Dogme in Exam Preparation Classes

It’s often widely argued that Dogme cannot be applied in Exam preparation classes as they often follow a syllabus and have strict guidelines as to where students are headed and the language they need to know in order to pass the exam.

However, many exams these days no longer utilize discrete item tests like gaps fills. Instead, most exams seem to be looking at what students can do with the language they know, and through the use of topics as prompts, assess the range and accuracy of language students use to communicate and organise their ideas. For instance, students answer essay questions such as ‘Sports do not bring people together. They tear people apart. Do you agree?’

In fact, the IELTS exam itself is a bit like a Dogme lesson – Here’s a topic, let’s see what emerges.

So why do we feel that in order to effectively prepare students for these exams, we need to systematically take them through the exercises of a coursebook and strictly follow a syllabus?

I took an IELTS preparation class recently and was prescribed a neat little coursebook which I embarked on trying out. However, in the classroom, instincts seemed to take over and using the topics of the coursebook as  a departure point, I started to do the following:

For lexis

  • Get students to brainstorm words related to the topic while I mindmap on the board.
  • Do lots of revision and recall sessions using back-to-board or board rush games.

For speaking and discussions

  • Get students to discuss certain issues related to the topic in pairs, mindmap on their mini-white boards, and feedback to the class.
  • Divide the class into two with one group agreeing and the other disagreeing and conduct a class debate after some prep time.
  • Get students to close their eyes and visualize a scene they have to describe as the teacher raises awareness of all their senses, taking them through the sights and smells of the scene. Students then open their eyes and take turns describing to their partner (great for IELTS Speaking Part 2).

For writing

  • Give each pair a different essay question to draft the main points of the essay for 3 minutes. After 3 minutes, the question is passed on to the next pair. After the brainstorming ideas for all those different questions, the class writes the introductory paragraph to the first question. The teacher writes one too. They show each other the paragraph and the class is guided into noticing certain features of writing the teacher has used. The class attempts to emulate what the teacher has done with the introduction paragraph of the next topic.

The above procedure can be done not just with introductions, but with any paragraph or short piece of writing. Repeat as many times as you like because each time, different language issues emerge, and it allows you to take students through everything from linking words to thematic structure (theme and rheme) to how to write overview statements.

For listening

  • Get students to pick a TV programme to watch as homework. You can specify the genre e.g. documentaries, or the film e.g. An Inconvenient Truth, Supersize Me. Students have to make notes and summarise the film for fellow classmates.
  • Do intensive listening exercises e.g. using the BBC News Headlines in class.

For grammar

  • So much grammar emerges from the discussions and the writing tasks that it is really a matter of the teacher being principled in the eclectic way they improvise in the classroom.
  • I find corrections for written homework best done with the whole class as a delayed correction slot so that students can learn from each other’s mistakes and think about how they can reformulate sentences to make them better.

So my one-month IELTS class went the Dogme way and feedback from my students was overwhelmingly positive. A couple said that they had never learnt so much in a month before.

And the irony is – everything they learnt came from them.

Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

17 thoughts on “Dogme in Exam Preparation Classes”

  1. well, not quite everything, Chia Suan; with a wee little help from the teacher…. I am still on the fence about Dogme since , like many any others, I have been using it ever since I started teaching 40 years ago without giving it the name even a the risk of being fined/sacked by the private school I worked for for not using the textbook provided. Nevertheless, very interesting and useful ideas above. Ta

    1. Good to see you here, Rakesh! Yes, indeed…not quite everything…the teacher may be keeping a low profile but is absolutely crucial in steering the lesson, guiding students and feeding in language. I think the most important thing for an Dogme teacher conducting an exam preparation class is knowing the exam in question as well as they possibly can. Then the teacher will be able to know what is needed of the candidates and how to prepare them for it, sans course books.

  2. Hi Chia,

    Brilliant post and ideas. I try stuff like this but I face a huge problem in that my students are used to ‘heads down test, mark, test’ methods. If I get too alternative they don’t see how it’s helping their prep and it really takes some convincing to make them and bosses think otherwise.

    Have you done any tests, mocks to show students improve?

    Also, how similar do you think class activities/topics have to be to the exam? As if we identify core exam skills then perhaps a generic class would be suitable for any students taking Cambridge exams. I saw one FCE,CAE,CPE class once but it just did CAE style tests, speaking and writing.


