TDSIG Unplugged Countdown: “Seven…”

Whoever Comes is The Right People
The first principle of OST

This mini-series of short posts sketch out some of the ideas that I would like to explore at the upcoming TDSIG Unplugged Conference in Barcelona on 21 May 2011.  If any of them chime with you and you would like to explore them as well – or if you would like to work on completely different issues, the conference is there to give you the open space to do just that.  It is never too late to join in, so if you haven’t already, visit and register!

Counting down…7…

What do learners think of teaching unplugged and how can this be researched and leveraged?

The idea of organizing a classroom around dialogue (but not to the exclusion of other texts), making sparing but intensive use of materials (including published materials, with a waste not, want not attitude) and using as the raw material for language development work the emergent output of the learners seems instinctively attractive to many language teachers.

However, some voices, suggest that such an approach, if applied too rigorously (if not to say dogmatically…) may lead to learners being disadvantaged – harmed in their development, even.

So a question that this contrast of opinion raises for me is: who should we turn to in order to find out whether teaching unplugged is acceptable to and useful for learners?  The answer to this is simple on the surface: ask the learners.

This is precisely what a (self-declared) new member of the Dogme Collective did recently.  On April 12th 2011, the following post appeared on the Dogme ELT Yahoo Group List:

Re: Travel English and Dogme

I’m a new Dogme fan convert but I’ll offer a Dogme/TBLish idea. Pls tell me if it’s terrible.

Why not discuss what areas they need together and make the syllabus first. You could even start each subsequent class with a discussion on the topic to outline needs/interests (board them) and select your lesson aims. Then move into more specific areas and address or help build up the language before moving into TBL roleplays/practice. Top it off with some written work and maybe more focus on emergent problems or areas of further interest which could be addressed next lesson. You could do a TESOL Skills for Life approach where students find and bring in texts such as train ticket bookings and holiday brochures and make the lesson round those, using them to prepare and act out situations as they are full of important language.

A month later, on May 13 (Friday the 13th!) the same teacher returned to the group and posted the following message:

Dogme Revolution Feedback

I’ve just finished my last classes and I had some interesting feedback and results from those in which I’ve used Dogme techniques.

  • Generally, students fluency had gone through the roof.
  • They all had become more confident in speaking.
  • They had become interested in new topics (chosen by peers).
  • They really enjoyed discussing in large groups with me as a member.
  • They had found my language support helpful.
  • Everyone hated the coursebook but found it useful when it was needed as a reference.
  • Everyone spoke less, almost no L1
  • They loved recording themselves on mobiles during a last class project in English and were proud to show off their skills.
  • And this was more so for the CAE/CPE ones who had moved from being hard to handle (think dangerous minds attitude but with no danger) to being eager to come , discuss and debate lots of topics. In fact, that class felt like more of an assisted debate club.

Anyhow, thanks to everyone for their support and I look forward to doing more next term.

Granted, this is self-report and filtered through the teacher who is reporting on the learners’ behalf to a partial audience, but still, there are some findings here which I think are telling.

First, fluency seems to have increased measurably; and fluency can be considered to be a stepping stone to accuracy, rather than the other way round.  This correlates with a general sense of greater confidence in oral performance, which is often the area that learners say they need development in (“I am afraid to speak” is something I hear a lot during placement tests, for example).

Second, their topical “grazing range” had increased, as well as their comfort with large group conversations.  Why is this important? Well, one reason could be that interest in a wider range of topics leads to wider exposure to lexical fields, leading to a more broadly founded lexicon.  Also, handling oneself outside the classroom typical “pairwork” setup is a useful skill.

Third, and most crucial for supporting an unplugged approach, the learners developed a distaste for coursebook fayre after they had abstained form it for a while.  It seems that with processed materials, absence does not “make the heart grow fonder”!

In contrast, the trust and appreciation for a teacher’s targeted focus on “point of need” language increased.

On balance, this appears to have been a successful experimental intervention.  Hoever, it was one with no robust experimental method.  This will leave it and its findings open to rejection by some.

So I am interested in exploring how teachers can investigate – in ways incorporating some degree of research rigor – the impacts of teaching unplugged with their learners.  Scott Thornbury and Martin Sketchley have explored MA-level ideas for such research projects but I am thinking of something smaller scale; something that everyday teachers could consider doing.  I am perhaps thinking of something closer to the kind of workday reflective practice done by Dale Coulter, for example.

Further, I am interested in finding ways of using such findings to encourage other teachers who up to now have rejected Dogme in their work to reappraise it and perhaps “suck it and see”.

Anyone else interested in this?


  • Count me in, Anthony. As I posted recently on my blog, I want to try and document a dogme ‘approach’ with my ESOL students next year, and would be interested in taking it further to talk with others about the experience, much à la Dale Coulter at IATEFL. Something I’m also pondering is perhaps demonstrating a domge lesson (a bit like Scott and Luke are going to do in Barcelona) and ask ESOL teachers what they think (although any attempt I would make would probably be a lot less that of a ‘seasoned’ domge practitioner.

    Look forward to seeing if anyone else will take up the gauntlet!

    • I’m very interested to see the outcomes of your work in ESOL, Mike, as I have little direct knowledge of that sector, and even that is outmoded!

      • Should it all come off, I will definitely keep everyone abreast of whatever happens!

        I really think that there is much that EFL and ESOL could learn from each other (not just about dogme…) and would love it if there was a lot more cross-pollination of ideas/research/training/etc. On another note, I pointed a colleague to your Harrogate presentation and she was quite impressed. Perhaps I should try to interest people in blogs and maybe Twitter this summer…

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