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Teaching without a coursebook

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Whether you're starting with a new class or just changing direction a little the decision of how to structure a course without a coursebook can sometimes be difficult for a new or even experienced teacher.


  • What's wrong with using a coursebook?
  • A topic-based syllabus
  • Structuring the course
    • Needs analysis
    • Set short-term objectives
    • Remedial grammar
    • Error correction
    • Variety
  • Conclusion


What's wrong with using a coursebook?
Well, in many cases, nothing! With the constant updating of text books to include new and relevant topics, ideas and methodology, teachers have a great set of resources at their fingertips. Students however may not see it that way. Perhaps they have had past experiences with a "bad" textbook, in other words, following a book which is not well chosen in terms of their age, interests and needs. Maybe they are lacking a little variety in their classes or perhaps you or they just want a break or a change from routine.

A topic-based syllabus
What might sound like fun for the students can seem a bit daunting for the teacher. By taking away the course book we are taking away our safety net, our tried and tested syllabus written by someone who apparently knew what they were doing!

Using a topic-based syllabus as a framework, however, provides a natural stimulus for language learning in a realistic context. By starting with a topic of interest and then discussing or explaining an issue or opinion, students will find out what they want to say and whether they can say it or not. This then, provides further objectives, whether they be grammatical, lexical or pronunciation based, on which to build the course.

Structuring the course
What might at first sight seem like quite an unstructured course can in fact be deceptively well organised. Here are five steps to follow to ensure that both students and teacher feel that the course is properly designed:

Needs analysis
The key to beginning a successful topic-based course is to clearly establish the students' interests and motivations. As part of your lesson get the students to talk about themselves and each other and find out what they enjoy, what they don't like, whether they know what's going on in the news at the moment and so on.

  • Keep a note of what comes up as the list of potential topics can be long and every student will be different.
  • Ultimately, those topics which will be successful are those which spark off an agreement or disagreement with someone else in the class as well as those the students seem well-informed about.
  • The students will take over the conversation and lead it where they want it to go.

Whether or not you get a long list from students, you can always use course books "behind the scenes" to help you. Take a look at the contents page of a course book for topic ideas and suggest them to students or take one of the student's ideas and back it up with more material from the book. Students will never know their ideas originally came from a book!

Set short-term objectives
The list resulting from the needs analysis may be long with a variety of topics and areas of interest. Rather than trying to include everything, plan to focus on three or four over a certain time frame, either a term or particular number of hours depending on the frequency of the classes. Decide with the students what their objectives for the coming course will be, for example: to develop their ability to discuss certain topics with more confidence, fluency and awareness of relevant language. Endeavour to ensure that topics cover several lessons to give an idea of continuation. Even better if you can find a link between topics so the students will have some thread to follow over the course.

Remedial grammar
While topics and current affairs tend to lend themselves to a great deal of discussion it is important that the students don't feel that grammar or language input has been abandoned altogether! Although they may not want to follow a structural syllabus per se, there will be structural errors which repeatedly occur both in needs analysis and during the course and these will form the underlying framework for language input.

This of course requires teachers to be more flexible and reactive to problems which are arising. Again, course books can be used as a base and exercises selected according to the needs of the students. It is still okay for the teacher to say "We'll discuss this in detail next lesson!" if something comes up that wasn't prepared.

Error correction
When focusing mainly on conversation in class it is very tempting to encourage fluency at the expense of accuracy, especially at high levels.

  • Discuss this issue with the students encouraging them to think about when they want to be corrected. Many are keen to be corrected on the spot, some prefer correction slots throughout the class or at the end.
  • Trying several different approaches will allow both teacher and student to find which works best for them.
  • Keeping a note of errors and giving them back to the students the following lesson to correct really makes them think back and pay attention to the mistakes they are making.


The wider the variety of sources and resources you and your students can find, the better. Let's take an example:

  • Students have all agreed they are interested in cinema. As a starting point find out which films particularly they like and ask them to explain the story and why they like them.
  • The Internet, magazines and newspapers can be used to research films and language of film reviews can be studied.
  • Video or DVD can be used to watch all or some of the films and a variety of work can be done on this involving discussion, pronunciation, accents, role plays, descriptions, predictions, translations. Don't forget it is most important to grade the task not the text so authentic materials can be used with low level classes.
  • Coursebook material can be used to add to this in terms of listening and reading material at any level.
  • A variety of topics could follow on from this starting point of cinema. Fame and fortune, privacy, the media, entertainment, fashion are all possibilities that could be exploited. Indeed the topics contained in some of the films may even provide links to a wider variety of discussions and areas of interest.

Teaching without a coursebook won't please everyone all of the time and can create a lot of extra work, but in terms of your own teacher development and as a way of keeping your classes fresh and interesting for your students, I would definitely recommend giving it a try from time to time.

If you have any suggestions or tips for adapting or getting away from coursebooks you would like to share on this site, contact us.

Jennifer Goodman, Oxford House College, Barcelona