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!



Thanks very much Nick, I'm glad you enjoyed it. If we think of the examples of educators like Paulo Freire and Sylvia Ashton-Warner, who worked with illiterate, disenfranchised and marginalised learners, we can see that a dialogic, bottom-up approach to learning can work in possibly more challenging contexts than the one you outline here.I don't think the principle of working with the lives and language of the learners is bounded by the context of those lives - though I do think there may be more need for the teacher to source a range of texts if learners don't have access to TV and the internet. If the teacher doesn't have this access either, there are accounts (including Ashton-Warner's, in Teacher, 1963; and John Wade's in Teaching Without Textbooks, 1992; both cited in the introduction to Teaching Unplugged by myself and Scott Thornbury, 2009) of teachers working with what what is available from the immediate environment to effectively create coursebook materials from the ground up.I hope this helps - do come back with more, as I'm very interested in the application of dogme/unplugged in this kind of environment.Luke

Hi LukeI think I promised I'd be asking you this one! I've been following the discussions on the Dogme Yahoo group, where a couple of weeks ago there was a discussion entitled 'A Dogme coursebook?': and there are other related postings as well.What are you thoughts on that? Scott Thornbury suggested that a coursebook may be the 'most formative influence on your average teacher's approach' and therefore it may well be the best paradigm changer. Hard to disagree with that, but there is something odd (even if it turns out to be valid) about a materials light approach enshrined in a coursebook! What do you think?Rob

Hi RobYes, you did promise - thanks for sending me an easy one!It's a very interesting question, of course, and the discussion on the dogme yahoo group is continuing even as I type this morning - but I think it might need a bit more space so I'm going to put some thoughts down as a blog post for the site, ok? Luke

Hi Luke, I really enjoyed reading this post, and I especially liked being reminded of the activity that you describe. I've used this myself to great effect, and will try to use it again soon, as it has dropped out of my repertoire. I think this repertoire is what an unplugged teacher has to keep up-to-date even more so than those which are not unplugged because we have to be ready to respond with an activity spontaneously, rather than having a chance to plan it ahead of time. This was something I worked on a lot when I first went unplugged. Now, I always have bits of paper in my pencil case that have been known to take the role of many different thing in class. What I really wanted to comment on here though, was the point you make about dealing with "issues" by going to a coursebook and the idea of laziness being the risk of teaching unplugged. I think Adam has succinctly covered the latter (well said Adam), so I will take the former!I know that, even though I am a believer in the unplugged teaching attitude, when I am feeling uninspired or tired or unmotivated, I reach for a book. Luckily, before I go into class with a stack of paper, I usually come to my senses and realise that nothing in the book does half of what I or my learners want/need/can be interested in. If I do get to the point of photocopying something and taking it in, it either gets left on the side whilst the conversation draws the lesson in a different direction or it is, at best, hardly touched. This is the true wonder of being prepared to go unplugged. I can feel at my lowest, desperately in need of tea or worse, but when I go into class the people in there enliven me. The genuine interest, the conversation and the interaction are what I love about this world of teaching. And since pulling the plug, I have become so much more amazed at the fantastic world we live in because I have more of a chance to learn about it through talking to the people in the room. This is far from laziness, I would argue. It takes guts to begin with, if you are used to a coursebook. And the thought of it can still be daunting when you are feeling as I described earlier, but I always, without fail nowadays, find it's the best way to ensure that I leave the classroom at the end of the 90 minutes feeling like we got somewhere and achieved something together. (That last word is important.)Unit 5 - I bid you adieu. (Or good riddance. Not sure which.)

Hi JemThanks so much for this comment - like Adam's, more of a post than a comment! Lovely stuff.Your account of wanting back-up at times, but finding that one invariably draws inspiration from the people in the room when it comes to it, really strikes a chord with me.People often ask about the idea of back-up in a training context, and I tend to say that it's a good idea to have something in reserve, but that you may find that you don't need it. The energy drop can be quite dramatic when one moves from bottom-up interaction (whether this involves chat, lightly structured conversation, generating or examining short texts, etc) to something pre-prepared. Desperately in need of tea or worse! Do you mean hot chocolate? ;) Seriously, I think teaching can be genuinely therapeutic if we allow it to draw us out of ourselves and into the shared experience. Hopefully that can be the case for learners too. And 'that last word' is important, so I'll repeat it. It's a word that links back into the social and dialogic theories of learning that underpin dogme, but's also one that is easy to experience in practice.'Together.'Luke

Hi Luke, Thanks for your reply. It's the common worry of trainees (and many teachers too) that they will run out of "stuff to do" in class and so always have these back-up ideas just in case. I say the same to my trainees as you, but I would love it if they didn't have this fear in the first place because they realise that any space can be filled with exploiting what the people in the room come up with. The drop in energy you describe is true, and I think one issue here is the expectation of many students and teachers that, without paper/gapfills/etc..., no learning is taking place. One thing that Anthony and I have talked about trying to include in our Celta course is what he mentioned in his blog recently -- leaving space to be able to make the most of opportunities that occur during a lesson. So far we haven't had the chance to sit down and talk about how we could include this as part of input, however our next course starts on Monday and I plan to explicitly show how the trainees in my lessons which they observe and then making sure we discuss these moments in depth afterwards. (This is one of the benefits of being observed by the trainees with the same class which they have to teach.) We'll see if this works! Worse than in need of tea? Does such a thing exist? Perhaps the Friday, post-work in need of wine? I suppose as long as the therapeutic qualities of wine don't overtake those of teaching, we'll all be ok...!Motto for the upcoming Celta - "Together." Simple, but effective!Jem 

This is so true - how to avoid the fear in the first place - prevention not cure! Since I started training regularly I've become aware of exactly the same tendency: preparing too much 'content', being worried about not giving value for money, and ending up with insufficient time for discussion at the end. The irony..Now it's true that giving, say, an hour's workshop on ''teaching unplugged' is quite a challenge, one I compared recently to wrestling an octopus (an unlikely contingency in South London, but you get my point). But the same principle we apply to teaching can and should be applied to training: it's not about the amount of input but about the quality, and about - what you said, leaving space for interaction.Thanks again and easy on the tea!I like 'together' :)Luke 

Hi Luke, Oh the irony indeed! I have found myself doing exactly the same thing since beginning training. Luckily, I caught myself doing it and have taken measures to rectify the situation. Funny how the default position is still having a load of paper to hide behind! My personal aim for this current Celta course is to stick to my principles and allow myself time and space to breathe outside the input sessions so that, once inside the sessions, we can all breathe together. Have a great Wednesday, Jem 

Hi Jem, and I'm sorry for the delay in my reply to your reply to my reply to - anyway, I love your point about breathing outside the input sessions in order to be able to breathe inside the sessions. I'm really just retweeting you here!Thanks againLuke 


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