Dogme – Schmogme

Karenne Syvester’s “Dogme challenge 1+2″, infused by Candy van Olst’s “CELTA -Schmelta”, dampened by yesterday’s “Failwhale” #Edchat, refreshed by Jeremy Harmer’s “No Dogme for EFL” combine to inspire this friendly response, the title an obvious take-off.

So Dogme means “emergent” and “co-constructed learning” on the one hand, and “essential bareness” on the other. It has little to do with whether there is in fact a book around. It seems like the most natural approach to take until you hit on some very specific snags that can’t just be solved then and there. You, the teacher, have the experience, authority and responsibility to point the way, even define the next steps once things stop “emerging”.  As Scott Thornbury’s approach is a philosophy, rather than a method, it’s more about your perspective than about what you actually do. Got that? Right. I think it’s only natural to be somewhat confused.

I started into EFL in small town Germany, with an academic background, and was, yes, a native speaker. It’s unfair, I know. I didn’t skill up beforehand because it was so easy to get a job. My very first gig was two weeks with a hospital professional on his way to Australia to manage a huge reorganization project. I knew nothing about hospitals, Australia, “TEFL”. We were given a gawdawful coursebook on the economy in general that contained a lot of utterly useless translation work from German to English. He was keen. We both did some thinking, adjourned for research, pooled our resources, made up tasks together as we went along. He was happy. I wish I could beam myself back and see whether I would be, now. Had I started out, inexperienced, wanting to apply “tried and tested” teaching tools without the option of “essential bareness”, eager to live up to a quality standard of some sort, things might have gotten pretty ugly.

My Director of Studies then promptly gave me my first company course: Deutsche Bank. Three tiers. Six learners each. Ten weeks. No guru, no method, no teacher. No CELTA. Yet an opportunity on a silver platter. On arrival, I found they had self-study materials that I wasn’t really supposed to know about, let alone use, but the participants eagerly handed them over for me to peruse. After they’d told me in detail what they actually did all day, what worried them and what they wanted to do in our course (in English naturally), we went about carefully setting up a great big simulation based on the skills featured in those books, with scenarios that all the participants were familiar with and needed to master in English. We didn’t do it all at once, I’d watch them and they’d watch each other and then we’d figure out what they needed. The atmosphere was very friendly. I was told by my advisor to “include some grammar”, and I brought along a horrid little book that thoroughly confused us all. What made most sense and came most naturally was teaching short phrases that came up in our simulations, and comparing sentences that used or varied them. Sometimes I’d show them phrases in their self-study book before we went into the simulations. Someone else would be responsible for notes each lesson. Chunks. Emergent. Co-constructed. Scaffolding.

I still like to work like that. No method, no guru, no teacher?

Actually, my initial do-it-yourself learning curve in TEFL included:

  • how to assess what students need
  • how to use visuals
  • how to document what we are learning

It felt pretty good to figure these things out on my own, but I didn’t really get it right: An evening class student came back from an intensive course in Britain and had made incredible progress. That was very sobering. And then, one day, I met the first challenge I couldn’t handle: A woman with serious mental blockades connected to suddenly having to manage her company in English. She would shut down completely when she had to speak English. I was so sorry, and completely fascinated, and finally had the challenge I needed to make teaching my profession. So I earnestly started learning how promote language learning:

  • how to prepare students to process new language
  • how to review new input to really make it stick
  • how to get learners to notice and accept their own progress

I began going to workshops, soaking up accepted TEFL methodology, taking every bit of training offered by the different schools I worked for, and learned

  • how to facilitate groups
  • how to teach people who think they can’t learn
  • how to use media
  • how to assess performance
  • how to give feedback

I’d always used didactic approaches from museum work, e.g. responding to images and music, solving puzzles, creating and extending stories/ scenarios, acting things out, making posters etc. But there was an intensive phase where I overegged the pudding, using all sorts of therapeutic bells and whistles. I quickly realized it was just a way to keep people who like that sort of thing happy. Went mainstream again. Did the LCCI CertTEB with Mark Powell. Took the Cambridge TKT. I was always going to do CELTA, but there were always other extensive courses that seemed more applicable and interesting: intercultural competency; media in teaching; teaching ESP at college; setting up distance learning.

