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Settling for a compromise?

I haven’t written a post for quite some time and I’d like to talk a bit about my classes and the extent to which Dogme is playing a part.

My blog is called An Experiment with Dogme. In fact, it developed into something more than an experiment and ended up revolutionising my teaching in all the ways I have written about in previous posts.

Essentially, it gave me a huge number of options in my teaching, and the confidence to use them. In fact, I wasn’t a particularly textbook-orientated teacher even before discovering Dogme. I’d always realised that the textbook can never bridge the gap to the outside world, and that the teacher is therefore responsible for bringing real-life into the room and providing genuine reasons to communicate. Even so, Dogme still helped me and gave my ideas/approach legitimacy in my eyes. Realising I was not alone in believing such things, I developed the confidence to teach the way I really wanted to.

It’s for this reason that I object to people claiming ‘there’s no need for Dogme’, ‘it’s just good teaching, nothing more’ and so on. For many (more experienced?) people this will be true, but there will also be many people (especially those who have tended to rely on coursebooks more than myself) for whom the existence of a tangible approach called Dogme has helped to guide improvements in their teaching. Such improvements could come about in another way with time, but Dogme principles seem to me as a quite efficient training vehicle.

Just as it is silly for anyone to claim that Dogme is the only real teaching, or practice the kind of “evangelising” that seems to get people’s backs up, anyone who flat-out rejects Dogme, or dismisses it out of irritation at some of the rhetoric, is failing to acknowledge the many many teachers out there from all different backgrounds who can benefit from a challenge to their existing pedagogical approaches and beliefs.

So what has happened to me recently? Well, there are two things I’d like to talk about.

Firstly, my Dogme teaching has always had most success with lower levels. Recently, though, I’ve been teaching mostly higher levels. These are learners who have already reached a certain level of proficiency and are comfortable in most aspects of using English. Put simply, I have found that they need to be removed from their comfort zone and given a lot of input from different sources in order to improve. Now, of course, there are Dogme moments abound in my lessons – occasionally we will completely abandon the book if the situation calls for it – but the book does in fact now form the backbone of my teaching. Sure, the book could be better, and I skip a lot of it, but on the whole I find it to be a good solid source of language input and time well spent.

Secondly, my experiments with Dogme have improved my teaching all round, so that when I use the book now I do so much better than before. This, for me, means incorporating a lot of the principles of emergent language and conversation-driven pedagogy in amongst the text book activities. Or, to put it another way, letting the learners’ emerging language needs guide the lesson and fully exploiting the coursebook to achieve this. Since a coursebook can never meet the needs of individual students, my experience with Dogme has really helped me to be able to recognise learners’ needs on a human level. I feel as if by this happy combination my coursebook based teaching has been ‘brought in from the cold’.

I anticipate some responses along the lines of ‘well I can give my classes even more relevant input by using texts or other materials that students have chosen themselves, or that I choose for them’. I sympathise with this, and it makes a lot of sense. However, having done just that for some time, there are a couple of conclusions I’ve come to. Firstly, as Luke Meddings has pointed out, the textbook is part of the reality of the people in the room – it’s been bought and paid for, probably fits in with their expectations of learning, and so consequently warrants being used. Secondly, I find sourcing and exploiting original texts an awful lot of work. Despite all the practice I’ve had at it, and the bank of exercises I’ve built up for exploiting texts, I can never just leave it at that and always spend a lot of time preparing for the lessons and thinking of different ways it could be done. Could it be that I’m work-shy? Trust me, that’s not the case. But I find that given the point about the reality of the textbook, and given my newfound ability to see the wood for the trees, it seems silly not to use it and let it work for you.

So that’s it for now, please leave a comment with your thoughts!

Interestingly, I’ll be changing to some lower level classes next term, so it’ll be interesting to see to what extent this viewpoint remains.

Dogme Training Session – After


The good news was that we had masses of interest in the session. Plenty of people who couldn’t make it emailed me to ask about running it another time, which hopefully I’ll get to do in April. Perhaps we’ll video it this time.

It all went pretty much as planned. The demo lesson took about 20 minutes and the subsequent discussion and Q&A lasted over 45 minutes. I made a simple Prezi to accompany the session, which you can find here.


After the ‘theory bit’ I asked everyone to think about an interesting topic that came up recently in class and put together a logical sequence of tasks to develop that. This was really challenging and people had trouble coming up with ideas. It seems that the sequence of tasks in my demonstration may have been a little too effective. As one person said: ‘it can’t always end up as problem solving’. It’s true that a problem solving situation lends itself very well to a logical sequence of tasks, but what do you do when the stimulus for conversation comes from, say, a wedding at the weekend? It might have been better to do a demonstration based on a more mundane topic and show how it can work that way.


Overall, the response was very positive and some people who appeared sceptical at the beginning certainly began to appreciate the possibilities by the end. Appealing points from the demonstration were the student centred nature of the lesson and the quantity of emergent language.

Emergent language

During the demo I wrote up a lot of language that I heard during the groupwork on the board, and there were a number of questions about the nature of this language in a real class, because obviously there was no correction of language going on this time. We talked about how in a real class the language coming from students would need scaffolding and correcting as it gets boarded after the task, and that this is one of the key elements of dealing with emergent language.


There were two noticeable concerns that emerged from participants:

  1. I’d worry that students aren’t getting enough exposure to language in texts
  2. How can this work while we’re teaching a syllabus based on a coursebook?


