Generating the language
However, remember that the most important part of 'teaching unplugged' for the teacher is not how you generate the emergent language (that is the language that the students produce as they are talking) but what you do with the language.
The subject you choose to talk about can literally be anything in the world but to start off try one of the following:
Chewing the fat!
This is the true Dogme ELT approach. You don't go in with your idea of the subject of the lesson but you take your lead from your group of students. Don't be afraid to simply ask your students what they did at the weekend or how their journey was to class. It is, after all, the basis of natural conversation. If you can show students how you can take what they say and turn it into a real learning point, they'll start to understand that you're not just being polite and that this chat is the core part of the lesson.
A task in which students need to work together to come to a conclusion (task-based learning)
If a shop or restaurant has closed down nearby ask students to decide what they think should replace it.
You're thinking of watching a film in English in class. Ask for five or six ideas of films then get students first to come up with the criteria for choosing, then to discuss, make a decision and give reasons for their decision.
Opinions and debates
Start students off on any controversial topic you think will create discussion. You should take into account cultural norms and taboos and maybe ask students to list some examples before choosing one.
Create an experience
Walk in silence round a nearby park or round the building where the lesson takes place. Tell students that, when they get back to the class, they are going to talk about what they saw, what they heard and what they were thinking. When you get back to the class, ask students to work in pairs or groups to talk about what they saw, what they heard and what they were thinking. If it's not possible to do this in class time, ask students to complete the task for homework and note down any thoughts immediately after their walk in preparation for talking about them in the next class.
Topics that may spark anecdotes
My scar. The last time you … (gave someone a present, went to a restaurant). My first memory. My worst teacher.
Identifying the language
Once the students are talking as a whole class, in groups, in pairs or with you (for one-to-one classes), this is where the important work begins. Listen and make notes of mistakes or instances where students needed different or more advanced language to express themselves properly. This is where your expertise as a teacher really comes into play. Judge what is most useful for this particular student or group. Low levels will have problems forming questions, using the past and basic vocabulary items, whereas very high levels will need expressions and idioms to refine and improve their communicative ability. Write up the key information so you can discuss problems and new language as a class, let students ask questions and make notes. Language points you're not sure of can be taken away and dealt with in a following lesson. At least then you'll know it if it ever comes up again.
While many learners take instantly to this chatty approach, it could be that your students feel that this kind of activity is not serious or studious enough, or they may even feel that you've just come to class unprepared. If so, it could be that a small amount of awareness-raising may be enough to convince them that you're not lazy! Start with a short unplugged activity such as asking them to talk about what they've done that day. Collect useful language as suggested above and then go through the language that came up. Leave time at the end to revisit the activity. Ask students why you asked them what they'd been doing:
- Was it because you were interested? Hopefully, partly yes!
- Was it for a learning reason? Yes.
- What language did you learn? Look again at the examples.
- Why did you, the teacher, think this was good language for the students to be learning? Because it was all language they needed and didn't have.
- How did they find the experience?
- Would they like to try this kind of activity again? Why? Why not?
Then, even if they agree it's not at all for them, they'll know that you had their learning needs in mind and you weren't just desperately trying to fill in unplanned lesson time!