Ever heard the expression below?
“Teach the students, not the curriculum”
Before you carry on with the text, ask yourself if you agree with that sentence and why. If you totally disagree with it, you might be a teacher who follows the books from head to toe. If you agree to some extent, you might be a teacher who prepares – or at least finds online – worksheets of extra activities to replace some exercises in the coursebook.
I’ve worked at franchise schools, where not following every little detail in the book will cause students, their parents, and the coordinators to go nuts, as well as large EFL institutions with a more branch-type structure, where moving past the book activities is actually expected from the teacher. The latter normally work with accredited publishers in the ELT world such as Oxford, Cambridge, Nat Geo Learning, Pearson, MacMillan, Richmond, Helbling and others. The franchises work with their own custom-made materials. And you know what? These materials are probably not as resourceful as those of the big publishers I mentioned because they don’t have the same budget. I’m talking from experience as I used to be in charge of ordering nearly 2,000 thousand books as the head of the library at a big language center. Franchise schools’ materials are often more expensive and do not have the variety of activities you can find in large publishers’ books. Nevertheless, there are exceptions 🙂
Having made my point about books, I proceed to this thought-provoking checklist I’d like you to answer in your mind:
- How much of your knowledge comes from written materials nowadays? How do you get informed in today’s world?
- In this time of remote teaching, what’s the role of students’ physical books?
- If you follow the book without leaving any activity unanswered, how much time do you have left to explore other materials?
- Do you think when authors develop their books they actually want us, teachers, to do everything in them?
- Is it really absurd to change the sequence of activities in a book in order to get your students to learn better?
- Considering how long it takes for books to be published, how up-to-date are they? Does any coursebook cover the COVID-19 pandemic?
Now I must explain why I believe books are still vital but they’re being misused by many teachers. It all started in December 2016 when UniEvangélica hired me to plan their immersion course in January. They adopted a wonderful book by Oxford called American English File. The main request of the director was that I made the course less “book-bound” and offered a variety of activities that used authentic materials or had more authenticity in the activities themselves. The result of my planning you can find here. What was the feedback of the course? Success! Both the director and the students loved it.
Again, a couple of weeks after when I traveled to Piauí to train some teachers on how to use one of the materials (World Link by Nat Geo Learning + Cengage Learning), I realized that their biggest problem was to make all the content “fit” their lessons. I planned a lesson using one of their books – you can find the link to the video at the end – and told them that sticking to the book was not really so essential as we have so many other resources available everywhere.
I got excellent feedback after my session because I followed a sequence that worked.
I received comments on social media and many teachers told me that the lesson was enjoyable and it made total sense. The funny thing is that I actually used the book activities and didn’t really introduce any external resource. I did that because I can. And so can you. It’s really up to you and your students to decide how to follow the book, the syllabus, and which activities to MAINTAIN, ALTER or DISCARD (MAD). Use the MAD principle every time you’re planning your lessons. Naturally, you’ll have the guidance of your academic coordinators to establish what and how much you have to cover.
My tips are the following:
1) Teach the ILOs (Intended Leaning Outcomes) rather than the books. If you are teaching Past Simple and you want to use a song or a video rather than Ex 1A SB pg. 7, just do it.
2) “Save” activities in the book for future lessons or as self-study exercises. Remember distributed practice? It’s a wonderful idea to have “leftover” exercises to begin the next class with and check if your students really understood the lesson. After all, learning does not occur at the end of the lesson, but over a period of time. Use post-its to mark these activities. Read more about it here and here.
3) Think of a coursebook more like a magazine than a literary book. The sequence of activities is determined by your lesson plan. You do not have to follow the exact same sequence offered by the author, much less keep all the activities.
4) Tell your students what you’re doing. Many students will feel that they have wasted their money if you’re not “using the book” as they think you should. Let them know that the book is one of multiple resources we can use to help them learn a language. Also, make sure they become more independent and do some of the activities you skip or modify on their own. That’s why planning is essential.
5) Plan the unit and not just the lesson. You need a holistic view to know exactly what to focus on. Remember that simply following the books is definitely not the right way to teach. Teaching requires a lot of lesson planning regardless of which materials you’re using.
6) If the book offers a reading activity, there’s no rule against making it an oral activity and vice-versa. Make the activities more communicative and fun according to the stage of your lesson and the profile of your students.
Something else I’d like to mention is that when I worked at Cultura Inglesa SP, elected the best school 3 years in a row, I used to teach with Cambridge’s Face2Face. Back in the day, higher order demanded that we skipped Lesson D (and sometimes Lesson C instead) in order to cover the proposed curriculum. Are you thinking: Blasphemy? Outrageous? Please don’t. It was an academic decision made by more than competent coordinators. It worked very well. But, to be quite honest, I didn’t always skip those lessons. I planned how to use them in different ways or even assigned them as extension activities
If you think that simply following the book will help you achieve the goals of your lesson, you’re very likely to be wrong. If you think that the sequence provided in the book is the only one that works, you might need to think again.
Am I claiming that books are obsolete? Not at all. They’re essential in the classroom. It is from books that we get the Scope&Sequence and follow a determined curriculum. It is from books that millions of people everywhere on the globe have access to reading, writing, listening, and speaking materials in the language they’re learning. It is from books that when nothing else works you can fall back on the assurance that you have something to teach. Books will never be obsolete ( I really hope, at least) and they should most certainly not be put aside. Use them as the foundation of your course and start building extra materials from there. After all, books should be our friends, not cost our creativity and authenticity in the classroom.
To wrap up, I’d like to share something John Hughes mentioned in a workshop in London. He said that books are made for three types of teacher. The first type sticks to the book and follows the sequence because they might not know how to do anything else or they simply have no other resources. Millions of teachers around the world don’t even have access to the internet. This is what I’d call the MAINTAIN type. The second type normally changes a couple of things to fit their lesson plan. They might invert the order of things or substitute some activities for things that might work better. This is the ALTER type. The third type of teacher will normally look at the topic (vocabulary, skills, grammar structure) they have to work with and will discard most of it because they taught the lessons many times before or have easy access to other resources that might work better. This is the DISCARD type.
In John’s words:
I tried to set the record straight that when any author writes a course book, they don’t assume that a teacher will do everything on the page but instead that teachers will adapt the material work so it works for them and their students. This might mean missing certain exercises out, asking extra questions about the photos, or maybe flipping a reading task so you read it before a lesson and then discuss it in class.John Hughes
A final thought. Maintain, Alter, and/or Discard whatever you have to so that you can improve learning outcomes and not simply cover the content.
Here’s some extra reading for you to do on authentic materials:
Comments and suggestions will be most appreciated! Tell me your experience with coursebooks, and authentic materials.
Don’t forget to watch my lesson plan. I used World Link 2 Unit 10 about telephoning.