These concerns are well known to teachers familiar with Dogme and I don’t want to get into that here, but it’s interesting to know where the difficulties lie in order to help us to present Dogme in the most accessible light possible.

Dogme Training Session – Before

I have finally got a slot booked to run a teacher training session on Unplugged teaching next week at the British Council where I work. I want to describe what I’m planning to do and hopefully get some comments and suggestions. It would be great to hear from people who have run such workshops before, but also please feel free to comment if you have any thoughts about how it could go differently.

After the event itself, I’m planning to ask a colleague to write a report on what happened, which will hopefully provide some insight on how such a workshop comes across to teachers unfamiliar with Dogme.

Participant profile: 5-10 (hopefully!) extremely experienced teachers, most of whom will not be aware of Dogme ELT.

Aim: to give an overview and an experience of what a Dogme lesson might look like, discuss the principles behind the approach, and give time for teachers to consider how it might be relevant for them and brainstorm some ideas.

Note: I’m planning to base it around a lesson I wrote about recently which you can find here



1. Tell true anecdote about my neighbour who snores and keeps me awake. Ask how I must feel.

2. Ask ‘Ss’ to brainstorm solutions to my situation in pairs

3. Elicit all ideas to board. Back in pairs, Ss rank all ideas from best to worst

4. Pairs mingle and find someone who has the same idea at the top of their list. Feedback and discussion on how they reached their decision

5. Pick one of the popular solutions that involves a conversation (eg me confronting my neighbour), and have Ss write a short dialogue in pairs.

6. Presentation of dialogues

7. Wrap up the demo lesson and have participants write a summary of stages. What happened? (ie Genuine language, Responding to real world stimuli, Here and now (in this case it is my life, but with experience you can improvise these situations based on Ss’ stories), 4 skills, Many interaction patters, logical stages, real life tasks)

8. Discuss language that might have emerged in a group of learners (ie opportunities for language work), and how you might work with it

9. Present a summary of the principles of Dogme

10. Discussion. (Possible areas: other ways to develop the lesson, different types of classes, how to work on language)

11. Participants work together to come up with a similar real-life story that they could use in their class and a set of tasks

So there we have it!

Lesson 12 – Teacher anecdote

Here’s a report of a lesson that shows how you can use your own life as a resource for developing interesting Unplugged lessons.

Situations like this one could, of course, be made up for the purpose of classroom use. Unfortunately, this particular one happens to be true!

Intermediate business group
60 mins
4 learners

1. I start by telling the story of my neighbour whom I’ve never met. He (?) keeps me awake at night with some ungodly levels of snoring. This person’s bed seems to be positioned right on the other side of my bedroom wall which makes the situation all that much worse (walls in Japanese homes are thin!). I tell them that I’m sleep deprived, really fed up and in need of some advice.

2. Students pair up and make a list of possible courses of action (I ask them to let their imaginations go free here).

3. These are elicited to the board, scaffolded and drilled with attention to some interesting features of phonology.

4. Back in their pairs, students rank the ideas from most to least advisable.

5. The pairs come together, show each other their lists and are then asked to negotiate a final list as a group. As always with a speaking task, I give them some useful language for reporting and negotiating before they start (you can see this in the bott right of the board). I point out that this task has many characteristics of business meetings, which helps to focus them on the language they use.

6. I elicit their rankings to the board and there is some discussion about appropriacy and the various levels of danger associated with each suggestion. I’ve never met the snorer after all – what if he’s a yakuza who doesn’t take kindly to having his wall banged on?


7. The concencus is that I should have a word with the owner of the building, who should in turn go and pass on my complaint to the guy nextdoor.

8. Students make new pairs and write out a dialogue for the hypothetical confrontation between the landlord and the snorer. The situation calls for lots of cautious language and polite requests, which again closely mirrors their business needs. I go round inputting a lot of language at this point to individual pairs.

9. Unfortunately we ran out of time here but next lesson we will be finishing the dialogues, acting them out with plenty of work on pron, followed by a language focus on the meaty language that came out of their scripts.

10. Can’t wait for next week!

Real-life problem solving has so much potential and can be extremely motivating because it gives a genuine reason for communication.

It was also interesting in this lesson just how relevant these tasks were to their business needs, at least in terms of functionality. As can hopefully be seen from the procedure, there are plenty of opportunities for instruction and learning (it’s far from being just a chat!).

Apart from anything else, learners love hearing about their teachers’ lives. We are objects of endless curiosity! What is going on in your life right now that you could adapt into an engaging Unplugged lesson?

Dogme Cookbook

Here is a collection of practical no-nonsense ways for setting up an Unplugged lesson and getting it going. Once you’re up and running and conversation is rife, you need some effective ways of working with emerging language.

This is what it’s all about – the fine line between aimless conversation and real teaching.

These are not lesson plans, they are a list of activities for working with language. Print it off, adapt it, add it to your own. You will note that it’s nothing new, they are not all wonder-activities in their own right, but they all serve the purpose of promoting real communication and struggle with language. After each one is a link to a description of a lesson in which I used the technique, in case you want some ideas for using it in context.

I hope to add to this page and create a one-stop resource for anyone wishing to increase their Unplugged repertoire. Please do leave a comment with suggested additions to this list!

