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Connecting the Course Book

Brian Tomlinson argues that teachers can overcome the shortcomings of course books by humanizing, localizing, and personalizing the texts and tasks for the students. See Alice S. Lee’s Portal article, "Making ESL Textbooks More Relevant to EFL Students," Essential Teacher, June 2007.

Developing an English language course book requires a massive investment these days, which is often only justified by selling the book throughout the world. Such global course books aim to cater to the needs and wants of all learners at a specified level, but frequently they end up catering to the needs and wants of nobody.

For a course book to help a learner to acquire a language, it needs to be perceived as relevant to the learner’s needs and wants and to provide new learning experiences that connect with the learner’s previous experiences (Arnold 1999). Ideally, the course book should be designed to facilitate localisation and personalisation by teachers and learners, but unfortunately this is rarely the case, and it is left to the teacher to adapt and supplement the course book in ways that connect with their learners’ previous experiences. In order to achieve this, the teacher needs to develop ability in humanising, localising, and personalising the course book.

Humanising the Course Book

Many global course books present a "sanitised world which is bland and dull and in which there is very little excitement or disturbance to stimulate the emotions of the learner" (Tomlinson 1998, 20). In addition, many of the activities that learners are asked to do in global course books involve little more than easy and fairly meaningless practice, and very few stimulate the learners to think and feel.

This is obviously not true of all global course books, but I have been in classrooms and talked to teachers in over sixty countries, and the dullness of the course book is usually perceived as one of the main problems. If the teacher follows the course book as a script rather than using it as a resource (as many teachers do), then the learner is often reduced from an intelligent, individual human being with views, attitudes, and emotions to a mindless language learner whose brain is dedicated to low-level linguistic decoding and encoding.

Throw the Book Away?

The most dramatic way to humanize the course book is to replace it altogether with an activity that is more likely to engage the learners both affectively and cognitively. I did this once in Liverpool, when the learners threw away their course books and replaced them with comics, magazines, and books of their own choice, and once in Vanuatu, when the learners threw away their course books and then spent the rest of the semester writing a novel based in their village (Tomlinson 2003).

Or Modify Its Use

A less dramatic way of humanizing the course book is to reduce the number of lessons dominated by it and to replace it in the liberated lessons with extensive reading, drama, storytelling, video viewing, and projects that involve the learners in using English to do things they want to do outside the classroom.

Unfortunately, most teachers do not have the freedom to replace the course book and are expected to make use of it in every lesson. What they need to do is to reduce the nonhumanistic elements of the course book and to expand and add to those sections that invite the learners to think, feel, and do in order to learn.

You can humanise your course books by doing any or all of the following.

  • Add readiness activities by stimulating students to think about related experiences in their own lives.
  • Replace the text or add material with the same topic or theme.
  • Replace the activities or add others that stimulate the learners to think and feel.
  • Get learners to do something with a text rather than just study it (e.g., have the whole class act out a story or, for example, an agricultural process) as you read the text aloud.
  • Focus initially on the meaning of a text rather than on the structure or strategy it exemplifies.
  • Get learners to articulate their intake responses to a text (i.e., what they personally think and feel about it) before getting them to analyse the text or focus on a teaching point illustrated by it (e.g., ask, "Do you like the old lady? Why?").
  • Help learners make discoveries for themselves about how the target language is used (Bolitho et al. 2003; Tomlinson 1994).
  • Make sure that for each unit the learners do a development activity in which they use the unit to express themselves in order to achieve an intended outcome.
  • Use a multidimensional approach in which students are encouraged to use all their mental resources to understand, use, and learn language (Tomlinson 2000), for example, by encouraging mental imaging, the use of the inner voice, emotional involvement, the making of connections, and evaluation.

For more ideas, see "Humanising the Coursebook" (Tomlinson 2003).

Involve the Learners as Human Beings

An example of humanising the course book is a lesson I improvised once from a unit that featured an interesting text about an old lady who robbed a bank. The material was spoiled by very boring comprehension questions and language practice activities.

  1. I began by asking the learners to visualise scenes from a film they had seen and then to share one of these scenes with a fellow learner.
  2. Next, they predicted what a film called Mrs. King Strikes Back might be about.
  3. I narrated the first scene of the film, and the whole class reacted to it and acted it out.
  4. In groups, the learners predicted the next scene and mimed it to another group, who tried to provide the narrative for it.
  5. Each learner then had two minutes to read the text from the course book. Then we had an animated group competition in which groups tried to win points by reporting differences between what happened in their skits and what happened in the course book.
  6. Finally, for homework, each learner wrote a letter as Mrs. King complaining about the differences between the film (i.e., the student acting of Scene 1) and her real-life story.

The learners were exposed to language in meaningful use, experienced a lot of recycling of language without being aware of it, had many learning opportunities, and, above all, were involved as human beings rather than just as language learners.

