Light Coke and Learning? – Dogme Challenge #4


“Dogme is about teaching materials light”


That was the quote for Karenne Sylvester’s Dogme Challenge #4. And I wondered how I could respond to that…


A light drink... helps me with a (hopefully) light analogy



So I decided to bring it to something that’s close to me… coke. My beverage of choice, the one I am addicted to is light (actually zero) coke. So, as I try to draw the analogy, what is light coke, how is it different from regular coke? Well, one of the reasons why people might drink light coke is because they may get the same taste without the calories. The calories from a can of coke are empty calories – they give you nothing but themselves, no nutrition whatsoever. So, with that in mind, could we say that going materials light is teaching the same content – trying to help the students reach the intended learning – without burying them in empty activities? What would these empty activities be? Empty of what? Of teaching capability? I don’t think so, after all I learned English through those pseudo-empty activities of drilling and fill-in-the-blanks grammar. They must work, because I dare say I’ve learned ;-). No… I think the word ‘d use here would not be empty but rather lacking – lacking relevance. Relevance to the students. Let me expand that thought…


The world we live in today has changed greatly and in many ways. But regarding learning, the most meaningful of those changes has to do with information, the way it is produced and distributed. Information is available everywhere and it’s ever changing, dynamic. Access to it today is more democratic than we could’ve ever had imagined 20 years ago. And the ways it is presented are incredible: videos, interactive applications, podcasts, instant exchanges…. and the list grows longer (and more imaginative) each day – it’s hard to keep up! Our students of today use that information, access it, interact with it…learn from it. So can we (should we?) comform to our old ways? Taking to class materials that aim at interesting all kinds of students – the “one-size-fits-all“? What is interesting and relevant to a student may not have the same relevance to the one sitting beside him. With the advent of technology and the broadening of sources of information we have also become more diverse in a sense – with more to choose from it’s easier to do that.


David Ausubel says that significant learning takes place when new information is acquired through by the learner’s deliberate effort to connect the new information with concepts or relevant propositions preexistent in his cognitive structure. (Ausubel et al., 1978). For Ausubel, the main issue in the learning process is for it to be meaningful, that what is intended to be learned by the student needs to make sense to him. And this happens when the new information is anchored in the relevant concepts the student already has in his cognitive structure. When we can’t connect what is being taught to something familiar to the student what takes place is the “rote learning” – or mechanical learning. In other words, the student has to relate to what we are teaching, to what we use to teach the language, or else we won’t really achieve true learning. Learning in which the student will not only repeat language structures that have been “fed” to him, but rather assimilate them and use them in the contexts he’ll find himself in.


And how does all of this relate to teaching materials light? As I see it, materials light means not relying and basing our whole lesson on what has been done, on activities we have used, preexisting models. It means going to class with ears, eyes and mind open to see the students’ needs and interests. To use that as a mean of presenting and working with the target language. Am I saying we should forget all the activities we’ve developed, the coursebooks we’ve been using? Not at all! We can’t turn our backs to them. But we have to be willing to adapt and change them, to take what is there and shape it in a way as to come closer to the learners’ relevant concepts. If the world we live in today is marked by dynamism, so should our teaching.


And on a final note… As with everything else, too much of anything is bad for you. Too much light coke will load your body with an excess of chemicals. Balance and good sense are always the key. 🙂


Other Posts on dogme Challenge #4:

17 comments on “Light Coke and Learning? – Dogme Challenge #4

  1. Dear Cecília,
    I’ve discovered you in Twitter via people I follow and loved your guest post at Ken Wilson’s blog. I’ve always felt marking all my students’ mistakes was not helping them much . I’m all for content feedback too.

    • Hi Ana Maria!

      I’m glad you enjoyed my post on Ken’s blog, I really liked writing it 🙂 And it gave me the opportunity to see there are so many of us who favor content feedback! And I hope to have given an insight of it to the ones who don’t. Look forward to increased sharing with you! 🙂

  2. DaveDodgson says:

    So you went with the ‘light’ angle then? Good choice and well worth the wait!

