his recent article for the excellent ELTABB magazine. (click link to jump to the magazine –


Compare and contrast these two approaches:

Teacher 1: ‘Today is Tuesday so we’re going to do the present perfect continuous.’

Teacher 2: ‘Tell me something I don’t know, and I’ll help you to say it better.’

OK. I’m exaggerating, but these two approaches capture, respectively, the difference between ‘pre-emptive teaching’ and ‘reactive teaching’. In the former, the teacher assumes that there is something that the learners don’t know, and the teaching intervention is designed to fill the gap. In the latter, the teacher assumes that there is something that the learners need to say, and the teaching intervention is designed to enable them to do it. It is consistent with the view that, as Dave Willis (1990: 128) puts it, ‘The creation of meaning is the first stage of learning. Refining the language used is a later stage.’

A marvellous account of reactive teaching applied to the teaching of writing is At the Point of Need: Teaching Basic and ESL Writers, by Marie Wilson Nelson (1991). This book deserves to be a classic, not least because it’s about more than simply the teaching of writing. It makes a convincing case for a pedagogy that, rather than trying to second-guess and thereby pre-empt the learners’ learning trajectory, is entirely responsive to it: that is, a pedagogy which is wholly driven by the learners’ needs, as and when they emerge. As Nancy Martin writes, in the Foreword (ibid.: ix):

The concept of teaching only at the students’ perceived points of need, and as they arise, presents a different view of learning from that of planned and sequenced series of lessons. The former view depends on recognition of the power of the person’s intention as the operating dynamic in writing – and in learning.

The book describes a five-year experiment at a college in the US, where writing workshops were offered to small groups of mixed native-speaker and non-native-speaker undergraduates, each with a tutor, and where there was no formal writing – or grammar, or vocabulary – instruction. Instead, the students (all of whom had scored below a cut-off point on a test of standard written English) were – in the words of the program publicity – invited to:

  1. Choose topics that interest you and your group
  2. Freewrite without worrying about correctness on the first draft
  3. Revise your freewrites. Your group will help you […]
  4. Learn to copy-edit your writing for publication.

Instead of pre-teaching or modelling the skills of writing, ‘this writing program was set up on a dynamic of retrospective planning’ (ibid.: viii) whereby ‘the tutors found that the most acceptable and effective teaching was to give the help the students asked for when they asked for it – that is, as the students perceived the need’ (ibid.: ix).

The program was based on the principle that ‘less is more’ (ibid.: 189), and that effective writing instruction involves simply:

  • motivating students to want to practise and improve
  • giving students control of decisions about their work
  • limiting teaching to what students need or want to learn.

Teaching ‘at the point of need’ is, of course, a principle that underpins the whole language learning movement, including ‘reading recovery’ programs. Courtney Cazden (1992: 129), for example, writes about ‘recognizing the need for temporary instructional detours in which the child’s attention is called to particular cues available in speech or print’ (emphasis added). It would also seem analogous to the reactive focus on form promoted by proponents of task-based learning, described by some researchers as ‘leading from behind’ (e.g. Samuda 2001), whereby the teacher intervenes to scaffold the learners’ immediate communicative needs. As Long and Norris (2009: 137) write:

Advantages of focus on form include the fact that attention to linguistic code features occurs just when their meaning and function are most likely to be evident to the learners concerned, at a moment when they have a perceived need for the new item, when they are attending, as a result, and when they are psycholinguistically ready (to begin) to learn the items.

‘Point of need’ teaching also shares characteristics of what are known as ‘just in time’ (JIT) interventions, as when the user of unfamiliar computer software refers to a Help menu or seeks online support. Thus, in noting how video games embed sound pedagogical principles, James Paul Gee (2007: 142) identifies what he calls the Explicit Information On-Demand and Just-in-Time Principle, which goes: ‘The learner is given explicit information both on demand and just in time, when the learner needs it or just at the point where the information can best be understood and used in practice.’

This is a principle both of good video games and of good teaching. Gee makes the point that ‘Learners cannot do much with lots of overt information that a teacher has explicitly told them outside the context of immersion in actual practice. At the same time, learners cannot learn without some overt information; they cannot discover everything for themselves’ (ibid.: 120).

Gee gives the example of good classroom science instruction, where ‘An instructor does not lecture for an extended period and then tell the learners to go off and apply what they have learned in a group science activity … Rather, as group members are discovering things through their own activity, the good science instructor comes up, assesses the progress they are making and the fruitfulness of the paths down which they are proceeding in their enquiry, and then gives overt information that is, at that point, usable’ (ibid. 120).

How does this principle apply to grammar teaching, as in the hypothetical case we started with? I.e.

Teacher 2: ‘Tell me something I don’t know, and I’ll help you to say it better.’

In teaching one-to-one, it is relatively straight-forward and easy to manage. The learner performs a task (perhaps something they will need to do in their work), and the teacher provides corrective feedback, either during or immediately afterwards. The corrective feedback may be overt (‘You said X, but you should have said Y’) or covert, in the form of a recast: Student says ‘He go to work by bus’. Teacher says, ‘Ah, he goes to work by bus’. The feedback may involve explanation (‘We use –s on third person simple present verbs’), or it may not. And the lesson sequence may require the student to repeat the task, incorporating the corrections. But with a single student, none of these procedures is necessarily very difficult to engineer.

More problematic is providing ‘point of need’ instruction with groups, while still maintaining lesson flow and engaging the attention of all learners. ‘Instructional detours’ (to use Cazden’s expression) need to be short, to the point, yet salient: a case of ‘putting the task on hold’ for a minute or two, while an error is remedied or a grammar point explained. Of course, involving other students in the intervention is often a viable means of avoiding the lesson becoming a series of one-to-ones. Ideally, too, a running record needs to be kept of these interventions, so that they can be revisited after the task, and so as to provide a ‘scaffold’ for a possible repetition of the task. A further stage, in which learners review and record the grammar and vocabulary issues that arose during the lesson, serves not only to help fix these in memory, but to persuade those who crave it that formal accuracy has not been sacrificed for the sake of fluency.


Cazden, C. (1992) Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ, New York: Teachers College Press.

Gee, J.P. (2007) What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Long, M. and Norris, J. (2009) ‘Task-based teaching and assessment’, in van den Branden, K., Bygate, M. and Norris, J. (eds), Task-based Language Teaching: A Reader, Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Nelson, M.W. (1991) At the Point of Need: Teaching Basic and ESL Writers, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Samuda, V. (2001) ‘Guiding relationships between form and meaning during task performance: the role of the teacher’, in Bygate, M., Skehan, P. and Swain, M. (eds.) Researching Pedagogic Tasks: Second Language Learning, Teaching and Testing, London: Longman.

Willis, D. (1990) The Lexical Syllabus: A New Approach to Language Teaching, London: Collins ELT.

(This article has been adapted from a chapter in Big Questions in ELT (2013) published as an e-book by The Round).