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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Six rather strange “English” things

Six "English keys", according to the Spanish

It has been awhile since I’ve done a language list. I’ve had this at the back of my mind this list for some time. My father, who teaches French cultural studies at the University of Toronto, often does an exercise at the beginning of his course where he asks students to make a list of all the expressions with French in them (e.g. French toast, French kiss etc) and uses that as a starting point for examining attitudes towards the French in the English language.

For us as English teachers, what does English give us? Here are six “English” things, taken from three different languages that I think are curious.

1 An English rose (from the English language) not the name of a flower, this is an expression used to describe an attractive English woman with “an appearance traditionally thought to be typical of English women”. What could THAT mean? It makes me think of a pale-skinned rather fragile kind of person (maybe a bit like Keira Knightley in Atonement?).

2 An English muffin (from North American English) This is a kind of round, toasted bread thing. A bit like a crumpet, but more doughy. I can’t really explain it. It’s good for breakfast. I have not heard the expression in British English.

3 An English rubber (from French “capote anglaise”) the French slang for a condom. Could also be translated as an English hood or bonnet. Now, what does THAT say about the English from the French point of view?

4 To disappear like the English – (from French “filer à l’anglaise”) a French expression meaning to run away or disappear discreetly without telling anyone. To slope off or sneak off I guess.

5 An English key ( from Spanish llave inglesa) – A wrench. I don’t see what is English about this piece of hardware but there you go.

6 An English letter – (from Spanish letra inglesa) A sort of handwriting, a bit like italics but in a thicker font.

Now, I’m really interested. I speak French and Spanish, but are there any expressions in other languages that contain the word “English” and refer to something that does not necessarily have anything to do with England? Please post a comment and share.

Published in: on May 4, 2010 at 8:58 am  Comments (59)  
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Jamie Keddie’s Six Top Youtube videos

This post, I’m joined by none other than Jamie Keddie. Jamie is the award-winning creator of We have coincided at many events, and I always bug him for a list of six youtube videos. Finally, he has delivered! And what a great multimedia list, complete with embedded videos and all. Enjoy!

Everyone knows that a couch potato is someone who watches too much TV. Well, I am a YouTube potato. My excuse is that I genuinely believe that YouTube is one of the best sources of material the English classroom has ever seen: Viral videos, notorious TV clips, comedy sketches, music videos, art projects, short films, science experiments … the list is endless. Here are 6 of my favourite clips:


1. Dean and the iPhone holder

OK, so this is certainly not the most interesting video to start with, I know. But the reason I like it so much is that it encapsulates the spirit of YouTube better than any other clip I can think of. First of all, we have this multinational corporation represented by the product of the decade – that is the iPhone. Then we have Dean, a likeable ordinary guy, showing us how to make an accessory for it out of a paperclip. This truly is a meeting of David and Goliath and that is often what YouTube is all about – a platform where the common man and the politicians, multinationals, television networks, and other traditionally established players meet in a democratic and unpredictable way. Luckily for Apple Inc., Dean’s viral video (i.e. a clip that becomes popular primarily through digital word of mouth) resulted in a good piece of free publicity for their product. But things don’t always go that way – just be glad I didn’t choose to start with the clip of the disgruntled Domino’s pizza employee putting bogies on the garlic bread! You’ll have to find that one yourself.

2. Panda sneeze


Ah that’s more like it – a cute animal clip. This is one of the most popular viral videos on YouTube in the ‘pets and animals’ category and I’d have to say that it is my all time favourite. In fact, I used this clip for the basis of my first ever lesson plan on TEFLclips – a ‘What happens next?’ activity. Of course, the problem with the clip now is that there will usually be someone in the class who has already seen it. For this reason, I will be posting an updated version on teflclips very soon.

3. Western spaghetti

When looking for ways of using a clip like this in the language classroom, it’s always worth considering how to exploit the visual narrative. One possibility here would be to write out the ‘plot’ in the form of a recipe. In fact this is the basis of a lesson plan on TEFLclips which makes use of this very video (see it here). ‘Western Spaghetti’ is art in the truest sense of the word and there is no shortage of creative individuals that are using video sharing sites to exhibit their work. As has already been mentioned, part of the attraction of YouTube and other social media is the fact that everyone is equal. So this slick clip by professional animator PES sits alongside DIY pieces such as Boogie Boogie Hedgehog. But is this latter clip art? Well, only time will tell.

