How To Teach Unplugged – The Naked English Teacher

I remember teaching a short course some time ago for advanced English students. The first part of the course was fairly standard – vocabulary building, role-plays, some debates on artificial themes et cetera. The final part of the course, though, was just a plain canvas – the students were asked to decide what we would do in the lessons. I couldn’t plan or prepare. The lessons were down to the students.

Can such a system work? Can you remove materials and textbooks from a classroom and still expect the students to learn? Not only is the answer ‘yes’, but a whole group of ESOL teachers also believe this is the best way to learn/teach.

Teaching unplugged

This week, I’ve been caught up reading articles from Scott Thornbury’s excellent ‘Teaching Unplugged’ website. In it, he explains – with the help of some friends – a teaching pattern that is unabashedly contrary in a world that is bursting at the seams with textbooks, theories and technology. It is a style “unburdened by an excess of materials… a pedagogy grounded in the local and relevant concerns of the people in the room.” Until I read this, I had no idea that other teachers were thinking the same as me on a wide scale.

It all starts with the article ‘A Dogma for EFL’, published 10 years ago, high on inspiration and determination, and the foundation for a style that is actually “a state of mind.” If you haven’t read the article, stop listening to me droning on and go read it!

Naked teaching

From there, it is a natural step up to the idea of teaching unplugged. Live, raw, naked teaching. Not literally, of course. That would be disturbing. But naked in the sense of not over-planning, not over-preparing, not micro-managing. Letting the learners lead with their own ideas and conversation. Using language because you want to talk, not because of some abstract goal. There’s a lot more to it, but the key principles can be found in the 10 guidelines defined in Scott’s article Teaching Unplugged (Or Dogme with an ‘E’).

Rule no. 1: There are no rules (except these 10)

In summary, those 10 principles include the idea that teachers only use the materials that can be found ‘on location’. It requires using your own knowledge and the experience and personalities of your students to teach.

A second idea that I am particularly fond of is that the teacher should sit down when the students are sitting. Symbolically, it takes away the ‘authority figure’, and replaces him with just another person. Someone to converse with.

Grammar should emerge from the lesson, not be inputted into it. Topics for discussion and questions asked should be real, not artificially construed to achieve something. The final point also rings clear and true: teachers should not be boring.

Dogme and teaching

I think this approach is best summed up by ‘Luke’, a contributor to the Teaching Unplugged website. When talking about whether this type of lesson can be carried out in the real world, he poignantly stated that “there’s one caveat here – you do have to be interested in people to teach like this!”

So, that’s been my week, pretty much! Reading about Dogme and thinking of ways to implement it more fully into my lessons. Has anyone been using this style? Care to comment?


About Ben Davies

The purpose of this blog is to introduce you to some ideas about teaching English as a foreign language. I lived in Japan and taught English for several years. It was a great experience that I would strongly recommend. Browse through the blog posts and get some tips, or get in touch if you have a specific question or comment.

3 Responses to How To Teach Unplugged – The Naked English Teacher

  1. KitzLouise says:

    I think you’d have to be quite a confident teacher to teach like this. Do you think it is limited to higher levels? I’ve only ever taught like this when forced into it by adult students who didn’t want to do the task. This has been good and produced some good discussions, but on one occasion the topic became so heated it was impossible to keep the students speaking English. Is this a typical pitfall of the approach? And would you wait to develop a relationship with your class before using it? I currently have a one-to-one lesson in a cafe every week which is pretty much what occurs to us at the time, which saves on lesson preparation and has the added bonus of a wonderful caffe latte!

  2. Hi..
    It’s the last thing you need isn’t it? You’ve done your teaching qualification, learned all you think you can about the Communicative Approach and strive to make your lessons as interesting as possible.

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  3. James says:

    I agree with the first comment, in fact as a teacher with some experience now i find myself moving away from prescriptive lesson plans more and more. But, and it’s a big but, this only comes with experience I think. With it you are able to apply your experience to the dynamic classroom.

    So, experienced teachers already do this, it’s nothing new. I’m not sure how well it might work with the less experienced. Also, it’s not that I’m working with no rules, I continue to move with the class as I see fit. This seeing and being able to ‘move’ comes with experience. The novice teacher needs rules and systems to help them teach.

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