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Reflections on an Unplugged course

January 19, 2012

I’ve just finished teaching a 5 lesson introductory course for intermediate level, which I’ve done entirely unplugged. Coursebook coverage was units 1-2 of New Cutting Edge Intermediate.

I chose frameworks for lessons that were likely to bring up grammar points found in the first 2 units of the book and then set the respective coursebook exercises for homework in order for the learners to feel that they’d used it.

I spent a good hour over the first two lessons introducing lexical notebooks and showing them how to record language (homework was to buy a nice notebook!). Learners were also asked to choose an elementary level graded reader and read it over the duration of the course.

This is the first time I have taught an entire course unplugged and have been reflecting on the relative merits.

(If you’re new to Dogme and would like to know more about the mechanics of an Unplugged lesson please see other posts on this blog and other sites from the blogroll on the right of this screen.)

What’s striking is that the learners have got to know each other really well in only 5 lessons, a pleasing result of basing lessons entirely around learners’ lives. Activities and talking was always based on finding out about their classmates or about their each other’s feelings or reactions to something.

Having read a lot about sociolinguistics recently it struck me that this course was very inclusive and, by constructing learning around learners’ own lives, made an important contribution to helping learners establish their own social identity in English. This may sound rather woolly, but on this course there was a tangible surge in confidence and engagement with language compared to other courses I’ve taught. See here for further discussion on motivation and attitude in language learning.

I see the work we did on establishing lexical notebooks as important in the Unplugged framework. The retrospective discipline and meta-cognitive skills needed to keep such a notebook seems to make up for the ‘structure-on-a-plate’ that my course lacked by not working out of a coursebook.

The graded readers were also a huge success and we spent some of the last lesson talking about what they’d all read. The books might also have made up for a potential drawback which has been bothering me.

When looking through their beautifully kept lexical notebooks at the end of the course I noticed rather disappointedly that there wasn’t a great deal of lexis in it. There were plenty of lexical phrases, verb patterns, collocations, functions for speaking skills etc, but not a lot of good old vocabulary.

Thinking back, it seems that I spent a lot of time on scaffolding conversation, grammaring, reconstructing text, delayed error correction, recycling tasks, some functional language, some speaking skills. It seems like I was trying hard to give them ’empowering’ language and skills. What they didn’t get was a substantial amount of lexical input, vocabulary building, whatever you want to call it.

This is a problem. Is it a tall order for teachers to provide this level of input on their own? Could it be that I simply neglected to give them enough new vocab – offer alternative language where possible? Or could it be that I concentrated too much on accuracy because that was my instinctive take on what they needed most? I felt the absence of at least one meaty text, spoken or written, that could have been exploited for language.

There is some action research screaming to be done here. I’d love to hear from others about this – have you had similar experiences with Unplugged courses and if so how have you tackled it? How do you work with learners’ emergent language while ensuring they receive a good amount of lexical input? Indeed, do you think about it at all? If you don’t, are you satisfied you give them enough? How do you know?


From → Discussion

  1. Hi Oli. Great post. Seems you changed the layout and design of your blog a bit and I got confused.

    I too have questioned my role in an unplugged classroom regarding lexical unput: Am I in charge of it? Am I the one who should decide which words they should learn? If I am, do I provide enough? A good point to raise. No doubt the lexical notebook training gave your learners a very powerful tool to learn outside of the classroom. Perhaps a focus on mining texts for new words might have upped the vocabulary input. Learners could be trained in the classroom then sent off into the wild to find texts they like and note down the vocabulary. Throw in some dictionary training too and watch those lexical notebooks fill up with new words.

    This is all very well in theory: learners find things they like; they read them; they find new collocations on a topic; they store them; they share them etc etc, but how many people have the time?



    • Hi Dale

      Your last point hits the nail on the head, especially in my context. I’ve been resigned to the fact for some time that, while my students may do the odd bit at home, most of the leaning has to take place in class time. This is a real shame because, as I’m sure you know as a keen learner yourself, you only get guidance in class – real learning takes place when you go away and struggle with language yourself, be it by going off and speaking or finding texts to dissect.