    1. Thanks for your comments, Phil.

      Yeah, the ‘if you are not suffering, you are not learning anything’ mentality is prevalent even in GE classes, but definitely more so in Exam classes.
      But I believe there are ways to explicitly show students that they are making improvements and learning lots along the way.
      One thing I do a lot of is recall and revision activities. This could be as simple as shouting out a topic and then throwing a ball around the classroom to students who would shout out the first phrase/word related to the topic. This simulates how relevant lexis to a particular topic can be triggered in exam conditions.

      Yes, I do mock tests all the time, especially with reading and listening, and we go through the answers very carefully to see where they could have done better. Tests the following week often show that they have taken on many of the suggestions and lesson learnt from previous mock tests.
      As for writing, I once made them write 6 different introductions to 6 different essay topics (as detailed in the blogpost under ‘writing’) and you could really see the introduction paragraphs getting better and better right before your eyes. Students notice it too.

      FCE, CAE, CPE are essentially the same suite and so the format is rather similar, although the levels are different. However, aside from the ‘Use of English’, it’s not too different from IELTS, to be honest…(except IELTS has that awful Writing Part 1)…

      1. Awful? I used to think that until I got given 50 20 page Scientific reports to mark, all exactly the same as part 1. Then when I got to teach the writing class I used IELTS stuff but expanded it. Goes to show how that stuff really is useful for students at uni.

        BTW, have you seen the new Collins IELTS series?

        Each book tackles a different skill and has some great ideas to work into classes.I wouldn’t copy them all but using the ideas/activities in your own way works.Being based on the corpus they also have some fantastic language.

        Next question:
        How do you make TOEIC fun when students just do reading and writing?

        Keep up the great work.


  3. Hi Chia! Wonderful post and great tips! I’ve tried a couple of these activities when preparing students for the IELTS and some for the TOEFL test this semester and they really worked. Looking forward to try some new tips out next year!

  4. Thanks for the comments, Phil and Thiago. Glad to hear that these activities work for your students!
    And thanks for the very useful link, Phil! I’m going to try some out tomorrow.
    TOEIC? That’s not an English exam, is it? Isn’t it a paint by numbers multiple choice test that just so happens to be in English?

  5. Yes!But tell the French that.It is literally a French English test.I used to be the only TOEIC prep person at our school in London but in France nobody does anything else, why?Well 1)It’s easy to set up 2)It’s cheap 3)Easy easy to prep students for thanks to EduLang’s great TOEIC sim 4)It only tests things French kids are good at ie listening and reading 5)It says it’s Business but as in 2 week work placement coffee making/photocopying is 6)It’s the same Test, Exercise, Test style kids are used to from school.

    So, a school can have prep courses in labs or just do tests and run the real one for 200 students inhouse on their own for about 40 Euros per student. Would you believe that the C is for Communication?

    BULATS now looks a lot better as it is adaptive but needs lots of computers and when you have 300/400 students that’s a bit tough. I love BEC but it’s not run enough and in France hardly at all. In fact, I’ve never been happy with it since I prepared a class and the London centre cancelled the test due to lack of numbers.

    IELTS is great but about 140 Euros and organising 3/4/5 days of inhouse tests and student timetables is a REAL pain. External ones only cater for small numbers.

    While we’re in IELTS territory, why don’t they have Academic speaking?There’s Ac Writing so why not?

    1. Is there such a thing as ranting vicariously through someone, Phil? You’ve ranted about TOEIC better than I ever could.

      TOEIC is a very popular test in Korea and Japan too, and many companies actually ask for the TOEIC score to be included in the CV as a measure of one’s communicative proficiency in English. Clearly, you and I know that a high TOEIC score in no way representative of one’s communicative ability. A set of multiple choice questions does not a communicator make…

      At the end of the day, it is again the age old tussle between reliability and practicality. In an attempt to make the TOEIC practical and easy to administer and to mark, it has sacrificed reliability in a big way.

      BULATS is like the business version of IELTS, and BEC is like the business version of the Cambridge main suite exams (FCE, CAE, CPE, etc.) but the one that has really taken off is IELTS because it is now the official exam recognised by the Home Office and the universities in the UK. This means that anyone wanting to go to university here, or work as a doctor, a nurse, a priest/imam, a professor, etc. in the UK needs an IELTS score…

      Although there is a General Training paper (as opposed to the Academic one), it’s a bit like choosing whether to take your driving test in an automatic or manual car. You choose the automatic option and you’re only allowed to drive automatic cars. You choose the manual option and you can drive any care you choose in the future. The Academic option seems to be more recognised and has now become popular not just with students going to university, but with people coming over to work as well…

      The IELTS exam is not perfect but when compared to TOEIC, it is on in a completely different league when it comes to reliability.