This page is divided into three parts:
1. Tasks for generating conversation
2. Tasks for working with language
3. Ideas for follow-up lessons on language

Tasks for generating conversation

Ss write their own survey questions, then carry out survey and report back the findings. (create an information gap somehow. Eg. One group only interviews half the class, another interviews the other, they then report to each other). Teacher gives feedback at all stages, esp question writing stage.

Teacher anecdote 1
Tell the class a short personal anecdote on the topic (record it on your phone). Ss listen, discuss details of story in groups, then rewrite it in pairs (dictogloss). Board one version and scaffold language. Play recording back and analyse for difference. Discuss.

Teacher anecdote 2
Tell the class you’re going to tell them about something that happened to you. Give them the first line only. (eg. Last year I was in Japan at the time of the earthquake). Try to hook them with this. To find out what happened, Ss in pairs decide on questions for you, which they write on slips of paper and hand to you. Write the answer and return the papers as you go, sending back any badly formed questions. Ss end up with different parts of the story depending on the questions they asked, so regroup and swap information. Elicit story to board, scaffold and correct.
Here’s an example lesson

Student anecdote
If a S brings a story to the class, go with it (eg. I had an interesting weekend!). Ask questions, encourage others to do the same… Generally get stuck in. Elicit language to the board and scaffold. Once the conversation has run it’s course, elicit a summary to the board in the form of key words/prompts. Ss then retell the story, guides by the board, either in groups or individually it’s a small class. Why not extend it with a ‘disappearing reading’ task – gradually erase key words from the board until they can do it all from memory. Homework: write it up.
See this lesson here

Alternatively, if you already have a topic, do an impromptu interview with a student who seems interested/knowledgable about that topic. Ss in small groups write up the interview. Board, scaffold, discuss.

Paper conversation
Elicit a topic. Ss pass a slip of paper back and forth writing a line of dialogue each time to make a conversation (why not make it a variation for How was your weekend?) T gets involved, correcting and scaffolding. Board and discuss an interesting one.
Similar example here

If you find yourself with a list of something – situations, rules, places – ask Ss to rank them according to some criteria. For example, rank office rules in order of importance. Ss do this individually, then in pairs, then in groups, negotiating the list at each stage. In doing this, Ss establish their own preferences and then have to argue their viewpoint and negotiate with others. This involves a whole host of speaking skills, functional and incidental language.
See a lesson

Get each student to write an ‘untruth’ on a slip of paper. These should be of the harmless and funny variety. (Eg. I got married last weekend. I was arrested on Friday night. I’m meeting the queen for breakfast.) Alternatively, write them yourself. Collect papers and redistribute randomly. Ss will mill and find out what each other have been up to, injecting their new stories into the conversation. Tell them to ask plenty of questions to get to the bottom of why their friend was arrested etc. Give them a few minutes quiet time to get their stories straight and then start. Follow with reporting of interested stories.

Fiona’s task
“Here is part of a lesson from several weeks ago that might be something to try when things are slow. I brought several items (a glass canning jar, a water bottle with water, a collapsible basin, a picture post card) to my beginners class. I set the items out one by one, passed them around and asked what they were. This part was much more productive than I expected, because one student connected the jar to wonderful strawberry jam she had tasted, another connected the collapsible basin to metal collapsible chairs a neighbor has…

Next, I asked for predictions about what I will do with these things. (In the past I had noticed problems with talking about future plans.) Basically everyone predicted that I would pack them up and take them home with me. I filled the glass with water, covered it with the postcard, flipped it over and let go. As long as the postcard is dry, air pressure will hold the card up. (The basin was there just in case.)

The students were all impressed, and laughingly said that I could do magic. I told them that they could do magic at home for their families and that I would not tell anyone that air pressure was actually holding the postcard up.”

Show and tell
Have students bring in something and ask them to prepare to talk about it in class. If using a coursebook, this task can often be used to tie into the language focus of the unit (eg. Describing people/present continuous/past tenses/relative clauses – Ss bring in photos. Technology – Ss bring in their mobile phones and describe what they use them form.) If only to generate conversation, make sure whatever they bring in has meaning for them. Follow up with any generic task type: questions from other Ss, paper questions, brainstorm lexis related to object, Ss retell the story behind someone’s item in pairs, survey on topic (eg. Student brings in a pebble from a beach in Brazil, survey on most exciting travel destinations)

For those times that you have a great class discussion, exploit. Let it run its course. Then, Ss summarise in groups, regroup and check they have everything. T takes notes in the meantime and then work on language that’s come up. Ss email you a summary of what was said for homework. Error correction in next lesson.

Got a topic? Students in pairs or small groups write an imaginary dialogue/conversation. Your job is to scaffold their writing and make it as natural as possible. When I do this, I let them act it out, video it on my iPad for them to watch back, type it all up for them and use the dialogue for analysis in a follow up lesson.

If your lessons are driven by real conversation, there are limitless opportunities to exploit the opinions of Ss in the class. After any task, especially a reading, ask the Ss to respond in some way – ask them how they feel about it, or get them to rank the information in the text in order of usefulness. There’s no special formula here – be creative and resist the temptation to fall back to your plan… there’s always more mileage to be had!
Here’s one example of this

Exploiting the coursebook
Most of us have to use a coursebook in one way or another. Find a nice discussion task in the unit you’re on – why not start with the discussion questions at the end of the unit? Get Ss talking and join in yourself. Keep noting down language and looking for learning opportunities… they’re never very far! Once you’ve identified something interesting (or the Ss have found something themselves) work with the emerging language using the following ideas…
See an example from an advanced class here here

Working with language – focus on form

These activities you can use whenever you think you’ve found some language students should work on. I am constantly writing down what learners say in class, looking back over it for consistent errors/opportunities for learning. It may be new vocab, ‘vb-ing’ patterns, future perfect, language for expressing opinions, whatever you have noticed from your notes/observation.

