Real Alternatives Need Alacrity

It’s that old Corporate ELT is killing me slowly trope. Hang on to your hats, comrades, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
So, the coursebooks palaver came up again on Geoff Jordan’s blog. I have written on this before. The main change in my ideas is that instead of Dogme or Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) being the utopia we should all aim for, what is needed to get teachers to go with something better than a textbook is an alternative.
In the aforementioned post, Steve Brown said that what is needed is not any other kind of alternative but for teachers to take agency: choose what the materials are, or choose to choose with the learners, or whatnot. He is right, but I think there needs to be a bit of handholding to get there.
I’ve seen comments saying that it takes bloody ages to plan a TBLT lesson, and it does when you first start. Similarly CELTA-type lessons take bloody ages when you first start. No qualifications? Think to your first week on the job. Lesson plans took forever. Anything takes ages when you first start.You need to think about whether the initial time investment will pay off or not. You are reading a blog about teacher development, so ostensibly you are open to this seeing as you are reading this instead of playing video games or trolling Trump supporters.
So, let the handholding begin. Or the push to start.

What can I use instead of a coursebook?

Have a think (always a good idea) about what your learners need. Asking them is often a good idea, though teenagers might tell you they need about 3 hours in bed and that they need to do gap-fills of A1 vocab. They don’t. Assess. What can they do? What can’t they do? What aren’t you sure they can do? The answers to this should rarely be “They can’t do the past tense with regular verbs” or something. Maybe “They can’t answer questions about the weekend” is better. Cool. That is something we can chuck into the syllabus, if we think that our learners need this. If they don’t, don’t put it in. But why did you bother assessing it otherwise?
With all this information, you can create a syllabus/course. Sequencing it is a bit of a bugger because you want to think about complexity, what is likely needed toward the start and middle to get to the end, recycling language and such. However, you and your learners have control. This is not the kind of thing to put on a granite tablet. If it seems to need a bit of something else, do that.

But what do I do?

Teach the skills you need to teach. Potentially this is all four skills of reading, listening, writing and speaking. There are books about ways to teach these. You might want to browse Wayzgoose press. Also The Round minis range has some very interesting stuff, as does 52. If you get a copy of Teaching Unplugged, I find it useful.
You and your learners can then source texts from the internet (which a lot of textbooks do anyway so you are cutting out the middleman), edit for length (nice authentic language) or elaborate and spend longer with (that is, put in a gloss at the side or add clauses explaining the language). You can create your own, too, which sounds time consuming but might not be the pain in the arse you think it is. You can also put in some stuff that is rarely covered in textbooks like pronunciation and how to build listening skills, microlistening, and more (a bugbear of mine).
There are also lots of lesson plans on blogs (including here). If you have some good lessons that have worked for you, they might work for others, who can then adapt them. With a book, there are sunk costs and learners will want to plough through the lot if they have bought it. If you have a lesson plan to manipulate, without having sunken money into it bar some printer paper, you and your learners get more control and hopefully smething more suited to them than something chosen by an anonymous somebody in London or New York.

If I’m going to use texts, I might as well use a textbook!

You could, but think of all the pages of nonsense you have to skip. Think of the time spent with learners focussing on pointless vocabulary like ‘sextant’ (thanks Total English pre-intermediate). You have an idea. You know your learners, or at least the context. There is also a ton of stuff on the internet. May I point you to the Google Drive folder at the top of this blog. All the stuff in there is Creative Commons Licensed so you can change it if it isn’t perfect, copy it for your learners, and because I already made it and was going to anyway, it’s free. There is also Paul Walsh’s brill Decentralised Teaching and Learning. There are also ideas to use from Flashmob ELT.


