The coursebook I want

I and a lot of ELT teachers I admire spend a lot of time dissing, cutting down, criticising, mocking, disparaging and complaining about coursebooks. So I’d like to look at the other side for a moment: what kind of coursebook would I want? Well, glad you asked:

A platform

My ideal coursebook wouldn’t be a book at all, but a platform. I love opening books, but when it comes to a collaborative learning experience the one thing a book is is closed. In terms of platforms, I want something simple, accessible, sharable and open. Something like Google Drive. Wait, not just like Google Drive, but maybe Google Drive itself, because there’s nothing I hate more than proprietary platforms that want to gobble up your time, energy and resources and then collapse, or not get updated, or just plain suck. Google’s not going anywhere, it gets updated, and lots of people like myself already use it for a lot of other stuff. So, if not Google, my coursebook would work within a popular, easy and ubiquitous platform (not simply try to imitate one).


The pro-coursebook argument that’s hard to beat is that it saves the busy teacher (or the one keenly aware of how much her out-of-class time is really worth) time. So I imagine a sort of expert teacher working in each country as content curator, finding and publishing a curated selection of 5 or so new texts a day. But of course you’re not bound to use the curated texts: you could do it too.


This daily list would continue to grow until it contained hundreds or thousands of texts. Or rather, it wouldn’t contain them, but link to them, because I want my students seeing the contexts in which these texts ― academic articles, opinion pieces, blog posts, film scripts, poems etc. ― were really published.


At any point in the term you set a number of filters based on your location, student preferences, or favorite sites, and the coursebook would indicate texts and sources that might be of interest (and show you fewer or no texts outside your areas of interest).

Automated to help text selection

Any text “imported” (linked) into the coursebook would be cataloged and automatically tagged with an estimated CEFR level, word-count, estimated reading time per CEFR level (how long would it take a C1 student to read vs a C2 student), as well as a number of useful searchable tags relating to topic, variety of English, register, occurrence of grammar and lexis. This would all make the task of finding texts within the system much, much easier for the busy teacher.

Automated to help task creation

In one click, you switch from the text at its original source to a bare-bones, text-only “workshop” version that you could manipulate at will. The platform would also come with a series of tools that allow you to instantly create a variety of different activities, including gap fills based on various parameters (e.g. removing prepositions, auxiliary verbs or all function words). A variety of exam formats would also be supported, like the Cambridge Use of English tasks.

You could work with these text-activities online, in class, if your students use tablets/computers, or you could print them out. Or could link them as homework tasks on the evolving syllabus.


Of course the coursebook would have no chapters, or order, but teachers could make intelligent decisions about what texts to use based on class interest or language issues that need addressing. From one week to the next the teacher could share the texts with the students to create an evolving syllabus.

Simple interface for students

This evolving syllabus would be the user interface i.e. what students see ― basically a formatted document with links, texts, etc. the teacher has placed for each lesson. Layout would be basic ― you don’t want to spend your time worrying about pagination. And you don’t want to just replicate the jam-packed tiny-font landscape of a typical coursebook spread. Just a single-column format, like a blog. But you could also give students “creator” status so they could do the same operations on a text by using the same tools that you do.


Because the search functions work so well, when something comes up in class, like a student sees examples of inversion, and asks about, or you realize that students don’t have much vocabulary for topic X, you could easily search and find a text that would offer a context for addressing the gap.


You could create and share word lists from texts you’ve read. And the platform would have a series of reminders that would encourage you to recycle vocabulary/texts at set intervals. You might work on a text in class, and then 3 weeks later the platform reminds you to either recycle the vocabulary, or create a new recall activity based on that text.


The platform would also have a catalogue of communicative task types like debates, roleplays, etc. Rather than fixed any activity to that particular text, the teacher could choose an activity type and the platform would prompt her with suggestions for how to create that particular activity, including a framework for various stages. And templates would make actually writing up activities for distribution (either in paper or electronically) to students faster and easier.


Each of the texts would come with an “access community” feature, and you could share what you did or see what other teachers have done with a specific text, as well as what texts were used before and after it. Teachers could comment and share opinions, difficulties, and classroom reactions to texts. Texts that generate a lot of interest might get more visibility on the platform, while others, that generate no interest or uptake, could get phased out.

