F is for Futurity

4 03 2012

A video blog, in an occasional series on features of English grammar:


Relative distribution of different modals in the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., and Finegan, E. 1999. London: Longman).

A is for Automaticity

26 02 2012

Class photo: thanks to Lucy Bodeman

I have a debt to repay.

Sometime in the late eighties I attended a talk given by Stephen Gaies (the then editor of TESOL Quarterly) at the North American Institute in Barcelona. The topic was fluency. Apart from being an excellent speaker with a good line in personal anecdote, Gaies made an indelible impression by outlining, and demonstrating, a set of criteria for the design of activities that target ‘creative automatization’.

Automaticity (and I’m using automaticity in preference to automatization only because it’s marginally easier to pronounce) is defined in An A-Z of ELT as the ability to perform a task ‘without conscious or deliberate effort’:

In language speaking terms, this automatization process means being able to draw on a set of memorised procedures in order to take part in real-time interaction. Without these procedures (or routines) you would have to assemble each utterance from scratch, word by word, at the obvious expense of fluency.

Notice that I talk about ‘memorised procedures’ rather than ‘memorised chunks’. Because if automaticity is simply the ability to retrieve memorised chunks, this may result in a repertoire that is fast and accurate, but functional only in situations of the utmost predictability. Fine, if you’re a tourist – just memorise a phrase-book. But for a more sophisticated command of language  – one that is adaptable to a whole range of situations – you need to be able to customise your chunks. In short, you need to be creative. Hence, creative automaticity.

In his workshop, Stephen Gaies put a strong case for activities that were communicative – in the sense that there was a genuine desire to communicate – but that were also narrowly focused and formulaic – in the way that old-fashioned pattern-practice drills used to be.

As an example, he described the ‘Class photo’ activity, in which the students take turns to ‘pose’ the group, requiring the use of such ‘partly-filled constructions’ as V, stand next to W; X, stand behind Y;  Z, kneel in front of V, and so on. Once posed, the class photo is taken.

Sonia Omulepu and her class

The language that the task generates is communicative, in the sense that it is purposeful and reciprocal,  but also formulaic, while allowing a degree of creativity within relatively tight constraints. Moreover, there is lots of built-in repetition.  Gaies added that, by timing the class photo just ten minutes before the end of the lesson, an extra element of urgency is added, which is also conducive to the development of automaticity.

I was so taken by this idea, and the principles on which it was based, that I failed to register who first thought of it, assuming it was Gaies himself. The five criteria for creative automaticity became a staple of my teacher training sessions, and worked their way, re-phrased and unattributed, into the section on fluency in How To Teach Grammar. These criteria are:

Activities [that promote creative automatization] should be …

1. genuinely communicative  i.e. require students to make use of utterances as a result of a task-related need, rather than simply for the purpose of saying something.

2. psychologically authentic i.e. require students to allocate attentional resources to both the encoding and decoding of language, and to the effect of that language on events.

3. focused i.e. organised around one or a few functions and notions so as to establish particular utterances as characteristic exponents of particular functions/notions.

4. formulaic i.e. utterances must be short, memorizable, and multi-situational.

5. inherently repetitive

Ever since, I have been ‘collecting’ activity types that match these criteria. The classic Find someone who… is an obvious candidate, as are many guessing games, such as What’s my line? or What kind of animal am I? (“Do you have four legs? Can you fly? Do you lay eggs?” etc).

Going native, Cairo 1976

It was only last week, to my shame, that I accidentally discovered who originated these principles, including the ‘class photo’ idea. It appears in an article by Elizabeth Gatbonton and Norman Segalowitz, published in the TESOL Quarterly in 1988. As editor of that journal, Gaies would surely have mentioned this fact, but I was too dim to notice. Hence the debt I need to repay.

