Emergent Language and Your Learners

Rant alert.

It has been some time now since I finished my DipTESOL and since I was a guest TEFLologist. This post is about Dogme, dogmatism and possibly dogged determination and the sheer bloody-mindedness involved. My tutors on the Diploma advised me against Dogme because they knew it would be very difficult to meet the assessment criteria. This post is in no way intended to be a criticism of them.

I failed a Dogme lesson in my DipTESOL teaching practice. I had been forewarned that Dogme lessons would be difficult to meet the assessment criteria with. I believe, from my experience as a language teacher and a language learner that emergent language (Meddings & Thornbury (2009, Part A, 3), that is scaffolded language based on direct need as opposed to arbitrary grammar or lexical sets based on level of complexity and (possibly blind) estimation of being ready. Having more lessons to teach than most of my tutor group, I decided I could risk it. I went in to the lesson, focussed on learner-centredness, and a ton of paper to take notes of learners’ problematic utterances.

There was discussion, there was error treatment, there was a bit of tidying up of learner language with some drills where needed.

The lesson didn’t pass. Reading between the lines, ‘Lack of language focus’ means ‘Don’t just scaffold several things seen to need work; pick one or two to focus on and then we can tick the box.’ Even with a Task-Based lesson as my externally assessed lesson, using emergent language caused a lower grading than might have been attained with a preselected grammar point. (Aside: I had predicted high numbers to be problematic and did a bit of a focus on that.) The problem that arises here is that emergent language for only a couple (or at best, a few) is looked at in depth. Better than an arbitrary choice of a grammar structure but why not look at more in less depth, assigning further investigation as homework? Those who need the assistance will surely notice correction and further examples.

Regular readers will know that I’m no fan of teaching grammar points  (or Grammar McNuggets [Thornbury, 2010]). When I gave my presentation on the lack of application of SLA in Eikaiwa (language schools) and ALT industries in Japan, I had a really pertinent question. “How can you teach language based on emergent language?”

You can group your learners, set them differentiated tasks, after giving language input based on your notes of learner language. This is not something I did in my DipTESOL teaching practice but it is something I have done in my university classroom. It doesn’t have to be grammar; it could be vocabulary or even discourse-level work.

Be aware, though, that some learners do not see the value in using what they have said. They expect a grammar point, whether that is good for them or not. In that case, I suppose you can only make the best of things and give your students what they want. I would say, in a probably overly patrician way, that you might want to sneak in something they need, much like hiding peas and carrots in the mashed potatoes.

I think the big problem in using emergent language in your teaching is that it can’t be planned as such. It can be estimated and you’ll be right or wrong, or it can be saved for the next lesson but at that point it may not be as fresh in your learners’ minds and then less readily brought into their interlanguage, as defined by Selinker (1972, in Selinker, 1988). It means being ready to be reactive. It might not be the best way to get boxes ticked in an assessment.


Meddings, L & Thornbury, T (2009) Teaching Unplugged. Peaslake: Delta.

Selinker, L (1988) Papers in Interlanguage, Occasional Papers No. 44 (http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED321549)

TEFLology (2015) Episode 35: Dogme on the Diploma, Dave Willis and the Lingua Walkout  (http://teflology-podcast.com/2015/11/25/episode-35-dogme-on-the-diploma-dave-willis-and-the-lingua-walkout/)

Thornbury, S (2010) G is for Grammar McNuggets (https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/g-is-for-grammar-mcnuggets/)

11 thoughts on “Emergent Language and Your Learners

  1. Great post, Marc. My humble piece of advice would be: don’t teach Dogme when you are being observed, unless the observer is a keen Dogmetist herself/himself. 🙂 As you imply, observation is normally about measurable, tickable criteria. But as I see it, the outcomes of a Dogme lesson can be measured at some point in the future but definitely not at the end of one lesson; Dogme is more about the process than the product. I just remembered I was once risked doing a Dogme-ish activity during peer observation only to find out later on that my colleague had seen no point in what I was doing. Somewhere amidst the activity, she took a note: what’s the aim of this? Well, I myself wasn’t sure where I was headed with the activity (read: I had no definite language points in mind). Still, it was beneficial in the end because lots of speaking had emerged and thus lots of language points had been practised/learned.

