In this article, Luke Meddings reflects on the constraints coursebooks can put on the learning experience in the classroom, and offers some suggestions on how we can overcome that.

Two conversations
I wonder if, like me, you've ever heard a conversation like this in the staffroom:

'What are you doing this week?' 
'Unit 5.'
'Not Unit 5!'
'I know...'


'Who are you teaching?'
'My Upper Intermediates [sigh].'
'What’s wrong?'
'They just don’t want to talk.'

Perhaps, like me, you haven’t just heard these conversations – but also taken part in them.

I think they can arise when our classroom practice is defined too closely by external parameters such as coursebook units and even learner levels. 

This reduces our own sense of agency1 as teachers, and the degree of agency we feel able to foster in our learners. It can make us feel passive, reducing our motivation. And as we all know from our own days in school, a demotivated teacher can’t motivate a class. If we want active learners, we need to be active teachers.

An opportunity missed
Feeling constrained by coursebooks and levels can also lead us to miss learning opportunities. There’s a powerful example of this in the introduction to Teaching Unplugged2, where part of a lesson in an ELT classroom in Mexico is transcribed. The teacher learns that a student called Jorge has got married over the weekend, but for whatever reason does not pursue this potentially motivating conversation. Instead, the class is directed to the coursebook – and a unit which is, ironically enough, about 'biographies'. 

An opportunity taken
In real life, language emerges from communicative need. One person wants to say something; another wants to find out something. This is why information gap activities are a staple of communicative language teaching, but they are often somewhat artificial: the set-up involves a role play, none of the information is real, and Student A doesn’t really need to know what Student B has to tell them.

In our example from Mexico, a real information gap has emerged: only Jorge knows about his own wedding – and it is genuinely motivating for his classmates to find out more. (It doesn’t have to be a life-changing event to motivate: real life events, big and small, form the basis of our social interaction outside the class – and can do inside.)

Conversation: allow it, shape it
So, how do we exploit this opportunity? The first step to take is to 'allow' the conversation to happen – by showing that you are interested, by showing that you want to know more. The second is to give it shape, and involve the whole class, by adding a light task element. For example, you can set up a 'paper conversation' by inviting students to work in groups, writing questions on pieces of paper for Jorge to reply to. This allows each group to build a slightly different picture of his wedding which they can turn into a short text and compare. (You can ask the groups to show you the questions before they go to Jorge: check them for form and send them back if they need more work.)

This strikes me as a vibrant classroom dynamic, energising for all concerned: one based not on what a group of learners 'should' be doing in Unit 5 (although there will always be time to return to that later), nor even on what kind of language they 'should' be producing as Upper Intermediates (although what emerges is by definition linked to their level and can always be referred to the syllabus). 

Instead, the classroom space is open to the learners' own lives and language, and quickly fills with the words and texts that allow them to negotiate and create meaning together. By being pro-active and responding to an opportunity, we restore our sense of agency as teachers – and we transfer it to the learners, working with them as they co-construct their narratives. 

(It’s interesting to note that much of what we do in conventional lesson plans seems designed to control rather than 'allow'. In the week leading up to the British Council workshops I gave in Poland in October, which this article follows, there was some great discussion on Anthony Gaughan's blog, Teacher Training Unplugged. Responding to this, Anthony commented that, while 'some anticipation of potential difficulties is useful and necessary, it's curious ... that no standard lesson plan pro-forma contains sections asking [teachers] to look out for opportunities and leverage points.') 3

Focus on form: mine, refine
In case you’re wondering, there are plenty of opportunities for language work in the course of this activity. Spoken conversation allows us to echo and recast before we draw more explicit attention to form. But one advantage of a paper conversation is that it gives you as the teacher a little more processing time. The texts – both the draft questions and the final narratives – can be 'mined' for a suitable focus on form. They can also be refined, so that they are made not only more accurate but also more fluent or expressive.

