Posted by: Alastair Grant | January 15, 2012

There’s no such thing as a dragon! (or Dogme fires up the IH DoS Conference 2012)

There was a children’s book I used to (ok… I still do) love, in which a young boy has a pet dragon.

Despite the dragon eating and sleeping in their house, the boy’s parents refused to acknowledge its existence, constantly reiterating the mantra “there’s no such thing as a dragon!”

Well, the dragon starts out small but gets bigger and bigger… and by the end of the book, has become so huge that it takes over the entire house… and the parents grow to love it.

This is what I what I mulling over when I attended one of the great events of the The IH DoS conference 2012 – the hosting of a match between two heavyweights, Communicative Language Teaching (the parents!) and Dogme (the dragon!).

This match has since been declared a draw by the conference’s main debate protagonists, Jeremy Harmer and Luke Meddings. I’m not convinced though, and here’s why.

The proof

Since, and indeed during, the debate itself, the worlds of twitter and blogs have been alive with debate about Dogme, which seems to me to centre around one myth – Dogme doesn’t really exist!

I’d cite Jeremy Harmer’s and Neil McMahon’s posts as exhibits “A” in this debacle. The crux of both arguments seems to be, “there’s no such thing as Dogme!”

Having just finished a very successful academic year of a Dogme course in my institute (my presentation on this topic from the conference will soon be in the IHWO blog, I believe), my students and I can promise you that there is such a thing as Dogme and until you try it yourself, your doubts are… only doubts.

But first… let’s bring on the Dogme-doubting arguments! These were propounded in Jeremy Harmer’s impassioned talk during the conference as well as a key objection raised by Neil McMahon in his excellent blog:

1. Any text from a coursebook can be adapted for the class by the teacher – students don’t need to bring in their own material.
Sadly we have to adapt the coursebook for every lesson – what a waste of time! But why should we have to if the students can simply bring in their own material?

Well, CELTA, Trinity and whatever other teacher training course we embark upon, teaches us to use a coursebook from the outset. Now that’s what I call dogmatic.

I’m nonetheless confident that teacher training will eventually change once, instead of rejecting Dogme out of hand, people realise that Dogme isn’t about posturing but making teaching easier and more effective.

2. The footballer Fernando Torres “learnt” English by listening to the radio, not by talking.
Right… and what did he do after listening? Stayed silent for the rest of the day during football training? I rather think he used his English when speaking to team-mates, friends etc. i.e. listening and communicating. Very Dogme.

3. Dogme privileges learners with “people smart” intelligence over others, as it’s conversation driven.
I doubt that anyone learns a language to then not speak it… yes we have activists and reflectors, but even the quietest reflector would agree that learning a new language is fundamentally about communication. Let’s not second-guess our learners by denying them this right.

4. Suggesting that a coursebook disempowers students is wrong – many students have learnt brilliant English through coursebooks.
That hardly means it’s the best way of doing it… many students have doubtless learnt great English through Grammar Translation but we wouldn’t teach like that today!

If an approach comes along that gets the students putting their English to work and bringing their lives into the classroom instead of forcing topics on them, why not embrace it instead of criticising it?

5. What if language doesn’t “emerge” – you can’t just say “sorry, it didn’t come up!”
No need to apologise… if you make sure it DOES come up! If you see something that students need to know, either for their own use in class or for the syllabus – add it yourself!

Let’s say the students need to use a conditional and they have no idea how to structure them – well, that’s kinda your cue, teacher

And if you are following a syllabus (sorry Scott… but really, some of us DO have syllabi to follow!) there is no harm in introducing a text to a class yourself to cover this.

6. If you stray from the “10 Commandments of Dogme”, it’s not Dogme…

Really guys, we’re just splitting hairs now! As early as 2003 (nearly 10 years ago) Luke Meddings pointed out (as if it needed doing) that the commandments had been “tongue in cheek” (who could take commandment 10 seriously?!).

