In this article, Luke Meddings reflects on the constraints coursebooks can put on the learning experience in the classroom, and offers some suggestions on how we can overcome that.

Two conversations
I wonder if, like me, you've ever heard a conversation like this in the staffroom:

'What are you doing this week?' 
'Unit 5.'
'Not Unit 5!'
'I know...'


'Who are you teaching?'
'My Upper Intermediates [sigh].'
'What’s wrong?'
'They just don’t want to talk.'

Perhaps, like me, you haven’t just heard these conversations – but also taken part in them.

I think they can arise when our classroom practice is defined too closely by external parameters such as coursebook units and even learner levels. 

This reduces our own sense of agency1 as teachers, and the degree of agency we feel able to foster in our learners. It can make us feel passive, reducing our motivation. And as we all know from our own days in school, a demotivated teacher can’t motivate a class. If we want active learners, we need to be active teachers.

An opportunity missed
Feeling constrained by coursebooks and levels can also lead us to miss learning opportunities. There’s a powerful example of this in the introduction to Teaching Unplugged2, where part of a lesson in an ELT classroom in Mexico is transcribed. The teacher learns that a student called Jorge has got married over the weekend, but for whatever reason does not pursue this potentially motivating conversation. Instead, the class is directed to the coursebook – and a unit which is, ironically enough, about 'biographies'. 

An opportunity taken
In real life, language emerges from communicative need. One person wants to say something; another wants to find out something. This is why information gap activities are a staple of communicative language teaching, but they are often somewhat artificial: the set-up involves a role play, none of the information is real, and Student A doesn’t really need to know what Student B has to tell them.

In our example from Mexico, a real information gap has emerged: only Jorge knows about his own wedding – and it is genuinely motivating for his classmates to find out more. (It doesn’t have to be a life-changing event to motivate: real life events, big and small, form the basis of our social interaction outside the class – and can do inside.)

Conversation: allow it, shape it
So, how do we exploit this opportunity? The first step to take is to 'allow' the conversation to happen – by showing that you are interested, by showing that you want to know more. The second is to give it shape, and involve the whole class, by adding a light task element. For example, you can set up a 'paper conversation' by inviting students to work in groups, writing questions on pieces of paper for Jorge to reply to. This allows each group to build a slightly different picture of his wedding which they can turn into a short text and compare. (You can ask the groups to show you the questions before they go to Jorge: check them for form and send them back if they need more work.)

This strikes me as a vibrant classroom dynamic, energising for all concerned: one based not on what a group of learners 'should' be doing in Unit 5 (although there will always be time to return to that later), nor even on what kind of language they 'should' be producing as Upper Intermediates (although what emerges is by definition linked to their level and can always be referred to the syllabus). 

Instead, the classroom space is open to the learners' own lives and language, and quickly fills with the words and texts that allow them to negotiate and create meaning together. By being pro-active and responding to an opportunity, we restore our sense of agency as teachers – and we transfer it to the learners, working with them as they co-construct their narratives. 

(It’s interesting to note that much of what we do in conventional lesson plans seems designed to control rather than 'allow'. In the week leading up to the British Council workshops I gave in Poland in October, which this article follows, there was some great discussion on Anthony Gaughan's blog, Teacher Training Unplugged. Responding to this, Anthony commented that, while 'some anticipation of potential difficulties is useful and necessary, it's curious ... that no standard lesson plan pro-forma contains sections asking [teachers] to look out for opportunities and leverage points.') 3

Focus on form: mine, refine
In case you’re wondering, there are plenty of opportunities for language work in the course of this activity. Spoken conversation allows us to echo and recast before we draw more explicit attention to form. But one advantage of a paper conversation is that it gives you as the teacher a little more processing time. The texts – both the draft questions and the final narratives – can be 'mined' for a suitable focus on form. They can also be refined, so that they are made not only more accurate but also more fluent or expressive.

I shared the sessions in Poland with Rob Lewis, who led a great workshop in which we explored our evolving 'toolkits' as teachers. Using paper conversations as one of the 'go-to' activities in your toolkit is an excellent way to build up your confidence in dealing with emergent language.

Adding more or stripping back?
We started with two conversations that reflect constrained classroom experience and expectations: the coursebook has become what we 'do' in class; while the learners are more 'Upper Intermediates' than people. 

We sometimes try and deal with issues like this by adding: we supplement the coursebook unit with additional material; we set up complex communication activities that can take longer to explain than to complete. 

