Adapting the Coursebook for Dummies (and the Not-So-Dumb)

(This post is adapted from a seminar I led at IH Moscow in 2015)


Startup Stock Photos
Startup Stock Photos

Coursebooks can be great. They provide a clear framework for study, allow English teaching and learning to be standardised across classes, schools and countries, and mean that you always have some idea of what to do on Monday morning. The only problem is that much as coursebooks are written for students, they’re never written for your students. Sometimes they’re too hard, sometimes they’re too easy, and sometimes they’re just plain boring – or they use themes or topics that for a multitude of reasons you’d just rather avoid. And so we adapt. The question is, how?

  • A dictionary, a teddy bear, a toy spider.
  • The song ‘Five Years’ Time’ by Noah and the Whale.
  • A timeline of students’ imagined future lives.

These are all ways I have presented language points when adapting the coursebook. Can you guess which grammar structures? Answers at the bottom of this post.

1. Look at the book!            

What structure or vocabulary do I need to teach? What usage?

It sounds obvious, but if you’ve decided to adapt the coursebook, check exactly what it is that you’re meant to be teaching first. You might prepare a beautiful lesson on using ‘will’ for future predictions, but if the coursebook is teaching its usage for making a decision, there’s a problem. If your students need to take tests that are associated with the coursebook, it’s also wise to check the test content. The boring reading task you decide to scrap completely may contain vocabulary they need to know for the test.

2. Does the book presentation work?

In some ways? Not at all?

At times you look at a page in the coursebook and it all seems like a recipe for disaster. The topic, the grammar presentation, the practice exercises are completely wrong for your class. Often, though, some of it can be salvaged. Can your students still complete the practice exercises in the coursebook following a different presentation? Can you use the book presentation but replace the practice exercises with ones that are more appropriate for your class? Respect your time and sanity, and don’t try to reinvent the wheel.

3. What are the challenges within my class?

Lack of focus? Mixed ages/ability? Bored teens? Low vocabulary?

It follows that if you are going to adapt something, you first need to think about why. Realia, images or a practical task might help students who tend to lack focus to concentrate more. Providing a choice of reading text might help students of different ages or abilities. Considering students’ interests or deliberately being subversive might engage bored teens, or providing a simpler practice activity might make a task more achievable for students with low vocabulary.

4. In what way do I want to adapt?

Why do I want to adapt part 2, if you will. 

Do I want to:

Make it more memorable

Make it easier for students to understand

Help students see how the language is really used in daily life

Focus on a particular area I know my students will find difficult

5. What is the best way to achieve step 4?

(bearing in mind steps 1-3)

Helpful suggestions for lower levels:

Try to present as much visually as possible. If you prepare your own grammar presentation, consider the language used in explanation. Instructions need to be as clear as possible. 


  • Props : to introduce vocabulary, to teach comparatives and superlatives, to teach passives, to teach verbs of motion, to teach prepositions, to practice adjectives…
  • Pictures
  • A song

Helpful suggestions for higher levels:

It’s harder to use visuals conventionally with higher levels as there are more complex grammatical structures and vocabulary tends to be more abstract. 


  • A short text (eg. the opening of a novel, a paragraph of a short story, a leaflet or recipe)
  • A song
  • Something the students can contribute content to themselves (eg. A timeline of their lives for mixed tenses, perfect tenses etc, pictionary for modals of deduction, a list of predictions, a diary page, pictures – what are they thinking/feeling/doing?)


And there it is: adapting the coursebook for dummies (and the not-so-dumb, since you’ve decided to adapt in the first place. I hope some of this is helpful!


* Dictionary, teddy bear, toy spider = teaching comparatives and superlatives to a group of low Pre-intermediate 10-13 year olds.

‘Five Years’ Time’ = teaching future continuous to Upper Intermediate adults.

Timeline = teaching future perfect and continous to Advanced teenagers.



3 thoughts on “Adapting the Coursebook for Dummies (and the Not-So-Dumb)

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