I shared the sessions in Poland with Rob Lewis, who led a great workshop in which we explored our evolving 'toolkits' as teachers. Using paper conversations as one of the 'go-to' activities in your toolkit is an excellent way to build up your confidence in dealing with emergent language.

Adding more or stripping back?
We started with two conversations that reflect constrained classroom experience and expectations: the coursebook has become what we 'do' in class; while the learners are more 'Upper Intermediates' than people. 

We sometimes try and deal with issues like this by adding: we supplement the coursebook unit with additional material; we set up complex communication activities that can take longer to explain than to complete. 

But I wonder if you've ever had the experience of cooking a dish that goes wrong? We may try to fix it by adding more salt, or by adding some extra ingredients, but very often the taste just gets more confused and unsatisfying. I think it can be a bit like that with teaching. 

Sometimes it’s best to start again – with fewer ingredients. Simple, fresh food is often best. And the best ingredients for your lesson are often the ones right in front of you: the learners. 


  2. Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. 2009. Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta 

By Luke Meddings

From 20 October Luke will be answering your questions on this, and his other writing on the site. Check out his articles and activities and if you have a question, log in and leave a comment below!



This is a very interesting blog. I am writing to ask whether you think there is a sense in which the 'teaching unplugged' model could lead to 'lazy' teaching? The example from Mexico from 'Teaching unplugged' seems to be an example of where one student could hi-jack a lesson through simple circumstance and it is not clear how this would benefit the other learners (I admit I have not read the full example from Teaching Unplugged.)If students come to a lesson and then a teacher takes the opportunity to spend it having a chat about what one student did that weekend would they all be motivated? It may be interesting for the student who got married, but for the other 30-35 students might this not be dull a bit, or seem less personally relevant? As someone who has worked in the private sector of EFL for several years, I have a lot of time for dogme as an idea for escaping the coursebook and the humdrum of teaching, but I am interested in how you would challenge those teachers who have been teaching 'unplugged' (i.e. unplanned, unprepared and – some might say - irresponsibly) for many years now. With best wishes, Eunice  

Hi Eunice, I'm glad you found the blog interesting and thanks for taking the time to comment. It's a good question, and one I was asked in a training session in London only last night!My first answer would be that any model or approach - including relying on a coursebook - can lead to lazy teaching. So we need to scrutinise our own beliefs, and justify our own practice, in that light - or on our own terms. As Adam suggests in his own reply to you, teaching unplugged - if it is done in a principled, focused and committed way - is no easy option. It can be challenging but it is also, as he puts it, exhilarating. I think Donald Schon's ideas about 'reflection in action' and 'reflection on action' are of interest here: there's a good summary on one of my favourite websites, The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education, at . I see the reflection in action (or thinking one's feet) as being very much what we do during an unplugged class; the reflection on action - which is just as important - involves making sense of the class and the emergent outputs afterwards.In terms of this particular learning opportunity, or a comparable one, I think one has to - well, think on one's feet. Are the students showing interest? Are they likely to be interested in pursuing the conversation further? In fact, the longer extract in the book does indicate that Jorge's classmates were interested - because they start speaking about the wedding, in Spanish, while the teacher directs them to the coursebook! But we always have to make a judgement, and gauge how long people want to talk about something. Simple tasks like the 'paper conversation' I describe above are a good way to keep people engaged.I think it's also useful to draw a distinction between planning (or 'preparing') and 'being prepared'. If we are attentive, as Adam suggests, to what is emerging from the interaction - by listening, by contributing, by making notes, by thinking of how the learning opportunity can be shaped via a focus on form - then 'being prepared' is motivating and worthwhile for all concerned.  Hope this helps!Luke

As always Luke a great article. What interested me most was the comment made by Eunice. I was intrigued to hear her ask if "the 'teaching unplugged' model could lead to 'lazy' teaching?". I think that my answer, if I may, would be that teaching unplugged, in my own experience, is actually the opposite of 'lazy' teaching. Without the support of the coursebook and a well prepared lesson plan the teacher is alone and has to think and act fast. They need to follow the conversation, think about where it's going or might go. Listen intently to what the student's are saying, correct, note down things for later. They need to know when to support the lesson or simply step back and allow things to continue, rather than saying okay let's move onto page whatever because the conversation has dwindled. After teaching unplugged I tend to feel slightly exhausted, yet exhillarated at the same time. My mind works overtime when I teach this way and I prefer it that way. I am pushed past my comfort zone and required to really teach rather than play it safe with a coursebook. (I don't have a problem with course books by the way).Secondly you mention that there is a possibility of the student hi-jacking the lesson, as in the example from Mexico. What the student has done is simply created/offered a vehicle for the direction in which the lesson could go. Jorge got married, great, tell us about it Jorge, that sounds great, What are you views on marriage?, Do you think weddings cost too much? The lesson can go off into multiple directions, getting the whole class involved. Again this requires action from the teacher to initiate this.Sorry to 'hi-jack' your comment. I hope it was helpful.Adam 

Hi Adam, thanks for this great contribution, from which I've already quoted extensively in my reply to Eunice.I really like your characterisation of Jorge's remark as creating / offering 'a vehicle for the direction in which the lesson could go.' Because if we allow conversation to 'be itself' by not determining in advance what language we want learners to use as they speak, it can indeed go in any direction, generating a number of language areas for potential study - whether these are lexical sets (for example around the expense of a wedding), or functional language for expressing one's opinions on marriage as an institution.And yes, it requires action in terms of managing and shaping the lesson. I'd return to my point above - if we want our learners to be active, I think we should be active too. We're in it together.Luke  

great!! I totally agred with you as an English student, I know how much boring could be a coursebook class. It is totally depresing, I prefer the other method 'teaching unplugged'. 

Hi Luke,I've got a cheeky question! I can see the point you're trying to make here, but don't you think that actually sometimes Unit 5 can be quite good? I mean, some coursebooks are all right, some aren't..... you can actually have some good stuff happen in the class using the book you're meant to be using. Have you found that??Yours,Steve

Hi Steve, this is a very good question! I was thinking of Unit 5 as the one (and there seems to be one in most coursebooks) that everyone in the staffroom dreads using - my point was to suggest that if we become too passive we kind of plough through it all the same, or miss the opportunity to critique what's wrong with it. Of course one can find good stuff in coursebooks, and teachers do great things working with and from coursebooks. I guess it was when I started to use the coursebook with a pinch of salt - acknowledging its weaknesses or longueurs, but making the most of its strengths - that I personally started to get more out of it in class. I think one can usefully employ the coursebook as a springboard or as a reference point, but I am sceptical about its role as 'the content', one which is often only reinforced by coursebook add-ons - workbook, CD-Rom, IWB plug-in, etc etc.

Hi Luke,Thanks for your reply. I know what you mean.....I think we do just end up getting stuck in a rut teaching with the book and the workbook, and maybe the first place we look for some inspiration is another photocopy book rather than the students. I do like some of the coursesbooks I use though, and I think in the same way some teachers say that "not unit 5!" there are also times when they might say another unit is actually great fun.Anyway, thanks again.Yours,Steve

Hi Steve, I agree - both about the tendency to default to the bookshelf, and about the possibility of other units being great fun. I think there can certainly be 'coursebook chemistry' in a classroom. In fact that might make a great workshop, but I'm not sure Im the one to run it!CheersLuke

Great article Luke - thank you very much!I wonder what your answer would be to teachers in a monolingual state school setting, who feel that the lives of their students may not always relate to the topics in the coursebook (which are strictly followed) - might it be more difficult to extract meaningful, real-life content from this demographic of learners?I'm thinking particularly of lower socio-economic settings, where students are unlikely to have travelled, don't use the internet, don't have satellite TV etc.(I'm mainly asking as I'm likely to be asked the same questions by these teachers and would love to get your input!)Nick 


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