Despite the name, there’s no dogma to Dogme. Luke’s recent metaphor about the “three tent poles of Dogme” (IH DoS 2012) is a perfect description of why Dogme is so versatile: you can use it anywhere, it adapts to fit the terrain and works in all climates.

And what are those three tent poles?

  1. Materials light 
  2. Conversation driven
  3. Emergent language

If you look at my above points, I think we’ve covered all of these.

The reality

I’m sure there will be people who disagree with the above and who still disagree that Dogme teaching is simple, effective and totally engaging. I’ve crossed swords with both Jeremy and Neil McMahon on this issue on their blogs!

But it’s happening, guys… The dragon’s here and so is Dogme. Here to stay and to help students and teachers alike become independent from the coursebook.

Dogme teaching is simply about allowing the students to bring their lives and concerns into the classroom and letting them use these to learn English. Let’s not hide behind our doubts and miss the chance to give our students such great opportunities.

And let’s not deny Dogme’s existence – that seems just a bit contrary to me – let’s rather see how useful it can be.

In fact, once you’ve tried Dogme, you’ll see that it’s a bit like the old steak (Dogme) vs. Big Mac (coursebook) idea – which would you prefer?

Well, it’s steak for me all the way. And yes, you might catch me sneaking off to McDonalds occasionally… but I’ll feel guilty about it later, ‘cos I’ll always know there was a better alternative in my fridge.


  1. Hi Alastair

    A great post that continues this very stimulating New Year’s wave of blogs and comment. Dogme – the dragon classroom economy!

    I also think dogme exists – and I’ve also been wondering why its existence is questioned or its nature portrayed as indefinable. On Chia’s blog I suggested that dogme is a ‘shaped and shaping thing’ in which ideas from inside and outside language education are shaped for today’s ELT classroom, and in turn help to shape classroom life ( 

    The image of something shaped and shaping, which draws on ideas about complexity in education (about which I have much to learn, I hasten to add), has a fluidity appropriate to the ideas within dogme itself – and to the wider educational and cultural context in which it exists. But that doesn’t mean that it is formless.

    I think ‘today’s ELT classroom’ is an important thing to keep in mind, because I wonder if dogme isn’t sometimes measured against the string of alternative ‘methods’ of the (mainly) 1970’s. These methods were prescriptive – they often implied or demanded learning a specific classroom technique – and tended to be associated with a single author. Dogme as you rightly say isn’t dogmatic and no one has ever claimed to own it – but these criticisms have been levelled at it, perhaps because this is how people still expect an approach to be? After all, we have a fondness – even a nostalgia – for those methodologies, which form part of the ‘subject content’ of training courses. But dogme is a new approach for new times – which means that  it doesn’t ‘look’ like other approaches. That doesn’t mean it isn’t one. 

    I shall stop there before Sunday turns into Monday and comment turns into blog!

    • Hi Luke,

      An honour to have your comment here.

      I think that this is one of the main issues that people see with Dogme, that is, it’s accused of being “formless”. I’ve discovered having taught this course over the last year that it is anything but formless and in fact takes shape very successfully when post-planned well enough.

      Again, I think it’s all about managing the students’ expectations and seeing just how it’s possible to make sure one fits everything in to the students’ syllabus (sorry…) and make sure they are getting enough skills work too.

      It’s doable and we know it! It’s a question of teachers trying it out, rather than criticising from a point of theory.

  2. ‘a matchbetween two heavyweights’

    Was there a debate about dogme at the IH DoS meeting? I thought they were separate talks, one after the other.

    • Hi Lorna – yes there were two separate talks, where Luke responded to Jeremy’s comments about Dogme. At the end of the day there was also the panel discussion which involved dialogue between Jeremy and Luke re. Dogme again.

      Also, I refer to it as a debate because that’s what this whole dialogue is, I feel!

  3. Al, you cite me as arguing there’s no such thing as Dogme – I never said any such thing. In my post ‘Who Needs Dogme?’ I was simply asking myself whether Dogme did anything for me and if it didn’t, who was it for? Difficult to do if you think it doesn’t exist.

