There seems to have been so many discussions on Twitter about the (non) use of coursebooks in EFL courses as well as a great deal of consensus why not to use them that I have nearly forgotten that my own environment (Prague, Czech Republic) is different. Many of my fellow teachers, who are also my friends, do not dispute the use of coursebooks. It’s there, we know what to teach, and if we’re not happy, we tweak the content or supplement it. I am talking about very very good teachers here and in no way is this criticism of my friends and colleagues.
What took me aback the other day though was when I was on the phone with one of my teacher friends, who said: “I much prefer using a coursebook because I can adapt it than being given a syllabus by the school which requires me to make photocopies from three different coursebooks.” Can you believe it? Are we talking about Prague, the Heart of Europe, in the 21st century? Of course I understood. I, too, would much prefer using one tangible textbook in my bag than having to travel to school premises, make copies (sic!) of three different books and then travel to the company where the lessons take place. Luckily none of my institutions has ever asked me to do so. Luckily, I have many private clients. Luckily, I work for some institutions where I am given free hand.
My personal arguments against the use of coursebooks are, in random order, that many of my courses are very short. I see the students once a week. It would take us ages to get through the book. Also, coursebooks include a lot of material that students aren’t interested in and that is outdated. Many students have stacks of old Headways at home that they never finished. Grammar? If the teacher knows his or her grammar well, they can clarify a grammatical point whenever it arises, usually following a students’ error or a question. I can give you the rules for the English verb tenses (as they are traditionally viewed) if you wake me up at 2am, and I don’t mean to brag.
To my mind, the idea of not using a coursebook with one’s class is closely related to the feeling of pressure and anxiety. What are we going to do in the lessons? A coursebook, to many, provides a structure and a framework.
All in all, what it all comes down to, is choosing the content for your courses, i.e. series of lessons. We all know how to design one lesson on a particular subject. I so often get inspired by a film, a video, a visual (thanks, @LessonPlansDig), or a popular article on Pocket. I can, we all can, make a great lesson with a bit of discussion, vocabulary study, personal reactions, you name it. But how can we turn these single lessons into meaningful, useful courses?
The first prerequisite is, I’m afraid, thinking time. Every time I am to teach a new class, I need to think a lot about it and how I’m going to approach teaching them. This thinking time takes a quite a while and happens while I’m walking, travelling by tram, or even reading something. I don’t seem to be able to design a course syllabus just by sitting down and writing the plan in a spreadsheet. That’s why I’m rubbish at writing down lesson plans. I can do it for observations, but otherwise, what matters most to me is to think about the lesson and have each part of it click into the next one. This is where most of my creativity goes and that’s why I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I won’t be doing other creative activities, like taking up arts classes, do land art or get involved in an improvisation theatre group… yet. This, for me, is the most important step. I have to have a very clear picture of the lesson and of the series of lessons in my head.
The second prerequisite is your materials. If you are to teach without a coursebook, you need other resources. That’s why I spend a lot of time on the internet, bookmarking useful YouTube channels, articles, teaching blog posts, etc. It’s good to have your favourite go-to resources, maybe even a subscription to a teaching resource-site. Because teaching without a coursebook should not mean making photocopies from other coursebooks and the English Grammar in Use. Nor does it mean putting together random worksheets downloaded from the internet.
The third indispensable part would be experience. I’m not sure I could do all this if I hadn’t been teaching for so many years. But I am speaking for myself now. Perhaps with a bit of dedication…
I have experience with several types of course syllabi and I won’t go into detail about all of them today. You can list items your students need, group them by skills and combine these into individual lessons, for example. You can have your students list vocabulary areas of interest (e.g. Talking about the environment) and have a vocabulary-based syllabus with lots of conversation. Or you can create a course as a Story, which is what I’m going to describe below.
I teach EFL for one Czech university. It’s basically English as a Foreign Language Course for undergrad students of distance studies. I teach two groups. I see one of them two Saturdays for 5 x 45 min (08:00am – 12am) in the winter term, and then the same again in the summer term. I see the other group five times each semester for 4×45 min. I’ve been told they should learn some English for work, some coaching English, and some education terminology (the course is for future teachers of vocational subjects, advisors, etc.).
For the first group, which I’m seeing only twice (Twice! I mean, what can you achieve in two days?), I drew up a course based around the following sequence. There is no coursebook, minimal material, some worksheets designed by me, and… lots of thinking and prep time although the lessons may seem fairly simple.
