You have probably heard about the recent earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand and the terrible devastation it has caused.  I just received an email on a discussion list for CELTA tutors from a teacher working over there and I am re-posting it here in order to publicise the situation over there and to try to do some good:

Dear colleagues,
Our language school in Christchurch, New Zealand, is preparing to reopen in temporary premises while our building and campus are checked for earthquake damage. We cannot enter our school building to retrieve materials or coursebooks so we are currently engaged in some lateral thinking on how to teach without materials! We won’t have a photocopier or printers or internet access, or whiteboards in our premises. Most of the staff have internet access at home however.
Does anyone know of any online articles or pages of ideas for teaching in this type of situation? The students are adults here for general English as well as business English and Cambridge/IELTS exam prep courses.
Many thanks in advance for any tips or advice!

As you can see, the situation is quite extreme.  I am asking on behalf of these teachers and their students for the help of any colleagues who read this posting.

You can help in any of the following ways at least:

  1. comment on this post with your ideas for low/no resources lessons.  The wider the applicability in terms of level, the better
  2. comment with links to useful websites containing low/no materials teaching tips – for example,
  3. comment with ideas or concrete lessons for managing exam preparation classes in the short-term without access to exam prep coursebooks or past papers.
  4. tell any colleagues you know who might have ideas or tips about this to visit this blog and comment

When posting, please bear in mind the circumstances; our colleagues in Christchurch have internet access at home or at cafes, but printing and/or photocopying is probably next to impossible.

I’ll be tweeting this link soon – please retweet if you can.  I’ll make sure that the original poster knows how to find this post and all your comments, so please be generous with your ideas – we’re all in this together.  On that note, and being cheeky: DELTA Publishing, any chance of having a few copies of Teaching Unplugged donated to the school in question?  Can we work together to make a difference?

Comment and let’s get this moving!

Thank you for reading, and thank you for helping!


POSTSCRIPT: as this blog is all about practising what you preach, I thought I had better do just that!  Here is a lesson idea that I got from my brilliant colleague Izzy…

Title: “Something that’s worth it”

Aims: By the end of the lesson, the students will have practiced speaking about something they are prepared to spend extra money (or time) on, and they will have received feedback on the language they used to do this.


Before the lesson

Think about (and if at all possible, bring in to show) something that you cannot live without and are prepared to spend a relatively large amount of money (or time) on – this could be something very “everyday” such as a $5 hair band (average price 50 cents) or something that you do regularly.  Think about what makes this item/activity worth the extra money or time for you personally.

Task set up

Show the students your item (or describe your activity) and tell them about why it is so important for you and why you think it is worth the money or time you spent on it.  Welcome questions and be prepared to defend your choice.

Ask students to think about something that they spend a little extra money or time on because they think it’s worth it.  Point out that it does not need to be an item; it could be a specific service or activity.  The only criteria are that they really do spend money or time on this item and you could get the same kind of thing cheaper or faster some other way.


Students stand and walk around, finding partners to talk to.  They describe their items or services etc and why they feel that it is worth the extra money/time, and listen to each other’s stories.  They ask each other for more information and move on, repeating the process with a new partner.  Students try to talk to as many people as possible in the time available.

Tips for keeping the conversation going:

  • Get all the students’ attention (e.g. clap) and tell them to find a new partner.  Repeat as necessary.
  • Wander round and encourage students to ask more questions.


Feedback on task

Learners sit down.  Learners take a moment to think about the following (or similar) questions:

  1. Whose item/service/activity was most surprising for you?
  2. Did anyone’s story convince you to spend more money/time on that thing next time you need it?

Ask some students to talk to you about these questions, encourage chat within the group.

Feedback on language

Use the board to give students feedback on interesting language they used*

* Remember this can be:

  • Good use of language
  • Language that you can help them use better



  • Hi, here are a few materials-free lessons I’ve been blogging about recently.