Over 20 years later the article still stands the test of time. The challenge of devising tasks that develop automaticity through the rehearsal and real-time deployment of memorised procedures is still as topical as ever – maybe even more so, as increasing credence is given to the view that fluency involves the seamless interweaving of both the second-hand and the new, of the formulaic and the creative, of phrase and grammar.


Gatbonton, E. and Segalowitz, N. (1988) ‘Creative automatization: Principles for promoting fluency within a communicative framework’, TESOL Quarterly, 22, 3.

F is for Facts

19 02 2012

With all the hoo-ha surrounding the bicentenary of his birth, it’s worth recalling how comically, but also how ferociously, Charles Dickens ridiculed Victorian educational practices. Think of the irascible Wackford Squeers, in Nicholas Nickleby, and his penchant for inflicting corporal punishment. And Mrs Pipchin, in Dombey and Son, whose approach to education was “not to encourage a child’s mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster.”

More extreme still is the unspeakable Thomas Gradgrind, the schoolmaster in Hard Times:

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

Gradgrind’s obsession with facts and rationality is what might nowadays be called the culture of positivism.

Gradgrind "murdering the innocents"

Positivism (also known as logical positivism) is the philosophical viewpoint  by which “knowledge becomes identified with scientific methodology, and its orientation towards self-subsistent facts whose law-like connections can be grasped descriptively” (Giroux 1997 p. 11). According to the positivist view  “knowledge … becomes not only countable and measurable, it also becomes impersonal. Teaching in this pedagogical paradigm is usually discipline based and treats subject matter in a compartmentalized and atomized fashion.” (p. 21).

According to its critics, an educational system based on positivist principles, such as the “new conservatism” presently operating on both sides of the Atlantic, works to “promote passivity and rule following rather than critical engagement on the part of teachers and students” (p. 89).

New conservatives have seized the initiative and argued that the current crisis in public education is due to loss of authority… For the new conservatives, learning approximates a practice mediated by strong teacher authority and a student willingness to learn the basics… (p. 95)

Not only to learn the basics, but to be regularly tested on them.

But what, you may be asking, has this got to do with ELT?

Coincidentally, this week I took delivery of the latest catalogue of a major ELT publisher. I couldn’t help noticing the number of books listed in the catalogue whose blurbs suggest an allegiance to a view of language as “self-subsistent facts whose law-like connections can be grasped descriptively” (to use Giroux’s wording). For example:

  •  “It uses a step-by-step approach to help students build a clear knowledge of grammar and a solid vocabulary base”
  • “…a step-by-step approach with concise explanations and plenty of  practice of each grammar point”
  • “…step-by-step grammar presentations and carefully graded practice ensure steady progress”

Wackford Squeers

Contrast this view of language learning with a statement made by two researchers:

Of the scores of detailed studies of naturalistic and classroom language learning reported over the past 30 years, none suggest, for example, that presentation of discrete points of grammar one at a  time … bears any resemblance except an accidental one to either the order or the manner in which naturalistic or classroom acquirers learn those items. As Rutherford (1988) noted, SLA is a not a process of accumulating entities.” (Long, M. and Robinson, P. 1998, p. 16)

If this is the case, then a positivist approach to language teaching rests on somewhat shaky foundations. While such an approach may be appropriate to the teaching of maths, say, it does not seem to fit comfortably with language.  Atomistic rules may be enlisted to (partially) describe language, but they cannot, it seems, cause its acquisition.

So why has such a view persisted for so long?  Possibly because it lends itself to the ideological formation that embraces standards, order, control and the maintenance of the status quo – a viewpoint that asserts the authority of the teacher, and, by means of constant testing, maintains the learner in a subservient, even colonised, position.  According to Giroux (op cit):

There is little in the positivist pedagogical model that encourages students to generate their own meanings, to capitalize on their own cultural capital, or to participate in evaluating their own classroom experiences. The principles of order, control, and certainty in positivist pedagogy appear inherently opposed to such an approach  (p. 25).

