10 ways to use course books and encourage learner autonomy

Whatever you might think about using course books in class, most teachers in most teaching contexts are obliged – or strongly encouraged – to use them. In fact, I imagine most of you have succumbed to the temptation of starting a class by saying:

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Your learners may well be comfortable with this approach. However, after a while, many of them will start to wonder why they are paying for classes when they could be doing most of the exercises at home.

Simply following exercises from a course book generally results in ineffective teaching.

Course books, no matter how good they are, have been written for the average group of learners and your group of learners have their own unique learning differences, interests, needs and objectives.

Teachers can certainly benefit from using good course books as they have a progressive syllabus, clear learning aims and objectives and lots of well-designed activities and exercises.

But, the fact remains that our learners have their own needs and interests and want to have some input into what and how they are learning.

One way to meet the challenge of following a course book and responding to the needs of your learners is to adopt a restricted negotiated syllabus approach and give them some responsibility for how the course books are used inside and outside class.

Here are 10 ideas to encourage learners to take control of the course book.

  1. Let your learners choose their course book. Bring in a selection at the beginning of the course or let them do online research. Then, they can share their opinions in small groups before coming to a class decision about which one is best suited to meet their learning needs.

  2. Ask your learners to define their learning needs and then let them refer to the contents page of the course book and decide upon a programme for meeting these needs. This could be done as an individual activity first. Then, they could compare their needs in small groups before deciding as a class.

  3. Refer to the contents page and let your learners decide which of the topics they want to study in class. They could also rate the topics in order of importance which means that you could decide how much time you want to spend on each one.

  4. Refer to the contents page and let your learners decide which grammar items they feel they need to focus on. This should probably be done in conjunction with a grammar diagnostic test so you can focus on real needs and not just perceived ones.

  5. Let your learners choose which activities or exercises they can do for homework. Many reading texts and controlled practice activities do not need to be done in class time. Many reading texts are preceded by several discussion questions to activate interest in the topic. Why not do these discussion tasks at the end of your class and then assign the reading texts for homework? Flip the classroom!

  6. Many of the reading / listening texts and controlled practice activities (gap-fills, sentence transformations) are not culturally relevant for the learners so elicit examples which are relevant to the students’ lives.  For example, I found short reading texts about a dead British author and a living British author designed to differentiate the Past Perfect and the Past Simple in one course book which could easily be replaced by eliciting information about authors from the learners’ own countries.

  7. Encourage your learners to create their own speaking /writing activities based on what they have been studying. Many of the ‘activation tasks’ in course books are simple discussion or problem-solving tasks and I have found learners to be more than capable of designing similar tasks which are based around their own needs and experiences.

  8. Rather than teach grammar items yourself, why not ask the learners to research particular grammar items  in small groups and prepare live or video/audio presentations (they can use the reference materials in the course book as the basis for their own presentations)? These small groups could present particular aspects of the grammar item or a different group could be asked to create a presentation at regular intervals throughout the course.

  9. Rather than create progress tests yourself or use those provided in the teacher’s book, you could ask groups of learners to refer to the units studied in the course book and create tests for their classmates.

  10. Ask your learners to create their own comprehension questions for reading texts. They could create questions related  elements of the text they found challenging. Again, they could even do the reading at home and then test each other in class.

There are many other ways we could encourage learner autonomy by giving our students some level of control over the course books we use. I’d love to hear some of your ideas.