T is for Task-based Learning

13 11 2011

I’m off to this conference next week, where I’ll be attempting to situate Dogme/ Teaching Unplugged within the wider orbit of task-based language teaching (TBLT).

To tell the truth, I find the thought of it rather daunting, given not only the calibre of the other presenters (see the programme here) but also the fact that Dogme doesn’t have a shred of hard research evidence to support it.  TBLT, on the other hand, seems to be all research and very little actual practice. Yet I’m also intrigued as to why I’ve been invited, and wonder if this isn’t a sign that either Dogme has come of age, or that it is in danger of losing its edge. Or both.

It also comes at an opportune moment, as dogmetists start to engage with the need for serious research. In my presentation I will be indicating the kinds of research questions that I hope to see addressed. This in turn will involve highlighting, in the burgeoning research into TBLT, those particular studies that might also validate a Dogme approach. It’s always been my claim that Dogme shares many core principles with TBLT, but without the more elaborate ‘architecture’ usually associated with the latter. As Luke and I say, in Teaching Unplugged, “where a Dogme approach parts company with a task-based approach is not in the philosophy but in the methodology” (p. 17). Hence, a lot of the research that underpins TBLT, especially with reference to the basic claim that ‘you learn a language by using it’,  has more than passing relevance to Dogme.

Dogme in relation to TBLT and content-based instruction

All this has led me to re-visit the entry for task-based learning in An A-Z of ELT, in which I claim that TBLT

has been influential more at the theoretical and research level than in terms of actual classroom practice. One reason for this is that a focus on tasks requires a totally different course design, not to mention the implications for testing. Also, for many teachers, a task-based approach represents a management challenge.  How do you set up and monitor tasks in large classes of unmotivated adolescents, for example? And how do you deal appropriately with language problems that emerge spontaneously from the task performance?  A grammar-based syllabus and a PPP approach offer greater security to teachers with these concerns (p. 224).

This is a little ironic – cheeky, even – given that the same criticisms have been levelled at Dogme, i.e. how do you cope with unpredictability, not to mention students’ – and other stakeholders’ – need for a syllabus?  More to the point, are these criticisms of TBLT justified?  Is it really a laboratory artefact, or does it have a life of its own?  And is it so difficult to implement?

Information gap task

The literature suggests that it is. Rod Ellis (2003, p. 322) concludes that “overall, task-based teaching, while superficially simple, is complex”. One reason that it is complex – according to Ellis – is that, if their potential to promote language acquisition is to be realised, tasks need to have a linguistic focus as well as a communicative one. That is, it’s not enough that you describe this picture to me and I draw it. Rather, the task should require that you or I, or both of us, focus on some linguistic feature of the interaction that we haven’t yet internalised.  Engineering this dual focus is no mean feat.

It’s not just a management issue (e.g. how do I draw learners’ attention to form when their primary concern is on meaning?), but a course design issue: how do I design tasks that require the use of specific linguistic items, and how do I design a syllabus of tasks that covers the items that I assume the learners will need?

This is where the Dogme takes a more relaxed attitude, perhaps. By banking on the fact that, if you use language purposefully, intensively and communicatively, you will ‘uncover’ the syllabus that you need, the requirement for ‘focused tasks’ (i.e. tasks that target a pre-selected language feature) is obviated. The learners’ linguistic needs are met (so the theory goes) if their communicative needs are met.  And their communicative needs are met if they’re given the space, and the incentive, to realise them.

Besides, it seems to me that a lot of the literature on TBLT is aimed at finding the optimal configuration of task design factors – such as rehearsal, planning time, collaboration, and so on  – that in turn impact on accuracy,  fluency and complexity. Calibrating these different factors requires an almost obsessive attention to detail. Yet, as Michael Breen (1987, 2009) pointed out:

Perhaps one of the most common experiences we have as teachers is to discover disparity between what our learners seem to derive from a task and what we intended or hoped the task would achieve. Whilst the objective of the task will have been reasonably precise, actual learner outcomes are often diverse, sometimes unexpected, and occasionally downright disappointing (p. 334).

If task-based teaching is so fundamentally unstable, why not opt, instead, for maximising those features of the classroom ecology that really do have strong and predictable effects, i.e. granting learners some control of the agenda?  Where learners have some ownership of, and investment in,  their language learning  program, the fact that it’s task-based, or text-based, or even grammar-based, is of relatively little consequence.

But do I dare say this at the conference!?


Breen, M. 1987. ‘Learner contributions to task design’. In Candlin, C., & Murphy, E. (eds.) Language Learning Tasks. London: Prentice Hall. Reprinted in van Branden, K., Bygate, M., & Norris, J. 2009. Task-based Language Teaching: A Reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Ellis, R. 2003. Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



49 responses

13 11 2011

Oh, yes! Please do dare say that at a conference! In fact, how dare you not?
Without knowing much of Dogme, isn’t learners taking the lead & the responsibility for their learning what Dogme is all about?

