Lizzie Pinard - Course books in the language classroom: friend or foe?

This is not the first time I’ve discussed or reflected on the use of course books in the classroom, neither, I’m sure, will it be the last.

This is not the first time I’ve discussed or reflected on the use of course books in the classroom, neither, I’m sure, will it be the last. While in my first post-CELTA job, I initiated an #ELTchat discussion entitled “How to avoid death by course book?” – the summary of which can be found here – which hints at my feelings towards course books at that time! Since then, and via a lot of teaching, learning (both on the job and during my Delta/M.A.ELT year at Leeds Metropolitan) and reflection, my relationship with course books has evolved…

How do I feel about using a course book? I think it doesn’t have to be as bad as might sometimes be assumed. Therefore, this post will focus on ideas for making the most of working with a course book rather than resenting its existence; or, otherwise put, making friends with your course book rather than remaining sworn enemies!

For me, the course book is a cookery book. If you have never cooked before, or you are learning to cook, or perhaps you are trying out a new kind of cuisine, they can be a Godsend. Even for less inexperienced chefs/teachers, the book (course – or recipe books!) needn’t be useless. For an extensive reflection on this metaphor, please visit Course books and Cookery, but for now I will focus on some more practical ideas:


Instead of dismissing your course book out of hand and assuming that you know better (hey, you might – but not necessarily!), take a closer look at the pages you are due to teach next. Consider the aims it is trying to fulfill and the sequence of activities it is using to do this.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the purpose of this sequence?
  • How does each activity bring the students a step closer to meeting that aim?
  • What theories of language, teaching and learning does it embody?

(You could look in the Teachers Resource Book, if you have access to it, to explore this further. However, remember: publishers’ claims and actual content may not necessarily be equivalent…)

Now consider your students and context:

  • What are their specific needs and learning styles? What is their/your context?
  • What are your joint long-term goals?
  • What do you know and believe regarding theories of language, teaching, learning and acquisition?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this sequence meet my students’ needs and match their learning styles? Is it suited to their context?
  • Is this sequence in tune with what I believe about language, teaching, learning and acquisition?
  • How can I adapt this sequence and exploit these activities to best help my students, bearing in mind these specific needs/learning styles/contextual issues and my pedagogical beliefs? How can I exploit this sequence fully?
  • Do I need to add (expand or extend), delete (subtract or abridge), simplify, reorder or replace anything? (McGrath, 2002)

If I make these changes, how it will affect the sequence and learning goals of the material?


Accordingly, if you opt for change:

  • You may feel your students’ interest would be better engaged with a different lead-in use one of your own instead (replacement).
  • You may feel your students need more practice of a particular type and give them some extra questions to look at (expansion).
  • You may want your students to use the language more communicatively than you feel the course book allows, and extend an activity to enable this (extension).

In terms of your own language/teaching/learning/acquisition beliefs, you may disagree with the approach followed in the course book and decide to adjust it:

For example With a bog-standard listening lesson (i.e. topic activation question, gist focus question, detail focus question, personal response) you could exploit it using a metacognitive pedagogical framework such as the one described in Vandergrift and Goh (2012), in which students

  • Predict what they will hear (vocabulary, ideas).
  • Discuss their predictions.
  • Listen and check their predictions.
  • Discuss what they heard.
  • Identify any areas of disagreement regarding what they heard and the veracity of their predictions.
  • Listen again, focusing on those areas of disagreement.

You could then get students to:

  • Look at the questions in the book and try to answer them from memory, using the recording to check their ideas against the incoming information
  • Use their notes to reconstruct the text. (Ibid.)

In this way, learners work together to reach an understanding of the text independently of the teacher, whose feedback is only required quite late on in the process.

Following up with some transcript exploitation using these ideas from Vandergrift and Goh (2012) can be very useful too:

  • Help learners do some guided self-assessment of the types of problems they experienced in listening.
  • Draw out any interesting pronunciation features, e.g. elisions, assimilations, liaisons, exemplified in the recording and raising students’ awareness of these.

Finally, depending on the recording type, you could encourage evaluation of the effectiveness of any strategies used and consideration of how to listen better next time. (Ibid)

Some other ideas for changing the approach:

  • Take a PPP grammar sequence and turn it into a test-teach-test sequence, focusing on areas that your students need more help with. (Re-ordering)
  • Take a speaking activity and think of a meaningful, purposeful non-linguistic outcome to go with it thus making it more task-like. (Extension)
  • Take the language focus and create a guided discovery activity for learners to engage with first, using the course book activities as a follow-up to swiftly check understanding, either in class or as homework. (Extension)


Don’t forget, of course, after evaluating your course book materials and adapting them (or creating your own replacements!), to reflect on and evaluate the adaptations you made:

  • How well did it work? (What went wrong? What worked like a charm?)
  • Did the students respond as you’d expected? If not, why?
  • How could you improve on it for next time?


What if you believe that language learning can’t be parcelled up in bite-size chunks and that learners need extensive exposure to authentic language in order to aid their acquisition? What if you want to help your learners become more autonomous language users who enjoy a varied diet of language texts and activities? Is this incompatible with course book use? I believe not.

Here are some ideas for how acquisition and autonomy can be fostered while still using a course book with your learners:

Encourage learners to reflect on and discuss the purposes of the various course book activities they encounter in class: The first time you do this, you will almost certainly get a response along the lines of “It’s to help us improve our English”. Push them to go beyond that and help them identify specific purposes, advantages and limitations. This prevents them from following blindly by making them actively think about the learning process: a crucial early step towards being able to control it effectively.

