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Teaching Tips - Using your learners as a resource – Teaching unplugged

As busy teachers, it is easy to get stuck in a rut. Our Teaching Tips articles are aimed at those of you who are teaching or training and are looking for some new ideas or activities to use in your classes. We hope that these articles will inspire you to try something new with your students.

If you have any teaching tips or ideas that you would like to share with us, or questions please send them to Bill at William.Farquharson@wits.ac.za

Using Your Learners as a Resource – Teaching Unplugged

Bill Farquharson
Observing a class of trainee teachers doing teaching practice recently, I was uncomfortably aware of how little the language learners in the class had been encouraged to engage in authentic interaction with each other or with the teacher. The trainee teachers were doing their best to demonstrate sound teaching principles, procedures and techniques that they knew they were being assessed on. There were effective demonstrations of conveying meaning, eliciting language, concept checking, drilling the learners for pronunciation, clarifying meaning and form, but the learners barely got out of their seats for over an hour and a half, and had worked their way through over half a dozen worksheets by the time the ninety minutes was over. Given the fact the teachers are on an initial teacher training course that requires them to jump through various hoops and meet specific objective criteria, I’m not criticizing their efforts, rather, I’m echoing the call made by Scott Thornbury for a return to a ‘state of grace’ in the language classroom, “…when all there was, was a room with a few chairs, a blackboard, a teacher and some students, and where learning was jointly constructed out of the talk that evolved in that simplest, and most prototypical of situations.” (Thornbury: 2000)

The ‘Unplugged’ Dogme ELT philosophy

Language is primarily about communication. Yet language teaching methods and materials often seem to lose sight of the fact that the default mode of communication is conversation. In a profession marked by an abundance of published teaching materials and resources, course books supplemented by workbooks, teacher resource books, companion DVDs, CD ROMs and websites, there is a danger of teachers and learners becoming too immersed in materials, and foregoing the learning opportunities afforded through genuine social interaction.

When Scott Thornbury made his rally call for a return to a state of grace, the response from the ELT community resulted in the emergence of ‘Dogme ELT’ as a philosophy, if not quite a methodology. The name ‘dogme’ was borrowed by Thornbury from the Danish film movement that challenged cinema’s dependence on special effects often at the expense of story. Similarly, Dogme ELT was conceived as a reaction to trends in the language classroom that tend towards an over-reliance on an abundance of materials and technology, at the expense of real communication between learners and teachers. The theory and practices embodied in Dogme ELT suggest ways for language teachers to, “free themselves from a dependency on material, aids and technology, and to work with nothing more than the ‘raw materials’ provided by the people in the room.” (Meddings & Thornbury 2009: 7). Simply, it encourages teachers to enter the class without materials to distribute to the learners (or very few), and design lessons around the learners’ language that is produced in the classroom. It has subsequently been described as a materials-light approach to language teaching or ‘teaching unplugged’.

For many teachers, especially those new to language teaching this may sound anathema. After all, for many new or even experienced teachers, published materials and course books are their salvation, lending structure, systems and standards to a potentially chaotic environment. Not everyone is persuaded by the Dogme philosophy. It has been called ‘an elitist anti-construct’ and accused of being too difficult for most teachers to do effectively (Hanratty: 2011), so clearly it’s not for everyone. Teaching through course books allows the teacher to proceed from a pre-determined syllabus, without having to agonise over what the learners’ real needs are. Dogme turns this concept on its head and argues that we address the learners’ needs by noticing and responding to their emergent language in the classroom. This type of syllabus that emerges as the course progresses is known as a process syllabus, without pre-selected goals or outcomes. The inevitable question of course is, “How do you plan a lesson based on what will happen in the classroom?”

This presents its own challenges, as simply ‘having a conversation’ devoid of any procedures or teaching techniques and strategies will not guarantee any learning takes place in the language classroom. Hence the need for ‘instructional conversations’ (as cited in Meddings & Thornbury 2009: 10). The teacher has a responsibility to notice the learners’ emergent language, and to manage and facilitate the social processes out of which, and for which language develops. The teacher therefore needs to be:

  • a skilled linguist, who knows how language works and how to exploit it as a tool in learning and teaching (as it emerges in the classroom dialogue);
  • a caring observer, who shows a lot of interest in his/her learners and has the skill to manage the classroom diversity, and
  • an activist, who shows interest in the world and even willingness to change it.

(Meddings & Thornbury 2003).

It seems fair to me to assume that Dogme ELT teaching would appeal more to experienced teachers who have a solid appreciation of the language systems their learners are learning, as well as a wide repertoire of procedures and techniques at their disposal that they can deploy eclectically in a dynamic response mode. Indeed, Dogme ELT is not revolutionary, as it shares many principles with theorists such as Freire & Ramos (1970) who question the role of teacher as authority, and Freeman & Freeman (1998) who have argued for holistic ‘whole language’ approaches to the teaching of language. Thornbury actually declares “There is nothing very original in Dogme” (Thornbury, 2005).

