‘Off the Page: Activities to bring lessons alive and enhance learning’ (Thaine 2020) is a resource for practicing and trainee teachers. It aims to provide a range of activities which supplement and enhance coursebook-based provision – helping teachers to lift learning ‘off the page’ and increase learner engagement.
The book begins with a dense acknowledgements section which should probably have appeared as end matter.
The actual book begins with a five-page summary on the role of coursebooks in the ELT classroom. This touches upon the prevalence of coursebooks, attitudes towards coursebooks, and coursebook adaptation. The premise of this resource is more that coursebooks can be useful but need enhancing, rather than coursebooks need ditching. Therefore, the intro chapter lacks strong critique of a coursebook-driven approach and serves mainly to highlight the need for this resource.
The author mentions a point from McGrath (2016) about ‘needing to make a distinction between a coursebook and the way it is used’, which leads into a summary of McGrath’s types of adaptation: ‘as change’ or ‘as addition’. Examples for the latter are extension, exploitation, and extemporisation (new one for me – addressing an immediate need I think?!).
The author explains that teachers (let’s say coursebook users!) need to break the cycle of ploughing through books in a rather predictable way, and should consider how they can…
- provide more communicative focus
- give more opportunities to speak
- make things more student-centred
- offer variety (activities, interactions)
- allow more student-generated content
- introduce a fun element
The practical part of the book then follows with eight chapters, divided into skills then ‘systems’ I guess:
Each section includes an intro, then about 10 activities (each explained across 2-4 pages). Each activity shows how a typical coursebook activity can be enhanced. Activities are explained in a fair amount of detail which includes info on set up, rationale, procedural info, teacher/learner reflection questions, etc. Crucially, they include the actual screenshots of coursebook sections, so the activities are anchored to real examples. AHA! That’s why that acknowledgement section was so long.
More about the activities
At the start of each skills section, the author outlines the typical stages of ‘a coursebook lesson’ for certain skills, the examples:
Then there are examples of actual coursebook pages which demonstrate this, and discussion on the subskills which are usually addressed, and some ‘issues’ with these coursebook based approaches. Then you have a set of activities which either a) address one of these issues, b) enhances a ‘typical’ coursebook approach by adding one or more of those aforementioned elements (more speaking, fun, varied interactions, etc).
Listening activity: Role play first
The author suggests that rather than discussion questions as a lead in for listening (common in coursebooks), learners could do a role play task mirroring a conversation that appears in the listening lesson. This will help them predict content and provide chances to practise their speaking skills too.
Listening activity: Order the text
Coursebooks often focus on individual details in a second listening stage. Cutting up the text and having learners order this is a way to focus on overall coherence.
Speaking task: Planning the mingle
‘Sometimes mingle activities lose their momentum as learners don’t talk to as many different students as possible’. The author introduces a way for learners to plan what they will say and who they will talk to in order to add more structure.
Speaking task: The suggesters
Learners don’t always extend their speaking and sustain a discussion. The author mentions how we can use a third learner as a monitor who feeds in prompts to help the convo continue.
Reading: Background knowledge
Learners may struggle with a text due to lack of background knowledge. The author suggests devising a quiz and using images/video to help equip learners with some background info.
The most noticeable suggestion for ‘breaking the cycle’ is varying interaction patterns. Lots of the suggested tasks involve pair work, groupwork and a lot of mingles. Sometimes there are suggested changes to classroom layout to facilitate interaction. I’d guess if I could pinpoint one standout message from the skills section of the book it would probably be ‘heads up and communicate more’.
As with other sections, the grammar section leads with examples of how grammar is presented in coursebooks. This intro is perhaps the closest the author gets to critique: they highlight that a PPP approach is often used, suggest that some learners find this too systematic and may prefer a more communicative/meaning-focused approach, and suggest ‘starting at the end’ with a task-teach-task approach instead. However, the suggested activities in this section really don’t showcase this alternative – instead they reinforce form focus or making tiny tweaks to the activities as they might appear in the book:
- Matching sentence halves activities – chop them up and do a mingle and match
- Form table for a grammar point – chop it up and have learners reassemble it
- Play ‘beep the gap’ to make a gap fill task a controlled speaking practice in pairs
The vocab, grammar, pronunciation and discourse sections all include plenty of photocopiable cut ups for additional activities. To be honest, these would be better as downloadable resources (which they probably are too) as they appear too small in the book itself. If they are already provided separately, then they are taking up unnecessary space in the actual resource. I’d also end up wasting time/paper getting the image enlarge settings right on the photocopier.
Most of the activities in the vocab section focus on lower levels. The section as a whole serves to highlight issues with the way vocabulary is presented in coursebooks at lower levels. In the intro, Thaine explains how introducing vocab in context is more common at, say, B1+ level, whereas you get more matching individual words to images, categorization of individual items, and so on at lower levels. There is also a mention of how pronunciation is often taught separately – such as in an activity at the end of the book. What’s really needed is a chunky section of activities for how you might address such issues. However, the activities in the vocab section focus too much on form, and pronunciation in this book is dealt with in a separate chapter, so it really does mirror a coursebook approach in that sense.
The section on pronunciation is like a mini-‘The Book of Pronunciation’ (Marks and Bowen). There are some good activities focusing on connected speech and phonology for listening – there could be more of these, but I do think that clear examples like these are much needed for less experienced teachers. The discourse section includes a few good activities for dealing with dialogues.
The final chapter focuses on teacher development. There is a short teacher development task for each of the skills/systems covered. The tasks typically begin with ‘before reading’ reflection questions encouraging teachers to consider one particular aspect of their practice. They then read a short extract from an ELT theory book and respond to this (this could be done as self-reflection or as a collaborative exercise). There is then a task provided that encourages learners to apply what they have learnt, and reflection questions follow.
This is an interesting section and it’s a change of focus from the previous chapters, which tend to skip the references to ‘theory’ and trust more in the voice of the author, which guides the reader step-by-step through each activity for adaptation/enhancement.
This resource would be very useful for teachers fresh off the CELTA who are expected to follow a coursebook. It does include plenty of tips for enhancing typical coursebook activities, and certainly brings more communication and interaction to proceedings. I remember writing a post about having to plan lessons based around coursebook content, and much of what is in this book is similar in that sense – tiny tweaks, personalization, do more with less, bring words into play more, vary interaction, etc. This book is kind of a substitute for having an experienced teacher in the staffroom who you go to and say ‘how do you make gap fills / matching tasks / etc more interesting?’ and they reel off their ideas.
What the book doesn’t do is question the approaches taken in coursebooks. I think we can all accept (can’t we?) that the ‘coursebook approach’, i.e. the suggested flow and type of activities, may not be effective for teaching and learning. I realise that my own adaptations of coursebook content, while seeming to enhance, sometimes just paper over cracks in the underlying approach. Arguably, some of what the author presents here does the same. Can we criticize the author for that? No, I don’t think so. What they have produced is (for the most part) a worthwhile and useful resource for early career teachers to help them build their confidence, teaching repertoire, and to achieve the unachievable(!) – make the coursebook content more interesting and engaging for the learners!
There are plenty of people pushing different (and possibly more effective) approaches to coursebook-driven instruction. Until real change happens, like it or lump it, many teachers are stuck with coursebooks. The best thing about this book is how the author has collated so many real examples of coursebook activities on a variety of skills and topics, and many of these examples are up to date. This content is very useful and rich from the perspective of coursebook critique, and serves to frame some of these issues well.
Overall, strong in parts, perhaps weaker in others, useful for new teachers, provides useful insight for fellow writers.
Categories: General, reviews, teacher development
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