Dissapointment on coursebooks

Which coursebook to use (if any)?

Some weeks ago I shared a post about the decision of using a coursebook (or not). If you haven’t read it yet, here is the link To use or not to use coursebooks? Suppose you have decided (or are compelled) to use a coursebook and you are free to decide which coursebook to use, or you have been using a coursebook for some time and you want to change it because it is out-of-date or you are just bored, what issues should you consider to make the best choice? There are thousands of coursebooks in the ELT market, which one will be the best fit for your students and your own teaching approach? Well, this post intends to help you in that choice.coursebook evaluation

If you have been teaching for some time, you probably know some of the coursebooks, especially those published by the most famous ELT editorials. Maybe some of your colleagues have recommended the ones they are most comfortable with (or the ones you should never consider!). Maybe, there are some limitations in the availability of some of the coursebooks and there are only certain books you and your students can access. Taking these considerations into account, choose two or three coursebooks to evaluate (of course you can evaluate as many coursebooks as you want, but the decision will be harder if you have to evaluate many options).

Remember that after choosing a coursebook and telling your students (and sometimes their parents) which one/ones they will need to buy, it will be troublesome to convince them later that they will have to buy another book (coursebooks are not cheap for some educational contexts) because the first one was a bad choice (your bad choice!). So, take time to evaluate your options so that you end up with the best coursebook.

Evaluation of ELT coursebooks

Tomlinson and Masuhara’s (2004:1) definition of materials evaluation is: “Materials evaluation involves measuring the value (or potential value) of a set of learning materials by making judgements about the effect of materials on people using it”.

Coursebook evaluation

Teachers interested in the evaluation of ELT materials can find many frameworks and criteria developed by researchers and coursebook authors (Byrd, 2004; Cunningsworth, 1995; Harmer, 2007; McGrath, 2002; Sheldon, 1988; Tomlinson & Masuhara, 2004; Williams, 1983). However, as McDonough, Shaw & Masuhara (2013: 52) state “(…) there does not seem as yet an agreed set of criteria or procedures for evaluation”.

In this post I will discuss two frameworks: McDonough, Shaw & Masuhara’s (2013) which attempts to provide a comprehensive framework which might be applied in the majority of ELT situations worldwide; and, Littlejohn’s (2011) framework which aims to evaluate the materials ‘as they are’, not the ‘materials-in-action’ (i.e. as the teacher thinks the material should be used).

1 Coursebook evaluation in two stages

McDonough, Shaw & Masuhara (2013) examine materials in two stages: an external evaluation (cover, introduction, table of contents) and a more detailed internal evaluation.

The external evaluation(…) aims at examining the organization of the material as stated explicitly by the author/publisher by looking at: the ‘blurb’, or the claims made on the cover of the d/students’ book, and the introduction and table of contents” (op. cit.: 54). To achieve this the  following information should be gathered (op. cit.: 55-58): How to evaluate coursebooks

  • target audience
  • the proficiency level
  • the context in which the material will be used
  • how the language is organized into units, modules, etc.
  • the authors’ views on language, methodology and the relationship between the language, the language process and the learner
  • whether the material will be used as the ‘core’ course
  • whether  it is locally available
  • visuals, layout and presentation
  • presence of vocabulary lists or appendixes
  • cultural bias, representation of minority groups
  • the inclusion of digital materials (CDs, DVDs, downloadable materials), and the inclusion of a teacher’s book and tests

According to these authors, after this stage and having in mind the profile of the learners, we will have enough information to identify if the material is potentially appropriate and is worth a deeper inspection. 

The internal evaluation seeks to find information about:

  • the presentation of the skills (coverage, proportion, integration)
  • grading and sequencing (the type of progression, principle underlying progression, levels)
  • whether discourse skills are included
  • the ‘authenticity’ of the listening materials
  • the nature of interaction in oral dialogues (natural or artificial dialogues?)
  • the relationship of tests and activities to learners’ needs and the content of the book
  • suitability for different learning styles and access to self-study
  • the possibility of engagement for learners and teachers in terms of needs, goals, skills and beliefs.

Then, an overall evaluation can be made considering:How to evaluate coursebooks

  • the usability factor (possibility of integration to the syllabus)
  • the generalizability factor (whether the whole coursebook can be used or only a part of it)
  • based on the previous factor, the adaptability factor
  • the flexibility factor (how rigid is the sequencing and grading?).

However, these authors as well as Tomlinson (2004), state that the success or failure of a material can only be fully determined after a while and post-use evaluation.

2 Coursebook evaluation based on methodology and linguistic aspects

Littlejohn (2011) does not take into account the ‘superficial aspect’ of materials or their content, his framework focuses on the methodology and the linguistic nature of the coursebook.

The author identifies three levels of analysis: objective description, subjective description and subjective inference.

In level 1 ‘objective description’, we will find the information about: How to evaluate coursebooks

  • publication date
  • intended audience
  • type of material (general, specific, main course, etc.)
  • the amount of classroom time required and type of use (self-study, order, etc.)
  • published form, number of pages, use of colour
  • components (teacher’s book, student’s book, CDs, etc.)
  • the division into sections, access (indexes, detailed content, hyperlinks, etc.)
  • how the sections are distributed between teachers and students, length of sections and any pattern in them.

In the ‘subjective analysis’ in level 2, we analyse what teachers and learners will have to do in each task to test the claims made by the material (a task is defined by this author as any proposal made to students whose aim is bringing about the learning of the L2). For each task we need to identify:

  • the process, including turn-take (the learners’ role in classroom discourse),
  • focus: on meaning? form? or both?
  • mental operations: the mental processes required, like repetition, deducing, hypothesizing
  • type of classroom participation: alone? pair work? in groups?
  • and the content of the input and of the learners’ output (written or oral? individual sentences or discourse?), source (from the material? the teacher? or the students?) and nature (grammar explanation? fiction? or personal information?).

Based on the previous levels of analysis we can determine the aims of the material and the basis for the selection and sequencing, the following step is to identify the teacher’s and the learners’ roles implied in it. Finally, a conclusion about the material as a whole can be done (subjective inference).

Littlejohn proposes a further step which is to analyse the teachers/students/institutions situation and their expectations from the material to decide its rejection, adoption, adaptation or supplementation.

Material analysis

What aspect should you consider to evaluate the coursebook itself? Littlejohn summarizes them with the following image

Analysis of ELT materials Littlejohn 2011Aspects of an analysis of language teaching materials. (Taken from Littlejohn – 2011 p. 18).

With the analysis of the material and the analysis of your teaching context in mind, you might have enough information to reject, adopt, adapt, supplement or use the material with its pros and cons and discuss them with your students (it would be a great source of discussion at least).

Are you ready to evaluate a book? You can download the free PDF workbook How to evaluate coursebooks with both frameworks to apply right away and choose the one you feel most comfortable with.




LITTLEJOHN, A. 2011. The analysis of language teaching materials: Inside the Trojan Horse. In Materials Development in Language Teaching (2nd Edition). Cambridge University Press.
MCDONOUGH, J., SHAW, C., AND MASUHARA, H. 2013. Materials and Methods in ELT. A Teacher’s Guide (3rd edition). Wiley-Blackwell, UK.
Porject work

Project-based Learning

What is a project in an educational context? Can we work with projects in the same way we usually work? Is a project a longer version of a lesson? What are the advantages and the disadvantages of Project-based learning? Is it incompatible with traditional ways of evaluation? In this post, I intend to give answers to these questions acknowledging that more questions may come up from my writing.

Characteristics of project work

Project work is defined by Ribé and Vidal (1993: 5) as “(…) a full implementation of a second or a third generation task”, but it is longer and more complex than a task, it is a macro-task. It consists of micro-tasks that can be expanded or reduced according to the negotiation carried out between the teacher and the students. The steps, length, process and product are pre-planned by the teacher, “but not totally predetermined” (Idem).

Grant (n.d: 1) states that Project-based learning is an instructional method centred on the learner that allows in-depth investigation of a topic. Having more autonomy, students take more responsibility for their learning process (Tassinari, 1996; Wolk, 1994; Worthy, 2000 in op. cit.: 1); “(…) project-based learning and the construction of artifacts enable the expression of diversity in learners, such as interests, abilities and learning styles” (Grant, n.d.: 2).PBL

Project-based learning takes ideas from constructivism in which learning is seen as the construction of knowledge through interaction (Perkins, 1991; Piaget, 1969; Vygotsky, 1978 in op. cit.: 2), and constructionism (Harel & Papert, 1991; Kafai & Resnick, 1996 in op. cit.: 2) which takes the notion that people learn best when they construct an artifact that can be shared and reflected upon (ibid).

From a language learning point of view, project work requires comprehensible language input (Krashen), comprehensible language output (Swain), the process of content and language learning, negotiation of objectives, and self-access materials (Ribé & Vidal, 1993: 6-7).

Project work is also aligned with Widdowson’s notion of ‘authenticity’:  how the reader responds to a text (in Ball & Hockly, n.d.) See my post Reading in an L2: the idea of ‘Authentic Reading’  for more details on authenticity. From this perspective, a text may elicit an authentic response from the reader independently of its nature (i.e.: whether it is an original text in English or an adaptation of one).

