The parting of the sensory

A tale of two lessons:

It was the best of lessons, it was the worst of lessons. (but not in that order)

I bought myself a dicta-phone a couple of weeks ago, in part to prevent me having to lug my laptop and speakers around when ever I wanted to record some speaking, but also so I could go all ‘Alan Partridge’ and record thoughts and even sounds to help put together lessons. Monkey tennis?

Over the weekend I decided to record five sounds that would be of interest to my students, including my favourite sound of all time, to become the opening listening activity for this weeks lesson.

  1. The sound of a busy bar/restaurant
  2. Me buying some new clothes in Zara (clothes shop)
  3. Me and my girlfriend walking down the three flights of stairs in my apartment building
  4. Me catching the bus
  5. A cup of tea being poured (the best sound in the world)

From the very beginning of the class, things were different. I only had five students. No big deal, but normally I never have any less than seven or eight. We started of by doing ‘Up and Down’ pg 40 from teaching unplugged (Thornbury&Meddings, 2009). It’s a different way to get them talking about their weekend, than the usual talk to your partner and report back. It stuttered along, and never really got going, but we found out that one of the students had a car accident, so this became the focal point of the activity, producing accident and car related vocabulary. I put the slow start down to the new and untested activity, as well as the lack of some of the students who would normally help to, perhaps, drive the activity on.

We moved on. I told the class that they were going to listen to five sounds from my weekend. They had to simply listen to the sounds and write down where they think I was and what I was doing at the time. I played the sounds through once and then in pairs they discussed what they had put down. We then listened to each sound and I asked for their answers, helping to structure their responses as we went and confirming if they were correct or not. They did pretty well, and at the end I asked them to guess which sound they thought was my favourite. Eventually they guessed that tea being poured was indeed my favourite and I explained to them in a little anecdote, why.

When I was younger, I used to live at home with my parents. Our house was quite small, and you could hear what was going on in any room of the house if it was quiet enough. When I woke up on a Sunday morning, with a small hangover, I loved to hear the sound of my mum pouring tea into a cup. This was because I knew a minute later she would come upstairs and give it to me.

This story seemed to go down well. I asked the students if they could do the same. Think of their favourite sound and then tell their partner why. The room went quiet and I could see that they were deep in thought. The silence continued, so I moved around the room hoping to encourage some thoughts. Slowly they started to scribble something down, and after checking everyone had a sound, I asked them to tell their partner and explain why. Normally they would begin straight away, and the room would fill with the satisfying sounds of students engaging in conversation.Sadly this wasn’t the case. There was some blank stares and shrugging of shoulders, I was sure my instructions were simple and clear enough, so I asked one of the students to tell me his favourite sound and once he began to tell me, hinted for the others to ask him more questions about it. I turned and did the same with the other group. I turned back to the first group only to be met with silence. I engaged them again, cajoling, encouraging and trying to elicit some sort of response. Eventually some interesting things came out, but it was hard work. The sound of a Harley Davidson engine, waves crashing on the beach and so on. We moved onto the sound they liked to hear the least. More of the same, me asking and doing most of the talking. Still some interesting answers came out and we talked about the resulting vocabulary.

The next stage involved the other senses of the body and an activity from ‘Teaching unplugged’ (Thornbury&Meddings, 2009) called ‘Memory stars’ pg44. I elicited the senses from the students and then revealed a large five point star on the IWB with the five senses written on each point. I asked them to do the previous activity with the other senses. They needed to write a word or sentence that related to their favourite smell, sight, touch, and taste. I gave examples of my favourite things and then let the students write down their own thoughts. While they were writing I put some language chunks, sentence starters and expressions on the board  that I wanted them to use in the coming speaking activity. Once they were finished, I mentioned the language on the board and then I asked them to stand up and mingle, showing each other their stars and asking questions about how, when and why. They seemed hesitant from the beginning, perhaps unsure or even lacking in confidence. I panicked a little, instead of waiting and allowing them the time to start speaking, I leapt into the middle and started asking questions to try to get things moving. Suddenly I was the centre of attention. No-one was talking, they were waiting for me to ask them questions. I had hi-jacked the lesson, it was now teacher centred. In fact the whole lesson had been pretty much teacher centred. Disaster! We finished up the activity and I recapped what we had discussed in the lesson. The lesson came to an end, the students left, somewhat despondent and maybe disappointed. They mirrored my own thoughts. I went out for a few drinks and put the lesson to the back of my mind. You can’t win them all I thought, reflect on it tomorrow after a good nights sleep.

