F is for Focus-on-form (2)

16 10 2011

Is dogme soft on form?

It’s a central tenet of the dogme approach to language instruction that, as we put it in Teaching Unplugged, it’s all “about teaching that focuses on emergent language” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009, p.8).  To this end we enlist the concept of “focus-on-form”, as defined by Michael Long (1991, pp 45-46):

“Focus-on-form… overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication”.

However, there are a number of problems inherent in this definition, such as how overt is ‘overtly’? And  which linguistic elements are drawn attention to – those that cause a breakdown in communication or those that are simply incorrect? But possibly the biggest problem is with the word ’incidentally’.

In an excellent (but oddly under-hyped) book by Roy Lyster (2007), based on extensive research into immersion and content-based classrooms in Canada, the writer challenges the prevailing wisdom that ‘incidental’ is good enough.  Lyster (who, admittedly, is firmly anchored in a cognitivist, rather than, say, a sociolcultural, learning tradition) pulls no punches:  “There now exists considerable evidence that the prevalence of implicit and incidental treatment of language [in immersion  and content-based classrooms] does not enable students to engage with language in ways that ensure their continued language growth” (Lyster, p.99)

Lyster is particularly critical of the tendency, in content-based classes – i.e. those where a school subject is taught in the learners’ L2 – to take learners’ non-standard utterances and simply recast them. Recasting means tidying up learners’ ill-formed utterances, but without any overt indication that they are wrong. For example:

T: Pourquoi pensez-vous qu’elle veut se faire réchauffer? Oui?

S8: Parce qu’elle est trop froid pour aller dans toutes les [?]

T:  Parce qu’elle a froid, OK. Oui?

S9: Elle est trop peur.

T: Parce qu’elle a peur, oui.

(T: Why do you think she wants to warm herself up? Yes?

S8: Because she has too cold to go into all the [?]

T: Because she is cold., Ok. Yes?

S9: She has too frightened.

T: Because she is frightened, yes. )

(Lyster, 2007, p. 102)

According to Lyster, recasting of this type seems to happen a lot in content-based instruction, and is probably motivated by a desire to maintain a focus on the subject matter, as well as to keep the lesson flowing along.  (Paul Seedhouse [2004, p. 163] calls this reluctance on the part of teachers to flag errors in teacher-student interaction as ‘The case of the missing “No”’).

But does recasting pay off in terms of language acquisition? Only in classes where there is already a strong form-focus, apparently.   In classrooms where the focus is primarily on meaning – as in these content-based ones in Canada , and, presumably, in a dogme one too – the linguistic information encoded in recasts goes largely unnoticed by learners.

But it’s not just recasts that Lyster takes issue with. He is also sceptical about the value of a purely reactive approach in general:

“If teachers were to rely exclusively on reactive approaches, students would soon be discouraged by being pushed in ostensibly random ways to refine their target language output, without the possibility of accessing linguistic support provided systematically through proactive instruction” (Lyster, p.137)

Dogme is very much a reactive approach, but, I hope neither random nor incidental (in the dictionary sense of incidental, i.e. “related to something but considered less important” [Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners]). In Teaching Unplugged we insist that the language that emerges in the conversation-driven classroom “must be worked upon. It must be scrutinised, manipulated, personalised and practised” (p. 20).

For an exemplary instance of this kind of rigorous focus-on-form, check out Chris Ozog’s blog post (‘If you were a dogme, would you regret barking?’) Chris describes how he orchestrated a spontaneous class discussion, after which

we got to the focus on form. We were 70minutes into the lesson and it had been pure conversation with lexis fed in where appropriate (sometimes the learners are surprised by how long and how much they speak in the class). This is where the ‘fight’ began. I am a firm believer that a focus on form is absolutely essential in the language classroom.

He then describes in detail this key stage of the lesson.  Read that, and then tell me that dogme is soft on form!


Long, M. 1991. ‘Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology’. In de Bot, K., Ginsberg, R., & Kramsch, C. (eds.) Foreign Language Research  in Cross-cultural Perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Lyster, R. 2007. Learning and Teaching Languages through Content: A counter-balanced approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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

Seedhouse, P. 2004. The Interactional Architecture of the Language Classrom: A Conversation Analysis Perspective. Oxford: Blackwell.

Illustrations from Alexander, A.G. 1968. Look, Listen, Learn. London: Longmans.