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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 3; September 04

Major Article



Ruth Hamilton
United Arab Emirates (UAE)

  1. Background to Dogme
  2. My teaching context
  3. Language as self-expression
  4. Sample lessons
  5. Lesson 1
  6. Lessons 2 and 3
  7. Lessons 4 and 5
  8. Lesson 6
  9. Conclusion
  10. Bibliography

"At the classroom level, materials often seem more prominent than any other element in the curriculum. They are, in fact, omnipresent in the language classroom and it is difficult to imagine a class without books, pictures, filmstrips, realia, games and so on. Even the more austere classroom will have some sort of materials." (Nunan, 1988:98)

It was when I began to imagine a class without the many materials usually present in the classroom, that I remembered reading an article on dogme in an earlier issue of HLT, and decided to try this approach with my students.

In this article I shall give a brief background to dogme, looking at some of the main principles of the approach, and some sample lessons I have done with my Emirati adult students.

1. Background to Dogme

The term 'dogme' derives from the film industry. 'Dogme 95' refers to the signing by a group of Danish film-makers of a so-called 'vow of chastity', the intention of which was to rid cinema of an obsessive concern for technique and rehabilitate a cinema which foregrounded the story, and the inner life of the characters. (Thornbury, A Dogma for EFL). Dogme 95's first commandment is that:

"Shooting should be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where the prop is to be found)" (Thornbury, That's Dogme with an E).

Five years later Thornbury advocated applying these principles to the language classroom, i.e. ridding the classroom of excessive materials and resources and focusing on the inner life of the student and real communication. He translated the above 'commandment' into classroom terms as follows:

"Teaching should be done using only the resources that teachers and students bring to the classroom - i.e. themselves - and whatever happens to be in the classroom. If a particular piece of material is necessary for the lesson, a location must be chosen where that material is to be found (e.g. library, resource centre, bar, students' club.) (Thornbury, A Dogma for EFL).

In a dogme class, material-free learning takes place if not in the real world, at least in the here-and-now, with participant-generated input. "Rather than preparing lessons, and marching the learners down a route laid out in advance, the dogme teacher is prepared for a lesson that is co-authored by the people in the room' (Meddings & Thornbury, What dogme feels like). Stripped of all the icing (materials and syllabus), the class can get down to basics - natural social interaction, or real communication.

2. My teaching context

I worked with a small group of Emirati male students, in their early twenties. They came from different levels and courses within the college system, which complies with the dogme principle that students should be able to choose the class they attend, regardless of perceived 'level'. Their levels ranged from low-intermediate to upper-intermediate. They were highly motivated students, both extrinsically (the need to pass up-and-coming college exams) and intrinsically (keen to take every opportunity offered to practise their English, including speaking to native speakers whenever possible and attending any extra classes offered).

The students' usual learning context is one in which many materials and teaching 'aids' are used: coursebooks, workbooks, grammar books, as well as abundant supplementary materials and resources, on and off-line. A new 'e-learning' initiative in the college led to the introduction, two years ago, of laptops which students must buy and bring to their classes.

3. Language as self-expression

This abundance of teaching materials results in our treating language as existing outside the user, rather than as something coming from inside, used to express our thoughts, beliefs, concerns, needs and desires. Meddings and Thornbury, in their article The Roaring in the Chimney (2001 HLT), state that "..language is an emergent phenomenon, and the learning of it is a jointly constructed and socially motivated process, contingent on the concerns, interests, desires, and needs of the user." He describes the teacher's role as being "to scaffold these emergent processes .. to manage and facilitate the social processes out of which - and for which - language develops."

If language is a means for self-expression and communication, materials or topics must be relevant and meaningful to the language user. Woodward (2001:146) states that coursebooks "...can be filled with cardboard characters and situations that are not relevant or interesting to your learners." Most coursebooks certainly contain little of immediate interest or relevance to my Arab students' lives.