      So, as you say, it seems that some work with texts of some kind would have increased the input on this course of mine. This raises the question of who chooses the texts, whether they’re local or not, and so on. I’m not sure I could have relied on them to find anything and bring it to class, and it’s difficult to find any decent locally produced English texts in Japan.

      So this leaves us with something ‘imported’. I don’t have a problem with that at all, actually, but I’m aware that it does depart from Dogme principles. So just for the sake of exploring how far we can take Dogme principles and seeing how far they can be made relevant to a variety of contexts, I wonder if there are any other alternatives to the input problem?

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m very interested in any followup discussion on this topic.

    Could students bring in reading material they discover on their own for analysis in class? Last week, I took my group to our organization’s computer lab for the first time. When we returned, we discussed the experience. I passed around a copy of the Rules of Conduct that was on the wall in the lab and that turned up a lot of relevant new language. Just thinking out loud …

    • Hi Kathy

      Ss bringing in their own reading material? Yes, that’s definitely a good way to go. Trouble is, my guys just won’t do it 🙂 Or if they do, they’ll do it out of a sense of obligation, not because they’re particularly interested in the contents of what they find. It’s like Dale said – all very well if they do it!

  3. Hi Oli,

    Nice post. Would it be possible to get some photos of the students lexical note books up on your blog? I wish I had made a point to my students on the project about how they record their class notes. I am thinking about going back over the all the IWB slides of the course and trying to condense it all into some sort of concise and clear handout. I notice all my students copying into their notebooks during the lesson but I never really investigate if they re-read them or if they organise them in a particular way.

    One last thing. You mention in your response to Dale about bringing in ‘imported’ texts and this departing from the Dogme principles. I would disagree on this point. If you don’t trust your students to find something themselves what not just ask them what they want to read about or are interested in and find the articles you think they might like. Bring them into the class and allow the students to decide if they are useful or interesting and take it from there. I recently asked my students to bring in articles about the things that they are most interested in. Some of the things they handed in were clearly just printed out and never looked at. The level being well too high and complex for that class. Yet, it gives me an idea of what they are looking for and maybe I can find something that we can all work with related to the same thing. Just a thought.


    • Hey Adam

      Yes, I think that’s going to have to be the way forward. As I said, I don’t have a problem with that either but I’m intrigued by the idea of getting them enough lexical input without bringing stuff in.

      As for the notebooks, they made some beautiful stuff. Unfortunately I’m not seeing them anymore but I’ll see if I can hang around and take a crafty copy after their lessons next week. Check out Lewis’ ‘Implementing the lexical approach’ for a thorough discussion of notebooks.


  4. Hi Oli,

    Good point about wanting to introduce more lexis. I got a couple of comments on our end-of-semester questionnaire from students under the question “What would you have done differently if you had been the teacher?” A few students mentioned that more vocabulary focus would have been nice.

    Taking that into consideration, with another class this semester, I’ve started using texts to build up vocabulary lists with students. While this does involve “importing” a text, I think there’s no problem with that as long as you base the approach to the text around the students.

    For example, I put them in groups and had them highlight words they didn’t know and couldn’t guess from context. Then the groups helped each other understand each other’s new words. Next, we compiled a list of important words on the board. Aftert that, students, in groups again, went through the text to submit two more words to add and the class voted on which one they thought was more pertinent. (This process also gave opportunities for students to explain their words to other groups who didn’t understand and to point out the word in context). The more pertinient word got added to the list on the board.

    In the end, I think we came away with about 15-20 words (by that I also mean chunks and collocations).

    The next step will be to have them use these words some how–perhaps by writing a text on the same subject as the original, or creating a worksheet for other students in the class.

    I think it’s ok for Dogmeachers (contraction of Dogme + teacher) to bring some material into the class, but then it becomes Dogme by the way you exploit the material. If you use it as a springboard to get your students really involved in the topic (and the lexis, for example), it’s still very student-centered and a nice change from handing out a text + comprehension questions.

    I like your idea of vocabulary notebooks too. I haven’t tried that yet, but may do so in the fall. Maybe having students record vocab from inside and outside the class could be worth trying…

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  1. Dogme through the students’ eyes – Part Six – Implications for teachers | Teaching Unplugged Week

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