    Then you say:
    Well, CELTA, Trinity and whatever other teacher training course we embark upon, teaches us to use a coursebook from the outset. Now that’s what I call dogmatic.

    My reply to this is a blogpost of my own called ‘Turning CELTA candidates into Dogme-gicians’ where I remind you CELTA teaches us HOW to use a course book and much much more besides.

    You then quote Luke Meddings metaphor:
    Despite the name, there’s no dogma to Dogme. Luke’s recent metaphor about the “three tent poles of Dogme” (IH DoS 2012) is a perfect description of why Dogme is so versatile: you can use it anywhere, it adapts to fit the terrain and works in all climates.

    As a very amateur camper, I’m not convinced you can use a three-pole tent anywhere. There are different tents that work better in different contexts, just like approaches to English teaching and stories about dragons (Puff the Magic being my fave…).

    Never making it clear to your readers which ‘key objection’ I was making in my post, you therefore link my name throughout your posts to doubts about the effectiveness of these three tent poles of Dogme. I don’t doubt any of them , I just doubt Dogme’s need to claim exclusivity on them and I don’t doubt that all three of these fundamentals of good teaching were around long before Scott came down from the mountain.

    Whether Dogme needs to exist or not was the question I was asking myself and I’m coming around to the idea that it might, but the manner in which a lot of Dogme-gicians such as yourself here today resort to exaggeration, hyperbole and inaccuracy in order to promote the cause detracts from any fondness I might otherwise have felt for it. But that’s just me.

    • Hi Neil,

      As you’ll see if you have another look at my post, I did not quote you as having argued that Dogme doesn’t exist – rather that this is the assumption that one can draw from your criticisms of the approach. (Although you DID sign off your post with the statement “Dogme is dead”, so I’m sure you’ll forgive me…!)

      So let’s deal with your points:

      1. Does Dogme do anything for you? To corrupt the words of JFK, ask not what Dogme can do for you but what Dogme can do for your students.

      2. CELTA – yes it does teach you much more besides using a coursebook, but the coursebook is the base. This is a monopoly, pure and simple, and it needn’t be that way.

      3. The “tent-pole” metaphor – yes there are different approaches you can use anywhere… and Dogme is one of them. Not superior, just a darn good alternative.

      4. Making it clear which objection of yours I refer to: fair point, so I’ll clear that up now. I meant your suggestion on your blog that straying from the 10 commandments meant it wasn’t Dogme. As I said in my original post, this ain’t the case.

      Further – Dogme lays no claim to exclusivity here: but as Dale pointed out on your blog, giving Dogme a status gives the approach validity, as with any other ELT approach. The name (Dogme, Teaching Unplugged, whatever) lends authority to teachers practicing a highly effective style that the traditional ELT world you seem to support would otherwise reject.

      5. “exaggeration, hyperbole and inaccuracy” – please feel free to show me where I’ve demonstrated any of this, at which time I’ll concede a point. In the meantime, I can tell you from first-hand experience that Dogme works very well for my students and my teachers.

      Neil, let’s try to forget the “Dogme is dead” stuff – it’s a very helpful, young approach which needs encouragement and experiment rather than out-of-hand rejection.

  4. […] you cite me as arguing there’s no such thing as Dogme – I never said any such thing. In my post ‘Who […]

  5. Hi Al,

    I create all of my own materials for use with my students. I encourage stuents to bring in their own experiences, deal with language that comes up in the class, talk and listen to the learners.

    However, I am wary of describing myself as a dogme teacher for two reasons;

    1. (I like to think) I am a good teacher and would be doing this with or without this dogme debate. It seems obvious to me that this is how we should teach, that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, that every student and class is unique and so you must be extremely lucky to find a coursebook that meets all your needs.

    2. The strident name-calling (on both sides it must be admitted) really turns me off. I have read Neil’s posts and no time did he question the existence of dogme. Instead he wrote a considered and thoughtful piece about what dogme means to him (not much). Are you building straw men in order to tear them down?