    I think you raise an interesting point though with reference to how you learned in the ‘old’ way. I have discussed the same with my Turkish colleagues at my school. They were all taught through teacher-fronted lesson heavily reliant on drills, repitition and gap-fill grammar book exercises and yet they reached a native-speaker level of fluency. Something must have worked for them!

    However, I also suspect their were many people not quite as lucky as you and my colleagues, who felt lost, detached and demotivated by such lessons and gave up on English as soon as they left school (like I did with French!). I believe the reason we should be more student-centred and not so reliant on pre-planned materials and ‘traditional’ activities is so that we can maximise the learning potential of all our students in the limited time we have with them. Materials light it may be but it’s also potential heavy!

    • Hey Dave!

      Light angle it is… (and even as I write you this I have today’s first can of it on my hands!!!). I’m really glad you took notice of that point of my post, I was afraid I had been too “light” on my mention of it. I am always afraid of how it is too easy to completely deny all that came before when new methods and approaches emerge. But of course something must have worked, or we wouldn’t be here having this conversation! And I dare say that I think I still favor a more grammar based approach when I am learning a new language – when I was studying French I was always very anxious about communicative activities. I felt I couldn’t really communicate without better knowledge of structure. And I think it was Gavin Dudeney who recently raised this issue on the dogme discussion on Jeremy Harmer’s blog, by saying he favored a more grammar translation approach. But, I admit that as a teacher, what I see is students getting more benefit from teaching that is both student-centered and focusing on communication. Maybe it’s something to do with the amount of English and English references they’re exposed to. And materials-light, student-centered lessons are so much more fun to teach! 🙂 Thanks for your comments!

      • sabridv says:

        Hi Cecilia and David! I agree we shouldn’t disregard everything that has preceded a new theory that is fashionable at the moment. I believe that we should take the best out of every theory and idea that is around us and mix and use when needed. Always having our learners, who can know what’s needed better than us…
        Nice post Cecilia! Looking forward to your asynchronous conversation! =)

      • hi Sabrina!

        This is something that comes up every once in a while (on Jeremy Harmer’s much commented Dogme post’s comments, on a recent #eltchat, etc) and that I feel strongly about, because I am always very wary of extremist views. I have actually proposed that as a topic for this week’s #eltchat 😉 I hope it gets to be the topic at the time I can participate! But you’re right….knowing what’s come before, acknowledging what’s good in each of them and knowing how to use it for the students’ benefit is what we should all do… Thanks for your comments Sabrina!

        BTW I’m looking forward to the asynchronous convo too… Let’s see how that works. 😉

  3. David Warr says:

    Hi Cecilia, nice post, good analogy. The book with the cultural questions was Activate your English. It’s a nice book and you can look inside on Amazon. Also, I was reading your comments to DavidD about culture. There is a very good book called Linguisitc Imperialism which talks about how cultures are homogenised through the teaching of English.

    • hi David,

      Thanks for the book suggestions – am going to try and find them around here (very poor ELT books market here). I’m happy you liked the analogy – I have come to notice I am quite fond of analogies…maybe a bit excessively 😉


  4. bcnpaul1 says:

    Hi cecilia, this is a great post! I like the reference to David Ausubel and his ideas on acquiring language. It’s so important to engage students in activities that are meaningful and relevant to their lives, otherwise they’ll become bored and the language you want them to learn won’t stick, or the communication will be flat and tasks undertaken without enthusiasm. I also like that you’ve included a mention on coursebooks. They can sometimes be great if the material is interesting and there’s something for students to relate to. My issue with coursebooks is that they are so familiar to students that, however good the material, it won’t make an activity memorable. I’m thinking of texts that are interesting in the book that can be brought to life in so many different ways – running dictations for the first paragraph, images that represent parts of the text given to the students so they can try to construct the text before they read it, etc. etc. I remember almost nothing about my language education except for when we were asked to choose our own reading material and then write a review. What made that particular activity memorable was that I had been given the choice, so could relate my learning to my own life and interests.
    Anyway, great post and great analogy

