A report of the Unplugged Conference of the 21st May by Catalina Dumitrescu.
Catalina is a teacher trainer at Oxford TEFL Barcelona
‘It’s so easy not to practise what you preach. It´s better to sit down and talk. We all have so much to say. Not a good idea to be talked at.’ – Luke Meddings
And so everyone talked at the Unplugged Conference last Saturday.
Before anything else, it was the students who had a say in Scott Thornbury and Luke Medding’s demonstration lesson.
First they shared info about their close friends and acquaintances. Next they went on to explain the reasons behind the demonstrations taking place in one of Barcelona ´s main squares. They organized their ideas in a text that they wrote and then shared with their colleagues. The lesson seamlessly integrated the four skills and used student-generated content to work on emergent language. There was work on vocabulary, question formation, connected speech and informal writing style in text messages. The explicit though gentle – given the set up – focus on form set the lesson apart from ´just chatting´.
What is more, the students also produced a short text explaining what they felt they had learned from the lesson and shared it with everyone in the room.
It was the first time learners were given the opportunity to give hot feedback on the teaching unplugged approach and this continued in the open discussion following the demonstration lesson.
The teachers also had plenty to say. Observers and students alike took turns to ask and answer questions about teaching unplugged. MAIN IDEAS:
- Learner lives and learner language are indivisible. Focusing exclusively on just one in the classroom means not doing our job.
- Teaching unplugged is an attitude rather than an experiment reserved to experienced teachers. Less experienced teachers may find it more challenging to clarify a language point once it has emerged from conversation but the unplugged framework and task formats are not intrinsically more difficult compared to course book based teaching.
- The unplugged approach can be adapted for lower levels. The lesson can start with simple ´What´s your name?´ and ´Where are you from?´ type of questions and build on the information and language that emerge from the interviews.
- Teaching unplugged is not just conversation. It involves all four skills and a strong focus on form, which explains the importance attached to students producing written texts.
- Common European Framework level descriptors can be used to ask students to identify their level as learners tend to have a very good idea about what they can and can´t do in English.
After lunch, the participants generated and voted for questions for discussion. Groups were formed and the debates kicked off in an open space that allowed the teachers to float from one discussion group to another. A couple of hours and refreshments later, each group were ready to share findings. Here is what emerged:
Currently, there is a lack of research that validates teaching unplugged. Research is notoriously challenging to organize but we can start small-scale experiments to explore the effectiveness of the unplugged approach. Several participants have volunteered to carry out research and more initiative is welcome from teachers/ schools. The TDSIG website can be used for teachers to share ideas and findings.
Teaching unplugged and published materials are actually not incompatible. For those of us working in a context which specifically requires use of a course book, all we have to do is ‘unplug’ the book.
- Keep lessons conversation rich by exploiting every opportunity for speaking and personalization.
- Be ready to discard the upcoming language point/task and focus on what the students are expressing interest in or struggling with.
- Use the relevant content in the book as a springboard for discussion and student-driven focus on form.
- What is not covered in a unit can always be given for homework.
Conversely, when teaching course book free, there is no reason why we cannot incorporate an activity, text or game we found in published materials if we feel that students respond well and it matches their interests, all within an unplugged framework.
Technology can easily be part and parcel of teaching unplugged. It was agreed that teaching unplugged doesn´t exclude technology, but the approach needs to be top-down. Instead of the teachers selecting videos and hoping for the best in terms of student interest in the class, we should allow students to bring in materials and build on their interest, let them generate content and work with and on the emerging language.
There is an essential out-of-class component which involves students researching topics of interest and then sharing their findings in class.
The group shared a project in which Spanish teenagers created a guided tour of Barcelona – all student-generated, personalised and directly relevant to learners’ interests.
- Unplugging teacher training
There is no reason why teaching unplugged should be a luxury reserved exclusively to experienced teachers.
When starting teaching practice, qualifying teachers can be encouraged to do a needs analysis and listen carefully to their students so that they can use this initial information to plan lessons that respond directly to learner objectives, strengths and weaknesses. Language points straight out of the book and the ensuing over-reliance on published material can thus be replaced by a syllabus that responds to learner needs ´here and now´. Once the newly qualified teachers start their jobs on completing their training course, it is essential to provide a framework of support that covers carrying out needs analysis, lesson planning, syllabus design and evaluation.