The Dogma of Dogme

I still need to answer one of my reader's questions on what do with her problem class but as I'll be starting off my posting with

"As a dogmeist..."

I thought I'd better give you a heads up on what dogme actually is.

The term dogme is borrowed from a film movement initiated by Lars von Trier in a backlash against the overuse of the monomyth, Journey of the Hero, uncovered by Joseph Campbell and made famous by Chris Vogler.

magical rideHave you ever been watching a film and had a premoniton or two: the 'oh, right, everything in his natural world is just about to change, sigh. I bet he'll meet an old man right about now who'll tell him what he has to do.

Or, wait, time for some suffering - he probably won't win this fight, ah here's the pretty girl, they'll hook up - whoops, he's going to learn a lesson now and finally, everything will be right again.'

Done that?

Well, basically, that's because you've been subconsciously aware of the mythic structure all along.

pirateIts plot points are the structure of most Hollywood movies, post 70's, and is the backbone of Matrix, Star Wars, The Terminator, The Pursuit of Happyness, Whale Rider, The Lion King or even American Quilt.

However, before I bore you, what does all of this have to do with textbooks, methodology and teaching English?

Er, pick up the nearest course book on your desk. Next time you're in the library, compare it against Headway and against just about anything produced since. Whether they've added a handful of unrealistic case studies or dilemmas, got gap fills or pointless vocabulary exercises, been jam-packed with grammar explanations or don't have any, they're all playing off a similar structure.

helloSomewhere in the deep dungeons of most ELT publishing houses, someone whose name we don't know, but at a random guess he's not a socio-linguist, has done some kind of very-necessary-to-show-on-the-page-so-it-feels-and-looks-like-Headway-because-the-teachers-might-be-afraid-if-it's-different kind of breakdown which goes -- well, if I knew the plot points I'd tell you.

Now there's no doubt in my mind that someone much cleverer out there than me is reading this and has figured out the structure of your average textbook so I'll just ask go on ahead and tell you: share it with us!

I mean do the publishers even care that the unit themes they've chosen have no direct relationship to the following one?

That they rarely have anything to do with our students' lives?

That the lexis presented on one page doesn't show up in the next unit or even the one after that?

That there's no space on the page to write?

That from one house to another they're parodies of each other?

More in kin with Howard the Duck, The Postman, Dumb & Dumberer than Citizen Kane.

Anyhoo, let me get on with talking about the alternative to all this.

Dogme in ELT

Back in '00, Scott Thornbury highjacked the phrase dogme to launch his, often accused-of-being-Luddite methodology, burn-the-books-and-talk-to-the-students message, based on frustration and an anti-wizardry battle yelp for teaching practices to become more student-centered.

Thornbury defined teaching without a course book as:
  • conversation driven
  • materials light andruins
  • focusing on emergent language
Sharing subjects and themes, which
  • are relevant to the learner
  • provide a space for the voice of the learner
  • scaffold, shape and support the students' conversations
  • pay attention to features of the emergent language.

In his latest book, Teaching Unplugged, co-authored with Luke Meddings, they stress that teaching practices shouldsword
  • encourage a dialogic process,
  • acknowledge that knowledge is co-constructed
  • empower the learner
  • engage the learners and
  • trigger the learning process which is already there

Basically adding a bit more of Before Sunrise to the classroom.

the carnivalIn the same way that Christopher Columbus was not the first to 'discover' the Caribbean and Alexander Graham Bell didn't invent the telephone, Thornbury and Meddings neither invented nor discovered the process of teaching without coursebooks.

Teachers all over the world have been working without textbooks for a very long time (probably as long as English teachers have been around) some because
  • there is no choice nor access to materials
  • their students have requested this
  • they like supplementary materials, making their own stuff and others
  • are simply not happy with the standardization, monomythic production of many an ELT publisher.

Are you one of these teachers?

In the way that Bell made the phone sexy (or was that Steve from Apple?) and Columbus renamed the islands and charted maps so we could all go have great vacations, Thornbury and Medding's explorations into this theme are turning teaching sans parachute into a very cool dialogic methodology so I, for one, am very happy referring to myself as a dogmeist.

Which makes it kind of difficult to answer S.F's question regarding what she should do with her runaway class.

Would you like to help me answer her?

plug and socketWhat about you?

Want to join the 'movement'? Then follow the links below and/or buy Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching (Amazon UK / US here)
- with its in-depth analysis of the practice and relevancy of dogme in our modern classrooms: highly readable, packed with teaching tips and lesson ideas
(some new, some very 700 Classroom Activities
and some surprisingly innovative).

Or do you think this whole dogme thing is a load of tosh? Whatever your views, feel free to add in your 2c, nickels or dimes by clicking on the comments below.

Useful links related to this posting:

Dogme, the movement
Dogme in ELT
p.s. dogme is the danish word for dogma

Most of the photographs on this page are by Pareerica on Flickr and a very special thanks must go to her for allowing these fabulous pics to be used under a creative commons license.

