Textbook optional: What happens when you write your own material?

This morning I learned that Japanese parents invoke a demon named Oni to scare their children into eating their vegetables. I also heard about coconut man who became the husband of the most beautiful girl in the village. My students also talked about the role of angels in giving people hope. Then we discussed a version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that indirectly comments on what happens when people refuse to accept science. (Hint: Ichabod Crane, the educated intellectual loses against the local farm boy.)

The time zoomed by (pun intended – we were on Zoom :-)! The students were engaged, interested in what their classmates brought the discussion and eager to share. They practiced using the language they’d spent years acquiring in new and creative ways. They searched for words. (Sometimes I provided them, e.g., mischievious elves. They self corrected their grammar, and I took notes for later feedback. My sense at the end was that they were exercising language skills by engaging in a long and intellectually fruitful conversation. They were using English in a sheltered environment, but one that resembled the real world.

Stories like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or The Cocoanut Man are not just fun Halloween tangents, but sources of cultural knowledge and messages. They allow a community to explore what can happen as a consequence of a person’s decision or hold up a model of good behavior. The more students talked about the messages in legends about magical creatures, the more interesting the conversation got. I can’t help saying, however, that I doubt that this would have been possible if we had continued to use the book that had previously been assigned to the course.

If we were still using that textbook, we would have been erratically jumping from an obscure pronunciation point to a single verb tense practice, to a vocabulary list of words that the students mostly know to a task where they fill in a chart.

Then they’d report on the chart. Mission accomplished.

We’ve both taught many classes like that. They felt like adequate teaching, but something was wrong. The lesson just didn’t come to life. Most of all, it didn’t reflect the goals we’d had when we began teaching English to people from diverse backgrounds in the first place.

We are not against coursebooks, vocabulary lists or charts. W’ve both worked on many, and we enjoy writing and using them, at least parts of them. However, a coursebook can’t know the local context, can’t know what the teacher brings to the classroom or identify students’ specific needs. They don’t respond quickly to current events and are unlikely to have the language and information that would help learners negotiate meaning around pandemics, Black Lives Matter, or share religious beliefs about concepts like angels or reincarnation. My students are interested in all those topics and I believe they like learning what one another has to say.

Coursebooks are mostly designed not to offend anyone. If you haven’t heard of PARSNIP, it stands for all the things that publishers of ELT materials must avoid. It includes alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (communism for example) and pork. My colleagues can tell many stories of readings that were cut because of PARSNIP or just general concern. Some other outlawed topics have included HIV – sex!, hurricanes – might upset students, and even yoga – too cultish. Relationships in books are very traditional if they appear at all. Divorce doesn’t happen in much of the English language landscape, and no family ever has same-sex parents. (Maybe that’s changing? Let us know!)

So, while many teachers are rightly grateful for a coursebook with its comprehensive curriculum (test banks! videos!) and leveled content, there are also many teachers who would like to take a chance and maybe design their own module or course. When this happens, it can be a little scary, but as my experience this morning reminded me, wonderful things can happen.

This is especially true in an online world where much of what teachers used to do can now be done with software. Quizlet, fillable pdfs, instant feedback quizzes, and other activities can help give students drills and practice with rules and words, which means certain elements of traditional teaching and activities in coursebooks no longer need human oversight. Such formats dimish the teacher’s role (and future job prospects), but they might do the opposite. The could free us to intersect with students’ developing fluency. What students do seem to want and even need from us is a chance to participate in a community where interaction is leveled and sequenced so that they can have meaningful dialog and upgrade skills.

If there is rich content, and we have interesting critical thinking tasks, then the online space, together or in breakout rooms provides opportunities to process information, make new meanings and scale up language work to meet those communicative objectives.

So how do you get started?


You can use material from a fluency reader to supplement your coursebook. The advantage is that when students are reading extensively, the information is immediately accessible for conversation and projects. Students already know most of the words, so you can quickly move into discussion and proccessing tasks. For example, I have had students read a story about a thrill seeking friend who convinces his cautious buddy to go camping in the snow. Then I ask them to talk about which friend they identify with, the risk taker or the risk averse one. We also read a graded article about teens and risk. This material tends to spark memores and fuel a discussion of how risk-taking can be an important part of growing up. Best of all, in my multi-cultural classroom, they get to hear stories from Vietnam, Ghana, Cuba, Colombia, and other cultures. They also hear world English, the accents of other nonnative users with whom they’ll be just as likely to speak as with native speakers.


You can also adapt material that interests you or you think is worth bringing into the classroom. There are too many sources to list here, but the thing to remember is that you can use copyrighted material once a year. When adapting, make sure you make a note of it, and honor the original intentions of the author. Posting a link at the end is good manners as it attracts people to the author or publication where the piece first appeared.

The same applies to art. A photo or illustration enlivens the experience, especially when you are sharing a document online. We use Pixabay for free downloadable photos and art, and we also just use personal photos of public places and scenes that we gather when we are traveling. We’ve even been known to have our kids pose for us! (If you can’t think of anything, and you are in a hurry, just use that picture of a seagull that you took at IATEFL in Liverpool a couple of years ago.


