Improvise, adapt and overcome: transforming coursebook material to meet the contemporary needs (and beyond)

It is said that there is an unofficial mantra of the U.S. Marine Corps which urges soldiers to improvise, adapt and overcome (Booth-Houle, 2020). As you wonder what marines and educators could possibly have in common, think of what we have been through all these months, the almost impossible missions that we have to carry out against a deadly invisible enemy and the necessity to stay alive keeping our -and our students’- spirits high. At once, the similarities are becoming more profound.
Apparently, hard times push people to the limits of their endurance. Under these circumstances, resilience and adaptation might be the key to ensure our physical, emotional and mental well-being. What about our educational well-being? Maybe, the only way to withstand and meet the demands of this unprecedented situation is to develop a mindset that helps us focus on what we control instead of worrying about things beyond the scope of our influence. In other words, instead of constantly complaining about online courses, it would be more constructive to concentrate on the domains in which we can have meaningful, positive impact like our practices and the material we use. Such attitude can not only help us set goals and take the necessary steps towards them but also see that there is a silver lining in every cloud. While not always obvious, it is still very possible for crisis to create opportunities that provide future benefits.

text by Vassiliki Lismani - (B.Ed., MA in Special & Inclusive Education, MA in TESOL)

Apparently, during these months, change has been the only way forward and the willingness to improvise and adapt are the stepping stones towards overcoming the challenges. Besides our own practices, the available material has also come under close scrutiny regarding the effectiveness to rise to the occasion. Every year, publishers boast about releasing new, state-of-the-art material. Most of the times, they have every reason to do so as their books are the result of years of research on second language acquisition and L2 pedagogy. Additionally, on teachers’ behalf, when working on a syllabus designed around a coursebook, we might feel “a certain pressure from management, parents or students themselves to ‘get through’ the whole thing” (Malek, 2015, para. 1). However, the current situation has created unpredictable changes. Without abandoning coursebooks, teachers need to be creative and flexible enough to adapt them and improvise in order to keep students engaged and at the same time, cover their educational needs. By the way, the need to adapt existing material is nothing but new. Even in the pre-pandemic times, EFL teachers decided to alter, to some extent, the books they used for a variety of reasons like mismatched methods, the cultural context or the visual appeal (Petrie, 2015). Accordingly, teachers who had chosen to work online even before the pandemic (mostly for practical reasons) were well aware of the fact that online lessons have their own pedagogy and require certain changes.

Considering online classes, we should consider specific barriers, how our practices are affected by them and to what extent books can determine these practices or it is the other way round. The barriers can be summarized in mainly two: lack of physical presence and technical issues. Inevitably, our choices and whatever we plan to do in our classes has been filtered through these parametres. Being away from their classes, students have responded to the new educational reality in different ways: some seem to be more flexible and have adapted to the new conditions smoothly; others seem to perform better as if the familiar home environment and the fact that they are behind a screen function as a kind of a protective shield for them. Accordingly, there are students who seem to be so demotivated that their performance, especially in more communicative activities like speaking, has plummeted. And above all, technical problems which can get out of control and frustrate students and teachers alike.

Under these circumstances, teachers still have to work with a coursebook and a lesson plan with clear goals and objectives. However, the key to keeping track with the students’ current needs and the problems that might come up unpredictably during an online lesson is to adopt a flexible mindset and make adjustments in order to reach our goals. In any case, we need to adapt our material to such extent that we keep our students constantly engaged and motivated. Of course, one might claim that this is nothing but new. True! But nowadays, it is so easy for a student to skip classes claiming that the Internet connection has dropped. Therefore, the point is to make our students want to join the meeting, not because they have to but because they know that something interesting is happening there or is about to take place and they don’t want to miss it.

What teachers do not always realize is that the opposite is also true: “If YOU aren’t motivated by the lesson, you’re not going to engage your students” (Malanek, 2015, para. 3). Knowing that we have to deal with problems that might not be easily anticipated and can be very stressful. So, instead of focusing on the problems, why not anticipating learning opportunities as given through online classes? For example, we must be aware of the fact that if we expect to practice speaking during a “so called” speaking class, we might never have the chance to do so as no one can reassure us that on that particular day everyone will be able to contribute due to technical issues. On the contrary, if we make the most of the learning opportunities offered by the integrated language skills approach and practice all language skills in conjunction and not separately (Pardede, 2019), then we offer our students ample opportunities to practice their speaking skills online on a daily basis.
Apparently, in order to motivate students and put changes into practice, creativity and flexibility to adopt coursebook material must be in the core of our discussion. Here are some ideas that might help us move a step forward and serve the goals of our lessons:

  • Invest in the pre-/after- teaching stages to incorporate all skills!
  • Personalize learning: Turn typical activities into tasks with a personal item!
  • Make use of your students’ curiosity! Don’t be afraid to improvise!
  • Use image based activities (e.g. infographics) to support you students’ learning and increase engagement.
  • Build on and develop students’ digital literacy.

Most importantly, we should always keep in mind that we teach through the screen and not to the screen. The fact that we can’t see our students most of the times, it does not mean that we should not always think of their needs and interests and deliver our lesson accordingly. Equally important, when this pandemic crisis is well over, the decision to adapt coursebooks might be a lasting legacy to free teachers from strict adherence to coursebooks- based curriculums when/if required and make sure that the material we use serves the needs of the particular group of students at a given moment. •


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