teaching unplugged – in brief

A new blog

Anyone visiting this site in recent weeks and months will have noted the absence of new posts.

I’ve decided to try a new way to blog – with a more focused theme – and have now launched The Unplugged Index.

You can find it at

I’m going to keep this blog as an archive for the time being – thanks as always for dropping by and do have a look at the new site!


Welcome back

This blog has been on hold for some time, while the family cared for and at length said goodbye to my mother, Pauline. I’m proud to pay tribute to her influence here, whilst also sharing some breaking news from the world of ‘dogme’ (you’ll see the reason for the inverted commas) and inviting you to contribute to a onefortywords Special.

Finally, there’s a long overdue shout-out to Mark Andrews and his Classrooms on the Danube blog. I’ve realised how hard it is to get back on the roundabout of blogging once you’ve stepped off for any reason – all the more reason to appreciate him and all the other indefatigable bloggers of ELT.

As always, you can read the new stuff by scrolling down this column, and use category headings to search the archives, and comment at will. Welcome back!

On noticing

Mum was a teacher all her working life, and her varied career ranged from voice training at Central School of Speech and Drama to remedial English in secondary education.

I only recently learned that her first teaching experience, in London in the 1950s, was in ESOL. Recalling an occasion when only a few students turned up and class was cancelled, she described how her delight at the thought of an evening off turned to sadness when she noticed an elderly Egyptian man walking away in disappointment. She said she never forgot it.

I wonder whether, if she hadn’t noticed, she would have gone on to become a teacher? Or whether her orientation towards teaching led her to notice?

Either way, this kind of noticing is just as important as the language kind.

Who are you?

I once spent a day at mum’s secondary school when I was on half term. When a girl came up and asked: ‘Who are you?’, I said cautiously that I was Mrs Meddings’s son. ‘You poor sod’, she replied.

Mum was passionate about education, from its capacity to train the mind and liberate the heart to its role in social mobility; from the value of the arts to the iniquity of SATS.

Teaching does seem to run in families, almost in spite of ourselves. Scott dedicated Teaching Unplugged to the memory of his grandfather, also a teacher. I had to word my dedication carefully – dad had died four years before, and mum was already ill – so I dedicated it to ‘two lovers of language’. I’m so glad she lived to see it.

And I never felt like a poor sod.

Photo: Richard Swales


One of the great mysteries of ELT has been solved: not why so many units of self-study grammar books remain untouched, nor even why the photocopier always breaks down five minutes before class, but how one should pronounce ‘dogme’.

Many have tried – variations have included /dog-ma/ with a second syllable schwa, and /dog-mee/. But few, it turns out following a live link-up to Scott in New York*, have succeeded. It transpires that the correct Danish pronunciation is closer to /dough-ma/, with light stress on the first syllable, the merest hint of a ‘g’, and a gently rising schwa to follow.

Our thanks to Sussi Lassen for this very welcome information – the word has a rather lovely lilt to it, and we now have a whole new way to confuse the world’s assessors! ‘Was that a dogme lesson?’ ‘Well, actually – doughma.’

*OK, Skype

onefortywords Special!

At IATEFL Harrogate, 10 years on from the start of the dogme ELT group, Scott was asked by Peter Fenton where he thought dogme might be in ten years’ time. I’m curious to know what other people think, and would like to invite 140 word contributions to a onefortywords Special on ‘Dogme – the next decade’. If you’re interested, please e-mail your submissions to by 31st July.

Flow river flow

Many weeks ago I was touched by a tweet from Mark Andrews, and reminded of a song that somehow fits his searching, life-affirming blog: Sandy Denny singing Ballad of the Easy Rider, her voice like air: ‘The river flows, it flows to the sea, wherever that river goes, that’s where I want to be.’

I googled Sandy and discovered she was born down the road at the South London hospital we took our daughter to when she was tiny – while the cover for Unhalfbricking was shot in a Wimbledon road I used to know.

Rivers flow through our lives in different ways, taking us to new places and reconnecting us with our past. Mark’s unique blog is its own kind of river, and it was his tribute to his dad that encouraged me to talk about my mum here.

Beyond onefortywords: Fairport Convention, feat. Sandy Denny, performing Roger McGuinn’s Ballad of the Easy Rider

How soon was then?

There’s something stirring at onefortywords, and it’s not just the effect of spring, prince of seasons, on the heart. I’m used to that and I think I can cope.

It’s something more unexpected: a faint sense of nostalgia for the 1980s. I know, I know. I’m not really one for nostalgia. I get it when Steely Dan sing ‘I’m never going back to my old school’. The handful of trips I’ve taken back to my university town have left me feeling even more disassociated than when I was there. And you’d have to bribe me with something pretty special to get me to an 80s night. It was bad enough listening to Duran Duran first time round.

I turned 15 in 1980 with my head in 1965. I thought that if I listened hard enough to Mr Tambourine Man, Rubber Soul and Aftermath, it might actually turn into 1965 and a summer of love would be just round the corner. And yep, I ordered little rectangular rose-tinted specs from the back of the NME to match.

But, like my half-baked mop-top, the conditions weren’t right. Punk had been vital but divisive, leaving you constantly questioning your loyalty to this or that band, and the same was true of hip hop later in the decade – an edgy vibe, not the kind of shared experience I imagined the 60s to have been. The Pogues offered a kind of ersatz shared experience, if your perfect gig was in fact a football match, and The Smiths saved our lives for a season – but I never went to see them. The idea of waving gladioli at Morrissey seemed to negate all the gorgeous isolation he swayed for.

‘What do I get?’ asked the Buzzcocks, as the battery in the fuzz box that powered punk began to run down: ‘Howard Jones,’ replied the 80’s, ‘and in case that isn’t bad enough, T’Pau.’ By the time the second summer of love actually did come around, I’d given up.

And yet. Sharing music online with travellers of a similar vintage, it’s clear the early 80’s was a shared experience of sorts, even if the fragmentation of pop culture left all of us feeling like the odd one out at the time. I’m wondering if the need to navigate a world of rotten rock and occasional ornery genius didn’t toughen our souls a little. I’m still amazed that Ghost Town got to number one when it did, even if the furious hope it crystallised faded with the end of the miners’ strike. Come on Eileen felt like a victory at the time. And I can’t imagine a better accompaniment than Perfect Circle to those shaky days when love could go through a whole life cycle in a night.

Our horizons did expand. They had to – world music in the 70s meant Una Paloma Blanca. The rarity of must-have releases left us to free to explore the back pages of rock, soul and gospel. And we haven’t been burdened by the thought that things will never be as good again!

Is my nostalgia the invention of a May morning, a condition brought on by Sunday’s grey rain falling steady in the new green of spring? Well, it looks like at least some minds are thinking along the same lines. As I write this, Mark Andrews has read my thoughts by tweeting Laura Ponting: ‘If it’s not love then it’s the blog, the blog, the blog that will bring us together…’  So I’m asking, is 2.0 the shared experience we were hoping for all those years ago? Is this our Woodstock?