Dogme, Lexis and Fiction

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged so it’s about time I did so again before I forget how. This time, a slightly different one once again. I’ve been meaning to start an occasional series of posts of my experiences as a language learner and relating these to wider teaching and learning issues, and so here’s number 1.

Some Background

I’m preparing for the DELE C2 Spanish exam and am in a class with two others, both of whom find themselves in the same exam boat (if you’re lucky, one day I might post a rant about the lack of validity of said exam, but I’ll save that for a rainy day..). The others are Ben and Dónal, both of whom are incredibly fluent and confident with their speaking, something which used to intimidate me somewhat. The class is taught by Fernando, who has been my teacher for 2 years.  The classes usually have an exam focus for about a third of the time and then, well, it’s quite difficult to describe in the remaining 80minutes. Ben has blogged about this class before.

There is usually a great deal of lexis floating around and I’d say that this would be what I take most from the class – chunks, new words, expressions. Given how lazy I can be as a language learner, this lexis is invaluable to me and the memorising of it very important, not just for the exam, but for my overall development as a speaker of Spanish.

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

A while back, I read one of Dale Coulter’s lesson skeletons on his blog, in which he described an activity in which the learners created a fictional story by adding one line to a text and then passing the pen to the next person. They continued this until it came to a natural end and then Dale analysed the emergent language with them. I then read the following comment from Scott Thornbury on this activity.

My tiny doubt: if the learners are taking turns to continue the text, whose ‘story’ is it? Presumably it becomes fiction after the first writer yields the pen. Does this matter?

This got me thinking. I consider myself very much a Dogmetist – though possibly not an absolute purist – and like to think I conduct my classes as much in this direction as teaching context and situation allow. Given that I would happily use an activity similar to Dale’s (I have blogged before a Mexican joke the learners came up with in class) I found myself asking if I am indeed a Dogmetist or whether I have misunderstood certain aspects of the approach (if it’s safe to use that word). Furthermore, as there have been various attempts to work on definitions of Dogme recently, I thought this might be of interest.

“Un Puerco Espín Con Un Pincel En Su Boca” O “Un Querubín Llora”

This all came back to me recently during a Spanish class in which Ben and I created a fictional story about a porcupine artist subject to persecution for his obvious artistic talent. Now, this is not an example of one of our personal stories, but was co-created and incredibly funny (for us, don’t ask Fernando..). This has made it all the more memorable for me and some of the vocabulary that came up seems to stick. I’m delighted I now know how to say “porcupine” and “paintbrush” in Spanish, two things that do not figure much in my daily life. Now, it must be said that this exercise was actually to recycle lexis that from previous classes, and that there was no focus on form. That said, there was the new lexis such as the aforementioned.

Another example from a recent class would be a segment in which Dónal, myself and Ben had to create new laws that should be introduced. I forget the characters now, but through a process of random selection I remember that Dónal was a Libertarian from Vanuatu. We then had to argue in favour of our laws, and against those of the others, from the point of view of these roles. This was another frankly ludicrous class that was thoroughly enjoyed by all and involved us “owning” the language in the room by being playful and creative with our ideas and indeed the language itself. I learned how to say “cherub”, the Spanish equivalent of “the straw that broke the camel’s back” and “labyrinth”. Again, this lexis is not likely to come up much if we were to exchange personal stories as there just aren’t that many labyrinths and cherubs in my life.

It’s Nothing Personal

So far, so good. So what’s this got to do with Dogme? Here’s a quotation from How to Teach Vocabulary, which goes as follows and is not discussing Unplugged Teaching:

“…the associative links in the second language lexicon are usually less well established than mother tongue links. To extend the metaphor: learning a second language is like moving to a new town – it takes time to establish connections and turn acquaintances into friends. And what is the difference between and acquaintance and a friend? Well, we may forget an acquaintance, but we can never forget a friend” (How To Teach Vocabulary p20)

If this is so, our job as teachers is surely to try and make lexis as memorable as possible to help strengthen the less well established L2 associative links. However, to do this as Dogme teachers, do we need to always and only work with learners’ personal stories in class or can we allow for more creative, fictional, texts to be used to focus on lexis, providing the learners a space to say what they want and supplying new lexis as a need arises?

To take it one stage further, what about other emergent language? The two examples from my Spanish class were not exploited into a focus on form, the first being a revision exercise and the second a fluency practice. However, would it have been ‘wrong’ in deep end Dogme to do so? Could these only be used as practices/revision, or not at all? Had I been the teacher, I certainly would have exploited these opportunities for a focus on form of some sort as the learners were really engaged in the exercises. Given how memorable the incidental lexis from these classes is for me, would other emergent language not be equally so? And would this not pass into the class ‘folklore’, as it has done with us, creating a class story that is equally as valuable as one of our personal stories – making it a “friend” rather than just a passing “acquaintance”? And would that be incompatible with Dogme? If so, it seems I may well be a Principled Eclecticist, but that’s a whole other debate…

7 thoughts on “Dogme, Lexis and Fiction

  1. Both those classes definitely stuck in my mind as well. When else will I ever be a Republican Eskimo ironically arguing for the segregation of the seal population? It may not have been about our lives, but the content of the lesson was definitely our own and a collaborative creation. Isn’t that the point in the end?

