To Use a Textbook or Not?

3E65189E-B8C0-45A0-B75B-162017E65304.jpegTo use a textbook or not with adult ESL? Actually, this was also a question I used to ask as an elementary teacher.

Admittedly, textbooks take a lot of the guesswork out of planning for a class, and as a new ESL teacher, I wouldn’t have been without it. This was especially true when I was assigned a class of absolute beginners. The text was step-by-step, it was appropriate for their level, and it made my job so easy.

Textbooks can also be great for making sure I am hitting the content areas I’m supposed to teach (if I skip around–more on that later). And now that the U.S. government is stressing the teaching of work-related vocabulary and interpersonal “soft skills” used at a job, a lot of the textbook companies are making sure they include those areas.

On the other hand, textbooks can be problematic. Sometimes, let’s face it, they are a bit boring or disconnected from the everyday language that students need and want to learn. I can see a disconnect between book learning and actual language. For example, when I compare my Eastern European students to my Latin American students, I find that the Europeans tend to have more education in general and more experience using books and doing worksheets. They write well and know their grammatical terms, but many are weaker speakers and listeners. The Latin American students, in my experience, often lack the formal education (especially if they were farm kids), but are really good at speaking and listening. Ask them to write, and that’s another story. But it’s obvious that the Latin American students have learned communication English on the job in the U.S. and by interacting with English speakers.

This is ironic, because we often talk in class about the way Spanish speakers have to go out of their way a little bit to interact with English speakers, whereas the Europeans are often forced to learn English faster. This is because, here in the Chicago area, there are pockets of Spanish-speaking areas where English isn’t that necessary: church, many jobs, grocery stores, restaurants, etc. We also have a law about bilingual education in Illinois, which means that many of the Spanish-speaking children have their own classes, so even interaction with the teacher and papers from school are offered in Spanish. Europeans are smaller segments of the local population and represent many languages, so while they may have a few areas where they can speak their native languages, they are mostly forced to converse in English. Once they have been here a while, they tend to pick up speaking and listening quickly.

When I think about the teachers whom I respect the most, I find that many of them no longer use textbooks. In fact, they have so much of their own material that they can make their own books. One senior teacher I really respect told me that trying to follow the text would be more stressful than using her own materials. When I look at the 5-point font of the teaching ideas page in the teacher’s edition, I know what she means. I used to write out bullets from the teacher notes on a post-it so I could read it while teaching.

Another issue I have with books is how long they take me to go through. I’m a teacher who would rather “uncover” a topic rather than “cover” it. So with my limited class time, I may get through only two or three chapters of a text in a semester (admittedly, I do some of my own activities outside of the book). So unless I’m careful to skip around the book to hit many topics, I’m not going to teach the topics my syllabus says I will.

I usually teach intermediate and advanced levels, so lately I find myself using a text on one day and planning my own activities the next. I can sit down at the computer and plan out a few classes at a time in one sitting, and when I do plan my own activities, I’m more excited to teach.

When I’m tired from taking care of my son during the day or I’m feeling guilty for not using the book, I’ll go back to it. Some days, the lessons go really well and I’ll wonder why I don’t use the book every day, and then other days, the lessons are so boring (or pointless) that I decide I’m going to teach the way I want. I also have a constant nagging feeling that I’m not going fast enough, and tend to beat myself up for not getting the lessons done that I wanted to. It’s silly, but that’s how my brain works. I don’t get this feeling with planning my own non-linear lessons, if that makes sense.

The final issue I have with books are the fact that no class is on the same level. Even though texts contain conversation questions, listening activities, and even videos to accompany them, they are still like colorful worksheets. So, I run into the problem of some students answering the questions really quickly, while others are struggling. I have a few tricks up my sleeve for keeping students on the “same page” when this happens, such as working in groups, completing the work as a class (not as fun), and going over answers as a class once people start finishing (I tell the ones who aren’t done that it’s okay they aren’t finished).

Of course, I could run my class like a college class and assign independent work for home, but only ten to twenty percent of my students would actually do the work. Plus, they often need my help, so my experience as an elementary teacher has really helped me understand how to teach this population.

So this begs the question: if we don’t use textbooks, what do we use? I think the answer comes from a class I had a couple of years ago. We had gone from three levels of ESL to one class–mine–at our location. Suddenly I had beginners and advanced students together. I decided I had to become at expert at multi-level activities and use technology that would adjust to my students’ needs. I was also fortunate to have a tutor helping me out once a week. Activities included opening each class with conversation cards and sitting students in groups, open-ended writing about familiar topics, grammar videos that all could learn from (my favorite is English with Light and Sound on YouTube), and reading. Reading was one of the areas where I would print out different levels to make groups. I really like newsela and englishforeveryone for this. It also works for multi-level grammar.

After classroom activities, we went to the computer lab. I’d use or for general ESL lessons that could go from beginning to advanced, as well as readworks for reading practice that could help them on their CASAS exam (our mandated test for funding).

So at this point, I cannot be all or nothing with textbooks. I’d kind of like to ditch them and plan my own lessons most days. I’m often happier when I do. But, they can have their place–especially for busy teachers, tired teachers, and new teachers. As for tonight’s class, especially with St. Patrick’s Day coming up (I love teaching U.S. holidays and customs), the book is going on the shelf.


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