After an anecdote 1
Get Ss in pairs to retell the anecdote, trying to remember as many details as possible. Regroup or put two pairs together, they tell each other their version and compare. Elicit a full version to the board, or have Ss do this collaboratively. Correct their language as you go, or at the end. If you have a large board, or board plus IWB, split the board in two and put their version on one side and your corrected version on the other (makes it cleaner to analyse and compare). See an example here. Follow it with…

Take sentences or a short dialogue. Translate it into l1 in groups. Compare translations and discuss nuances. Cover up original. Ss translate back into English. Compare with original.
Example here

Delayed error correction
This could come right after a task or at the end of a lesson, depending on your preference. Get samples of learners’ language up on the board. Ask them to suggest improvements themselves, before correcting and scaffolding it. Not just any language, choose sentences with similar errors. Consider repeating the earlier tasks to give them an opportunity to practise what they’ve just learnt.

Personalise it
Any time an interesting lexical item comes up, get the Ss to relate it to themselves. For example, you’re discussing ‘irritated’ – Ss pair up and tell each other about the last time they felt irritated. Report to the group and exchange anecdotes.
Example of this here

Collocation matching
After looking at a text, dialogue, even some error correction, pick out the useful collocations (verb-noun, adjective-noun etc.) and write the individual words up randomised in a circle on the board – see a sample Ss work together to match the correct collocations by joining them with a line.
See this in a lesson

Improvised gap fill
Have a dialogue on the board? While Ss are working on something else, erase key language and have Ss fill them back in. Vary it: take out the prepositions only (on, in), or referencing words (they, it), or cohesive devices (however, then), or lexical sets (home, house, roof)

What did he say?
If you student is telling you an anecdote about something involving people, ask what the characters original words were. This works especially well in business contexts. Eg. “The Indonesian client wanted a refund, he was so angry.” Ask: what were his words? “I demand a refund.” This is a great way of extending vocabulary range in a meaningful way.
See this in a lesson

Scaffolding and patterning
Take a phrase or expression that comes that you think will be really useful for learners. Write it up on the board and extensively explore possible patterns within the structure. Elicit ideas and talk about what’s possible and what’s not.
Lesson and sample here

Ownership of lexis
Some difficult new lexis from a text or coursebook (eg. Phrasal verbs)? Ss do the following in small groups:

1. Write (double) gap fill exercises for other groups containing the difficult language.

2. Write discussion questions containing the language. Discuss.

3. Write each lexical item on a piece of card. One set for each group. Groups order the cards to make up a story. Regroup and tell it to others.
See the lesson

Some difficult new words or phrases? Ss translate a selection into L1 and discuss nuances. Ss test each other on the language. One person reads the L1 sentence and the other has to produce it in English. Ss correct each other and you drill language as necessary. This is great fun, but difficult with multilingual classes.
See this in a lesson

Take an utterance or piece of dialogue and give Ss different emotional charges to write it out in. For example, how do you say this angrily, how do you say this sadly. You could get Ss to pick an emotion in secret and others have to guess how they are feeling.

Ideas for follow-up lessons focusing on language

If you have a great Unplugged lesson, you’ll likely have far too much language to focus on in the space of one class. You then face the dilemma of moving on to something new in the next lesson, or continuing with work from the last class. There are also some great activities you can use to build on conversation-driven lessons, but they need some prep so you can’t pull them out on the spot.

Grass skirts
A brilliant motivating way to review language scaffolded in the last class. Select some relevant errors you recorded in the last class and type them out in single lines with plenty of space between each line. Slice/cut the paper almost all the way so that each sentence is almost falling off (it should look like a comb). In class, stick up the sheet around the class (one full set for each group). Students race to pull off one error at a time, correct it and give it to you for approval. If they’ve successfully corrected it, they can move on to the next error, pulling it off the sheet and continuing the process. Winner is the first to complete all errors leaving an empty stub on the wall.

Exploiting a dialogue
(Type it up for the class)
1) Pairs swap dialogues and act out each others’.
2) Delete one person’s lines from the dialogue and get Ss to guess what was said
3) …Or else write a related dialogue yourself. Give one person’s lines to different pairs, get them to imagine the missing lines. Ss then act out their interpretations of what was actually said.
4) Ask Ss to take the same dialogue but re-situate it. Eg. it’s not casual anymore, but a business meeting. Ss rewrite it all using formal language.

Text analysis
Written a text or dialogue in the last lesson? Type it up for them and use it for text analysis in the next lesson. Eg: ask them to go through and find the collocations and lexical phrases, find the linking words and the weak forms, whatever you think is most important for your particular group. It’s all been scaffolded from their own writing so it’s extremely meaningful.

Running dictation
An old classic, but use it to review a text that Ss wrote in the last class, or maybe an improved version that you’ve written for them.

Reflections on an Unplugged course

I’ve just finished teaching a 5 lesson introductory course for intermediate level, which I’ve done entirely unplugged. Coursebook coverage was units 1-2 of New Cutting Edge Intermediate.