Possibly the most effective thing you can do is to spend the first five or ten minutes of each lesson exposing learners to language in meaningful use by reading a poem, telling a story, recounting an anecdote, telling a joke, setting riddles, reading a clipping from a newspaper, or acting a scene from a play. Do not ask any questions or set any tasks, but just leave students in reflective silence for a few minutes before turning to the textbook. Leave copies of the day’s text on your table for learners to take away with them at the end of the lesson if they want to, and encourage learners to keep a file of the texts they like and to reread them every so often.

Localising the Course Book

A global course book can make sure that it locates its units in as many different locations around the world as possible, but unfortunately it cannot do what some local course books do and start each unit in settings familiar to the learners. On Target (1995) and Search 10 (Fenner and Nordal-Peedesen 1999), for example, focus on such global issues as tourist pollution, drugs, water supply, peace and war, and money versus morals, but they do so by focusing on the learners’ own country first. On Target starts one unit with a Namibian song about water before moving on to a Kenyan story about the coming of the rains, and Search 10 starts a unit by focusing on World War II in Norway before going on to look at current conflicts around the world.

Although global course books cannot do this, you can do it for your learners. You can think of ways in which a readiness activity can stimulate locally focused mental activity that could make relevant a text set in a distant country.

For example, I once had to use a text about how the Inuit build igloos with a group of Nigerian students. I started the lesson by asking them about where they lived and how they built their houses. Soon they were telling me about how they used locally available materials to make huts and how they could quite easily rebuild them when they began to deteriorate. I then told them they were going to read a passage about people building houses in an area where there were no trees, only ice and snow. I asked them to predict how these people built their homes and then told them to read the passage and to think as they were reading about the similarities between their culture and that of the Inuit.

Other ways to localise the course book include the following:

  • Build up and then use a library of locally appropriate texts that match the topics or themes of those in the course book.
  • Get the learners to find and read locally relevant texts equivalent to those in the course book.
  • Read aloud the text with its location omitted, and get the learners to see it taking place in settings that they are familiar with.
  • Find examples of local equivalents to topics, issues, events, people, and places mentioned in the unit.
  • Get the learners to rewrite texts or develop equivalent new texts so as to produce locally relevant stories, reports, designs, adverts, posters, and articles (e.g., "'Sentence of Death' is set in Liverpool. Rewrite it so that it is set in Kobe.").

For more ideas, see "Localising the Global: Matching Materials to the Context of Learning" (Tomlinson 2006).

Personalising the Course Book

Unless learners are personally engaged in the learning process, they cannot achieve effective and durable learning cannot. Only individual learners can really personalise the course book by relating it to what is already in their minds. However, you can help the learner achieve this by doing any or all of the following:

  • Start and end each lesson in the learner’s mind (e.g., "You are going to read a passage about water shortages. See pictures in your mind of what can happen when there is a water shortage.").
  • Let the learners each decide which of a number of course books they want to work with.
  • Let the learners each find a text that they want to work with that is connected to the topic or teaching points of the unit.
  • Let each learner decide which activities in the course book to focus on.
  • Add a provocative element to the unit that could stimulate learners to think about and articulate their own personal views.
  • Add activities to those in the course book so as to give each learner choices.

For other ideas on personalising course books, see Maley (2003).

Connect the Course Book to Students’ Lives

Without making connections between the course book and their own lives, language learners will fail to make full use of the learning opportunities offered by the book. Ideally, course books help learners make these connections, but if they do not, then you will need to do it for them. This is not as difficult as you may think, provided that you treat the learners with respect as intelligent human beings and add to the course book opportunities for the learners to think and to feel for themselves.


Arnold, J. 1999. Affect in language learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bolitho, R., R. Carter, H. Ivanic, H. Masuhara, and B. Tomlinson. 2003. Ten questions about language awareness. ELT Journal 57:251-59.

Fenner, A. N., and G. Nordal-Peedesen. 1999. Search 10. Oslo, Norway: Gyldendal.

Maley, A. 2003. Creative approaches to writing materials. In Developing materials for language teaching, ed. B. Tomlinson, 183-98. London: Continuum.

On target. 1995. Windhoek: Gamsberg Macmillan.

Tomlinson, B. 1994. Pragmatic awareness activities. Language Awareness 3:119-29.

———. 1998. Materials development in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2000. A multi-dimensional approach. The Language Teacher Online (July).

———. 2003. Humanizing the coursebook. In Developing materials for language teaching, ed. B. Tomlinson, 162-73. London: Continuum.

———. 2006. Localising the global: Matching materials to the context of learning. In (ed.) Reading on ELT materials, ed. J. Mukundan, 1-16. Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Longman.

Brian Tomlinson ( is head of the English Language Teaching Post-Graduate, Research, and Consultancy Unit at Leeds Metropolitan University, in the United Kingdom.