Spirit of DOGME

David Nield sets sail on a personal journey into new teaching territory.
I have been teaching for a long time and have always enjoyed it. I have also seen a lot of new approaches weave their way into the eclecticism known as “mainstream teaching”. Over the last few years, I have been trying to work the lexical approach into my teaching as I agree that language is largely produced in lexical chunks. In all this time I have never radically altered my own style – rather expanded it progressively.

A first encounter
I first came across DOGME a couple of years ago. Someone was doing a workshop on it at the International House Teachers’ Centre. Unfortunately, I was unable to go, but felt sufficiently disappointed to check DOGME out on the internet (www.teaching-unplugged.com and groups.yahoo.com/group/dogme). The result was intriguing and challenging: a teaching methodology based on an anti-Hollywood film school from Denmark! There was a lively debate on the group chat line, but what most struck me was the core document, the DOGME “Vow of Chastity for ELT” – ten wonderfully outrageous ways to challenge your comfort in the classroom. I put it on the wall next to my desk to see if it would work some magic on me.

The DOGME Vow of Chastity – for ELT
Nothing really happened for a long while except I got a little staid in my teaching, perhaps, and a little frustrated at my school’s policy or not automatically providing the students with coursebooks. One day I was asked to lead an in-service teacher training session on the subject of my choice. I don’t like to do in-service training if I have nothing to say, and the only newish thing for me was the DOGME list on my wall. I took it down, dusted it off and remember repeatedly emphasising to my colleagues how easy it would be to tear it apart, but suggesting instead trying to see if our teaching could gain something from it. The response was so encouraging that I decided to try it out myself during the luxury of a two-month period when all I was doing was teaching. I hasten to add at this point that I did not consider myself duty-bound to keep to all of the vows, what I did undertake was to keep to the spirit of DOGME as I understood it.

My DOGME classes
My first “coursebook” class was an elementary-level group consisting predominantly of Asian students. This was a fairly quiet class in a continuous enrolment system (five days of three hours each morning). Along with that, I was also teaching a one-hour pre-intermediate conversation class. My second “coursebook” class consisted of advanced-level students, with lively Latin-types and a lot of Swedes. Another conversation class was at FCE level. I wasn’t sure how to structure a DOGME class (a contradiction in terms, perhaps), but gradually a pattern emerged whereby I would start each lesson by getting the students talking in pairs about something topical for them, for example what they had done the evening before; what they were going to do the following evening; or anything that came up naturally. Whilst they were doing this, I would monitor and write language points up on the board, divided into good points and points to consider. The good points would either be things someone had said or useful things I thought they were trying to say. We would do class feedback on the task and then go through my notes, expanding on points if necessary or particularly relevant. Usually, this feedback would take up the rest of the first part. Often it would include impromptu practice exercises, brainstorming lexical or structural areas, and would finish with more speaking on a topic raised by the students. The second half would usually be devoted to consolidating a previous day’s language point, doing some skills work and finally some conversation or discussion, again based on a topic from the students. Of course, if being DOGME, all of this could be dropped at any time in favour of something else deemed more important or real at that moment, and often I would give the students a choice of activities to do near the end of the class.

The DOGME Vow of Chastity – for ELT
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, etc.). No recorded listening material should be introduced into the classroom: the source of all “listening” activities should be the students and teacher themselves. The only recorded material that is used should be that made in the classroom itself, e.g. recording students in pair- or groupwork for later re-play and analysis. The teacher must sit down at all times when the students are seated, except when monitoring group- or pairwork (and even then it may be best to pull up a chair). In small classes, teaching should take place around a single table. All the teacher’s questions must be “real” questions (such as “Do you like oysters?” or “What did you do on Saturday?”), not “display” questions (such as “What’s the past of the verb “to go”?” or “Is there a clock on the wall?”). Slavish adherence to a method (such as audiolingualism, silent way, TPR, task-based learning, suggestopedia) is unacceptable. A pre-planned syllabus of pre-selected and graded grammar items is forbidden. Any grammar that is the focus of instruction should emerge from the lesson content, not dictate it. Topics that are generated by the students themselves must be given priority over any other input. Grading of students into different levels is not allowed: students should be free to join the class that they feel most comfortable in, whether for social reasons or for reasons of mutual intelligibility or both. As in other forms of human social interaction, diversity should be accommodated, even welcomed, and certainly not proscribed. The criteria and administration of any testing procedures must be negotiated with the learners. Teachers themselves will be evaluated according to only one criterion: that they are not boring.


