The Teach-Off – The Dogme Observer’s POV

During this entire Teach-Off, we’ve decided to implement a open-door policy in which any teacher who wanted to watch the class could walk in at any time. As a result, we’ve had Shelly Terrell, Adam Beale, Emi Slater, several of colleagues at IH, and my DOS, Varinder, who will be teaching the coursebook lessons in the second half of this teach-off, come watch the class unfold.

On Thursday, Emi Slater sat in with us for the whole three hours, from 9am to 12noon.

So far, all of the blogposts on the Teach-Off have been from my point of view (POV).

We thought that it would perhaps add some objectivity to the experiment if we could hear the observer’s POV.

It is in this spirit of objectivity that I invited Emi to guest blog about her POV…

So, here is Emi Slater:

Thursday 19th April 2012-04-20

In the spirit of trying to learn more about Dogme I was lucky enough to be allowed to observe a 3-hour lesson by Chia today. I loved it. The overall impression was one of intimacy and lots of laughter. The students talked almost continuously.

Intimacy and Warmth

When I arrived bang on 9 am about 3 students were already there and Chia was sitting closely with them eliciting language already. She was asking them intimate questions about their journey to school, their home life for example

What time do you need to leave home? If you live near St. Pauls where do you do your shopping?, Who do you live with?” – within minutes she was spotting problems with ‘live’ and ‘leave’, eliciting past tenses and dealing on the spot with any little grammar or lexis issues that came up. As the other students gradually dribbled in, she gently drew them into the conversation saying things like “Oh Hello, we’re just talking about….” It is only about ten past nine by now, and she has already created a lovely, warm, sensitive atmosphere where the students clearly feel comfortable and totally engaged. And a lot of language has already come up. Chia listens intently to the students and sometimes engages with one student for quite a long time helping them reformulate what they want to say. The other students listen carefully and chip in with questions and write notes constantly.


She moves on to a recall of yesterday’s lesson. The way they support and help each other is testament to how involved they are with the lesson. James Zull of Glasgow 2012 Plenary IATEFL fame talked about  “not forcing knowledge into the brain but about motivating and creating circumstances for students to learn”. Well, in this case, Chia has certainly done that. How involved the students are in the lesson surely depends on the teacher?

Of course this could apply to any teacher, using a course book or not – that old adage – is Dogme just good teaching?

One student says to another “Oh, I wish I had your brain!” – much laughter from all. The point is, they are very enthusiastic, and it’s only 9.30 am in the morning.

Natural Conversation/Authenticity

While one group recalls and discusses the huge amount of lexis from yesterday’s lesson (Chia urges them to remember the discussions they had), she spends quite a long time with one of the groups. There are two groups of 4/3 at this point. The other group seem quite happy to continue discussing while she attends to the questions of the other. This made for a very intimate interaction between Chia and the students. She answered their questions and fed in new language and supported them carefully. The conversation is flowing naturally and fluctuating between many different topics and both groups are now discussing different things. This means that before long both groups are singing from different hymn sheets because that is of course how conversation goes. This naturally makes it difficult for the teacher whose job it will be to eventually bring all the students back together again. It is the sign of an experienced teacher that Chia was able to do this effectively later on in the lesson. By allowing this to happen, she was able to wait for the language to emerge naturally rather than from an imposed piece of text or a course book “topic”.

Of course, this begs the other old Dogme adage – do you have to be an experienced teacher to teach Dogme style?


Never let it be said that Dogme lessons are all lexis and no grammar. In this lesson, the students were exposed to, discovered for themselves and practised, so many of what Scott Thornbury calls ‘Grammar Mcnuggets’ (check out his excellent video on G is for Grammar Syllabus) that any course book would have been put to shame. The structures emerged from the natural conversation and were ALWAYS RELEVANT. The students were trying to express something – Chia reformulated and then elicited or focused or did a guided discovery on the relevant grammar point needed to help them express their point – The students naturally wanted to know how to form the relevant structure (in this case the passive), because they needed it to say what they wanted to say.

Bingo! Motivated students learning the passive form with enthusiasm. This doesn’t happen everyday does it? I’ve heard teachers marching around where I work, on more than one occasion, muttering, “Why do the students hate the passive so much? I don’t understand. They keep asking me why they need it.”

The grammar forms which emerged, and which Chia teased out and focused on when necessary, were passive, causative structure – have something done, past participles in general, adjective forms ed/ing, and at the end a little review of present perfect and past simple. She didn’t spend hours on each form – when it was obvious that it was a new one, for example the causative structure “have + noun + done”, she created on-the-spot discovery exercises and got the students to repeat and practice.