I chose frameworks for lessons that were likely to bring up grammar points found in the first 2 units of the book and then set the respective coursebook exercises for homework in order for the learners to feel that they’d used it.

I spent a good hour over the first two lessons introducing lexical notebooks and showing them how to record language (homework was to buy a nice notebook!). Learners were also asked to choose an elementary level graded reader and read it over the duration of the course.

This is the first time I have taught an entire course unplugged and have been reflecting on the relative merits.

(If you’re new to Dogme and would like to know more about the mechanics of an Unplugged lesson please see other posts on this blog and other sites from the blogroll on the right of this screen.)

What’s striking is that the learners have got to know each other really well in only 5 lessons, a pleasing result of basing lessons entirely around learners’ lives. Activities and talking was always based on finding out about their classmates or about their each other’s feelings or reactions to something.

Having read a lot about sociolinguistics recently it struck me that this course was very inclusive and, by constructing learning around learners’ own lives, made an important contribution to helping learners establish their own social identity in English. This may sound rather woolly, but on this course there was a tangible surge in confidence and engagement with language compared to other courses I’ve taught. See here for further discussion on motivation and attitude in language learning.

I see the work we did on establishing lexical notebooks as important in the Unplugged framework. The retrospective discipline and meta-cognitive skills needed to keep such a notebook seems to make up for the ‘structure-on-a-plate’ that my course lacked by not working out of a coursebook.

The graded readers were also a huge success and we spent some of the last lesson talking about what they’d all read. The books might also have made up for a potential drawback which has been bothering me.

When looking through their beautifully kept lexical notebooks at the end of the course I noticed rather disappointedly that there wasn’t a great deal of lexis in it. There were plenty of lexical phrases, verb patterns, collocations, functions for speaking skills etc, but not a lot of good old vocabulary.

Thinking back, it seems that I spent a lot of time on scaffolding conversation, grammaring, reconstructing text, delayed error correction, recycling tasks, some functional language, some speaking skills. It seems like I was trying hard to give them ’empowering’ language and skills. What they didn’t get was a substantial amount of lexical input, vocabulary building, whatever you want to call it.

This is a problem. Is it a tall order for teachers to provide this level of input on their own? Could it be that I simply neglected to give them enough new vocab – offer alternative language where possible? Or could it be that I concentrated too much on accuracy because that was my instinctive take on what they needed most? I felt the absence of at least one meaty text, spoken or written, that could have been exploited for language.

There is some action research screaming to be done here. I’d love to hear from others about this – have you had similar experiences with Unplugged courses and if so how have you tackled it? How do you work with learners’ emergent language while ensuring they receive a good amount of lexical input? Indeed, do you think about it at all? If you don’t, are you satisfied you give them enough? How do you know?

Lesson 11 – Exams and Phrasal Verbs

Today I was covering an FCE class of 5 intermediate level learners. Being unfamiliar with the group, I had prepared a fair bit of material. I didn’t use any of it.

Unthinkable until recently, my trips to the recycling bin at the end of my classes are become increasingly burdensome, to the point that I’m throwing out more paper than I’m printing out in the first place. Where does it all come from? The answer is obvious: the universe is conspiring against prepared gap fills and matching cards and planting extra in my classroom in order to hammer home the point.

The class started with checking of homework. The regular teacher had set a series of gap fill/matching exercises from the book on phrasal verbs containing the verb come, eg come about, come up, come round. Needless to say there had been problems all round and the predictable mural of blank faces persisted even after everything had been checked.

What does it take to know a word? What does knowing a word actually mean? What is the meaning of come when it is found delexicalised like this? How many matching exercises does it take for a learner to be able to not only recognise a phrasal verb but also use it convincingly and appropriately?

Exam coursebooks cram so much into their pages, you’d think customers are being charged ‘by the exercise’. There seems to be the prevailing view that because an exam is a serious affair, learning must be equally solemn.

In FCE, as in IELTS, speaking components require candidates to ‘interact’ with the examiner or other candidate and they have a very short window in which to demonstrate their competence.

This demands an ability to perform communicatively under pressure. More challenging than General English, you could say. It follows that an emphasis on spoken fluency is just as important in exam preparation as any other kind of class if candidates are to appear genuinely convincing and avoid struggling awkwardly through reems of specially learnt language in a bid to impress the examiner.

However, the huge amount of structural input in exam coursebooks would suggest the opposite to be true.

Consequently, an overemphasis on the type of discrete item exercise mentioned above can be disabling to the student if the teacher doesn’t go to some lengths to help them internalize the language. Why? Because the language in such exercises is abstract – without any meaningful context. In this bleak existence, language input does not become intake – it simply doesn’t get learnt by any useful measure.

Coursebooks often plant ‘new’ language within a written or spoken text, to be processed at the beginning of the unit. Fine, except how often do coursebook texts really interest your students?

I deeply dislike coursebook texts, even in the better books. I sympathise with the writers. It’s an impossible job – producing texts that will appeal to learners in all corners of the world. Despite their best efforts, in the act of compromise the results are bland and generic at best, a large scale imposition of western political hegemony or ‘regimes of truth’ (Gore 1993) at worst.

