Thursday Scholar: Dogme and CLT

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April 26, 2012 by k. liz

It’s the end of the semester. Do you remember what that means? You get to read the culminating thoughts of everything I’ve been learning!! (aka, I am going to be posting my papers and projects!!) I’m actually really excited about this critique that I wrote for a class on methods and theories. So, I finally got around to reading some of Scott Thornbury’s articles – something I’ve been wanting to do for a while – and they were great. Definitely worth the wait! They are short and enjoyable reads, so you should definitely follow the links at the end of this to read them for yourself.

Dogme and CLT

As a preface to my summaries, I would like to quickly define the dogme approach. This is not exhaustive, but rather a quick reference definition based on my understanding. In short, dogme believes that the best and only necessary materials for English class are those which the students have or bring with them to class. Dogme is very focused on having a learner driven and designed class and learning atmosphere. The ideas behind dogme lead towards a classroom atmosphere in which the teacher is mainly a guide and not much involved in designing or carrying out lessons. Please keep this in mind as you read about the two articles written by Scott Thornbury from the perspective of a dogmatist.

“Dogme: Dancing in the Dark?”

Thornbury begins his article with a brief explanation of dogme teaching and some of the key features that a dogme classroom must adhere to in order to be considered dogme. A few of these features are as follows:

  • “Materials-mediated teaching is the ‘scenic’ route to learning, but the direct route is located in the interactivity between teachers and learners, and between the learners themselves.
  • The content most likely to engage learners and to trigger learning processes is that which is already there, supplied by the ‘people in the room.’
  • Rather than being acquired, language (including grammar) emerges: it is an organic process that occurs given the right conditions.” (pg. 3)

Following his highlight of key features, Scott Thornbury addresses how dogme has grown in popularity and is subsequently on the decline, as many theories and approaches are prone to do. One reason that Thornbury attributes this to is that “it may hint at a more profound insecurity with regard to some teachers’ perceptions of their role, and the expertise associated with it” (pg. 3) Thornbury subsequently questions how to reconcile the resistance that teachers show towards dogme and his belief in the practicality and necessity of a dogme approach. He wonders through whether or not it would be possible to create a “dogme curriculum” and the rest of the article shares a picture of what a dogme approved curriculum would look like if created. He provides a checklist of ten things that a dogme curriculum would need to be or include if it were going to make the cut. Here is his checklist:

  1. high on interactivity
  2. low on text
  3. emergent
  4. facilitative
  5. reflective
  6. ‘grammar-lite’
  7. problematizing
  8. non-incremental
  9. self-sufficient
  10. cheap

Thornbury explains each of these pieces in detail in the article and why each is important. Ideally, a dogme curriculum would focus on providing meaningful communication that is learner-driven and does not require lecture (but may require teacher talk), outside resources, and that poses problems and interaction between students. In his conclusion, however, Thornbury seems very skeptical that anyone will rise to the challenge of creating a dogme-friendly textbook in the near future.

“Paying Lip-service to CLT”

This article begs the question of whether or not we language teachers have fully adopted the reality of what Communicative Language Teaching really is. Thornbury explains how even in teacher training programs (and admittedly, even in my CELTA training in 2010) there is still a high focus on the linguistic features of a language. New teachers are still taught to incorporate a focus on forms in the classroom and though they are taught to teach “communicatively” they are often missing out on the essence of what this is to mean.

Thornbury gives two examples at the beginning of his article of teachers who taught lessons that had the potential of being highly communicative, and yet the teachers never included their students’ or their students’ background in the lesson. He explores several reasons for this problem in our teaching atmosphere. Some of the problems are due to the pressures of creating lessons that fit a certain mold or that follow a checklist. He also mentions that teachers are often afraid to broach possibly sensitive topics. Thornbury’s response to this fear is “all I can say is that all human communication is potentially threatening; we need to be sensitive to this fact, and authentic in our response to learner discomfort; but if we shy away from any potentially risky interaction, then the purposes for which language is designed will never be properly tapped” (pg. 56).

After exploring several reasons for the disconnect between the theories of CLT and the actual practice of CLT, Thornbury offers some ideas for how to “restore the balance” (pg. 58). He calls for a greater emphasis on “personalization” in the lessons. Students need to connect the topic to their life in meaningful ways. He also proposes that in teacher training courses, there needs to be less emphasis on grammar or linguistic abilities and more emphasis placed on the actual topics of teaching and learning. Thornbury also calls for the rejection of the terms TTT (teacher-talk time) and STT (student-talk time) and claims that TTT can actually be highly beneficial if practiced properly. It should not be treated primarily as a negative aspect of the classroom atmosphere. Finally, Thornbury proposes changes in the perception of fluency, accuracy, and grammar. If we are going to have a truly communicative classroom, meaning communication must be the medium, the objective, and the outcome.


