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!


Submitted by Eunice.Barbara on Wed, 10/19/2011 - 21:06


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,



Submitted by Luke Meddings on Thu, 10/20/2011 - 12:39

In reply to by Eunice.Barbara


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!


Submitted by bealer81 on Thu, 10/20/2011 - 09:02


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.


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.




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'.


Submitted by steve82 on Fri, 10/21/2011 - 08:34


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??



Submitted by Luke Meddings on Sun, 10/23/2011 - 09:41

In reply to by steve82


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.

Submitted by steve82 on Mon, 10/24/2011 - 11:07

In reply to by Luke Meddings


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.



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!



Submitted by nickcherkas (not verified) on Fri, 10/21/2011 - 12:25


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!)



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.


Submitted by Rob Lewis (not verified) on Mon, 10/24/2011 - 12:49


Hi Luke

I 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?


Hi Rob

Yes, 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? 


Submitted by jemgardner on Thu, 10/27/2011 - 15:13


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.)

Submitted by Luke Meddings on Fri, 10/28/2011 - 12:04

In reply to by jemgardner


Hi Jem

Thanks 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.



Submitted by jemgardner on Sat, 10/29/2011 - 13:34

In reply to by Luke Meddings


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!



Submitted by Luke Meddings on Mon, 10/31/2011 - 11:06

In reply to by jemgardner


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' :)



Submitted by jemgardner on Wed, 11/02/2011 - 07:43

In reply to by Luke Meddings


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, 



Submitted by Luke Meddings on Wed, 11/16/2011 - 18:25

In reply to by jemgardner


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 again


Submitted by olgakuskina on Tue, 11/01/2011 - 12:10


Dear Mr. Luke Meddings,

I have watched your conference at the British Council online, and since then, I have tried to make some changes when I teach. I try to pay more attention to the language my students are interested in producing, rather than the language they should produce in that Unit. And I have had amazing results. First of all, the relationship I have with my students turned more friendly, and also the realtionship among them, in the groups. They are eager to speak and to ask what interests them, which of course motivates their learning. And like you wrote, there is always time to come back to the course book. But I feel I still need to learn a lot about using this real opportunities in the classroom. Thank you very much for sharing your work and experience, it really made a difference for me.

Kindest regards,


Hi Olga

Thank you very much for this comment, it made me so happy and I even quoted it in a talk - I hope you don't mind! I love what you say about the way the relationships changed - more friendly between you and the students, and more friendly amongst the students themselves. That is such a powerful expression of what attentive, responsive, conversational teaching can achieve.

Thank you so much!


Submitted by eugeniapapaioannou on Tue, 12/27/2011 - 12:01


Dear Luke,

Your article is very interesting about exploiting students' experiences to trigger interesting interaction activities in class among the students.

Coursebooks, however, have to be exploited, too. First of all, examinations mid-term and end-term are based on this material throughout the year.

I run two Language Centres in Greece where we strictly use monolingual system so for us it is essential to exploit L2 for the benefit of our students.

I have found coursebooks, even the best ones, repetitive and sometimes boring. That is why I often change the procedure; I very rarely follow the teacher's book.

Some of the things I use to vary my teaching are:

PICTURE DISCUSSION & BRAINSTORMING IDEAS before the students are exposed to the text accompanying it.

BACKGROUND MUSIC [Verdi/Vivaldi] while they are doing pair-work or group-work.

JIGSAW READING and narration of their part in pairs when they have a new text that can be divided into two parts (Skills: reading, listening, comprehension, story telling, filling in the gaps, questions to clarify some points)

WARM-UP DISCUSSION before each class i.e. their experiences over the weekend, etc. This generates a lot of discussion/questions/answers, etc. Sometimes they are so motivated I feel it would be a shame to interrupt them!

PROJECTS where they write together in groups of 4 (classroom/beach rules for instance). Then I get their papers and we go to the Computer Lab where we make them into posters with funny accompanying pictures from the Clip Art for each rule. The final phase is to print the poster, which is  signed by all the students of the class, and put it up on the cork board in their classroom.

OTHER PROJECTS where more advanced classes choose a subject relevant to some topics of the unit we are doing at the time. They explore it at home on the Internet and when they are in session, each student in turn sits in front of the class and speaks to the class (I sit with the 'audience') by consulting their notes. They are given 2 min. each to speak about their topic. The audience may ask questions to clarify some points when the student has finished the topic. Then the speaker chooses 3-4 new words from his topic to teach the class so they write the new vocabulary items on the board with definitions and examples. Such an activity can take 2 hours for a class of 12 (2 min. talk + 5 minutes discussion + 5 minutes the contribution of each student to bring new words) but it's worth trying because it does expand their horizons and it develops all skills (reading, comprehension, note-taking, expanding notes, speaking, listening, interaction, writing and learning from each other).

STORY COMPETITION where the students are brought a topic in class relevant to an interesting point in their unit. For example our young learners of B Senior class aged 9-10 (in total 21 students in 2 classes) read about robots in their unit and they became excited. The same night I prepared A4 handouts in card paper and the instructions on the top of the page. Each handout had a funny picture of a robot. All pictures were different. In class the next day I spread all handouts on my desk and I asked them if they would like to write a story about a robot that they were keeping secret in their home and how their parents discovered it. I explained that their stories would be assessed by advanced classes and the best 3 would be published in our school Newsletter with their photos. They were very motivated. They chose their handouts and they wrote their stories in 40 minutes. Then the stories were put up on a big wall where 40 students assessed them in a period of one week and the ones that were voted by most 'assessors' were the winners. I cannot describe the suspence and the excitement. Now they're asking when the next competition will be... 

I would like to read more ideaas from colleagues.

Happy new Year

Eugenia Papaioannou - EFL Teacher

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