Kolos Esztergályos, an Oxford ELT Consultant based in Hungary, gives his tips for how to breathe new life into your ELT coursebooks.
Most teachers would agree that no matter how attractive an ELT coursebook might look, its real strengths and hidden weaknesses will unfold only in action, that is, in actual classroom use. And then, it’s not long before teachers start saying things like “Oh, that text didn’t go down particularly well with my students” or “My group couldn’t care less about pop stars”. With the new academic year looming ahead, it looks like a good time to start thinking about your new classes, your present coursebook, and how to match the two by tweaking some elements to your and your students’ tastes.
Generation gap 1: You know the movie star? Chances are, your students won’t
You have a charming Pierce Brosnan smiling at you next to a reading text about James Bond movies. You might find that your students will have a different idea of a heart-throb. With today’s online resources it’s only a matter of a few clicks to revive the personality and put them into a present-day context through Wikipedia or IMDb facts and links. Start off with a topical bit of information or a recent photograph that can spark a discussion about a life event, a controversial topic, or the social issues a celebrity is likely to stand up for. With less advanced groups you can use the photos only: in pairs, one student describes the person in the photo from years ago, the other will do the same with a more recent one. Later, they will show their pictures to each other and find out that they have been describing the same person – with a lot of differences!
There are many various possibilities, but the main thing is to find a way to relate the person to your students’ present reality.
Generation gap 2: You can’t relate to a topic
You’ve never followed the Premier League events. You can’t see how designer brands make a difference. Your worst idea of a holiday is couchsurfing.
It’s very likely that your students will be experts on the topic, so the best thing is to own up. Argue that you don’t see why brands / clothes / having the latest gadgets / etc. are important. You’re sure to instigate a wild classroom debate, especially with the 14-18 age group.
Tom, Dick and Harry
By the very nature of coursebooks, exercises are often riddled with general, “faceless” names. You might want to try and add a little flavour by replacing these with the students in your group. “What time does Ivan get up?” will have a totally new interpretation if Ivan is the regular latecomer in your group! “What would Mr (eg. history teacher) say if he found out that you had copied your homework?” will also shed a new light on typical questions. But even without direct references, any mechanical exercise will benefit from turning fictitious names into flesh-and-blood people. Of course, it is your responsibility to avoid sensitive issues and to maintain the integrity of all people involved.
“C, final answer”
Multiple choice tasks are prevalent in any ELT material, obviously, for good reasons. But don’t forget that any classic MC task can be turned into a ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ quiz item to involve groups of students and to increase motivation. There are some great online tools to create your own quiz show. You will have to introduce “cat mode” (ie. multiple lives) if you want to play it with more students or groups of students simultaneously; all students or groups will mark an answer, but those who get it wrong can also play on with a life lost, or, alternatively, by earning no points/”money” for that round. Even more engaging if played with toy money, where culturally acceptable.
Video killed the radio star
ELT materials today tend to cater for the fact that students are brought up in a multi-sensory environment. As a result, these materials make use of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic channels to accommodate different learner types and to make content more memorable. This, in turn, allows us to transform material by “switching off” channels to leave more to the imagination. If you have a listening text, first use the transcript only to let students make guesses about the age, sex, occupation, etc. of the characters. If you have a video, use the audio only and get students to make the same inferences. This may sound time-consuming but will help students focus on the linguistic material to make judgements and to work with the text more intensively.
My test, my learning
It is indeed very appealing and time-saving to print off a ready-made test, but you can make students part of the whole learning process by involving them in test design. Use your review lesson to get groups of learners to write tasks for an ideal test they would be happy to take. This will make them go through the material covered and they will be likely to use the task types found in the coursebook. Collate and correct the tasks, go through some of the items together. The remainder will give you the basis of a test, ideally to be used as it is. When compiling the actual test, give students credit for an extra morale booster. I’ve found that this works especially well with students who need extra support.
Naturally, this is a list of recommendations only, but I hope that these ideas will give you enough inspiration to look forward to a new academic year!