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/)