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Lesson 10 – Taboos

October 27, 2011

Today’s lesson really could have been straight out of a coursebook. In fact it probably was originally, in which case I hope this lesson serves as an example of how a coursebook idea can be adapted and exploited to make more use of learners as a resource.

The nature of the lesson emerged naturally but I think I was influenced by something I saw once in a fantastic resource book called Taboos and Issues.

The group came in and started talking about some health issues, and it emerged that they had just had their annual checkup arranged via the company. One student in particular was saying how he had to go back for a colon-related examination and started giving some details about samples that I didn’t really want to know about. He was slightly struggling to explain it all though and I thought whether I should fly with this as the lesson topic…… but I quickly rejected the idea!

I commented that it’s quite unusual in the UK to talk about health issues like this, to which they responded with some surprise that it’s quite normal in Japan.

The topic of taboos had presented itself on a plate. From there I went through the following sequence of activities which is hopefully exemplified in the board photo:

– what topics are delicate in Japanese society?

– Ss work together to rank them in order of sensitivity (ranking activities are great because they force the Ss to probe deeper and articulate their feelings, throwing up useful language in the process)

– Brainstorm some ‘inappropriate questions’ on each of the topics (lots of fun). I let them do this in L1 initially because they were finding it hard to conjure up examples from memory in L2. Interesting how language and memory/culture interact here.

– correct and drill questions

– now imagine situations in which these questions could legitimately be heard. This yielded some really interesting conversation as they explored the boundaries of their preconceptions.

60 mins

Commentary: Recently, I’ve been trying to find ‘language opportunities’ on which to pursue my Dogme lessons, but I took a different route here and followed a ‘topic opportunity’. In this case, although there was language arising during the lesson, it was the logical progression of the topic that carried it through, reminiscent of a Task Based Learning procedure. I once read an article on Dogme (or perhaps Teaching Unplugged itself?) which commented that Dogme and TBL share many parallels, and I experienced that first hand today.

Often, my Dogme lessons that don’t work as well as the ones I write about here fail to take off because I can’t come up with activities that are stimulating/logical/relevant enough off the top of my head, in the heat of the lesson.

Recently this has been a persistent problem and I think it’s because I don’t have enough good activity options ‘at the point of retrieval’. I’m thinking that a period of teaching carefully thought-out TBL lessons with well sequenced, progressive and orderly tasks would have very positive backwash to my unplugged teaching.

How have other teachers upped their game in this respect? It’d be great to share some teacher development stories. Journals? Activity banks?


  1. A very insightful post, and a great-sounding lesson. I’m not sure that I can help you to up your game – in fact, I’m also worrying about the same thing.

    Curious your distinction about topic opportunities vs language opportunities – I think I tend to go with the former in my dogme experiments, and hope that the language teaching slot will make itself obvious. As a last resort, and sometimes a first resort, we might make a lexical mind-map on the board.

    I’m a bit short of activity options myself.

    • Thanks for the comment Alan. There are two journal articles by Meddings & Thornbury where they list possible activity types, classified by text, topic or task. Have you seen these? They’ve been my most useful point of reference so far, perhaps even more so than the book (2008?).

  2. Really interesting and jaw droppingly nice board work.

    I have the same problem of ‘I can’t come up with activities that are stimulating/logical/relevant enough off the top of my head’. I’m really not a linguist so I generally keep notes of areas that come up and tick ones I think need working on now and if they come up more than once/twice then I try to do something in that lesson. What and how? That’s a tricky one.

    I’ve seen the ‘lets stop and look at some grammar’ phase really kill the tempo and so I’ve done a lot of ‘there and then’ work which has been later recapped or reused with the whole group.

    I also prefer looking at how language can be improved more than errors but doing EVERYTHING in context which keeps the grammary bits useful and discussive.

    Basically, my plans have a couple of section/topic headings, predicted ideas and a few possible tasks/exercises. Depending how things go I improvise. In one course I wrote down 20 activities discussion/speaking activities I wanted to try and so when I has brain drain I just looked in my notebook. These were all just different formats for debate but I wanted to make sure that I didn’t use the same stuff all the time.

    • Thanks Phil
      I’ve taken to doing something similar – building up a resource of activities that I keep with me. I guess it’s the only way, how else do you get good at something!
      Thanks for taking the time to write

  3. Hi Oli, I think because your board work is such an important aspect of your teaching, you could paraphrase/ summarise the conversation you just had, using the key words on your board. Then more words could be added, either you doing so or getting a secretary to do it. Then they could have another go, or you could say it again. As you said, at first, they struggled with the language and had to speak in L1, so being able to understand you afterwards would be a great confidence boost. I remember once telling a joke/story, and because students kept on arriving late, I had to restart it, but by the 4th time, I could just prompt them with the actions and they’d fill in for me. (right/left-wing makes a good plant! Then you’ve got more room to draw a bird)

  4. Hi Oli,
    Thought people could gain a lot from your description of how this class went and would enjoy your boardwork. So have just posted a link to it on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check there for comments.

    Please feel free to post on the page whenever you have anything you’d like to share.



    • Thank you for the encouragement Ann. As you may know, I work for BC here in Tokyo so it’s great to see you supporting blogs such as mine at your end! Best wishes

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