Perhaps the students might have benefitted from more time to practise the new structures – perhaps giving them a mini role play on the spot or asking them to describe different situations in pairs – or to share their experiences might have been good. But I suppose this comes from the course book mentality of imposing a conversation topic on the students in order for them to repeat and practice. I don’t know whether Chia is planning to give them time in another lesson to practice the grammar structures she focused on more, or whether she believes that the students will do this anyway themselves. There is something to be said for the fact that these are all adults with extrinsic and intrinsic motivation to learn English so the chances are if they are introduced to a new grammar structure in Chia’s lesson, then they will probably try and practise it further themselves later in the pub, or in a conversation lesson or in the break. If Chia is relying on this motivation, it’s a risk and a very controversial one, but I quite like it!

An interesting debate related to how much we expect from our students perhaps related to Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill’s High Demand ELT question

A question many people ask about Dogme often is – how much of a chance do the students get to practise the language that emerges from a conversation driven lesson? I would say as much or as little as a course book lesson – it all depends on the teacher.

The language work at the end of the lesson on reformulating sentences emerging from the students’ presentations was a chance for the students to really go in depth into all the possibilities, and in depth they did go. This was a real chance for them to analyse the language.

For those that are wondering, there was no doubt in my mind that the amount of grammar structures that Chia discussed with the students was appropriate. Much more was covered than in a “normal” course book lesson as the structures were linked together rather than separated into Scott Thornbury’s sliced up omelette, but it was not too much. The students were totally engaged and keen and not overwhelmed in any way. On the contrary, I think they were glad to be exposed to grammar they clearly already had questions about.

 Lexis/Language Retention

One thing that struck me was the amount of lexis the students remembered. They had so obviously had memorable conversations during the week and this way of teaching lexis clearly works! It has to be the way to go.

Dogme for lower levels

I cannot understand where this idea has come from that Dogme cannot be done with lower level classes. In my limited experience, I would say that Dogme with lower levels is probably easier for the teacher. She/He can draw out and focus on grammar structures and lexical sets, phrases, functional language, chunking, sentence structure, and so on and so forth, in a much more controlled way. What becomes complicated is when Advanced students are asking about more complicated language, and the teacher has to have a much wider range of idioms, collocations, complex structures, and so on, at their fingertips.

It is also inevitable perhaps that at lower levels the teacher is going to manipulate the conversation more simply because the students don’t have the language or the confidence to initiate much. Chia initiated simply by being the one that kept asking them questions. Initiating the questions made her the one in control, I suppose . But even so, I think her questions and the students’ responses made for a much more natural and motivating conversation than if she had been using a course book.

Teacher as person/hiding behind the course book

The teacher is after all a person too and very often students are really interested in the teacher as a person (and the questions he/she asks) and I have never understood why so many teachers don’t want to reveal their real selves in lessons. With teenagers I can understand but these are adults. Teachers often hide behind the course books. Surely this is verging on the downright stupid?

If a teacher reveals something of themselves, then the students will do likewise. Course books are constantly asking students to talk about quite personal and intimate topics. We are always being told personalize! Personalize! If a teacher shares his/her own experience and then asks the students to do the same, surely it’s obvious that it is going to work better?

Also, perhaps more importantly, the teacher can tell very quickly if the topic is not appropriate or relevant and can switch and move on much more quickly than if the students have all just started a task on page such and such of the course book. Chia was super sensitive to this and was able to assess quickly whether students were responding or not.

Student hiding behind the coursebook

One student came to the class who had been moved from another group. After she had been in the class for about 15 minutes, Chia asked her if she had brought her notebook and pen. The student replied “No, I haven’t been given the book yet (meaning the course book)”. Chia replied “No, we’re not using a course book so you’ll need your notebook and pen more than ever. It is very important in these lessons.”

Does this reveal that perhaps the student was relying on the course book and was not thinking of taking notes. This has wider implications I think – course books certainly make teachers lazy (I know this from my own experience. When I am tired or have had a difficult week or am covering a class, I know I often rely on the course book, find me a teacher who doesn’t) but do they also make students lazy? They think “Oh, it’s ok I don’t need to write that down it’s in the book. “ The chances are they won’t look in the book after class and the action of writing the language down during the lesson will surely be better than nothing.

Style, Confidence and Content

Chia has a very sensitive teaching style. I really liked the way she gave positive delayed feedback. She said things like “That’s a great way to start a presentation but how could we change it to make it better?” or “How have you reformulated that sentence? I have chosen to change three things and you?”

It came across as respectful to the students and not patronizing. I think this style of error correction makes for more confidence building, rather than just ripping apart what the students have just said. She managed to elicit some great functional language for the students to use in their future presentations and all the language work for the last half of the lesson was based on language emerging from the students themselves.

To summarize, she covered about 5 grammar structures, a huge range of lexis and expressions ranging from topics such as money, clothes, shopping and phrasal verb, pronunciation (she drilled regularly and elicited stress patterns throughout) and some functional language for presentations plus a review of lexis from other lessons all in a three-hour stint. You could tell the students were hungry for it. None of this “Oh, we’re not doing that today, wait until tomorrow” stuff – she covered pretty much everything the students wanted to know there and then. It was full on for the teacher – never let it be said that Dogme is an easy way out.