You have these ideas to use, modify, whatever and put into timeslots. You can move them around. You have the means, now, if you decide it’s worth a go, stick with it for a few weeks at least, so you can get into the swing of it. If you like it, leave a comment. If you hate it and I’ve ruined your life (and be warned that not all supervisors, managers and even learners are open to this at first. Check, or at least be aware of this. If your learners say they want a book they might just mean they want materials provided and a plan from week to week) leave a comment.
If you think I’m talking nonsense, I’d seriously love you to leave a comment. Tell me why.
If you want help with this, I’m thinking of using Slack for a free (yes, really, at least initially) course type thing, say an experimental three weeks, where I help you sort out how to go about things (together; top-down isn’t how I do things), help with any teething troubles and so on. If you’re interested, contact me.
Well, Sunday night, eleven o’clock and 1000 words. I’m going to bed. Let’s sleep on it.

21 Replies to “Real Alternatives Need Alacrity”

  1. I still have a love-hate relationship with textbooks. I tried to organise courses without them in the past (see but for lack of preparation many teachers ended up photocopying textbooks anyway. 🙁 I now work in a school where textbook is the standard, so I’ll have to make the best out of it.
    As you say, we need practice if we want to free ourselves from textbook-oriented teaching, it can be scary at first. Unfortunately, almost nobody is willing to invest in this sort of training apparently — market-driven ‘censorship’?

    1. Giulia, thanks a lot for commenting.
      I understand the desire to have something, even photocopied pages, to rely on. What I would say is that a blank piece of paper can help generate as much, if not more, language than book pages. Also, being prepared is not the same as planning to cover material. But I know you know that.

      1. I totally agree. But for example our Delta tutor sees Dogme as yet another ‘latest fashion’ and refused to acknowledge that a course without textbook can (and should) be done.

    1. Paul Walsh wrote Dogway for Business with ‘At Work’. There is also an out of print book called ‘In at the Deep End’ based on the same principles for Business English.
      Dogway. What a gauntlet to throw! Didn’t he and Luke Meddings write it when they wrote Teaching Unplugged?

      1. took a plane nearly 20 years ago with ‘Watcyn and Jones photocopiable’ and ‘In At The Deep End’ – ‘Watcyn and Jones’ is as new, ‘In at the Deep End’ is dog-eared and battered, best way to learn on the job for teachers 🙂

        1. I’ve never heard of ‘Watcyn & Jones photocopiable.’ When I started at NOVA in 2003 we had to use American Streamline which was out of date then, but it did help us to teach lessons only tangentially connected to the book. A picture speculation could provide better input or stimulation than a page of content with an input flood shoehorned in.
          We had an underused free conversation lounge, too. No training so the teachers were crap at exploiting the possibility. I wish present-day me could advise fresh-out-of-training me.

        2. It sounds like you could do it easily. Write each syllabus item on the whole top of each page. The only problem is a predetermined product syllabus is still a predetermined product syllabus.

      2. No, since it’s not a textbook. There are lots of activities in it of course. What Dogway would be in my mind is a nominal coursebook with almost no “language items” but lots of space for students to record incidentals.

  2. Hi Marc,
    Some random thoughts. My first lesson today. Students asked “Can we not do the coursebook? The topics are irrelevant to us. We aren’t interested in reading about somebody’s life in Australia. We need to be able to explain to students how to get round the building.” I think it summarizes it so well.
    Times I happily used a CB: When I first started (student, age twenty). Teaching FCE, CAE, or teaching to any exam. Students who don’t care. Lastly, and importantly, with 121 students who I’ve been teaching for years and we’ve run out of ideas, topics. I also like using CB to do Listening – so time consuming to find online. Many students like listening to interviews and I find buying a Workbook from a good CB series (WBs are lower price) helps. I do different tasks but don’t have to spend hours online searching for a podcast that matches our topic.
    I would very much like to learn how to make balanced CB-free syllabi because it is something I have done, was not entirely happy with, and I have to do it all the time.
    Thanks for reading

    1. Hi Kamila,
      Thanks for your comment. The testing issue is important: a book is useful for practice test material unless you are very confident in being able to write suitable test questions. I have had students wide their own TOEIC questions but you can’t use learner-generated content all the time.
      Listening is a big deal. Laura Soracco put me on to which is good but not perfect for everything. U did put out a request on the Internet about a year ago for people to send me real monologues or conversations and I’d put the recordings on a free website with ad revenue going to charity but only got three recordings.
      I do use other recordings than podcasts, too. Sometimes bits of TED talks, bits of news videos and so on. It can be a trawl, and I don’t have any better answers for you but I would like to pick your brains about why you were unsatisfied with your previous CB-free syllabi.

