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“The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.”
– Thomas Berger (1924-2014), American novelist
What is teaching “unplugged?” How does this approach enhance language learning for students? What kinds of activities can English teachers implement that reflect this style of learning?
Luke Meddings, a co-founder of the Dogme ELT movement, embraces “the challenge. . . of working with the language that emerges from that organic interaction.” In a seminar for the British Council titled “20 steps to teaching unplugged,” the teacher and award-winning author offers some savvy advice on effectively “flipping” the English classroom into a learner-driven environment.
This approach to structuring classroom content relies on three key attributes: conversation driven, materials light, and focused on emergent language. How? As Meddings says, conversation “emerges from participation.” Increasing student input when it comes to lesson planning leads to more engaged learners, and ultimately strengthens their grasp on the language studied. Here are a few of my favorite pointers:
If learning is the purpose of communication, Meddings emphasizes that every interaction – both in and out of the classroom – counts, especially ones between student and teacher. “The lesson begins when they start to speak,” he says, “and they only start to speak if you invite them to.”
Be flexible; use the time before class as students are arriving to get the conversation rolling. Don’t be afraid to share from your own life to establish a safe space. Meddings also stresses the importance of taking notes; you never know what you’ll be able to incorporate into the lesson.
Focus on student experiences
When it comes to fluency, confidence is always key, but adding student voices to classroom discussions is often quite challenging.
However, it’s a much easier task when we let them take the lead. Ask questions! Meddings advises centering class discussions around student interests and issues. Are students in your classroom experiencing difficulties with the immigration process? Having trouble acclimating to a new culture? How can English help them better face these challenges? Use these instances as opportunities to prioritize ‘useful’ language and ground your lesson plans in every-day scenarios, as Meddings suggests.
Get out of the way (of learning)
Perhaps the most important element to teaching unplugged is knowing when to step back. Referencing a piece of wisdom he found on social media, the speaker stresses the importance of listening first, asking second, and letting “thought and language breathe.”
Always give learners the opportunity to speak first, and implement more student-led activities in class. For example, Meddings recommends inviting the students to choose a focus topic before pairing them off to discuss. Once this is determined, the teacher should then model a discussion on that topic with a volunteer, inviting the rest of the class to take notes before comparing. The language focus of that day’s lesson can be derived from these notes, Meddings suggests. Focus on form and pronunciation, but above all, establish meaning. As always, context matters.
Responsive teaching is responsible teaching
From my perspective, a communicative, student-centered curriculum promotes fluent speech and sparks more compelling conversations. Meddings’ responsive approach to teaching English as a second language is one that I’ve found success with in my own classroom. Paving the way for self-directed, autotelic language learners not only optimizes class time; it also helps our English students create far more positive language experiences and memorable moments.
Yet we also can’t let Dogme become a dogma and dismiss the role of authentic materials. IN my own university classes, I deploy communicative approaches and use written materials even in some oral skills courses. Balance, as ever, remains vital.
Have you tried teaching ‘unplugged’ in your English classroom? How has it impacted the classroom environment? Would you recommend it to your peers? Why or why not?
For my own list of recommended conversation starters to use with your students, click here. For more on adding student voices to class discussions, check out this handout from our reproducible worksheet collection!