Update 13 May 2009

And now there's even Dogme ICT, spearheaded by Gavin Dudeney, looks rather tempting! More AI than Dogville!

13 Responses to “The Dogma of Dogme”

  • Heike Philp says:
    May 06, 2009

    A stunning blog post, thanks for explaining dogme so well.

    You a born again dogmeist, who would have guessed.

    Rgds Heike

  • Anonymous says:
    May 06, 2009

    Oooh, a very provocative post. While I agree that you have a point about Headway and its general overwhelming effect on coursebooks of the past fifteen years I can tell you for a fact that there is no invisible hand guiding all this from the depths of all the publisher's houses. Except perhaps that of the invisible hand of the market. Publishers stray too far away from, for example, the canonical grammar syllabus and they are roundly punished for it by teachers who complain and don't buy.
    But there are differences between coursebooks, I think (although I would say that as a coursebook author, wouldn't I?). Just as I think there are differences between downloadable speaking lessons about topical events such as Susan Boyle... Just because they all have some questions for students to ask each on them doesn't make them all the same does it? ;-)

    The other points about how awful coursebooks are, how useless etc...well I'd like to address two.

    1) Recycling lexis. In many of the good coursebooks you can see the vocabulary being recycled. This is a painstaking process that I know many coursebook authors and editors (those fiends from hell!) have gone through even though it leads to complaints that this isn't authentic enough, that language is not neatly packaged like that etc etc.

    2) Coursebooks rarely have anything to do with students' lives. You mean they don't encourage conversations about subjects like what jobs make one happy, what makes a great book or film, what you liked/disliked about school, what is considered good or bad manners in your family/culture, what is an ideal holiday, what are popular places to eat in your city, when is the best age to retire... Are those not things that have to do with students' lives? And yet they are all in Headway - I checked! Here I should add here I am not a fan of Headway by any stretch of the imagination.

    However, this should not detract from your great comments about Teaching Unplugged, which is indeed a fantastic book full of great ideas and activities.

    And, I'd add, not incompatible WITH a coursebook. See page 86 and 87 on the issues, implications and indications for Teaching Unplugged with a coursebook.

  • JasonOutThere says:
    May 07, 2009

    Control is something that is taught to teachers when they are trained. Control is something that coursebooks and classrooms provide. ELT feels comfier being in control.

    But you don't need to sacrifice control to encourage real and meaningful (key word that!) interaction. You just need to be focused and prepared and take a leap whilst reminding yourself every minute of every day we are all, even in our own language, making it up as we go along.

    As sixthings says, the market largely dictates what goes into coursebooks, and if the distributors of coursebooks feed back that they want more of the same because it is easier to sell, then we find ourselves where we currently are. With real innovation and real meaningful learning experiences being pushed to the periphery.

    Maybe that is changing with the publication of this book.

    My company uses the real world and online language exchanges/social media to get students exploring using language with fluent or native speakers immediately after it has been taught (

    Our biggest problem has not been helping our students to re-discover their motivation or improve their speasking and listening skills. It has been the constant opposition to our 'new-fangled' way of teaching.

    Change is coming to ELT, we just need a few more free thinkers to get their ideas out there (no pun intended).

    It isn't rocket science and it shouldn't be this contentious. Only those who wish to keep control make it seem like it is the start of the end of the ELT world.

    Clearly it is just the beginning and we owe it to people everywhere, many of whom are bored and de-motivated learners, to keep on doing what makes sense.

  • Lindsay Clandfield says:
    May 07, 2009

    Apologies for the plug, but readers of this post will no doubt be interested in the new Delta Development Blog, the publishers of Teaching Unplugged. Scott Thornbury has started blogging on Dogme in Transition!

    See it at

  • Kevin Westbrook says:
    May 15, 2009

    Dogme: while I can just about go with this on a single-lesson basis, I just don't think there are many teachers around who could deliver a course on this basis, one where you have to be answerable for what you did, and how well it met the needs analysis/demands of the organisation paying you, etc. How do I justify this approach to a company HR department?

    Textbooks: I agree absolutely with your post. I haven't been tempted to buy anything produced in the last ten years, because it is the same old thing repackaged (barely).

    In the same way that I reject the argument that newspapers make that certain dubious kinds of story are demanded by their readers, I reject the idea that this is what the market demands.

    The market needs text books, and it buys what is available.

    Even the latest digital versions are embarrassingly old hat. The publishers are guilty of producing material that is no longer suitable, in the hope that people will continue to buy it, rather than really producing something good.

    As long as nobody breaks ranks, they may well continue to succeed.


    May 15, 2009

    Thanks Heiki!Yup- but am probably more dogme ICT (as Gavin calls it) than straight-up dogme.

    To be honest am just pleased that the way I have been teaching for years actually has a cool "title" to go with!

    Jason and Kevin - yes, I'm afraid I totally disagree with Lindsay's take that the market doesn't actually buy what's new.