    So, can we stop all this nonsense now and start talking about good teaching instead of dogme or non-dogme teaching?

    • Hi Stephen,

      Thanks for your comment and your thought-provoking contribution to the debate.

      I wholeheartedly agree with and support your first point. I also feel that there is no “one size fits all” approach and that trying to force one is very unhelpful. I’m certainly not trying to do that and neither does Dogme.

      Also, I completely respect what you say in your second point regarding the name-calling. This is something that is again unhelpful and I should say that I did not mean to appear as glib as I probably did in my original post.

      My point was to show that Dogme NEEDS a status attached to it. Why? Because it’s easy to say we are engaged in “good teaching”, but as this debate has proven, teachers seem to feel uneasy about subscribing to an approach which is not traditional. The name gives it a status which it otherwise lacks.

      As I mention in my reply to Neil (above) saying that “Dogme is dead” does not add anything to further the development of a very useful methodology. Criticising an idea without having tried it out seems wrong to me.

      And Neil is no straw man! A great personal friend and mentor to me, Neil has always challenged my beliefs about many aspects of ELT. It is with this in mind that I too challenge him – his post was indeed thoughtful and considered and the goal of my post was to give my point of view.

      I also totally agree about good teaching – this should be the focus here and how to best help our students. My post was about this – is there an alternative to the coursebook? Yes. Do we need to reject it because we’ve given it a name? I hope not!

      One more thing – I understand your decision not to call yourself a Dogme teacher. I think I (perhaps with less humility that I should have) took up this name myself as I felt I needed to prove to my school and the students that it was a valid approach – managing their expectations was a key part of the process.

      • Hi Al,

        Thanks for taking the time to respond.

        I take your point about Dogme needing a status in order to be taken seriously, and it is true that some teachers feel the need to use somethig traditional (I am still trying to persuade some teachers to experiment with the Communicative Approach!!!).

        I also agree with the idea that Dogme has a lot to contribute to teaching, just as most approaches and methods have.

        Is this the first time a major approach has been pushed in the Facebook/Blog/Twitter age? If so, this may help to explain why the debate has been (or at least seems to have been) so strident as everyone can have their say immediately.


        Hi Stephen – WordPress won’t let me reply so I’m adding my comment to yours!

        Really good question about Dogme being the first approach to be pushed in the digital age – I think I’ll throw this question open to Twitterspace too.

        A fascinating question – I think you’ve really hit on something there – this didn’t (couldn’t) happen with Communicative Approach and perhaps this type of open-access real-time communication is something to do with the criticism and praise that Dogme faces!

        Let’s see what the world says.

  6. Just to clarify, the idea that ‘conversation-driven, materials-light and focused on emergent language’ are tent-poles isn’t mine, or indeed Scott’s. It was Jeremy’s idea – he suggests that the three ‘pillars’ of dogme as described in our book Teaching Unplugged might in fact be tent-poles, and I said I quite liked that idea as it suggested flexibility, portability and a degree of adaptability to different environments. I was being slightly tongue-in-cheek, as I believe Jeremy was, but to advance an argument which – again like Jeremy – I feel strongly about.

    We never described them as pillars either, they appear in the book as ‘core precepts’. And as I said at the IH conference I think they are useful if you want to shape your developing practice, or measure your existing practice, against dogme ideas.

    Meanwhile, nothing would induce me to go camping under any circumstances! Life, and indeed sleeping bags, are too short 😉

  7. Very interesting Alastair because I think I may have been at a different conference to you. I don’t actually remember anyone saying that Dogme doesn’t exist. I thought the debate was about whether it is a good approach/method/attitude (I really don’t know what to call it now) to use.

    I was sorry to have missed your session (twice) as I’ve been told it was very good.

    • Thanks for your comment Varinder!

      As I’ve said in reponse to Neil (above), the “Dogme doesn’t exist” title was an accumulation of the ideas that Jeremy and Neil put forward re. Dogme. I didn’t claim that anyone ever said that directly.

      So why do I say this? Because there was the feeling, as I’ve quoted, that Dogme shouldn’t have any kind of title, as it’s just about “good teaching”.