Day 1: (5 x 45 min)
Getting to know each other – importance of teamwork (they are future teachers and career advisors) – discussing work-life balance (for the same reasons) – looking for a job&reading job ads – applying for a job (attending job interviews and writing cover letters).
Day 2: (5 x 45 min)
First day at work – introducing yourself to the team – small talk with new colleagues – writing and replying to basic work-related emails
The other group will work around the theme of Partnering with a Foreign School. I’ll ask them to imagine their school is in touch with a school from someplace else in Europe (Italy, Germany, not necessarily an English-speaking country). They’ll need to get in touch with them, organise the stay of their kids here, suggest some cultural events to go to, write a report about what happened, show the kids around, teach them something (my favourite Walkabout Presentations ), deal with some problems, etc.
For pedagogical reasons, the Story need not happen in the chronological order. I would suggest starting with the less complex tasks and moving onto the more difficult ones later.
And to give you an example of what happened on Day One, here’s an outline of yesterday’s lesson.
- I walked to each student out of the 26 present, introduced myself, they introduced themselves, and I tried to remember their names several times, which is always greatly appreciated. This stage also helped me see if they could speak at least some English (you never know in these courses).
- I dealt with the organisational issues in Czech (10 mins).
- First getting to know activity from this wonderful book . Stand up who: Stand up if you have a pet. Stand up if you work at a restaurant. Stand up if you have a brother…. Very successful activity, with no need for the students to say anything (not too stressful if you don’t know anybody yet).
- Group forming. I asked the students to make groups of 4-5 students based on what they had just learnt about each other.
- Team Challenge (Activity 5 from the same book). I gave the students a list of several items and told them they have to collect them on their desks as a team. The first team to finish wins. There was some interesting negotiation in English (Yes, you can borrow the item. You can go and buy it. You can try and steal it. You can swap it for something else). Then discussed the strategies used to complete the task. This again was very successful and tied the team members together well.
- Work-life balance discussion from this book. I showed my students the diagram My Life and My Dream Life, which I’d previously made on Canva.
I briefly told the students about my life and what I’d like to change about it. Then they drew their own diagrams individually, shared with the rest of the team, and wrote some suggestions on a flipchart sheet of paper on how to achieve their dream lives.
That was the end of a 90min session and a break.
- Finding a job: Discussing the job application process to activate the students’ knowledge about the subject. Wrote down some vocabulary related to the subject. (I could have given them a worksheet with a matching exercise, but I didn’t and it all worked just fine).
- Listening: a job interview. I’d chosen this video because it is short, easy to understand, not too businessy and I thought the students, as future teachers of vocational subjects (e.g. waiters), could easily relate to it. The procedure was very simple and again, no worksheets (I am very lazy).
A, I dictated three simple comprehension questions – (1) what job is she applying for; (2) what experience does she have (3) does she get the job? Ss listened, checked with their team members, reported to the whole class.
B, Listen again and write down the questions asked as a team. I stopped the video and replayed if needed after each question. Checked as whole class.
C, What were the answers? First predict in teams, listen again, check with team members, check as whole class.
D, What were the greetings and goodbyes? Dictogloss of the first and last part with team members helping each other. (minutes 00:00-00:17 and 01:33 – 01:45)
These activities were fast paced and as far as I could see, quite effective – that is, everybody had understood most of the listening by then and had written down the language for future reference.
- Reading job ads. I had found online three job ads, added some simple comprehension questions and asked students to read and answer them. This was the first worksheet I used. I monitored and helped with comprehension. I asked what job they would choose themselves.
- Speaking: Running the job interview. The class split into interviewers and candidates and they prepared for the interviews in small groups. Then the candidates circulated around the different “companies” and tried to find a job. I could see the students were actually using the language from the listening. Whole group discussion: Who found a job? – “I didn’t; they will phone me tomorrow” 🙂
End of another 90 mins. No break, running out of time.
- Writing a cover letter. I’d written a sample cover letter for one of the job ads. (Worksheet No. 2, printed on the other side of the first one). We studied the letter, chose a more suitable phrase from the choice of two, and students wrote their own cover letter either for one of the jobs or a job of their own choice. This was a very basic product-based writing activity but the students need to hand in some writing to get credits and we only had 45 mins, so…
- Short whole-class feedback. 12 pm and home for lunch!
And, that is all. Hope this lengthy post counts at least as two in the #hanachallenge! Thanks for reading and your comments will be, as always, greatly appreciated.