Six ways of letting unplugged teaching through the coursebook door

This week I’m joined by a repeat offender here on Six Things. The wonderful English Raven himself, Jason Renshaw, has been experimenting with ideas on unplugged teaching and coursebooks. You can see much more of this work in progress at his blog. Here though he asked me if he could share six general tips for people wanting to unplug their teaching bit by bit. Over to you Jason!

Okay, so you work in a school where coursebooks rule. Welcome to a rather large club, to put it mildly! Whether or not you like using coursebooks or think they encompass the best overall approach for your learners, perhaps you’ve begun to wonder about the potential of having a bit more “unplugged” time in the classroom. As a teacher or program manager, I would encourage you to experiment with unplugged teaching, but also remember that it can be hard to get the coursebook to shift its bulky influence over your program. Here are what I consider to be six essential rules for facilitating unplugged teaching in a context where coursebooks have – up until now, at least – tended to dominate the program from head to foot.

1. Think about how you pitch “unplugged”
If you walk into the staffroom or school owner’s office and announce you want to do “Dogme” or even “unplugged teaching” or (heaven forbid!) “learner-centred and generated dialogic learning”, in many cases you should prepare for a lukewarm or baffled reception at best, and a reaction of complete incredulity at worst.
Consider using terms like “free speaking”, “conversation class”, or “integrated speaking and writing” – terms that management and other staff are more likely to recognise and be able to relate to (but still potentially facilitate something along the lines of unplugged teaching). These are also terms/concepts that are usually only very vaguely catered to in existing coursebooks, so you could well be proposing something that helps to fill a gap your school and teachers are already aware of.

Also, try not to make this look or sound like a personal quest to overthrow a coursebook regime (even if that is your underlying motivation!). Try to show you understand and respect the current way of doing things, and just want to expand and improve it.

Finally, it’s also a good idea to show some evidence before you propose major change. Record some unplugged lessons or sequences of lessons, and copy and present some evidence from learners’ notebooks. Don’t go in with an idea or notion. Go in with something you can show, explain, and rationalise (see also rule number 6 below).

2. The schedule: Double or nothing

First work out how many lessons are required to adequately cover the existing core coursebook content, then take that number and double it. At a basic level, this creates a syllabus and schedule where there is potentially as much time for unplugged teaching as there is coursebook teaching. If this results in an overly-long or impractical schedule overall, it might be worth seeing if some coursebook units can be skipped, done in “fast forward” mode, or allocated as homework.
Other options, of course, could be to make sure the coursebook is a slim(mer) one to start with, or to abolish things like extra workbooks.
The chances of your school accepting such proposals could have a lot to do with how well you pitched unplugged teaching as per rule 1 above, but also how well you present and follow through with the other rules below.

3. Create options, not specifications
Make sure the system and schedule allow for teachers to choose between unplugged and supplementary options.
If you have doubled the available schedule as per rule 1 above, essentially what you want is a situation where a teacher can choose to go with some unplugged teaching, or use pre-provided (or teacher made) supplementary materials more specifically aimed at the coursebook content, or – probably the most attractive and feasible option – use a combination of both.

Many coursebook series now have a wealth of extra materials and supplements for their units. If a teacher doesn’t want to pursue unplugged teaching in the extra lesson time available, they might like to use these supplementary materials instead. And it is very important that they are not made to feel inferior or somehow deficient by choosing to do so.
Like any major change in teaching approach, it is more likely to appeal and spread when shown gently and by example, and without being forced. If you want teachers to respect your right to teach unplugged outside the compulsory core of the coursebook curriculum, you’ll also have to respect their right to stick to that core curriculum.

4. Provide training
Teaching unplugged is not an easy endeavour for a lot of teachers. Make sure you provide good training that is rich in practical tips and demonstrated through actual examples. Let curious teachers observe your classes or look at the videos and materials that have been generated in your unplugged lessons. Request for your school to get a book like Thornbury and Meddings’ Teaching Unplugged, which presents unplugged teaching in both a practical way and through demonstrable theories about learning. Provide links to a spreading corpus of blog posts that demonstrate actual unplugged lessons.

But again: don’t force this training or exposure onto the teachers. Let them come to unplugged teaching as a result of curiosity and their own choice, and also accept that they may never want to come to it – and if so be careful not to hold (or look like you are holding) that against them.

