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Teaching Unplugged Activities for the Online English Teacher (Part One) | The Online English Teacher

Teaching Unplugged Activities for the Online English Teacher (Part One)

In my time teaching in language school classrooms, it’s always been a common sight to see teachers staggering into classrooms armed with piles of photocopied worksheets, laminated cards, DVDs and, increasingly, trays full of iPads – this in classrooms in which the students have already come armed with student’s books and its accompanying workbook. The walls of staff rooms are usually lined from floor to ceiling with shelves creaking under the weight of countless sets of glossy coursebooks, teacher books, workbooks and resource packs.

Teaching Unplugged

Teaching UnpluggedOne of the more popular, and, certainly to many educational publishers, subversive books to be written about teaching English in recent years is a book written by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury called Teaching Unplugged. Teaching Unplugged is a call to move away from dependence on these materials and resources (to ‘unplug’ from them) and move to a teaching style in which the only ‘resources’  are the teachers and students, in which the focus is on conversation and the language needed to have the conversation effectively. In such an approach, the teacher’s role is not to ‘teach’ grammar and vocabulary but to set up language learning opportunities and support the conversation by drawing attention to the language features needed to have the conversation.

Teaching Unplugged and online English teaching

While teachers in language schools may find turning away from published materials a painful wrench, it’s a situation in which many online English teachers already find themselves in: it’s usually, just the teacher, a student and a webcam, and maybe an online whiteboard. For this reason, the ideas contained in Teaching Unplugged is very relevant to online English teachers. In their book, Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury suggest a whole range of activities for using in the ‘unplugged’ classroom. Over the next few days, I will pull out a bunch of their ideas, adapting them where necessary for the online English teacher.

Teaching Unplugged activities #1 – “Me, you and what we do”

The following activities are ways to encourage your student to talk about everyday life, by framing them in the same way as we would do with big, important, glamourous events and people.

All About Us

Tell your student that he has suddenly become very famous and that he will be attending a press conference where he has to answer questions about his daily life. Discuss why he might be famous (e.g. he has invented a new gadget or a medical cure, he has won the Nobel Peace Prize, he is starring in a new movie). Discuss topics that might come up (e.g. food, people, family, favourite places, work, hobbies). Now imagine you are a reporter at the news conference and your student is famous. Ask your student questions about these topics; use follow-up prompts to encourage longer answers (e.g. “tell me more”, “oh, really? Why was that?”

While your student answers, note down examples of your student’s language (effective and less effective, such as unclear meanings). After 5 or 10 minutes, end or pause the press conference and go through some of the language in your notes. Here you can suggest new language for your student and ways to help him extend his answers. You can also reformulate your student’s language (i.e. rephrase your student’s language so it’s better, more natural and clearer).

To finish off, you can either continue the press conference with new questions or restart the press conference, using the same questions as before, giving your student opportunities to use the language you’ve just discussed.


This is a good way of structuring talk about everyday events by making them seem newsworthy. Write on a piece of paper a newspaper headline that summarises and exaggerates a recent event in your life. For example “SHOPPING DISASTER”, “WEEKEND TRAFFIC HORROR” or “TENNIS TRIUMPH”. If your webcam doesn’t show writing on paper clearly, simply type the headline into Skype. Invite your student to ask you questions so they get the gist of the story. For example, SHOPPING DISASTER might be a story about a quick trip to the local convenience store where you discovered that they’d run out of your favourite toilet paper, forcing you to buy a cheaper, less soft brand of paper!

Now ask your student to think of an everyday event that recently happened in their lives and to write a headline for it. After they have shown you their headline, ask them questions about it, so that they have to explain the event to you. Support your student with language, reformulating their language where necessary. After the story has been described, draw your student’s attention to effective and less effective language and suggest ways to improve the language.

You can repeat this again, with new stories, which gives your student opportunities to use the language you’ve suggested.

My Very Special Guest

Your friends, neighbours, work colleagues and family members may not be as famous as celebrities, and they may not hit the headlines, but they can still be interesting for your student to talk to. But unlike celebrities, they can appear in person to your student, either in the room with you, or as part of a group conversation on Skype or Google Hangouts. So see if you can find someone willing to be interviewed by your student, perhaps for 15 minutes. This will also give your student experience talking to someone other than you!

Here’s how to set it up effectively. Before your ‘special guest’ arrives, tell your student who is coming and brainstorm some questions and follow-up questions. Reformulate and suggest question forms where necessary. Ask your student to note down the questions. Practise asking the questions with your student – get them to think about intonation and stress.

Then your special guest arrives! Your student can then ask your guest the questions, and ask follow-up questions. You can also join in, asking follow-up questions to show your student how it’s done.

Once your special guest has left, ask your student to summarise the information they got about the special guest. Also discuss effective and less effective features of the language your student used.

TOMORROW: activities for talking about feelings

That’s all for now. If you like these ideas, please write a comment below and share the post! Try out one of these ideas with your student, see how it goes and post a comment about it below.

More about Teaching Unplugged

Scott Thornbury writes about Teaching Unplugged on his blog

British Council article on Teaching Unplugged

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