Advantages and disadvantages of project work

Project work or Project-Based Learning (PBL) has many advantages such as,Porject work

  • enhancing learners’ autonomy
  • fostering motivation and engagement
  • developing language learning and skills
  • catering for individual differences
  • authentic use of the L2
  • developing problem-solving skills
  • enhancing cooperative learning
  • integrating content and language learning

However, some teachers may be overwhelmed by the changes necessary for its implementation. There are three main aspects of PBL that teachers and learners might find challenging:

  • classroom management changes radically
  • students and teachers need to undertake different roles and they might probably feel uncomfortable with that change.
  • students without experience in group work may have difficulties negotiating compromise (Johnson & Johnson, 1989; Socha & Socha, 1994 in Grant, n.d.: 9)

To overcome these problems, it is important to begin slowly, a short-term project about a topic students are familiar with might be a good choice (Grant, n.d.:9). Working with group dynamics before starting the project is advisable. Assessment should provide constructive and authentic feedback; to achieve that, the most appropriate assessment tools are rubrics, learning diaries or portfolios.

Evaluation of project work

In a project work, different types of assessment are needed to evaluate content, language, presentation, effort, attitude and cognitive development. Therefore, we will need both formative and summative assessment tools. Each aspect of the project can be evaluated from different points of view (Ribé & Vidal, 1993: 82). Common tools used in project work are, Project work

  • self-assessment
  • peer assessment checklists
  • questionnaires
  • learning diaries
  • rubrics
  • portfolios.

However, as teachers usually must fulfil institutional requirements too, traditional testing can be included in the project and integrated as another way of evaluating students’ progress.

Main elements of a project

  • Understanding the dynamic of a project.
  • Provide a context for the project (situation, audience)
  • Which problem/ questions should the project respond to?
  • Which is the final outcome?
  • How will the final outcome be evaluated?

Instrumental elements of a projectProject-based learning

  • How to divide the project into stages?
  • Division of roles
  • Content learning needs
  • Language learning needs
  • Resources needed
  • Estimated time of the project
  • Evaluation throughout the project  (assessment tools? schedule?)

Project-based learning into practice

In this section, you will see how I planned a project about a tourism blog for teenagers or young adult learners. The name of the project is Show the world why your city is worth visiting. A collaborative blog. 

Project-based learning

Cover of the project


Below, you will see the first two pages of the Teacher’s notes to show you how I included the main and some of the instrumental elements of a project into a teaching plan.

Tourism blog teacher's notes

Teacher’s notes p. 1

Tourism blog teacher's notes

Teacher’s notes p. 2

*If you want to get the rest of the Teacher’s notes and the students’ handout for this project, you can buy it at Teachers Pay Teachers

Have worked with projects? Which projects are you proud of? Would you add more advantages to Project-based learning? And more disadvantages? What have you learned from Project-based learning?

If you haven’t worked with projects yet, what prevents you from doing so? Do you think it is too time-consuming? Do you think it requires too much effort and skills from teachers? Can all learners benefit from project work?

Share your thoughts with us!




BALL, P. AND HOCKLY, N. (n.d.). Developing Language Skills in the Classroom. Funiber.

GRANT, M. (2002) “Getting a grip on project-based learning: theory, cases and recommendations” [online], Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal a service of NC State University, Raleigh, NC, Vol. 5(1). Available at https://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/win2002/514/project-based.pdf [Retrieved: 19th February 2016]

RIBÈ R. AND VIDAL, N. 1993. Project Work; Step by step. Heinemann. England.

To use or not to use coursebooks?

Reasons to/not to use coursebooksReasons to use or not to use coursebooks

It is difficult to imagine a classroom around the world without any kind of ELT material. The most traditional and wide-spread examples of these materials are coursebooks. As Hall (2013, online) states “Textbooks are the main source of teaching ideas and materials for many teachers around the world; indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine ELT without textbooks”. There are good reasons why many teachers use published coursebooks, amongst them:

  • They provide language input for learners.
  • Well-designed coursebooks can be motivating and provide a logical organization of content.
  • They offer a written record of what has been studied and allow students to review it later.
  • They reduce the amount of time needed for preparation.
  • In some L2 teaching contexts, the use of a given coursebook is compulsory.
  • Coursebooks are usually organized around an identifiable principle and follow clear patterns.
  • They are easily stored.

However, coursebooks have also received criticisms on the part of researchers and teachers. Sheldon (1988:237) cites Greenall’s concept of coursebook credibility gap referring to the “(…) potential conflicts of interest in their creation, commercial exploitation, public assessment, selection, and ultimate classroom use”. In short, there are contradictions between educational aims and financial viability.