5. Match unplugged learning to specific learning goals

Document or create some broad learning objectives that unplugged sessions can end up targeting. Official tests are a great one to use – especially the speaking and writing sections of such tests (as I demonstrated for business English classes preparing for TOEIC here). It’s actually really feasible to manoeuvre unplugged lessons toward a variety of test task formats – and not just for speaking and writing. They’re mostly like building plans, really, and it could just be a matter of finding ways to let students decorate and furnish them according to their own tastes and interests towards the end of an unplugged lesson sequence.
Things like the CEFR specifications (and others like it – for example the framework I have to address for migrants and refugees here in Australia) are even easier to lop onto the end of unplugged lessons in a coherent way. I have generally found that doing this goes beyond making unplugged teaching acceptable in a learning context: it can actually help rationalise it and make it feel very relevant to learners and school. Dare I say it… it can even help to make unplugged teaching very popular!
6. Ensure there is evidence of learning (and teaching)
Evidence is really important in ELT in so many of the contexts in which it takes place, and it would have to be one of the most powerful rationales for using coursebooks.

All of the major changes I have achieved within school systems (and learners’, teachers’ and managements’ minds) have come about through careful attention to providing practical and accessible evidence. Even when unplugged sessions go well and appear to be enjoyable and worthwhile at the time, I have seen the approach become unravelled because there is inadequate follow up.

It is a good idea to make sure there is something organised and on (web)paper to show for any unplugged teaching. Notes should be appearing in learners’ notebooks, and we should be showing interest in them and helping the learners make their notes coherent and useful.

Given the relative lack of lesson planning notes associated with an unplugged approach, we should be providing good post-lesson reports that document what was learned and why. Creating a blog (or series of printed handouts) for students, summarizing activities, emergent language work, etc. can be a great way to rationalise and extend what you are doing in your unplugged lessons.

And of course, once your learners hit a certain level and familiarity with unplugged teaching, they could be generating most all of this evidence themselves. Just bear in mind that many contexts still want to see indications that a teacher is ‘working’ and ‘doing’ things, so you should be willing to provide the relevant follow ups that demonstrate this.

Published in: on November 11, 2010 at 9:18 am  Comments (7)  
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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] battery: Six ways of letting unplugged teaching through the coursebook door – Lindsay Clandfield is joined by Jason Renshaw for a bit more dogme […]

  2. A truly great post; I hope this reaches a wide readership. I particularly hope people take note of point six.

  3. Oh dear, Lindsay… Do I go down with a dubious place in Six Things History as the only guest post writer not to get a single comment, question or challenge?



    • LOL. Don’t worry about it – I think that perhaps there’s been rather a lot of Dogme around the blogosphere recently. Nothing to do with your post I’m sure, just a bit of topic fatigue in general?

  4. Hello Jason and Lindsay,

    Interesting piece. I particularly like point no.6. There is a lot of “unplugged” in my teaching and I tend to use the prescribed coursebook to supplement it, when I can. Other times I have to use the book (the students have bought it, after all) but a lot of this is as homework. That said, I don’t print out notes or have a blog for students to keep an official record of what’s been achieved in class. I think that’s a really good idea, however, as it would certainly provide a rationale for what we’re doing and help to convince any sceptics that there’s some actual learning going on.

    Where I work we’re about to start experimenting with Moodle and I think this could be a great way to keep these lesson records. I don’t want to start typing up records of lessons to printed out and handed out to the students, so I see this as a good way to circumvent that drawback but still provide that extra bit of (post-lesson) “structure”. Thanks for the idea!

    One other thing. When you say “Provide links to a spreading corpus of blog posts that demonstrate actual unplugged lessons”, which blogs do you have in mind? I enjoy reading about Dogme and follow a few blogs on the topic (most recently the debate on Harmer’s blog and the Dogme blog challenge, which has been an excellent source of reading), but can’t really think of any that demonstrate actual unplugged lessons; rather, they’re usually more theoretical. Though your most recent post, among others, on your blog fits the bill (and I must say I do a very similar activity which never fails me either…). Any other tips would be much appreciated.


  5. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your comments and questions here.

    Moodle will indeed be an interesting thing for you to try out, and can certainly cater well to the notion of ongoing class notes.

    You’re right in pointing out that most of what has been blogged about unplugged teaching has been more on the theoretical side of things, or unplugged teachers offering up impressions and thoughts rather than practical examples.

    Karenne Sylvester and Nick Jaworski’s blogs have some good practical examples of unplugged teaching (if you’re willing to dig and use the ‘search’ function), and my own ongoing archive of posts about unplugged teaching has a lot of examples as well:

    In fact, just today I uploaded a post with 40 minutes or so of video, of me in a classroom with beginner level students, using what I might call a fairly basic unplugged approach:

    Can anyone else recommend specific links for Chris, of posts that demonstrate unplugged teaching (rather than just theorising or arguing about it? 🙂


    – Jason

    • Hi Jason,

      I forgot to reply and say thanks for the tips and the links to your site. I watched those with interest and saw a lot of my own style of teaching there. I enjoyed them a lot and have recommended them to some people in our school who make 300 photocopies a week.

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