13 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your encouragement, Cyndi! Yes – its learner-driven nature is what most distinguishes Dogme from TBL, or, at least, makes it a special case. I’ll be interested to see if this is how the TBLT community view it.

13 11 2011

I’ve always considered dogme to be a small yet significant addendum to the excellent notion of TBLT. While I wouldn’t have the three circles of your (?) Venn diagram equally sized, I do think that the overlap of the three should be bigger. Indeed, for anyone working with a content-driven syllabus, either prescriptive or descriptive, finding and maximizing that middle portion where the three overlap is vital if you care anything about your students involvement in your classes.

As far as uncovering the syllabus, I think you should be aiming to uncover what your *students* need rather than what just comes up. This is where a reliance on purer Dogme could get you into all kinds of trouble. If you are teaching a course with specific aims and objectives – hopefully these are not just ‘do every unit of headway and then test ’em on it – banking on the fact that, if you use language purposefully, intensively and communicatively, you will ‘uncover’ the syllabus that you need may leave you with unhappy punters. I should note that I approaching this from the perspective of a ELTer who teaches in a university setting, rather than a language school teacher dealing with general English.

Must end here, youngest child wants me to join him on the Wii Scooby Doo game and it’s too tempting.

13 11 2011

I had almost exactly the same thoughts regarding the Venn diagram and the relationship of that centre area to how I ideally create the syllabus for the needs of my students.

One concern I’ve always had with the more unplanned style is that the language that just naturally emerges from a task may change depending on the day, the students, the environment, etc. So that emergent language may not really be what language students could most get from that task. I’d rather mix what comes up with what I’ve intended that task to produce, ensuring everyone’s needs are met, at least as much as I can control it.

13 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Adam. My Venn diagram is pretty crude, I admit, and perhaps should have the standard warning – Not to Scale – attached! I would also have liked to include still less orthodox methodologies – such as Counselling Language Learning (aka Community Language Learning) into the mix, not to mention the Whole Language movement, but my diagramming skills weren’t up to it!

As for your point about syllabus coverage, I guess I have the residual feeling that even the most expertly contrived, needs-based syllabus, will always be re-interpreted in idiosyncratic and unforeseen ways (a bit like Breen’s point about the unpredictable consequences of tasks). As Burns might have said, “The best laid plans of mice and men [and curriculum planners]/Gang aft agley” – so you might achieve equally viable goals simply by following the path of least resistance. Of course, this doesn’t take account of the students’ expectation of an orderly progress through the maze, an expectation that has to be either re-negotiated or accommodated.

14 11 2011

Thanks for taking the time to reply, Scott. I agree, the curse of the prescriptive syllabus is that it creates expectations among all parties: teachers, learners and… assessors.

I started writing a reply and it got so long that I think I’ll make it my next blog post.

Enjoying the responses from others, so please keep them coming.

13 11 2011

Well,in my experience , DOGME / Teaching Unplugged is the most psychologically correct method. It successfully simulates some of the natural language learning mechanisms . It contributes towards making a student a native – like user of English , not just an eternal foreign student , as is the case with PPP and other syllabus -based mainstream methods. I have been using it as a main method in my own Memory – Compatible Courses to a great success for 4 years . Thank you and please speak up ! DOGME is the’ New Age ‘, ‘ organic ‘ method which develops both a student and a teacher. It reduces the stress of teaching work due to breaking the boredom of routine .

13 11 2011

Just to add that I have used DOGME to prepare students for IELTS/TOEFL ( intensive private courses max 6 students ) and also in Academic Writing Courses for university students. But I’d like to admit that to be applied with success it requires a teacher to be intuitive and sensitive . I used some meditation techniques to develop these necessary qualities. A bit of extra work but the results are well worth it !

13 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comments, Berenice. I’m intrigued – and encouraged – by your application of dogme to exam and writing courses, although I’m not so sure about the ‘new age’ label!

2 06 2015

Berenice, I’ve been considering sprinkling in some Dogme-style sessions into my Academic Writing courses. Could you give me some pointers or advice on what kind of initial prompts you found most successful?

13 11 2011

I think everything you say here makes sense. In our morning classes we follow a course book but one lesson I had two absent students and was left with two female students. Before we opened the book we started a conversation on school gossip. The interest level was high and there were lots of questions and exclamations of shock and surprise. I was correcting and teaching as the conversation went along (not just gossiping). When the bell went both students said how much they enjoyed the lesson and could we have more like it. I felt it was a good lesson and lots of language was learnt and practiced but I also felt a little guilty that I didn’t open the book; I’m a relatively new teacher so am I qualified enough to take the language into my own hands?

13 11 2011

I’m a relatively new teacher so am I qualified enough to take the language into my own hands?