Coursebook syllabuses also reflect the belief that chunks of language should be taught in a predetermined order and at a specific 'level' of language ability, to which all the students in the class are expected to belong. This gives a view of language as a linguistic system to be learned by the students. "Language learners are also, however, individuals in the personal and affective sense of the term, which means that language is also a means of personal and affective expression… When language is viewed as self-expression, learning goals are defined by what the learner wishes to express, and this means that each learner has his or her own unique and personal learning agenda." (Tudor, 2001:65).

When learners draw on their own personal interests and experiences, they express things they really want to say and consequently get to know each other. In this way the students themselves become the subject or 'content' of the lesson, rather than the teacher's imposed topics or materials.

"Some teachers and students who are used to working with language as an external subject distanced from themselves will not like the 'unmasking' that is involved in using the people in the room as human, personal subject matter. Others may feel that at last things are becoming interesting and relevant to them and that this is the only way to work with language, itself a social venture." (Woodward, 2001:76).

The group of students I worked with were definitely of the latter opinion, which seemed to become more and more evident as the classes progressed.

4. Sample lessons

Thornbury describes a dogme lesson as "...one that is grounded in the experience, beliefs, desires and knowledge of the people in the room. It is a lesson that is language-rich but where language is not used for display but for meaningful exchange." (Thornbury, That's Dogme with an E).

Below is a description of some of our dogme lessons, including student feedback and a brief reflection on each class

5. Lesson 1:

Keeping in mind the dogme principle of 'participant-generated input', I went into the first class with no prepared plan and an open mind. We sat around the table and started talking. The students expressed their concern about their upcoming exams, particularly with the written component. Some had to write a comparison, discussing advantages and disadvantages and others had to write a description of a place. They asked if they could practise this. Together they decided on a country they would like to know more about and chose Brazil. Fortunately, I had lived in Brazil so could give them information. Otherwise they would have to go to the Internet to search for this. They thought about what information they needed and prepared headings and questions to ask. I explained that I would only answer grammatically correct questions. The students then asked questions and took notes. If I refused to answer a question, they reformulated it together until it was accepted. When they had the information they needed, we discussed the organization of their writing and I asked them to write up their text for homework. In the next lesson the students' texts were exchanged, commented on and corrected.

Emergent language/skills focus:
Vocabulary used to describe a country, question formation, note-taking, writing skills.

Reflection and feedback:
By reducing my role as the teacher, the students were allowed to guide the direction of the lesson. They relied on each other to reformulate questions, thus reducing their reliance on the teacher and encouraging group collaboration. In their feedback they expressed the desire to "listen and talk to the teacher about things that are relevant to us" and so still saw the teacher as the focus of the group.

It was particularly interesting to see individual interests emerging. One student wanted to collect factual information about Brazil, another wanted to know about crime and violence, another was more interested in the people and culture, and the fourth wanted to know about tourist attractions and climate.

6. Lessons 2 and 3:

One of the students told us he had found an interesting website on robots, a topic he was interested in. Another student asked him to show it to us. As all students have to bring their laptops to college every day and Khalifa had his with him, he showed us some internet sites on robots produced in Japan and talked about what they could do. Another student then talked about a TV programme he had seen on robots used in hospitals. We then discussed the development of technology in the future, a topic which all the students were very enthusiastic about. Khalifa said he would love to design robots and had already mentioned he was good at drawing, so I asked him to 'design' a robot for the next class. He did this and presented his robot to us in the following class. This led to further questions, discussion and ideas from other students, a review of language used for future predictions, and finally the group wrote a short article on the future of technology for their student magazine. During his presentation the listeners made a note of good language he used.

Emergent language/skills focus:
Language for discussing future prediction, speaking, listening and writing skills.

