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How to Choose a Course book

Henry Stephens

When teaching language classes in a school or academy, the chances are that someone else has made a decision about the coursebook for us. If this is the case, we have to make do. An important planning decision has been taken out of our hands, for better or worse. Choosing our own book is a double-edged sword. Getting it wrong could be a costly mistake and damage our class. So let’s have a look at several factors that should come into consideration before ordering a book.

Selecting a book

Choosing the coursebook will be one of the first things you want to do with your class. Don’t rush into it purely on the basis of the information on your class register. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, only four in the class are going for that IELTS exam. Meanwhile half the others want to work on improving in writing, and the other half want fluency. Moreover, several of the students have a half-finished book from their last course. Suddenly the choice of book no longer looks so simple.

Choosing the coursebook will be one of the first things you want to do with your class. Don’t rush into it purely on the basis of the information on your class register.

One of the best things to find out is how students will be using the language in the near or more distant future. Many of them may go on to study in the language. Many of them may be studying to enhance a job search. Looking ahead to find any common strands within a group is helpful. It means that the book you select may be useful even after your course has ended.

It’s also useful to find out a bit about how your students think they will learn best. Do they want a lot of homework (and will they really have time to do much)? What have they enjoyed/found useful in previous classes? Role plays? Dictations? Discussion and debates? Do they seem like an energetic bunch that would rather be doing things instead of listening to you? Are they rather academic, and worried about accuracy more than anything? Deciding if the learners need a highly grammar-based, or situational, or topic based course will follow on closely from the answers to such questions. Different coursebooks cater for all these preferences.

It’s not just our students that are going to have to live with the book for the duration of the course. We the teachers are also going to have to live with our choice – we like to cater for our own tastes too! Rightly so, because if the book does not motivate us, how will we interest our class in it?

Now, We can’t very well look through every publication, so often for the sake of convenience we tend towards what we already know about. It’s really helpful when others discuss what they are using (in my experience teachers usually have strong opinions about books. After-hours during a summer school, I witnessed a ritual burning of one unpopular and proscribed publication!) Teacher feedback really helps us to know what to go for.


Next let’s ‘gut’ a textbook to see whether it matches what we are looking for. Most course books have a map at the beginning and this is indispensable (I find ones that don’t harder to use). Look out for headings like ‘Task’, or ‘Grammar’ as these tell us the bias of the book. Flicking through further, we get an idea of the age range and how progress checks are handled. We find out whether we can use the book on its own, or whether the teachers’ book contains all the practice activities and/or tapescripts. Perhaps most importantly we can check out the opportunities for self-study, extra explanations, checks, and mini-dictionaries, all of which are usually found at the back.
In a private class inevitably the emphasis given to working from the book will be different. Our choice will need to reflect even more closely the needs of the student. However, books that repeatedly ask us to work in ‘groups of three’ are obviously difficult to use with private students. Look out for shorter, stand alone sections that don’t rely on previous unit input. In one-to-ones the book should be integrated as secondary to the personal encounter between you as teacher and the student. In my view, it should never be leading this encounter.

So, when your instructions say ‘book to be agreed upon after the first class’, double that if nee
d be; it’s worth getting it right. With the vast array of books out there to explore and try out, why not just experiment for a while first? You get to broaden the range of publications you know about, and your students will have a better chance of settling on something that really suits the class.

About the author

Henry has been working in teaching EFL (English as a Foreign Language) since 2001. Henry is married with one young son, and he lives in Harrow, London. In his spare time he enjoys playing the piano and practicing his Spanish whenever possible.