1. DOGME can be used at both higher and lower levels. With lower levels, the language
work is easier for the teacher, but the students are not able to expand on topic areas so freely, especially in speech. At higher levels, the reverse applies. I tried it out to limited degree with my conversation classes with success and with other levels when covering colleagues’ classes. Coursebooks can be used if so desired. The “3 T’s” (Texts, Tasks and Topics) suggested on the DOGME website were the basis for my use of coursebooks. I went through each one, picked out the promising Ts and had them to hand for where and when appropriate. A student-fuelled syllabus motivates students as they can get real answers to their real problems. It also motivated me to be fully present in the classroom, listening carefully and being forced to be constantly creative. All the basic CELTA techniques can be applied – the only difference is you apply them off the top of your head there and then. This was great for making me more flexible. I had always felt I was unnecessarily reliant on thinking procedure through beforehand.


3. 4.

5. Variety is still the spice of life. Mixing activities and seating is just as important as ever.
In fact, by virtue of paying more attention to the dynamics you are more sensitive to when students are getting restless. Finishing off with a game can be just perfect after the intensity of DOGME. Exploiting activities is more important than usual, as you need to buy breathing space to allow you to be able to invent “spontaneously”. This space, however, can be well used by giving comprehensive coverage to a language point. For example, for practice activities I got students or pairs to come up with a personalised example which I listed in prompt form on the board; then I got the whole class in pairs to recap on these verbally, and then, after a class check, to write them. With lower levels, I would work with the class to invent situational role-plays via “dialogue-builds” (dialogues built up by teacher and students working together). Once these were done and practised, the students would write them up and then go on to extend them in freer practice. Writing is indeed very good for consolidation, variety and giving everyone time to think and reflect. I wanted to be more methodical with this to counterbalance the “flightiness” of it all. Obviously, the more experienced the teacher is, the better able they will be to deal with what’s thrown up. However, I think any qualified teacher has the tools to at least try it out (though you should remember it can take a while to do anything new, and therefore you should not be too easily put off). The constant tailoring of the lesson to the students’ needs and preferences creates a wonderful energy, which can really sustain a lesson and make for a great rapport and a special shared experience. All sorts of language comes up; some would normally be in coursebooks, some wouldn’t, perhaps. For example, “it’s easy/hard/funny to do something”, “I’m qualified to…”, all sorts of dependent prepositions, “could you do me a favour?”, French expressions in English. Apart from the content, it’s the order that changes dramatically – a natural order of things for that particular class seems to emerge. For example, at elementary level, make vs. do, the past simple and present simple, superlatives, articles and first conditional (in that order). Of course, you have to be alert to make sure the language you focus on is totally natural and you also have to decide if the best language for what the students want to say is too complex for their level. Real communication – sometimes very direct and honest – can occur more easily as you are giving the students permission to go almost anywhere. For example, chat-up lines, sexual harassment and my veganism all cropped up. I included myself in this communication and found I was more open and willing to be involved than usual. Other topics included the “real” me, pick pocketing, bank cards, legal ages, spring and flowers (for elementary), and bad illnesses, the political system in Britain, British newspapers, vegetarianism, the cost of living, approaches to teaching and honesty (for advanced). A study centre can be used quite naturally to let the students follow their own learning needs, but you can also create a group chat, where students all log onto one email address and send messages to each other in real time. This would serve the same purpose as an oral chit-chat, but in written form. I have yet to try this out, but did have the students “chatting” in pairs on the internet. Preparation changes radically. Apart from the initial checking out of the coursebook, the planning can be limited more to a general overview of activities that could be used, plus consolidation exercises for points that come up on previous days. You might like to have something prepared for security and especially for the second half of a long lesson, but in essence my preparation was to enter the classroom as fresh and relaxed as possible so that I could devote my full energies to the lesson. Some teachers might find the lesson quite draining, but you are often carried along by the momentum. Keeping a record is very important during the lesson – it’s easy to forget what you’ve done when you haven’t planned it! Also, you need a good record to help students see that there can be some sort of order in the chaos. I used tapes sometimes – texts and songs in the second half of the lesson. I also recorded students or myself and could have extended this. Progress tests are very important to consolidate the week’s material. This also makes the student realise that there is some shape to their learning.


