Some core tenets for teaching unplugged.

This post has been written as part of a professional development project that is being run by Adam Beale at the school where he works in Spain, IH Madrid.

To give a bit of background colour and explanation as to where I’m coming from in writing the following words, there are a few things I’d like to make clear:

  • I teach at a Further Education college in the UK, and in this context it is a requirement to have schedules of learning in place to help with course management. Very basically, this consists of a week-by-week and lesson-by-lesson breakdown of items to be worked on in our ESOL lessons. A big reason why this is necessary is that there are often 3 or 4 teachers teaching the same group of students throughout the week.
  • The learners I teach come from a wide variety of backgrounds, both in terms of their origins (different countries, different language) and their socio-cultural backgrounds and educational or work experience. Some may have fleed from conflict zones, whil others may have moved to the UK because of better job prospects. As such, they can be poorly serviced by traditional EFL materials (more on that later).
  • Despite the fact that much of the teaching seems to be pre-planned and pre-determined, there is actually a lot of scope to include supplementary materials, which can be based on the language that the learners need for their daily lives.

With all of that in mind, these are key things for me to bear in mind when working in an unplugged way in the language classroom.

  1. Personalisation
  2. Not being afraid to follow the students’ lead
  3. Setting up tasks that are open-ended
  4. Not being afraid to use reference materials

1) Unplugged moments work best when the content and language is personal
We’ve all experienced those moments in class where it seems like something hits home, for the teachers as much as for the students. Suddenly everything seems to click in to place, the students are using the language, creating and negotiating meaning.

How often does that happen when you set a discussion or reading text about David Beckham???

If you said ‘every time’, then I’d say you were lying. Bringing in imported materials or teaching using lofty language aims as a starting point doesn’t turn people on so that they start using their language. Rather it is a much better idea to get the students to talk about something that matters to them, or at the very least something they can relate to. Talk about what they did at the weekend, what they had for breakfast, what they think about X, Y or Z. There really isn’t a need to bring anything in to class to get people motivated other than an open ear and interesting questions.

2) Don’t be afraid to follow the students’ lead
Even coming to teaching through a route slightly removed from the ‘standard’, that is a short initial teacher training course heavy on teaching technique and lesson planning, I have experienced the feeling that everything that happens in a lesson should be thought out and planned in advance. Writing lesson plans follows this way of thinking, asking teachers to allocate time to particular stages of a lesson and say what will be achieved by the end. In my experience, the best lessons have not been those where everything is so meticulously mapped out. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if I whenever I have written down what I wanted to get through in an hour or two hour session, I have found myself again and again head down, checking the plan rather than the faces of those in the room. Instead of granting me peace of mind, perhaps even a dangerous thing as a teacher or learner, lesson plans have taken my attention away from those who really matter in the classroom, the students.

No, the best moments in lessons have come from following my students lead, perhaps nudging them at times into areas I think need focus, but generally taking the cues from them.

To give you an example of what I mean, this is a description of what happened in one of my lessons:

I ruined the shirt I was wearing in my morning lesson (it got splattered with board pen ink).
This prompted discussion about my problem (a ruined shirt) which led to the students talking about their own problems and then offering each other advice.
One of the pieces of advice given, to one student with money problems, was ‘you should put (keep) some under the mattress’. This lead to a quick debate on the advantages of saving money in this way.

From one initial stimulus, much more than an hour’s worth of discussion, writing, and language was generated, all of which could be potentially mined to help students with their language learning.

3) Set up tasks that are open-ended
Just as there is limited language that is prompted by using closed questions, if you lock down what happens in the classroom, there is much less scope for students to push themselves or be pushed to use their language.
‘Do you like coffee?’ How many possible answers are there to that question? Two, or maybe three perhaps: ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know’.
What about ‘What kind of coffee do you like?’ The number of possible answers shoots right up.

It is exactly the same when we question students and give them different tasks. True or false and grammar gap-fill activities will yield a very small amount of language, while open ended tasks like ‘What’s the best way to cook an egg?’ will result in a lot more language being produced, and with different purposes – some of the possible functions of language that would crop up include explaining, clarifying, exemplifying, and negotiating.

Isn’t this a far richer resource for language teaching that a photocopy of the course workbook?

4) Don’t be afraid to use reference materials
The dictionary, thesaurus and grammar reference are not your enemies as a teacher trying out an unplugged approachr. Nor should they be ignored by any teacher. Ever.

There is a misconception that in the classroom, the teacher is the font of all knowledge. While this is an unrealistic expectation in any situation, even if the subject being taught is content-based (think about a history teacher know all the dates being studied off the top of his or her head), it’s just not fair on our poor teacher minds. In a language classroom it’s even less possible. Language isn’t solely content. Even things that some would see as clear-cut, like some grammar rules, are really murky concepts at best.

It is far more profitable to consult these references, and teach students how to use them effectively.

However, this is speaking from my own point of view, and coloured by my experience. I encourage you to have a go, and find your own tenets for taking your teaching off on an unplugged path.


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