Dissapointment on coursebooks

Following Sheldon (op. cit.), we can distinguish two levels of disappointment on coursebooks: on the level of design and on the level of theoretical premises. On the level of design, sometimes textbooks do not adequately describe the language level of the target learners (with terms like ‘beginner’, ‘starter’, ‘intermediate’); they have an inadequate handwriting to economize space in each page; there are omissions of course rationale; there are teacher’s books whose only value is their answer keys; the terminological looseness which makes it impossible to compare textbooks (op. cit.: 239); the presence of stereotyped images of English language users (focus on native speakers’ lives and language varieties) and the absence of images about poverty, disability, etc. In addition, as Hall (2013) adds, they may create a dependency culture in which the teacher just does what the textbook says. On the theoretical level, there may be a lack of cultural appropriacy; failure to recognize restrictions in many teaching situations; and, inconsistency with the pedagogical implications of current research on linguistic and language learning (Sheldon, 1988; Williams, 1983).

The criticisms mentioned above have important implications for those responsible for managing the learning processes, the teachers. Teachers have responded to these challenges in two main ways according to their training, experience and the teaching situation where they work: adapting materials or designing their own materials.

Materials adaptation

Littlejohn (2011) suggests that the following aspects of the target situation should be taken into account when adapting ELT materials:

  • the cultural context,
  • the educational institution,
  • the course aims, content, methodology and means of evaluation,
  • the teachers,
  • the learners.

Only after integrating this information with the material evaluation will teachers be in a position to decide if the material should be rejected, adopted, adapted or supplemented.

On the other hand, McDonough, Shaw & Masuhara (2013: 69) argue that the following principles should guide materials adaptation:

  • Personalizing,(…) increasing the relevance of content in relation to learners’ interests and their academic, educational or professional needs”.
  • Individualizing, addressing “(…) the learning styles both of individuals and of the members of a class working closely together”.
  • Localizing, taking “(…) into account the international geography of English language teaching”.
  • Modernizing, “(…) not all materials show familiarity with aspects of current English usage, sometimes to the point of being not only out of date or misleading but even incorrect”.

The authors distinguish the following techniques for adaptation: adding, including expanding and extending; deleting, including subtracting and abridging; modifying, including rewriting and restructuring; simplifying; and reordering (op. cit.: 70).

Materials writing

Materials writing should be guided by principles rooted in SLA research and successful teaching and learning practices. Richards (2005: 9-10) for example explains that the main underlying principles of contemporary versions of CLT to consider are:

  • L2 learning is facilitated when learners are engaged in meaningful interaction.
  • Students need to be given the opportunity to negotiate meaning and notice how language is used.
  • Content must be relevant, purposeful and interesting.
  • Communication is a holistic process involving the use of several skills.
  • L2 learning is facilitated by both inductive and deductive methods.
  • Language learning involves creative use of language and trial and error.
  • Learners progress at different rates and through different routes.
  • Learning involves the use of learning strategies and communication strategies.
  • The role of the teacher is that of a facilitator.
  • The classroom is a community where learners learn through collaboration.

Therefore, he notes that “The challenge for material writers is to turn these principles into lesson plans and teaching materials”

Teaching materials

(op. cit.: 10) and adds that principles derived from research might not be adequate to all educational contexts, in such cases a situation analysis is necessary based on teachers’ expertise and their knowledge of students.

With regards to the authenticity of classroom materials, the author recognizes some issues that make real-world sources inadequate for some educational contexts:

  • When the students´ level of English is not advanced.
  • In the real world, most people already know how to read and write in their L1 but L2 learners are just starting to learn the new language.
  • Authentic oral exchanges are full of unclarity and non-specificity and they usually have little relevance to anyone else.
  • Dialogues amongst native speakers may differ considerably for those that ESOL learners will have in the future (most possibly with other L2 learners).
  • The wrong expectation that L2 learners must achieve native-like proficiency.

Richards concludes that what is important in writing materials is that they provide the means of successful communication both within and outside the classroom.

From a linguistic-oriented perspective, Cook (1998: 12) suggests that SLA research has the following implications for materials design:

