Coursebooks: Can we live with or without them?



As a child I was so happy when my parents had to buy me a new textbook when the new academic year was to start in the frontistirio I was going to. However, this was not the case for my parents. Now I assume that I was curious about finding what these books included as they were something new. I liked the images, the short stories and especially whatever was not a grammar or a vocabulary exercise. Unfortunately, coursebooks back then did not include DVDs, ebooks or any kind of interactive software. I can totally relate with my students when they get their new books and they are super excited when they take a look at them, when they watch the videos and the pictures or play games on the ebooks.
The abovementioned excitement changed when I started working as a teacher in 2011. From an exciting search of ideas and images, coursebooks ended up being only a tool which I could use in order to teach. Hopefully, this lasted only one year as I was trying to find ways of bringing that excitement that I had as a kid into my life as a teacher. Then, I started reading books and research papers and looking into the why we ‘should’ use coursebooks and why our students, our students’ parents and even ourselves feel positive towards having a coursebook.


Why coursebooks?

1. “Coursebooks are popular because they reduce the time needed for lesson preparation, they provide a visible, coherent programme of work, they provide support, they are a convenient resource for learners, they make standardized instruction possible, they are visually appealing and coursebook packages contain a wealth of extra material” (McGrath, 2013 pp. 5-6).
2. “Provide a framework for teachers in achieving the aims and objectives of the course” (Tok, 2010 p.508).
3. Cunningsworth states that “textbooks are an effective resource for presentational materials, a source of ideas and activities, a reference source for students, a syllabus where they reflect pre-determined learning objectives, and support less experienced teachers who are yet to gain confidence” (cited in Tok, 2010 p. 508).
4. Hycroft argues that “one of the primary advantages of using textbooks is that they are psychologically essential for students since their progress and achievement can be measured concretely when we use them” (cited in Tok, 2010 p. 508).
5. Tomlinson, states that coursebooks “concentrated on the linguistic and analytical aspects of learning and made insufficient use of the learners’ ability to learn through doing things physically, to learn through feeling emotion, to learn through experiencing things in the mind” (cited in McGrath, 2013 p. 9).
6. Another criticism is found to be in the context of coursebooks, where we can see that reality is being “misrepresented […] and depicted a world that is free of problems and sanitized” (McGrath, 2013 p.12).

Based on the above short literature review, it is evident that coursebooks are visually appealing, they provide a source of ideas and activities, they support not only less experienced teachers but also experienced ones and students can feel secure because in this way they can ‘measure’ their progress. On the other hand, critics see coursebooks as artificial tools in which texts and exercises do not depict the real world but instead they focus solely on the language itself. In my opinion, the truth lies somewhere in between. Whether you are in favour or against coursebooks, we have to admit that coursebooks, nowadays, follow the CEFR and a certain methodology; they also give us lots of ideas and support. They incorporate videos, images, texts that reflect on the reality (e.g. healthy eating, bullying, festivals, travelling etc.). However, they still have fixed grammar and vocabulary activities and artificial texts and to be honest this is my main objection. Nevertheless, every problem has its own solution.

So, what did I do? I changed or to be more politically correct I adapted my materials. This is what I am still doing.

Why adapting the existing materials?

1.In order to become more authentic. In this way, students feel that there is “a relation between the classroom and the outside world” (Gebhard, 2006 p.105).
2. We need to add some more activities because we feel that our students need more practice.
3. We have to change the way something is presented, because we think that it is not suitable for our learners’ needs, interests, age or level of English.
4. We feel that we must omit certain content because it is confusing or we do not need to dedicate more time to it.
5. Perhaps we follow a certain procedure or we use a certain method and approach, so it might be useful if we add or omit some tasks.
6. To make it fun, simpler or ‘humanise’ it.
7. To increase interaction among our students.

What to adapt?

Anything that we can find in coursebooks. From the order of the activities to the questions and tests. We can add, omit, modify, simplify and re-order (McDonough et al, 2013) the existing tasks/texts.

How to adapt?