I think, in a sense you have answered your own question. If you have realized this new dimension to teaching, yes you are ready to explore it.

It seems what has happened in your class has everything to do with the fact that interest levels do indeed go up when the students are simply focusing on something personally interesting to them. Many topics in course books or simply quite bland and uninteresting to many students (and teachers).

If you haven’t done already, simply ask them to bring a few photos of themselves (you know, holidays and so on) to the lesson to talk about (be sure to bring your own too!). You can make a point of focusing on particular (prepared) language points to help them with the task or just get them to present their photos and see what language comes up before you decide what they need help with.


13 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Josie, for the comment and story. In the very early days of Dogme a teacher at the British Council here in Barcelona (Kevin I think his name was) posted to the dogme discussioin list a detailed account of a similar experience, in which a lively conversation emerged – or erupted, rather – in a class of teneagers, and he decided to run with it, not without a certain amount of guilt. As in your case, several students came up after the lesson and told him how much they’d enjoyed it. He added the comment that “After hearing about the dogme ideas I didn’t feel guilty anymore”.

You can read the full account here.

13 11 2011

Hi Scott,

Hope you enjoyed the fish n chips.

I arrived after thinking that TBL was the key, then I got into CBI and thought ‘aha’ and finally Dogme which is far superior it is freedom.

A lot of people talk of the Dogme/TBL relationship and those of use who’ve really tried TBL may agree with Breen. I’ve tried small tasks, large ones and whole courses on project-based learning but what always comes up is that students just want to complete the task, as in CBI where they just want to learn the topic. I’ve posed the ‘how to cover language work and make it useful’ to MA and DELTA profs and none of them has given me an answer that has really worked. I’ve even had some very negative attitudes to TBL from students who just wanted input. Whereas, Dogme may have raised some eyebrows at first but has generally gotten positive FB. As an umbrella approach or mindset as Anthony says, it allows you use what you know and what fits and allow real tasks to emerge rather than ‘do xx activity’.

What Dogme and TBL seem to have in common is that new uptakers think just talking or doing x task is it. It’s not, if only it were.


13 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

What Dogme and TBL seem to have in common is that new uptakers think just talking or doing x task is it. It’s not, if only it were.


Thanks Phil – and thanks, by the way, for your intiial postings to the Dogme list, when you described your first tentative, baby-steps into dogme. I’m using them in my presentation as an example of how the dogme group has been an important forum – and tool – for collaborative teacher development. Hope you don’t mind.

(The fish n chips were delicious I have to say!)

14 11 2011

Please use as many as you wish. I saw one talk at New School and it was great.

If you want to give more background I was teaching BA/MA Engineering students at a French graduate school/uni. They were int+ and used to lectures and grammar translation.

I’ve now moved and trying out Dogme ideas with inhouse 121 and in a computing uni.

The more freedom I provide the better it gets as not only does language emerge but I now have a lesson format that has developed for 121 and students choose topics and language points to focus more on. They also select and develop homeowork.

Space and Choice seems to be the keys in my context.

Thanks again for all the support and tips.I’ve really developed a lot this year and Dogme ideas really helped me with the DELTA mod 3 assignment.

BTW I promise to post some food pictures when I get my kitchen sorted but I can’t match your culinary wizardry.

13 11 2011

Hi Scott.

During Luke’s Q&A session after ‘Dogme and the City’, an MA student in the audience explained how he first found Dogme. He was researching TBL and It was on the cusp of the communicative and linguistic tasks that he found himself on the frontiers of Dogme.

Basically, how I understand it is that students have more space with which to explore in depth the linguistic and communicative aspects of the task. It’s the freedom that helps uncover a syllabus in my opinion.

I am in agreement with Adam. There is a professional duty to uncover what the student needs vs. what the institution requires vs. what comes up. Which makes the task a little more difficult.

Thanks for some great Sunday-morning reading.


13 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Dale. Both you and Adam allude to the ‘difficulty’ of dogme, i.e. that it is more than simply winging it, or rapping with the learners. This echoes Ellis’s comment (in my original post) about the ‘complexity’ of TBLT, and I’m wondering if they’re equally complex/difficult for the same reasons? Or is it a different kind of complexity, or degree of difficulty? And what can be done to reduce the complexity/difficulty, especially for relatively novice teachers who want to give Dogme a try?

13 11 2011

It’s a good question and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. The main complexity of practising Dogme for a novice has to do with three factors. The first is language awareness. There’s a fairly simple solution to this and it is to read up on your subject area. But, Is it too time-consuming, not to mention a little daunting, to learn systematically English grammar? The second, for me, was noticing emergent language and difficulties in the classroom – something that experience has taught the more seasoned Dogme pros. The third is having an adequate awareness of a variety of methods and practices to extend language and provide practice in the the right areas. For a relative novice: find a way to focus your planning/development on these three areas and the complexity reduces. I find reflection and action research pinpoint all three areas in an a way which is immediate to the teacher; you work on what you need. At this point I’m going to shamelessly plug two posts I’ve written this weekend on the topic:



As for TBLT and Dogme. I think they both share a common ground in the sense that the teacher is on-hand to deal with emergent language.