4. Motrin advert

What a bombardment of the eyes and ears! This clip is representative of a fashionable advertising technique that has been born primarily through internet video culture. That is, while watching and listening to this clip, the viewer hears the words accompanied by sound effects and simultaneously, sees them in a whole array of diverse graphical representations and orientations. All of this can contribute to a strengthened learner comprehension of the text. This particular advert for a US brand of pain killers found itself on the receiving end of an online uproar from patronised ‘babywearers’ all over the blogosphere. The company was forced to withdraw the campaign and post an apology on its website. The whole story and lesson plan can be seen here

5. Obama’s Elf

What can I say? An ingenious clip that writes its own lesson plan. How many times have we had students upset that they can’t understand the words to songs in English? Perhaps the key to putting their minds at rest is to introduce them to the world of misheard lyrics, also known as mondegreens. See here for more ideas.

6. PS22 Chorus “Everybody’s Changing” by Keane

Despite all my enthusiasm for YouTube content, I passionately believe that its greatest potential is for teachers to film and upload learner-generated content. These children are singing from the heart and they are going to be able to watch themselves do so for the rest of their lives. Whether we are considering songs, presentations, stories, role plays or fictitious adverts or newsflashes, students can be filmed and the videos can be put online (of course, you will have to get permission from parents and/or students first). If students are happy with the outcomes, they might just revisit their clips from time to time and in doing so revise the language that that was recorded in conjunction with them. This, in turn, may inadvertently extend the learning beyond the classroom – always a good thing!


Jamie Keddie is a teacher and writer currently based in Berlin. He is the author Images, one of the latest titles in the Oxford University Press Resource Books series.

Published in: on May 29, 2009 at 10:19 am  Comments (2)  
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Six rumours and conspiracy theories in ELT

Who knows the deep dark secrets of ELT? Six Things Knows!

If you stay in the world of English language teaching long enough, especially if you move from job to job (all too common for many language teachers!), there is a strong likelihood you will come across certain rumours. Whispers in the staffroom, an overheard remark at a conference, or a moment in a teacher training course when the tutor drops his/her voice to let you in on a secret… here are six rumours or conspiracy theories I am convinced are making the rounds worldwide. I hasten to add that many of these may have an element of truth! At the end of each of these I have put my own reliabity factor based on my extensive experience in the field ;-). The reliability factors go from 5 (highly reliable and almost certainly true) to 1 (very unreliable rumour, almost certainly false) 

1. Anybody who has written a book in ELT, especially if it’s a coursebook, is rolling in money. This is a harmless little rumour which often has authors of said books uttering a hollow laugh (so as not to cry…). Not to say they are all broke, but the number of “filthy rich” authors of coursebooks and especially books for teachers is much lower than you think. Where does this rumour come from? See number 2 below for an idea. 

Reliability factor: 1

2. The authors of Headway own an island in the tropics. All the rumours about money from coursebooks lead right back to two main titles: either Headway by the Soars or Interchange by Jack Richards. These authors almost certainly are… well let’s just say well-off.  I’ve heard the island rumour about all of these authors. Is it true? Has anyone actually seen one of these islands? I don’t know. 

Reliability factor: 3

3. There is a “split-tongue” operation that Korean parents force their children to undergo so that they (the children) may speak English better.This is one of the more gruesome rumours in our field. Apparently the operation helps Korean children pronounce the “th” sound in “mother” for example. OK, I’ve never met one of these people but I have read and heard this rumour enough times to believe that there is more than a grain of truth to it.

Reliability factor: 5 (pretty scary)

4. The popularity of the English Language worldwide was a secret plan crafted by the British government after World War II to replace the English Empire with “the Empire of English”. This is great material for the conspiracy theorist inside every young liberal teacher because the more you think about it the more you can believe it is true. Want quotes and anecdotes from history to back it up? Just read Robert Phillipson’s Linguistic Imperialism and you will be convinced! Unfortunately, hegemony isn’t as simple and cut-and-dried as that. There are lots of factors accounting for the position of English.

Reliability factor: 3 

5. There are people who are spreading the Gospel and forms of Christianity through English language teaching. I overheard this one at a conference and then found out more on the web. Apparently, religious groups are using English as the bait to lure students into their schools. This practice has become so widespread that it has its own acronym in the profession: TEML (Teaching English as a Missionary Language). For any of you aspiring novelists out there, there is certainly a story in here somewhere (a “Da Vinci Code” for English grammar?)