1. Use a video/song (e.g. Ted Talks, Film English, ESL Brains-for adults, British Council Learn English Kids, British Council Learn English Teens).
2. Use pictures/ paintings related to the text. First let your students brainstorm, then read and discuss (e.g. how can you connect the pictures with the text/audio?).
3. Play games or use online tools (e.g. Kahoot, Wordwall, Quizizz, Nearpod, Edpuzzle, Educandy, Kwot, Readworks, Tubequizard, Gimkit and many more) to practice grammar/vocabulary or to set a speaking/writing task.
4. Create mind maps or word clouds in order to generate ideas on writing (canva,
5. Change the writing topics. For example, you can give a funny topic, or a real life situation which addresses your students’ interests and needs.
6. Let the class decide what to do and what to leave from the coursebooks. At the beginning of the school year discuss with the students the expectations that they have from the lesson. After that, you present briefly what you are going to cover this year. You can also present the coursebook and its components. Then, you can let your students decide. This is a way to train your students to be responsible for their learning. However, we are always there to assist and of course facilitate the learning process. That means that the decision that your students have made is subject to change during the year.
7. Readings can be turned into jigsaw readings or it can be the beginning of searching for similar texts on a specific topic and then discuss and perhaps write an article. The same applies to speaking, writing and listening.
8. Leave out exercises that your students find easy and create more challenging ones.
9. Simplify grammar. Grammar can be taught in different ways. You can create a Powerpoint marking the main points, you can expose your students to authentic materials (e.g. a video/story) and then let students discover the rules or perhaps you may not teach grammar at all. You can also play and/or create grammar games, you can create projects or carry out research and then let your students identify the grammar points they have used. It is up to you.
10. Change the order of the book. I love this idea and I do it all the time. It might sound confusing but if you first identify your students’ needs, after conducting a needs analysis, then you will be able to structure the syllabus in a way that your students can follow.
11. Talk about the CEFR’s ‘can do statements’ and what comes at the next level. Most grammar points and topics are repeated, so why not adding a more creative task or modifying a grammar point?
12. Re-write or summarise the text using your students’ mistakes or even better let your students do that. The same applies to tests.
13. Be the student for one day (or more!). Let your students create a lesson in the way they want.
14. Students take a text and write other questions based on the text, perhaps more creative ones. For example, if the text is about air pollution a question might be, ‘what would you do, if you were the prime minister?’.
15. Use infographics to present main points of a reading text or an audio.
16. Take a dialogue. Students read it using different voices. You might change the situation and then read the same dialogue but within a different context.

And of course there are many more ways to adapt.

Coursebooks are our teaching tools. We have the power to decide how to use them. Before you adapt, think about your students’ needs and interests. Think about your class (e.g. a mixed ability class, an exam class, children, teenagers). Think about what you want to achieve by adapting (e.g. make it fun, engaging and motivating). Think of your students’ age, personality and learning/ cultural background. As you might have noticed you actually supplement the coursebook and not necessarily ‘ignore’ it. “Effective adaptation is a matter of achieving congruence. The good teacher is constantly striving for congruence among several related variables: teaching materials, methodology, students, course objectives, the target language and its context and the teachers’ own personality and teaching style” (McDonough et al., 2013 p. 65). In other words, the lifelong learner teachers (I do not agree with the terms good and bad teachers) adapt based on what their students actually need. •

1. Gebhard,J.G. (2006), “EFL/ESL Materials, Media and Technology”, In: Gebhard,J.G. Teaching English as a Foreign or Second Language, U.S.A: University of Michigan Press pp. 101-118.
2. McDonough, J., Masuhara, H., Shaw, C. (2013), “Adapting Materials”, In: McDonough, J., Masuhara, H., Shaw, C. Materials and Methods in ELT, Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, pp.63-78.
3. McGrath, I. (2013), “Introduction: Material, the roles of teachers and learners, and teacher education”, In: McGrath, I. Teaching Materials and the Roles of EFL/ESL Teachers: Practice and Theory, London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 1-26.
4. Tok, H. (2010), “TEFL textbook evaluation: From teachers’ perspectives”, Educational Research and Reviews, Vol. 5, No.9, September 2010, pp.508-517


ELT News

ELT News