    • Hi Paul,

      I’ve come to think of coursebooks as the raw material we have to mold and shape in order to make them adequate to each different group we have. Maybe they’ve been painted as inappropriate (especially recently) because we expect them to work just the way they are, with whichever group we’re teaching, wherever in the world we teach. We all know that can’t happen. Even when we don’t use coursebooks we never teach the same thing the same way to every group. The adjustments we make are what make learning effective and meaningful – wouldn’t you agree? So I think it’s unfair to expect different from CBs… And yes, giving the students choices at times! It makes it even more meaningful. Thanks for raising that point and elaborating on it Paul! 🙂

  5. Shelly says:


    I swear we must be kindred spirits! We like many of the same things including Coke 0. It’s how I survived my CELTA 🙂 I agree that a materials light activity can be quite meaningful. Students are forced to draw from their own experiences and make connections. This helps them with memory and connecting the language to the real world.

    • Dearest Shelly,

      It has come to my attention that we do like many things – one of the many reasons I can’t wait for the day we meet face to face ;-)! It’s how I survive every single day… So I guess we’ll have to share (each with her own, of course… metaphorically share ;-)) a coke 0 some time.

      As for materials light activities, I agree with what you said and would add that besides eveything we’ve already said and established as benefits for materials light activities, their most important feature (IMHO) is that it’s student centered, it should lead to little TTT and maximizing STT, authentic exchanges. Those are great things!

  6. Rick says:

    Howdy Light Coke girl!

    Phew! I’ve had so many things to do last week that I couldn’t even reply to the fourth challenge. But at least this means I have loads of great posts to read. 🙂

    I liked the analogy with the Light Coke, and I liked even more the warning about the chemicals. There are just so many chemicals involved in its production that we have always to remind ourselves that too much of it might end up being even more harmful than the regular one. I guess the same is true of teaching. We can’t rely on one single method as being the best, or the final answer to our ultimate quest of teaching language.

    Depending on what you believe in, learning has got to be meaningful and personal in order to be effective. I guess most of us have already been victims to rote learning, but it’s also worked for lots of people, huh?! Simply not looking back is definitely not the way to go.

    The idea of light teaching, to me, means being able to do exactly what you said: identifying interests, building on existing connections, truly listening to learners. It’s worrying a lot more about learning than worrying about teaching.

    Mixing up light coke with some juice, water, and regular coke can be healthy. 🙂


    • Hello there Rick!!

      Since you liked the Light Coke analogy, I’ll make another one, especially for you. 😉 After I read your comment, I wondered if, just as with the “light x regular coke and which is more harmful” dillemma, the “relying on a single method” being harmful isn’t inevitable for some teachers. Am I making sense? See, despite my knowing that zero Coke is actually the most potentially harmful of all sodas, I can give it up. I dread going to my nutricionist or the endocrinologist one day and hearing that I have to stop drinking zero coke. So you can pretty much say I am well aware of all the evil of it, the benefits switching to natural fresh juice or coconut water would bring. And it’s still that black can I have beside me right now. Would you think it impossible that there are some teachers who choose one method, one approach to teaching a coursebook to follow blindly and never sticks to it no matter what? I’m not sure I have a formed opinion yet… just sothing that occured to me.

      I may not give up my zero coke, but when it comes to teaching I’m all for being light and mixing and matching, experimenting and changing 😉


  7. Good point, re the zero analogy! Would you believe that I wrote a post similar to this one on light/zero a long time ago 🙂 great minds think alike!!

    But going to your discussion with Rick, you know, really Cecilia Diet/Zero/Light coke is not just bad for you it’s poison!!! Stop immediately!!!


    • Hi Karenne,

      Thanks for refering me to your coke analogy – really enjoyed it, and especially agree with it! In the end it’s all about the students, isn’t it?

      And on the issue of Diet/Light/Zero coke being poison…well, I am fully aware of the potential harm in it. But regular coke is not an option for me (too much sugar, I don’t take it well, process it in some weird way and start shaking 🙂 so I’ll stick to it. maybe I could have less of it, but to be really honest, don’t want to 😉 So I guess I’ll put it right beside another horrible, harmful habit I have (smoking) and on the list of things I should try to quit – one day! thanks for your comment! 🙂

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