Reflection: Steps towards materials-light teaching

Me, Matt and Tiago chatted about lots of topics at the first Bangkok ELT Books n’ Beer session last night. Great fun!
The topic of materials-light teaching and dealing with emergent needs came up. Tiago is on a Celta to Delta journey at the moment and mentioned how he would like to try out techniques like Dogme ELT, although there are those fears…

What if I’m not skilled enough to elicit content from learners or prompt interaction?
What if I miss those triggers from the learners that should guide the lesson?
What if the whole thing just falls on its head?

Not Tiago’s words, just what I think we were getting at. We talked about how Dogme ELT must require so much teacher skill and experience, and that got me thinking:

How did I develop the confidence to do things like…

  • deal with having only a loose idea of where things might lead?
  • go with the flow?
  • let the learners lead?
  • enter class without books or handouts?!

I really lacked confidence in my early years of teaching. The thought of not planning a lesson using a certain framework (down to the minute, CELTA style!) or not having materials to hide behind really panicked me. I observed colleagues teach materials-light, letting their learners be the guide, and I was in awe of their ability to react to the learners emerging needs. It was inspiring but also daunting, and I never felt I’d achieve that. I didn’t feel ready to throw myself in at the deep end, but I felt I needed to give up some of my control of the proceedings.

My early attempts to bring less physical materials with me to class resulted in lessons like this…

Context: UK language school, group of A2 Italian teens over for two weeks for culture/language learning trip. 99.9% chance that they will end up congregating in the MacDonald’s at Eastbourne Arndale Centre.

Step 1: Draw an image of a MacDonald’s worker serving a customer. Label the people A and B. Elicit context.

Step 2: Students role play a dialogue between staff and customer in pairs (they make it up off the cuff)

Step 3: Elicit the possible dialogue from class and board it. Run with their suggestions, so you end up with a dialogue that’s like:

A: Hello

B: Hi

A: I want a hamburger

B: Ok

A: Thanks

B: 59p please


Students then perform that dialogue together.

Step 4: Suggest and upgrade, like…

‘This bit where A says ‘I want a hamburger’. Do you think it’s ok to use ‘I want’?

Upgrade/add different parts of the dialogue gradually, learners keep performing it maybe with different pairs.

Step 5: Full dialogue on board, normally a bit over-egged to be fair…

A: Hello, welcome to MacDonald’s. Can I take your order?

B: Hi. Can I have ________ please?


Scribble a mock menu on the board if needed, but otherwise learners can make it up. Learners practice.

Step 6: Dialogue lines, disappearing dialogue type thing.

Step 7: When no dialogue on board, learners practice without support. Board some ideas for other content they can add in for their partner to respond to (adding sauces, price is wrong, tray not clean, whatever).

Step 8: Some sort of review.

I feel now that this approach was an important stage of my development as a teacher. These type of lessons generally went down well with the learners, they were useful for their immediate context, and they began by giving learners some ownership of the activity.

For me as a developing teacher, I think they really helped develop some of my core skills, but they did so perhaps within a comfort zone…

  • rather than interaction, the focus was transactional language. The transactional context was familiar to the learners. They usually had some prior knowledge so there was less fear that things wouldn’t work!
  • I could predict quite a bit of the language to upgrade beforehand, so there was a feeling of responding to emerging needs but there was a sense of knowing what these might be…
  • I said there were no materials brought into class, but there was still a clear idea of how things would develop.

This approach was my stepping stone towards lots of things:

  • becoming a more responsive teacher
  • not feeling shackled by teaching resources
  • building routines that I could call upon to adapt coursebook materials when needed
  • recognizing the importance of functional language (which would become a big part of my Diploma journey)

I guess my take home point from this reflection is that moving towards materials-light or more learner-driven classes wasn’t an all-or-nothing thing for me. Those skilled teachers I’d observe, especially the Dogme ELT-style ones like Martin Sketchley, probably released the shackles gradually too!

Image by skeeze from Pixabay 

Categories: General, reflections

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6 replies

  1. “The thought of not planning a lesson using a certain framework (down to the minute, CELTA style!) or not having materials to hide behind really panicked me.”

    Been there!

    To a fair degree, I still feel disarmed without a plan – though not such a detailed one (although I can ‘wing it’ more easily when necessary, I don’t like to).

    But do you remember / have you ever seen this gem?

    “Lessons from Nothing: Activities For Language Teaching With Limited Time And Resources”by Bruce Marsland?

    A colleague showed it to me about 20 years ago and it really made a difference.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Cheers for commenting. And yeah, I’m still much calmer with a plan!
      Lessons from nothing, yes! There’s been a copy around in a couple of the staffrooms I’ve worked in. I tried a few things out, definitely one to revisit. Thanks for the reminder.
      Have you ever used ‘Being Creative’ (Chaz Pugliese). That one really made me realize the power of personalization. Some awesome ideas in there that can lead in many directions!

      Liked by 1 person

      • “Have you ever used ‘Being Creative’ (Chaz Pugliese). ”

        Ah, no, don’t know that one actually – Pugliese, yes, he’s been around for a while now, but not that title.

        Sounds interesting – will have to take a gander, cheers.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences and perspective! I’m sure many other teachers will appreciate it, especially if they’re thinking about dipping in dogme ELT, diving right in, or already in the process of ‘teaching unplugged’. Speaking of which, I’m really looking forward to doing a course on Dogme ELT with Scott Thornbury next month! 😀

    For anyone looking to get into Dogme ELT, there are also some good starting points from the British Council (as I’m sure you know):

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I also felt could really relate to your post as I moved from CELTA-style full and detailed lesson planning to TBLT, then more loosely based lessons and occasionally more of a dogme ELT approach.

    For me, choices of approach, method, and materials are still largely determined by students’ needs, interests, abilities, expectations, context, and language learning history. Generally, however, I still prefer to have a plan (usually incorporating TBLT), then the decision to go dogme to a degree during certain parts of a lesson largely depends on the rapport, understanding, and trust between us.

    Liked by 1 person


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