There is a variable at play with Dogme though; the spontaneity of conversation, the element of exploration of language and the bringing of learners lives to the classroom; a higher degree of complexity for to handle.

TBLT, from what I understand, can involve the prediction of language and the tweeking of a task to increase the possibility of a language point emerging, which, relatively speaking, is slightly less intimidating.

Good stuff Scott, well and truly got me thinking about this one.

Enjoy the conference,


14 11 2011

As with Dale, I look forward to you reporting back on this event: let’s see if it’s a watershed moment.

When I started to dogmefy my teaching, I found that I was basically doing a more flexible version of TBLT than that which is described in the literature. In brief, I view any text I have as the basis around I build a task, negotiate with learners how we will go about using it, and decide on what – in terms of learning outcomes – our end product might be. This way I’m usually able to keep syllabus aims in mind without restricting what might also emerge from the learners.

I should write about this more on my blog 😉

13 11 2011

Hi all,
‘dare I say this at the conference?’
I have been thinking less about what you want to say and more about how you say it. By that I mean how you might hedge what you say. I take the meaning of hedging to be the degree of commitment you display to the arguments and statements you will make. If your plenary is in the spirit of queries, puzzles, ambiguities, questions etc. that dogme and TBL raise then this open-ended querying might be a better strategy. After all, the purpose of the talk is to stimulate, provide food for thought and challenge the audience and yourself. So, anything can be said, it just depends on how you say it and the spirit in which it is said.

Apologies because I think I am stating the obvious here and sound a bit ‘pedagogic’ 🙂

As for the content, I have generally associated, in my mind, dogme much more closely with exploratory practice (Dick Allwright) and teacher-student autonomy than TBL or CBI as autonomy and exploratory practice both provide first and foremost an educational philosophy for dogme rather than an applied linguistics one. Not that an applied linguistics foundation isn’t important, quite the opposite, but it can’t replace an educational one as the foundation.


13 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Alex, and getting the tone right is going to be very important. You’re absolutely right that my presentation should be less hectoring than offered in a spirit of inquiry, along the lines of ‘what can we learn form each other?’ Thanks also for making the conneciton with Allwright’s exploratory practice – I think one achievement that dogme can proudly notch up is that it has invited a host of teachers to explore their current practice, and to do this – not at the expense of learners’ needs and interests – but by putting these at the very heart of their practice.

15 11 2011

Hi Scott,
I agree with you. Whatever teachers make of dogme (and there seems to be quite strong view out there!) it functions very well as a catalyst to reflecting on practice and articulating a stance regarding teaching, materials, syllabi, interaction … (the list is long). Dogme seems to me to be in the same family as exploratory practice and autonomy precisely because the learners are key, their interests and language central, to help them become autonomous language users (rather than a forever delayed autonomous language learner), and also because of the questions it raises for all participants.
My main query with dogme is that I have read many very enthusiastic and informal accounts of teachers exploring dogme but, given the centrality of learners to dogme, the learners themselves seem somewhat conspicuous by their silence. It seems that it is the teacher who is enthusiastic about dogme and the accounts appear to focus from their perspective. What about the learners? What do they say?
This is why I think research is important, learners voices need to be there somewhere. In the lit. on learner autonomy and exploratory practice the learners are quite present in the research (even if represented by the writers). Certainly accounts of dogme would be more credible for me if there was more from the learners themselves.
Of course, I may have been reading the wrong things ….

13 11 2011
Jason Renshaw

This is very interesting Scott. When I made a perhaps feeble attempt to visualise what my unplugged teaching approach looked like in diagram form, I had TBLT depicted as an optional follow up or link out of the unplugged cycle, which in turn helped facilitate evaluation according to a syllabus made up of outcomes:


In essence (I guess), TBLT only really became a feasible option once the organic process of gathering, capturing, targeting and exploring from the learning space had generated something solid enough (in terms of communicative task and linguistic emphases) to work with. TBLT could then reconcile the unplugged approach with specific institutional outcomes as well as create new strands of topical and communicative interest to feed back into the unplugged cycle again.

I think it worked quite well in my context at the time, but now you’ve got me really pondering the relative role or nearness of the CBI sphere in relation to TBLT and Dogme ELT…

Great stuff – enjoy the conference!

– Jason

13 11 2011
Thomas Baker

Hi Scott,

As usual, great post. Now, on to your question.