    Think it's a bunch of hogwash and have heard it too many times only by publishers or buy their sales rep - personally, in my circles we are all complaining that the "newest editions" are simply just repeats of the same materials, same themes - it's almost as if they hand the authors the latest bestseller of their competitors and say "copy that" please.

    Also, Lindsay, as much as I do really, really appreciate the effort and time that goes into making textbooks - can't begin to imagine the work involved - the truth is that most books do not adequately review the lexis presented from unit to unit.

    The 1500* keywords may be repeated however, especially in business English textbooks, a core lexis is presented, per unit, which almost always never turns up anywhere else in the rest of the book.

    If you were here with me I'd show you what I mean!

    You're right about the students lives' thing tho' - as a BE teacher, I forgot about the general English books even though was making a point against Headway, and yes, a lot of general English coursebooks (including your great Straightforward series and parts of Inside Out) do pay attention to this aspect. Apologies.

    Kevin, hmm... I guess it depends on the HR department and what they want and also the institute.

    I've been getting away with "dogme teaching" for a while now, especially because I turn around students' fluency levels in very little time - and am therefore sought after by the HR depts or comversely, the institutes want me in classes because am asked to continue on year after year by students who continue in classes simply because they like the weekly "real" topics, relevant news and speaking practice...

    er, sorry, for just blowing trumpet - you know what I mean ;-) tho'

    Oh, and yes, Kevin, right with you on that about the digital versions - madness. Why turn a textbook into digital instead of finding something fresh and different?


  • abracadabra says:
    September 28, 2009


    Thanks for bringing up this topic. I've read most of the material and really consider the Dogme Discussion group, a great "think tank".

    I still have major reservations and really think they don't go far enough in some matters and they go too far in others. Plus, for me, dogme or dogma is anthema. Teaching is about the result and getting the job done. How you do it should be based on the teacher's own personality and environment/conditions.

    I really have been focusing on what I call, SCC or Student Created Content and really think this is key to really good classroom learning. The students create the materials they will learn by. I hope to do a nice long post on this basic methodology.

    that said, the problem is that most teachers in our profession enter with little or no formal training. They "know" a book and have a concept of print. They need a place to start. Until we have better teacher training in place, they must start there....

    Thanks for the nice run down of this important topic for us teacher trainers.


  • Mr. Wondra says:
    January 05, 2010

    Outstanding post. Thank you for submitting it to the Edge of Education Carnival. It's exactly the kind of post we were hoping for when we began a few months ago.

    I've been teaching without text/coursebooks for about 10 years now. I'd never heard of Dogme. So I very much enjoyed your post. Now I'm off to explore your links and the rest of your blog.

    You write with a great voice. You are a pleasure to read. I'm thrilled that you submitted for the pure pleasure of finding your blog.


    January 05, 2010

    Thanks, Chris! I read about your carnival on Shelly Terrell's blog posting of the other day and thought it'd be fun to submit it to your carnival, am super pleased to hear it fits your criteria!


  • Eric says:
    February 11, 2010

    You've provided an excellent primer and concise literature review for Dogme teaching.

    I must confess, however, that the term was unfamiliar to me until I read it in one of your postings. And, since my classroom teaching style falls into this category, I'm rather grateful for the academic context. The next time I feel pressured to just pick an advanced ESL textbook so we can say that we are using a mainstream textbook, I will refer those fellow teachers to this posting.

    Thank you.

  • teachernz/Michael says:
    March 08, 2010

    I'd seen the term Dogme sufacing on twitter in recent weeks and hadn't linked it to ESL/TESL. I assumed (there I go again) that it was an obscure reference to the Dogme film making movement and was a move away from artificiality towards a more natural way of teaching and learning.

    Thanks for explaining further, it has certainly made me more aware of how it relates to the classroom in general and how the more effective learning pathways are based on real world experiences, relationships and problems.

  • Mike Church says:
    May 24, 2010

    Yet another gem of an article, Karenne. So glad to have found your site. I'm happy to confess that I'd never heard of "dogme". I almost feel motivated to buy my first teaching book in 10 years or so. (Unplugged sounds intriguing, and I suspect I'll agree with a lot of what Scott says). Congrats again on a truly wonderful and informative site. Cheers.

  • Ann says:
    July 23, 2011

    Hi Karenne,

    Just posted "Next in our series on different methodologies used in English language teaching – dogme" with a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you'd like to check for comments.






Visitors and Regular Readers


FEEDJIT Live Traffic Feed

Communities of Practice

Directories, catalogs and Back Links

Adult Blogs - Blog Catalog Blog Directory Add to Technorati Favorites

The EFL ESL Blog List - ESL/EFL/TEFL Teaching Jobs and Teacher Resumes

International Blogging Directory

Recent Posts

Simply Conversations

Pedagogically sound materials designed to get your students actively talking:

Free Samples
Conversation Control

General English
Business English

Learn more on why these work