The ABC of ELT

Teaching Unplugged vs The Teacher Unplugged

Over the last year I’ve had a lot more opportunities to teach unplugged or have “unplugged moments”. Sometimes this has been a great opportunity and I’ve really (felt) that the students have benefits from being “taught at the point of need” items that are directly relevant and useful. Of course, the argument could be that I should have anticipated these issues in advance but whenever there is an element of personalisation there should be some emerging language item (unless you know your students brilliantly).

However, I do wonder if sometimes it’s more Teacher Unplugged than Teaching Unplugged.

The teacher unplugged

Tell me if this sounds familiar, you’re at the back of the class observing the lesson. You see a teacher start the lesson, at some point the lesson runs off down a rabbit hole. You wait for the point where the language point will emerge. You notice several possible language items that could be built upon (some mistakes others good examples) and yet the teacher doesn’t choose them. The diversion continues.

The teacher tells a story about themselves…then another, and another. Occasionally a student is allowed 5 minutes seconds to share their own story before it’s back on the teacher. Once the stories are exhausted we’re back to the worksheet.


Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit but sometimes (and full confession I’ve been guilty of this) sometimes teaching unplugged can be more Unplugged sessions with the teacher regaling stories. Obviously there is a place for building connections with the students, with providing a model example of language and giving students the confidence to follow on but there are limits on this and if there is no real teaching or learning occurring…is teaching unplugged a fair name?

I don’t think this just happens because the teacher is a narcissist (though that certainly can be a reason) and sometimes it happens for “good reasons”. Here are some initial thoughts

1. No obvious language point to draw upon

This can certainly happen when you are stressed or focusing on a different task. If you are trying to listen out for mistakes it can be really hard to pick up on good use of language.  Likewise, if you are remembering a story then it can be hard to analyse your own speech. [see criticism of Multitasking]

2. Nerves

If you are feeling nervous, with a new group or difficult topic, then it makes it a lot harder to pick up on language points and it will make you rattle on more. Of course, feeling nervous can lead to feeling nervous about feeling nervous or talking to much which makes you talk more which. Well, you get the picture.

3. Silent Students

No every student wants to speak or is ready to speak and silence can feel like a terrible thing in the classroom. So we fill it with…er.. teach talk time. (This can also cause nerves see point 2)

How can we make sure teaching is occurring?

1. Always Be Prepared!

Just like a good scout you should always be prepared. If your unplugged lesson is a forethought and not just winging it then you can probably have a backup language point for when you need it. In addition, if you have preprepared your example then you can limit the time you spend, analyse it for a language point (or speaking skill) and have that up your sleeve. Unplugged does not mean unprepared.

2. Chill

Stress can make people do some pretty stupid things and blind us to what is going on around us. Remember that mistakes aren’t the end of the world and if you’ve prepared properly then you’ve always got yourself a backup!

3.  Place limits

If you struggle with these diversions then maybe you need to place more limits on yourself and other student. Set yourself a time limit to talk and use a stopwatch to make sure you keep to it. Focus on having a limited warmer or a limited period at the end of the class. Don’t go fully unplugged if you’re not ready. You don’t have to do the whole thing unplugged.


Just because it sometimes happens, doesn’t mean it’s all bad

Over the last year I’ve certainly been guilty of my own amount of “the teacher unplugged” rather than teaching unplugged. Some was easily avoidable but just because some of it wasn’t the best doesn’t mean that I’m going to completely stop doing it. Now I prepare more and make sure that I don’t go off down rabbit holes. I still find picking up on language items in the spur of the moment difficult but I always have something up my sleeve.

Have you been guilty of being “the teacher unplugged”?

[Photo Credit: f. prestes via Compfight cc]

About Chris Wilson

I'm an English Language teacher based in Krakow, Poland. I enjoy writing, using technology and playing the Ukulele.

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