The course book controversy
Jean Theuma thinks about the pros and cons of course books
Debate has raged, especially recently, over the advantages and disadvantages of using a course book.
Here are some of the more popular ideas:
• Course books provide a structure to the lessons and to the course.
• Course books save time. Teachers can pick up the book and find ready-made material to use in
class. Without this, the teacher would have to create new lessons every day from scratch. This is not
possible for most teachers whose workload is already very high.
• Course books provide a starting point for further material. Most course books feature topical,
interesting, up-to-date material which lends itself to further research and discussion in class and out
• Learners like course books as they are easy to carry, colourful, and provide a sense of achievement
to work through.
• Course books can feel like a straitjacket when the same format is kept over lessons for a long period
• Course books are written in a generalised way as the best material for the level; however, the writers
cannot know your particular students. Therefore some items may not interest your students. Equally,
they might already know some of the items in the book.
• Many of the books are Euro-centric, that is, they feature topics, ideology and methodology which is
relevant in the West, which might not be relevant, or even understood, by some of our Eastern students.
It’s difficult to reconcile the size of the book with the length of a course. A large, full course book,
which leisurely introduces and practises language over several days, might be too slow for a student
who is only in the school for a week. Equally, a student who is studying in a school for a year might work
through and finish a course-book and take that as sign that they are ready to move level. Many students
connect their need to change to a higher level with whether they have covered a single book at the level,
rather than whether they are actually capable of coping with higher level work.
The success of any course book always relies on an interesting mix of good pre-made material and the
teacher’s ability to make the material personal and specific to the class.
In order to counter the disadvantages, it is important that the teacher becomes aware of the need to
choose or change the course book material so that it works in their context. Teachers could do any of
the following strategies with a course book: select, adapt, remove and supplement the work in the
units of the book.
Teachers should choose the order in which they would like to cover the material for class.
The structure of units in a course book are generally uniform: each reading or listening is a block with a
vocabulary slot, pre-reading/listening exercise, comprehension questions and skills practice; most units
will have some sort of grammar or functional language focus; and there will probably be the opportunity
for production work (speaking or writing or both). So, selecting the order in which activities are covered
in the book has 2 main benefits:
1. It stops the units from becoming monotonous
2. It allows the teacher to organise class-time to choose the most effective time to spend on exercises
that the students will find difficult, e.g. difficult listening carried out at the beginning of the lesson
when the students are still fresh.
When thinking about the strength and weaknesses of the class, teachers could give items such as vocabulary
work or grammar points for homework if they suspect that the students will find them easy.
This will leave more time in class for skills work where students might need more help and guidance.
Guiding the students to carry out the book-bound, grammar or vocabulary language work on their own
before the lesson is quite trendy at the moment and is referred to as ‘flipping’ your classroom.
Adapting material from a course book is an excellent way of making the material the teacher’s own. It can
also help to make the material more difficult or easier depending on what the class needs. For example:
Making an exercise easier—Make a vocabulary gap-fill exercise into multiple choice exercises. Give the answers
to the exercise as multiple choice answers. By giving the students the words to recognise rather than think up
themselves, the student is more likely to guess the correct answer.
1. We need to hire a more _____________ office assistant. The current assistant doesn’t have enough
experience and isn’t highly skilled.
style – capable – assess
2. My management _____________ is a very different from Roger’s I prefer to lead by example. He
to give detailed instructions to employees.
style – capable – assess
3. I’m nervous about the meeting with my manager next Monday. She is going to __________ my
performance for the year.
style – capable – assess
Making an exercise more difficult—Provide the list of words to a gap-fill exercise for homework and
the students look up the definitions in the dictionary themselves. The gap fill exercise is then presented
without the word list and students must refer to their own researched words to complete the task.
The teacher should leave out anything that they do not think is worthwhile. If the students will not
benefit from or find interesting or already know some material in the book, the teacher moves on.
These items can be set for homework or free-time, in order to ensure that any student who might
need this work is not overlooked. Students should be encouraged to communicate with the teacher
about how well they are doing with the extra work. This can then be checked by setting student
practice work, possibly from the work-book or additional resources which often accompany the
course-book. Many teachers’ books feature extra work which is an extension of the unit or progress
tests which focus on the same material and help the teacher to track the progress of the students.
By removing some of the easier material, this leaves time and space for the more difficult work to be
developed in class. Before reading or listening texts, students can be asked to predict and discuss the
topic of the text. After reading and listening, students can be encouraged to express their own opinions
or experiences which relate to the topics.
Using the visuals in a unit for creating additional speaking or writing tasks can be very successful.
Ask students to look at a picture for a minute, close their books and write or give a description of
the picture to a partner. Ask students to imagine a ‘day in the life of’ people in the pictures and write or
discuss their ideas.
Supplementary material can also be sourced from other course-books, resource material or
So, whether you use a course-book or not is up to you and your students. As a resource for a busy
teacher it is difficult to beat. But if you are looking to personalise your lessons and really cater for
your students, it is wise to consider the material carefully before asking them to turn to page 1!
References and further reading:
- Read Lindsay Clandfield discuss the pros and cons of course books in more detail on Scott Thornbury’s blog:
- Read Peter Chou’s article in the Internet TESL Journal, Vol XVI, No. 11, November 2010:
- Read Mario Rinvoluci on Humanising your course book: