A Day in the Life of a Coursebook: lesson aims

Currently, I am doing the International House Certificate in Advance Methodology (short: IH CAM). It’s generally seen as a stepping-stone towards Delta Module 1.

It’s one of the heavier modules and it looks at the learners in terms of their ‘needs’ and ‘learning styles’. In short, it’s about how to establish what the learners need to learn and which approaches would best achieve this. What should follow would logically be a curriculum personalised to the group in question.

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For the vast majority of ELT workers, the situation above is a beautiful dream that isn’t going to happen any time soon, as curricula are very often provided by schools. Although you may be allowed to diverge from the curriculum here and there, generally speaking you need to follow it.

So, by following the prescribed curriculum, which more often than not is the contents page of a course book, that should mean you’re doing your job correctly, possibly even well.

However, unfortunately in most cases, looking at a double-page spread of a course book and ‘figuring out’ how you will deliver it does not equate to a successful lesson.

Very often two sequential pages of a course book will amalgamate a plethora of unrelated topics, e.g. the present perfect, a listening about the future and a vocabulary exercise on phrasal verbs with ‘make’.

I’ve observed a lot of teachers who have the right pedagogic skills to deliver the items above through very effective methods. I’ve seen them use wonderful worksheets which ‘guide’ the learners to ‘discovering’ the present perfect; amusing anecdotes to pre-teach even the most obscure blocking vocabulary before listening; testing the meaning of the phrasal verbs, teaching the unknown ones, and then re-testing the learners again through student-centred games.

Such lessons tick so many boxes: student-centred learning, minimal Teacher Talking Time and great CCQ’s.

Yet, in the feedback sessions an awkward silence falls when I ask: what were the main and subsidiary aims of the lesson? Most teachers know very well the answer isn’t the three items above. Some will even be naïve enough to answer, “the aim is to get through the two pages of the book.”

Lessons and courses must have clear linguistic and communicative aims. The aim cannot be to get through the next two pages. Why? Because that means you’re letting your materials drive your lessons and not your aims driving your materials.

Lesson time must be geared towards helping the learners to come one step closer to mastering a particular language point; otherwise, they’re simply wasting their money.

Open your course book at the next unit. Take a look through it and establish what new grammar, vocabulary and functional language the unit is aiming to get through. These are your aims for this unit.

How you go about achieving this aims is down to you. By all means, use the exercises provided in the course book but as you plan ask yourself: how does this activity help the learners reach the aim?

If your final aim is for the learners to use the present perfect (linguistic aim) while talking about their experiences (communicative aim), e.g. I’ve been to Paris four times, then make sure you break the lesson down into small steps which gradually lead towards achieving this aim.

For example, once you’ve built interest, you’ll need to establish the context. Your course book might do that very well by providing a text which clearly puts the reader in the appropriate context so that the meaning of the target language is clear. That’s great news because it means the language work can follow the text!

However, what if the text doesn’t really do that? Well, instead you could build your own context, elicit the form, check they understand the use and drill the pronunciation, then you could think about using an exercise from the book which gets them to practise the language in a controlled way. However, the controlled practice exercise in the book might relate strongly to the text, so you’ll need to drop it and find another exercise or create your own.

Most pre-service courses will teach you to do the text first and then move onto the grammar. Indeed the course book is probably set out like that. However, flipping the procedure by covering the grammar first, the learners should be in a better place to understand the text.

So, you’ve covered the grammar, pre-taught some blocking vocabulary, completed gist and detailed reading, now what? Well, if we’re going to achieve at least part of our aim, then we need to get the learners producing the target language.

At this stage you could now completely drop the course book and look at doing an in-class survey with 8 questions all starting with ‘Have you ever…?’ This will get the learners producing questions and answering them, which will require them to produce the language in a freer way, they’ll have to manipulate verbs in the 3rd form and they’ll have an opportunity to practise their pronunciation while moving around the classroom posing questions to their peers.

Of course, the book might provide a wonderful production task. The important thing is to look at that task and always question: how does it help us to achieve our aims?

By the end of the lesson you might have only used a third of the double-page spread. Is that a problem? Of course not! What is important are the aims and whether they have been achieved or not. As long as you have achieved them, then those few parts of the book you did use will have served the lesson very effectively.

Above all, the lesson will have been driven by its aims, not the materials, and the learners will have come one step closer to mastering the target language.

12 thoughts on “A Day in the Life of a Coursebook: lesson aims

  1. I am trying to resume English teaching after a long career break and have found this blog very refreshing-plenty of food for thought before tomorrow’s job interview…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Emma! Thank you for the comment. That’s very true! Coursebooks often don’t match up to all our learners need. On my advanced methodology course we looked at needs analysis. With my courses starting in September I’m definitely going to do a needs analysis and true to match it up with the coursebook as much as possible and then fill in the gaps with other materials.

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      1. Sounds like a great plan! One of my favourite conference presenters, Elspeth Pollock, suggests getting the students to do a fairly regular analysis of what they’re good at and what they need, etc. I’ve tried to implement that this year (could perhaps have tried harder!) and i think its a good way for them to see how their own learning is progressing, and how they are leading their progress rather than the course book. Now that I think about it, this might be a good time for some of my students to think about what they need and how the course book can help them before their FCE exams!

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        1. That’s a really good piece of advice. I enjoy getting my learners to recap on what they’ve learnt periodically in the course (check out this blog entry I dedicated to that, the video on the blog include different ideas: https://ashowski.wordpress.com/2014/05/04/reviewing-and-demonstrating-learners-progress/) Something I don’t think I mentioned in there was I also get the learners to draw Bar Charts of confidence on different areas. Then sometime after that they do a test which includes those areas and then they compare their results to the bar charts. The result very often tends to be they underestimated their abilities 🙂

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  2. The lesson aim formula for a PPP lesson as enforced by a previous DOS: “By the end of the lesson, students will be able to [complete a real-world task] by using [the target language], so that in [the final production activity] they can [fulfil the engaging aim of the final activity]”.

    Eg. “By the end of the lesson, students will be able to give suggestions for activities by using modals such as “should, could” (and their negatives) so that when presenting their poster on what to do on their space station they can win the popular vote of the other students”.

    It’s long-winded, but it really helps me focus on getting something actually communicative out of the lesson.

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    1. I like it! Does this have an acronym? I think it’s a great formula for putting all the aims into a single sentence. All you have to do once you’ve established it is figure out how you’ll go about achieving it.

      I think ill use this with my next lesson 🙂 thanks Richard!

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