Mrs Pipchin

Back to Dickens: “Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over… With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic”.

And if there’s one thing that language ain’t, it’s arithmetic.


Giroux, H. (1997). Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope: Theory, Culture and Schooling. Oxford: Westview Press.

Long, M. and Robinson, P. (1998). Focus on form: Theory, research and practice. In Doughty, C., and  Williams, J. Focus on form in classroom language acquisition. Cambridge University Press.

(Parts of this article first appeared as ‘Reading, Writing as Arithmetic’ in Modern English Teacher 9/4, October 2000).

P is for Personalization

12 02 2012

Childhood tragedy?

In his novel, The Folding Star, Alan Hollinghurst (1994) recounts how the protagonist, a young Englishman recently arrived in a Belgian town, sets himself up as a private English tutor. One of his pupils suffers from asthma, and our hero idly asks him if he knows how he got it.

“I didn’t quite make the story out at first, I was chivvying him and making him repeat words without knowing I was taking him back, like some kinder and wiser analyst, to the scene of a childhood tragedy” (p. 20)

Inadvertently uncovering childhood tragedies is one of the risks of what has come to be known as personalization: “When you personalise language you use it to talk about your knowledge, experience and feelings” (An A-Z of ELT). Personalization has connotations of self-disclosure, even confession. But it hasn’t always been so.

Long ago...

When I first encountered personalization it was of the type: “Write 5 or more true sentences about yourself, friends or relations, using the word ago“.

This is taken verbatim from Kernel Lessons (O’Neill et al. 1971), one of the first coursebooks I taught from. The fact that the sentences had to be ‘true’ was regularly ignored or overlooked by both teacher and students. The point was not to be ‘truthful’ but creative. Creative and accurate.

This little personalization task invariably came at the tail end of a sequence of activities whose rationale was the learning and practice of a pre-selected item of grammar. The personalization was really just a pretext for a little bit of creative practice, as well as serving as a first, tentative step towards translating the language of the classroom into the language of ‘real life’. I don’t recall ever having used these carefully contrived sentences as a conversation starter, and certainly never uncovered any childhood tragedies (that I was aware of). In fact, in Kernel Lessons this ‘transfer exercise’ was relegated to the Homework section of the book, thereby obviating any potentially awkward moments in the classroom.

But very soon personalization was re-invented, not as a form of language practice, but as the context and stimulus for language learning.  Within the humanist paradigm, where the ultimate aim of education is self-actualization, teachers were urged to ground their lessons in the lives, experiences, and feelings of their learners:

In foreign language teaching, we customarily begin with the lives of others, with whom students may not easily identify, and then expect students to transfer the material to their own lives.  However, transfer to the textbook is easier when the content starts with the student himself and then leads into the materials to be learned… Let the students first discover what they can generate on the subject from their own personal thoughts and feelings.  By drawing on their own experiences and reactions, the transfer to the textbook will be more relevant and more apparent.

(Moscowitz, 1978, p. 197)

Personalization, as we have seen, is not without its risks, and it’s arguable whether assuming the role of analyst – wittingly or unwittingly –  isn’t exceeding one’s brief as language instructor.  Yet there is a general acceptance in the profession that these risks are worth taking, and even teachers who don’t susbcribe one hundred percent to a humanist philosophy tend to think that personalization is ‘a good thing’. And, of course, basing the content of the lesson on the experiences, interests, desires and even fears of the people in the room also happens to be a core principle of the Dogme approach.

But, irrespective of whether we think it’s good for them, do learners actually like it? Do they like being quizzed about what they or their relatives were doing 10 days/months/years ago? Do they expect it? Do they see the value of it?

...and far away.