Remember, other things matter too: That you are using a course book with your class does not preclude doing other things along side that. You don’t need to open your course book straight away, or start discussing the topic that it covers immediately: there is plenty you can do in the first ten to fifteen minutes of each lesson that over the duration of a course can accumulate into and generate a lot of valuable non-book related learning. (More on ways of using this time in my forthcoming webinar.

Connect what’s in the course book with autonomy development activities beyond the classroom: For example, supposing you have a sequence whose goal is to draw students’ attention to word usage and choosing the right word, requiring dictionary work, you have two broad choices; hopefully it will be obvious, as you read, which one is geared towards helping learners become more autonomous:

  1. Hand out dictionaries, do the sequence in class, give feedback on correct/incorrect word choices and move on to the next page.
  2. Give learners the link to a good online dictionary (E.g. Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary) and ask them to do the sequence as homework, stipulating that they note down the length of time it takes them to do each activity; then bring it back into the classroom, using the freed-up class time for focused small group discussion:

Get them to discuss the processes they used and any difficulties they had (encourage them to troubleshoot these in their groups before you feed in ideas of your own);

Encourage comparison of the time taken to do each activity as well as the influence of the process used on this;

Ask them to think about the purpose of these activities and how it relates to their learning in general.

Then, get them to apply this awareness in their out-of-class reading when they encounter, check and record new words. They could share examples of new vocabulary and the information they find/record via a platform such as a blog, a wiki (with a dedicated area) or Edmodo.

You could follow up by exploring use of tools such as Quizlet or the British Council Wordbook App for further work with words and chunks.

Take a course book recording that is suited to becoming a jigsaw listening and use it as a springboard: Encourage learners to explore, via guided discovery and discussion, the effectiveness of their strategies for approaching listening recordings and accompanying questions. – That you use recordings in a particular way with them, because it is effective, is no guarantee that they are either aware of the benefits of your approach or accustomed to approaching listening in a similar way when doing it independently. A metacognitive focus on the listening process is one way of helping learners become better able to succeed independently and able to exploit more effectively the rich resource of exposure to authentic language that listening extensively offers.

Discuss the benefits and limitations of course book use with your students: they are bound to have their own opinions on this. Encourage them to consider their own course book critically, in terms of what they think is useful and what they find lacking. If they dismiss things out of hand that you think may be useful, ask them questions to guide them through rationalizing their opinions and considering yours, and see if their ideas change. Brainstorm ideas for treating the perceived limitations and negotiate your onward path together. Encourage learners to bring in material that interests them, to stimulate additional discussion and language work alongside course book use. (Thus, it is a constructive conversation, in which they justify their opinions and come up with possible solutions for the issues that emerge.)


It is important to remember that use of a course book does not automatically mean disregard for the learners, or that the course book needs to entirely dominate proceedings. Allow room for the learners to help co-construct the lesson dialogue:

Make room for the learners: Capitalize on the language and language needs that arise in discussions generated by the course book activities. Be ready to make the most of potential “Dogme moments”, to upgrade learner language, helping them become better able to express what they want to communicate, or go a step further and enable them: Hugh Dellar has written a series of posts which offer a rich source of ideas for making the most of standard learning materials when used in the classroom, which I highly recommend reading. You could also tweak your delayed feedback slots along the lines suggested in this blog post on the Recipes for the EFL classroom blog.

Encourage more connections: Course books these days often have personalization activities built in, allowing learner response to the issues treated, but there is always room for more – even if it is just collectively taking the mickey out of a ridiculous course book character! More seriously, contrasting any elements of target language culture exposed (either explicitly or in passing) by the course book with L1 culture often offers a rich source of discussion. The important thing is to cultivate a classroom atmosphere where learners know that response to the book is encouraged and valued. Once they are comfortable with this, it is surprising and often amusing what they come out with, and it is moments like these that make their language learning more memorable.


On one hand, you know your learners, their needs and their context best (hopefully!); on the other hand, course books tend to be written by knowledgeable, experienced educators. There is something to learn, for teachers and students alike: even if, for the teachers, it is no more than a clearer understanding of why they disagree with the approach used in it and how best to overcome the perceived shortcomings! Furthermore, use of a course book does not mean there is room for nothing else or preclude creativity in the classroom. So, rather than dismissing your course book, resenting it or fighting with it, and generally treating it like the enemy, channel that energy into harnessing what there is in it to make it serve you and your purposes: Evaluate, adapt, exploit, reflect and so, in making friends with your course book in this way, be the master of your tools, not a slave to them.

Recommended reading:

As well as the blog posts alluded to in this post, I would recommend the following books for anybody wishing to gain a deeper understanding of the principles around materials evaluation and adaptation, as well as creation:

McDonaugh, J. Shaw, C. and Masuhara, H. (2012) Materials and Methods in ELT. Third Edition. Wiley-Blackwell.

McGrath, I. (2002) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching. Edinburgh University Press.

Tomlinson, B. (2003) Developing Materials for Language Learning. Continuum.


McGrath, I. (2002) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching. Edinburgh University Press.

Vandergrift, L. and Goh, C. (2012) Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in Action. Routledge.

Average: 5 (2 votes)

Submitted by jvl narasimha rao on Mon, 02/17/2014 - 12:35


Dear Lizzie, You have dealt with the topic very exhaustively.I agree with you absolutely that The course book should be an aid in the hands of a teacher but it should not be crutch without which he falls down on the way(in the class).I awarded an awesome grade to you.I hope other bloggers read one another's blogs awaed grades on its merit and comment

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