Using ESL textbooks – good or bad idea


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This is quite controversial issue and there are so many reasons to not use textbooks, it’s crazy, but let’s set out the debate and I want you to tell me what you think.

Pros and Cons of using textbooks in the Classroom
For Pros Cons
ESL Children 1.       Lots of good material with listening activities attached

2.       Easy to access

3.       Some activities children love

4.       Parents are often happy because they want to know that what you are using is coming from a recognised book

1.       Not always relevant

2.       Can lead to teacher using only the book

3.       Some activities not relevant

4.       Parents sometimes think if it is just a textbook they can buy it for their children and work through it with them themselves.

ESL Adults 1.       Adults often expect it

2.       Adults like something to take home and study with

3.       Adults like the book because it is recognised ‘Oxford’ or ‘Cambridge’ and makes them feel they are getting the best.

4.       Adults like to have the book to see what they will be studying next

1.       Some teachers never veer away from the book and it becomes tedious.

2.       Not all books are relevant and can end up boring the students

3.       Good teachers should bring the lesson to the students’ world, not vice versa

4.       Not tailor-made to the needs of the students, the teacher just moves through the book irrespective of whether the student gets the concept or not.

ESL one on one adults 1.       Gives the student a chance to move at their own pace and see where they are heading.

2.       Adults like something to take home and study with

3.       It’s recognised ‘Oxford/Cambridge’ and so feel they are studying with them.

4.       Gives a clear curriculum to the student.

1.       Is not at all tailored to the students needs.

2.       On a one to one basis, using textbooks get very tedious.

3.       Limited opportunities to discuss things as it is too prescriptive.

4.       An added cost for the student who is also paying high for a one to one teacher


As mentioned there are plenty of good and bad approaches to the use of textbooks, but I do think that there is another factor which is often overlooked. The amount of time a student has to learn what they need to learn.

For teaching Children:

Personally I find the use of textbooks with children totally boring, but often in Asia it is difficult to tell parents that, as that is what they know and understand. Why do I find it boring for teaching children? Children want to have fun and learn at their own pace. Often English learning for children is more about immersion than grammar, so textbooks can be a total turnoff.

For teaching Adults:

Personally I find them quite useful. Adults often have limited time restraints, they like something to take home with them and they do enjoy a lot of the content. Saying that I would never advocate that the teacher just works through the textbooks. In our school there are certainly some areas of content (particularly about boyfriends and girlfriends and alcohol and bars – our students are mainly Muslim) that don’t resonate with the students, so we bring other material in. Then there are other parts that need more fleshing out and you just have to bring other games and supporting materials to help them.

I also find that our teachers generally prefer to use the textbooks as a backbone but only if they have the freedom to deliver it in their own way, and bring lots of their own interesting games and activities to it.

Also it’s hard to find relevant ‘listening’ materials, so good in that way too.

I would say so long as EVERYTHING in the textbook is in English (including all the instructions), then it’s got to be good on one level at least. I don’t advocate the books that have a local language guiding the student with ‘English’ inserts. That is just plain pointless.

So what do you think? I know it’s quite controversial and I can see so much on each side. Tell me your opinion!

7 thoughts on “Using ESL textbooks – good or bad idea

  1. I am TESOL major and have experience working with ELLs. I prefer to use authentic materials; however, I sometimes use textbooks with my students when it involves teaching writing. I only use the textbook if I modified it. You can always delete unnecessary information that is not relevant to your class. You also reorder and add information as well.

  2. Interesting points. I like textbooks, but only if I can change the materials as I see fit. I once had to teach a course where teachers were forbidden from modifying the textbooks. It was the WORST class I’ve ever taught. Not being able to change the materials based on student needs made for a miserable, pointless class.

  3. My situation is a bit different, because the school where I work uses English textbooks that were not designed for ELLs. Although the curriculum is an excellent phonics-based reading and writing program for native speakers, it includes many words that simply aren’t worth wasting time on if you’re teaching ELLs. (My favorite example is the word “tot” for “toddler”….it appears frequently in their reading materials, and I therefore feel the need to teach it as a vocabulary word so that they will recognize and understand it when they read it…but who uses that word in speaking? When was the last time you talked about a “tot”? Unless it was a tater tot, of course, but that’s not the same thing. (I was just recently complaining about this on my blog: )

    We use the workbooks provided by the curriculum, and while they are often useful, at other times they’re….not. It can be frustrating sometimes, because the parents are paying hundreds of dollars for these workbooks, which means we are OBLIGATED to work each page, no skipping!

    At the same time, I’ve created my own supplemental workbooks for the students, mainly focusing on building vocabulary skills (the workbooks we have are purely phonics and writing skills), and I love working with those. Obviously, since I designed them, they have exactly the materials I want to teach. But since they’re workbooks, it means the students can take them home to show their parents and to review, and that really is helpful.

    In a perfect world, I would write my own curriculum. (We’ve actually talked a little bit about this at the school…one day it will become a reality!) In that case, I would design my own workbooks, and in that case, yes, I would say that they would definitely would be helpful.

    • I can understand your frustration with using textbooks that aren’t for ELLs, but good for you to make your own – maybe one day that will be your ultimate gift to the world – your own series of ESL textbooks!
      Plus the logic of the parents paying fo the books, I know that one.
      Keep up the passion and enthusiasm! The world needs more teachers like you!

  4. Pingback: ESL Textbook: Good or Bad idea #ielts #learnenglish | Joseph McTaggart , English Teacher, Author, and Voice Coach,

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