But to return to the topic, if students are to really get a grip on challenging new language such as this, we need to abandon the coursebook and provide extensive opportunities for personalisation. They need to work with real language, self-produced, and to internalize it gradually by an extended process of trial and error, with the teacher on hand to point out the limits of what’s possible, as well as what’s not. Only then will learners begin to own the language.

And therein lies the power of Dogme. You don’t have to be a ‘Dogme teacher’ to work in this way, of course. Anthony Gaughan said something to the effect of: ‘this is not about Dogme teaching, but good teaching.’ But what I have found in my experiments with Dogme is that it orientates the teacher towards entering the classroom well prepared to, perhaps with the sole intention of, helping learners with what they need here-and-now, not whatever comes next in the book or whatever you happen to have prepared that day. And insodoing, you are really teaching.

Intermediate EFC class
5 learners
3 hours

1. Learners check their homework together in groups (matching phrasal verbs to their definitions etc, it’s their first exposure to this language, they are lost). Checking and troubleshooting takes about 20 minutes. It’s at this stage I know I have to abandon my lesson plan. If I don’t address this need, learning will not progress logically.

2. It’s early days. Learners need to experiment with the language and explore what’s possible. The class split in two and write gap fill exercises for each other. Rules: groups write full, contextualised sentences first for each phrasal verb, ask me to check and sign off on them, then remove the phrasal verbs and write the gap fill for the other group. This takes a long time, but it’s gold. By discussing possibilities for the language together, moderated by me, they are at the first stages of exploring and internalising it.

3. Swap sheets and complete the other group’s exercises. Discuss. Here they are:


4. I ask the group: “do you feel more confident with the language now?” Predictable reply: “a bit.” “So then, what’s next? Imagine you’re the teacher, what do you give your students next to learn these phrasal verbs?” They’re taken aback by my question, they’ve never been consulted on their own learning process before. The group think and decide they want to start using the language in speaking. I agree. “Do you ever have discussions in class, maybe based on discussion questions?” “Yes, very often.” “Ok, so work together and write your own discussion questions using this language.” They work through, writing questions. I step in from time to time to correct and scaffold, but also making sure that their questions will be conducive to a good milling activity. Here’s what they came up with:


5. After the break I drilled the questions, got everyone standing up, milling and discussing their questions. (I remind them what we are practising and encourage them to use the phrasal verbs in their answers and ensuing discussions.) Some wonderful stories come out, and I take notes in the background.

6. Learners report back on interesting stories they heard. Delayed error correction at the board of language from the discussion.

7. I ask again how well they feel they’ve learnt the language. They’re much more confident now but naturally still not quite there yet. I repeat the question on what’s next in the learning process. They respond that they need freer practice, something creative.

8. I hand out blank cards to groups and ask them to write one of the phrasal verbs on each card. “Now, you’re going to make stories using the language. Arrange the cards however you like to make a story and prepare to tell it to the other group. Be as creative as you like, and try not to write anything down.” (This activity is based on Scott’s Terrible Life from Lewis 1997.)

The groups make their stories surprisingly quickly. “It’s a bit abstract,” one student warns me. Tables swap their stories, which are wonderful and creative. This is a spoken activity and there are mistakes, but what is apparent is how freely learners are using the target language.

Homework is to write another story with the same language and email it to me.


A long time was spent on each of these activities. Looking back, it may all seem quite light for a 3-hour class. What’s important to note is that, at all points in the process, students were discussing and experimenting with language. It’s important to slow down, resist the temptation to always be teaching. Learners need the time to work things out for themselves.

Dogme places a large burden on the teacher and is not easy to do. Being able to fashion meaningful lessons ‘from nothing’ that respond to emerging needs and develop alongside them, is without doubt the biggest challenge facing a teacher wishing to experiment with the approach.

One problem I faced in this lesson was that I didn’t really get to grips with ‘come about‘. I couldn’t really tell learners how best to use this language and you probably noticed that their ‘come about‘ phrases in the exercises above are slightly unnatural. Does an earthquake come about? Perhaps very colloquially, but I wasn’t happy with it. I don’t know how many years it will take for me to be able to effectively deal with anything that may come up. That’s a challenge for the long term and with teaching unplugged – you don’t know what’s going to come up.

But of course the lessons are not ‘from nothing’. They are drawn from everything you’ve ever done in the classroom, your accumulated experience, your reading and your own language learning. Something that has helped me greatly in the process has been keeping a log of useful activities for working with language. I take it with me into lessons sometimes and refer to it if I’m stuck for the best way to develop the lesson.

If a teacher nurtures these aspects of their own development, teaching unplugged should be well within their grasp.


Gore, J. 1993. The struggle for pedagogies: critical and feminist discourses as regimes of truth. London: Routledge.

Lewis, M. 1997. Implementing the lexical approach. Heinle.

Contrastive analysis for error correction

How often have you listened to learners talking and thought to yourself: ‘you made that error because that’s the way you say it in your mother tongue’?

Here’s an example of addressing such errors from a recent one-to-one lesson, followed by some thoughts on contrastive analysis.

My student and I had been talking for some time. As I was making notes I heard a succession of errors that appeared to come from his L1 – Japanese.

When the conversation wound up we went back and analysed the language. My usual method of delayed correction is to write up errors and ask the students to suggest improvements. This time, I tried a ‘stealth’ method of error correction – you may not wish to do this with learners who are sensitive to error!