The next morning 

It was 5am. I was lying awake and I was angry. Pissed off at my inadequacies as a teacher, and replaying the lesson in my head. I managed to fall asleep again. Over breakfast I decided to do the lesson again. I walked to the Oceanographico in the morning sunshine, with a couple of motivational songs playing in my earphones. The last thing I said to myself before the lesson started was, sit back, don’t interfere and let them do the work.

The students were responsive, enthusiastic and interested from the word go. I barely said anything other than corrections and some basic instructions for each activity. There were only four people but when I asked them to talk in their pairs they actually turned to face their partner and forgot I was there. I simply listened and made notes, pronunciation, good language use, areas for improvement. The board was full, I drilled some of the troublesome words and even wrote out one in phonetic script (My DOS is going to fall of her chair when she reads this). This particular group is only one level higher than my project group but the language they produced was worlds apart.

One of the students was talking about her favourite sight and sound, the sea crashing on to the beach.

“I like to contemplate the strength of nature”

“I feel very insignificant in the world”

One of the student’s started talking about how she can hear everything her neighbours do and this lead to her talking about her least favourite sound.

“The sound of the T.V is the most annoying”

“I’m concerned that my neighbours can hear me”

I left the lesson on a high. It was a completely different feeling from the previous night, almost euphoric. What a wonderful profession this teaching business is. I spent an hour or so, later that day, getting feedback from my DOS about the lesson and then comparing it with the morning’s success.

What went wrong (first lesson)

  • Teacher centered
  • No pronunciation work
  • Lesson too structured
  • No space for flexibility
  • No real work on emergent language
  • I didn’t embrace the silence. I didn’t give the students time to talk among themselves.
  • I kept interfering, I panicked
  • The lesson idea required some quite abstract thinking. Making it difficult for the students to convey exactly what they wanted to say or talk about. It needed more scaffolding and the students more support from me.

What went right (second lesson)

  • See above and reverse.
This lesson has created a lot of discussion between me and my DOS, about various issues to do with teaching unplugged and implementing it over a long period of time. There are countless variables to take into account, too many to write about in this particular post. I will save that for later. I think I have rambled on long enough already. Watch this space.


25 thoughts on “The parting of the sensory

  1. Thanks for sharing this experience! It’s one I recognise only too well and like you lose sleep over wondering where I’ve gone wrong. Well done for repeating the lesson with such success.

    • Hi Josie,

      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      It’s good to know I’m not alone, I hope there are not too many more sleepless nights, yet I can’t help feeling they might be a common feature, in what is still a career in its infancy.


  2. Hi Adam,

    I love this lesson Idea, I think tea pouring (or perhaps wine pouring!) is one of my favourite sounds too.

    I recently had an interesting conversation in a feedback session about what being student-centred really means. A trainee had given a lesson which she commented was the only one where she had felt out of control, whereas in fact it was the one where she took more control over the proceedings than usual. I started this feedback session by demo-ing how you can spark conversation by saying nothing as a teacher and perhaps writing on the board and then just using your gestures and expressions to help the conversation to develop. It lead to some interesting discoveries on the part of the trainees about what it reeeeeally means to be student-centred, and not just pretending to be.

    I love the way you did the same lesson twice in order to make it better. Great idea.


    • Hi Adam,
      Sorry about your sleepless night but great to hear that you decided to give it another shot and was met with success! Being able to analyse what went wrong and have the guts to tackle it again really shows wisdom, experience and confidence. Looking forward to more insights and inspiration!!

      • Thanks for the comment Noreen.

        Yeah I was really glad i went back to try it again. If I could have bottled the feeling I had after that lesson, I would be a rich man.


    • Thanks for commenting again Jem. It’s always nice to get a comment from you.

      I would love to try your idea of not saying anything and simply gesturing to get the students talking. I can’t help but think that what I’m doing with this project is not really dogme at the moment. Undoubtedly, it is materials light, and working without a coursebook, but in my eyes and it just hasn’t quite felt like I have reached the point where I could say that it was actually dogme. I have done it with other groups, and if I may say so, done it well. Yet with this group I feel it increasingly difficult to let go and let them take over, there have been moments, but only that.
      Nonetheless, it has been an exciting challenge and one that is not over yet. You will be the first to know if I finally crack it.


      • Morning Adam,

        It’s nice to get posts from you! 🙂 Ahh.. a bit of mutual appreciation in the morning!