  6. I can safely say that Chinese schools have cracked the IELTS and can guarantee students a 5.5 or 6 and we as examiners can’t do much about it. They camp outside the speaking tests asking for questions and by the end of the first day they have them all, then add the alleged ‘acquiring of questions’ or ‘prediction of questions’ and students pretty much know what they’ll be asked in the speaking/writing and are VERY good at memorising.I once had about 60 writing papers all very similar but how can you prove they were memorised and if you can how do you argue that it’s wrong if that’s how they approach all their tests.

    Yes, Koreans. I loved them.One had done TOEIC 10 times and wasn’t allowed to go home til he got 750.

    I’d say IELTS is the best at present as it incorporates FCE,CAE,CPE differentiated texts, is academic and the 121 speaking part 3, if done well, is a very accurate marker of a level. Yet the trend here in France for the writing is just to write as much as possible and I don’t know if there is a specific rule about marking such a paper.

    What I would like to see are more process examples in writing part 1 and more regular updates for the speaking questions.

    There is also the tricky issue of pre-testing where on occassion I’ve handed out papers in the real exam that were very similar to pre-test ones which means students who did pre-tests (usually ones registered for IELTS) may get the same texts. I’ve also had students in TOEIC tests put their hand up and say they’ve seen the questions before in other books. This though is a tough nut to crack.

    Am I still ranting for you? Maybe adding a bit of my own too.


    1. Oh you have definitely gone beyond, Phil. I didn’t know all that. I have heard of students who try to pay to get someone else to take their exams for them (all Chinese people look alike, right? hahaha…) and IELTS examiners are now trained in facial recognition. We might as well be forensic linguists.

      But what I don’t understand is even if they do camp out and beg for the questions, how do they get hold of them?

      And surely if there are multiple written essays that look exactly the same, the exam board should be able to declare all papers disqualified for the very simple reason that it is impossible for everyone to write the exact same essay. It’s after all not a gap fill exercise. I’m assuming we’re talking about the IELTS exam board here? Can’t Cambridge do anything?

      And what’s pre-testing? IH London is an IELTS centre, but I’ve never heard of pre-testing… In the meantime, a lot of the questions tend to revolve around the same things, i.e. education, crime and punishment, technology, globalisation, global warming, etc…so isn’t it just inevitable that students might have seen those questions before. After all, there can only be this variety of questions possible, right?

  7. Hi Chia,

    Thank you for this post – it has some great ideas and I wish I had been more aware of this way of doing things the last time I had an IELTS prep class (some 4 years ago now – I am not one of those ‘been doing dogme all along’ teachers, just catching up now ;))

    I find that an ‘unplugged’ approach works even with the young learners I work with these days as they prepare for the Cambridge Starters, Movers and Flyers exams. These tests freak them out at first as they are not based on any specific language points as they are used to with school tests. For that reason, it was easy to convince the kids (if not the school) that a different approach was needed. There are lots of exam questions with pictures (listen and match names to people in the picture, describe differences between two pictures, tell a story based on the picture etc) so that’s a good start – the kids draw their own pictures and then create their own questions to quiz their classmates with.

    The Reading & Writing section is generally most difficult with gap-fill paragraphs requiring answers that you can’t simply explain to a ten year-old. I find preparation through exposure to short texts through dictogloss and error correction activities (based on their own writing) works wonders in getting them to focus on the finer points of using prepositions, articles and so on without them even noticing! 🙂 The only materials I used during prep last year were three sample papers just as a progress check and I’m pleased to say my classes performed above the school avergae on all sections, particularly the R&W.

    As you say, it is paramount that the teacher knows the exam as well as possible and looks for ways to exploit moments in class as preparation. the more this is done with student-generated content, the better in my opinion.


    1. Thanks for your inspiring comments, Dave. I love those picture-based speaking activities.

      And wow, you only used 3 sample papers in a year? You are definitely doing that exam class in much more a Dogme way than I am. Respect! I do use quite a lot of sample questions, exam practice papers, etc as prompts. For me, the language that we cover in class is led by the language students produced. Ultimately, the more student-generated the content is, the more they feel an ownership of it, the more we are able to provide that ‘+1’ and the scaffolding for them to improve.

      But yes, like all Dogme lessons (exams or otherwise), it is so crucial that the teacher knows as much as possible about what he’s dealing with (both the language and the exams).

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