Making the Most of Your Coursebook

The dialogues and texts used in EFL coursebooks are generally there to develop listening and reading skills. But they also contain a lot of language that the students could usefully “notice”, and this potential is often under-exploited. After the initial use of the text for comprehension, how can you recycle the texts and use them to develop the students general linguistic competence?

If you want to take a published text and adapt it in some way, you obviously face the issue of copyright. However, some publishers now accept that teachers need to adapt materials in order to make them fully appropriate for their students and their own teaching style, and waive copyright for certain portions of the book. An example is Oxford University Press which, on its website, publishes the tapescripts of some of its courses (Headway and International Express for example) in Word format, so that teachers can copy and adapt them. For the series Business Focus, there is also an extremely useful and flexible cloze maker, which can be used either for the texts in the book, or for the teacher’s own texts.

I like to bring texts back three or four times during the course, so that the language they contain is constantly recycled. They can be given to the students as a homework exercise, used as fillers at the start of the lesson while you’re waiting for latecomers, or at the end if your planned activities finish five minutes early. The types of activity you can use include :
  • Scrambled texts. Give the students the paragraphs or sentences of the text in random order, and ask them to reconstitute the text. They may be cut up on separate strips of paper so that the students have to physically rearrange them on the desk (as ever, if you back them on card they’re more likely to be re-usable with a later class), or simply printed on a sheet of paper with a box next to each one where the students can write the appropriate number. If you use this activity you need to be sure that there are sufficient clues to make the activity possible. These will often be cohesive clues – linguistic connections between parts of the text, such as pronouns referring back to a previous noun How was your trip? / It was fine thanks or demonstratives and synonyms with the same reference function : At the moment there is the danger that the disease will reach pandemic proportions. This risk is made more serious by … And/Or there may be clues of coherence, logical relationships between parts of the text. The sequence How are you? / Fine, thanks. is coherent, whereas How are you? / At 10.15 is not. Be careful – these links do not always exist in a text and/or there may be more than one possible answer. When preparing the activity, check for this and if there’s a potential problem write the number of the problem sentence or paragraph next to it, so that students know where to put it in the text.

  • Scrambled sentences. Alternatively, the sentences can be given in order, but the words of each sentence jumbled. This is a useful activity if your students have problems with word order in English.

  • Gapped texts. There are various ways you can gap a text, from strict cloze technique (systematically taking out every fifth, seventh or ninth etc word) to more focused gapping – for example, removing all the prepositions or simply choosing the words which you feel it would be useful for the students to focus on. Obviously, this should not be a memory test : it must be possible to deduce the necessary word from the surrounding context, as in Can you pick ….. that piece of paper please? where the only possibility is up. Where there is more than one possibility, or simply to make the activity easier, the correct words can be given in jumbled order in a box at the top of the exercise, or the first letter of the word can be given: Can you g…………. me a hand with these boxes? The OUP cloze maker allows you all these options.

  • Use the correct form. This is also a variant of a gapped text. It’s most commonly used with verbs – the verb is taken out of the sentence and the infinitive given in brackets (or, this time to make it harder, in scrambled order before the exercise) : I …… (go) to Spain last August. It can also be used, however, for other word classes – for example for comparatives and superlatives Barcelona is the ………………… (beautiful) city I know. or to focus on prefixes and suffixes He was fired because his work was ………… (satisfaction)

  • Spot the Mistake. Again there are several variations of this activity. You can :
    · Insert a certain number of mistakes into the text, for example : Did you have a good travel? As before, the mistakes can be focused (verb forms, prepositions, spelling etc) or mixed, focusing on the words you want the students to notice. It helps if you tell the students how many mistakes they have to find – one per line, or eight in the whole text, for instance.
    · Give alternative words : Did you have a good trip/travel? / Barcelona is the most/more beautiful city I know. The students have to choose the correct alternative.
    · Add an extra word into each line of the text : I went to Spain the last August or, alternatively, omit one word from each line : I have to go to office. Again, the words you choose to add or omit will reflect the problems which you know your students have, and which you want them to focus on. This type of personalisation is the reason why this type of exercise can best be designed by the teacher rather than the coursebook writer.

  • Rewrite the text. The students are given a version of the text almost but not quite like the original and have to rewrite it. For example, at beginner’s level they might have a version using full forms of the verb BE. They have to rewrite it putting the contractions back in wherever possible.

All of these activities have the advantage that the students can self-correct by looking back at the original text, which as I argued in Correcting Written Work : Encouraging "Noticing" often pushes them into a deeper form of cognitive processing than just having their work corrected. However, there are other variations which need a teacher’s confirmation. For example, if two three possibilities were given in Spot the Mistake, two of which were correct and one wrong : Did you have a good trip/travel/journey? The students would be able to find one of the correct alternatives in the original dialogue, but would need help for the second. The same would happen if there were more than one possible answer in a gapped passage : Can you ……… me a hand with these boxes? The original text might use give, but lend would be equally possible. Or if students at higher levels were given an informal version of a business letter they had already studied and had to convert it back to formal style. There might well be more than one acceptable alternative for each phrase.

But won’t the students get bored with working on the same text all the time? Not if the activities are varied, increase in level of difficulty each time, and the recycling is mixed in with other, newer work. In fact, very often they may not even remember having seen the text before. This is a sign that their processing of the text has not gone very deep – however often you’ve recycled it. One way to increase the “depth” of this processing is to ask them to create the exercise to be used with the text themselves. Once students are familiar with the exercise types that can be used, distribute a different previously studied text to each person. List a number of exercise types on the board, check that the students remember them, and ask them to choose one to apply to their text. For homework, they create the exercise and in the next lesson swap exercises and do the activity which another student has created.


Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by Red Lioness via flickr

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