HomeGrammar, Vocabulary, & PronunciationBring your ELT coursebook to life!

Bring your ELT coursebook to life!




Students with a textbook in the parkKolos Esztergályos, an Oxford ELT Consultant based in Hungary, gives his tips for how to breathe new life into your ELT coursebooks.

Most teachers would agree that no matter how attractive an ELT coursebook might look, its real strengths and hidden weaknesses will unfold only in action, that is, in actual classroom use. And then, it’s not long before teachers start saying things like “Oh, that text didn’t go down particularly well with my students” or “My group couldn’t care less about pop stars”. With the new academic year looming ahead, it looks like a good time to start thinking about your new classes, your present coursebook, and how to match the two by tweaking some elements to your and your students’ tastes.

Generation gap 1: You know the movie star? Chances are, your students won’t

You have a charming Pierce Brosnan smiling at you next to a reading text about James Bond movies. You might find that your students will have a different idea of a heart-throb. With today’s online resources it’s only a matter of a few clicks to revive the personality and put them into a present-day context through Wikipedia or IMDb facts and links. Start off with a topical bit of information or a recent photograph that can spark a discussion about a life event, a controversial topic, or the social issues a celebrity is likely to stand up for. With less advanced groups you can use the photos only: in pairs, one student describes the person in the photo from years ago, the other will do the same with a more recent one. Later, they will show their pictures to each other and find out that they have been describing the same person – with a lot of differences!

There are many various possibilities, but the main thing is to find a way to relate the person to your students’ present reality.

Generation gap 2: You can’t relate to a topic

You’ve never followed the Premier League events. You can’t see how designer brands make a difference. Your worst idea of a holiday is couchsurfing.

It’s very likely that your students will be experts on the topic, so the best thing is to own up. Argue that you don’t see why brands / clothes / having the latest gadgets / etc. are important. You’re sure to instigate a wild classroom debate, especially with the 14-18 age group.

Tom, Dick and Harry

By the very nature of coursebooks, exercises are often riddled with general, “faceless” names. You might want to try and add a little flavour by replacing these with the students in your group. “What time does Ivan get up?” will have a totally new interpretation if Ivan is the regular latecomer in your group! “What would Mr (eg. history teacher) say if he found out that you had copied your homework?” will also shed a new light on typical questions. But even without direct references, any mechanical exercise will benefit from turning fictitious names into flesh-and-blood people. Of course, it is your responsibility to avoid sensitive issues and to maintain the integrity of all people involved.

 “C, final answer”

Multiple choice tasks are prevalent in any ELT material, obviously, for good reasons. But don’t forget that any classic MC task can be turned into a ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ quiz item to involve groups of students and to increase motivation. There are some great online tools to create your own quiz show. You will have to introduce “cat mode” (ie. multiple lives) if you want to play it with more students or groups of students simultaneously; all students or groups will mark an answer, but those who get it wrong can also play on with a life lost, or, alternatively, by earning no points/”money” for that round. Even more engaging if played with toy money, where culturally acceptable.

Video killed the radio star

ELT materials today tend to cater for the fact that students are brought up in a multi-sensory environment. As a result, these materials make use of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic channels to accommodate different learner types and to make content more memorable. This, in turn, allows us to transform material by “switching off” channels to leave more to the imagination. If you have a listening text, first use the transcript only to let students make guesses about the age, sex, occupation, etc. of the characters. If you have a video, use the audio only and get students to make the same inferences. This may sound time-consuming but will help students focus on the linguistic material to make judgements and to work with the text more intensively.

My test, my learning

It is indeed very appealing and time-saving to print off a ready-made test, but you can make students part of the whole learning process by involving them in test design. Use your review lesson to get groups of learners to write tasks for an ideal test they would be happy to take. This will make them go through the material covered and they will be likely to use the task types found in the coursebook. Collate and correct the tasks, go through some of the items together. The remainder will give you the basis of a test, ideally to be used as it is. When compiling the actual test, give students credit for an extra morale booster. I’ve found that this works especially well with students who need extra support.

Naturally, this is a list of recommendations only, but I hope that these ideas will give you enough inspiration to look forward to a new academic year!