1. Write out corrected versions of the utterances
2. Show the learner(s), but don’t mention that they’ve been corrected.
3. ‘Here are some sentences from our conversation. Under each one, write how you would say it naturally in L1.’
4. At this point you have two correct versions of each sentence, L1 and L2. Next, underneath each one, write what they actually said.
5. Ask the learner(s) to go through, identify their error in each case and trace it back to how it would be said in their L1. Talk about the causes of the error.
6. Set a follow-up task to practice. Perhaps a writing consolidation for homework.

Here’s the page. 1=corrected English; 2=Japanese equivalent; 3=original utterance.


The third group is an interesting case. It turned out I’d misheard ‘although’ as ‘also’! This was principally a problem with word stress, but heightened by the fact that he pronounced ‘th’ as ‘s’. Conveniently, this is actually an L1 interference problem, this time of the more predictable phonological variety.

And the follow-up:


I’ve always been quite interested in this aspect of SLA because in my own language learning I tend to value rather highly an understanding of how something is expressed differently between L1 and L2. It helps me to make sense of language, understand its inner-workings.

In class, drawing comparisons between L1 and L2 has always seemed to me a logical thing to do. If a Japanese learner proclaims ‘I’m becoming happy’, and your knowledge of their L1 tells you that you often ‘〜になる (become+emotion)’ in Japanese, then would it not make sense to point this out? Things like this make me question the default position of many teachers of ‘no L1!’

Reviewing and scaffolding language with one-to-one learners

Here’s a simple activity for looking at and deepening understanding of a chunk of language. It works particularly well with one-to-one classes because it needs a fair amount of teacher input. You could use it to examine emerging language, or to review something from a previous lesson.

Take a chunk that you want to explore in more depth and write it out in it’s base form the centre of a blank piece of paper.

For example: from the sentence ‘I thought he would take it personally’ you might end up with ‘take it personally’ on your paper.

Teacher and student(s) take it in turns to add a word each to the chunk. It could be to extend it (‘he took it very personally’) or in the form of substitutions (‘take it badly’).

It’s important to talk about the language that comes up and talk about what isn’t possible just as much as what is. Stretch the learners to think of different contexts and applications for the language, scaffolding all the way. What you end up with is a rich exploration of language that can be recorded in lexical notebooks and used for homework – eg ‘write 10 possible sentences from the exercise’.

A great homework task would be to make a language plant.

Here’s how my above example ended up in the lesson:


The state of my one-to-one teaching, and a way forward

One-to-one teaching

In this post (originally written for the British Council Teaching English Facebook page:, I’m going to briefly describe how I see Dogme situated in common practices in one-to-one teaching, describe a lesson that I taught last weekend, then finally discuss how my own teaching has developed recently,  perhaps influenced by my experiments with Dogme. I started writing my blog as an alternative to a personal teaching journal, a way to reflect on my lessons and my teaching. It seems that people really enjoy reading other teachers’ reflections, though, so I’ve started writing about my teaching in general. I hope you find it interesting and please feel free to comment – blogs thrive on the interaction between people out there!

Many people’s reaction upon encountering Dogme for the first time is: “Well, I pretty much do that anyway.” They’re usually referring to their private teaching. I’m sure most of us can relate to an approach to one-to-one lessons where we talk with the learner, scaffolding their language, essentially helping them say what they want to say while talking with them as much as possible, perhaps stimulated by an article or similar that the learner has brought to the lesson. We might then come up with a few exercises on the spot based on what they’d had problems with and then set something for homework that would allow them to practise further.

If your own private teaching is anything like the description above then you already have Dogme in your teaching blood!

1) your lessons are driven by conversation on relevant topics

2) you use your learner’s emerging language as a basis for language work

3) any materials you use are relevant to the learner, either because they’ve brought it along to the lesson themselves, or because you’ve used your familiarity with them to select a text suited to their needs or interests.

This method of teaching deals with most General English students’ learning needs very well, and I think a diligent teacher can do well with this. This is true only insofar as the learner is getting personal attention. Transplant this into group teaching, and you have a very different kettle of fish because it’s impossible to attend to everyone’s needs, as they emerge, all of the time. A lot of the approaches to navigating Dogme lessons that I write about in my blog are basically ways to stimulate conversation democratically – ensuring that all learners are engaged, contributing and hopefully benefitting more or less equally. Seemingly innocuous activities like: “tell each other 3 good things and 3 bad things about your weekend” actually fulfill an important function, because you’re able to immediately move the focus of the group away from you, the teacher waiting to ‘teach’, and towards the learners themselves and what they have to offer to each other.

But this post intends to deal with one-to-one teaching.

After an unreasonably long time between lessons, I saw one of my long-term students Naoko last weekend. We were rather short on time (1 hour), and I set about the lesson in my usual fashion. It was only when we’d finished and gone our separate ways that I reflected on the lesson and realized how different it was to how I would have taught a similar lesson even 6 months ago.

It’s interesting for me to note that, despite what I’ve written above about an ‘organic’ approach to teaching one-to-one lessons, the more experienced I become, the less ‘free’ my lessons are becoming. In fact, it’s clear that I’m imposing quite structured series of activities on the learner during the lesson. Why the move in this direction? On the face of it it seems rather anti Dogme principles. In group teaching I work so hard to create communicative situations, but with an amenable one-to-one student it’s much easier; the information gap between teacher and learner (L2 vs L1) is there from the start, thereby generating the authentic communicative situation – the need for the learner to make herself understood. So perhaps I feel that, with this burden lifted, we can get down to the nitty gritty language work more quickly.