Today my classes are materials-light though I actually write self-study materials; I’m focussed on my learners and don’t make my students work online unless they want to, though my classes are permanently hooked up to the internet. I’d quite possibly fail CELTA, as my lesson plans hardly ever turn out the way I thought, and I hardly use my laminating machine anymore, though the guillotine does comes in handy for made-to-lesson cards. If a learner needs to be immersed in hands-on, friendly learning materials, I can still pull out the stops.

Looking back at my teaching life so far, I see I’ve missed the boat on CELTA. It should have come after about a year of teaching. I feel a bit naked around EFL movers and shakers who espouse CELTA, but that can’t be helped. It’s so easy to get too comfortable in teaching, so I’d still take a course, frankly, reviewing the whole of TEFL, with a trainer whose philosophical approach embraces dogme and who focusses on support and coaching, rather than on input and training.

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Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

18 thoughts on “Dogme – Schmogme”

  1. Hi there again from the old homestead, Anne,

    Good to read all that, very interesting indeed. I can identify very well with your musings – eventhough just this morning (second session of a course) I agreed with a group of 4 A1-A2 people that we’d get a course book. I think for lower levels in particular it helps to sign-post the route and it’s something to lean on. Don’t know yet how much of it we’ll get through.
    But, we’ll see!

  2. First, I agree totally with Joan that coursebooks are appropriate for lower levels. Who are we to think we can organize language learning better than someone who has spent two years writing a coursebook? When I taught at that level, I always modified and added to the coursebook, but found the sense of progression very helpful.

    Your memories of teaching EFL/ESL “way back when” really struck a chord with me. I started this career in 1990 and, like you, was hired on the basis of having some teaching experience and, especially, being a native English speaker.

    A lot of my first classes just consisted in “figuring it out” with the adult learner or students and they went over great…but I’d be ashamed to see them now! Yet these courses seemed to work…hmmm…

  3. Hmmmm…. not re your post but Betty C.’s hmm… and before I get to your words, Betty, why do you ask who do we think are to think we can organize language learning better than someone writing a coursebook?

    Why do we hand over so much psychological power to those that write books according to “formulas” ?

    English is not math. It is not math. There’s no reason why the present simple “must be” taught before the past before the future. We adults do not need to talk in steps… agh, another post a-brewing.

    Now, back to you Anne – fantastic reading through your history and musings and I’ll let you in on a secret, I have a C.TESOL (the Trinity College one) as when I was choosing which to do everyone said the CELTA was rubbish…. of course, I have no idea if it was/is and don’t really care: reckon the most important thing is to have a qualification of some sort, to push themselves into learning about learning (and way too many people don’t in Europe, we had more qualified teachers in Ecuador! Many teachers here in Germany tend to be women who’ve married into the culture and think their BAs should be enough to teach! madness! no professional development of any sort!!)

    Anyway, now I’m waffling. Enjoyed this post very much!


  4. Hiya Anne,

    I’ve never done CELTA – and not much point now really. I think there’s a point where you get the basic techniques by having taught for a while, though which exact techniques you get depends. I should clarify, I did do initial teacher training, a PGCE, after having completed my French and Spanish degree (and spending a year in Galicia as a language assistant).

    Sometimes I think I might have missed out, not doing a CELTA, but then I only have to listen to the 2 CELTA trainers in my office to also think that it might have ‘corrupted’ my teaching to begin with – I don’t mean that in a bad way, of course! I was quite lucky actually, as my mentor for my PGCE teaching practice was a CELTA trainer herself, so while I didn’t get the CELTA, I got a sort of lite version =)

    Kind of wondering what to do next, which would be of most benefit. To DELTA or not to DELTA, or a Masters, or focus on something else…

    Thanks for the ace post =)

  5. Hello again, especially re: Karenne’s reply to me. I think the “who are we to think…” that I wrote did not come off very diplomatically. I formulated my idea much better once on another comment somewhere, I wish I could find it now!

    I don’t feel under the sway of any “psychological power” held by coursebook writers. In fact, I rarely if ever use book methods. However, and perhaps due to my own teaching experience, when I look over coursebooks I often feel that the lower the level, the more useful they can be.

    For example, if I look at an intermediate or upper-intermediate book, I think “I don’t need that” or “I can do just as well if not better myself,” or even “BO-RING.”

    But when I look over beginning coursebooks, I feel like I would NOT necessarily be able to do as well, or at such a great cost in time and effort that, well, I may as well write a coursebook!

    I’m aware of the points that there’s no reason to put the present simple first, etc., that English is not math, but I do feel there are foundations and that coursebooks can help build those foundations at lower levels.

