Dogme and the Problems with Produced Materials

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In this post, I’m going to first address what Dogme English Language Teaching (Dogme ELT) is. Then I’m going to discuss some of the problems with using produced materials, focusing primarily on the ELT textbook. Finally, I will offer some alternatives to using produced materials and explain my motivation for creating ChanceEnglish.com.

Dogme

Dogme ELT is teaching without relying upon technology and produced materials, like textbooks and handouts. To get a better understanding of what Dogme teaching is I recommend reading ‘Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching’ (Meddings and Thornbury, 2009). But in summary Meddings and Thornbury identify three core concepts of Dogme teaching:

  • Dogme is about teaching that is conversation-driven.
  • Dogme is about teaching that is materials-light.
  • Dogme is about teaching that focuses on emergent language.

Meddings and Thornbury describe a large number of communicative tasks that don’t have any specific language aims. Instead the language is emergent. The tasks are a means to generate communication rather than a means of practising target language. In a Dogme lesson the lesson content comes from the learners. This approach to ELT requires little preparation and gives the teacher the freedom to respond and adapt as the lesson unfolds.

Problems with Produced Materials

We (English language teachers) teach in different contexts with different resources. We have different kinds of learners with different motivations and goals. We have different beliefs about learning and apply different teaching techniques. In fact, it would be very difficult if not impossible to find two learning environments that were exactly alike. However, what we likely have in common is a dependency upon produced materials (textbooks, handouts etc.).

Our dependency upon produced materials is understandable; if you’ve done any kind of teacher training course with a practical teaching component, you would have been given a page or two from a textbook that was deemed appropriate by your trainer(s). You did your Needs Analysis, you got to know your learners, and then you ignored all that and went with the textbook. This approach continues post training when you start work as a teacher. It is possible to get a teaching job without a syllabus or set materials, but it’s unlikely teachers in that scenario would appreciate the opportunity that it is (I certainly didn’t). What’s more likely is you’ll be given a textbook with a defined syllabus and expectations of objective outcomes (like exam results).

Many learning institutions will give you freedom to deviate from the set textbook and supporting materials, and I think most teachers will do just that, but it’s the textbook that sets the overall agenda in the form of what grammar, lexis, functions, skills, phonology, etc. you will cover. But is that a bad thing? After all, the writers of these textbooks are likely experts in their field and undoubtedly a lot of time and effort has gone into research and development. The answer is subjective of course but I argue that there are inherent problems in any textbook you use, regardless of who wrote or published it. Here are three key issues:

  • Textbooks prescribe an order to learning language.
  • Textbooks are culturally insensitive and biased towards ‘western’ conceptions of normality.
  • Textbooks make assumptions about learner needs.

Firstly, no matter how a textbook syllabus is organised, by function, topic, theme, or context; there will be an underlying gradation of grammatical complexity. We usually start with the present simple (as that’s seen as simplest) and then ‘progress’ onto the present continuous (progressive), past simple, regular then irregular verbs, past continuous, and so on. This is a problem because the assumption is that the learner cannot learn certain grammatical structures until they have mastered the so-called ‘simpler ones’. Which in my experience is not the case and more importantly, it restricts the learner to the writer’s linguistic choices, rather than the learner’s needs. The same is true of all aspects of language, including phonology, grammar, and lexis.

Modern English courses and supporting materials often make the effort to be multicultural and inclusive, however western themes and generalisations still dominate. For example, I recently taught a lesson to very young learners in China, about food they like and don’t like. The children had to put the food they liked on the plate and the food they disliked in the bin (trashcan). The writer had assumed all children have foods they don’t like and would want to throw away. I taught the same lesson several times and not one student identified any food they didn’t like and were confused by the idea of throwing good food away. Another example, with an adult class in South Korea, was a lesson about fashion adjectives and they had to identify what clothing on the page was cool, old fashioned, stylish etc. It was clear to me what clothing matched to which adjective, but the students couldn’t reach a consensus and so they were left unclear about what the adjectives meant.

I realise these examples are anecdotal and are by no means objective evidence, but instead serve to illustrate inherent biases and assumptions textbook writers can make. How often have you picked up a textbook that follows a white family, living in that suburbs, with the stereotypical mother, father, brother and sister family unit?

Content in textbooks is usually arranged around topics (activities) such as sports, daily routines, travel, shopping, festivals etc. It’s fair to say that these kinds of generalised topics will apply to the majority of learners. But it’s also fair to say that these types of activities, and by association language, will vary depending upon the context and individuals involved. For example, a group of learners in a small rural town in Laos are less likely to know what to pack for a beach holiday, compared with a group of learners in Hong Kong. To be clear, the conversation about what to pack for holiday is not necessarily an inappropriate task, what’s inappropriate is deciding what language learners will need beforehand without knowing anything about them and their needs.

Alternatives to Produced Materials

I’ve outlined some problems with textbooks and produced materials in general, but what’s the alternative?  Here are some ideas:

  1. Using a textbook

If you have to use a textbook, consider what tasks are appropriate and what language to focus on. Just because it’s in the book, doesn’t mean it’s useful to your learners. Use the set materials as a springboard for a more communicative experience. Going back to the beach holiday example; OK, your learners might not go on a beach holiday so…Where would they go? What would they pack? Who would they travel with? How would they get there?

  1. Set communicative tasks

As already mentioned Meddings and Thornbury in ‘Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching’ (2009), have described numerous tasks which are materials light and communicative. You can also devise your own tasks based on your learners’ interests.

  1. Show and tell

Traditionally a primary school and kindergarten activity, show and tell requires the learners to bring something to the lesson to talk about. I had an adult student who was interested in photography, and I asked her to bring in some of her favourite pictures. A student who was normally introverted became much more talkative when discussing something she was passionate about.

  1. Games

Most people, from very young learners to adults, enjoy playing games. The games you played growing up can be a great source of communicative moments. If they don’t necessarily lend themselves to communication, adapt them.

  1. ChanceEnglish.com

Use a random assortment of authentic materials. If you have an internet connection and a screen, you can generate content in real time with this website. You don’t know what you’re going to get, which could lead to some interesting conversations and emergent language.

If you have any ideas for alternatives to produced materials, please share in the comments.

My Motivation for Creating ChanceEnglish.com

Dogme ELT, as defined by Meddings and Thornbury, should be ‘materials light’. The language and content comes from the learners. Although I agree with the reasoning behind this concept, I believe excluding all materials, particularly authentic materials, would deprive learners of a valuable source of language and input. I set up ChanceEnglish.com as a way of injecting content into my lessons while still maintaining a student-led, conversation driven learning experience. Because the content is randomly generated, and the emphasis is on the learners to create and lead class activities, the lesson retains what I believe are the key principles of Dogme ELT.

Please see my post: How to use for my suggestions about how to get the most out of this website.

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