7. 8.

9. 10.




14. 15. 16.

17. Everything and everybody who enters the DOGME classroom is fair game. From new students to trainees to colleagues, anyone who comes in becomes part of the lesson. My DOS provided the students with a real opportunity to ask questions about school policy. 18. Likewise, anything brought in, from T-shirts to newspapers, can be picked up on and exploited. Students also like to feel they can contribute to the lesson in this way. For example, one brought in an article on Eton, another an article on an impromptu England vs. Iraq football match. 19. The lexical approach, as I understand it, can be usefully incorporated when going over language points in feedback. By making notes on the board whilst monitoring, I had time to think about which points I wanted to expand on later. The students could take or leave a lot of the points – the collectively useful ones I would try to expand on in the lesson or the next day; these included different types of chairs, different expressions using the word moon and adjectives that collocate with very. 20. Herein lies the art of DOGME. Knowing what to pick out and pick up on is a real teaching skill. To a certain extent, it has to be what you feel comfortable dealing with, but hopefully the priority is always given to the students’ perceived needs.

So these were my findings, but I’d also like to share some of the feedback from the “coursebook” students. The elementary group gave limited feedback, but said in general that they hadn’t missed working from a coursebook and that they had liked the approach used. The advanced group said they had been happy with the balance applied, but could have done with more writing and sometimes more pronunciation and reading. Specifically, when asked about the DOGME style, everyone was positive as they had felt more involved and motivated by the lessons. They appreciated the fact that they had had some influence on the lesson and had seen some flexibility on the teacher’s part. Interestingly, some did warn that it had to be done seriously or else it would lose its appearance of structure and air of professionalism.

To conclude, I don’t think the DOGME approach is particularly new, in so far as all teachers have had experiences of “winging it” and teaching from their wits, usually when covering colleagues’ classes at short notice. This is an important point to emphasise, as the thought of something radically new can very often seem daunting. You are still focusing on and clarifying language point and then going on to practise them; you are still developing students’ language skills, from speaking fluency to reading for detail. However, it is more about focusing on whatever the situation usefully and spontaneously offers and working on this with whichever technique will do the job. Basically, it is trying to make something substantial out of that spirit of adventure. It also struck me from early on that I had always adopted a similar approach when teaching one-to-one, i.e. a tailor-made lesson working from the student’s needs and interests. In a sense, all I was doing differently was customising group classes in that way. Of course, dealing with a number of people’s needs is always more complicated than dealing with an individual’s, but at least the teacher is in the best position to judge that balance. On reading a draft of this article, a teaching friend remarked that he could see how a student could benefit from DOGME, but was unsure if it was good news for teachers. All I can say is that teaching in this style stimulated me so much that I sometimes couldn’t wait to get back in the classroom to see what would happen next and how to respond to it. The pre-planned emptiness of many former lessons was gone (as much unnecessary preparation time) and instead I was brought face to face with the wonderful unknown of the present and an acute eagerness to explore our experience and how to express it.

Final thoughts

I’ll leave you with an illustration of the efficacy of DOGME. When I volunteered to take over the advanced class, I was a little apprehensive; I knew they would be up for speaking, but I was really unsure how it wo8uld work with the language points and if I would be able to carry it off at that level of English. Basically, I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough knowledge or confidence to deal with advanced English on the spur of the moment. I decided to compromise: to get to know the class first for a week and then to employ the approach. On the second day there was a natural discussion that generated plenty of language points; the first half of the lesson sailed by fabulously. For the second half I went back to my brief and “forced” and exercise on the students. It was not that the exercise didn’t have some merit, but rather that the energy level was zero – they had gone back to being regular advanced students sailing reluctantly in the good ship “Done-it-all-before”. I saw it as a sign and from that moment onward we all continued our intrepid journey in the Spirit of Dogme.
David Nield, currently working at Shane Global Language Centres, London, UK, has been teaching English as a Foreign Language for over 20 years. He is also a teacher trainer. E-mail: dnield@shaneglobal.com
Article published in ENGLISH TEACHING professional, Issue 41, November 2005. www.etprofessional.com

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful