#DigitalDogme: Tips for recording and retrieving emergent language

#EmergentLanguage #SpacedRetrieval #Dogme #DigitalDogme #PivotOnline #GoogleDocs #Quizlet #TeacherTips #EFL #LexicalApproach #TeachingOnline

Everyone and their dog is teaching online nowadays. This sudden transition has caused a fair amount of stress and I worry that our collective rush to get on with things means we're overcomplicating the task of teaching effectively. One approach I think everyone should be considering right now is Dogme. I suspect that even those who are diehard fans might be sceptical about using it in an online setting. What’s more, there’s the widespread misconception that Dogme is at odds with technology. Hence this post.

Dogme was originally a movement started by a group of Danish filmmakers whose aim was to do away with anything superfluous to actual storytelling. Scott Thornbury then applied this concept to language teaching by suggesting that many of the accoutrements of language teaching (coursebooks, videos, photocopies, websites, etc.) were just so many obstacles on the path of actual learning. Considering the proliferation of online tools and platforms being touted these days, the need for Dogme’s principled minimalism is greater than ever.

So if Dogme eschews flashy content what does it embrace in its stead?

Here are key features of Dogme lessons:

  • conversation-driven

  • materials-light

  • focused on emergent language

(Meddings & Thornbury 2009)

This approach does away with the pre-existing syllabus based on (grammatical) forms and delivers corrective feedback, grammar explanations and vocabulary input at the point of need (i.e. as the learners are speaking). (Scott Thornbury’s 30 Language Teaching Methods, Thornbury 2017)

Implicit in this approach is a focus on lexical chunks.

Although Dogme was rebranded as Teaching Unplugged (light on materials), I think this moniker is as unhelpful as the one it replaced. While the former conjures up images of rabid proselytisers - think of Scott Thornbury as a latter day Martin Luther nailing precepts into the unyielding doors of EFL - the latter evokes a certain knee-jerk technophobia. Dogme is neither radical nor incompatible with technology.

Technology vastly improves our ability to record and retrieve emergent language, which makes Dogme even more compelling than it used to be.

We might call this enhanced version of Dogme #DigitalDogme. Here are some tips for making it part of your online teaching routine:

  1. Share a Google Doc with your learners. Use it as a virtual whiteboard. Refer to it often.

  2. Record all emergent language in this document. Encourage learners to contribute. End every lesson with a "round up" of lexis.

  3. Transfer this language, preferably in the form of chunks or full sentences, into a Quizlet set. Have a single ongoing set which you add to every lesson. Add the date of the most recent update in the name of the set to help you keep track of things. (See my slide presentation on Quizlet with more ideas for writing gap-fills to review vocabulary.)

  4. Ensure learners test themselves using the Flashcards function with the audio ON. This allows them to incorporate pronunciation work with spaced retrieval. Make it clear that the “matching” and “learn” functions are fine to start with but that eventually they ought to be able to recall the full chunk by heart (i.e. the “Flashcards” function).

  5. Incorporate Quizlet in your synchronous online lessons using screensharing.

Creating and maintaining a Google Doc and corresponding Quizlet set is somewhat time consuming. It might require five or ten minutes per lesson, but the payoff in learner uptake is immeasurable. Spaced retrieval is not a gimmick. It is a cornerstone of effective language learning with empirical evidence to back it up.

I’m not arguing that you should give up more time for this just because it’s better for your learners. We all know that such logic is a slippery slope towards burnout. A sensible solution is the following. If adopting the above routine adds five minutes to a 60 minute online lesson, then negotiate with your learners (and DoS) to shorten the lesson accordingly, with the proviso that you’re using that time to create flashcards which they can (and will) study over and over again. Plan an awareness raising task with them so that they understand how important memory is in language learning.

How to create lots of flashcards at once (bulk import)
Paste your text and import.
When finished update the name of your set with the date


Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake, Surrey: Delta Publishing.

Thornbury, S. (2017) Scott Thornbury’s 30 Language Teaching Methods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Further reading:

Bilbrough, Nick. (2011) Memory Activities for Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Selivan, Leo. (2018) Lexical Grammar: Activities for teaching chunks and exploring patterns. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

http://leoxicon.blogspot.com/ (Leo Selivan's lexically-tinged teaching blog)

Get in touch. I'd love to hear from you.

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