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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Dogme, Anyone?


I'm not sure how I stumbled upon the book Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury. I just know that I was immediately intrigued by the synopsis and ordered a copy from Amazon that instant, not even waiting until Monday to see if my employer might purchase a copy for our library. No, I knew this was a book I had to own. And I was right. Within hours of unboxing the slender volume with its glossy white cover, I had festooned the pages with ever so many green, pink, orange and purple sticky bookmarks. Late into the night, I could be found tucked snugly in bed with my new book, a fat yellow highlighter in my hand.

Because I was at that time volunteering my lunch hours to facilitate a Lunch 'n' Learn class for our full time students who had no place to sit and eat between morning and afternoon classes, I got an opportunity to try many of the suggested "materials light" activities with this wonderful group of about eight students. The response? They loved these lessons, and so did I. Soon I was babbling on excitedly about the book to any teacher who would listen. One colleague took it home for the weekend and liked it so much that she also ordered a copy. Two years later, my practicum student also ended up with a copy.

After trying several of the suggested activities in the book, I began to take off the training wheels and do a few lessons that were completely born of a teachable moment with no prior prep having gone into it. Though not every one of them took off like a rocket, the vast majority of those lessons seemed to me to be even more energizing and successful than the ones based on activities in the book.

Now I can't say whether I was implementing dogme in the way that the authors intended. I hadn't yet had a chance to go to any workshops on dogme (though I have now twice attended Ken Lackman's 'C.A.T.: A Framework for Dogme). So I just made up my own jazz tune based on dogme principles.

So what does my version of dogme look like?

The dogme lesson, in my mind, can start with a topic elicited from the students. More often, however, the teacher can simply eavesdrop on the before-class chatter and can pick up the juiciest, most promising thread. If neither of those is viable, the teacher can ask students to brainstorm topics, put a list on the board, and have students vote for that day's topic.

The way it works in my class is that gaps in the students' communicative knowledge and ability come to the surface like bubbles. In my experience, there is no lack of interesting language points to explore. In fact, there are usually so many potential linguistic points to mine that the teacher has to narrow them down to a manageable number for the time allotted.

A given conversation might render a need to explore a few new nouns, verbs, adjectives, one or two phrasal verbs, and perhaps a point about a tense, a voice, a mood. If several students are making the same pronunciation or prosody error, that becomes an impromptu lesson. I tune into students' energy and interest, surfing them like ocean waves.

After I have put the needed language on the board, using familiar conventions for grammar formulae and IPA for pronunciation, we practice the new language. And this is the hard part for the teacher. I have to come up with what will help them practice using the newly learned language structure or lexical chunk. You end up being a walking encyclopedia of language activities. Sometimes it's a game or a role play, other times a pattern drill or a writing exercise.

For example, during one conversation hour it became evident that many students had no mastery over question syntax; they were not inverting the subject and auxiliary verb.  "We don't know how to make questions," these CLB 2/3 students whined. Fortunately the TESL Ontario conference was only weeks behind me and I still remembered how much fun I'd had playing The Question Game in one workshop. So I put students in pairs and explained the rules: A asks a question and B asks another question. And so on. The first person who responds with anything other than another question loses. It's harder than it sounds, I warned them with an evil grin.

Within minutes the pairs were laughing, arguing over points, reminding each other of proper syntax, laughing some more, and getting better at questions!

To sum up how I feel about dogme, I can say that dogme is to language teaching what "Just in Time" is to the business and manufacturing world. In traditional language teaching, we give the students all sorts of vocabulary and grammar, filling their storehouse in the hopes that when they need any of it, they'll remember where it is on the shelf, pull it down and use it.  Dogme, on the other hand, waits until the learner has the need for the language and then provides exactly the language that fills the gap and no more. Because the presented language is relevant to a student's need in that moment, the lesson is very well received and classroom energy is high.  However, I would like to see some research into how this method compares with others in terms of long-term retrievability of the newly acquired language.

In closing I would like to add that although I don't currently teach dogme lessons on a daily basis, having delved into the methodology and movement has left its mark on me as an ESL teacher.  I have become a teacher who looks at pre-packaged materials with a more critical eye, often abandoning them in favour of my own materials that leave more room for flexibility, more space for us to flow with what emerges through the week. While I might have an idea where we want to end up by Friday, how we get there will depend on formative assessment and feedback I get hour by hour, minute by minute. My explorations into dogme help me feel validated and more confident in implementing a materials light approach.

If you would like to read another educator's blog post about this same topic, visit Giulia's blog, Wandering in Absolute Freedom. Her post is called My Dogme Experiment.

What about you? Have you heard of or used a dogme approach in your teaching?

1 comment:

  1. Great post Kelly, thanks a lot for sharing your ideas and experience. You make me want to try the Dogme approach a little more... :D

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