        I think the pressure to be “Dogme” could be leading you to be more controlling than you would otherwise be? Perhaps what you need is to do something like I suggested to give you the confidence in your students that they can do it? I’ve been where you are, and undoubtedly I will be there again. When I realise that I am letting myself slip, either in the direction of taking control or the opposite and not inserting enough focus on form into my lessons, I do something drastic (as far as I see it!) and go back to a coursebook (shock horror) or use The Silent Way (scares the hell out of me) to remind myself why I have chosen to “go Dogme” and it shows me the advantages and disadvantages of the other methods.

        Perhaps you need a change of perspective? Don’t let this idea of having to be Dogme affect a fabulous project by making you stressed our (more stressed out than teachers are anyway..!)

        Have a lovely day,

  3. Hi Adam,

    Thanks for this post. Reflecting on what went wrong often leads to more insightful moments than sharing a lesson that went well. I think we need to see more of this in the world of ELT blogs. 🙂

    Many teachers I know would stop at the ‘can’t win them all’ thought and move on the next day. There’s nothing that can be done, addressed or changed in this situation so good on you for letting it worry you and thinking about why it didnt work out so well. Tackling such issues head on, whether through discussion with oneself or a colleague, writing in a journal or reflecting on a blog is what makes us improve as teachers.

    Looking forward to the next post.


    • Thanks for dropping by Dave.

      I hope I’m not getting a name for being the guy who only writes about bad lessons 😉
      Currently having another moment of crisis, this time with my CAE advanced group. I can feel another sleepless night coming on. Hoping for a big change in the next lesson and looking forward to putting things right and getting back on track.
      I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.


  4. I can remember a few sleepless nights too… so glad you gave it a second try and learned that backing off and leaving space can be one of the greatest gifts we can give our students (as long as there’s proper scaffolding). As you said, success or failure in the classroom is no simple recipe… i think I had sleepless nights after a bad lesson because it’s so hard to separate the various factors involved, and yet we keep coming back to our inadequacies… is that even fair ? Either way, these think sessions certainly lead to greater depth in teaching. Thanks as always for inviting us into your classroom, Adam !

    • Hi Brad.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      I completely agree with your comment about separating the various factors. Sometimes it’s so hard to nail down all the little things. Usually once you do, more crop up somewhere else. It keeps us on our toes, yet at the same time frustrates and keeps us awake at night.


  5. Sorry for not being around lately – too much to read and often, end up reading none 😦
    Which teacher worth his dogmeat doesn’t have some sleepless nights? But it takes courage to re-use the same lesson albeit with a higher level; what’s important is that you realised where you might have gone wrong and corrected it, and had a super lesson.
    Didn’t they say silence is golden? Remaining silent is harder than what people might think – silence creates discomfort, and teachers, well, they panic in a voiceless classroom, and seconds feel like minutes.
    You’re a great teacher, Adam! 🙂

    • Thanks so much for the comment Chiew.
      Totally agree with your comment about remaining silent being harder than people think. I have been practising it a lot lately with a varying degree of success. Sometimes I think the students panic more than I do when there is silence, they look at me as though they expect me to tell them what to say. At times I find it incredible that people who pay good money for an English course don’t actually want to talk and prefer to be talked at. It seems to be the norm here in Spain, especially in the North, unfortunately i don’t have anything to compare it to.
      Thanks for the final comment. It made my day, after a long day of teaching.


  6. Hi Adam

    Sounds like a very interesting, student-centred series of activities. Were your initial presentations that much different or was it simply that one class was far more enthusiastic and energetic from the start than the other (as seems the case from your description)?

    I agree with your own thoughts (and those of other commenters) that it can be good to allow for silence (though not always – depends on the students’ moods, and what you sense them to be); though frankly I reckon it might just have been the class. Weird thing, group dynamics – maybe they don’t get along, or were the quieter ones of your class, or the followers, or too many were having a bad day. One of the most pernicious myths in teaching is that it’s always the teacher’s fault if a lesson doesn’t go well. Sometimes it is, but by no means always. Glad you tried the lesson again, to much better effect, and didn’t beat yourself up about it too much – apart from one sleepless night 🙂

    All best wishes


    • Hi Simon,

      To respond to your first comment. No, the presentations were not different in there delivery. The other class, where the students are a little older and have a slightly higher level, always seem to be open to new ideas and I have enjoyed lots of similar classes with them. What I found hard to comprehend was the massive divide in the response between the two classes.
      I agree with some of your points. I believe it was an off day for the class and perhaps it was just one of those days for them. As for the silence. It’s an important skill to learn and something to not be afraid of, as well as encouraging the learners to not be afraid of it either.

