I recently got this message from a teacher:
Hello Ken. I was wondering if you could answer a question. How can a teacher deal with using a course book that the students find too easy? My colleague is using Smart Choice Starter (an excellent series, by the way), but some of the students think it’s too easy. What advice do you have for her? Thanks in advance!
I imagine a lot of teachers find the book they are using too easy or too difficult for their class. Or for some of the class. So here are a couple of ideas to do something about it, assuming that changing the book or moving certain students to a different level are not options.
The book seems too easy for all/most of the class
Let’s imagine that you realise after a couple of weeks that the book you are using seems to be ‘too easy’, which basically means that the students already ‘know’ the new vocabulary and grammar content, or at least they think they do. A possible solution may be for pairs or groups of students to take responsibility for presenting some of the ‘new’ material to the rest of the class. Let’s say there are twelve units in the book and you’ve reached Unit 2, so there are ten to go. It’s clear by now that the book isn’t challenging them enough. Tell them – in their own language if necessary – that from now on, you would like them to be responsible for the presentation of some of the new material in the remaining units.
Put the students in pairs or groups of three, you decide which is best. Ask them to work together in their groups and look at all the remaining units in the book – give them 10-15 minutes to do this. Tell them to choose a unit that they would like to present. They should then tell the rest of the class what the new vocabulary is and POSSIBLY what the new grammar point is. It really doesn’t matter if there are too many or not enough students for each pair/group to have their own unit to present. The process is more important than the end product.
I have met teachers who express concern about their students looking at units later in the book. What if they’re too difficult? To these teachers I say – do you REALLY think you students haven’t already looked at every page in the book? They usually do it as soon as they get it, mainly to see if there are any interesting images. So stop worrying about that.
After they’ve had a chance to look at all the units, ask them which one they would like to present. Often more than one group will want to present the same unit, so they have to decide who does it. Let them decide by tossing a coin, arm-wrestling, whatever. There will be some units that no one wants to present. Ask them why. If the answer is that the material looks boring, then you are well within your rights not to do those units. You should find alternative material to present the lexis, grammar and skills practice. And send a note to the publisher telling them what your students thought. Authors and publishers need lots of feedback, and teacher feedback is an essential part of the process of improving material for the next edition. It’s even better if the teachers are passing on the thoughts of their students. But let’s imagine at least some of the groups agree to present the material in different units. How should they do it? My suggestion is that they do it without the book.
In Smart Choice, the first page of each unit is devoted to presenting a new lexical set. Ask the students to find images of the key vocabulary from another source – Google images is a good place to start. Another excellent source of freely available photographic material is ELTpics (http://www.eltpics.com), a collection of thematically arranged photographs compiled and curated by ELT professionals. The point is, you should encourage your students to start the presentation with some graphics as back-up, preferably using PowerPoint, keynote or Prezi – whatever the students are familiar with. Some of the lexical sets may be more easily presented using mime or acting out techniques. Encourage the students to explore that possibility, too.
Let’s imagine a group of students have agreed to present the vocabulary from the next unit. Remind them at the end of the previous class and check that they have prepared the material for their presentation. The class begins. You ask the two or three students to take over. It’s an interesting moment – the presenters are a bit nervous and the rest of the class are a bit curious. The atmosphere is already much more interesting than it might be if you were doing all the teaching yourself! For guidance, tell the presenters to try to find out what the other students already know, showing them images or acting out/miming to illustrate the new words. Explain that ‘eliciting’ new words/phrases is a good way to start.
If the class is a monolingual class, there is every chance that the presenters will occasionally use L1 as part of their presentation. My feeling is that this is fine, particularly at lower levels. You may have a different opinion, but I feel that the occasional use of translation is very helpful, especially for beginners. If the presenters struggle at any point, step in and help them. But give them a chance to do it themselves. They will never forget the experience.
When I have presented these ideas in a talk or workshop, teachers have the following objections.
- You’re asking people to teach who have not been trained to teach.
- Some students might think – you’re the teacher, I’m the student, YOU should be teaching ME. There could be a rebellion.
- In a PLS or other institution where the students are paying, they may object and ask for their money back!
These are important issues to deal with. Regarding the first point, the fact is that your students may not do a very good job of presentation, in which case you have to step in and help. Don’t take over the class, just add some ideas and help to elicit information from the rest of the class. Regarding the second and third points, in the end it’s all about belief and trust. If you believe that what you’re doing is right and the students trust that you are doing things because they will benefit from them, they will accept any of the crazy methods you’re using. I tried this method of students teaching their peers many times when I was a teacher at a PLS, and I never had a single complaint from students about my methods. I hope it will work for you too!
The book is too easy or too difficult for a proportion of the class
This is a classic mixed-ability class scenario. In this case, I’m going to suggest that you get your best students to help you with the less able ones. Let’s imagine again there are fifteen people in the class. When you have a new class, how long does it take you to decide who are the ‘good’ students? Not long, right? So here’s an idea.
During the first two or three classes, make a mental note of who the top third of the students are. In a class of fifteen, this means five students. Ask them to see you at the end of the class. When the rest of the students have left the room, you tell the top third that they are really good – the best in the class. This is very nice for them to hear. But, you go on to explain, with this ability comes a responsibility. From now on, when you do group work, these ‘good’ students will make a group of three with two of the other students, ie not with another ‘good’ one.
So now, one ‘good’ student is helping two more challenged students. Three is much better than two, because the two can learn together from the better student. Meanwhile, you go from group to group, monitoring the work they are doing.
I hate to use words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to describe students, because all students bring something positive to the classroom, but I think you will see the advantage of this idea. At no point have I indicated to the class why the five are taking over, it will just happen.
If the book is too difficult for ALL the class, then you do have a problem. If your feedback suggests that this is something that happens, and there is nothing you can do to change the book, then I will come back with some ideas to help with that situation, too.