All the more reason, therefore, to ask whether or not the theoretical underpinnings for personalization are well grounded. Hence, I’ve been looking outside the (arguably too narrowly focused) domain of humanistic pedagogy for other sources of validation. Recently, research into the way second language learners are ‘socialized’ into communities of practice has shed new light on the notion of personalization, even if it’s not named as such. Bonny Norton (2000, p. 142), for instance, concluded her study of immigrant women in Canada thus:

Whether or not the identities of the learner are recognised as part of the formal language curriculum, the pedagogy that the teacher adopts in the classroom will nevertheless engage the identities of learners in diverse and sometimes contradictory ways.  It is only by understanding the histories and lived experiences of language learners that the language teacher can create conditions that will facilitate social interaction both in the classroom and in the wider community, and help learners claim the right to speak.

From a related but more ecological perspective, Dwight Atkinson (2010) argues that language learning is a process of adapting to a social-cultural-linguistic environment, in which meaning is distributed throughout the system rather than being locked into individual minds, and that what learners pay attention to – what they notice – is that which is potentially important to their integration and survival:  “What really matters to a person – what is adaptive – is what gets attended” (p. 35). Arguably, by foregrounding ‘what really matters to a person’, personalization both motivates and scaffolds these adaptive processes.

So, how do we accommodate the need for personalization into our classes? And – more importantly – how do we deal with learner resistance to it?


Atkinson, D. (2010) Sociocognition: what it can mean for second language acquisition. In Batstone, R. (ed.) Sociocognitive Perspectives on Language Use and Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hollinghurst, A. (1994). The Folding Star. London: Chatto & Windus.

Moskowitz, G. (1978). Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and Language Learning: gender, ethnicity and educational change.  London: Longman.

O’Neill, R., Kingsbury, R., & Yeadon, T. (1971). Kernel Lessons Intermediate. London: Longman.

C is for Construction

5 02 2012

Here’s a little test. Read this (authentic) text, and identify the grammar. You have one minute, starting now:

A girl was taking her little brother for a walk in the park. ‘Can I go and run along the top of that wall?’ he asked her.

‘No,’ said the sister.

‘Go on,’ insisted the little boy.

‘Well, OK,’ she said, ‘but if you fall off and break both your legs, don’t come running to me.’[1]

Ask most EFL teachers what the grammar is in that text and they will probably home in on the past continuous (was taking), modal auxiliary verbs in an inverted question-form (Can I…?), the past simple (asked, insisted, said) and some kind of conditional construction: ‘if …’.  They might also pick up on the phrasal verbs (go on, fall off), although they might not be sure as to whether these are grammar or vocabulary, strictly speaking.

These are all items that are prominent in any coursebook grammar syllabus.

But if grammar is defined as something like ‘generative multi-morpheme patterns’, and if we understand ‘pattern’ to mean any sequence that recurs with more than chance frequency, a quick Google search, or, more scientifically, a nearly-as-quick corpus search, will throw up many more patterns in this text than your standard grammar syllabus accounts for.

For example:

  • take a/the [noun] for a/the [noun] – there are over 100 instances in the British National Corpus (BNC), according to StringNet, of which round 20 are some form of take the dog for a walk
  • a walk in the [noun] – 44 occurrences in the BNC
  • a [noun] in the [noun] – 10,000 occurrences
  • [verb] and [verb], as in go and run – 82,000 occurrences, of which over 5000 start with some form of go
  • [preposition] the top of [noun phrase]  as in along the top of that wall
    • [prep] the top of the [singular N] = 1665 instances in the BNC
    • [prep] the [sing N] of the [sing N] = 60,000 occurrences
  •  [personal pronoun] + [verb] +  [personal pronoun], as in he asked her –  over 220,000 occurrences, of which 3169 involve the verb ask
  • [verb] + [subject], as in said the sister, insisted the little boy – too difficult to count, but very common, especially in fiction
  • both +  [possessive pronoun] + [plural noun] (as in both your legs): 423 examples
  • come/came etc running – 174 examples
  • don’t come running to me (a Google search returned a figure of approximately 579,000 results for this complete utterance)

This doesn’t exhaust the frequently occurring patterns by any means, but it’s enough to give you an idea of how intensely and intricately patterned that text is. Moreover, many of the patterns in my list are just as frequent – if not more so – as the relatively narrow range of patterns that form traditional coursebook grammar. There are as many instances of the pattern [preposition] the [noun] of the [noun] (as in along the top of the wall) per million words of running text as there are examples of the past continuous, for example.

