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Getting Down to Basics: Dogme in Action

Posted March 2004: Ruth Hamilton takes a material-free approach to language learning. See "Leveling Out," by Margaret Percy, Essential Teacher, Spring 2004 (pp. 42-45).

In "Leveling Out," Percy writes,

What if I said that learning could and does take place in situations where no levels are distinguished and where the materials and tasks presented for the acquisition of language and other ways of perceiving have no predetermined order? (p. 42)

According to dogme, learning can and does take place in such situations. The term dogme derives from Dogme 95, a so-called vow of chastity signed by a group of Danish filmmakers. Their intention was "to cleanse cinema of an obsessive concern for technique and rehabilitate a cinema which foregrounded the story, and the inner life of the characters" (Thornbury, 2000, para. 1).

Dogme 95's first commandment is that

Shooting should be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where the prop is to be found). (Thornbury, 2000, para. 4)

Five years after Dogme 95, Thornbury (2000) advocated applying these principles to the language classroom by ridding the classroom of excessive materials and resources and focusing on the inner life of the student and real communication. He translated the commandment above into classroom terms as follows:

Teaching should be done using only the resources that teachers and students bring to the classroom—i.e. themselves—and whatever happens to be in the classroom. If a particular piece of material is necessary for the lesson, a location must be chosen where that material is to be found (e.g. library, resource centre, bar, students' club…). (para. 5)

Learn in the Here and Now

The arguments raised by Meddings and Thornbury (2001) against the use of course books echo Percy's arguments against chopping up and ordering language in "bite-sized pieces" (p. 43), as in course book syllabuses, and against language as existing outside the user. Surely language, used to express ideas, thoughts, beliefs, needs and desires, comes from within, not without.

In a dogme class, material-free learning takes place, if not in the real world, at least in the here and now, with participant-generated input. "Rather than preparing lessons, and marching the learners down a route laid out in advance, the dogme teacher is prepared for a lesson that is co-authored by the people in the room" (Meddings & Thornbury, 2003, para. 10). Stripped of all the icing (i.e., materials and syllabus), the class can get down to basics—natural social interaction or real communication.

Stem the Tide of Materials

I have been experimenting with dogme classes with a small group of Emirati students, whose usual (I hesitate to use the word normal) learning context is flooded with materials: course books, workbooks, audio materials, visual materials, audiovisual materials, supplementary materials, online materials, recorded materials, and authentic materials, not to mention so-called teaching aids. Dogme classes do not rely on materials to order learning, nor do they rely on a predetermined order of learning. The students come from different perceived levels, which pleasingly disappear as the students and I work with and build on what they know as opposed to what they are supposed to know.

So far the classes have been a real inspiration. I have witnessed some of the most animated discussions ever and have learned more about the students than I normally would in a 20-week semester. The students' response has so far been positive. They say, for example, "This is what students like and want … to sit and talk, then we're interested." "We don't like being given books and papers ... being told to go away and do this and that ... ." "We like listening to and talking to our teacher about things that are relevant to us. This is what all the students want … this is the best way to learn English."

Dogme in Action

If you'd like to try a material-free approach to language learning, visit

For practical examples of dogme lessons, see

These teachers demonstrate that, despite the restrictions imposed by many teaching contexts, teachers can still believe, experiment, and write.


Conte, N., & Thornbury, S. (n.d.). Teaching unplugged: One teacher's account. Retrieved January 18, 2004, from

Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. (2001, September). The roaring in the chimney (or: what coursebooks are good for). Humanising Language Teaching, 3(5). Retrieved January 8, 2004, from

Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. (2003, November). What dogme feels like. Humanising Language Teaching, 5(6). Retrieved January 8, 2004, from

Teaching unplugged: For a pedagogy of bare essentials. Retrieved January 8, 2004, from

Thornbury, S., & Meddings, L. (2001). Using the raw materials: A "dogme" approach to teaching language. Modern English Teacher, 10(4), 40-43. Retrieved January 8, 2004, from

Thornbury, S. (2000, February/March). A dogma for EFL. IATEFL Issues. Retrieved January 8, 2004, from

Yahoo groups: Dogme. (2003). Retrieved January 8, 2004, from

Ruth Hamilton ( is a teacher and teacher educator at Abu Dhabi Men's College, Higher Colleges of Technology, in United Arab Emirates.