    1 a speaking activity based on mini-presentations – the written follow up could work by using texts from the students
    2 a lesson based on students providing live listening practice – a colleague wrote about this “sepaking cycle” on his blog there are 10+ lesson ideas there using the same task template
    3 this lesson starts with one word and hopefully offers a template for other one-word lessons
    4 this simple creative writing lesson works at a lot of different levels and for multi-level classes as well
    5 on this last page I’ve got a couple of ideas for using photos as a starting point for a class – they could be shown to the class on a laptop screen if Ts have laptops they can take to class – or images on mobile phones can work equally well
    6 and here’s a last one for using visualisation

    I hope something here can be of some use.
    Good luck to you all, with the school at the moment, with the rebuilding in the future.


    • Thanks Ceri – and for your other post. Thought I’d quid pro quo with a lesson idea myself – have updated the post to include it!

  • Anthony,

    First suggestion. Ask the students (and listen!). They will surely have many ideas. Get them to help create a syllabus.

    Getting a few copies of Teaching Unplugged was going to be a suggestion of mine too. If DELTA aren’t forthcoming with some free copies, I’m sure a the school can pick the book up easily themselves. It is highly recommended.

    To be sure, if the teacher’s have internet access at home, I think, with a little ingenuity, they could actually get through this ordeal very positively. They just need to pool their resources – use their collective classroom experience (you know, what activities usually work well… and why?). I would be very surprised if none of the teachers have already used worksheets and lesson plans from the myriad ELT sites. Collect good ones and discuss their merit.

    As for exam prep, I can see nothing here stopping those lessons. If at least the teacher’s have access to past papers or coursebook material online. Just mashall some activities that focus on the skills that are to be tested.

    This is obviously a terrible incident and it especially hit home for me as I was working in Christchurch a few years back (actually hanging out in many of the places that were hit), if anything, this sounds like a great opportunity for the teachers in this school to spread their wings and, if they haven’t already, start teaching unplugged.

    In fact, quite besides the terrible tragedy here in the town at large, I have to confess I wish I were one those teachers faced with these classroom challenges right now – putting our heads together. I would have a field day.

    • Thanks, Mr. Darkbloom: While I wouldn’t wish this situation on anyone, I think you are right in that it has the potential – with a little solidarity – to bring out some wonderful resources and resourcefulness

  • Hello.
    One of my favourite games is what I call “Jenny’s Game” (after the teacher who takes credit for it at my school). All the teacher needs to do is hand out a piece of paper which has been divided into a number to boxes, so the prep is very low.

    It’s a fun speaking activity which can help with grammar, word order, vocab and memory. It can last up to an hour sometimes and has always gone down a hit in my lessons.

    Rather than leave a long winded explanation here abotu the game, please follow this link where it has all been explained:

    • Thanks for this one, Miss Fearnley 🙂 This sounds like a great idea that I need to try myself. Thank you for sharing.

  • Hi, here are a few materials-free lesson plans I’ve posted on my blog recently. They are all based on using the student as the main resource. None of them need printing or photocopying. They all work for a wide range of levels.

    1 W is for … words the written follow up can be done using the students’ own texts
    2 Scary Movies students provide live listening practice (there is also a link to a blog called the Speaking Cyclist with 10+ more lesson plans using the same lesson structure)
    3 One word lessons – a materials free functional language lesson on advice this lesson structure can lend itself to other functions

    I hope these can be of some help. Good luck with the temporary premises, good luck with the rebuilding.

    I worked some years back for a great language school in Italy which was affected much like you in the earthquake there in 2009. They have a facebook page : The English School of L’Aquila – they might be the best people to help you, as they’ve been through the same experience. They’re still working in temporary premises but are thriving and are helping to keep a sense of community alive.

    • Thank you Ceri, for this post and for your second one, and for the tip for local support – that’s the kind of generosity I knew was out there.

  • Hi Anthony,

    Following Mr. Darkbloom’s suggestion of asking the students, there is an activty I’ve done in some higher level classes that they really enjoyed and that can generate great student emergent classes – focusing on oral fluency or vocabulary related to what comes up. It was a challenge proposed by Jason Renshaw in his blog. Here’s the link:

    Something else that might be interesting and start from SS difficulties is an auction. There is a description of how I do it here:

    For that last activity you can also get the teachers to come up with sentences that contain mistakes students make often instead of using sentences taken from students’ work.

