Uncharted Tesol

My Efforts to Create a Dogme-based Classroom in Japan

I was on a much-needed, post-baby, beach holiday in Bali. With the waves and sunlight, the ability to daydream came back to me. Taskless hands allowed me to click-browse Wikipedia and I found myself on my former professor Scott Thornbury’s page. A couple scrolls and clicks later, and I felt like I had stumbled onto the answer to all my classroom struggles: Dogme English Language Teaching (ELT). Dogme ELT is an attitude to teaching that argues that learning should be driven by the learner and not by published resources, including mass-produced textbooks, for they are not really geared or necessarily interesting to students.

While I was excited about this new (to me) form of pedagogy, one sentence on my former professor’s Wikipedia page spurred me into a worry cloud. It said that Dogme may not be successful in Japan.

Image from Wikipedia entry on Dogme Language Teaching (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogme_language_teaching)

However, “may” denotes a possibility, an outcome not yet seen or proven. Thus, as a teacher in Japan, I took this sentence as my challenge. After leaving Bali’s beaches and returning to the Land of the Rising Sun, I dug into research and trials. This post will take you through the highlights of that research and provide examples of Dogme moments that my students have led.

Dogme’s Film Background

Photo from director Vinterburg’s acclaimed film, “Festen” or “The Celebration.” filmed in Dogme 95-style, including no artificial sounds, sets, or lighting.

Dogme ELT was inspired by a film movement called Dogme 95. Two Danish directors named Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterburg created the Dogme Manifesto and its “Vows of Chastity.” The directors challenged what they saw as cinema’s dependency on special effects, technical wizardry, and fantasy. Films following the Dogme’s “Vows of Chastity” emphasize the here and now (Meddings & Thornbury, 2017). The vows are meant to give the power pack to the directors, not the studio, allowing them to truly focus on the actual story and its particular relevance to the audience (Kinsley, 2012).

Scott Thornbury saw a Dogme 95 film and read the Manifesto. He noticed that there was a metaphor for teaching in it and thus created the first commandment for Dogme ELT.

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).
(Von Trier & Vinterberg, 1995).

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.
(Meddings & Thornbury, 2017).

What is Dogme ELT?

For many language teachers, the year starts with a classroom, a textbook, and a list of students. The stated academic goals are usually are just to get students through the material. The teacher asks herself a range of questions. “How? Why?” Followed a bit later by “Is this working?”and “What can I do to help students relate to this unit?” and sometimes we internally scream mid-class “Can I possibly call this kid back to the textbook again without losing my mind?!?”…and more, and more, and again.

The classroom can be an ever-changing struggle of personalities, clashing cultures, and mismetexpectations. Textbook pages are waiting to be done! Deadlines must be respected! Units need to be completed by a certain date, and students get in the way of that. Dogme presents a different perspective that helped me change my way of thinking. I realized that students don’t get in the way of the progression of the class—the textbook does!

In Thornbury and Meddings’s book Teaching Unplugged, ten key principals, modeled after the Dogme 95 film vows are listed for Dogme ELT. Keywords like engage, empower, relevance, and interactivity are highlighted, but all ten principals really boil down into three main precepts: conversation-driven, materials-light, and emergent language (Meddings & Thornbury, 2017). “Space-travellers” is a great example for using all three and is described below.

First, according to Dogme ELT, the classroom should be conversation-driven. In Teaching Unplugged Thornbury and Meddings (2017) explain that language learning occurs most naturally and fruitfully through conversation. Teachers and students should use every opportunity, including distractions and the senses, to partake in social language. In Dogme, conversation is the means by which language is learned, not mass-produced materials.

Secondly, just as with the props in Dogme Film, Materials used in the classroom should be naturally occurring. Of course, chief among those are (and should be) the people in the room. Teachers and students, if allowed the chance, can uncover new ideas and language together. Textbooks and mass-produced materials have some major flaws, according to Thornbury and Meddings. They may cover uninteresting or un-relatable topics as well as grammar outside students’ Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).Teachers may feel pressure to cover all the pages of the textbook, so free-conversation may feel like wasted-time. Ultimately, students may become so focused in using the right grammar, that they hesitate and all chances to actively speak are lost to their diffidence. Using fewer materials and especially student-created materials solve all those problems and fit perfectly into their ZPDs and interests.

Lastly, Thornbury and Meddings argue Emergent Language should be the basis for Dogme lessons. A teacher should set up opportunities and create an atmosphere where students can uncover words, grammar, and indeed a whole syllabus. I would argue that for young learners especially, who are simultaneously learning about the world while absorbing a language, that context or task-based lessons are a great way to naturally allow language to emerge. However, having a pretty product at the end shouldn’t be the goal. The process of getting there, fully allowing the language to surface and be practiced, is the goal.

Ready, Set, Action!

