When I was doing my initial teacher training course, we didn’t use coursebooks very much. While in the long-term this has created a strong interest and enjoyment in materials development, in my early teaching career, it presented a bit of a problem. Back then I had no idea how to use a coursebook to the best advantage of the students; I could either create my own materials from scratch, or slavishly follow the book with no deviation! In this post we’re going to consider what is great about coursebooks and what is not so good. If we can identify what is not so good, we can develop strategies to deal with problems. So…what are the potential difficulties of using coursebook material? Look at this list of possible criticisms. Do you find any of them to be true for you in your teaching?
The coursebook can’t cater for all the students in my class. They all have different preferences and needs.
The topics in the book may not interest my class.
Sometimes the topics are out of date.
Language is always presented in the same way and the approach in the book can be too predictable and formulaic.
The coursebook restricts my creativity as a teacher.
The material in the book isn’t always at the right level for my students.
The exercises are boring.
These can all be valid points. Publishers cannot cater to every individual within the confines of one book – by their very nature, coursebooks are aimed at large groups rather than individuals. Publishers have a limited amount of space in which to achieve their aims and they have to be commercially viable. Coursebooks then, are not perfect, but they can be very good. Also, unless you have a very light teaching schedule, a very strong ability to think on your feet and react in real-time to all of your students’ needs, and a good chunk of time available to create and or find all your materials, then you are most probably going to end up using coursebooks to at least some extent. That being the case, it seems that the important thing is to use them well and bring out the best in them for our group of students. How do we do that?
No, nothing to do with a respiratory disease! SARS is a way of assessing the course book (or for that matter any material) and deciding whether to use it or not, and if we do use it, how to do so well.
Select – This material looks interesting to my group of students, the level of challenge is about right, the activities are varied, the materials help towards the aims of the lesson and the progression of stages is logical. I can use this material as it is. After all, there is no point reinventing the wheel – if something works well in your opinion – use it. However, when we look across the coursebook pages we are covering in a particular lesson, it’s likely that at least some of what we see, won’t fulfil all those criteria. We need to select and use the bits that do, and then with the bits that don’t, we…
Adapt – Perhaps, for example, the topic is good, the text is the right length but the questions are too difficult or too easy for our students. In this scenario, keep the text and adapt the questions, by adding or reducing their number, changing the type of questions, or changing the information which is asked for.
Perhaps the book only uses texts to present language and our students are a little tired of the format. Here we might decide (particularly if we don’t feel the text is right for our group), to omit the text, and go straight to the first controlled practice activity and use this as the first stage in a test-teach-test lesson (click here for more information on TTT lessons).
Perhaps in another lesson, the language practice task in the book has no communicative purpose and is simply a series of gap fills. You might feel that your students need very controlled practice like this, which focuses on form, but know that they will find it a bit dull sitting down slogging through exercises.
Look at the exercise below. It requires students to fill a gap with one of the prepositions from the box.
|in by of on about|
I’m scared _______ flying.
I’m interested ______ modern art.
I’m not excited _______ my new job.
I’m keen _______ surfing.
I’m very fond _______ my dog.
I was surprised _______ the weather here.
To make this more interesting; after first filling the gaps, students are then asked to make as many changes to each sentence as they can, but each must make the sentence factually as well as grammatically correct. This could be either a change in the subject (for example changing I’m to the name of a student in the class), or to make the sentence negative (for example, by adding not, to I’m scared of flying, to make I’m not scared of flying) or by changing the end of the sentence (for example, I was surprised by the prices here). They can complete this part in pairs and the goal is to see which group can create the most sentences within a given period of time. Thus, a pair might write the following for sentence number 1.
We’re scared of flying.
We’re not scared of spiders.
Kim’s scared of spiders.
Kim’s scared of elevators.
No-one else in the class is scared of elevators.
When the time is up, each group reads another group’s sentences to check they are grammatically correct. They can then check that the sentences are factually correct by asking other members of the class. E.g. Kim, are you scared of spiders?
We have taken the original activity and adapted and added to it to make it more motivating and more communicative whilst still maintaining its aim – to give students work on accuracy with the target language.
Sometimes, we can keep the activity but just change the format. For example, keep the same gap fill, but stick the sentences around the room and students have to write only the prepositions on their answer sheet as quickly as they can and then sit down. We might choose to do this when we know we have a class where lots of the students like to move around. We could adapt the gap fill be doing it through dictation – the students could each get four or five of the gap fill sentences and they take turns to read them to their partner minus the preposition. Each student listens and writes down the complete sentence. They could then create their own more personalised sentences for dictation and do the activity again.
As we can see, adapting is often a matter of trying to ‘bring the material off the page’ a little. This doesn’t have to mean radical change and hours producing new materials.
Reject – If it doesn’t serve you or your students well – don’t use it. Choose something else instead!
Supplement – Sometimes the material is good, but it needs something adding. For example, the lead-in provided by the book is a discussion question. You may think the question is relevant and interesting, but know your students may have a hard time thinking of ideas. Add in some visuals or a very short brainstorming section so that the material works better. Maybe there are some good language tasks in the book, but you know your students will need more practice than has been provided. In this case, look in the Teacher’s book for photocopiable materials that relate, or try doing the same thing using the Teacher’s book from a different coursebook at the same level. Seek out other popular resource books such as Reward, or…design your own practice activities! (see this post for help)
- SARS it – as above.
- Always try to do the tasks yourself before the lesson. In this way, you can identify potential problems and be in a better position to adapt materials before you find out they don’t work very well.
- Use visuals to create more engagement and interest.
- Personalise topics, get students to think about it from their own point of view.
- Bring materials ‘off the page’.
- Think about changing the group dynamic – do activities in teams and rounds to create motivation through friendly competition and cooperation.
- Don’t spend hours searching for the perfect piece of material. Make choices about which material to use relatively quickly, then spend more of your time making sure what you have chosen works well.
And…let’s not forget what is good about coursebooks…
- They are convenient.
- They save you time.
- They come with supplementary materials (work book, teacher’s book, companion websites etc)
- They make students feel safe.
- They help with a basic framework.
- They are a very helpful reference for students.
- They help serve as a record for students of what they have studied.
- They have been thought through carefully and are usually logically staged and focused on clear aims.
So…use them, and use them well. Enjoy!