“If task-based teaching is so fundamentally unstable, why not opt, instead, for maximising those features of the classroom ecology that really do have strong and predictable effects, i.e. granting learners some control of the agenda? “.

Scott, if you don’t ask this question, who else could possibly ask it?

It should make for an interesting discussion, and maybe even the counter-claim will surface, namely:

“Task-based teaching is not fundamentally unstable, if its instability is predictable, and can thus be prepared for, in advance”.

I would guess that you would find such a discussion quite enjoyable.

Moving on to research: This is an area where you have hit the nail on the head. By all means appropriate (use) any applicable research that has already been done that supports Dogme. I see that as legitimate, and doubt that you would find any resistance to that.

Second, and equally important: Yes, encourage enthusiasts of Dogme to begin to do rigorous research of what they are finding out, what they are observing in their practice of Dogme,

Then, begin to document that research, empirical or qualitative, even class-room based practitioner research – everything has some value.

Finally, share it – in videos, webinars, books, papers, conference talks/presentations, etc.

Well, sorry this is long, but again, your post(s), generally speaking, are simply one of the best forms of professional development I have access to!

Enjoy the conference!


13 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Thomas – always goot to hear from you. Thanks, also, for your encouragement of the research process – and in fact steps are already underway to collate a collecions of studies for eventual publication. Youc an read about it aon the dogme list here.

13 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Thomas – always good to hear from you. Thanks, also, for your encouragement of the research process – and in fact steps are already underway to collate a collecions of studies for eventual publication. Youc an read about it on the dogme list here.

13 11 2011
Zach Dallman

I´m so excited that you´ve chosen to talk about this I don´t even know where to begin. For the last year or so, TBL has been a passion of mine since I first read “Task Based Teaching” by the Willises and about the same time, “Teaching Unplugged”. Both books inspired me tremendously, but for different reasons. What inspired me most about “Task Based Teaching” the book and TBL in general (and has proved to be the most successful aspect of my classes) was the idea that a tangible, non-pedagogical objective should be applied to each part of a task. Otherwise, I´ve found that, despite even their best intentions, learners seem to lose interest in many lessons (whether conventional text-book type lessons or conversational-based lessons). But the addition of a sort of competitive or added-value objective to each task naturally brings out a desire (or need?) to complete it successfully. For example, if you say to learners, “ask each other about your hobbies, likes/dislikes, (etc).” they will do it but half-heartedly and in the reporting stage, most teachers will say, “Okay, Juan, tell us about Marta´s hobbies” because they don´t know what else to do. The result being most of the class tunes out for lack of a REASON to listen. However, if you said instead, “ask each other about your hobbies, likes/dislikes (etc.) to find which of you is (more active, for example)” and then in the reporting stage, ask the class to listen to each pair/group and decide who´s (the most active person) in the class” you tend to get MUCH more enthusiastic responses and listeners. To be fair to “Teaching Unplugged” there are often nods to TBL in this area but I think not enough.

Meanwhile, what inspired me about “Teaching Unplugged” and Dogme was the idea that learners bring as much of THEMSELVES into each lesson and that the content (which is also the focus in TBL) be, therefore, conversation-based and REAL (is that the right word?).

So what I´ve personally tried to do then is blend those two ideas into one. In other words, I make tasks as much about their ideas and input as about the official objective of said task. In addition, there´s a great deal of transactional language inherent to this approach which I think is just as useful (in some cases more) as language of opinion and experience.

Maybe yes, these approaches are too much for beginning teachers…then let them have PPP if they´re more comfortable with it. I think they COULD pull off TBL/Dogme with the right guidance (i.e. a book) because as regards how to cover language, anyone can predict what will appear in the lesson and prepare a bit before-hand. And anyone can correct errors and then, if they don´t know why, say, “We´ll cover that next time”. So I don´t see why covering language should be such a problem or a big deal. Anyway, the focus is on reinforcing known language (maybe in conjunction with a text-book lesson?), pushing fluency and making language use “real” for learners.

[By the way, for more specific examples (about 40, actually) of what I mean, please take a look at this “blog” (not really a blog) which is the beginning of a rough draft for a more complete work (but not updated for a while as I don´t want to give all content away just yet). http://englishtaskbasedlearningactivities.blogspot.com/

14 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Zach, for your very informative comment, and with that clear exposition of what it takes to turn an interactive task into a communicative one. The realisation that there is a difference – between interaction, on the one hand, and communication, on the other – was a breakthrough point in my development as a teacher trainer, and paved the way for the evolution of the dogme approach, which added – to communicaiton – the extra element of personalization.

13 11 2011
Marcos Benevides

Hi Scott,

“If task-based teaching is so fundamentally unstable, why not opt, instead, for maximising those features of the classroom ecology that really do have strong and predictable effects, i.e. granting learners some control of the agenda?”

