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Open your books!
Coursebooks are useful to have because they provide a structure to the course and give students an idea of what to expect as they progress. In addition, they provide handy exercises and review material that enable students to revisit lessons at home. However, I have often found myself moving away from the coursebook numerous times in the past and discovered that it enriched the lesson and made students more productive and learning more effective. Coursebooks have always been a base for me; a starting point, from which I can mind map my way to countless ideas and language opportunities.
Take the example of a lesson on colours or food. Often times, it is clear that students are aware of what the basic colours or food items in the coursebook are and might benefit from spelling activities or additional vocabulary. Most coursebooks may have one or two exercises for spelling practice. The teacher will then need to look outside the book for additional resources. Spelling games might include word search races, where the teacher calls out a word and Ss work in pairs to race to find it, or a listen and spell activity with letter cards. I have also looked at additional vocabulary for various topics. Asking students to list all the colours or food items they can think of adds a lot of value to the lesson because students find sharing what they know very motivating and stronger students leave feeling like they’ve learned something new. Even at Literacy (CEF A0) level, you’d be surprised what they can come up with.
Additionally, coursebooks cannot meet the needs of every student in every class they are used in. It therefore becomes the job of the teacher to meet his/her students’ needs and using the coursebook only as a guide allows one to think more ‘outside of the book’. If your students need grammar practice or will enjoy a lesson structured around the practical use of colours in real life, incorporate it into your lessons. Teach them structures other than just ‘I like blue, and I don’t like red.’ like ‘My favourite colour is green.’, ’My favourite animal is black and white.’ or ‘The house is red and yellow.’ or ‘I’d like the yellow one, please.’
Finally, coursebooks tend to have reading texts that limit students’ exposure to specific language points and listening audios and videos that have sometimes been graded to the point that they become heavily robotic and unrealistic. Authenticity is key to successful language learning. Without exposure in class to authentic listening material, students will never grasp features of connected speech and pronunciation that can hinder comprehension even for advanced learners. With reading texts, it is a different story. Students need to be exposed to authentic reading texts just to be given the opportunity for exposure to the various vocabulary and complex grammar structures that one finds in stories and novels, newspaper articles and academic journal writing. Therefore, authentic material is a necessity in every lesson, and teachers need to include understanding authentic material as an end goal in every course syllabus. I once included a video on smarter ways to use the phone as part of a lesson on the benefits and disadvantages of using technology with my higher-level learners. Another example might be looking at real news articles from an actual newspaper to notice tenses and grammar structures.
Following additional grammar structure and vocabulary lessons, students can then use what they have learned for more enriched practical tasks that simulate real life situations. Projects and role plays allow students to apply existing knowledge and recycle old language structures they are already familiar with as well. They provide opportunities for additional skill development, as well as character development, forcing students to work together to achieve a goal, thereby exercising cooperation, communication and negotiation skills, etc. For example, if students are to work together to create a menu, decisions will need to be made together, and students will need to explain their choices of food selection and prices to each other. Teaching them language like, I disagree, that’s too pricey, I think ….’, etc. will add a lot of value to the planning and creation process. As the teacher, asking students about their decisions will also provide valuable communicative language practice. Other projects may include working on a class poster, followed by a presentation. With higher level classes, I’ve had students go from a reading on what advertisements should be like to creating their own advert for a product of their liking, and then trying to sell the product via a class presentation to their classmates. Another task that includes a lot of research work is presenting a case to collect funding to save an endangered species of one’s choice. This may be developed from a reading or listening text on endangered or extinct species, animal habitats, or strange animals, etc. A task like this requires students to organize work amongst themselves, and coordinate to produce a presentation as well as present it. It also encourages students to brush up their vocabulary and language structures as they are confronted with words they do not understand, and the task of conveying their arguments convincingly and cohesively.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that coursebooks are a big part of learning. In fact, teaching a course without a coursebook can lead to the feeling of a lack of structure for both teacher and students as I learned the hard way, but coursebooks come with limitations that only the teacher can make up for, with the inclusion of communicative and real-life tasks that motivate learners as well as educate them about and in language. Perhaps the solution is not to disregard coursebooks altogether but to use them as a starting point for a journey in learning and teaching that goes beyond its pages.