You can also write your own material. And here’s how we do it. When someone writes a non-fiction book, they often promote it. This means they go on talk shows, do radio interviews, and, frequently, a TED talk. They may also write opinion pieces in newspapers. When this information appears in several sources, then it’s okay to use it in your own writing as long as you give credit to the source and honor the original intent. (Imagine you are helping the author promote their work.)

For a big story such as the U.S. football player Colin Kaepernik’s decision to take a knee during the national anthem, you can do the same. Gather facts that appear in many places, and if you want to use exact words from a source, do what other writers do and embed the source in your text (journalism style). According to a 2018 article in the Guardian . . . Then include the link in a list of sources at the end. (In fact, as we become more aware of the need to investigate sources of information, it’s increasingly important not to hide where we get our facts and quotes.)

Sometimes it’s possible to be inclusive without having to put an issue front and center. In many videos and articles about marriage and family, there are diverse families that can spark dialog and sharing. I gave my students a text that included paragraphs on cohousing communities, the nuclear family, a family with same-sex parents, a blended family of divorced parents, and a traditional extended family. In a follow up discussion, students shared accounts of situations where brothers turned out to be half-brothers or a sister was adopted and no one knew until they were adults. It was interesting, personal, and a path to new vocabulary and expressions such as a skeleton in the closet, coming out, lack of privacy, in your face, and out of the closet.

Next, write your article in fairly simple sentences, being mindful not to use a lot of idiomatic or figurative language unless you plan to teach it. For intermediate levels, we avoid adjective clauses and passive voice. We keep the paragraphs fairly short, and we use signal words to mark shifts in focus.

You can then enter the text into a profiler such as Lextutor. It will tell you what percentage of your words are in the most frequent one thousand, two thousand, or higher bands of words. You can look at the general service list or the academic word list, and you can find out how many word families are in your text. (This was very helpful in the development of the Big Ideas fluency reader series published by Wayzgoose Press where each level has a set number of word families, giving students repeated iterations of key words.)

Once you see the results of your vocabulary profile, you can make adjustments to your text and decide which words to replace, to teach or perhaps to use more often.

The same can be true of a video you want to make, whether you are talking over a powerpoint or have the camera on. (Just make sure that you don’t make slides too busy! (New slides are free! You can have as many as you want for the same price.)

Next, consider what skills your content wants to teach. Does it lend itself to making inferences? Or does it do a good job of showing a causal chain? This is your chance to use the text structure or content to level up students skills in a way that also keeps them engaged. For example, the antivaxer story that I use mentions conspiracy theories and how they spread in close-knit communities. Students can apply the information by reading about other conspiracies and seeing if they follow the same pattern.

You can also get creative if your program allows it, and you can still meet your language outcomes. I’ve had the most rewarding experiences ever in teaching a theater class. Alphabet Publishing has published several short plays for language learners that gives me a starting point (One set has additional curriculum, another is individual scripts, and a third is adapted Shakespeare classics).

In the theater class, students do background readings, produce the play (rehearsals involve a lot of relevant pronunciation work), play theater games, discuss pragmatics and prosody (implicit messages in speech and body lanugage). Then they perform the play for family and friends. In the second part of the class, they use what they’ve learned about character, plot, and pronunciation to collaborate, write and perform their own short plays. Here are a few topics we’ve explored through both the published plays and the students’ own ideas.

Is it wrong for a teenager to risk his life to help save people in a flood?

Should we reject or try to understand boys’ love of computer games?

Can technology replace human relationships?

How does a wilderness adventure shape a person’s sense of themselves?

Can the birth of a child save a marriage?

Plays and scripts can still work online, and in a virtual class, they can be mined for the pragmatic information that reveals choices that characters make in pursuit of goals. (E.g., Do you apologize that way? Does it work for the character? Might there be a different way to say you are sorry? How is this situation different from or similar to what you would do?)

Theater, however, is not the only break out direction you can go. I know some colleagues in California who are doing interesting things with other art forms. At Berkely, teachers have designed curriculm around the linguistic landscape, which is basically the language on the streets in posters, signs, and other public spaces. Students can make documentaries, or do anthropological fieldwork as assignments.

I also heard about a whole curriculum designed around the sustainable food movement in which students went on a field trip to visit to a farmer’s market. This sort of thing is common in IEPs, but it’s nice when there is rich langage content leading up to the excursion. In the sustainable food curriculum, the teacher prepared readings and discussions that employed vocabulary and multi-word units for discussing agriculture, food, cooking and health, which provided students with the ability to easily talk about food and eating in the real world. Likewise, a course around the linguistic landscape in the current era might help them gain proficiency in talking about Black Lives Matter. (Of course in an EFL context, the linguistic landscape could be Internet-based, but equally exploratory.)

There is much extra work in designing your own module or course, but there are many reasons why it is worth doing. There are also support resources that don’t threaten to overwhelm your class time yet can give you ideas and bits of content. This is why we recommend looking at the smaller publishers’ teacher resource materials such as the ones we highlighted above. (They also need our support!)

If you give yourself permission to experiment and explore, to not be perfect the first time, and to provide opportunities for your students to really connect with the content, you may get back in touch with the reasons why you went into this field in the first place.

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