  • “L2 users are speakers in their own right, not imitations native speakers”. Cook agrees with Richards that L2 users use the target language for their own specific purposes and in their own way; the important fact is that they can use the L2 effectively with other speakers and the most probable interlocutors will be other L2 users.
  • L2 learners have two or more language systems in their minds, consequently, their minds are different from that of monolinguals. “The L1 is always present in the students’ mind at some level” (Cook, 1998: 13); therefore, the coursebook should not pretend that the learners will not use their knowledge of their L1.
  • “Learners tackle some aspects of L2 learning in different ways” (op. cit.: 14). Learners vary according to demographic features and personality traits; to cater for as variability as possible, a coursebook should present alternative paths for the students.
  • “The aspect of syntax that needs to be acquired mostly concern vocabulary” (op. cit.: 15). According to Cook (based on Chomsky, 1992), all the language-specific aspects are in the lexicon so syntax does not need to be taught because it is already imposed on the language by the learner’s mind; the implication for coursebooks is that the core aspects of grammar should not be taught, they will be built up in an autonomous way by the students.
  • “The important early aspects of syntax to be acquired concern word order, not inflections” (op. cit.: 16). in earlier stages the basic word order (Subject-Verb-Object) should be taught to acquire other word orders later, at this stage questions needed for classroom interaction and management can be introduced as formulas. However, this principle applies only to the level of production, at the level of reception students must be exposed to rich input to progress to the next stages.
  • “Vocabulary items need to be linked to structural contexts and concepts” (op. cit.: 18). The selection of vocabulary should be based on their structural possibilities not on their frequency or teachability. Therefore, concepts that are universal (e.g.: pizza) and universal relationships (e.g.: this, the same, all, say, know, feel, etc.) should be taught first and presented in structural contexts.
  • “Pronunciation is needed for internal purposes in the learners’ minds” (op. cit.: 19). Information is quickly lost in the short-term memory so it needs to be recycled many times either aloud or silently. Working memory depends on the phonological information that is being processed in the mind, therefore pronunciation activities should be provided not only as part of communication but also to help students to handle sounds internally.
  • “L2 users need to learn about the properties of the L2 writing system” (op. cit.: 20). Coursebooks should take into account that different languages have different writing systems and these differences should be taught. Also, they should include activities to develop low-level writing skills (e.g.: spelling) or even writing direction if necessary (e.g.: for Chinese students).

Some of Cook’s assertions may seem debatable, but it reminds us that materials design must be grounded in SLA theories. In addition, there are two points of views which are crucial to design good teaching materials: teachers’ knowledge of the learning context where the material will be applied and students’ voices about successful L2 learning practices. Unfortunately, these points of view are seldom taken into account by coursebooks authors and those responsible for materials choices in educational institutions.

What is the right answer to the question of using/not using coursebooks?

There is not a correct answer, unluckily (as in most issues in ELT). Following Littlejohn (op. cit.) above, a positive or negative answer will depend on the educational context, including the educational institution, the aims, methodology and evaluation of the course, your teaching approach and beliefs about L2 learning, and your learners’ needs and expectations. The following infographic may help you to reflect on the appropriacy of using a coursebook in your teaching practice. You need to answer yes/no to each question and follow the suggestion in each case.

Help to decide if using a coursebook is good for you

help to decide if a coursebook is a good option

*Teachers Pay Teachers (This link is part of a referral program)

I hope the infographic helps you to reflect about the usefulness of a coursebook in your specific teaching situation, however, it is not intended to be a ‘recipe’ to decide whether or not to use a coursebook, instead, it is a help guide to think about the issues you should consider when making a choice. If you have more ideas on the topic please share them in the Comments section below.


COOK, V. 1998. “Relating SLA Research to Language Teaching Materials” [online], Available at https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/CJAL/article/view/19807 [Retrieved: 12th January 2016]

HALL, G. 2013. “This house believes that published course materials don’t reflect the lives or needs of learners” [online], Available at http://oupeltglobalblog.com/2013/04/05/this-house-believes-that-published-course-materials-dont-reflect-the-lives-or-needs-of-learners/#comments [Retrieved: 26th October 2015]

LITTLEJOHN, A. 2011. The analysis of language teaching materials: Inside the Trojan Horse. In Materials Development in Language Teaching (2nd Edition). Cambridge University Press.

MCDONOUGH, J., SHAW, C., AND MASUHARA, H. 2013. Materials and Methods in ELT. A Teacher’s Guide (3rd edition). Wiley-Blackwell, UK.

RICHARDS, J. 2005. “Materials Development and Research – Making the connection” TESOL Convention [online] Available at http://www.professorjackrichards.com/wp-content/uploads/materials-development-making-connection.pdf [Retrieved: 24th November 2015]

SHELDON, L. 1988. Evaluating ELT textbooks and materials. ELT Journal Vol. 42(4) pp. 237-246. OUP.

Types of texts

Reading in an L2: the idea of ‘Authentic Reading’

Reading is far from being a passive process, it is a constant process of guessing, hypothesising, anticipating and confirming, in which the knowledge “one brings to the text is often more important than what one finds in it” (Grellet, 1982 in Ball & Hockly n.d.). Consequently, the practices in which we involve while reading in a second language (L2) should resemble the practices of reading in the mother tongue (L1) if we intend to make the L2 reading experience an authentic one. read 1

Types of reading strategies

With regards to the approach to reading, there is a distinction between two main types of strategies that readers use when they are faced with a written text: top-down strategies and bottom-up strategies. Top-down strategies use macro-level cues to decode a text in order to acquire a more global understanding of its contents. These cues may include considering the layout of the text, making hypotheses and anticipating contents. Bottom-up strategies involve the decoding of the passage step-by-step from small textual elements like words or phrases. This process was for several years the traditional way of analysing a text and many courses are still based on this approach to reading.

