Many school districts and/or schools have adopted textbooks of varying quality as part of the curriculum for ELLs.

Unfortunately, teachers may only be given the textbook without any professional development or additional curriculum resources. It can be challenging, especially for newer teachers, to figure out how to use the textbook to meet the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students who may be at different levels of English proficiency. It can also be difficult if the textbook is outdated or not well-designed in terms of instructional practice.

Textbooks do have some advantages. They can provide a guide for effective language teaching, contain helpful models, save teachers time, and are usually leveled and aligned to standards. However, they can also present a danger when they are viewed (by teachers, administrators, or districts) as the “only” curriculum or one that must be followed precisely. It is also highly problematic if they are used as a substitute for instruction.

In our experience, textbooks can be practical tools when used as a resource, not as a curriculum.

The suggestions in this post can be used to make textbook activities more engaging and effective for students-- whether teachers are using textbooks occasionally or on a daily basis. For even more ideas, explore The Best Resources For Adapting Your Textbook So It Doesn’t Bore Students To Death.

Many textbooks for ELLs, especially for Beginners, are organized thematically. Teachers can build upon these themes and incorporate any of the following suggestions to increase student engagement, critical thinking skills, and language learning (most of these suggestions include links leading to more details about each suggested strategy):

1) Turn textbook passages into sequencing activities or clozes for students to complete or have students create them. Go to this list of Larry's NY Times posts on ELLs to see many sequencing examples and The Best Tools For Creating Clozes (Gap-Fills) for information on that strategy.

2) Use information from the text to create an Inductive Data Set for students to read and categorize or have students create their own. Have students convert the information from the data set categories into sentences, paragraphs, or an essay. See this British Council post on inductive learning for details on data sets.

3) Supplement the activities in the text by adding engaging texts on the same theme. These could include written texts, photos, video clips, infographics, etc.

4) Turn a textbook chapter or a set of questions at the end of a chapter into a Jigsaw activity where students work in small groups. Each jigsaw group could read one section of a chapter or answer a few of the questions and work to prepare a short presentation for the class on their assigned part.

5) Use graphic organizers to assist students in comprehending the textbook and organizing new information (e.g. KWL Charts, Venn Diagrams, etc.).

6) Convert textbook passages into read alouds or think alouds with follow-up speaking or writing prompts using reading comprehension strategies.

7) Take dialogues contained in the textbook and personalize them based on student interests and experiences. Have students work in pairs to use a textbook dialogue as a model to write and perform their own dialogue.

8) Select pictures from the textbook to use for Picture Word Inductive Model lessons.

9) Choose a picture from the textbook for students to use with a partner for Picture Dictation. One partner can describe the picture while the other partner draws on a piece of paper or mini-whiteboard. The roles can then be reversed using a different picture from the textbook.

10) Convert grammar or phonics lessons from the textbook into concept attainment lessons.

12) Have students complete an activity, suggested by teacher Russel Tarr, where they choose a topic that isn’t covered in-depth in the textbook or that they want to learn more about. Students can then research the topic and create a new page for the textbook containing this information along with any visuals (pictures, graphs, maps, etc).

Students can do a low-tech version on paper or can create one using technology.

13) Have students “review” the textbook by selecting what they think is the best page or chapter and the worst. Students can support their opinion with reasons and examples from the selected page or chapter.

14) Have higher English proficient students choose an activity from the textbook to teach to less proficient students.

15) Take advantage of the online learning resources that usually come with textbooks (like these) which are often more engaging and current than the print version.

As we stated earlier, a textbook cannot act as a substitute for good teaching. It can be a practical resource that provides a thematic framework, model texts, and a base of activities that teachers can modify to meet the needs and interests of their students.

(This post was co-authored by Katie Hull Sypnieski and is an excerpt from Larry and Katie's upcoming book, The ELL Teacher’s Toolbox: Hundreds of Practical Ideas to Support Your Students.)

Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski teach in Sacramento, California. They have co-authored three books, The ESL/ELL Teacher's Survival Guide, Navigating The Common Core With ELLs, and The ELL Teacher's Toolbox.

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