ESL Teachers Ask: Should I Follow a Really Boring Textbook?

ESL Teachers Ask: Should I Follow a Really Boring Textbook?

“In my ESL class, we are using a textbook that was not my choice, but rather the school’s. The characters and situations are rather dull, not the type of thing most of my students can relate to. The option to chuck it out the window is out, but should I feel obliged to follow it?” *

And my answer is a resounding ‘no’.

There is nothing compelling you to go from task to task as set forth in the book. Schools choose textbooks based on the learning objectives and goals they want a particular class to meet. They have “expectations” as to what your students will be able to do once they finish the course. These learning objectives are normally outlined somewhere in the book, chapter by chapter. This is what you should be paying attention to. And here’s what you can do make that boring textbook a little more targeted to your students’ needs.

How to Turn that Boring Textbook Around

  1. 1

    The Planning Phase

    As you sit down to plan your upcoming lessons, open the textbook and take a good look at the list of contents, usually broken down into units or chapters. Typically, you’ll find a topic for each unit/chapter, the grammar and vocabulary your class will be taught, plus the reading, listening or writing tasks that will help them achieve the unit goal. Sometimes, the goal is not altogether clear. For example, I grabbed a random textbook from my book shelf and saw that for Unit 8 the title or goal is “Polite Requests”. The grammar is “Indirect questions” and the vocabulary for this unit is “expressions with mind”. So, as far as I can see a good goal would be to teach students to make polite requests, with the use of indirect questions and some expressions with mind. Always keep the goal for each unit in mind.

  2. 2

    The Proposed Tasks

    So I opened the book to Unit 8 to see just how they propose to help students reach this goal. The first thing I see is a listening exercise, a conversation between two middle-aged women on a train. The women make polite requests throughout the conversation (Do you mind if I open the window?) It’s a good dialogue, but if my students are teens, they’ll find this conversation a bit dull and far removed from the types of conversations they usually have. So, in this particular case, why not replace this listening exercise or conversation with one your students might find more engaging, like two backpackers meeting on train or sharing a room at a youth hostel? There are great sites that are simply full of ESL listening material you can use to replace a boring textbook dialogue!

  3. 3

    The Grammar Practice

    The exercise the book provides to practice indirect questions is quite good, and I’d totally use it in class. But I’d introduce the topic differently. For example, in the case of indirect questions, I’d:

    • First, ask students to brainstorm a list of questions they might ask at a hostel (What time/Where do you serve breakfast? Can I open the window? Is this bed/bunk taken? Etc...)
    • Next, I’d model what happens when you add a Can you tell me…?(Can you tell me what time/where you serve breakfast?)
    • Then, I’d ask the students what happens to the subject and verb in the indirect question.
    • Finally, I’d continue with the practice exercise in the book.

    As you can see in this case, I’d use the proposed task from the textbook, but I’d provide another type of introduction to the topic.

  4. 4

    The Listening Practice

    The listening tasks that come with the textbook are often great in terms of audio quality, but they also most often need some “tweaks” to make them even more engaging for students. I always recommend following a series of steps, no matter what the topic is:

    • Warm up
    • Listening for the main idea
    • Listening for detail
    • Focusing on grammar
    • Focusing on language
    • And discussion

    Most textbooks include some but not all of these steps. You’ll find each one explained in this article on improving coursebook listening tasks.

  5. 5

    The Speaking Practice

    The speaking tasks set forth in the typical textbook are often pretty clear cut. For this particular unit, the book suggests a role play: You are delayed at a railway station and strike up a conversation with another person. The goal is to try to make some polite requests: Do you mind if I sit here? Could I borrow your magazine? Etc... This type of role play is fine, but what if you add some interesting complications? (You want to open a window but the other person is cold). You might also want to add a more engaging speaking task. You’ll find more ideas in this article on turning coursebook exercises into engaging speaking tasks.

And these are just a few ideas. As long as you focus on meeting the learning goal (customized to your students’ needs), you can change or eliminate as many of the textbook tasks as you want.

After all, what is the end goal here? For you to “complete the textbook” or for your students to learn to communicate better in English?

* This question was sent in from a real ESL teacher, just like you! If you need any advice on a particular topic, share your question in the comments below. Or tweet your question to @busyteacher_org with the hashtag #ESLTeachersAsk. Your question might get picked and featured in an article!

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