Reflection and feedback:
This time the students said "It's great to talk about things we are interested in...It's a good idea to give short presentations on a topic to the other students...we can learn things from other students too...we are interested so we listen to each other, not just the teacher." They said this was a more useful way to practise than doing grammar exercises, "...that's not how we use language...today we were using language to talk about a topic and our grammar was better...maybe because we were not thinking about grammar."

The students' comments on the importance of listening to and learning from each other showed a growing awareness of group interaction and collaboration. It was interesting to hear the students' accurate use of 'could' and 'might' for future predictions. Arabic learners tend to overuse 'will' when talking about the future, especially as they have only one form of the future in their own language.

The students liked the fact that we had noted and commented on Khalifa's good use of language during his presentation rather than on the errors. One student said: "It was different...usually the teacher writes down our mistakes and corrects us, but you wrote the good things...that makes us more confident."

As a follow-up to this, two other students also asked to give presentations on areas of interest to them, which were done over the next two lessons.

7. Lessons 4 and 5:

One student began the lesson by asking if we had seen the news the evening before, in which the 'largest human flag' event in Abu Dhabi had been reported. As we held the classes in the library, a student got the newspaper and found the report on this event. Another student got a different newspaper and compared the report in that paper.

I then asked the students whether they read the newspaper and which topics interested them. As we had newspapers on the table, I asked the students to find an article that interested them and write down all the lexis in the article associated with the topic. Rather than writing down the vocabulary item in isolation, they wrote the lexical 'chunk', i.e. 2 or 3 words surrounding the item, to show how it is used. Students then shared their vocabulary with the rest of the class and explained any unknown words. They also produced other sentences using these items in different contexts.

Emergent language/skills focus:
Vocabulary on various topics

Reflection and Feedback:
The students found this very useful: "We did a lot of vocabulary today...it was very useful...fun...enjoyable...interesting...we are learning a lot in a short time."

They really seemed to enjoy the lesson, becoming absorbed in their articles and were able to produce their own sentences using the vocabulary they had listed. In this way vocabulary is recorded in lexical chunks so that students learn not only the meaning of the isolated word, but also how to use it in at least two different contexts. As mentioned by a student in the feedback, this seems to give them the feeling that they are learning more in a shorter time.

I pointed out that this could be done in the students' own time, either with an article in a newspaper or magazine, or a reader from the library shelves. When I said that this could also be done with other language, such as prepositions or adjectives, they asked me to show them how to do it with prepositions, which is an area they often make many mistakes in. We therefore agreed to do this in the next class.

The next lesson was therefore an extension of this one, focusing this time on the prepositions 'in', 'on' and 'at', an area with which these students have a lot of difficulty.

We followed the same procedure as above: each student found an article he was interested in and wrote a list of phrases containing the preposition. The students wanted to write these on transparencies this time, so I provided these and when they had finished we went into a small study room in the library where there was a projector and displayed the transparencies, one by one. The students read through the list of phrases looking for and commenting on patterns in the use of the prepositions.

Emergent language/skills focus:
Different uses/occurrences of the prepositions 'on', 'in' and 'at'.

Reflection and feedback:
Students said: "It's really a better way of learning - it's more interesting and fun - it makes learning come from you, I mean you want to do it inside you, not the teacher putting it on you."

This was the first time the students had commented on learning coming from within themselves rather than being something imposed by the teacher, which shows that the students too are aware that language is an emergent phenomenon, and shows an increase in the students' intrinsic motivation.

My main observation in this class was the enthusiasm with which the students made their lists. The student finding examples of 'in' finished a whole page first, so I asked the others to finish off. One student did not want to stop until he had finished the whole article and found a page of examples. They seemed to treat the activity as a contest to see who could finish first and who had the longest list.