The range and heterogeneity of these patterns also challenges the traditional division between grammar and vocabulary, such that some grammarians have opted for the vaguer, but perhaps more accurate, term constructions. As Nick Ellis (2011, p. 656) puts it:

Adult language knowledge consists of a continuum of linguistic constructions of different levels of complexity and abstraction.  Constructions can comprise concrete and particular items (as in words and idioms), more abstract classes of items (as in word classes and abstract constructions), or complex combinations of concrete and abstract pieces of language (as mixed constructions).  Consequently, no rigid separation is postulated to exist between lexis and grammar.

Note that, according to this view, the pattern go and [verb] is a construction, and so is the idiom don’t come running to me, since both have a semantic and syntactic integrity that has become routinised in the speech community and entrenched in the minds of that community’s speakers. Given the first couple of words of each construction we can make a good guess as to how it will continue.

In this sense, predictive writing tools, like Google Scribe, that draw on a vast data-base to predict the next most likely word in a string, are replicating what speakers do when they speak, and what listeners do when they listen. Rather than mapping individual words on to a pre-specified grammatical ‘architecture’ (as in a Chomskyan, generative grammar view), speakers construct utterances out of these routinised sequences – the operative word being construct. As one linguist put it, “when it comes to sentences, there are no architects, there are only carpenters” (O’Grady, 2005, p. 2).

And it is out of these constructions that a speakers ‘grammar’ is gradually assembled. Nick Ellis again: “The acquisition of grammar is the piecemeal learning of many thousands of constructions and the frequency-biased abstraction of regularities within them”  (2003, p. 67).

If this is true, what are the implications for the teaching of a second language, I wonder? Where do learners encounter these ‘many thousands of constructions’?  How do they ‘abstract regularities’ out of them?


Ellis, N. 2003. Constructions, Chunking, and Connectionism.  In Doughty, C J, & Long, M H (eds) The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition Oxford: Blackwell.

Ellis, N. 2011. The emergence of language as a complex adaptive system. In Simpson, J. (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics. London: Routledge.

O’Grady, W. 2005. Syntactic Carpentry: An Emergentist Approach to Syntax. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Illustrations from Goldschmidt, T. 1923. English by Intuition and Pictures. Leipzig: Hirt & Sohn.

[1] Girling, B. 1990. The Great Puffin Joke Directory. London: Puffin Books.

E is for eCoursebook

29 01 2012

Technology then

Apple’s plan, announced last week, to launch electronic publishing of school textbooks set social networks a-twitter, triggering flurries of excitement and apprehension in equal measure.  To expedite this initiative, Apple have launched an app, called iBooks Author, which allows wannabe textbook authors to create interactive ebooks and self-publish them (of course, only on an iPad, and with Apple taking a nice little chunk of the profits).

The enthusiasts have been talking up the way this technology will open up textbook writing to anyone with an iPad, while allowing material to be customized for very specific markets. Moreover, by shortcutting the laborious production processes of print publishing, plus the huge costs incurred, e-textbooks will be cheaper, as well as more eco-friendly, and less a burden on kids’ tender spines.

Detractors point to the ‘walled garden’ mentality of Apple, arguing that this is a cynical attempt to monopolise a ginormous market, further entrenching Apple products into schools, while raising the spectre of Apple as the world’s number one provider – and gatekeeper – of educational content.

Why does all this chattering leave me – if not cold – at least bemused?

Because, dear reader, you don’t actually need textbooks – of any description. Not for language learning, at least. Maths, history, economics – maybe. But ESOL? No way.