What is fundamentally unstable about TBLT is that shifting dual focus between a communicative and a linguistic focus which you and Ellis point to, not an issue of learner autonomy (which I’d say TBLT is neither for nor against, but relatively neutral to).

The instability comes from the realization that, on one hand, language does need to emerge ‘naturally’ from doing the task, but yet, on the other hand, that tasks need to somehow (ie: artificially) predict or suggest the language that might emerge, in order that they may be prepared beforehand and sequenced by the teacher. It’s a paradox that can’t be resolved, and which has led to many chicken-and-egg arguments about where in the instructional sequence to place a focus on language. Pre-task, and risk corrupting the natural emergence? Post-task, and risk being past that natural point of need? At the point of need, but risk interrupting the natural flow of the task? Fingers have been pointed in anger, I can assure you!

However, compulsive theorizing and obsessive task-writing aside, I for one sort of like the instability. I *like* that as a TBLT teacher I must walk that razor’s edge between a communicative focus and a linguistic focus, and that’s OK–I just hold my hat and lean to the communicative side when in danger of losing my footing. The fundamentals of TBLT are strong: It’s using English to get things done. And then assessing that those things were indeed done. What could be more valid than that?

Perhaps this is like how you know that the fundamentals of Dogme are strong, despite the absence of research. Indeed, I have my private doubts whether Dogme *can* ever be validated by research, and I’m totally OK with that. (Hm, interesting. Could I be starting to make an argument here that could lead toward some sort of faith-based validation for approaches? As a staunch atheist, that would be the ultimate irony!)


PS: I’m terribly sad that I had to pass on TBLT-NZ this time, especially since you’ll be there. Have a great trip!

13 11 2011
Anthony Gaughan

I’m fascinated by this part of your closing question, Scott:

“…If task-based teaching is so fundamentally unstable, why not opt, instead, for maximising those features of the classroom ecology that really do have strong and predictable effects, i.e. granting learners some control of the agenda?”

Maybe I just need to go back and read your post in closer detail (which I will do anyway) but I’d love to hear what ” predictable effects” you are referring to!

As for whether to pose the question or not – if fear (“Do I dare…?”, with its echoes of Prufrock, the Eliot fan in me can’t help pointing out), as I have just blogged on the topic of fear and outstripping ourselves, is all that is stopping you, you won’t be surprised to hear me say: Do it.

Really hope you enjoy the conference and the Fish n Chips 😉

13 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

“I’d love to hear what ” predictable effects” you are referring to!”

What I guess I’m referring to is the steady accumulation of accounts (see Josie’s above, as an instance of the most recent) that attest to increased learer interest and motivaiton when lessons have (accidentally or intentionally) followed a dogmetic direction. I guess – to pick up on Marcos’s point about ‘faith-based validaiton’ – these accounts constitute the ‘small miracles’ that argue for dogme’s validity, if not canonization!

13 11 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Considering the link between Dogme and locally situated learning, Canonization may not be needed; we could settle for Beatification 😉

Seriously, though, I am really excited by the volume of self-report about unplugged work going on right now – and it is starting to add up to a significant body of data. As you say, the trick now is to subject it to academic scrutiny. I’ll be taking a sabbatical after IATEFL to try to do this in a very small way for my MA (finally knuckling down to it after all this time…) and such self-reported data is sure to play a part in that.

13 11 2011

Hi Scott

Great post once again. After a weekend of dodging brickbats about being a dogme- practitioner, man it is so good to read something that reinforces everything that all of us are trying to do.
I would comment in more depth, but I am so stretched at the moment, any reflection time is spent on hideous management and sales issues – oh woe.
But just a thank you for such great reading….from you and the others on here too.

14 11 2011

Hi Scott,
I have to say that I have always enjoyed doing things around textbooks to suit my students’ age, ideas, professions, likes, etc. But i have always respected textbooks and the theory behind them.Since I started teaching worldlink (TBL book) I loved the tasks in which students had to engineer together a final product (most of the time- in oral form). I have seen great results, most of all that students use whatever language they have to talk. I subtly make students use the form in the task (I show them how to in the pre stage) I do it in a funny, relaxed way trying to informally talk to students. After tasks, I try to do some activities to focus on the form they were supposed to use. Now, do you think my approach to the tasks is a combination of TBl and a little bit of Dogme?
I have also had classes in which my students and I just talked about our lives. I see my students trying hard in order to tell me about themselves. I see that Dogme works. We both enjoy stuff like that. BUt I have also seen how TBL empowers learners to think in English and work collaboratively.
So I don’t know if I can say that TBl is less effective than Dogme.

I would love to be at the conference so that I could hear you explaining things so they can be clearer in my mind. But I do thank you for what you have posted.

All the best to you at the conference!