The problem with an exclusive focus on bottom-up strategies is that the individual parts of the text are given more importance than the text as a whole. According to Grellet (in op. cit.), this might encourage reading all texts at the same speed, which might not be appropriate in all cases, and that there would be a reluctance to infer the meaning of sentences and paragraphs from what comes before the text. This author concludes that it is always preferable to start with the overall meaning of a text (top-down strategy), its function and aim, then move towards a more detailed analysis.

What is an authentic text? A different view of ‘authenticity’

There is an important issue to consider when selecting texts for our learners and it is the idea of authenticity. Widdowson (in Ball & Hockly, n.d.) distinguishes between ‘genuineness’ and ‘authenticity’. Genuineness is a ‘characteristic of the text itself and is an absolute quality’ (op. cit.: 32), it is what teachers usually refer to as authenticity. On the other hand, his definition of authenticity is how the reader responds to the text. Not adapting a text would make it ‘genuine’ in Widdowson’s sense. However, a genuine text is not necessarily better than an adapted text. If the reader is allowed to respond as they would do it in real life we have what Widdowson calls an ‘authentic text’.

In which types of reading activities do we involve in real life? Types of texts

People read for many different purposes and depending on these purposes we may gist to check if the matter is relevant to us, for example when we read our friends’ post on Facebook; we may read to extract the main idea of a product ad to check it is what we are looking for; we may also read to infer the purpose of a literary text for a class assignment; it is also possible to read just for pleasure and while doing so we may find ourselves reacting to the text or creating mental images derived from it. Whatever purpose we may have for reading, the strategy we use will differ and the same should happen when we are learning to read in other languages.

Reading activities in the language class

According to Greenall and Swan (1986 in Ball & Hockly n.d.: 17-18), reading activities can be described as follows:

  • Extracting the main idea (read in a general sense to distinguish between important and unimportant information).
  • Reading for specific information (looking for the important information needed to perform a specific task).
  • Understanding text organization (recognising how sentences are joined together to make paragraphs).
  • How paragraphs form a passage and how this organization is signalled.
  • Predicting (see what information is new and which one is known so that there is not an overload of new information).
  • Checking comprehension (finding specific information in the passage).
  • Inferring (when the writer decides to suggest something indirectly, the reader has to infer information).
  • Dealing with unfamiliar words (guessing a word or expression by looking for clues in the context).
  • Linking ideas (seeing how different words are related to the same idea).
  • Understanding complex sentences (seeing how long and complicated sentences can be simplified).
  • Understanding a writer’s style (a number of stylistic devices and features are discussed to appreciate why a writer chooses a certain word or expression).
  • Evaluating the text (evaluating why the passage was written and the purposes that certain sentences serve).
  • Reacting to the text (separating what the writer says from what the reader thinks).
  • Writing summaries (the ability to write accurate summaries requires accurate comprehension of the passage).
  • Speed reading (to prevent the tendency ‘to stumble on unfamiliar words’ thereby failing to ‘grasp the general meaning of the passage’).

Authentic readingreading 2

You can choose one or several activities from the ones mentioned above based on your students’ need regarding reading strategies and use it/them with any type of text, but how about assigning an authentic activity to deal with an authentic text and engage students in authentic reading? By authentic activity, I mean a reading activity which relates to the type of text used and how that type of activity is used in real life. Just think about this, what are the odds that you need to summarize an e-mail? Instead, you should probably need to focus on the subject, the author and the main information (who, what, when, how).

The concept of ‘action knowledge‘ (Barnes, 1976) can help us to support the idea of authentic reading. Students come to school with an amount of knowledge they have incorporated during their lives, they have unintentionally learnt many aspects of the world and how to behave in different types of situations. The same is true for their reading experience in their L1. Even younger learners, whose literacy skills in L1 are in the first steps, have grown up watching their family members reading different types of texts and what they do with them. They have watched their older siblings writing a summary of a History book and they have also observed that their siblings do not do the same while reading a comic.

We may also go back to Grellet’s words in the introduction of this post to support the idea of authentic reading, “(the knowledge) one brings to the text is often more important than what one finds in it” (1982 in Ball & Hockly n.d.). Surely, as a reader yourself you can think about types of reading activity that are ‘natural’ to a specific text type or genre, bring that knowledge and the learners’ knowledge into the class and enhance their reading experience both in the L2 and in the L1.