  1. Great post, thanks for the insights. By using some simple technologies course books and supplementary resources could be re-imagined all the time and personalised for teachers and learners everyday. And these would save considerable amounts of time for the teacher as well as provide more personalised and richer content for the learner.
    It’s going to be interesting to see how publishers, like OUP, respond to teachers needing more flexible resources as their digitally literate students demand smarter in and out of class resources.

  2. Hi Sophie, thanks a lot for your comments. I agree that all these have very serious implications on course book design and materials design. Form and content go hand in hand. Nevertheless, no two teaching situations are ever the same, so teachers will never be able to spare the role of an intermediary who brings course books to life.

  3. Thanks for the ideas.

    I would like to add something here. Students in my context find reading and listening tasks not very interesting. This may be so with some of you too. The comprehension tasks can be made fun through Running Questions. Your learners might be more engaged and motivated to read or listen.

  4. Thank you very much for the helpful ideas. I usually find relevant teaching materials memorable among my students. By the way I am pleased to see a comment from Christina Latham-Koenig, you have done a great job in the New English File although I still need to adapt my students’ needs.

    • Thanks, Wayan! In my article I didn’t mean to suggest that using these techniques or ideas means that you have a poorly written coursebook. These features are not shortcomings of the material, rather, they are there by the very nature of coursebooks. These are just opportunities to exploit. Again, I don’t think you could ever spare the trouble of making even the “best” material relevant to your students, and this by no means is to indicate the quality of the material.

    • Thanks for your comment and the suggestion. Luckily, teacher support has been gaining more attention and you can find a wealth of tips and ideas in recent OUP teacher’s books or at the Oxford Teachers’ Club. But maybe we can help these ideas grow into a bigger collection on its own.

  5. What an excellent read! The last section in particularly is something that never occurred to me. Great insights!

    • Thanks, Mark! I used the last bit with students who really needed support and were very thankful for every little effort, so it was easy to gradually establish a good working environment. Some of them would not do any revision at home, so it seemed to solve that problem. Of course they got tested in the ordinary way as well, these were just “candies” 2-3 times a year.

  6. Hey,
    great article, thanks for it.
    I’d like to ask what those ‘Running Questions’ are. It sounds fascinating to me.

    • Thanks, János, glad you liked it.
      Actually, it seems I was a bit superficial with Running Questions, as I had “Running dictation” in mind and I assumed it was the same activity. (With Running dictation, you cut up a text into sentences and put the slips of paper on the wall randomly. Students play in groups, each group has their own “scribe”. Other group members run up to the wall, read and memorise the sentence, then run back to the scribe, who writes the sentences on a piece of paper. When they have all the sentences, they have to reconstruct the story together. An easier variation is when you have the whole story on each slip of paper around the classroom and the first “runner” from the group fetches the first sentence, the second one the second sentence, etc. This way they needn’t reconstruct the story, but you still have a very energising activity that also builds cooperation skills.)
      Most probably you can do the same with reading/listening comprehension questions, but we need Huma to confirm that.

      • Hi Kolos,

        Yes, it’s almost the same.
        For Running Questions…
        Put students into groups and ask them to think of a team name.
        Put the names up on the board.
        Each group chooses a runner.
        Students write question numbers in their notebooks.
        When the teacher says, ‘Go’, one runner from each team runs to the table/the chair that has the questions, takes one question slip and runs to her/his group.
        The group works together to locate the answer in the text and write it in their books.
        The slip is returned to the chair.
        This is repeated.
        When they hear, ‘Change’, they change the runner.
        The first group to finish shouts, ‘Ding!Ding!Ding!’
        Groups check their answers with each other.
        Teacher conducts whole class feedback.
        The group with the highest score is the winner.

        I hope this is helpful.


  7. Thanks for the ideas! My favourite one is the “Make your own test” activity. I’ll definitely try it. I’d also like to hear more about those “Running questions”. They sound like magic! Sometimes we need to be magicians to make students work. Maybe it could do the trick!

    • Thanks for the comment, Krisztina! Please see my reply to János for my idea of what Running questions are.
      I’d be interested to hear about your experience with the group-made test, so please share your story when you have the time.
      I absolutely agree: more than ever, the teacher needs to be a magician, an actor, a manager, and a lot of other things at the same time!

  8. Oh, one more thing…. only one coursebook should be used by each group. This is vital for groupwork.

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