  3. Hi Marc,
    Good question, made me think for two days. I wasn’t happy because first of all, as if the needs analysis wasn’t enough. I can’t see everything on the first meeting. My next questions would be, where do I go from the needs analysis? For example, I can see the Ss want to move from B2 to C1. They make a few mistakes with articles, verb tenses, not too many. They overuse “great”. I can see some work on pronunciation needed. They say they want to be able to talk to clients, do presentations and speak better English. So I can see some lessons of work, but where do I go after that? How do I structure skills, grammar and vocabulary? If the students want to be able to speak about the Universe, for instance, do I do a reading or a listening? Many students say they want to be able to speak and enlarge their vocabulary. Does that mean we can skip the rest? I’m putting it really bluntly, but these are the practical issues I’m concerned about.
    And if there is a magic book which has the answers, please just give me the name, I’ll read it. I still haven’t read enough.
    Thanks Kamila

    1. Hi Kamila,
      If your learners say they want to enlarge their vocabulary and work on speaking you prioritise these but remember that reading is going to stimulate speaking and be input for vocabulary. Also, sometimes listening practice might be needed because what hampers speaking is the ability to understand others at speed.
      Your example of whether to pick reading or listening is useful. I think there is an ideal-world answer (get students to source materials to share) and a practical answer, which is that you get to choose rather than the materials developer at OUP/CUP/Macmillan/Pearson. You get to evaluate what is best.
      The grammar and pragmatics should crop up during tasks; you could focus on form then or shortly after. Otherwise, having already seen it as an issue you could do some intensive form focus.
      The beauty is that you get to choose. The downside is that, initially at least, it is more time consuming than the book using teachers as conduits.

  4. Thank you, Marc. My way of working is similar, though not as elaborate. But then, if it it a process, and one lesson evolves from another, they can’t be really planned too long ahead? I mean, do you present learners with a nice table where you outline their competencies for the coming semester?

    1. Thanks Kamila.
      Yes, because it is a process, you might not be able to plan too far ahead. Also, something not planned for might come up that you want to spend time on. Due to that I never have competencies planned on a nice sheet. People learn at different paces. You do what you can and to the best of your ability and in spite of external constraints let the learning dictate the pace.

      1. Well, it seems that I have come, through experience, to the same conclusions and ways of working. I’m extremely grateful to get the encouragement that you, and probably other teachers, work similarly. It’s certainly something DoSs haven’t approved of in my case. My addition, and I might have told you this before, is to use readers, which gives students a framework and so a sense of progress. Thank you, Marc and have a great weekend.

  5. This blog post summed up a lot of my ideas about using textbooks. Having worked in a lot of institutions where textbooks were a must, I thought about this a lot. Why were they a must? First, there is the old ‘the students bought the textbooks so now you have to use them’ trope. It is interesting that even when the students themselves found the textbooks boring/irrelevant, they still looked askance if we didn’t open them at least once in a lesson. Secondly, assessment was developed centrally for the whole program and based on the books as far as the grammar, vocab and some of the topical content were concerned (i.e. information from reading/listening texts).
    Aside from not being relevant, books were often above the level of the students. The above meant that I spent a lot of time creating my own materials using the textbooks as a source of material only – i.e. I would use the same grammar/vocab but present it in a way that was more engaging and relevant to the students. Take past simple – do students want to read about some obscure English writer and his life? Nope. They would rather listen to the story about how I met my husband because that gives them a licence to be nosy while learning. I have been thinking of writing a post in my own blog about all this and I am glad I found yours – it is very inspiring and on point. I`m looking forward to exploring the Google Drive Folder and other posts.

    1. Yuliya, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I hate grammar syllabi so much but even when I am forced into it, I know I can still engage learners with something relevant to them instead of some tame story about something they’ll never encounter again because they have no interest in it.
      I shall visit your blog imminently. Thanks for reading mine.

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