Dogme Series: The three key principles

Dogme ELT is a teaching philosophy started by a group of teachers who considered that there seemed to be an over-reliance on materials in current language teaching (Thornbury, 2006, p. 72). This discussion started when Thornbury was inspired by the filmmaker Lars von Trier who proposed a cinema without the use of special effects and props (Dogme 95 movement). In his article, (Thornbury, 2000) he questions the quantity of coursebooks and resources and wonders if there is real communication and focus on ‘the inner life of the student’ in these materials. He also mentions that ELT has become grammar-obsessed, often forgetting about the real use of the language. Then, he outlines some principles for this new philosophy, which would be refined later on in his and Meddings’ Teaching Unplugged book.

The three key principles for a Dogme (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009, p.8) lesson are:

  • It is conversation-driven;
  • It is materials-light;
  • It focuses on emergent language.

Conversation is a big part of Dogme ELT in the sense that ‘the direction of the lesson is determined by what emerges in conversation between the teacher and the learners’ (Wright, J. & Rebuffet-Broadus, 2013, p.117). Therefore, the teacher has the role of a facilitator, helping learners reformulate and express their ideas clearly and also as a language advisor, when he draws attention to relevant points of the language. This idea of fluency coming first comes from the Task-Based approach, which is something that perpetrates the beliefs of Dogme. It also draws on the idea of communication as the ‘exchange and negotiation of meaningful messages’ (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009, p.9) from the Communicative Approach. However, Dogme goes beyond that view as conversation should be about ‘the people in the room’ in order to be really meaningful for the learners.

According to Meddings and Thornbury (2001b), being materials-light does not necessarily mean that coursebooks would not be allowed in the classroom, but they should not dictate or distract from the main learning opportunities of the lesson. They believe that materials should encourage dialogic learning, which means that ‘both teachers and pupils make substantial and significant contributions and through which pupils’ thinking on a given idea or theme is helped to move forward’ (Mercer, 2003, p.76, as cited in Wright, J. & Rebuffet-Broadus, 2013, p.126). This means that materials should be locally generated and always be of interest to the learners, as this way it would make learning more likely to take place.

The last of the three key principles is the focus on emergent language, which has to do with dealing with the language that emerges in the conversation process. Dogme views the learners’ language as both process and product of instruction (Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S., 2001b, p.43). It draws on the Communicative Approach’s notion of a learner-centered curriculum where the focus was more on the process of communication than on the product (i.e. the knowledge of language). However, it adds on to it when it gets the learner’s grammar from the activities and turns it into the courses’ grammar itself. It has the learners as being agents in their own learning process, as they will determine their learning experience (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009, p.18).

The question that remains is ‘How do we make a lesson from the material we receive?’ (Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S., 2001b, p.41). Once the conversation has started and the language has emerged, the teacher is basically free to choose from the techniques available. For instance, he can choose to focus on form, by putting learners errors on the board and conducting a debate on why the errors were made and how to correct them. The teacher can also record parts of the conversation and conduct text reconstruction activities followed by role play of an improved version of the same dialogue. In short, the teacher has at his disposal the same techniques available from the traditional training courses. As the authors point out, the important thing is to capture text in any form and put it to work ‘by improving it, rehearsing it, performing it, re-formulating it in another mode or register’ (Ibid, p.43) and also focus on language, both the weaknesses and the strengths. In the end, there should be some kind of rounding-off activity, in order to reflect on what happened in the lesson and discuss the possibilities for the future.

Thornbury actually confesses that ‘there is nothing very original in Dogme’ (Thornbury, 2005, p.3 as cited in Wright, J. & Rebuffet-Broadus, 2013, p.71). It brings ideas from the communicative approach, humanistic education, critical pedagogy and other materials-light approaches, which mean that many teachers who follow the Dogme principles, actually only incorporate some of these aspects to their teaching.




Freire, P. 1968 Pedagogy of the Oppressed Penguin

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

Thornbury, S 2006 An A-Z of ELT Macmillan

Wright, J. & Rebuffet-Broadus, C. 2013 Experimental Practice in ELT: Walk on the Wild Side The Round Publications


Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S. 2001 ‘Dogme and the coursebook’ (12.11.13)

Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S. 2001 ‘Using the raw materials: A Dogme approach to teaching language’ MET vol 10, no 4, 2001

Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S. 2002 ‘Using a coursebook the Dogme way: Making sure it’s the dog that wags the tail’ MET vol 11, no 1, 2002

Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S. 2003 ‘Dogme still able to divide ELT’ (11.11.13)

Nield, D. 2005 ‘Spirit of Dogme’ English Teaching Professional, Issue 41, Nov 2005

Thornbury, S. 2000 ‘A Dogma for EFL’ IATEFL Issues, 153, 2.


Dogme Series: Introducing Dogme


I became interested in Dogme after attending a three-day course with Luke Meddings in Brazil in 2012. I like to say that, since then, I have found a teaching philosophy that I truly believe in. After the course, I bought the Teaching Unplugged book and began including many of the activities into my lessons. Also, I wanted to see if a Dogme approach would work with young learners, so I began creating my own activities, too.

I was finally able to share the results of my experience applying Dogme inspired activities in my lessons – it wasn’t possible to teach a whole course based on the approach because the school did not offer that much teaching flexibility – at a teaching conference in Brazil in 2013. To my surprise, Luke Meddings himself attended our talk and gave us some really nice feedback. He also gave the plenary talk closing the conference.

There, he talked about taking steps towards a more humanistic approach to teaching, preached by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1968), who proposes a new relationship between teachers, students and the society, meaning that the class is a place to seek knowledge instead of transmitting it. This is reflected in the view that Dogme has of ‘language learning in a profoundly human way’ (Meddings & Thornbury, 2003).

This humanistic approach reminded me of my own experience as a language learner, where lessons and language items would be more memorable when the teacher personalised the activities, asking about our interests, and really showing that they mattered. That was not the rule, though, as most lessons were very book-centered and only a few teachers were truly interested in what a bunch of children/teenagers had to say.

Dogme also has a strong view on the importance of dealing with emerging language. According to Meddings and Thornbury (2009, p. 8), ‘rather than being acquired, language (including grammar) emerges’ as an organic process and given the right conditions. And, from what I have learned by experimenting with Dogme, it is the most challenging part, especially for teachers who are non-native speakers. However, the confidence to deal with emerging language comes with time, and it is extremely important to take notes of what students are saying during the activities.

Finally, as I have been saying in many of my posts here, I believe coursebooks are a useful tool for teachers, but it concerns me when we become over-dependent on them and leave aside our learners’ needs. The materials-light aspect of Dogme may seem impossible in contexts where teachers must follow a course book, but there are ways of incorporating activities in the lessons. It is a very good way of adding variety to the lessons and to have the students’ needs in mind at the same time.


Freire, P. 1968 Pedagogy of the Oppressed Penguin

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

Thornbury, S 2006 An A-Z of ELT Macmillan


I have been able to share my experience using Dogme with young learners and teenagers in many conferences – there was even one where both Scott Thornbury and Jeremy Harmer were in the audience and I can’t even tell you how many shades of red my face turned during the whole presentation haha – and I have recently brought it to the University in order to see with Spanish teachers if the approach could be used in their lessons, too.

Now, I want to write about it here in a short series of posts just as a way to record my experience and share it with – hopefully – more people. Also, the semester is about to end, and we will have our winter holidays in July, so I won’t have any lessons to teach. Here are the topics I would like to cover:

  • The 3 Dogme principles
  • Dogme activities for Young Learners
  • Dogme lesson plan
  • Dogme posters and portfolios
  • Wrapping up a Dogme lesson

Asked me the same question 100 times

'Those are interesting questions Timmy. I suggest you ask your search engine.'

Well, not everything is perfect, but the not so good lessons can teach us something, right?! Let’s see what I can take from this episode.

Like most teachers, I am not a big fan of having to explain the same thing many times. Whether it is instructions for an activity, some language feature, or the meaning of a word (we are not dictionaries!). I have been trying – since ever! – to minimize questions by using some techniques:

  • Class Menu – every lesson I write a menu of the activities we are going to do so that students know what to expect. Sometimes I even write the material they are going to need (books, notebooks, colour pencils). I also include the aim of the lesson and elicit the day of the week and date. So, whenever a student desperately needs to know if we are going to play a game in the lesson, I just point to the menu on the board and it saves time and teacher-talking-time! 🙂
  • Routines – incorporating routines is a TTT minimizer and time-saver. Students just know what to do. It takes time for them to get used to the routines and they may vary for different groups and ages. With my current students I have a routine for: how are you today? (by throwing a big dice and asking each other the questions), leaving the classroom (by saying a password, something they have learned in the lesson) and evaluating their English use.
  • Pre-teaching vocabulary – before any reading or listening activity, I try to make sure to work with some language I think may be difficult for the students. I also try to have students use their predicting skills by focusing on pictures and titles, and I teach them reading and listening strategies, so that I can remind them (remember that it helps to underline the same words in the questions and in the text…).
  • Ask your friend – last but not least, when I just don’t want to answer the same question for the 50th time, I just tell them to ask their friends.

So, today, despite using almost all of the techniques above, my students kept asking me how to say ‘great-grandmother’, what the meaning of ‘loudest’ was, and so on. It was very frustrating, but, looking back, I believe I could have used a simple miming game for them to practice the adjectives before having to use them in the writing activity. However, students were especially misbehaved today, so I am not entirely to blame.

'I find the best way to stop students from always talking to each other in class, is to keep asking questions. Then they have nothing to say.'

Were given significant input before speaking

“I give the students instructions for the activity, they know what to do, but they end up using L1 or not speaking at all”. “I can’t get my students to speak, unless it’s a very controlled activity”. “I have already ‘taught the language’ and they don’t use it!”

These are all problems we have faced as EFL or ESL teachers, struggling to get students to use L2. As we go through the syllabus we need to cover, students seem to forget all about the language seen in the previous units. When we assign the tasks, even to say something as simple as “I like it” or “I think it’s…”, they resort to L1.

I believe the problem is that we assume students will use the language we want them to use in that speaking activity. We end up forgetting that learning is not a linear process, but instead, it has its ups and downs, and students need to be constantly reminded of the language they have studied in order to use it in the appropriate situations. It is a lot of work for the teacher, though, but it is extremely necessary, especially for lower levels.

Here are two practical examples of how I have been trying to approach this issue with my students:


In the example above, as I have posted here before, my students have been studying there + be to talk about cities. They have created a “perfect city” and made their drawings. Then, I got each student individually to describe their drawing to me. That was when I had the opportunity to scaffold language and have them go deeper in the description. I made it clear that they we going to talk like this again to their friends. After that, I elicited the language that I wrote on the board above. Students “had” the language, but they needed to be reminded that they could use it in the activity. Finally, in a traditional revolving circles activity, the students could repeat the speaking activity many times and I could – for the last time – remind the ones that insisted on using “have” instead of “there is” or using L2. In the final rounds, they were all using L2 and did a very good job!


In this quite untidy board, we had a Cambridge Flyers prep class and the focus was on Speaking, part 1, where students need to find the differences between their picture and the examiner’s picture. I used a barrier game where each student would place their own small pictures on the big picture and find the differences between their own pictures A x B. The language I needed to elicit from them: “In my picture, there is…” and prepositions of place. As I had many different sets of pictures, they repeated the activity many times. Again, students used the language well and had fun with the game.