16 11 2011

The biggest difference for me is that TBLT and Dogme (I think) sit at different ‘levels’, since the latter can subsume the former. What’s core to TBLT, of course, is the task: non-linguistic in objective and with a clear outcome, such that language (in theory) becomes vehicle rather than destination. However, the focus on the task cycle (with form (‘wrongly’) pre-empted as a pre-task, or emerging post-task) risks slipping TBLT into method and essentialism.

What Dogme tries hardest to achieve in principle, I think, is to resist ‘being’ and to always remain ‘becoming’, to resist being moulded into method. My feeling, however, is that Dogme in all but the most skilful of hands probably IS a method, since it potentially allows teachers to be who they already are, while thinking they are meeting student needs in ‘radical’, unpre-empted ways. Dogme allows content and/or language need to emerge, but this may then be ‘taught’ through any number of input/task sequences (ARC, TBL, TTT or whatever the favourite – perhaps even PPP). My guess would be that a lot of ‘Dogme’ teaching looks like Scrivener’s ARC sequence – Authentic Use | Restricted Use | Clarification & Focus – or some version of. Dogmethod not Dogme (maybe that’s harsh on ARC!).

Dogme’s strength, therefore, in being a ‘meta-approach’ of sorts, can also be its weakness, because its implementation will always be through the filter of teachers, whose implicit senses of language and learning may differ vastly – even if on the surface and in their professed methodologies, they claim to be radically emergent.

Dogme is not a new idea, as both Luke & Scott themselves say. An example of Dogme at the level of task is focus on form (not formS), addressing a linguistic need in the moment by capitalising on incidental errors. An example of Dogme at the level of lesson is the Silent Way (‘the subordination of teaching to learning’). Dogme at the level of course is Breen’s Process Syllabus. Dogme is able to subsume at all levels other methods/approaches that take seriously the notion of immediate context and learner need, crystalising these into a single label.

The problem for me is what lies beneath a teacher’s sense of ‘learner need’. Caleb Gattegno (Silent Way) was deeply mindful of student need, but within a highly structuralist view of language. TBLT’s view of need tries to strike a balance between the strong-end CLT focus on fluency and meaningful interaction, with the recognition that adult learners also need focus on form(s), but was conceived in the information-processing metaphor (input/output) of mainstream SLA, where ‘interaction’ serves only to provide input to the learners developing system (perhaps ignoring other affordances – or lack of). Scott’s underlying view of language and learning is, particularly in more recent writings, clearly aligned with emergentist and ecological theories, but I wonder how far this is the case for many other teachers, claiming to be enactors of a Dogme mindset. Does this mean they’re still ‘doing Dogme’? I’m not sure.

There will always be (losses/gains in?) translation from approach to method to classroom to learning. I’m very interested in these spaces.

Maybe, then, the Dogme teacher meets the apparent paradox of needing more method(s), not less, since you can only react to the needs you perceive. The wider your view of language, learning and methods, and how theory trickles through them into the classroom, the more likely you are to have a wider view of need and how you might deal with it. A teacher unaware of the Cognitive Linguistic notion of conceptual fluency may not see that an emergent student need pertaining to L1-L2 differences is non-linguistic, even though it emerges in learner language. A need may thus be ‘addressed’ (through grammar teaching) but not met (through discussion of, e.g., culture underlying grammar).

The danger with Dogme is that the teacher and/or the student may remain in their comfort zone, while ostensibly appearing to be fairly radical, by both being part of an unplanned learning experience. One possible strength of thinking in terms of tasks is that considering task complexity can force consideration of the cognitive dimension (how hard is the task?) and, while this is not precluded in Dogme, I wonder how many adult learners are challenged in real Dogmesque classrooms (some of the TBLT literature suggests cognitive challenge can push acquisition). Does TBLT perhaps offer development through constraint – for both learner and teacher? Not sure. Sometimes, maybe.

The ‘freedom’ of being meta-approach-like is perhaps what most sets Dogme apart from TBLT. But of course with freedom, comes responsibility. A Dogme teacher must, I feel, constantly recognise that they themselves are constantly ’emerging’ in local contexts, just as their lessons are. They must remember to engage with other ways of teaching and thinking about language/learning, to ensure they continue to ‘become’ and not just to ‘be’. This enables, I think, teachers to be ever more fully present, ever more mindful of learner ‘need’, and to see these needs in ever more broad and refined ways.

18 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Steve, for that superbly measured and well-argued comment. I can’t do it justice at the moment – I’m in a jet-lag and conference-induced semi-comatose statet, but, suffice it to say, I will be quoting from your comment in my plenary at the Task-based Language Teaching conference here in Auckland tomorrow.

Watch this space!

20 01 2017

Pity Scott never got round to a full reply. Would have been interesting.

25 11 2011
Steve Kirk (@stiiiv)

Just to add, since my typo was bothering me, that I meant Larsen-Freeman’s notion of ‘grammaring’, not ‘languaging’. Languaging, as I know it, is Merrill Swain’s use of the term in sociocultural views of language use and learning (another key concept for me in the evolution of my thinking on teaching).

