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What to use: Textbook or Worksheets?

Henry Stephens

A while ago on CELTA training, one of the first things I learned was to get the most out of a photocopier. Now looking at the pile of papers on my desk I wonder if the vast range of ELT publications is not both a blessing and a curse. For centuries second languages have been taught and learned through diverse methods, well before ‘Headway’ and the handout. So when it comes to choosing between textbooks and worksheets the best answer for me is to avoid becoming over-reliant on either. Both have advantages. Both have pitfalls.

Take textbooks. They provide structure and reduce course planning. Teams of experienced teachers appointed by publishers do a lot of that work for us – there is often a sensible progression that we can pick and choose from. Plus they help to organise your lessons individually. There are steps to build up interest, to check understanding, to work on form, to offer controlled practice, to go over pronunciation, to try out the language in a less controlled way… (deep breath) they are all there for us to use at will. And then there is the fact that they are in colour, helping to make material more memorable. Meanwhile school directors can switch off the copier and sell books instead. For learners, owning a book provides an invaluable opportunity to self-study, look ahead to up-coming classes, or look over previous ones. Most books provide practice exercises or ‘stop and check’ sections. Students can possess an important tool to guide their learning in tandem with classes.

When it comes to choosing between textbooks and worksheets the best answer for me is to avoid becoming over-reliant on either.

Textbooks have some disadvantages as well. As many a teacher will attest, the instruction “let’s turn to page (such and such) in the book” rarely produces a cry of delight. Perhaps it’s because books are too engineered, because they are designed to be relevant to such a wide range of people, and because the colourful pictures and texts are all obviously ‘doctored’. Learners find they lack relevance to the reality of their lives. Textbooks are also heavy to lug around, and even if students have to buy a book there are always those who delay. For the teacher, who may be weary of the publication having used it many times, this brings the added burden of persuading students to share.


Some balance is required. Don’t treat a course-book as an infallible authority that has to take central place. Use it to suit your purposes: adapt, skip, assess with students and teachers alike. Supplement the book whenever you please, while keeping it reassuringly in the background to help mould the course. Keep records of page numbers covered, because the chances of either you or a substitute teacher using a section twice are high otherwise.

So, if we reject a slavish use of textbooks, what about worksheets? For a start they are inexpensive to students – naturally not everyone can afford expensive books. And on a similar theme it doesn’t matter so much if they get mislaid. But the main thing to be said for the ubiquitous worksheet is the control the teacher assumes. There are often fewer ‘steps’ – fewer pictures to distract, fewer stilted exercises. The teacher is responsible for how to present and follow up. Then there are homemade worksheets, which are far more able to bring the wow-factor to your class than any book. I remember a colleague giving me a self-penned quiz that got learners running around central Cambridge to find answers. They loved it, but on reflection it must have taken him ages to prepare. On the plus side it was used throughout that summer-school again and again by different teachers!


Yet the worksheet approach has disadvantages too. Not using a book places far more onus on the teacher. We need to be more explicit about the course outline and how each handout fits in. Then there is the irritating wastage when copies go into the bin (or clutter up our desk in the hope of a second use!). Further impracticalities extend to schools in terms of copying costs, and to teachers when (with a queue and the clock counting down to class time) the photocopier jams – nightmare scenario!

There are alternative approaches to teaching languages that eschew any pre-printed material at all. We may not be ready for that interesting challenge, but it’s important to have variety, and value other resources, like the internet, or students’ own input. Equally, it’s important to find what works well for you. Let’s not be afraid to experiment: consider clearing the room of all paper from time to time.

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.