By the Book

What do you need to teach a language lesson? Some students of course, and preferably a whiteboard, or a flipchart at a pinch. And, probably, a textbook, or an extract from one. A textbook is something that both students and teachers often take for granted. Many students like to have a trusted source of exercises to improve their English, and provide them with lots of new vocabulary and grammar rules. New teachers often cling to a textbook as a crutch. It’s comforting to know that you’ve got some interesting activities to keep the students busy, and save you having to find different exercises and figure out how they work together. And it helps to get rid of that awful fear newer teachers have that they’ll run of material long before the end of the lesson. Even if you finish your planned exercises before the end of the lesson, a few more pages in the book can feel like a welcome safety net. But how much do you really need a textbook?

They have their advantages. They save you creating exercises, provide a good variety of ways for students to practise their reading, speaking, listening, and writing. Plus, they’re written by professionals, so you can probably trust that the combinations of language points and exercise types have been well chosen. They generally make life easier for everyone, but especially for new teachers.

Yet not every textbook suits every student. By necessity, they’re designed to cater for the average group of students, and oddly enough, you’ll rarely encounter the average group of students. Generally, the book will mostly suffice, but you’ll have to skip some irrelevant parts, or supplement it with something from another book. And once you’ve got more experience, you become more critical of textbooks, and use them as a springboard for your lesson, using what suits you, but adding more and more of your own material, but…. do you need all this material? It might be comforting to have all these handouts walking into the classroom, but isn’t it messy, and mightn’t it be a little fatiguing for the students to receive one after another? Plus, some students can be suspicious of a teacher who regularly uses a textbook, and get the impression that they’re just blindly following along with the exercises, rather than actively thinking about the students’ language needs.

So you get to a stage in your teaching career when you start to cut down on the materials, relying on your knowledge of the language, and your ability to explain it to the students, and get them to use it. Until one day you think to yourself: do I need any material at all? Well, let’s try to find out…

In a language lesson, students basically need two things: input and output. Input simply means examples of language to engage with. This might be in the form of a text (either written or aural), or simply lists of words or grammar exercises. Obviously a textbook will provide all of that. But authentic materials like books, magazines, songs, and YouTube videos can also provide input, with the advantage that they replicate how they’ll encounter English in real life. Unlike textbooks though, authentic materials aren’t graded, so you need to make sure they’re not too difficult or easy for your class.

As for output, that gets easy after a while, and you learn how to stimulate conversation among students. But a good teacher can turn that output into input. You can do this through correction, providing students with correct language; or by providing them with alternative words and phrases if they say something grammatically correct but not quite natural. Or you can teach around the topic or the language students use, providing them with useful, related vocabulary. And you can then create simultaneous output and input by having students talk to each other. The epitome of such lesson is a Dogme lesson. Named after the barebones Dogme 95 filmmaking movement, it involves a similarly minimalist approach to teaching. A Dogme lesson proceeds without a formal plan or any materials. The teacher begins talking to the students, and uses their emergent language to develop a lesson, stimulating conversation and providing relevant corrections and input. The idea might sound terrifying to an inexperienced teacher, but it’s not hard to at least provide students with useful speaking practice via conversation. A good teacher though, can have the knowledge and confidence to expand on students’ conversation and questions to provide useful input and language practice.

You do need to be careful though. Just as some students are suspicious of a teacher who seems to rely on a textbook too much, so too will some assume that a teacher who walks into the room with just some markers is unprepared and not taking his job seriously. Many also don’t see the value of speaking with another student (useful speaking and listening practice) as the other student will doubtless make some mistakes, and they feel they’ll learn better by talking with a native speaker and hearing “correct” English. So they’ll prefer group discussions led by the teacher, which is useful and can be fun, though it’s not as efficient as students talking together in pairs or groups, where they can get more speaking in. Even with whole-class discussions, many students used to more conventional lessons won’t appreciate this, as they expect the teacher to control the lesson, standing at the top of the room. Walking into the classroom without materials is not going to impress them one bit.

So there are many ways to conduct a lesson, and none of them is the one correct way to do it. It all depends on your particular students, and it’s also good to have a good variety of lesson types to keep students engaged. Textbooks aren’t inherently useless, or overly-conventional (well, not all of them), but you’re not going to get the most out of your students by completely relying on one. At the same time, it’s very hard to deliver a series of lessons without at least some basic materials to base some of your lessons on. The main thing to remember is that your lesson should have a good amount of relevant input and output. As long as you feel confident that your students will get that before you enter the room, you should do fine.

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