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


Submitted by El funambulista on Fri, 02/05/2016 - 18:39


Good morning, Since I begun a few months ago on teaching, I decided not using any available textbook but building up the whole course by myself. However, up to now the idea hasn't turned out pretty well: very often I get lost into the amidst that flows all over, so I came to the point of realizing that a change must be done in this method. I'm looking for a solid structure which normally is provided in textbooks, but haven't found any free and downloadable grammar/content of course yet. Could you help me a bit on this? Any suggestions? Best regards to all of you.

Submitted by brunilde on Thu, 11/05/2015 - 02:32


Life game me the marvelous opportunity of teaching kids in a 'Freinet techniques' primary school. I woked there for almost ten years and I can assure you that though it could get quite complex at times, it would always render a wonderful experience in which everyone would learn something in a fun way which involved no specific text book .Creativity and texts from different sources always played an important role in this kind of teaching . I must say it is important to find out the interests of the children first and then find the tools to use. The texts used were taken from different text books,magazines or articles published on certain websites like this and bbc for kids. It is a fact that it can be quite difficult at first, but once you get the nack of it, it turns quite enjoyable for all ...students AND teacher!!!!

Submitted by Lliana on Sun, 05/24/2015 - 20:04


Your interesting article is related more to older students. I teach 8-12 year-old children and structuring a course without the "safety" of a coursebook this year was really exhausting! I teach English as a foreign language at primary state schools in Greece. Although we are provided with coursebooks for Grades 3-6 (grades 1-2 are not usually taught a foreign language), these are a teacher's nightmare... They are really beyond description. After torturing myself and the children for years, I decided to use my own material this year. I started writing a book for Grade 3 and I used favourite books suitable for English language teaching to print a collection of articles, stories, activities, exercises etc for older students. I had to save and spend lots of money as I printed a lot of material at home. I also spent hours and hours on the internet almost every day looking for ideas about everything. I must say that this was the most challenging (and expensive) year in my teaching career. As a rule, we are obliged to use the English language books prescribed by the Education Ministry and cannot buy or use other resources. But this year, instead of trying to make do with the school's appalling books, I decided to enjoy teaching. Of course, I used a topic and structure-based syllabus and I even used some old school textbooks for ideas. Teaching without a coursebook does not mean "doing whatever". It is an amazing challenge because the teacher really becomes the ... captain, the researcher, the decision maker, the organiser, and the presenter at the same time. This can happen especially when teaching children because their L2 input is limited. The same is true somehow about their interests and life experience. Although I have been doing this job for about 15 years, this was perhaps the most interesting year at school. I am very much looking forward to the next school year even if I know that it will be equally exhausting!

Submitted by Paul Hogan on Fri, 05/01/2015 - 23:25


With reference to Jennifer Goodman's article on Teaching Without a Course book. A very good article indeed, it is not often we come across an article like this. For many students (most), after eight or ten years studying English from course books have big problems when trying to have a conversation. Where is the conversation in a course book or the supplied CD? It is not there, it is too far removed from reality. In this day and age, with all this technology at hand, literally, with just about everyone holding one form of it in their hand, all day long some of them. I believe this is the way to go, to improve spoken, and especially, conversation English. Nearly all of them like to watch movies and videos, many have subtitles, they can read what they are saying if they cannot understand the spoken parts, sit back and relax, enjoy the video. Now to the important part, after enjoying the movie, go back and listen and watch how they said those words, phrases and sentences, how they agree and disagree with each other. Do not learn whole sentences, just chunks of those sentences that we use nearly every day of our lives. We have to make our own sentences from the words and sounds we know, and deliver them through the way we feel when saying them. Actors use whole sentences that someone else has written for them, but they put the feelings into those of the character they are portraying. We are our own character, and put our own feelings into what we say. Students should practice changing the way they hear someone speak, or any written text. Have fun enjoy it.

Submitted by Cath McLellan on Fri, 05/08/2015 - 09:46

In reply to by Amir shah


Hi Amir, If you want to start learning English, you should take a look at our website for English language learners - http://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/ - you will find lots of activities and materials there. Thanks, Cath

Submitted by BrunoCesar on Wed, 07/29/2009 - 11:49


I'm a public school teacher in Brazil, and I teach English in two different municipalities  in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Each municipality has its own Secretariat of Education and it's up to them to decide whether they will provide the coursebooks or not.

I believe English and Arts are the only school subjects that have no printed material avaliable to be worked with in class. Therefore, I have always taught without the aid of coursebooks. There are, of course, pros and cons in it but I believe these printed materials play an important role in our students' learning process especially when it comes to visual stimulus.

I think it's rather boring and demotivating to just listen to the teacher. Even though he tries to get the participation of the students and allows them to decide on the content of the course ( making it a negotiable process) there'll always be the feeling that there's something missing in terms of extra material (printed, audio recordings...). For example, in public schools in Brazil, a teacher of English only has the board and markers at his disposal as technological resources. And if he decides to make copies of something "interesting" (related to the students' interests) every week - it will ultimately interfere in his monthly budget.

As a way out, every month I put aside the amount of money I'll be  able to spend on class materials (hand-outs, etc.) to liven up the class and thus motivate my students. Too bad that's exactly what our government wants us teachers to do. This way they will continue investing very little in Education and wittingly force us to spend our own money on things that should've been provided by them.

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