The observations made by the students on the uses of the prepositions were very interesting and again they discussed this with enthusiasm. Questions arose, such as why we said 'at the front of', but 'on the political front'. Students became aware of the extension of simple phrases like 'in the morning' to 'in the early morning attack', and 'in + country/city' to 'in the agricultural area around...' and 'in the suburbs of...'. The students themselves gave different examples, such as 'in the late morning', 'in the industrial area around Dubai' and 'we are studying at an intermediate level'. The students were also exposed to idiomatic language, e.g. 'its charms may be lost on its residents', and 'tourists were in no doubt that...' It was also impressive how many of these uses the students could still remember and get right weeks later.

All the students wrote up their articles for the follow-up activity, and these were read out and commented on in the next class.

8. Lesson 6:

In this class the students were asked to think of a person they would like to be for a period of time (day, week, month or year) and why they would like to be that person. They then described the person and his/her life and the others guessed who it was. This emerged from a general chat about the Middle East situation and Bush's foreign policy. Students were then asked to write down the three things they would do first if they were this person and why. Again, they shared their ideas. Students then wrote down three questions they would ask each of the other people in the group if they were invited to visit the College. They then conducted mini-interviews with each person. As in lesson 1 above, questions were only answered if they were grammatically correct, which was decided by the rest of the group who helped reformulate questions as necessary. As a follow-up activity, the students were asked to select one of the interviews and write up a short report of the interview for their student magazine.

Emergent language/skills focus:
Language to describe people and their lives/daily routine, achievements, as well as future plans and ambitions, question formation (past, present and future tenses) plus speaking, listening and writing skills.

Feedback and reflection:
The students enjoyed this a lot. "It was really interesting because we are interested in the people we chose...it was nice to be the person...Salem was a Bush who told the truth, he gave an honest version." "We learned some useful vocabulary and you gave us words we needed."

It was also interesting that the students' choice of person clearly reflected their personal interests, for example George Bush (the student interested in politics), the Manager of Sony (technology, robots), Bill Gates (technology and computers).

As before, it was interesting to note the students' good and accurate use of language in this activity, for example: 'If you were offered twice what you get in 10 years, would you sell your company?'

All the students wrote up their articles for the follow-up activity, and these were read out and commented on in the next class.

9. Conclusion

The above are just some examples of our dogme lessons. I found that once we had got started, the lessons seemed to take on a life of their own, with the students carrying us along with their flow of ideas, contributions and enthusiasm. I would conclude that dogme combines both learner-centred and humanistic techniques by creating a classroom which includes:

  • a focus on learners' interests, experiences, beliefs and desires

  • language as an 'emergent phenomenon' coming from within the learner, rather than external to the user

  • the importance of affective factors and the creation of a positive affective learning environment, in enhancing learners' confidence and self-esteem

  • cooperative, interactive learning, which research has shown has many advantages over individual learning: "There is a principle underlying current ELT practice that interaction pushes learners to produce more accurate and appropriate language, which itself provides input for other students." (Hedge, 2000:13)

  • the production of language for genuine, meaningful communication or social interaction: Although this communication takes place in the 'artificiality' of the classroom, as Tudor (2001:115) points out: "The classroom is part of the real world of students in the here-and-now of their life as individuals and social actors. Communication, then, is not just something which happens 'out there', but also a process which occurs within the social environment which we call the classroom."

  • handing over control to the learners in lessons based on learner-generated input

  • increased motivation: "All of these efforts help to give students a sense of 'ownership' of their learning and thereby add to their intrinsic motivation." (Douglas Brown, 2001:47)

10. Bibliography

Douglas Brown, H. (2001), Teaching by Principles. Longman
Hedge, T. (2000), Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. OUP
Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S. 'What dogme feels like'. HLT (Nov 2003)
Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S. The Roaring in the Chimney. HLT (Sept 2001)
Nunan, D. (1988), The Learner-Centred Curriculum. CUP
Thornbury, S. (2001), 'That's Dogme with an E'
Thornbury, S (2001), 'A Dogma for EFL'
Tudor, I. (2001), The Dynamics of the Language Classroom. CUP
Woodward, T. (2001), Planning Lessons and Courses. CUP

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