In Teaching Unplugged (Delta 2009) Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury list the three main principles of a dogme approach to language teaching; namely that teaching should be materials light, conversation driven and focussed on emergent language.
These principles make perfect sense to me. They mirror they way I’ve tried to learn languages myself, and they’ve guided much of what I’ve done as a teacher since I first heard about the approach in the late 1990’s. In fact, if I think back to the first ‘teaching’ I ever did (in Japan in 1991 before I’d had any training as a teacher at all) this was pretty much the way of it too.
It was certainly materials light, since it was just me and a group of students in a room together, as well as conversation driven and focussed on emergent language – we just started talking and I would try to help them say the things that they were saying more effectively, or accurately. At least this is what they asked me to do, but I’m not entirely sure that my own language awareness was good enough at that time to really help them very much!
Now, after teaching for 28 years, I know a lot more about English and I know what kind of problems learners can get into when they converse in English. More importantly, I’ve learnt that these problems are generally learning opportunities, and part of my job as a teacher is to make the most of them.
Dogme isn’t easy of course. To be an effective dogme teacher we need to do two things at once; we need to listen to what the students are saying but also listen to how they are saying it. We also need to be aware of the forms that we’re using in our own speech in order to help leaners to notice language. I’ve never been very good at multitasking though, and I find that the moment I start paying too much attention to form I stop focussing on content (and vice versa). There’s a danger that classes become all talk without any attention being paid to new language, or conversely all about focussing on language without really any genuine language use.
When we do dogme type sessions in our online link ups with young people in Palestine we have developed a way of overcoming this problem. We have two teachers!
In the picture below you can see Atiyyeh, a teacher in a village near Ramallah working with a small group of teenage boys in a classroom. Projected onto the white board is the face of Michael, one of our volunteers based in the UK. Michael is having a conversation with the learners through Zoom.
They’re asking him questions and he’s asking them questions. They’re discussing football, why Britain is leaving the European Union, how Palestinians are viewed in the world, and a host of other topics. Atiyyeh is writing up language that emerges on the board. Occasionally he’ll stop to check whether they’ve understood something that Michael has said, and maybe translate into Arabic and/or elicit further examples of a language point. He’s also ready to help the leaners out with questions they want to ask, or things they want to say to Michael. In many ways I think this is the perfect language learning environment. What do you think?