It is incredibly brave for any teacher to have an open door policy for two whole weeks – I am not sure I know any other teacher who has ever done that. Chia has left the door of her classroom open throughout the Dogme teach-off so any teacher can come and observe at any time. This kind of generosity in the spirit of research and sharing should be applauded and a lesson to us all.


If this style of conversation driven teaching is the way to go, and teachers and schools finally admit that language isn’t linear and cannot be divided into bit- size chunks…If they read Vygotsky about language acquisition and start listening to what Scott Thornbury has to say about all of the above…then the CELTA will have to be completely redefined in the way that Anthony Gaughan has been saying for the last few years

Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill want better quality, higher demand learning and teaching both from the teachers and the students. It seems to me the CELTA has allowed too many of us to get away with/hide behind low quality teaching for too long. Isn’t this where it all begins?


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.

16 thoughts on “The Teach-Off – The Dogme Observer’s POV”

  1. Excellent! I really enjoyed this. Thanks for such a great account and reflection, Emi. And, again huge thanks to you, Chia, for allowing us all a glimpse of your work.

    What is clear, and what I love, from these accounts is the sensitivity, respect and skill you use when working with the people in your classes, and, of course, the fun and laughter!

    I can’t imagine how the next teacher will move the students to the course book from this, even a course book as good as Global! 😉 Good luck to Varinder!

    1. Upon reflection, and in a calmer mood, I’m sure both will do really well and that the second part of the teach-off will be equally interesting for all. I’ll look forward to hearing how it goes.

      1. Thanks for your comments, Carol!
        If all goes to plan, I’m sure you’ll be able to follow the next 2 weeks’ of coursebook lessons too. And I’m sure it’ll be just as, if not more interesting.
        Watch this space!


  2. Thanks loads Emi. Your detailed observation has definitely shed light on the topic. It has helped me to understand how a dogme lesson looks like in the real world.
    @ Chia: Congratulations is a too weak word for you. You’re above that! I’m learning a lot from your blog. Your willingness to share your expertise is inspiring!

    1. Hi Julio! Thanks for your comments!
      I think every teacher applies Dogme differently, and depending on the students and their needs, each Dogme lesson, even by the same teacher, can be so different. And so, I suppose Dogme can look like many things in the real world. I think that’s what makes it great.

      Thanks for your words of congratulations! It made my day!


  3. Wow, great account. My main feeling is one of being sorry that your part of the teach-off is over, Chia! I’ve really enjoyed these daily blog posts (since I discovered them!) and wish they were tbc! I wish I could have sat in on a few of the lessons but these blog posts have been the next best thing. What a fantastic project. I look forward to hearing how it progresses when the ss move on to using the coursbook. But from this account, yours will be a difficult act to follow!!

    Cheers, Lizzie. 🙂

    1. Hi Lizzie,
      Thanks for all your support! I’m sure next week when you read about the coursebook lessons, you will also find my DOS Varinder’s lessons just as captivating and interesting!


  4. This is the killer phrase for me, what makes me so uneasy about course books.
    “Also, perhaps more importantly, THE TEACHER CAN TELL VERY QUICKLY IF THE TOPIC IS NOT APPROPRIATE OR RELEVANT AND CAN SWITCH AND MOVE ON MUCH MORE QUICKLY THAN IF THE STUDENTS HAVE ALL JUST STARTED A TASK ON PAGE SUCH AND SUCH OF THE COURSE BOOK. Chia was super sensitive to this and was able to assess quickly whether students were responding or not.”
    I’m very tempted to adopt an open door policy myself, I wonder if anybody would be brave enough to take advantage of it.
    Chia, this has been an extremely brave and valuable experiment – you are to be congratulated. Along with everyone else I look forward to learning as much about course book teaching in the next 2 weeks as I have about dogme teaching in the past weeks.


    1. Thanks Peter!
      That is indeed a good point that Emi has made with regards to the flexibility of a no-coursebook approach! A killer phrase indeed!
      I’m looking forward to the coursebook-based lessons too!

  5. I’m sure I’m one of many who regrets not being able to have had the chance of witnessing a master (or shall I say ‘mastress’? ;-)) at work. Recordings would have been nice. Still, blogging is the next best thing and I’d just like to thank you, once again, for taking hours off your sleep (I’m sure) to write all that you have written.

    Looking forward to Varinda’s account. Knowing what your ‘opponent’ has done is normally an advantage, but will it be enough for her this time, I wonder… 🙂

    The students are, indeed, lucky!


  6. Reblogged this on IheartELT and commented:
    Great guest post from Emi Slater on Chia’s blog. For all you teachers wondering how #Dogme actually works in the classroom, this is the blog post to read.

  7. Thank you all for your lovely comments. I am honoured to have been part of this experiment.

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