How to Deal with Terrible ESL Textbooks

For most ESL teachers, the textbooks we use in the classroom are chosen by someone else – maybe a head teacher or school administrator. We seldom get a say in the matter. The textbook industry is big business, and unfortunately quality isn’t always ensured. Sometimes you stuck with a terrible textbook and there’s nothing you can do. Whining about it won’t help. You’ll just end up looking unprofessional in front of your colleagues, and you might even put your students off learning.

So how do you deal with terrible ESL textbooks? In today’s article, I’ll outline some ideas that may help you design better classes in spite of sub-par materials.

(Oh, and before we begin, here’s a list of textbooks for IELTS that really don’t suck.)

Use the Textbook as a Guide, and Ignore Most of the Content

Most ESL textbooks are put together by experts. Let’s face it, even the ones we hate have some value. We can’t entirely dismiss them. Instead of throwing them away, we can learn to be selective with what we use. The framework should, more than likely, be solid and reliable. So if the content (listening and reading passages, for example) lacks in interest or quality, then substitute it with something better.

Chances are a textbook will follow a pretty predictable pattern – bringing students from one grammatical point to the next while grouping vocabulary around particular topics, and supplementing all that with related listening and reading parts. If the book is lacking in some way, it is your job as a teacher to make up for it… but you can still stick with the framework of the book. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

This is easier said that than done, of course. We all know that a teacher’s evenings can be taken up by huge amounts of lesson planning… But having those extra materials to replace the book’s weak points can result in vastly better classes. This works well with a book that is only lacking in some ways; if you need to replace everything, it can be a bit exhausting.

Every class is different, of course, and sometimes you find that a book that may work with one group of students may not work with another. I have this problem right now. I have a group of 50 students to whom I’m meant to teacher oral English! (Can you imagine?!) The textbook presents certain speaking activities, but they are of absolutely no interest to my students, who much prefer to sleep or stare at their phones. I have no choice but to supplement the book with my own activities, which I know will pique their interest and get things moving.

Get to Know the Local Printers

Unfortunately, if your textbook is deficient in terms of reading material (and other stuff), you’ll probably have to spend a lot of time at the local print shop – or, if you’re lucky, in the school print room. This can be a tiresome and even expensive (if your school won’t reimburse you) process, but it’s well worth it.

Handouts are super important in ESL teaching. For one thing, they give your students something to take home with them and learn from if they are for some reason (read: lazy) unable to make notes from a PPT or whiteboard. They can also be easier to work from, and helpful in facilitating group work.

At my job, there are no school printers and I need to spend time at the local print shop. It’s a huge pain for me because their machine is slow and inaccurate. It costs me a lot of money and takes up time I can ill afford… but I honestly think it is essential. Sometimes you have the option of a boring text in a book or a fascinating one that you print yourself. If you take yourself seriously as a teacher, you have to go for the latter option.

Get Interactive by Going Online

So the textbook is too difficult or boring or otherwise inappropriate for your class… Well, take that as your cue to go online and find something better. Fortunately for the teachers of the 21st century, the internet is just a click away (or a tap, if you’re on a mobile device).

Let’s say the book has a chapter on technology but it’s dry and boring and outdated. Fear not! Get online and check out some more up-to-date resources. For a start, head to YouTube and find some good videos. Find a TED talk for your students. Look at Google News for some recent articles. Use pictures and audio and interactive PPTs and all sorts of cool stuff…

WE ARE LIVING IN THE FUTURE, AFTER ALL!!!

In the end, a little bit of work will yield a far better lesson than simply opening the textbook and saying “Ok… now do exercise 1… then exercise 2…”

Students learn best when they are interested and challenged, and your lack of textbook may be just what you need to bring a more interesting, hi-tech lesson into the classroom.

Get Other Teachers’ Ideas

Maybe you are new to teaching or feeling a little lost. Maybe inspiration just isn’t striking at the moment. Well, don’t worry. Go out and ask some other teachers what to do. Try your co-workers, or other teaching friends. Ask your boss, if they’re friendly enough.

If none of that works, hit up Google once again:

  • how to teach the passive voice
  • passive voice esl lesson ideas
  • speaking activities for passive voice

All of those are perfect Google search ideas. Try them out, and modify them for whatever you actually need to teach. Check out websites like BreakingNewEnglish and TeachersPayTeachers. I really love the first of those two sites, and use it quite often in my lessons. I just go to an interesting new or relevant topic, and pick what best suits my class.

Conclusion

A textbook makes life easier for an ESL teacher, but it’s not always the best thing… For one thing, it can be boring and repetitive. I guess that being handed a terrible textbook is actually a blessing in disguise, sometimes. It can force your hand in making you a more creative, innovative teacher. It might just encourage you to discuss new ideas for lessons and materials, and give your students something they never would have had going through a boring old book. If you found this page by Googling “terrible textbook” or something like that, hopefully I have helped you figure out some ways to improve life for yourself and your students, and to break the hold that these books have over all of us.

Head Teacher
I'm the founder and editor of Beatdom Literary Journal, author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. I'm also a teacher and operate the popular website, TED-IELTS.

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