Dogme: A Teacher’s View

by Lisa Dold

Dogme ELT

In his article A Dogme for EFL, Scott Thornbury called on fellow teachers to join him in an effort to ‘restore teaching to its pre-method “state of grace” – when all there was was a room with a few chairs, a blackboard, a teacher, and some students, and where learning was jointly constructed out of the talk that evolved in that simplest and most prototypical of situations’ (2000).  From these stirring words Dogme ELT, or Teaching Unplugged, emerged and these three guiding principles evolved:  teaching which is conversation-driven, materials-light and focuses on emergent language (Meddings and Thornbury, 2009).

Despite focusing on fluency, Dogme does not abandon accuracy.  Dogmetists maintain that, language ‘rather than being acquired – will emerge’ (Meddings and Thornbury, 2009).  Teachers must react to this emergent language and it should be more memorable as it comes from students’ desire to communicate.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Since Thornbury’s call for a ‘vow of chastity’, Dogme has been fiercely debated within EFL circles and an increasing amount of teachers, including myself, are beginning to implement it in their teaching.

My Project

Having spent time in an institution without coursebooks, I believed many of my teaching frustrations stemmed from a lack of materials.  However, on moving to another institution, I was overwhelmed by published materials and realized I wanted to become more able to react to my learners.  Dogme seemed to be the answer.

On looking into it, I wondered what my experience as a teacher would be.

  • What are the day-to-day challenges of being a Dogmetist?
  • What is my role within a Dogme classroom?
  • What is the role of planning in Dogme lessons?
  • Do many teachers already teach unplugged without using the label?

To answer these questions, I undertook a small scale Action Research project gathering information from teaching an advanced course as well as from colleagues.  I kept a diary and asked colleagues to observe two videos in which Luke Meddings demonstrates unplugged lessons.

Emergent Language

Dogme does not advocate teaching language items in advance of communication, but rather, in response to it, as and if the need arises i.e. language emerges from conversations.

I quickly realized the challenge this presents.  A lot of Dogme literature focuses on its origins, its principles, the arguments for and against it and so on.  However, a relatively small amount is dedicated to dealing with emergent language. This is despite the fact that many would agree that this is a huge teaching challenge.

I initially had issues identifying emergent language and filtering the raw material I was provided with from my learners’ conversations.  To this end, a blog post by Anthony Gaughan proved useful.  He describes emergent language as being ‘distinct from the rest in its newness for learners, its riskiness, or its unfamiliarity (2012.  Emphasis my own).  Using these aspects as guidelines, I was better able to listen to and identify emergent language.

Despite feeling more able to identify and filter emergent language, I had a tendency to give affordances to emergent lexical items rather than grammatical structures due to my insecurity or inability to deal with the language effectively.  As Jason Renshaw states ‘most challenging, however, is the intuition and language knowledge required to be able to understand, pinpoint and work with emergent language “on the spot”’ (2010).

‘Emergent language is all very well… but what if it doesn’t emerge?’ (Harmer, 2012).  My learners tended to play it safe with their language.  A colleague also pointed out, on watching the video lesson, especially in the current economic climate, that  ‘It seems very indulgent and when students are paying for their course I find they are demanding of input’.  This leads me to question whether this could be an argument for a more eclectic approach rather than one that totally depends upon learners’ emergent language.

On the whole, emergent language appeals to me as a teacher.  I found it liberating to learn of an approach which acknowledges the complexity of the language learning process and found myself no longer listening to learners with exasperation while saying to myself ‘they should know x structure by now’, agreeing with Thornbury and Meddings’ claim that ‘there is no research evidence to suggest that such lists [of grammar structures found in coursebooks] match the manner nor the order in which language is learned’ (2000).


‘Winging it elevated to an art form’ (Meddings and Thornbury, 2003) is a charge often given against Dogme.  As a meticulous planner, I found it complicated to let go of a need to know where a lesson is going.

I found the general lack of structure to be exigent.  I usually depend on planning and removing that security was, at times, overwhelming. A colleague, who viewed Meddings’ video, and who has been teaching for 35 years, commented that she taught unplugged in the past and that it was ‘a time I would prefer not to revisit because it was exhausting on teachers and students alike’.  Thornbury acknowledged this challenge.  ‘Does Dogme need more structure?…not just in terms of the lesson but in terms of the overall curriculum… Do people really feel like they’re going somewhere if it’s just spinning along nicely out of conversations and I think that that is the question we need to address’ (2012). Addressing this issue may lessen the misplaced notions of Dogme teachers making the lessons up as they go along.