What types of reading activities would you suggest for a short story? For a piece of news? And for a blog post? Write a comment with your suggestions.


* If you want to read about the differences between reading in the L1 and reading in an L2 click this link to my previous post


Ball, P. & Hockly, N. (n.d.). Developing Language Skills in the Classroom. Funiber

Barnes, D. (1976/1992). From Communication to Curriculum. London: Penguin. (Second
edition, 1992, Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.)

Are we teaching ESOL learners the right reading strategies?

readingWhile searching for information about reading in a second language I found out that wide-spread teaching practices used with English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) learners’ reading skills may, in fact, be wrong.

The reason why counter-productive teaching strategies have been generalised in mainstream ESL classrooms might come from extrapolating findings from research in the context of English language learning of native speakers into the ESL context.

According to the CAELA Guide for Adult ESL Trainers, Reading consists of four components: vocabulary, alphabetic and word analysis, fluency and comprehension (Kruidenier, 2002). Although these four components are applicable to both the process of learning to read in English as L1 (Adult Basic Education, ABE) and the process of learning to read in English as L2. However, adult ESL instruction must differ from the adult basic instruction of native English speakers, simply because these two groups of learners come to the reading experience with very different prior knowledge of the subject.


The four components of Reading

Below you will find a brief explanation of the four components of reading and how they differ for both groups of learners: native English speakers learners and ESOL learners; in doing so you will also be able to identify some myths that have been around in ESL instruction for a long time as well as alternatives to teach ESL learners bearing in mind those differences.


Vocabulary refers to the words that a person knows and includes the extension and depth of that knowledge, this means that knowing a word includes knowing the different meanings of a word according to the context of a text, knowing the prefixes and suffixes of the word and how they change the meaning of the root word, etc.words 2

Teaching vocabulary in semantic sets (colours, food, furniture) can confuse learners and this is also true for teaching antonyms together (fat/thin, tall/short) (Folse, 2004). Instead, this author suggests teaching vocabulary around looser themes such as ‘going out to eat’ or ‘planning a trip’. Nation (2000, 2005) suggests teaching vocabulary based on their frequency, for example, ‘red’ is more frequent than ‘orange’ so it is better to teach ‘red’ first.

Another common myth among ESL teachers is that acquiring words by contextual clues is a useful strategy, however, the amount of words that a student needs to know in order to guess the meaning of a new word from the context is as high as 98% in any given text (Nation, 2005). Fluent English speakers know between 10,000 and 100,000 words but a beginner ESL learner usually knows between 2,000 and 7,000 (Hadley, 1993))*. Even when the learner manages to guess the meaning of a word from the context the probability that he/she recalls that meaning in the future is very low.

What to do, instead:

  • Pre-teach vocabulary in a reading passage. Select a passage that is slightly beyond the students’ level.
  • Teach high-frequency words first and provide multiple exposures to these words in different contexts.
  • After reading, encourage the use of new words asking students to write their own sentences.
  • Encourage vocabulary learning through regular tests (matching words with their definitions or multiple-choice exercises)
  • Provide lists of words for intentional learning. Ask learners to use word cards (the word on one side and its translation on the back).
  • Teach the use of both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries (especially for beginner learners)
  • Avoid presenting synonyms, antonyms or words in the same semantic set together.


Alphabetics and word analysis

wordsKruidenier (2002) defines alphabetics and word analysis as the ‘whole process of using the letters in a written alphabet to represent meaningful spoken words‘. The methods used in this process include understanding letter-sound correspondences and recognizing sight words; using context to determine meaning; knowing prefixes, suffixes, and root words; and using dictionaries.

Remember that non-native English users do not have the vocabulary base that native English speakers have (see * above).

What to do:

  • Teach English letter-sound correspondence. Use English words that follow patterns ( i.e.: pat/bat/sat)
  • Teach morphophonemic relationships in the English writing system (i.e.: in regular past verbs ‘ed’ ending sounds differently according to the phonological structure of the verb but their morphology has only one written form: ‘ed’)
  • Teach word-analysis skills, including prefixes and suffixes.
  • Identify parts of speech and their roles (nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, etc.)



Fluency is the ability to read easily and accurately, with appropriate rhythm, intonation, and expression. Accuracy in oral reading may be complicated by L1 interference (at the level of letter-sound relationships, stress, intonation and pauses) so individual or choral repetition has to be done with caution.

What to do:

  • Before asking for individual or choral repetition of a text consider that students hear a good model of the reading.
  • When you use individual or choral repetition of a text, use short fragments and focus on keeping the English stress and intonation.



Reading comprehension is the ability to discern meaning from a written text. Cultural differences may impede comprehension for ESOL learners.

