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Teaching Unplugged

by Louise Stringer, IH Budapest

Ever felt that your textbook is all wrong for your class, but couldn’t bring yourself to dump it, or felt guilty for letting lessons go off on a tangent after a student brings up something interesting? Teaching Unplugged may help you feel differently about situations like these. The first book to be published dealing with an approach known as Dogme ELT, it explains why we should shun excessive reliance on materials and resources, and strip down to a materials-light, conversation based style concentrating on the students themselves and their immediate language needs. In short, taking a responsive, rather than a pre-emptive approach to teaching.

Teaching Unplugged is broken down into three main sections, each focusing on a different aspect of Dogme ELT.

Part A begins by detailing the core principles of the method, explaining how the philosophy came about, and why ‘just talking’ can actually become a legitimate teaching method. At the heart of the approach is the view that a dependence on materials such as course books, practice sheets, study aids etcetera actually works to stifle the students’ learning process by focusing too greatly on the delivery of ‘Grammar McNuggets’, leaving little time for real communication. Dogme eschews these ‘unnecessary’ materials, and instead works only with what can be found in the classroom – mostly the students themselves. A great example is held up of the primary school teacher Sylvia Ashton-Warner, who embraced this concept so fully that she incinerated all her books and materials, afterwards remarking “You should have heard the roaring in the chimney!”.

But how does mere conversation lead to students actually learning? How is new language taught? How are errors corrected? Isn’t this just an excuse for teachers to be lazy? The later portion of Part A turns to these kinds of questions. Instead of teaching chunks of grammar through a pre-decided order and pace, Dogme shifts the focus to emergent language, with the intent of “uncovering the syllabus within”. Essentially, students make errors, then you choose some to work on and upgrade. This is arguably the central concept of the approach – that language, rather than being acquired, instead emerges under the right conditions.

These conditions for language emergence form the basis of Part B, which is a collection of almost 100 activities for use in the classroom. The activities are ordered into five main groups; getting students speaking at the beginning of class, using the students as your source of material, selecting suitable stimuli for conversation, dealing with language problems and maintaining continuity between lessons. I tried a few of these in class, and found them to be quite successful, particularly a slight variation on an activity called “Something We Did”, which even got a usually painfully shy class chatting away happily. But, although the activities themselves ran well, and were enjoyed by the students, I found it a little difficult to actually build on any of the language that arose. While Teaching Unplugged seems to be mainly concerned with the idea of focusing on emergent language, I found the book to contain very little about how to actually go about this further than just using the board to present the language to be upgraded, as most of the activities deal with retrieving or noticing errors instead of working on the problem, and other activities are extremely specialised. There are few ideas about ensuring students have sufficient practice using the new language, or even ever think about it again. Of course, these activities are only meant as a starting point, your springboard into Dogme, but I felt that as this is the real core of the Dogme approach more coverage and support was necessary.

At times while reading Teaching Unplugged it can feel as if Dogme is an all or nothing approach, where if you choose to teach by it you must forever banish all texts and resources – a frightening prospect for most teachers! Part C allays some of these fears though, giving ideas of how to integrate Dogme into your current teaching, be that teaching Dogme for a long period or just for part of a course, or using Dogme for business, exam or young learner classes. It even, shock horror, has some insights on using Dogme lessons alongside a coursebook!

All in all, I found Teaching Unplugged to be quite an eye-opener, but mainly because the Dogme approach itself is so different to the way that most of us do things. It is a great introduction to Dogme, but this mainly lies in Part A, where the approach is described. Part B, the most useful section when it comes to implementing the approach, was a little lacking though. Based on this, it seems to me that Teaching Unplugged could be an extremely useful book only for a teacher with the experience and confidence to be able to deal with problems as they arise and actually build meaningful lessons with so little concrete input. As for me, I’m not sure I can really hear that roaring in the chimney just yet.

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