They do care! – My thoughts on Dogme so far

During my last summer break preparing for the school year to come I got seriously infected by the idea of teaching Dogme ELT. Reading the magnificent blogs of Dale Coulter and Scott Thornbury was profundly inspiring. I had always felt sceptical about course books. In my experience they often are detrimental to communication and their very strict linear structure have a tendency to obstruct what I would call organic language learning.

As a teacher in Germany you are usually given a lot of liberties concerning what and how you teach. So, it was not a big problem to get rid of the course book in my B1 class. I started teaching Dogme in September and have stuck to it until the current Christmas break. Having reflected on my Dogme experience over the holidays I came to 3 major beginner’s conclusions.

1. A strong focus on language is a key element of every lesson

Keeping a good part of every lesson reserved to a focus on language that emerged from the class is a salvation from the vague wishy-washy approach to language teaching that is ubiquitous in our higher level (upper intermediate/advanced) classes. Skimming through texts, ‘getting the gist’ of things, developing certain communicative skills are valuable techniques, but improving your language proficiency also requires a certain attention to detail. We can’t just expect our students to pick up the neccessary language skills on the way, while reading, watching, talking listening. To include direct instruction in our lessons is imperative.

2. Teaching materials-light can sometimes be a burden

Don’t get me wrong. I crave the idea of a light schoolbag. However, in the real world, where my students are ‘compulsory’ learners and English is just one of their many subjects, having prepared materials can save your day. There are days when students don’t want to get personally involved, don’t want to share, don’t have the time to prepare a little extra something to bring to the lesson. In such cases you’re lost without a tiny bit of material.

3. Don’t let your lessons get too self-referential

Who cares what English people have for breakfast? I read Ken Wilson’s interesting blog post on the cultural debate in summer and found it all but reasonable. To my astonishment I found, however, that my students do care about these things. On several occasions through the last months, when asked about what they would like to have included in our syllabus, my students said they wanted to know and talk about English/American culture, people, celebrities, politics and so forth. They very much disliked the idea of self-referential lessons only recycling their own ideas/concepts/experiences. They want English lessons to teach them about these things, to broaden their horizons. How can you do that without selecting and preparing materials?

Teaching Dogme seems to me like working on my iPad. I love it for its minimalist and elegant design, its quick and responsive way of working, its directness, its lightness, myriads of applications – but still there are some things it just can’t do. Try to upload a photo to the internet or to get a file on a USB stick. You need to combine the gadget with other devices to really get the full spectrum of possibilities. Same goes to Dogme – I’m going to embed it into a more eclectic approach. Will I go back to the course book? Hell, no! Will I bring texts and films and other materials to teach my students about certain aspects of English speaking culture? I certainly will.

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