Supportive of teacher development

To start with, the platform would offer tips and suggestions to teachers about how to set up activities, prompts for writing comprehension questions, what texts to pair together, and even offer reminders to try other activity types. But, with the teacher’s consent, the platform’s “voice” would gradually get muted as the teacher grows in experience and internalizes frameworks or task types.

But even with the training wheels off, formatting options would still be accessible so you could create e.g. exam task activities that look like the real thing.


Yes, there’s a learning curve with any platform (or any new coursebook series), but the idea would be to help teachers save time sourcing texts and creating tasks, so that they could have more energy to devote to being in the class itself (discussing, debating, revising). And the tags, reminders and search functions would help teachers build internal consistency and repetition into a course that’s not fixed in advance but evolves as it goes.


Well, what about it? Is that the kind of coursebook you’d use? Or have you got something better?




Long Live Exam Prep! Part minus 2 B: The Carousel Quiz


In Part Minus 2 A (this is getting silly-I’m so sorry!), I explained the first half of a first lesson to use with exam prep classes (or indeed any class over B1). Now comes the nitty gritty focus-on-the-exam bit. To do this I use a multi-skill activity that I call a carousel quiz. You do need some materials for this, but fortunately they are freely available. Here’s the link to the Cambridge English : First Handbook for teachers, which is all you’ll need for this FCE activity. We had a set of them at our school. Cambridge used to send free copies out, but I’m not sure if they do that anymore. You could have the students download it or view it on their mobile phones. Alternatively you could print it out before the lesson.

(There are similar resources for IELTS, PET, CAE and CPE)

The steps:

  1. Ask the students to brainstorm what they know about the exam. Generally this is very little. Accept everything they say and get it up on the board. Guide them with some questions like: How long is it? How many papers are there? How many pieces of writing do you need to produce? What do you do in the speaking test?
  2. Refer them to page 2 of the handbook: ‘Content and Overview’. Give them 5 minutes to scan for the correct information. Elicit what they got right and what they got wrong.
  3. Now tell them to concentrate on one part of the exam per group. So ideally you’ll have 4 groups and they take one paper each (splitting up Reading and Use of English). Tell them to refer to the relevant part of the handbook to read about their section of the exam in more detail.
  4. Explain that they’re going to make a quiz about their section for the other students. You can give them some question stems to guide them like: ‘What do you have to do in….’, or ‘What are they testing in…….’, or ‘How long is……’. Give them a fixed number of questions depending on how much time you’ve got. Monitor and help as needed.
  5. When they have their questions and are ready to go, ask one or two of the students to stand up in each group. Tell them to move clockwise around the room, taking their copy of the questions about their section, and sit at the next table. You should have two students from group A with group B, two students of group B with group C and so on. They ask each other their questions, awarding points for right answers and deducting them for wrong answers. They’re allowed to refer to the handbook. Then the same students stand up and move around again. This is repeated until they’ve spoken to everybody and they wind up back at their own table.


  • It’s student centred! Why spend the evening before making a quiz yourself when you’re the one who’s proficient in English? Let them work on the language.
  • They get a clear idea of what’s expected of them in the exam. Often this doesn’t happen until the exam date is looming, by which time it’s too late. Giving them this information in the first lesson allows then to prioritise and organise their study.

But it’s not perfect….

  • It can get a bit long, and the pace can drop as a result, so have something a bit lively up your sleeve for the last 15 minutes.
  • I’m not sure whether all the vocabulary is actually that useful. There’s a lot of teaching jargon that can be confusing.

Give it a spin and tell me what you think!

Promoting learner autonomy from day one: individual selection of reading texts in the ELT classroom (Part 2)

In part 1 of this article I explained how you can start of encouraging learner autonomy in the classroom from the first day’s homework assignment.

It’s part of a four-step procedure in which students can independently select, read and prepare texts for homework (step 1) and do a carrousel activity (step 2) to share what they’d read and learned.

Now I’m going to describe steps 3 and 4, including how to lead a follow-up discussion and help students overcome difficulties they may have had sourcing authentic texts.