In both articles, Thornbury never truly seeks to persuade the reader to change their position or their stance, however he raises many very important questions about current practices that need to be evaluated and assessed on a personal level. I felt that this approach was more effective for these articles because it allowed me to maintain my own thoughts on dogme and CLT, but it caused me to think through the implications and actual practice of these approaches that I adhere to. Though I am not ready to completely accept dogme as a best practice, Thornbury’s presentation of the key features of dogme are very well articulated and make me think very critically about my own practices and why I do them. Even Thornbury’s description of current “communicative” language teaching really forced me to think about how we teach in reality, not just how we construct our lesson plans.

CLT claims many ideas and procedures that are very effective and useful in the classroom, but just applying a rule or strategy is not going to suddenly make the classroom communicative. Though Thornbury’s articles are 7 and 16 years old respectively, I found them to still carry a lot of weight. I thought back to my own CELTA training (only 2 years ago) and how, though we were taught the communicative practices and strategies, there was still a huge focus on grammar in both the application process and the teaching practicum that we completed. Thornbury’s article did not necessarily undermine the things that I have learned (though he may have adamantly disagreed with some ideas I have been taught!) However, Thornbury does push the reader to critically think through and assess how he or she is practically implementing all of the parts of CLT in the classroom, and why he or she is doing so.

I think one of the most telling pieces of Thornbury’s CLT article, and a passage that made me really think through what drives my lessons was the following:

What is meant by this use of the term ‘communicative’? I suspect that many centres simply mean by this that students are encouraged to interact, that pair and group work are valued, and that certain techniques, such as ‘information gap’ activities, are promoted. This I would call small-c communication – communication as a medium, irrespective of message. It is on par with small-s student-centeredness, which usually means nothing more than that students are encouraged to talk, and that the teacher should not.
Both communicativeness and student-centeredness, defined in these weak terms, are compatible with a grammar-driven presentation-practice-production methodology. (pg. 57)

We need to be careful not to simply follow the shells of strategies that have been presented to us, but to seriously examine how they are accomplishing the goals we have set forth for ourselves and our students, and more importantly the goals that our students have for themselves.

Finally, a word about the Dogme article: this article, in a similar manner to the CLT article concisely and simply presents facets of an approach that need to be considered when implementing it in the classroom. Thinking back to an article by Lilia Bartolome (1994), “Beyond the Methods Fetish,” I was reminded of how important it is to really know why you choose to teach the way you do. As we were encouraged at the beginning of the semester to define different aspects of learning and teaching, so this article pushed me to think through how I implement those philosophies of learning and teaching. Everything that we do in the classroom is interconnected, and it is crucial that as a teacher I understand and can defend why I am doing what I am doing.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What assessment techniques do you have for your own teaching practices? Are they effective? How? Why have you chosen to implement these assessment techniques?
  2. Do you claim to teach according to CLT? If yes, are there any lessons in which you follow the prescribed outlines but fail to incorporate meaningful communication that is student-centered?
  3. Thornbury addresses the fact that in most approaches, the first few classes follow the approach beautifully, but after a few weeks or months, most of the classes end up looking the same regardless of the approach supposedly being followed. He claims that this is due to the fact that teachers view their job as teaching forms, not setting the stage for language use. Do you think that this is an accurate statement? Have you seen classes supposedly following different methods end up looking the same after a while?
  4. In the summary on dogme, I shared Thornbury’s checklist for a dogme-friendly textbook. What are your thoughts on these features? Are there any that you disagree with? Any that you think are redundant, or perhaps are already included in CLT coursebooks?


Bartolome, L. (1994). Beyond the methods fetish: Toward a humanizing pedagogy. Harvard Educational
Review, (64)
2, 173-194.

Thornbury, S. (2005) Dogme: Dancing in the dark? Folio. 9/2, January 2005, 3-5.Speaking to learn. In Foley, J.A. (Ed.) New Dimensions in the Teaching of Oral Communication (Anthology Series 47) Singapore: SEAMEO Regional Language Centre, 127-143

Thornbury, S. (1996). Paying lip-service to CLT. EA (ELICOS Association) Journal , 14/1, 51-63.


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