What do you need?

You need data, and you need incentives and tools to mine the data in order to make form-meaning connections, and to extract generative patterns and exemplars. You need scaffolded opportunities to put these ‘mappings’, patterns and exemplars to repeated communicative and creative use, and you need feedback on the results. Above all you need a social context (either real or envisioned), and the desire to belong to it, in order to activate and energise the whole process.

You don’t need textbooks to provide any of this, really. In fact, textbooks can’t provide most of it.  So, whether McNuggets Publishing produces textbooks or whether Apple does, it won’t actually impact on the way languages are learned. Not least because, thanks to the internet, all the means and tools are already in place to do the job a lot more effectively – and more cheaply.

Here’s a possible scenario, based on existing technology, or on technology that must surely be just round the corner, and assuming a ‘smart classroom’, i.e. an internet connection and a data projector:

  1. A topic arises naturally out of the initial classroom chat. The teacher searches for a YouTube video on that topic and screens it. The usual checks of understanding ensue, along with further discussion.
  2. A transcript of the video, or part of it, is generated using some kind of voice recognition software; alternatively, the learners work on a transcription together, and this is projected on to the interactive whiteboard, which is simply a whiteboard powered by an eBeam.
  3. A cloze test is automatically generated, which students complete.
  4. A word-list (and possibly a list of frequently occurring clusters) is generated from the text, using text processing tools such as those available at The Compleat Lexical Tutor. A keyword list is generated from the word list. Learners use the keywords to reconstruct the text – using pen and paper, or tablet computers.
  5.  On the basis of the preceding task, problematic patterns or phrases are identified and further examples are retrieved using a phrase search tool.
  6.  The target phrases are individually ‘personalised’ by the learners and then shared, by being projected on to the board and anonymised, the task being to guess who said what, leading to further discussion. Alternatively, the phrases are turned into questions to form the basis of a class survey, conducted as a milling activity, then collated and summarised, again on to the board.
  7. In small groups students blog a summary of the lesson.
  8. At the same time, the teacher uses online software to generate a quiz of some of the vocabulary that came up in the lesson, to finish off with.

Remember vinyl? (Click to enlarge)

Similar processes, whereby language study and practice opportunities are generated from self-selected online texts, are within reach of individual learners, working on their own, too. There are now search engines that will select texts on the basis of their ease or difficulty of readability. Hopefully someone is already working on an algorithm that will find a text in seconds according to your choice of level, topic, length, genre, and recency. And there are tools to create a hypertext link from every word in the text to an online dictionary. Programs exist that allow review and recycling of vocabulary items in a randomised order.

Predictive collocation tools allow students to create their own texts, selecting from high-frequency lexical and grammatical choices. Grammar and spell checks are increasingly more sophisticated. Online dictionaries and thesauri offer ready-made semantic networks. Free online video and audio tools mean that learners can record themselves doing a task and send it to other students or an instructor by email. Skype allows free video and/or audio interaction with other speakers, while the conversations thus generated can be audio-recorded for later transcription.

In short, anything (e)textbooks can do, the internet can do better. (This does not mean, of course, that I am advocating the exclusive use of online tools, or that the internet is the only alternative to coursebooks. But it is a viable one).

A is for Approach

22 01 2012

A copious amount of blog ink (blink?) has been expended in the last week or so, arguing the toss as to whether – among other things – Dogme is an approach. In Neil McMahon’s blog, for example, he asks the question:

What is Dogme?  No one, even among the Dogme-gicians, seem to be able to agree on whether it’s an approach, a method, a technique, a tool, an attitude, a lesson type or an irrelevance.  And does it matter?  I think it matters if people are passing it off as something it’s not (e.g. an approach), at least to me.

At the risk of inducing another bout of blogorrhea, I thought I might try and rise to Neil’s challenge, and to do this by appealing to the literature on methods and approaches. I.e.