    Thanks for some food for thought!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Marc

    Agree with Hana – great post. I would say that perhaps being on a training course involves meeting a set of criteria (you can read this as ‘ticking boxes’) and the bigger/more well-known the course is, the stricter the set of the criteria, and the less flexible a trainee and a tutor can become. Sadly, this affects the students and their learning – too often, many boxes are there, but student-learning-centeredness suffers. Great that your bosses are more open-minded!

    On another note – have just noticed your tagline on this blog: “For you, then your learners’. Love it so much! Thank you for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Zhenya,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree, and I think that perhaps Dogme/TBLT and use or emergent language could be looked at in a more meaningful way in a short course. The advantage of this would be that it could be targeted to trainee needs. The disadvantage would be that most teachers would not be keen to pay for an unaccredited course. It’s interesting. Thanks for making me think more.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, quite a different look at teacher training: a Dogme-kind of training to cater for the teachers’ needs, so that they were able to do the same for their students… Would love to run such a course! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been using Dogme with one of my beginners. What I do is have a little chat with her and then something comes up that she can’t quite say. I’ll give it to her, then write a short dialogue which we practice. Then I’ll “chunk” it into a Q&A and try and get some freer practice out of it. To be honest, she doesn’t usually just recall it the following week so I need to try and build it into the lesson materials. In more advanced classes, where students are more advanced in their study methods it does work a bit better, but it seems more of an “A-HA” moment for me than them, and they still usually need to repeat it.

    For the record, I was told that a few people have manged distinctions or near-distinctions with Dogme classes, so it would be interesting to know how it went down. I’d like to hear about how you did it as well, what was the emerging point you chose and where did you go with it?


    1. Kawakawa,

      Thanks for the comment. You’re right to be concerned about recycling. I think it is necessary. I wouldn’t worry about creating imaginary dialogues. Keep talking about what you and she want to talk about. Through communicative need, learning will happen, I feel.

      I am interested in those distinctions. I didn’t focus on just one or two points of emergent language but a few. It was “unfocused”.

      Thanks so much.


      1. No the dialogues work pretty well! I can put the emergent language into a realistic content. With the higher level classes I make a question out of the emerging language and then practise it that way. One thing that annoys me about Dogme actually is there is a lot of talk about it but not a lot of practical activities with it that can be easily found. What do you do with the language after it emerges?

        I’d say then with your assessment that there were clear reasons for it to fail – and I mean that under the criteria of course! Perhaps a Dogme class that would pass would be focused to one point, that related sensibly to the last class and had a clear phonological goal etc etc.

        Not that it matters that much in the end of course, I observed a fail class and got a near-fail myself and both were for not getting to the “final communicative activity” in time. In both, there was lots and lots of meaningful communication but if you dont hit that peak you chance a fail!!


      2. Hiya Secret ALT,

        The activities thing is a bit of a bugbear. There are a lot in Teaching Unplugged to get on with.

        I also like to use expansion from learner input. “Can you give more details?” “What can you say to follow this up?” There are also opportunities for learners to see an utterance and try to remember it as you erase bits (usually names and strong verbs first).

        I’m looking into developing some free materials to use when exploiting emergent language so watch this space. In the meantime, Anthony Ash has these ideas for exploring language that also lend themselves to error treatment: http://eltblog.net/2015/10/16/5-ideas-for-learner-language/

        Thanks again.


  4. Yeap! Observed lessons vs. Real lessons. Well at least you gave it a shot! Good on ya. I have buried a post about how I really feel about observations but I am sooo tempted now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers Joanna. It is a bit of an odd situation because the learners do not pay so the only thing they lose from a poor lesson is probably time. There are tutors and other trainees around, too, which would never happen in a ‘real’ lesson.

      You should definitely dig out that post. I’d love to read it.


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