3. Teacher-led discussion and task-analysis (day 2, part 2)

Once you’ve wrapped up the carousel, it’s now time to focus on discussion of the task itself. This is the kind of meta-analysis that also helps encourage autonomy, as you’re asking students to make judgments about their own learning processes and study techniques, as well as classroom activity.

When monitoring the carousel or the small-group discussion that followed, you may notice that some students confess to having had difficulty with the task, some even coming to class saying, “Here’s my text! But I barely understood anything!” I regularly observe that a few students:

  • Can’t discern whether their text is fact or opinion
  • Choose texts written in non-proficient English
  • Don’t self-select for difficulty (usually choosing impossibly difficult texts)

The result can be frustrating for some students. But as a teacher trying to encourage learner autonomy I want these difficulties and frustrations to come out immediately, and not further on down the course.

It’s a teaching moment, and we can start a discussion about what’s difficult about sourcing authentic texts (including topic unfamiliarity, grammatical and lexical complexity, density, relative lack of other clues, text length) which leads to discussing important criteria in text selection: motivation (choosing texts interest them enough to overcome some of the difficulties inherent in authentic texts) and self-grading (choosing texts that represent a linguistically manageable challenge). You can also board and discuss the sources students used (the specific online newspapers, academic journals, blogs, etc.) and discuss the pros and cons of using each one.

Remember, these are all things they consider (however unconsciously) when surfing the internet in L1. You just need to make it clear that they should apply transfer the same skills to L2 reading.

Tweaks and interventions

  • Write a guide: After discussing and boarding ideas about the challenges of authentic texts, have groups write a guide for the class with tips for next time (e.g. Choose a 1-2 page text. Choose a L2 text on a familiar topic.). They can write their guide in the form of a magazine article, letter or simply bullet points. Next time you assign a similar homework task, ask them to pull out their guide, follow their own instructions and see if it works ― or what they would revise.


4. Whole class single-text intensive reading (optional)

For homework (or, if you teach 4-hour blocks like I used to in Istanbul, in class), you can bring the class back to focus collectively on a single text. This will reassure those who struggled with the text they found or with the unrestricted nature of the task.

Have the class vote on the text they found the most interesting (it can be one they heard about from the “source” ― i.e. the original presenter ― or from a small group member in the wrap-up discussion) and assign it for homework.

You can assign the original reader a different task, like creating comprehension questions (to be sent by email to the others) or identifying and creating a quiz on the key grammar and vocabulary for the following week. If you’ve got a grammar syllabus, find some key grammar point contained in the text and jump to that section of the coursebook or grammar reference (if you don’t want to do it on the spot, tell the students you’ll assign a grammar point within 48 hours and email them the homework).


Conclusion: Where to go from there

By starting with an activity like this, you’re not just paying lip service to learner autonomy, you’re actually putting it into practice. And more importantly, you’re laying the foundations for an in-class culture of learner autonomy that will (I believe) help contribute to a richer learning experience for both your students and you.

In future articles, I’ll explore more activities and procedures for encouraging learner autonomy in the ELT classroom.
In the meantime, how do you promote a culture of learner autonomy in your classroom?

Promoting learner autonomy from day one: individual selection of reading texts in the ELT classroom (Part 1)

I believe that promoting learner autonomy is essential for both success and enjoyment in classroom language learning.

What is learner autonomy in the EFL classroom? In terms of the classes I teach I broadly define it as learners making decisions about what we do during the course.

This simple definition includes the idea that they are part of a class (“we”) gathered for a specific duration, and that decisions can be made both individually and collectively, in relation to classroom activity and out-of-class homework.

One of most straightforward ways to encourage this is giving students choice over the texts and topics we study in class and for homework.

Here is one activity for promoting autonomous choice of texts and topics that I’ve used with upper-intermediate and advanced EFL classes, adults and high school kids (but could conceivably be used in many other contexts).

Autonomy in text choice: day 1 reading homework

The first day of a new course is not only for introductions and getting to know each other, but also for establishing expectations about the rest of the term. If you plan to promote learner autonomy, there’s no better time to start.

At the end of day one of the course, I give the following homework assignment:

For homework, find something interesting to read on the internet. Print it out, read it and bring it. Be prepared to talk about it with your classmates.

