What Is Teaching Unplugged And How Do I Do It?

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There is more than one way to skin a cat.

While we’re not sure if this saying is actually true when it comes to cats, we do know that it’s true when it comes to teaching English as a Foreign Language. Over the years, we have developed a number of approaches and methods to teach English which are realized practically in a range of teaching techniques. Some of them are pretty straightforward – the Lexical Approach, for example – while others are a bit more off-the-wall, such as Suggestopedia.

Read more: Some Alternative EFL Methods and Approaches You Should Know About

One approach has been dubbed Teaching Unplugged.

If you have done a TEFL course and have got a bit of experience in the TEFL classroom, you’ve probably been teaching using the Communicative Language Teaching approach. If that’s the case, and you’ve been utilizing the Presentation, Practice, and Production lesson planning method, then you might be interested in changing things up a bit in your classroom and giving Teaching Unplugged a go.

Read more: PPP in the EFL Classroom

What is Teaching Unplugged?

Teaching Unplugged is a fairly new movement in the EFL field which supports teaching without materials. Paperless lessons, so to speak. If you can imagine a lesson without coursebooks or photocopies, then you’ve got the right idea.

If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like Dogme, then you’re right. They are essentially two terms for the same approach, developed by our friend Scott Thornbury.

Basically, Teaching Unplugged means teaching without preparation in the traditional sense of the word. Instead of spending time preparing before your lesson, your students are the catalyst for your lessons. What happens within the lesson depends entirely on your students. Essentially, you need to think on your feet during the lesson. If like most teachers, you have focused a lot of your training on lesson preparation, this can be difficult to get your head around.

All you need to take with you into a Teaching Unplugged classroom is yourself, a whiteboard marker, and an open mind. You don’t even decide on the topic. Rather, you let your students decide where the lesson takes you. This is usually topic-based because students can come up with topics to discuss relatively easily. However, it’s also possible to let them decide on a language point they would like to work on.

How do I incorporate Teaching Unplugged into my lessons?

It’s all well and good saying you don’t need to prepare anything, but you do need to prepare something – yourself! Before each lesson, consider the class and their strengths and weaknesses. Think about their level and what language points may come up no matter what the topic. Also, take into account what has recently been done in your lessons and so what might work as revision.

Then, walk into the classroom and start talking. It can be on anything and if the students change the topic and talk about something completely unrelated, run with it. In these lessons, the topic does not matter. There does not need to be a link between all parts of your lesson, though invariably you will find there is.

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So where does the teaching come in?

To incorporate language, you will need to be able to assess what they are saying and input better ways of saying it. In other words, as they speak you will need to process their language. At the same time, you need to draw attention to their mistakes and give them ideas on improvements. This is where your whiteboard comes in. Use your board to take notes on and write explanations for language items.

For example, if you ask your students what they ate for dinner the night before, one student might say:

I went to new restaurant. I never go there before. It was very expensive.

Just from that conversation alone, you can see that there are a few teachable moments here. You could choose to focus on using articles, or the present perfect, or even money idioms. You would introduce this target language and elicit or give the rules and example sentences and allow your students time to work on a practice activity. This could be coming up with sentences that fit into certain scenarios or even doing a speaking activity that would require them to use the target language.

Once that has been covered adequately – which may take the whole lesson if you want it to – you start a new conversation topic and do it all again.

Come up with activities

So you can see that these lessons are not just conversations. At the same time, just because you don’t have paper or technology doesn’t mean you have to talk the entire lesson. Come up with activities that can be done without resources in order to practice any language that comes up. Buzz group discussions, debates, and vocabulary games all work well with these lessons.

Read more: Our Favourite Vocabulary Games

If Teaching Unplugged sounds a bit more than you can handle, fear not: it is not as difficult as it may sound. If we break it down to its basics all Teaching Unplugged is telling us to do is go easy on the resources and focus more on the students. We are always striving to be more student-centered anyway, and Dogme is the perfect way to practice what we preach.

If you are not comfortable with doing an entire Dogme lesson, test the waters a bit first by allocating 20 minutes or so to doing a Dogme activity. Once you’ve seen how capable you are of doing that, you’ll graduate to entire lessons in no time. But even doing a few activities Dogme-style will help you make your classes be more learner-centered and less paper-driven.

Let’s face it, paperless lessons can be tricky to implement in the classroom until you (and your students) get the hang of it. It’s a really nice way to vary the pace and structure of your lessons and move away from the coursebook. But because these lessons will be tailored specifically to your class, you should find they work exceptionally well.

[Disclaimer: No cats were hurt in the writing of this blog post.]


Would It be advisable to substitute the board by a PC and have students watch TED Talks and other material to generate further discussions?

Erich Ramos, 1st March 2019

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