Reliability factor: 5 (also pretty scary)

6. There have been experiments conducted on a language learner’s fluency under the influence of alcohol. This is a favourite among teacher trainers when doing sessions on things like “factors influencing fluency in spoken output”. Apparently it was found that after a few glasses of champagne, fluency increased without a decrease in accuracy. Accuracy dropped with further glasses of bubbly. 

Reliability factor: 4 (only doubtful thing is if it was champagne or another kind of alcohol; I’m pretty sure this is true though)

You are of course welcome to comment here on your own views of the reliability of these or any other conspiracy theories or rumours. However, I warn you, no libellious comments please! 

Published in: on May 21, 2009 at 2:17 pm  Comments (36)  
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Six things about teaching aviation English


In my business English teaching days, I used to think that it was pretty cool to be teaching in a motorcycle factory. Actually that was about as exciting as my ESP (English for Specific Purposes) lessons got. Nothing compared to Henry Emery, who teaches pilots and air-traffic controllers and is a co-author of the course Aviation English (Macmillan 2008). I caught up with him at the British Council Innovations Awards Ceremony this year…and asked him six things about it.

Since I began to specialise in language teaching for aviation personnel some years ago, I’ve found that it’s a very infectious area of ESP – once you’re in, it’s difficult to get out. I met Lindsay at the British Council ELTons awards ceremony earlier this month, and when he invited me to jot down six things about what I do, I asked myself ‘what do I enjoy so much about this field?’ The following is an attempt to explain. 

1. The students

Aviation personnel are a professional, bright and driven bunch. Take airline pilots. So many of the pilots I meet describe their work as their hobby – they would rather be at 36’000 feet than anywhere else. With the industry language proficiency requirements in place, pilots have just two years to reach an ‘operational’ level of English. Consequently, the motivation to maintain their license is extremely high. It is a pleasure to support such learners as they work towards these very concrete language learning goals.

2. Safety 

It is difficult to think of a domain of language use more safety critical than air -ground communication. When things go wrong on the flight deck, pilots and air traffic controllers have to get their messages to one another quickly and effectively – in these situations, there is no time to lose. As a teacher, you have to be constantly aware that every lesson you give may have a direct impact on flight safety. This is a good reality check as you trudge into the classroom for the last lesson of the week.

3. Radiotelephony

 The majority of air ground communication is conducted in standard radio-telephony phraseology, a specialised and very restricted code relating to routine aircraft movements and procedures. It’s pretty easy to learn – there are some very good CD ROMs available  (Try or click here) and you can listen to live radio communication on the net (see here, or this site or this site). However, teaching phraseology is not the job of language teachers – this is the domain of subject matter experts. Beyond getting familiar with the discourse, radiotelephony does present a unique set of parameters for the language teacher. It means taking extreme care with the way language is taught and practised in the classroom, and it means working closely with operational subject matter experts in delivering language lessons and courses.

 4. The subject matter

Aviation is not just air-ground communications – it is a huge field of ESP and there is simply so much to learn. Whether you are working with cabin crew, maintenance engineers, managers, ground staff or flight dispatchers, there’s always something new and you never get tired. Working with pilots and controllers, the subject matter can be very complex and technical, and this certainly requires quite a lot of effort on the part of the teacher. But learning more about the way the industry works improves your classroom performance and makes being an airline passenger so much more enjoyable too!

5. Teacher development

There are plenty of very exciting opportunities for teacher development in the aviation field. Consider, for example, watching a maintenance engineer disassemble a jet engine on a workbench in a hangar. Or watching a radar controller line up half a dozen heavy jets for landing. Or experiencing takeoff in the jump seat of a 737. Not your typical day at the office! Rolling your sleeves up and getting stuck into the aviation domain is the best way to whet your appetite for the classroom.

6. The challenge

English teaching for the aviation industry has been around for years, but the new language proficiency requirements for pilots and ATC have created a new climate for English language education and assessment. There is very little published teaching material available and very few quality language testing systems. Frankly speaking, the ELT and aviation industries do not know very much about ‘plain English’ for radio communications; there is not yet an established corpus, and there is much research to be done. For any teacher wishing to dive into an exciting and relatively unexplored area of language teaching, the aviation sector would be a very good place to start.

henry1About the author

Henry Emery is co-author of Macmillan Education’s Aviation English, an award-winning language course for pilots and ATC. He is also co-director of emery-roberts,  an aviation language training company working in partnership with Oxford Aviation Academy,  the world’s largest independent flight training organisation, providing specialist language teaching and testing programmes.

Click here  for information on the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Language Proficiency Requirements



Published in: on March 22, 2009 at 6:29 pm  Comments (5)  
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