That means everybody will come to class with a different reading text. Sounds like a recipe for classroom chaos, right? What do you do with all those texts?

Actually, this is part of a multi-step procedure which I’m going to explain in-depth below (steps 1 and 2) and in the next post (steps 3 and 4).

  • Independent text selection/reading
  • Student interaction/peer sharing
  • Teacher-led discussion and task-analysis
  • Whole class single-text intensive reading (optional)

Just to be clear up-front, this isn’t a warmer, or something you squeeze in between other activities. The in-class portions (Part 2 & 3) could easily run 1½ ― 2 hours. In other words, this is your class.

As you’ll see, this process gives students autonomous choice within the group (perhaps their first in a language class), offers maximum speaking practice (while putting new lexis into use), addresses problems of and offers support for developing learner autonomy and opens new doors to future lessons and the course as a whole.

1. Independent text selection/reading

As stated above, the task asks students to find a text for reading and study, and be prepared to share it with their classmates.

When I assign the homework I emphasize that they’ve got total control over topic, source and text genre (it could be an article, a blog post, a letter to the editor, an advertisement, anything as long as it’s written).

I don’t usually front-load this first homework assignment with extra tasks, but depending on your teaching style or context, you could add the following tweaks to the assignment:

  • Write a 100-word summary
  • Write down, define and write an example sentence for 10 keywords/phrases essential for understanding the text

2. Student interaction/peer sharing (day 2, part 1)

In the next lesson, students share what they’ve read. You could put students in pairs, but the best thing about this situation is that everybody’s got something interesting and different, and I don’t like to limit them to a 1-1 exchange.

It’s also good to remember that at this point you’ve got no idea what they’ve actually brought in. There is no central text, but many different texts, and you’ll want to see and hear about as many as possible.

So instead of pairwork what I like to do instead is have students do a carousel, an activity that I picked up long ago from Scott Thornbury’s invaluable How to Teach Speaking (called “The Poster Carousel” there, on p. 87). Here’s my applied (and modified) version:

The carousel

Have everybody tape their texts to the wall. Half the class stands by their articles, the other half circulates. Students can stop and ask about any articles that look interesting (based on the headlines). They can stay and chat or move on. Then the groups switch. This allows everyone to get to hear from multiple people about different topics, while also giving “presenters” repetition practice as they explain their article to different audiences. Encourage students to ask questions ― it’s a discussion, not a real presentation.

Tweaks and interventions

  • Rehearsal: Before taping up their articles, have everybody take a few minutes to review their text again. If you haven’t asked them to do it as part of the homework, ask them to now write down 10 key words/phrases from the text which will help them explain it from memory. This gives them essential rehearsal time so they don’t simply read from their text on the wall.
  • Constraints: To manage circulation, give students limits, e.g. 15 minutes to hear from 3 presenters (but it doesn’t have to be 5 minutes at each ― encourage them to invest time relative to their interest level).
  • Lexis collection: Students have to collect a set number of key phrases from each presenter.
  • Monitor for language related to explaining, summarizing, asking and answering questions, etc. You can intervene to help students individually, or stop the group mid-task and model/board essential language.

One of the best things about the carrousel activity is that rather than obtrusively looming over (or crouching next to) students as they discuss their texts, you can mingle with them, monitor and note-take much less obtrusively, and have a peek at their articles. And as with any student good activity, your lack of information about article content actually gives you a genuine need to listen and find out more.

But if you’re not used to not having control over the text, don’t panic. Step 4 will give you the opportunity to (optionally) have a more traditional single-text whole-class focus (and give you time to prepare for it).


When both groups have finished, get into small groups to share which article they found most interesting, and why. Groups can then share their favorites with the class. You can also ask for (and board) 10 useful words or expressions they learned. You (or a delegated secretary) should take note of which topics seemed the most popular, key vocabulary, etc. for future reference.

That’s the end of the activity (but not the end of the class, or the process). In the next post, I’ll describe steps 3 and 4, and how you can use individual text selection and the carousel activity as a springboard to helping students better equip themselves for practicing learner autonomy in the EFL/ESL classroom.