1 12 2011

Hi Scott,

Have you recovered from your conference-induced semi-comatose state? Your address at TBLT 2011 was refreshing and gave many Researchers much needed food for thought.

1 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Judie – and thanks for reminding me that I meant to post a follow-up comment on the conference. The main outcome for me (apart from establishing dogme ELT as both a scion of TBLT but also as a coherent methodology in its own right) was to outline a possible research agenda for dogme. To cut and paste from my slides, this agenda might include the following objectvies:


What is Dogme? How is it discursively constructed by its practitioners? E.g. with what metaphors (of mind, of learning) and by means of what practices?


What is the cumulative ‘coverage’ of lexis and grammar over a non-syllabused course compared to a syllabused one?

To what extent does emergent classroom language reflect naturalistic language in use, e.g. in terms of frequency, distribution etc?

How are register variables (field, tenor, mode) instantiated in a dogme classroom?


What is the uptake after a sequence of ‘dogme’ lessons compared to a more structured sequence?

Are classroom interactions qualitatively different in a dogme class compared to a more traditional one?

How are language learning affordances created and exploited in a dogme classroom? How is a focus-on-form incorporated?

What evidence is there of learners co-constructing learning?


What kinds of social practices are manifested in a dogme classroom and how do these compare with other classrooms?

How adaptable/feasible is a dogme approach in different contexts, e.g. large classes, with beginners, with young learners, with monolingual groups, online?


How does a dogme approach impact on attitudes and expectations of learners and other stakeholders?

How does a dogme approach affect motivation?

3 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

As a coda to the TBLT conference, you can check out the presentations, including mine, at this site:

9 05 2013

Hello Scott,

I am currently writing a response to Swan’s 2005 article, ‘Legislation by Hypothesis:The Case of Task-Based Instruction.’ Applied Linguistics, 26/3: 376-401.

I enjoyed your blog on TBLT and dogme, and was wondering if you had time to reply to one more question.

What, in your opinion, constitutes a ‘traditional’ approach to teaching as forwarded by Swan (378). And do you believe that TBI/TBLT has ‘rejected’ this approach ‘tendentious[ly]’?

Many thanks for your time, and I really enjoy the posts!


9 05 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Derek… the clue is elsewhere on the same page, i.e. ‘proactive teaching incorporating formal syllabuses’. The fact that Swan puts the term ‘traditional’ in scare quotes suggest that he doesn’t believe it is traditional, and that in fact it’s what he is making a case for. Later (p.398) he elaborates in favour of ‘planned approaches incorporating careful prioritising, proactive syllabus design, and concentrated work leading to the mastery of a limited range of high-priority language elements’. I think it goes without saying that proponents of task-based learning do reject this approach — whether tendentiously or not is a matter of debate!

9 05 2013

Many thanks for your reply!

25 02 2017

TBLT is often thought to be very advantageous. It is directed at situational and interactional authenticity, it is very practical since tasks reflect real-life tasks students are likely to perform outside the classroom. Moreover, in TBLT, language that is used in the classroom is not restricted which means that students have a choice about what to say and how to say it. There are probably more advantages of TBLT, however, there are also disadvantages which might explain why TBLT is more popular in theory than in practice. No method is perfect and can work in every teaching context so as a teacher, I am never limited to only one method. Everything that I do in the classroom with my students is determined by their needs and expectations rather than practices which are advocated by people who know little about my students. I am not saying that TBLT or Dogme are bad. They might work well in many teaching contexts but do you think they can work in every teaching context?

20 03 2017

I tend to agree with most of what you have said, but it is believed that TBLT has a well-supported literature theoretically as well as practically. TBLT has proved its effectiveness in certain context, but it has also its own drawbacks. From my empirical experience, it is difficult to design tasks that will meet the students’ needs and it seems also challenging and unrealistic to design a syllabus that is based mainly on tasks. However, adopting Dogme seems to be a feasible approach but is not without limitation. The little evidence that supports its usefulness in my precise context (EFL Saudi context) and the institutional requirements would be viewed as an obstacle to implementing it. Moreover, novice teachers would find it difficult to adopt such an approach. Nevertheless, it seems that adopting the features of both approaches would result in a more enhanced language classroom, do not you think so?

3 12 2017
Linus Herta

Do you Think Dogme ELT can be practically executed in larger classrooms especially in colleges and schools in Tamil Nadu where text books are being venerated to an elevated pedestal and classes without text books is a fairy tale??!!

23 10 2019

Hello Mr. Thornbury,
I wonder whether you could explain the main difference between “task” and “activity”. I am looking everywhere on the internet, but I´m getting more and more confused.
Thank you very much.

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