Is My Textbook Just a Fancy Paperweight?

Unveiling the Mysteries of Supplementary Material in ELT

As educators, we often contemplate the necessity of implementing supplementary materials to enhance and appease our students’ potential for learning. However, burdening ourselves with another ‘measly’ task while stacks of uncorrected papers demand our immediate attention is, in itself, a deterrent. Besides, we were told our shiny new textbooks are jam-packed with all the extra tools we need to offer students the most innovative and satisfying approach to embedding the language they so desire to command.

ELT publishers have, without a doubt, made incredible advancements in offering the most accessible venue to learning, establishing their textbooks as the backbone of many language programs. Notwithstanding this marvelous feat, there are shortcomings which must be addressed, and addressed they shall! Fear not my disgruntled colleagues; when burdened with extra work, we always take it in our stride and never crib about it.

Seriously though, our profession is that of meticulous preparation and devotion to our students. Though at first such an endeavor may seem time-consuming, in reality, it must be viewed wholeheartedly, and eventually, our students will most certainly reap the benefits of incorporating said materials. However, the burning question remains, “Is my textbook insufficient?” The simple answer is ‘no’. On the one hand, textbooks undeniably act as a basis to learning a language. On the other hand, we must recognize their limitations as regards outdated content, lack of flexibility and in some cases, insufficient coverage of diverse language skills. Not all learners thrive in the same educational environment, mind you, as it falls upon us to offer a separate range of resources which incorporate visual and audio stimuli, interactive exercises and hands-on activities, ensuring that all students engage with the materials at their disposal.

Let’s not forget that the world is progressing at an accelerated rate, making it impossible to faithfully present the current language nuances or global social circumstances we are experiencing at any moment’s notice. As for that certain ‘flair’ which could spark interest in class, a textbook won’t appeal to all audiences, rendering our intervention mandatory.

Now here's where things get interesting. According to Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences: “People do not have just an intellectual capacity, but have many kinds of intelligence, including musical, interpersonal, spatial-visual, and linguistic intelligences.” Therefore, supplementary materials can be adjusted to cater these intelligences, satisfying the unique needs of each student. Be it visual, auditory, even kinesthetic, there are a multitude of approaches to bring out the best in each student. Visual elements such as graphs and infographics can put information into perspective while audio elements such as podcasts and interviews will immerse students in the learning experience.

Interactive play and physical tasks are exercises which can foster educational growth amongst the kinesthetic learners. Tech-savvy learners could most assuredly benefit from the incorporation of technology. Online access to literature, blogs and articles can be utilized as relevant reading assignments. Educational applications, interactive e-books and online quizzes are universally embraced, offering a fresh and welcome approach to the target lesson at hand while resonating with the technologically prone students of the 21st century.

What textbooks usually lack most often than not is cultural relevance. Admittedly, textbooks are modified to match the cultural and ethnic standards of the country they are to be sold in. Unfortunately, this is a failed notion as globalization has rendered it impossible to focus on a ‘specific’ audience. Mixed-raced classes are the norm now and this is a field in which most publishers are striving to rectify. Until then, the adaptation of the textbook and the addition of materials are, without a doubt, of the utmost importance. What of specific holidays pertaining to a certain culture? Not to mention family dynamics. How will a biracial student feel when there is no representation of mixed-couple families within the pages of a textbook? What about two mommies? Just put yourself in the student’s shoes. The feeling of being sidelined will, in most cases, diminish one’s self-esteem and render the student’s presence in class to a bare minimum.

Another issue which must be brought to light is the ever-growing demand to cater specialized needs of learners. Adult learners have made it abundantly clear that language plays a pivotal role in business purposes. Proposals, emails and reports are but a fraction of the requirements asked in the professional field; requirements which in some cases are met within the textbook itself, but not to the degree demanded by the adult student. Necessary action must be then taken by the educator to assimilate and enrich the textbook content for specific purposes. A former adult student of mine was adamant about mastering reports and negotiating business deals. Although the textbook acquired pertained to a certain degree to the student’s exigencies, it was by no means adequate on its own to deliver. Enter supplementary materials.

We dare not neglect the primary role of an educator: to ignite the critical thought of our learners’ ripe minds and establish the foundations to tackle the challenges beyond the scope of traditional textbooks. In doing so, we hone their skills to better face the demands of an ever-evolving society. This can be achieved by incorporating authentic materials such as blog posts and newsletters. Even authentic advertisements contain linguistic elements that will expose their minds to concepts they would be otherwise unfamiliar with. Structured debates are also a tried and guaranteed method of accomplishing this. The learners will be put to the test as they must resort to adopting a plethora of language resources to defend and present their viewpoints. Add some spice to it by exposing them to open-ended questions and you have the perfect recipe for language assimilation. Making the stakes higher will oblige students to analyze and express their ideas clearly.

It goes without saying that the selection and integration of said materials must be conducted with the utmost of consideration and care. What are my students’ personal interests? Do their cultural backgrounds differ? Is their command of the language on par with each other? Just keep in mind that we are offering them a fresh perspective and mustn’t stray too far from the source materials of the textbook. If a textbook is established as the bedrock of language learning, supplementary materials cater to its practical applications, harmoniously consolidating theory and actual utilization. Teachers who vehemently integrate these materials into the learning environment will provide students with the potential to evolve not only as fluent speakers but as contemplating individuals of today’s challenging world.


Katherine Reilly

Katherine Reilly

Author & Academic Lecturer, English Literature | LGBTQIA+ Business Consultant | Public and Motivational Speaker