The lesson

Level: Advanced. Time: 60 mins

Pre-lesson: there is no preparation. However, I have a photocopy of her entire lexical notebook which I look at before the lesson, noting down a selection of words and phrases that I know will be useful for her to revise and that are likely to come up in conversation. I’ll often choose lexis with some kind of function in discourse e.g. ‘at the same time’, ‘all in all’.

1) ‘So what’s been going on since the last time I saw you?’

2) She tells me about her father not being so well and a trivial family feud

3) I don’t interfere linguistically. I listen and respond as naturally as possible, asking a few questions.

4) We her situation and possible solutions to the problem, throwing in some phrases and expressions that I think she’ll like, and fitting in some language for recycling from previous lessons . Some discussion of those follow.

5) Among other things, I give her some ‘sentence frames’ based on what she was trying to say: ‘I don’t want to antagonize him, but I don’t want to avoid the issue either.’ This becomes: ‘I don’t _________, but I don’t ________either.’ We take a detour and come up with some substitutions for this frame.

6) ‘Right, tell me it all one more time.’

7) Naoko repeats the story. She’s a little reluctant at first, but appreciates the value in it. If she forgets bits I ask for details in as natural a way as possible – clearly there’s an element of ‘display’ here, but it serves a purpose

8 ) Some more feedback and discussion. ‘Ok, and one last time.’

9) It’s very good this time. She’s very bright and is already incorporating most of the language we’ve discussed, making very few mistakes. What to do? Really the only thing that’s setting her apart from a native speaker at this point (other than her accent) is that it’s sounding too good. It sounds prepared, like the Best Man’s speech at a wedding. “I first met Peter…”. Furthermore, in the back of my mind I’m thinking:  ‘as good as this is, she’ll have forgotten most of it by next week.’ I decide she needs to relate what she’s saying to authentic speech.

10) ‘Now I’m going to tell you the story myself. Just listen and tell me what differences you can see between our two versions.’

11) I tell the story, making a point of telling it just as if I were in the pub, throwing in all the elements of natural speaking you’d expect: false starts, hesitation, repetition etc.

12) We talk about these features a little.

13) I used her iPhone to record myself telling the story. Homework is to transcribe it word for word, false starts and all!

Commentary – What am I doing differently?

The main thing: we really did much less than usual. There was very little superfluous chat, or any speaking that didn’t have a pedagogical purpose in the back of my mind. I’d usually spend some time just chatting with the student, warming into the lesson (who doesn’t?) but it’s very interesting how a bit of time pressure made me focus much more quickly and spot potential directions for the lesson. It just so happened that she had a story to tell me, but a simple ‘how was your weekend?’ could have brought about similar results.

I’ve been struggling recently with ideas for consistently recycling language from previous lessons. How can it be done naturally in Dogme? I don’t know how useful the above method is, or just how far it can work. Clearly some language is easier than others to slot into new contexts. Honestly, though, given that I have been guilty of not recycling language so thoughtfully in my teaching in the past, right now I’m just happy to be thinking about it!

The language I’m giving her is different to before. FIrstly, I noticed that I chose to focus on a relatively small amount of new lexical items over the course of this lesson. Perhaps 6-8 at most. There were so many things I could have brought up, but I resisted the temptation. This meant that, in the detours we did take to discuss language, we could go into sufficient depth.

The more experienced I become, the ‘larger’ the language that I focus on. That’s not a particularly eloquent description, but here’s what I mean. I wouldn’t have spotted/conceptualised language in a way such as ‘I don’t _________, but I don’t ________either,’ in the past. These ‘sentence frames’ (also known by a variety of terms) are an approach I’ve used a lot recently as they seem to be very easy for learners to get their head around. I think they’re open to criticism on some levels, for example many elements of the frames themselves can be changed (e.g. ‘she didn’t ____, but she didn’t ____ either). However, by focusing on language on this more sentential level you’re encouraging learners to think more holistically, which will ultimately impact on fluency.

I got her to repeat the speaking ‘task’ twice. This approach, borrowed from Task Based Language Teaching (TBLT), has many benefits and by the third time learners are usually really getting a handle on what they’re doing. Although I have always liked repeating tasks, I’m finding myself actually insisting on it now; not just once, though – do it twice! I have found that not all learners see the value in this approach initially, but it’s really worth sticking at it because when they come round they really appreciate it.

Dogme principles state that any listening work done in class should use recordings made by the learners themselves. This has seemed rather counter-intuitive to me, because what of the value in exploiting authentic texts? However, with this method of recording a ‘better other’ version of Naoko’s own language, I believe I might have found a cunning compromise. After all, it’s highly relevant to the learner (she came up with it!) and ‘meaning’ is already taken care of. She’s free to study the gap between her version and my version. By coming at the end of the lesson, I see another parallel with TBLT, in which the language focus stage of a lesson may come right at the end.  Being set for homework it provides a sense of continuation between lessons. Learning takes place in a continuum and does not end when the hour’s up. She’ll take this recording home and really study it. I have no idea what she’ll take from it linguistically, but there’s a rich source of language there that we can discuss in the next lesson and possible the one after.

Some questions to think about

How could this be continued into the next lesson?

What would you choose to focus on?

Would any of these ideas work in your own teaching?

Would you change anything? Why?

How do you recycle language from previous lessons?