Are Textbooks Effective in TEFL or ESL Classes?

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TEFL-ESL TextbooksI have personally shifted out of using textbooks in most of my classes, from children to adults. There are many reasons for this which I will mention in this article and in future posts. Textbooks have been the central focus of education for so long that even experienced teachers have trouble imagining any other way of planning a lesson. This is the age of the internet, global communications, inexpensive video and mass collaboration, there has to be a better way to teach. In fact, I know there is a more effective way to get your EFL students speaking English with more confidence.

Most teachers have never created their own complete teaching curriculum with original teaching materials, so for many a non-textbook approach simply translates as having no plan. However, I am certainly not advocating no curriculum. I am just suggesting that there are approachesĀ other than the traditional textbook-based lesson style. I know of several teachers who have taken the time to create their own comprehensive curricula suitable to their personal teaching styles and I assure you they would never go back to textbook lessons. However, that is best saved for a another article.

What is a Textbook Anyway?

Any given textbook is just a collection of vocabulary, dialogues, drills and games to do in class. If you can’t imagine not using a textbook, think of ripping your favorite textbook apart and then laminating each page. You can use the exact same pages and information, all you do is change the linear nature and physical structure of the book. There are several benefits from this conceptual approach to using the same materials. First of all, you as a teacher are not restricted to a particular order or time frame to cover the targets. You can jump around to different pages depending on the interests and needs of your students and can jump back anytime you see the need for review. Of course, you can do this by keeping the pages of the textbook intact but those numbers on the bottom of the page have such a strong influence on teachers that they wouldn’t ever consider abandoning the linear order. “Today we finished page 34″, automatically assumes that page 35 will be covered in the next lesson. This has a similar impact on students, too. Rather than going home and reviewing what they’ve learned, students follow a natural impulse to take a peak at what comes next. The real needs and interests of students and, to some extent, the teacher are rarely considered.

The Problems of Textbooks

Some schools have such a rigid adherence to page numbers, that they even specify the exact pages the students will be studying a year in advance. How can you possibly know what students will need and want to learn that far in the future? A second and even greater problem that stems from a linear progression approach is that students are constantly pushed forward regardless of whether they have effectively acquired or internalized the previous targets. I have heard this complaint many times from parents with children who have studied in textbook driven English classes. Their children were in a perpetual state of confusion because they weren’t given the opportunity for repetition and review in a variety of contexts to really learn the targets.

Unsurprisingly, such students have very little ability to communicate in English. It is often the case in Japan, that after years of English study, students still have problems answering basic questions like: “What is your name?” Any target covered in only one or two classes, and never reviewed thereafter, will almost certainly be forgotten in the future. It is impossible to provide enough review opportunities, when following the designated structure of textbooks. This is true for children and adults alike. Most EFL students have less than one hour per class, once a week in countries like Japan. Adopting a linear approach to teaching means that most of what was practiced in previous classes will be quickly forgotten. I would say that two of the greatest errors inexperienced teachers make are not providing enough review opportunities and failing to recycle known language in a variety of contexts. It is impossible to have enough repetition within the confines of a textbook itself, it is up to teachers to create review opportunities. Don’t blindly follow your materials. Look to the needs and interests of your students.

Real Communication Doesn’t Start By Looking at Pages in a Book

Another important reason for not using textbooks is that you can bring your students’ attention to the front of the class or have them focus and games and activities, rather than gazing down at a book on the table. Students don’t really communicate by staring at a book. Eye contact and genuine interaction are important in generating authentic conversations between students. All children’s textbook series offer flash cards to use in games and activities. These games are, inherently, more interesting to students and, as a consequence, children will naturally learn far more. As most authors and publishers understand that games are the best way for children to learn, it begs the question of why textbooks are used in the first place?(Actually, I do know the answer to that question. That is how publishing companies make their money.)

Your Students are the Best Topic

Textbooks are generally written in the third person. They are about imaginary characters, invented by publishers. These characters are not personalized, nor particularly interesting to students who, it must be remembered, hail from a variety of cultures. There are exceptions, notably the Disney characters in one popular textbook, but for the most part the characters are not the same as the ones kids know and love in their normal lives. It is far better to play games and use dialogues that utilize your students. These are far more real and, therefore, more memorable. If you can’t bring yourself to stop using textbooks, at least consider using multiple textbooks in your classes. Don’t force all your students to buy one or two textbook series. Buy and use several sets of textbooks from different publishers. No, single textbook or author can possibly cover every target in the most effective way. Why not use different textbooks based on which one covers the target you are teaching best? In fact, this is how I approach every class and activity. I always ask what is the most effective way to help students learn a particular target. It may be through a song, dialogue, game, or skit. The best method is rarely going to be the next page in your textbook.

Language Learning Changes as You Get Better

Another major problem with textbooks is that they have to be consistent. The format of the first chapter of the first textbook is largely identical to the last chapter in the last book in the series. This consistency of format may allow teachers to become familiar with certain techniques, and proceed without much thought or preparation, but it can also become very monotonous. It should also be borne in mind that the targets and needs of students change dramatically over the course of their studies. It’s not hard to imagine that a 12 year old will have different requirements to a 6 year old. Authors and teachers often get locked into a particular way of teaching just because that is the way it is presented in the book. One simple example is the relative importance of targets. Consider the alphabet. The letter “a” and its phonetic representations are far more common and important than that of the letter “x.” Yet due to the nature of textbooks both letters are likely to be given equal attention.

Textbooks can be a great tool and are very important to many teachers. However, it can be helpful to consider alternatives and supplements. Don’t let your books be the guiding factor in what English you teach. Put your students interests and needs first. Try a balanced approach to teaching by incorporating picture books, games, songs, videos, dialogues, group activities, crafts or whatever you think is best. Remember that you are the teacher and should be in control of what you teach your students. Of course, keep covering all the English targets presented in the textbooks you use. Those targets are likely well thought out and important and they are also fairly consistent among different textbook series. However, take some time to search for and experiment with techniques and activities that are best suited for the needs and wishes of your students. No one author will ever have all the answers. Remember, there a multitude of ideas and techniques out there being disseminated by experienced and talented teachers. Great teachers incorporate the best ideas they can find and those ideas are not going to be all in one textbook series.

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