Posted in Thoughts about TEFL Teaching

Talking ’bout a Revolution Part 3 of 3: Teaching Unplugged

In the previous two posts in this mini-series, we looked at movements in music and cinema which attempted to challenge the hegemonic (dominant) power in these two fields.

A similar movement sprang up in the world of English Language Teaching about a decade ago. Taking its name from the Danish collective, the Dogme approach – inspired by an article by Scott Thornbury – posed a challenge to prevailing trends in ELT which extolled the virtues of using increasingly sophisticated materials and resources.


This approach, also known as Teaching Unplugged, has 3 core values:

  1. Dogme is about teaching that is conversation-driven
  2. Dogme is about teaching that is materials-light
  3. Dogme is about teaching that focuses on emergent language

Some common questions or fears from teachers include:

How can teachers work without a course book?

Where will the materials for the lesson come from?

What happens if the conversation stream runs dry?

A possible answer to these questions might result from a change of mindset.

Do you think that course books are the repositories of knowledge and that learning occurs in the transference of information from the course book to the learner?

Brains and knowledge

What about the notion that the learners are the repositories of knowledge and what we should do as teachers is help our studies convey their own ideas to others?

Our learners need to use English to communicate with people who do not speak their first language. They need to develop communicative strategies (paraphrasing, substitution, paralinguistic gestures, language switching, coining new words) in order to express ideas and opinions and share their experiences with the listener. By focusing on their emergent language, teachers can directly address their linguistic issues, problems with grammatical form, lexical choice or phonological difficulties.

This is not to say that course books are not able to address our learners’ needs. Publishing companies clearly spend time on money researching learner needs and developing activities to meet them. However, it is the teacher who is at the coal face, directly engaged in the operations of language learning and is required to respond to the needs of learners in the lesson, between lessons and during a course of study.

Think of ‘unplugged’ teachers as stealth units, able to deal quickly and with surgical precision with any issues that arise in the classroom.

Now, I am aware that as a teacher trainer, I could be accused of living in an ‘ivory tower’ and that unplugged teaching doesn’t work with Spanish learners.

So, please let me know what you think? Can this approach work in Spanish academies? Have you tried it? How did the learners respond?

If you are interested in finding out some more about Teaching Unplugged and Dogme, listen to the man himself, Scott Thornbury, discussing the approach:


I'm a teacher trainer doing lots of different things in Granada, Spain and back in the UK. I've been a Course Director on Trinity TESOL programmes, worked as an EAP tutor at universities in the UK, spent a couple of years as a DoS at a wonderful school in London, and have also dabbled in online teaching, course creation, blogging and materials development.

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