    1. Chris Ożóg

      ¿Y qué hace el hielo? Se derrite, como tu argumento… I will never forget Donal saying that as it made me laugh so much. It’s not that it’s personal, or even new, it’s just the phrasing and that’s now in my head as something akin to a chunk. The creativity involved in constructing the arguments, expressing what we wanted to say and Fernando supplying the necessary lexis or phrasing makes that lexis highly personal, I believe. It is, after all, much harder to forget something you came up with, as opposed to merely being told.

      ¡Que las clases sigan así, mae!

  2. Hi Ben,

    Nice post. I like how you include your own language learning experience into it as well.

    You’ve raised two points that have interested me in this post. Firstly, how far do you have to push students to get them to venture into the surrounding countryside, take a weekend trip or visit a neighbouring town? Is it OK for them to always hang around and get to know the neigbours? The skeleton you referenced (thanks, by the way) was one I’ve tried and developed mostly with teenage learners, who love the opportunity to use their creativity with story writing. Do they want to share personal details? Well, not really always. Do they want to write about an alien who became a taxi driver in New York and the problems he had? Well, My teenage students on Friday really did, and there was lots of lovely language emerging from their contexts. Just like the porcupine and paintbrush examples. Creativity, ownership, lots of language retention.

    Which brings me to my next thought. I am Dogme as long as it fits the dynamic and the needs of the class. When those needs change or what they respond to changes then my teaching, of course, becomes less like conventional Dogme. I guess I work under the guise of ‘what’s emergent is important to deal with’ and ‘what a student wants to express or wants to be able to do is the most important thing’ – these are my guiding forces. When it comes to YLs (12+) I’ve found many would much rather not share personal stories or information straight away. Cue the switch to another type of teacher.

    Perhaps you’ve not misunderstood elements of Dogme teaching but merely adapted them into your image and identity as a teacher…

    As an interesting addition, ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ in Italian is ‘la goccia (d’acqua) che ha fatto traboccare il vaso’

    thanks for the post,


    1. Chris Ożóg

      Hi Dale,

      Thanks for the comment. I have to say, I agree with all you say there, particularly as regards the teenagers, creativity and sharing personal stories. I’ve had so many really fun and successful classes with teens when they have to invent stories. There’s always language emerging and they enjoy it. They wouldn’t be so happy with being asked to talk about personal things because, well, they’re teens after all.

      I see no problem with this type of creativity and see the languaged as having been highly personalised and thus memorable, depsite its being fiction. After all, if I create a story, it’s mine and I’m unlikely to forget it. I wish I had more Spanish classes in which we could playa round like this. We did have to write Limericks in Spanish the other day and that, I can tell you, was both highly enteraining and challenging and I can still remember what I came up with. Very memorable.

      Assuming my translation of your Italian is correct, the expression is exactly the same in Spanish: “la gota que derramó el vaso”.

      And I liked the phrase “conventional Dogme”…



  3. Carol

    Great post! It was a pleasure to read and I’d have loved to listen to your porcupine artist story and hear your ideas for new laws. 🙂

    I just wanted to say that I’d see the language you produced as being personal. It may not have been factual but through it you expressed your personalities, creativity and sense of humour. You extended your vocabulary because you needed those words to say what you wanted to say and as you wrote, they are now particularly memorable. Sounds great to me!

    1. Chris Ożóg

      Hi Carol,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and for the positive feedback. I completely agree with you that the language is personal. As I said to Dale above, I see it as highly personalised as its something that I created and hence am unlikely to forget in a hurry. The new lexis came from a need to express something that I wanted to express in my story and I haven’t forgotten it yet. Whether that’s strict Dogme or not isn’t really the question, I suppose. It’s the fact that it worked and was enjoyed by all that counts.

  4. Angela Hulme

    I agree with Dale that the important thing is to go with the learners. I often find my students start off with something personal that then may veer off into the world of fantasy. Either way if it is something that comes from them and / or from emergent language then it becomes memorable for them. Recently a class of 4 intermediate Italian adult students explored the language around dating all because one of them came to class and announced that she’d missed the last class as she’d had a date. The emergent language that came up, mainly lexical chunks, then became part of the banter in following lessons, as every lesson the other students asked her how her romance was going! The banter and the relevance of the situation made the language memorable for them.

    I’m really glad you posted again as I’d been following your blog (enthusiastically!) but somehow had managed to lose the link and not been able to find you again! I’m going to post the blog to the facebook group I belong to, made up of colleagues from my Delta course and who are also big Dogme fans too.


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