Approach refers to theories about the nature of language and language learning that serve as the source of practices and principles in language teaching.

(Richards and Rodgers 2001, p. 20).

In this sense, then, it seems to me that Dogme does qualify as a coherent approach, in that it is grounded in theories both of language and of learning – theories, what’s more, that have been widely broadcast and endlessly discussed.

In terms of its theory of language,  it takes the view, very simply, that language is functional, situated, and realised primarily as text, “hence, the capacity to understand and produce isolated sentences is of limited applicability to real-life language use” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009, p. 9).

Its theory of learning is an experiential and holistic one, viewing language learning as an emergent, jointly-constructed and socially-constituted process, motivated both by communal and communicative imperatives (op.cit p. 18). Or, as Lantolf and Thorne (2006, p. 17) put it:

… learning an additional language is about enhancing one’s repertoire of fragments and patterns that enables participation in a wider array of communicative activities. It is not about building up a complete and perfect grammar in order to produce well-formed sentences.

Of course, these theories of language and of learning are not original: they are shared by other approaches, notably task-based and whole language learning. So Dogme’s claim to be an approach in its own right is justified only if there are in fact distinguishable (and even distinctive) practices that are derived from these theories (check the Richards & Rodgers definition again). Anyone, after all, can dream up a couple of theories, but if no one actually puts them to work, they are dead in the water.

Putting the theories to work means that (Richards & Rodgers again) “it is necessary to develop a design for an instructional system” (p. 24).

It was the lack of a ‘design’ as such, and even of ‘an instructional system’, that prompted me, a few years ago, to suggest that another self-styled approach, the Lexical Approach, was an approach in name only. In this sense, Neil McMahon’s critique of Dogme (and its ‘evangelists’) echoes my own critique of Lewis (and his acolytes). You can read it here.

My argument went like this: while it is clear that Lewis does have a well elaborated theory about the nature of language (“Language consists of grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar” [Lewis, 1993, p.vi]) it is less clear that he has a coherent theory of how languages are learned. Nor is it clear how the learning process, in a Lexical Approach, would be actualised, e.g. in terms of a syllabus and materials.

So, while Lewis insists that he is offering “a principled approach, much more than a random collection of ideas that work” (Lewis 1997, p. 205), it’s never been very clear to me how this would work in practice, or how it would not look like any other approach that just happens to have a few collocation activities grafted on.

Is Dogme any less squishy? Is there a Dogme praxis? I don’t know, but I do know that – in the last year or so – there has been a veritable eruption of blogs (too many to list here), workshops, YouTube videos, conference presentations – and even a dedicated conference – that claim allegiance to the founding Dogme principles. There are descriptions of single lessons, sequences of lessons, one-to-one lessons, computer-mediated lessons, and even whole courses. What’s more, these descriptions of Dogme practice emanate from a wide range of geographical contexts – Italy, Germany, France, Russia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Korea, Turkey, the US and the UK, to name but a few.

Of course, if you were to subject these descriptions to close scrutiny, you may find that there are as many differences between them as there are similarities. But that shouldn’t surprise you: the way that any approach is implemented –  whether task-based learning or CLIL or whole language learning   —  is likely to exhibit a similar diversity across different contexts. On the other hand, if there were no common core of praxis, then Dogme’s claim for ‘approach’ status would, I think, be seriously jeopardised.

I believe that there is a common core of Dogme practices, but I also suspect that it is still somewhat in flux. This fuzziness (that many deplore) is both a strength and a weakness. A strength because it invites continuous experimentation; a weakness because it discourages widespread adoption.  But the more that Dogme praxis is described, debated, and even debunked, the more likely it is that its soft centre will coalesce, amalgamate, stablise and – however diverse its outward appearance  – solidify into an approach.


Lantolf, J., & Thorne, S. (eds.) (2006). Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. (1997). Implementing the Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

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

Richards, J., &  Rodgers, T. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.