    I’ll keep thinking about it and come back if I can think of anything.

    Best of luck! Warm regards from Brazil.

  • Anthony,

    I wish a speedy recovery to all in Christchurch. I have worked in many situations where there is little or no material at all to teach from. You and your colleagues have the advantage of being able to connect to the internet at home and at cafes, so now is the time to make good use of all the ELT bookmarks you’ve collected.

    Some specific suggestions that I can give would be to talk with the students and use the incident as the talking point or theme on which to base the syllabus. I think the earthquake has affected everyone in some way and each individual is dealing with it in his or her own way. A short writing assignment about “how I’ve been affected by the earthquake” may be a good starting point. Another might be to discuss “How we are trying to get back to normal”. Just talking about the events helps the healing process and will assist with language learning. It might even be an opportunity to help students with specific English concerns for contexts of dealing with insurance, repairs, etc…

    As for the test prep materials, I would use what might be available online, I don’t have anything in particular for the DELTA and IELTS. Maybe see what you could get from their websites.

    I hope this helps. Good luck to you and everyone in Christchurch on the road to recovery!

    Scott Chiverton

    • Thanks Scott, I think you have made a very important point: the power of self-organisation and the ability of students to frame their own learning outcomes. Also really like the idea of leveraging the inevitable paperwork which will accompany this crisis.

  • Great initiative Anthony,

    If this were me I’d say become a Gumshoe, get those mobile phones, cameras, paper and pencils, and “press” badges and get out onto the street. Start documenting what you see and hear, and talk to people about their experiences.

    Collect information in any form you can think of – audio and video recording, still photographs, drawings and sketches, articles from the press. Students then collate, organize, mash up, repackage and interpret this in another way. Produce something with it: article, book, video, audio program,

    Before you start, agree with students about the product, the process you will follow to produce it, time frame to completion, milestones, work protocols, and assessment criteria: write rubrics with them and revise the rubrics as you move forward.

    This is good for any level and any focus.


    • Thanks Mark, this has lots of value – not only linguistic. If internet access can be secured at all, the potential for reaching out with such documentary work could be even more motivating.

  • Anthony, hi!

    Some great ideas above – I love Mark’s idea of turning the students into journalists.

    For something a little more traditional (or old-fashioned?!) but very workable, try a bit of CLL (Community Language Learning) – there’s a good link here about how it works. You just need a recording device (mobile phone will do) and, to carry it through, some paper or a board.

    Start by brainstorming topics with the students, and then go with the one they’re all happy with. You can tweak the angle, depending on what language you want to draw out / focus on, e.g. something provocative will bring in dis/agreeing; choosing between options or making decisions might encourage language of preference. CLL can be used with all ages, levels groups – GE and BE alike. See the website for some experiences.

    I wish all the people in Christchurch lots of strength – all the very best. Rachel

    • Thanks Rachel – I think CLL deserves a rehabilitation in this day of mobile media devices: an “old-school” idea with a modern tech twist!

  • Ask each student to bring in one photograph, and see where it goes from there. (The photo could be a prized memento, or just something funny or weird from yesterday’s newspaper.)

    Best wished to everybody in Christchurch.

    • Thanks Alan, I’ve seen a lot of great lessons starting this way, always taking new directions!

  • Hi,
    You can teach great lessons at virtually any level by drawing a thought-provoking “stick people” picture on the board and getting groups of learners to decide who the people are, where they are, when it took place and then what happened. The class can vote on their favourite scenario and build the story together or the groups can compete to build their own stories that they then read to the class and everybody votes on their favourite – followed by the teacher using that story for grammar accuracy work. My own fave picture is a very simple drawing of a block of flats with balconies. On the top flat balcony, draw a woman standing with hands on hips and a cross expression and hanging by one arm from the balcony railing draw a man with a surprised expression. However, with the recent earthquake this might not be the best picture to use.
    Good luck.