But I wonder if you've ever had the experience of cooking a dish that goes wrong? We may try to fix it by adding more salt, or by adding some extra ingredients, but very often the taste just gets more confused and unsatisfying. I think it can be a bit like that with teaching. 

Sometimes it’s best to start again – with fewer ingredients. Simple, fresh food is often best. And the best ingredients for your lesson are often the ones right in front of you: the learners. 


  2. Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. 2009. Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta 

By Luke Meddings

From 20 October Luke will be answering your questions on this, and his other writing on the site. Check out his articles and activities and if you have a question, log in and leave a comment below!



Dear Mr. Luke Meddings,I have watched your conference at the British Council online, and since then, I have tried to make some changes when I teach. I try to pay more attention to the language my students are interested in producing, rather than the language they should produce in that Unit. And I have had amazing results. First of all, the relationship I have with my students turned more friendly, and also the realtionship among them, in the groups. They are eager to speak and to ask what interests them, which of course motivates their learning. And like you wrote, there is always time to come back to the course book. But I feel I still need to learn a lot about using this real opportunities in the classroom. Thank you very much for sharing your work and experience, it really made a difference for me.Kindest regards,Olga.

Hi OlgaThank you very much for this comment, it made me so happy and I even quoted it in a talk - I hope you don't mind! I love what you say about the way the relationships changed - more friendly between you and the students, and more friendly amongst the students themselves. That is such a powerful expression of what attentive, responsive, conversational teaching can achieve.Thank you so much!Luke

Dear Luke,Your article is very interesting about exploiting students' experiences to trigger interesting interaction activities in class among the students.Coursebooks, however, have to be exploited, too. First of all, examinations mid-term and end-term are based on this material throughout the year.I run two Language Centres in Greece where we strictly use monolingual system so for us it is essential to exploit L2 for the benefit of our students.I have found coursebooks, even the best ones, repetitive and sometimes boring. That is why I often change the procedure; I very rarely follow the teacher's book.Some of the things I use to vary my teaching are:PICTURE DISCUSSION & BRAINSTORMING IDEAS before the students are exposed to the text accompanying it.BACKGROUND MUSIC [Verdi/Vivaldi] while they are doing pair-work or group-work.JIGSAW READING and narration of their part in pairs when they have a new text that can be divided into two parts (Skills: reading, listening, comprehension, story telling, filling in the gaps, questions to clarify some points)WARM-UP DISCUSSION before each class i.e. their experiences over the weekend, etc. This generates a lot of discussion/questions/answers, etc. Sometimes they are so motivated I feel it would be a shame to interrupt them!PROJECTS where they write together in groups of 4 (classroom/beach rules for instance). Then I get their papers and we go to the Computer Lab where we make them into posters with funny accompanying pictures from the Clip Art for each rule. The final phase is to print the poster, which is  signed by all the students of the class, and put it up on the cork board in their classroom.OTHER PROJECTS where more advanced classes choose a subject relevant to some topics of the unit we are doing at the time. They explore it at home on the Internet and when they are in session, each student in turn sits in front of the class and speaks to the class (I sit with the 'audience') by consulting their notes. They are given 2 min. each to speak about their topic. The audience may ask questions to clarify some points when the student has finished the topic. Then the speaker chooses 3-4 new words from his topic to teach the class so they write the new vocabulary items on the board with definitions and examples. Such an activity can take 2 hours for a class of 12 (2 min. talk + 5 minutes discussion + 5 minutes the contribution of each student to bring new words) but it's worth trying because it does expand their horizons and it develops all skills (reading, comprehension, note-taking, expanding notes, speaking, listening, interaction, writing and learning from each other).STORY COMPETITION where the students are brought a topic in class relevant to an interesting point in their unit. For example our young learners of B Senior class aged 9-10 (in total 21 students in 2 classes) read about robots in their unit and they became excited. The same night I prepared A4 handouts in card paper and the instructions on the top of the page. Each handout had a funny picture of a robot. All pictures were different. In class the next day I spread all handouts on my desk and I asked them if they would like to write a story about a robot that they were keeping secret in their home and how their parents discovered it. I explained that their stories would be assessed by advanced classes and the best 3 would be published in our school Newsletter with their photos. They were very motivated. They chose their handouts and they wrote their stories in 40 minutes. Then the stories were put up on a big wall where 40 students assessed them in a period of one week and the ones that were voted by most 'assessors' were the winners. I cannot describe the suspence and the excitement. Now they're asking when the next competition will be... I would like to read more ideaas from colleagues.Happy new YearEugenia Papaioannou - EFL Teacher


Add new comment

Log in or register to post comments