Make the Most of your Coursebook!

The texts and dialogues included in foreign language coursebooks are generally there to develop reading and listening skills. But they also contain a lot of language that the students could usefully “notice”, and this potential is often ignored. After the texts have been used for initial comprehension work, how can they be recycled and used to help develop the students general linguistic competence?

Published texts are obviously covered by copyright, and any sort of adaptation of the text involves photocopying. However, some publishers do now accept that teachers need to be able to adapt materials in order to meet their students needs and make them more appropriate to their own teaching style. One example is Oxford University Press which, on its EFL website, publishes the tapescripts of some of its courses in Word format, so that teachers can copy and adapt them.

Here's a list of a few of the activity types which you might create using the texts in your coursebook. Examples are given in English, but the activities can be applied to whatever foreign language you are teaching.
  • Scrambled texts. Copy and cut up the paragraphs or sentences of the text , and give them to the students in random order. the students them put them back into the correct order. They may be on separate strips of paper so that the students have to physically rearrange them on the desk ( if you back them on card they’re more likely to be re-usable with a later class), or simply printed on a sheet of paper with a box next to each one where the students can write the appropriate number. When using this activity you need to be sure that there are enough clues in the text to make the activity doable. These will often be cohesive clues – linguistic connections between parts of the text, for instance pronouns which refer back to a previous noun How was your trip? / It was fine thanks or demonstratives and synonyms with the same function : We could face the danger of the disease reaching pandemic proportions . This risk would .... Additionally or alternatively the order may be signalled simply by logical relationships, or coherence, within the text. The sequence How are you? / Oh not so bad. is coherent, whereas How are you? / Tomorrow is not. Be careful however – these links don't always exist and/or there may be more than one possible answer. Always check for this when you're preparing the activity. If you can't identify clear, specific and unambiguous links, the students will not be able to complete the activity. If you identify a potential problem, you can get round it by writing the number of the problem sentence or paragraph next to it, so that students know where to place it in the text.

  • Scrambled sentences. Another possibility is to give the sentences in order, but with the words of each sentence jumbled. This is a useful activity for students who have problems with word order in the foreign language.

  • Gapped texts. There are various ways you can gap a text. You can use from strict cloze technique (systematically taking out every fifth, seventh or ninth etc word) or more focused gapping – for example, removing all the prepositions or simply choosing whichever words which you feel the students could usefully focus on. Obviously, this should not be a memory test : it must be possible to deduce the necessary word from the surrounding context. Compare for example I saw a ............. yesterday with Can you pick ….. that piece of paper please? In the first example the possibilities are endless, whil in the second the only appropriate word is up. Where there is more than one possibility, or simply to make the activity easier, the correct words can be provided in random order at the top of the exercise, or the first letter of the word can be included: Can you g…………. me a hand with these boxes?

  • Use the correct form. This is another variation of a gapped text. It’s very often used with verbs – the verb is gapped in the sentence and the infinitive given in brackets (or, this time to make it harder, in scrambled order before the exercise) : I …… (go) to Spain last August. there's no reason, however, why it can't be used, for other word classes – for comparatives and superlatives, for instance Barcelona is the ………………… (beautiful) city I know. Alternatively, the exercises can focus on prefixes, suffixes or general word formation : He was fired because his work was ………… (satisfaction).

  • Find the Mistake. Again there are a number of variations of this activity. You can :
    · Include a certain number of mistakes into the text, for example : Did you have a good travel? As in the last exercise, the mistakes can focused on a specific problem (prepositions,verb forms, spelling etc) or mixed, focusing on the words you want the students to notice. The activity will usually work better if you tell the students how many mistakes there are – for example, one per line, or ten in the whole text..
    · Give alternative words : How was your trip/travel? Barcelona is the most/more beautiful city I know. The students have to choose the correct word from the alternatives given.
    · Add an extra, incorrect word into each line of the text : I went to Italy the last July or, alternatively, take out one word from each line : I have to go to office. Again, the words you choose to add or omit will depend on the difficulties your students have, and which you want them to work on. This type of personalisation is the reason why this type of exercise can best be designed by the teacher rather than the coursebook writer, especially if the book is intended for global use.

  • Rewrite the text. Give the students a version of the text almost but not quite the same the original and ask them to rewrite it. For example, they might have a version which doesn't use pronouns but repeats the noun. They have to rewrite it putting the pronouns back in where necessary.

All of these activities have the advantage that the students can self-correct by looking back at the original text, which encourages a deeper form of cognitive processing than just having their work corrected. However, there are other variations which need a teacher’s confirmation. For example, if two three possibilities were given in Find the Mistake, two of which were correct and one wrong : Did you have a good trip/travel/journey? The students would find one of the correct possibilities in the original dialogue, but would need help for the second. The same is true if there is more than one possible answer in a gapped passage : Can you ……… me a hand with these boxes? The original text might have used give, but lend is equally appropriate. Similarly with the rewriting activity mentioned, if students at more advanced levels were given an informal version of a business letter they had studied previously and had to convert it back to the formal style of the original. There would probably be more than one acceptable formulation of each phrase.

But aren't the students going to get fed up of seeing the same text again and again? They won't if the activities are varied and have increasing levels of difficulty, and if the recycling is mixed in with other, newer work. It may even happen that they don't remember having seen the text before. This probably means that their processing of the text did not go very deep. One way to increase the cognitive “depth” of the processing is to ask them to create an exercise themselves. List the various exercise types on the board, check that the students remember them, and then give each student a previously studied text. Ask them to choose one of the exercise types to apply to their text. They then create the exercise, possibly in class the first time so the teacher can help, or for homework, and in the next lesson exchange activities and do the exercise which another student created.