Lesson Aims in Dogme ELT

I was first introduced to the concept of Dogme ELT a few years ago. It was a very foreign concept to me at the time, but its attractive promise of an Materials Light approach was invigorating. This was at a time when I wanted to make lessons more Learner Centred and I wanted to spend less time on Lesson Planning in order to spend more time on the learners and on my Professional Development.

Source: Scott Thornbury’s blog

As you can probably imagine, Dogme seemed to offer all of that and more. Its only requirement was a group of learners and a knowledgeable teacher. Although since then I have learnt far more about the English language then I could have ever thought possible, at the time I felt confident in my understanding of the mechanics of English linguistics.

After purchasing the seminal piece on the topic, Teaching Unplugged by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings, I immersed myself into the world of dogme-esque ideas, activities and approaches.

Since then I have completed further training, including a course in Advanced Methodology, a Teacher Training certificate, and the Cambridge Delta, all of which has led me to re-evaluate my beliefs and principles about teaching and learning.

As a result, I have found myself coming back to Dogme, with varying results. However, I think this time I have come to a principled conclusion about going materials light.

What I have been trained to do

In all of my training courses, I have been instructed in one form or another to deliver lessons whose sole purpose is to meet Lesson Aims. This means that the direction, the rationale and the materials as well as the staging are pre-determined by the final aim: what is it the learners are supposed to be getting out of this lesson?

While there might be a number of issues with this approach, I have found three advantages:

  • Most of the effort is made during the planning stage – delivering the lesson is remarkably easy, light and stress free
  • Learners tend to notice a particular structure and focus, which gives them the impression of having learnt something
  • Successful lessons can be saved and used again in the future

However, it isn’t all perfect. There are disadvantages, with the main one being the fact that a huge chunk of my time and effort is consumed by preparation and planning. In fact, by the time it comes to the lesson, I’m rather grateful that it can simply be delivered, giving me the chance to allow the learners to get on with the tasks and activities at hand and I can step back and watch the learning take place in this pre-planned and orchestrated environment.

Another disadvantage is the fact that veering off the pre-determined plan is pretty much unacceptable. The aim is to hit the Learning Goals, so doing anything else will mean not recaching those targets, which will have further ramifications for future pre-planned lessons in the syllabus. Each lesson has an aim; each lesson works towards covering all the nuggets of Language Learning.

What the problem is

As Scott Thornbury and others in the field have reiterated time and time again, the dissecting of language into bite size chunks simply isn’t conductive to building an effective Learning Process.

The reason for this is that while language does require some knowledge about the mechanics of the language, a significant proportion of the acquisition process is a question of automation: developing the skill to put language knowledge into actual use quickly and fluently. This usually cannot be achieved, or achieved with great difficulty, by guiding learners through a series of  discrete language items, followed by revision sessions and summative assessment.

What’s more, the acquisition process is so complex and unique to each learner that in any given group, no matter how well they are placement tested, each individual will be at a different stage in the process. In fact, even with a typically standard Pre-Intermediate group, there will be some who are ready to acquire the Present Perfect, some who may have already acquired it but require further practice, and some who are not ready to acquire it. However, following the “McNugget” approach to language teaching, the lesson on the Present Perfect will be taught once, and if the group is really lucky there might be a revision session.

Following this approach, how can a teacher possibly ensure that all the learners have been given the opportunity at the right moment of their learning to acquire this tense? The answer is simple: they can’t.

What the solution might be

The solution to this problem will never be simple nor easy: language learning is hard work, teaching it is even harder. However, I have generally found that a Dogme approach has allowed me to do several things to help the learners:

  • Teach them what they need at the current stage of their learning
  • Allow them to engage in the Learning Process, using questions and queries to guide the direction of lessons and the course
  • Develop tasks which view language from a holistic perspective, allowing all aspects of grammar and lexis to be revisited numerous times

However, this approach has left me still stuck with two persistent issues:

  1. Learners usually don’t identify a clear purpose or learning aim to a Dogme lesson
  2. This approach doesn’t conform with the principles of learning which schools, observers and course designers subscribe to

In fact, I have had observers basically been unable to comment on observed lessons due to the lack of a clear aim. While part of this will fall down to the abilities of the observer, what I can appreciate, however, is that the lack of focus in such lessons.

This has led me to wonder whether Dogme lessons should remain materials light, and thus very learner centred, but perhaps include an aim. Instead of going into the classroom with the question what should we learn today, what about going in with the thought today we need to cover the Present Perfect  and then asking yourself: how can I make this happen with this group of learners?


11 thoughts on “Lesson Aims in Dogme ELT

  1. If you go in with the aim of teaching the Present Perfect, isn’t that going back to PPP but in a freer form? Isn’t the aim of Dogme to go in without any pre-determined aims?

    What about going in with a Dogme point of view to see where the language gap is and focus on one specific structure or language item? So the linguistic aim will emerge from the ss but the teacher needs to run with it to focus on it.

    Not sure if that makes sense. Just my two cents 🙂


  2. Hiya. This is why I failed my Dogme lesson on the DipTESOL (check out the TEFLology podcast about it). It’s also one reason why I prefer TBLT to Dogme, in that you can pick out tasks/sub-tasks.

    If in doubt (or in an observed lesson) pick one or two bits of language to focus on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have listened to that podcast. It was a while back, so I don’t remember much of it. I also spent most of the podcast being stunned by your accent – you sound scarily similar to me! And I don’t just mean we have the same regional accent: the voice, tone and rhythm is very similar.

      Was it some sort of experimental lesson? Did you fail it because the aims weren’t clear or not met?

      I’ve got a few ideas of how to make Dogme lessons more focused, so I’m going to try them out the next few weeks and then get back to the blog about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, it failed because there were no linguistic aims and a lack of focus (probably the search for Focus on FormS rather than being satisfied with a Focus on Form). Still, I knew the game going into it.

        Anyway, on a Kafka-esque note, how do you know I’m not you?


  3. Unfortunately, with that kind of lesson structure, this remains very difficult. As much as I really appreciate dogme, as it is focused more on speaking, I sometimes find myself having to fall back on the more traditional approaches to teach my individual students what they need, because more often than not, the lesson starts with almost no materials and I find myself having to explain the present perfect in minute 30, modals of deduction in minute 60, and gerunds or zero infinitives with verbs of perception at the end of the lesson. Not to mention vocabulary. Learners need a lot of things at once to be able to use the language actively. If we’re lucky, they will strike a few patterns. If we’re not, which tends to be the case with some upper-intermediate learners, we usually have to fall back on more traditional methods.


    1. Hi Maja! Thank you for the comment. I do wonder if Dogme perhaps lends itself better to creating a framework which encourages learners to develop their language skills but the actual teaching of language knowledge, such as lexis, tenses and phonology, might be better served by more traditional approaches or frameworks, such as PPP.


    1. It’s something I need to do more of. I’ve done it a few times, but it’s ended up really being more about describing what activities we did in the lesson. So I need to focus it more on learning outcomes.

      My delta tutor didn’t believe in sharing aims with learners at all. And this is something I agree with him largely about. But most places I work require this, so I have to do it 🙂


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