Classroom Language Flashcards

Since the beginning of the semester, it has been one of my main teaching goals to get my students to speak only L2 in class. I have already shared some strategies I have tested, and today I brought something different.

Captura de Tela 2017-05-16 às 20.24.08

A very valuable thing I have learned from other teachers was to teach students Classroom Language in the very first day of class, especially for beginner students. There is a lot of material available online, but I have never found something that was truly useful for my context. I needed just a few phrases students can use for asking for the page, going to the restroom, etc. Having a little drawing ability – just enough to doodle things students can understand what they are – I have come up with eight drawings to represent:

  • Ms Duda (teacher, whatever you’re called), come here, please?
  • I’m sorry, I’m late! May I come in?
  • What’s the page, please?
  • May I have a pencil, please?
  • May I go to the restroom?
  • I don’t understand. Can you repeat, please?
  • How do you say ‘casa’ in English?
  • May I say something? / May I go next?

You can download the flashcards by clicking here 🙂

Of course, the language can vary, depending on how formal your school is, or what you want to teach them. The drawings are in black and white so that young learners can colour them. Here’s an example of how I use them in my classroom:


Started a Reading Club


This is a project I wish my teachers had done with me when I was a student. Its main goal is to help students develop the reading habit.

Every week, students choose a book in the school’s library and take it home to read. After reading, they must rate it by colouring stars in their reading log. Sometimes they will have some kind of activity to do about the book, such as describing their favourite character.

Parents are involved in the project by having to sign the log and helping their child choose a good time to read and a comfortable place in the house. Even if they cannot speak English, they can help by providing an adequate reading environment.

After reading five books, there will be a bigger activity where students will produce something for the community. For instance, they will choose their favourite book, take it home again and read it to as many people as they can and report the experience. Or maybe they will write a book recommendation for the school’s library’s bulletin board saying what were the best things about the book.

My students were really excited after the first week of the project. Even though some of them forgot to return the book, they all read their books and filled in the log and were excited to take another book home – or sad they could not take it home because they can only take a new book when they return the other one.

It is a very simple project anyone can do if there is a library at school. I believe it is very important to share projects like this, especially in our sometimes ‘over-technologic’ environment, so that children can see that there are other fantastic worlds to be discovered away from the computer screens. 🙂

Image via Pinterest.

Tried to use more L2 in class


Excellent English strategy

In a monolingual context, it is often a challenge to get students to use L2 in class, especially if they are beginners. After almost eight years of teaching, I have tried many techniques with different groups in order to get them to speak English. Some of them worked for some groups, some didn’t work at all, but I can say that it is the students who will inform your decision of choosing a certain strategy. Here are a few:

  • L1 Pass – a friend’s idea that consists of giving students one or two “passes” (cards, coins…) every class so that they can use their first language when they need to. The teacher may take a pass from them if they use L1 inappropriately. This works well in quieter groups and with students that will follow rules.
  • Points on the board – write all students names on the board when the class begins and whenever one uses L1, draw a line next  to his name. The teacher can choose whatever punishment according to the groups and the school’s policy (removing points from the final grade is particularly threatening for teenagers). This strategy goes in the opposite direction of Behaviorist’s positive reinforcement concept.
  • L2 “thermometer” – during the lesson, students move up and down an L2 thermometer. If they are using L2, they go on to the positive end, if they are using L1, they go down. This requires a lot of work on the teacher’s part, and may cause stress between the students if they thing your judgement is unfair. However, it works well with a highly motivated group.
  • Excellent English – the one I am currently using with my students. By the end of the lesson, students line up and evaluate their L2 use during the activities, they move their tag up or down accordingly. During the class, my job is to call their attention and remind them of the routine whenever they start overusing L1. It works well with small groups and with highly motivated students. It helps create a sense of responsibility, because they will be responsible for their own growth in the usage of the new language. I would not use it with teenagers, though.

What do you do with your students to get them to speak English in class? 🙂

The poster image and balloons are from Twinkl.