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