      Well, to use another metaphor, it’s a bit like the elephant in the room: all this denial of the effectiveness of Dogme is just like pretending it’s not there, when the point of my talk at the conference and my post was to try to show that it is!

  8. Why did you go to the dos conference? Did ih send you?

    • Yes they did! And I went to the DoS conference… ‘cos I’m the DoS! I don’t think I told you that but I’m the new DoS as of this year.

      And also I gave a presentation about Dogme teaching 🙂

  9. Hi Al,
    Not sure if it needs to be a named approach. You could just view it as taking an interest in your students (people), listening to them and using that info to communicate (conversation). People having conversations is normal practice in REAL LIFE. The only difference is as a teacher, correction occurs. If this needs to become methodological, I think we should question the type of people becoming teachers…….and whether they should go get a different job.

    • Hi there Tad,

      Thanks for your comment!

      While I take you point that communicative teaching (or even just being human!) involves conversation, I think the idea of calling it Dogme (Teaching Unplugged… etc….) is that it gives the practice a status.

      Like Stephen points out above, to be taken seriously, a status needs to be given to a teaching approach, as I think many teachers trained the traditional CELTA way think they might be doing something wrong unless it’s got a name attached to it to lend it some authority.

      What do you think?

  10. If they think they’re doing something wrong in a language class by talking to people, then they should definitely in the wrong job.

  11. At this point, I’m going to add a voice from my teaching context of Argentina.

    Marcela Rogé has been working in teaching for many years, both in schools and working for the Ministry of Education.

    She recently wrote a chapter for Howard Gardner’s book “Multiple Intelligences Around the World”.

    Marcela’s views about my post are summarised here:

    “I agree with you in that you can do without textbooks and that whatever you do in the classroom must have a “name” to be taken seriously by administrators.

    The textbook is the authority which dictates what has to be done in a span of time and teachers are the authorities who administer the contents in the agreed span of time. This suits some teachers and administrators as well. Although many textbooks claim to use “updated methodologies”, I believe they don´t and can´t.

    One reason is the lineal aspect of the support, one page and unit after the other. Another reason is the selection of contents, MOST course books start with Simple Present! You know what I mean. Is this selection of content supported by any language learning theory? As far as culture is concerned, do textbooks topics answer to the cultural background where you are teaching? I feel that they don´t in most cases.

    As to this discussion, I feel we are on the edge of a paradigm shift, from prescriptive methods to more holistic approaches (though they have been around for quite a while). On the one hand prescriptive methods answer to the logic of authority, teacher centred pedagogies (though it will be argued by those who stick to certain methodologies)

    Whereas holistic approaches tend to adhere to a learner centred pedagogies. But the idea of authority when you use holistic methods is still seen a bit blurred. Not many people like this.”

  12. Al, there’s a lot of ‘an assumption that can be drawn’ and ‘you seem to support’ which unfairly represent my opinions in both your original post and your comments.

    But an area I find more interesting for debate is the one about the name lending needed status or validity to the concept. I agree that names do lend status and I can appreciate the need for some teachers to be able to answer criticisms of why they haven’t covered a certain page or unit or entire course book with their students with the riposte ‘but I was doing Dogme and it works’. Although it’s a real shame, as Tad suggests, that there are teachers in situations than can’t answer criticism with ‘it’s called good teaching’ :).

    But giving something status by naming it is not the same as giving it validity. Validity comes through research and experiment and proving hypotheses and this is where Dogme has to go if it is to develop beyond a conference / blog trending topic (tongue -in-cheek warning!) and really trickle down into a wider range of classrooms and contexts, hopefully standing the test of time as it does so.

    So can we hear more and more about your Dogme experiences and I’ll get on with describing mine, even though you imply I’ve never tried it…

  13. Reblogged this on Kerri Ann McLaughlin, J.D. and commented:
    Reading about Dogme encourages me to use less materials and think of ways to make language emerge other than through basic elicitation exercises.

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