My Take on the Unplugged/Dogme/Coursebook Debate

After a week or so reading some very interesting posts detailing various people’s stances on the ongoing discussion about the usefulness of coursebooks, the merits of an unplugged/dogme approach (assuming those terms can be used interchangeably) and everything in between, I thought I’d pitch in my two pence with some reflections on what I’ve taken from it all. Of course, this discussion has been going on for much longer (and will probably continue for a while yet!) but recent posts on the blogosphere have really got me thinking. Dogme and Teaching Unplugged are terms I only came across in the last year through my MA studies and my PLN on Twitter so forgive me if I make any false claims about them.

Plugging in or pulling out?
(Image courtesy of functoruser on flickr)

One recurring argument that caught my attention was the notion that unplugged teaching would be tough for novice teachers. Some state that a coursebook is necessary as a prop for these struggling newbies who are still finding their feet in a new profession. Others counter that CELTA courses focus on lessons planned and executed without set materials meaning there is no reason why newly-qualified teachers should not go straight into an unplugged approach. That reminded me of my CELTA (well, Trinity TESOL to be exact) days and sure enough, there was not a coursebook insight. Furthermore, at the first school I worked at, the coursebook was so poorly regarded and outdated that nobody used it – teacher never looked at it and students never brought it! Everyone prepared their own lessons and materials and I soon had to learn how to join them.

So, on the one hand, I started my career with no coursebook to fall back on and I survived. However, was I actually ‘teaching unplugged’ in those days? My understanding of the whole unplugged concept suggests to me I was not. I did not enter a class seeking to engage my students in a discussion and focus on emergent language. I went into class with a detailed lesson plan, an idea of how to introduce the topic on the board and a handout or two to provide controlled practice. That was what my brief training course had prepared me for and that was what a lot of my colleagues were doing. Even without a coursebook, we were still going over grammar points; even with authentic reading materials, we were still doing classic comprehension and language focus questions; even though ample chance was present for speaking practice and discussion, it was often neglected in favour of test prep.

I also disagree with the idea, however, that a new teacher needs a coursebook for support. New teachers have a lot to learn and that includes how to use a coursebook. I’ve met many teachers who do a great job using their coursebook as a basis for engaging lessons with little resemblance to the suggestions in the teachers’ book; I’ve also seen teachers struggle to plough through the content in the order prescribed with little or no deviation from the syllabus. Once I was in a school where coursebooks were more widely used and up to date, I had to learn how to deconstruct them. I soon realised I could adapt the contents to suit the preferences of my learners as well as my own by changing the order of activities, incorporating my own ideas, adding extra activities and offering students choice in how they tackled the content. Likewise, I believe any teacher wishing to try an unplugged approach would need time to adapt, experiment and find what works best for them and their classes. 

I think the problem with coursebooks comes from over-reliance on them. I have witnessed experienced teachers who suddenly find themselves lost because they are asked to do a conversation class or a skills course with no hard materials provided and obviously, this is not good. We should use whatever opportunities we find to adapt, change, challenge and try new things out but this should also be done within the parameters of the institutions we work in. I believe the most important thing for all of us to do, no matter how we teach and whatever materials and methods we generally use, is to constantly challenge our own ideas and try new things out. If you use a coursebook day in, day out, perhaps you should try some lessons without touching it and see where it goes. If you go for the dogme approach, perhaps (dare I say it?) you should have a look at a coursebook sometime and try using one of the lessons from it. We are all in a constant cycle of development and everybody, even teachers, has much to learn!

The whole debate has been a welcome chance for me to reassess what I do in class and why. Funnily enough, I have the chance to work on both sides this year as half of my programme is assigned to preparing my 4th graders for the Movers test, for which we use a coursebook and the other half is assigned to speaking/writing classes (with the same students) for which there is no book or bank of materials to follow. Those lessons can therefore take a more ‘unplugged’ approach and I will be discussing some of the activities we’ve been doing in future posts.

Recent blog posts I've enjoyed reading on the topic:
Curse books?  - by Henrick Oprea
No dogma for EFL - by Jeremy Harmer
Lessons from scratch - by Nick Jaworski
To use or not use course books? - by Eva Büyüksimkesyan

Scheduling in coursebook abuse - by Jason Renshaw (in fact, there are a whole host of great posts on Jason's English Raven blog, offering well-balanced thinking points).
Dogme for all? - by Richard Whiteside


  1. I am a student teacher this year and am looking forward to having my own classroom in the future. I stumbled upon your post in a search for blogs regarding foreign language education.

    I will be teaching German and am a little bit discouraged and overwhelmed at the same time by our current textbook system. I like the points that you bring up about teachers being set in their ways, either relying too much on the textbook or staying away from it altogether.

    I think it is a great idea for teachers to expand their repertoire by exploring new methods using the resources they know, but also testing new approaches to the material. In today's society there are plenty of resources and we should not feel bound by a certain outline. The most important thing is that the students are able to develop a love for the language and culture.

    As I said earlier, I am just a student teacher, so I don't have as much experience in the classroom as some others. However, I do look forward to trying different ideas and finding what works for me and my future classes.

    All the best.

  2. Hi Ovalnate,

    I'm glad you found your way to my blog!

    One thing you'll find when you start teaching is that the way you do things will (or at least should) be very fluid. You will constantly evaluate what you've done and make changes, try new approaches and look for ways to improve, even when using the same syllabus and materials!

    It sounds like you already have a well-considered and balanced way of thinking and I'm sure this will translate to a successful teaching career.

    Looking forward to hearing more from you as you undergo the transition from student-teacher to teacher. :)


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