Posted in Thoughts about TEFL Teaching

7 Deadly Sins of TEFL: Teaching the coursebook not the learners

It was Friday, I had to cover a class at the last minute but had nothing prepared. I walked into class with a coursebook under my arm and asked the students which unit they were on.

A collective groan filled the room. I though for a few seconds, hoping inspiration would strike.

“OK, close the books.

A few tentative smiles appeared on faces.

I circled the class; dividing the students into Student A and Student B.

“Ok, student A, you are me, the Director of Studies at a language school. Student B, you are students.”

“Student As, your student won’t buy the coursebook. Convince them to buy it.

Student Bs, you don’t want to buy the course book. Explain why you don’t want to buy it.

Directors, you have 3 minutes to think of reasons why you should buy it. Students, you have 3 minutes to think of reasons why you shouldn’t.”

sleeping woman

5 minutes later all of the students were lost in their roles. The classroom was filled with lively chatter and laughter. One voice broke through the general din.

Kaori was a quiet Japanese lady in her early 40s. Polite to a fault, she wasn’t a fluent speaker. She was far too concerned not to offend and to use correct grammar at all times, this meant her conversation was generally stilted. This time though, she was in the zone improvising as a student determined not to buy the book.

I hate coursebooks but almost all English teachers use them, Why? Because it is easy work for them. But they are so boring. You must to read about Madonna. Why do I want to read about Madonna? Or listen to two stupid English people who have too much money and go around the world in a yacht. What does that have to do with my life? Then, we have to talk about these people with a partner. Why? I don’t know them. I don’t like them. I want to talk about me and my life in Japan or my life in London. It’s crazy. I want to speak English for my work and to communicate with people from other countries. The books make learning English boring and useless.

By this point, all the other students had stopped talking. They were staring open-mouthed listening to the quietest student in the class ranting about her hatred for coursebooks. When she finished, a few of them applauded!

For the remainder of the lesson, we drew up a list of benefits and disadvantages of using coursebooks in class from the student’s perspective and the latter column was substantially longer than the former. We ended the class with an open discussion about coursebooks.

The students identified the following key points:

  • Gap-fill exercises in the coursebook can be done at home and don’t need to be done in the classroom.
  • Long reading texts with a British or American focus are often used to set the context or introduce new language.  We don’t know and often aren’t interested in these things. We should talk about things which interest us!
  • Why do we have to read grammar explanations from the book? I can do this at home.
  • We should do much more speaking practise and correction in class. This is what I expect from a teacher because I can do everything else at home with a book or online.

It turns out that the teacher I was covering for was the kind of teacher who walked into class, asked the students to turn to p47, do the exercises and then he would check the answers before moving onto the next exercise in the book.

money rope

As we say in English, teaching from the coursebook way is money for old rope – an easy way of making money. I’m not bashing teachers who use coursebooks – there are good economic and pedagogical reasons why they are a useful resource in the language classroom. But that is all they are, one of the many resources we can use to create stimulating lessons in the classroom but we need to adapt them to meet our learners’ needs.

Think about how to use them effectively to maximise classroom learning opportunities.

 Your students are the best resource in class, not the coursebooks.

Let me know what you think. Is there ever a case for systematically following coursebooks in class? How do your students react when you move away from the coursebook?



I'm a teacher trainer doing lots of different things in Granada, Spain and back in the UK. I've been a Course Director on Trinity TESOL programmes, worked as an EAP tutor at universities in the UK, spent a couple of years as a DoS at a wonderful school in London, and have also dabbled in online teaching, course creation, blogging and materials development.

4 thoughts on “7 Deadly Sins of TEFL: Teaching the coursebook not the learners

  1. I read this blog and was inspired. I had a similar situation yesterday when teaching an Upper-Intermediate adult class. One of my students said that he hated the course book and wished we didn’t have to use it. Another student said that she loved the book. I decided to use this teaching idea and split the group into 2. Group A had to sell the book to me as a manager of a school and group B had to oppose this and say why i should not buy the book. I was able to find out exactly what the students thought and that they would prefer more conversation in class but that they wanted this to be based around the topics in the book. I also found out that they would prefer to have a main grammar point at the start of the lesson relating to the tenses they would then be using. They also told me that they would like music to be part of the lessons so that they can listen for gist and for detail. It was a fantastic speaking point and lasted 30 minutes and allowed me to re-think the way i teach using the book and to tailor my lessons in a way that allows my students to get the best from their class and from me. Thank you kindly….it was a real eye opener!!

    1. Hi Esme,

      Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you liked the post. I think we forget that every group of students is different and we may have to experiment with different teaching strategies before we find the right balance.

      Music is an interesting idea – I like to use instrumental music for mingling and role-play activities as students often relax and don’t feel they are being overheard. Music is also great for encouraging quieter students to speak up.

  2. Hi Dylan!

    I think you’ve raised some important points here, and I think your students raised what is possibly the most important of them all when she said “Why do I want to read Madonna?!”The fact is textbooks are written to be universally appealing (to sell as many copies as possible) and in doing so they are often not appealing to anyone. It is often hard for students to really connect to a textbook.

    I think it was a Ken Wilson workshop I was in when he questioned why give the students famous characters to read about, after all they already know about David Beckham (or in this case Madonna), why not have them create the characters from THEIR imaginations? I think this is the point textbooks just don’t get, and this is why we can’t just open a page and complete activity 1. I suppose I see a textbook as a tool, or a guide, but not a lesson, after all we teach the students not the lesson.

    Thanks for the stimulative post.


    p.s I replied to your comment on gaining feedback over on AlienTeachers, Sorry for the delay in responding.

    p.s.s do you use twitter?

    1. Hi Alex,

      Thanks for commenting on the post. I like your point about getting students to create characters from their imagination which is why I often use a stack of portrait photos to help them create characters.

      I’ll be sorting out my twitter account in the next few days then I’ll put it on my homepage.



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