A Sample Dogme ELT Lesson Outline

So what does a teacher actually do in an unplugged classroom? If the lesson develops in response to learners’ language in the classroom, there’s no strictly pre-meditated language structure or skill to plan for. However, teachers can still pre-design a lesson based on the observed learners’ needs, allowing the lesson to move spontaneously in the direction the learners take it. Structure to the lesson can still be achieved through a selection of activities that students engage in, but the language content is not pre-determined.

Below is a description of a lesson that I did with a group of elementary learners. I recorded the lesson for future analysis, and designed feedback questionnaires to gauge the learners’ emotional and critical response to it. This lesson description was written up after the lesson took place, capturing what happened in the lesson rather than anticipating what would happen beforehand. I’d selected simple present as a grammar area I knew the students needed more practice with, particularly the question form.

Lead in T greets class, elicits from Students where they are from, and confirms everyone is from a foreign country.
T shares an anecdote about his time in Mexico when he started teaching, finds out what Students know about Mexico
Students offer their ideas including:
  • Richest man in the world comes from Mexico
  • They drink tequila, eat lots of pork
  • Like to dance
  • Played South Africa t the last world cup
Stage 1: Introduce Conversation Topic – questions Ss have about South African culture T introduces a question he had when living in Mexico:
“What are all Mexicans always late?” and writes on board
T asks Students to talk about this question in groups - speculating
T elicits some of the ideas Students have:
  • They drink too much tequila
  • It’s hot there
  • Because they have beautiful ladies
  • Because it’s ‘habitual’
  • Because they like to party and sleep late
T discusses ‘habitual’ with learners, highlights that it is typically used to refer to individuals, tries to elicit ‘cultural’ to refer to ‘national habit’
T: When we talk about the habits of a country we are talking about the culture.

T: I’m sure you all have questions about South Africans and SA culture because this country is different from your culture.

Students start volunteering their questions before T instructs further so T accepts one of the Students questions and helps to reformulate it on the board beneath his own:

all Mexicans

most South African men
like to work?

T expands the table with other auxiliary verbs do / aren’t and elicits some more possibilities for subjects from Students:
Politicians, taxi drivers, teachers, students, men, women

all Mexicans

aren’t the police


most South African men
like to work?

Taxi drivers
drive badly?

T instructs Students to write their own sentences, and concept checks:

T monitors to see Students are all engaged in writing a question.

Students write questions, T asks them to check each other’s questions in groups for grammar

Students compare their questions in groups and discuss the grammar, suggest corrections and help each other re-formulate their individual questions.

T checks individuals’ questions and suggests improvements for accuracy.

Once all the Students have a question. The teacher instructs them to discuss their question in groups.Students begin discussing their questions.

T keeps a low profile, monitors very discretely, from a distance.

Students are involved in negotiating meaning, offering opinions, agreeing and disagreeing, clarifying and rephrasing, turn-taking.

Stage 2:
T elicits some of the most interesting questions and answers that students discussed in their groups. Adds a few more to the table on the board.
Stage 3: T hands out a blank sheet of paper to each student and asks them to think of a new question regarding the culture and lifestyle in South Africa at the top of the page. Again T assists learners with their output as necessary.
Once all students have a well-formed sentence T instructs them to pass their question to the neighbour on their right. The neighbour now writes an answer to the question at the bottom of the page, then folds the answer over and passes it once more to the right.
This continues until each question is back with its original author.
Each student then selects the best answer to the question he/she originally asked.
T elicits some feedback from each student – writes some of the students’ answers that require grammatical or lexical improvement on the board verbatim.
Stage 4: T directs students to the answers on the board, encouraging learners to assist with improvements.
The students are involved in spotting mistakes and suggesting improvements to reformulate the language.

The response from students to this lesson was overwhelmingly positive. They reported that the lesson was fun, that they felt most of the time in class was spent speaking (which was rare for them), that the teacher spoke just enough, and that they would like to do another lesson like that again.


If you find your lessons are dominated by the course book, becoming predictable and repetitive, or you’re spending inordinate amounts of time preparing handouts and worksheets, join the Dogme ELT community and experiment with a philosophy that your students may well respond to enthusiastically. A good place to start is at the dogme ELT yahoo group at: http://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/dogme/info

The title Teaching Unplugged by Thornbury and Meddings (see the references below) is also a useful handbook with suitable activity ideas that can be adapted to your own lessons.


Freire, P. & Ramos, M. B. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin.

Hanraty, L. (2011) Dogme is an Elistist Anti-construct. Nov 2011. Retrieved from http://www.teflideas.com/2011/11/11/dogme-elitist-anti-construct/ on 30 September 2013

Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. (2003). Dogme still able to divide ELT. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2003/apr/17/tefl.lukemeddings
08 May 2013

Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching unplugged: Dogme in English language teaching. Delta.

Thornbury, S. (2000). A Dogma for ELT. IATEFL Issues 153, Feb/March 2000.
Thornbury, S. (2001) Teaching Unplugged (Or That’s Dogme with an E). It’s for Teacher. Feb 2000 Retrieved from www.teaching-unplugged.com/itsmagazine.html on 07 May 2013