Thursday, 9 February 2012

Why go course book free?

There are many reasons why it can be very rewarding both for the English as a Foreign Language educator and her students to go course book free.

Some quick ideas, far from exhaustive, on the advantages and disadvantages;


  • it's cheaper! In many developing countries this is a real and urgent consideration. Course books are costly, and can make the difference between being able to afford classes and not.
  • classes become more personalised to students'  - and teacher's! - needs and interests, freed from pre-established structuring, and so able to deal with emergent language, and follow where need and interest seem to dictate.
  • in my experience, even comparing my own classes WITH a coursebook, as opposed to my classes WITHOUT coursebooks, the latter tend to be more interesting, dynamic and creative. I always try for interesting, creative classes, but somehow when you have book suggesting what to do, and how to go about it, all supported within structured practice exercises, somehow I feel obliged to include those exercises whether they be truly necessary or edifying OR NOT, and somehow, the class always seems a little slower for it.
  • on a related note, many courses seem to be structured around grammar points, so it can be difficult to maintain a communicative focus.
  • materials are AUTHENTIC rather than designed for language learners. This simulates what the learner is going to find in the real English speaking world, and much better prepares them to take a part in it.


  • It can be hard work! teachers must be more resourceful and creative, especially in coming up with appropriate input: course books are easy, on a lazy day you can just follow through the pages without so much as giving them a good thinkover. We all know we shouldn't. But we all do it albeit very occasionally. On a lazy day.
  • The educator may need to supply more support material, and this can require more photocopies than a class where everyone has books.
  • Authentic materials should be selected to be accesible to students' level of English so as not to demotivate them. Students may need more focussed preparation and  learning strategies taught to them to deal with the more complex challenges which authentic materials can pose. 
  • Sequencing, typically extremely professionally staged in your average course book,  may be haphazard in the course-book free classroom, and perhaps therefore less efficient or complete. I still find that after following a particular theme or language point through to its logical conclusion, I need to really sit down  - both by myself, and also with my students, and think about where we've been and where to go next. This is more the case with very low level students and very high level students. The very low level, because what they need next is EVERYTHING. The very high level, because after you've been working together for some time - let's say a year or more - sometimes it is not so apparent what they need at all, and to keep coming up with new ideas can become a strain.
  • Unlike when learning from a 'course' where you might have an amount of time established as necessary to cover each section - chapter, page, book - there is no real answer to that question so often asked by students; "How long before I 'finish'?" Students who are accustomed to traditional and evaluation-oriented classes sometimes object to the (to my mind, glorious, real-life) nebulousness of unstructured study.  
  • If you have an unsuccessful class, badly structured, badly supported, badly explained, with unsuccessful follow-through, or otherwise boring, looking at unnecessary or even incorrect language - there is no one else to blame but ONESELF. No excuses, no we HAVE TO DO this because it is in the book. I freely confess I have had some spectacular FAILURES with some of my more experimental ideas, and though my students seem to have forgiven me, I have learned the hard way why no one else has tried anything  quite like THAT before, and is not likely to ever do so again.The ideas in course books mostly have been trialed and selected on the basis of being relatively fail proof. For my students' sake, sometimes I wish MY ideas had enjoyed that luxury BEFORE being inflicted on them!

Just as some teachers are not happy teaching course-book free, so students may not be either.

For myself and my students, I feel the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, though sometimes on a bad day I might regret taking on more work than I need to. In the long run; I believe it is worth it, both for myself and for my students.

I know there are many of both advantages and disadvantages I have failed to mention.

Do you have any thoughts to add? What are your own feelings and experiences of the course book free classroom?

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Using Podcasts

Insects of Costa Rica | EOL: Learning and Education Group

Another great listening resource site. You can download the audioscript for further language study.


Going coursebook free means searching for alternative sources of input, and thanks to the internet, there is no end of fascinating authentic material just a few clicks away.

At the moment I am using science podcasts of the sort above to work with university Biology students who are anxious to  improve their English with the goal of studying abroad. 