Nearly all language theories look good on paper. Just as a director of a Dogme 95 film should think about his audience, applying the ideas of Dogme ELT to my classroom allowed me to see how effective they were and continue to be for my students. My students are all aged six to ten years old. After their usual Japanese elementary school, they come to my class twice a week from about 16:30-18:30 pm. By the time I see them, they are usually stir-crazy from sitting at school all day. This essentially demands my classroom to be active.

I started my Dogme adventure nearly half-way through the academic year. Textbooks had already been bought and worked in for months. In addition, a curriculum had already been promised to parents. I did not let those limitations trouble or limit me, though. Thornbury and Meddings state that a classroom can have “Dogme Moments,” and from the moment I learned about Dogme, I tried to find those moments in my classroom.

One of the first things I tried was student-made crossword puzzles. My students love doing them, and they are easy for practicing spelling and letter recognition. I let students choose the upcoming holiday of Halloween to set a theme for language to emerge (some didn’t choose Halloween, and that was okay, too!). Rather than spending hours before a lesson preparing prints of creatures and lecturing or doing call and response questioning in the class, I simply said, “Halloween is soon. Go to the teacher’s room and ask for a piece of white paper. Get a pencil. Next, go to the library and get a picture dictionary. My computer and Google are also available. Collect lots of words and make a crossword puzzle.” It was like I was a witch who had said a magic spell. The students set to action. They were completely engaged. They talked to their friends and thought of Halloween-related words that I had not even considered. They were learning language they were interested in. Of course, I helped the students notice their spelling errors, but generally, the students lead the whole activity. I realized that students can make and enjoy making their own classroom materials.

Another activity I tried and found useful is “Graffiti,” originally from Teaching Unplugged. Teachers need only to prepare a story and big pieces of blank paper. While students listen to the story, they graffiti their paper with any words that they hear or pictures that they see. Before implementing Dogme, getting my students to sit and listen to a story was almost impossible. In the photo to the left, the boy in the left-most corner would literally be spinning in circles less than a minute into my lesson. The boy next to him would soon after friend-tackle him to the ground. While doing graffiti, though, they were completely engrossed. I, too, was in awe.

The graffiti they made was used to create two more lessons, all directed by them. For pictures they drew  but didn’t know the words for, we used picture dictionaries or looked back to the story itself to define them. We then made our own flashcards to play games with. We also used their graffiti to re-tell the story from the book in their own words. We wrote a big 1 by what happened first, a 2 by what happened second, and so on. Students used their picture and word hints to remember and discuss what happened. In the end, they wrote down the story again in their own words.

Because we also have textbook pages to finish, my students have utilized the textbook themes as jumping off points for more conversation. Teaching Unplugged has an activity called “Wall-papers.” The purpose of the activity is to allow students to move around the classroom and express what they’re most interested in learning. While the original activity uses a newspaper, I’ve found that textbook pages work very well for my students.

Closing Credits

Me:“Open your textbook to page 117.”
Student: “Nooo! I want to do something real!”

Dogme is, of course, not the answer to all my classroom struggles. Some activities have worked and some have not. I am still learning how to set-up language chances and conversational opportunities for my students. I can unequivocally state, however, that Dogme has changed me and my students for the better. We are all more creative and engaged.

My attitude towards my students and my classroom has been changed, but that does not mean that I don’t worry about deadlines of finishing a project or textbook page. I am still continually refocusing myself on the process being more important than the product. Recently in a class, I had a plan to play Jenga while practicing some of my student’s vocabulary cards. I gave the directions–state what the item is on the card, write it on the whiteboard, and move a Jenga block. I got instant and fevered rejection. For thirty minutes, my students and I squabbled together about how the game should be played. Internally, I was shrieking about what a waste of time this was and how their reluctance was getting us behind. Then, I remembered that this is a perfect Dogme moment. This quarrel was active communication led entirely by my students. They were learning and experiencing more real language than any vocabulary game ever could.

I’ve noticed now that when I do not use Dogme in class, and instead just order my students to do their textbook, my students now complain. They realize that their textbook, even for all the lovely pictures, is just cold paper. Their individual feelings, opinions, and interests are not in the pages. My students now call Dogme activities “real activities.” For them, fill-in-the-blank worksheets and textbook chapters just are not real enough.



Kingsley, Patrick. “How the Dogme Manifesto Reinvented Denmark.” The Guardian, 25 Nov. 2012, www.theguardian.com/film/2012/nov/25/how-dogme-built-denmark.

Meddings, Luke, and Thornbury, Scott. Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. DELTA Publishing, 2017.

Von Trier, Lars and Vinterberg ,Thomas. “A Tribute to the Official Dogme95.” 13 May 1995, http://www.dogme95.dk/the-vow-of-chastity/.


Author’s biography: Jessie Takeda graduated from the MA TESOL program at The New School in 2012. She teaches elementary-aged children at MY English School in Yamagata, Japan. She also teaches courses at Yamagata Prefecture Health and Sciences University and Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University.


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