      Really appreciate the comments. Thank you for stopping by and reading.


      • Oh yes, silence is a good skill to learn, and can always be pretty scary, though especially at first. Sorry if my reply came across as being a bit flippant – I didn’t mean it that way! Was just projecting from personal experience, and I think sometimes things just don’t work with a particular class on a particular day, and it’s just one of those things. Will be very interesting to read their learner diaries, though, I imagine: how old are your first class? I wonder if it is age-related and there are ways both of making them feel a little safer about opening up in class and requiring them to open up a bit less – what do you reckon?

        All best wishes

        Simon 🙂

        PS Thanks for the kind words you wrote below about my site – and I’m very much enjoying this snowflake effect you have on this blog – very Christmasy!

  7. PS
    Have you asked your students from the first class what they thought of the lesson? I remember a few lessons where every activity I tried was greeted with silence and expressions of the utmost misery; but afterwards, when I’ve asked them what they thought of the lesson (to get feedback and confirm my suspicions), been told that they thought it was really good. To which I wanted to reply “then why the f**k didn’t you act like you enjoyed it?!”, though that would have been unfair 😉

    Sure you’ve done this already, but… if your students didn’t like the lesson, just ask them why and maybe get them to discuss (in pairs or as a whole class) what activities and skills they would like to practice, what vocabulary areas and grammar topics they want to work on, and so on. You could make a really useful lesson out of it. Also, by getting them to think about their needs and wants from their English class, you’re turning a negative into a positive (so the students know you’re listening to them and trying to tailor your lessons to their needs) and getting some valuable feedback about what makes them tick at the same time.

    • I have just taken in the learner’s diaries, so I am hoping to get some feedback from the lesson via those. Also, as part of their end of trimester assessment, I will be conducting some video recorded interviews. I will look to get further feedback this way, by asking about the individual lessons and formulating questions from the information I get from the learner diaries.
      We did a lot of needs analysis at the beginning of the course, creating their own course descriptors and writing out topics that they wanted to discuss in class. Some of which we have dealt with. Also, I discuss with the students which language aims and skills we have looked at and covered every couple of weeks. This helps them to know that we have covered just as much as we would have, if we were using a course-book.



  8. Pingback: A rose by any other name…? « Unplugged Reflections

  9. Hi Adam,

    This was enjoyable read. I’m glad to see any case in which a teacher has reflected on what they have done and used that knowledge for future situations. Don’t be too hard on yourself about the first lesson. Working with four students is very different to working with seven. Imagine a seven-aside football match and you only have four players on your team. Any change in the size of a class can massively influence the dynamic. This is as much the case in small classes such as your as it is in mine when only 12 show up instead of 18. Don’t beat yourself up over everything, particularly teacher centredness. When only four people come, there’s a chance that they might all be tired or simply not that into it on any given day. Sometimes doing what’s best for your learners means taking things by the scruff of the neck. Admittedly, I face this more often than some, what with me teaching 18-year-olds at 8:30 in the morning, but I think you get my point. Don’t allow dogme to be as much of a restriction on the way you do things as any other classroom philosophy or methodology might do. Go with the classroom conditions as they appear to you and don’t fret about breaking an unwritten rule of bloody dogme! If the students need you to do the lions share of the talking at some point, or if they’re tired and want you to structure things for them, go with it. Do not let dogme become a burden to you: apply it when you can.

    • Hi Adam,

      Thanks for the comment. Glad you enjoyed the post.
      You mention two things; “Don’t allow dogme to be as much of a restriction on the way you do things” and “Do not let dogme become a burden to you”. I couldn’t agree more. After some low level reflection over the Xmas period and catching up with a lot of recent blog posts about teaching unplugged, both for and against. My ultimate conclusion was that the label of ‘Dogme’ or teaching unplugged was indeed becoming somewhat of a heavy burden to carry, especially with so little experience behind me. So I’m going to take your advice on board, when it’s the right time, do it. When something else is required, don’t be afraid to go back to what you know, be it the coursebook or an alternative method.
      Thanks again.


      • 🙂

        I love the notion of Dogme, but there is a time and a place… and that isn’t any time, any place. Can’t let Scott Thornbury catch me saying that. 😉

        I’m really enjoying your blog, by the way.

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