Dogme does not advocate no planning, but rather to reflect upon the lesson in an in-depth way afterwards to shape the course.  Although I personally found it difficult to refrain from pre-planning, post-planning facilitated a more in-depth reflection into the lessons than I would usually undertake.  This helped to give me a greater sense of structure to the course and time to consider the emergent language in greater detail.

Is Dogme new?

‘…the only thing about Dogme is that Dogme just gave a label to something that people did anyway but in a sense it validated it and that’s all…’ (Thornbury, 2012). In that case, do many teachers have these “Dogme moments” without labeling them as such and if so, is Harmer correct in saying that ‘…it’s not Dogme, it’s just teaching, what teachers do, what teachers have always done’ (2012)?

Many of my colleagues did not find Dogme a drastic departure from their usual teaching.  Asked in what way the lesson they observed (Meddings’ lessons) was similar to their own, some gave the following responses, indicating a strong link to Dogme:

‘…it’s a method that I use all the time when not doing exam prep.’

‘…the art of conversation as the ultimate classroom tool, using what’s at hand to stimulate language, learning together…’

Working with my group, I realized that perhaps I had always previously had Dogme moments.  To forego references to the learners’ own experiences or to not utilize the language that they provide strikes me as very forced and unnatural.  This leads me to the conclusion that I tend naturally towards having Dogme moments and that there are probably many teachers who are teaching unplugged but may not realize it or simply have decided not to label it as such.

Dogme as a mindset

On initiating this project my strongest initial reaction was frustration: frustration at the lack of framework. However, this frustration dissipated once again on reading the inspiring words of Anthony Gaughan. ‘For me, Dogme is an attitude, it is a mindset and it is therefore not a pedagogic movement primarily speaking but a political one…Dogme ELT or teaching unplugged is essentially trying to change, on an individual basis, through teachers and their experiences with learners, society to make us as a whole, or I think, more attentive to each other, more reliant on ourselves, less dependent on external supports or resources for our own development and progression…’ (2011).

On reading this, my attitude towards Dogme changed completely and I began to view it not as a methodology to follow but rather as a mindset which can be adopted by teachers who take issue with the proliferation of published materials or feel overwhelmed with a plethora of coursebook supplements. Those teachers who want their learners to seek out ways of finding their own learning experiences in the everyday and to actively listen to and learn from their conversations with classmates can implement a Dogme attitude.  Also those teachers with limited resources or whose learners cannot afford coursebooks can choose to adopt a Dogme mindset and validate materials-light classes.

By looking at it in this way, I felt liberated to adopt Dogme to the extent to which it suited my context and my teaching beliefs.  Instead of completely abandoning published materials, which would be impossible within my institution, I can balance those coursebook activities of interest to my learners with Dogme moments.  Dogme as a mindset allows teachers to consider it, decide to what extent they agree with it and adapt it to suit their context rather than view it as a methodology which must be wholly subscribed to.

Author’s Bio: Lisa began teaching English as a foreign language in 2006 and currently teaches all ages and levels at IH Córdoba. She completed her DELTA in 2011 and has a particular interest in working with Young Learners. When not teaching, she is passionate about film, listening to podcasts and cross stitch.

Gaughan, Anthony (2011). Dogme vs Principled Eclecticism Round One. Available at: (Accessed 22 September 2012)

Gaughan, Anthony (2012). E for Emergent Language.  Available at: (Accessed 22 September 2012)

Harmer, Jeremy (2012).  Teaching Unplugged beats Acquisition? Available at: (Accessed 22 September 2012)

Meddings, Luke and Thornbury, Scott (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching.  Surrey: Delta Publishing.

Renshaw, Jason (2010). The Trouble with Teaching Unplugged. Available at: (Accessed 22 September 2012)

Thornbury, Scott (2000). A Dogme for EFL.  Available at: (Accessed 22 September 2012)

Thornbury, Scott (2002). Teaching Unplugged (or that’s Dogme with an E).  Available at: (Accessed 22 September 2012)

Thornbury, Scott (2009). Methods, post-method and métodos.  Available at 22 September 2012)

Thornbury, Scott (2012). IATEFL interview with Scott Thornbury. Available at: 22 September 2012)

Thornbury, Scott and Meddings, Luke (2000). Dogme and the Coursebook.  Available at: (Accessed 22 September 2012)

Luke Meddings’ video demonstrations of unplugged lessons:

The Sounds of Silence with Luke Meddings

British Council Live Lesson with Luke Meddings