    Once again, this may also be due to the fact that I have very little experience teaching at that level and much more experience at upper levels…

    Hey Karenne, don’t you think it’s time I get my own teaching blog moving :)

    Anne — BTW I haven’t forgotten this is your blog — thanks for the platform and your DMs last night and have a good day!

  6. Thank you very much for all these comments. I’m wondering about the “sense of progression” you’re talking about. At the very beginning I’m not all that fond of Headway-style “progression”, I like to get them in at the deep end, involved in real exchanges, and don’t invite them to “notice” grammar in their exchanges, let alone think about “correct” and “incorrect” until they’ve been talking for quite a while. They need to learn to deal with complexity, of not understanding everything, and experience the satisfaction of getting their meaning across nevertheless, in a safe environment.

    Explaining what “English grammar” is, is a completely separate thing. I’ve forgotten where I read this, but it made immediate sense to me and jibes with my own learning experience: Adult language learners need to get a very fast overview of the actual mechanics of the language right at the very beginning, trying out formation. They don’t have to be able to perform it, obviously, but understanding the basic concepts gives them orientation. Coursebooks are generally too slow, because they’ll have students apply it all, so (for instance) you can’t ask them what they did the day before yesterday for weeks. Which is ridiculous. I like “Grammar – No Problem” by Christine House and John Stevens because it explains the mechanics and formation in German. The exercises are quite challenging, though, and beginners struggle more with it than with Murphy 1. Someone should update it with a “Simple!” edition. Still, it’s an excellent map and compass, which is all a grammar reference workbook should be, and I far prefer getting that for a beginner course over using a coursebook.

    I’ve used “Business Basics” (the first edition had faster progression than the newer ones, so it was better) and “First Choice – Fast” and others too, at the VHS, at language schools and in company on many occasions. And almost all the coursebooks I know contain great activities. It’s just: the order things come in in the book, and the order of what students want to talk about and need to know, their “journey”, just don’t magically overlap.

    How we all teach A1 and A2 would really be a good separate topic, wouldn’t it?

    And yes, Betty, do!!

  7. Let’s just wrap this one up by saying I’m glad I don’t do much A1/A2 teaching :)

    And yes, I’m thinking of taking you up on your ideas for kicking off my teaching blog. Thanks for the encouragement! Hopefully I’ll get something up this weekend. The “space” is all set up on my site, but still hidden from the public eye!

  8. Funny one there Betty, lower levels have always been my favourite groups – it’s the most rewarding – not to mention fun – work there is in this business. Motivation is at its highest, hangups at their lowest you can use every trick in the bag and you get positive response. And to say the least it’s exhilarating – I love it.

  9. Joan, I agree with the fun factor. I used to teach high school French and then I really did enjoy the beginning groups the most. I know what you’re saying.

    I think a lot depends on the age groups, cultural context, etc. My experience teaching lower levels in France has often been with adult businesspeople either forced to take classes, or with very unrealistic expectations about what they can do in a short period of time, or with some college student groups that actually have an A1/A2 level but need to take a B1/B2 national exam, so frustration reigns.

    I guess after 15 years teaching here in France, I work mainly in a certain niche, love it, and want to keep developing in it. But I’m sure under certain circumstances I would love teaching beginners again.

  10. Yeah, I get you. I suppose the most important factor that makes the job worthwhile for us is motivation and even the smallest tinge of talent for language learning also helps. It the learneres are truly motivated then working with every level is fun. Without it, it’s all a bit of a drudge. If they just don’t get it – well that calls for more patience and perseverence from both sides.
    Have a good weekend,

  11. Hi there 😉
    I guess with motivated students anything goes, whereas it’s getting the oh-no-not-more-English-classes students into the zone that’s the tricky bit!
    I have always found that the problem with language teachers is that, practically by definition, they love languages – whereas many students are there because they are obliged to be there. This is one
    reason why training, as in learning from the experience of other teachers, is always useful :-)
    Personally, I was thrilled to meet the dogma group which conceptualises and “formalises” the type of experience you decribe so beautifully and makes it possible to share.
    Thanks for this great post 😉

  12. Good read, Anne. I’ve seen myself mirrored in my own attitude towards teaching, and my development as a teacher.


  13. Hi Alex, sorry, I’ve been off the grid and didn’t quite register your venerable selfness being here. Thank you for dropping by and for making me feel better about rattling the skeletons in my closet.

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