Typically I choose a podcast full of wonderful, useful vocabulary; the very kind of thing the students seem to be passionate about.  Alternatively, I ask students to choose something themselves, having in class worked through the process of how to find podcasts of interest by typing some keywords and "PODCAST" into Google.

I might play the audio once and ask students to take note of interesting or key words and ideas.

Then I ask them, in pairs, to discuss what it was about, and elaborate a brief summary. Also share any interesting words or phrases they noted down.

Then as a whole group all these ideas are shared and discussed.

After this I hand out the transcript. Some important phrases may be highlighted by me for subsequent discussion.

Other key words may be blanked out for students to complete gapfill by listening. These are likely to be grammar structures we might have been working on, or vocabulary we might have seen before. The trick might be to catch the ending - what form of verb or adjective is being used (matured? mature? maturing? etc) If we have a time, I might ask them, to predict, in pairs, what the missing words might be.

Then with students reading along and completing the script, (if there was a gap fill activity) and circling important vocabulary, we will listen a second time.

And possibly then a third time, this time stopping to complete gaps, discuss the language in context, drill pronunication of individual words and connected speech, and comment on meaning.

New important words and phrases are noted down for follow up in a next class.

The advantages of this type of activity include
  • The subject matter itself is vitally important and interesting to the students, so the motivation is all there
  • The integrated practice of many different skills - listening, speaking, reading, and some writing.
  • Pronunciation can easily be focused on and drilled. This is important to me where I try to give my students a variety of accent input, and especially - since my own accent is Australian -  to model some kinds of 'standard American English' accents, which is expected of them in this region. 
  • Vocabulary is seen in context, and practiced also thus
  • Students are taught how to access podcasts on their own and encouraged to do so for outside class practice. The fact most sites provide transcripts gives them the opportunity to back up their self-study. Podcasts being downloadable maximizes their out-of-class practice opportunities, they can listen to them while commuting, exercising and so on.

And the extra added bonus; I get to learn a lot of new things too!

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Eating Out Roleplay!

Level: False Beginner.
Previous knowledge: 
GRAMMAR: basic simple present, questions
VOCABULARY: food, meals, numbers and prices

polite requests and offers
WOULD you LIKE...?
I would like...We 'd like.... etc.


Warm up:
BOOM! using dollars and multiples of $3 as the boom number.

As students toss a ball from one to the other, they count
$1 - $2- BOOM! - $4 - $5 - BOOM! - $7 - $8 - BOOM!..... etc.

I chose DOLLARS so students can practice pronouncing the 's' sound at the end which they tend to leave off. 

If students make a miscount or drop the ball they take slip of paper and must answer one of the following review questions:
  • What is your favourite restaurant?
  • Do you like to cook?
  • How often do you eat fruit?
  • What do you usually eat for breaksfast?
  • What do you usually eat for lunch?
  • What do you usually eat for dinner?
  • What is your favourite food?
  • What is your favourite meal of the day? Breakfast, lunch or dinner? Why?
  • How often do you eat in a restaurant?
  • What food DON'T you eat?

After this we work with the following powerpoint.

Eating Out
PAGE 1- notice the pictures! ask students which restaurant they like the most!
PAGE 2- Students stand and speak to several different people about each question.
PAGE 3- In small groups compete to come up with the longest lists of delicious restaurant food and drinks
PAGE 4 and 5- As a whole class discuss and drill useful language for a waiter and for clients in a restaurant

PAGE 6- In small groups students develop a menu with prices. They then practice being and serving customers.

and FINALLY students become clients in each others' restaurants for some unscripted language exchange.

As I mentioned in the previous post, it provides very valuable self-reflective feedback if you can tape their roleplays and have students watch themselves.

An alternative is to have other groups of students provide feedback in different areas, such as grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary,  funniness.... Of course, you may need to suplement this with your own observations and feedback.

I have found my students really enjoy this very functional language task. I hope it is useful to you too!