What to do:ideas

  • Start reading texts about familiar topics.
  • Assess what students know, need to know and want to know about the topic. Use students’ prior experience.
  • Pre-teach vocabulary and unfamiliar concepts.
  • Focus on visual aids such as photos, layout, design and titles, text structure and discourse markers.
  • Assess reading comprehension through several activities (questions, cloze exercises, oral discussion), only then, you should ask students to summarize the text.


Original text: The CAELA Guide for Adult ESL Trainers. III-D. Teaching Reading to Adult English Language Learners. Extracted from Cal.org


Folse, K. S. (2004). Vocabulary myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Hadley, A. O. (1993). Teaching language in context. Boston: Heinle & Heinle

Kruidenier, J. (2002). Research-based principles for adult basic education reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy. Retrieved February 8, 2005, from http://www.nifl.gov/partnershipforreading/publications/html/adult_ed/index.html

Nation, I. M. P. (2000). Learning vocabulary in lexical sets: Dangers and guidelines. TESOL Journal, 9(2), 6–10.

Nation, I. M. P. (2005). Teaching and learning vocabulary. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (pp. 581–595). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Is it still possible to make a distinction between ESL and EFL contexts?

Confusing termsimage

Chances are that being a teacher of English whose students are non-native English speakers you have come across one of these acronyms and abbreviations: EFL, ESL, ELL, and so on. The most wide-spread distinction  made between EFL and ESL is based on whether your students live/work in a country whose first, second or even third language is English, in this case, your students would be English as Second Language learners (ESL students), or your students live/work in a country where English is not the first, the second or the third language so, your students would be English as a Foreign Language learners (EFL students).

If you read Tesol.org  website you will find the following definitions:

“EFL: English as a foreign language. English language programs in non-English-speaking countries where English is not used as the lingua franca. It is also used in some U.S. university programs where international students study English and are likely to return to their home countries after graduation or finishing course work

“ESL: English as a second language. English language programs in English-speaking countries where students learn English as a second language”

ELT: English language teaching”

ELL: English language learner. Often used to refer to a student in an ESL or EFL program”

The reasons why a country may or may not have English as a first, second or third language can be found in the history of that country (origins, invasions, wars, cultural bonds) or geographical (proximity), and it is not the intention of this post to deepen in those issues. However, there is a social phenomenon which is now changing our prior ideas about the difference between ESL and EFL and that is, as you have probably guessed, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) including TV.

There may be very few places in the world where technology has not become part of everyday life. Through technology, cultural, social, economic and political ideas spread and change our beliefs and behaviours at a speed never seen before and these changes have an impact on the processes of language learning around the world.

Second language or foreign language?

According to Gabbiani (2012:37), the differences between a second language (L2) and a foreign language (FL) are not related to the language proficiency one may have but to the degree of knowledge and participation in the culture of that language. From this point of view, what defines an L2 or an FL context is the type of relationship the language user establishes with the values of the other culture.

Longcope (2009:304) states that the context is not just the location where language learning happens (for example, class learning vs street learning (Gabbiani: 2012:39)); the context is the relation established by the language learner with the location and the behaviour in which he or she engages in that location. This means that two learners in the same class may respond to the context in very different ways: one learner may interact actively with the other language (ESL learner) while the other may respond only under certain circumstances (EFL learners). So, we could say that context = location + behaviour. 

 What is the answer, then?

If we agree that the context of English language learning is a combination of the location and the learner’s behaviour in that location and that each learner responds in a personal way to a certain language learning situation, it is highly possible that we have both ESL learners and EFL learners in the same class. So, for practical purposes, how should we refer to both types of learners? One possible term would be English Language Learners (ELL), using this term the focus is just on the subject students are learning; English language, without specifying what type of response they have to that language.

Another possibility would be English to Speakers of Other Languages learners (ESOL learners), in this case, the focus is also on the English language as a subject of learning but we are adding a reference to the learner’s native language (ie: a learner whose native languages is other than English).

In both cases, using the terms ELL context or ESOL context we are able to describe and/or investigate in a more precise way the characteristics of this context (location + behaviours) without conditioning its description by using an innapropiate term.

Would you suggest an alternative terminology?


Gabbiani, B. (2012). “Formación Continua – (Co)construcción Permanente. Creación de un Espacio para la Reflexión sobre la Educación Lingüística”. En Brasil Irala y Silva (Orgs.) ENSINO NA ÀREA DA LINGUAGEM. Perspectivas a partir da formação continuada pp.35-58 Mercado Letras.

Longcope, P. (2009). Differences between the EFL and the ESL Language Learning Contexts. Language and Culture Studies Vol. 30 Nº 2, 303-320.