    • Thanks for that simple idea Susie – even wthout a board (which I think is the situation right now) this would work. Wise to consider the appropriateness of any visual you do use, of course!

  • Hi there,

    A real tragedy, but perhaps an opportunity as well. I can’t think of a better situation for genuinely unplugged teaching.

    I have an index of teaching activities on my blog that are unplugged in approach and require little to absolutely nothing in terms of materials:

    Good cause, hope a lot of people get involved and support it.

    All the best,

    – Jason

    • Thanks for sharing that archive of yours, Jason – I’m sure it’ll be very useful (not only for those teachers in Christchurch!)

  • Anthony,

    I tweeted this last night to my PLN after I saw it on the Dogme list. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. I have stacks of material, but I’m trying to think what might be appropriate to send.


  • Hi Anthony

    I’m just a very beginner with teaching unplugged but something I plan to try with one of my higher level exam classes this week is “write your own exam questions.”

    1) Teacher brings in an old / new (depending on budget) newspaper or alternatively asks the learners to bring in an article from a newspaper / website etc… that they are interested in.

    2) Divide the class into groups, give each group an article.

    3) Ask the learners to prepare 5-10 exam style questions on the article.

    4) They then swop articles and questions with another group and attempt to answer them. Then swop again if they’re not fed up!

    If past exam papers are online the teacher could have a look beforehand at home and prep a list of types / styles of questions that come up to help in stage 3.

    I’m not sure how well it will work but that’s what I’m going to try this week 🙂


    • Thanks Anna, this is a simple but effective way of managing reading/use of English style exam practice without access to past papers!

  • Hi,
    I’m the teacher in Christchurch who originally made this request – just wanted to say a big thank you to everyone who has posted here and elsewhere with advice, tips and ideas. It’s all appreciated and all being read and used!
    Many thanks to Anthony for posting and all of the contributors for their ideas.

    • Very glad to hear that our lesson “whip-round” is going to be useful! Also very glad to hear (here and elsewhere) that you and your students are all safe and well. I hope ideas continue to come in! And my students who wrote to you yesterday are really looking forward to hearing back from you 😉

  • Hi Heather,

    If you have a mailing address for your school, there may be other publishers, certainly ELT writers who might be willing to send you material. Is the postal service working? If you’d like to get in touch directly, you can tweet me on @simongreenall, and I’d be please to suggest this to other colleagues.

    Simon Greenall

  • Hi,
    getting students to create their own listening comprehensions has always gone down well with my students. The topic would depend on their level and the teaching setting of course, but I have used topics such as autobiographical info, recipes, a what’s on guide (perhaps not in this case), plans for the future, anything relevant to their lives really.

    Students work in groups to plan what they’re going to say (a good idea to encourage them not to make it too long), I normally then get them to record themselves, you could get them to write it down and read it out or use mobile phone voice recorders. They then write their own comp questions and make sure they note down the answers too. Then have a carousel activity with the class in groups moving round so they listen to at least two of their classmates’ work and answer the questions.

    Follow up with a discussion on how it went, was it easier, more difficult than course book listening comp. If we’ve done recipes, we might vote on the best etc.

    Great to see so many ideas coming in.

    Good luck!


    • Great illustration of how “home-baked” receptive work can be fuelled by productive work – thank you, Francine!

  • A productive lesson using just some old envelopes and lots of scraps of paper:
    Individuals write a name of a person or a job title on one sheet, a name of another person or job title on a second sheet, a place on a third sheet and an object on a 4th sheet.
    The teacher collects up the sheets into envelopes labelled person 1, person 2, where?, what?
    Several different ways of proceeding:
    1) Each student picks out one slip at random from each envelope and writes a sentence including the 4 items
    2) Every student thinks of a short story including the 4 items and then tells it to a partner or group and they vote on their favourite
    3) open class speaking activity where nominated students continue a story by the first student introducing “person 1” and so on.
    The teacher can then use the students’ work to develop grammar points, vocab etc.

    • Thank you for this, Susie – I like the “one way in – several ways out” style of this. Makes it very easy to use the same idea many times!

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