Adapting ELT resources for ESOL

With thanks to @senicko and #eltpics

I was really sorry to miss the recent Twitter chat under #ukesolchat , not least because it’s a pet topic of mine! It looks to have been an interesting discussion, and there were plenty of different views aired. However, I don’t think anyone really made much of a case for using coursebooks, and I think there is often a rather knee-jerk reaction against using them in ESOL contexts. I hasten to say that this wasn’t apparent in this chat, but it is a common perception.

As you may know, a large part of my ‘job’ these days involves writing coursebooks, so I admit to a bias. But my convictions don’t come from this, but from 10 years teaching ESOL in an FE College, and a further three years training ESOL teachers from a wide variety of contexts, at Warwick University.

I would never argue that an ELT coursebook should form the syllabus for an ESOL course. It’s obvious that some of the material will be unsuitable or inappropriate, and many good points on this were made in the twitter discussion I mentioned. A lot of coursebooks (and I’ve written some) are specifically designed to be ‘aspirational’, which means they refer to foreign holidays, the latest technology and so on. There may be culturally inappropriate topics, such as dating or divorce. There will probably be topics about family, childhood or home, which may bring up painful issues for refugees. There may be (who am I kidding, there will be) an assumption that the learners’ literacy skills are at the same level as their listening and speaking skills. There will probably be an emphasis on grammar rather than functions (which is one of the reasons I agree with @SamShep when he says that older coursebooks are often better for ESOL)

So, no, I wouldn’t suggest taking a coursebook and using it willy-nilly (and that goes for any context).

But, …there will also be a lot of activities that will work perfectly well just as they are, and/or that can be adapted. Coursebook writers generally have a lot of experience, and can write materials which work, and which have been through a long process of being written and rewritten after feedback from editors and often focus groups of teachers as well.

Writing all your own materials is very time-consuming, it can lead to a lack of variety, and it isn’t that easy. In my experience, a lot of ESOL teachers (present company probably excepted) have not had much training in either language awareness or materials development (a point also made in the discussion), and they may well struggle to produce materials which are pitched at the right level, deal with language accurately and clearly, and which flow well. I have observed a lot of teachers using a series of unconnected worksheets printed from websites, or authentic articles which are waded through slowly and painfully. Using a coursebook as a basis can be a good way of learning to produce your own materials, as you see how activities can be sequenced effectively. It’s certainly how I learnt.

Specific ideas for adapting ELT materials for ESOL

The first point being, if an activity is really unsuitable, obviously, do something else instead!

But if it has potential..


  • If your students have low levels of literacy, but better listening skills, then why not read a text aloud to them instead of making them read it?  You should be able to significantly aid understanding through intonation, mime, quick comprehension checks and so on.
  • Differentiate texts by setting different questions (the more closed, the easier), or use them as a dictation and remove more words/chunks for more confident learners.
  • Replace unsuitable texts with something more appropriate, but which covers similar vocabulary/functions. For example a text about dangerous sports which highlights ‘Have you ever?’ could be replaced by you telling the students about something unusual you have done, that is still within their experience. This means you can probably still use the follow-up activities.
  • Use the recordings to work on decoding skills, rather than just comprehension questions.  This can be a stepping stone to work on more challenging authentic listenings and videos.
  • Let students look at the transcript while they’re listening. This can be really helpful in raising awareness of the sound-spelling relationships in English, and it’s something you usually can’t do with authentic material.

Language focus

  • Use the grammar exercises selectively, when students have demonstrated a need for a particular language point to provide practice, rather than feeling you need to work through the grammar syllabus.
  • Make good use of functional language, as this is often far more relevant for ESOL students than it is for the majority of the book’s target users, living in a non-English speaking community.


  • Use the communication activities/tasks as the basis for a Language Experience Approach activity, where students work together to create a text about the activity they have carried out. This text can then be used as the basis for future work.
  • ESOL students may be less likely to need academic style essays (though some will of course), but there are usually plenty of practical writing activities. For example, in any PET level  coursebooks, students will learn how to write emails to friends with a variety of functions- apologising, thanking, inviting. And why assume that ESOL students don’t want to write creatively?

So, while recognising all the drawbacks of the ELT coursebook in an ESOL context (or rather different ESOL contexts), can I make a plea not to chuck out the baby with the bath-water?


Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Teaching methodology

4 Responses to Adapting ELT resources for ESOL

  1. Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for some excellent classroom ideas. And I couldn’t agree more that most coursebooks are filled with very usable materials. When I used to work in a language school, I was handed a coursebook and told to use it. The photos alone made it a pretty useful tool. Like you point out, it’s not about following the book, but adapting it to your students. And at least in Japan, most students really want a coursebook. Not only that, they want the teacher to touch on every page before the course is finished. Which is a different problem entirely.


    • Yes, I’ve worked in contexts like that too- and it is a problem because no coursebook is ever going to be perfectly suitable from beginning to end, no matter how good the match with students’ needs.
      And the match isn’t that great in the first place for a lot of ESOL students.
      But I did find it frustrating going in to classes where a teacher was struggling to produce materials which worked, but was determined not use anything from ELT because it was ‘unsuitable’.

  2. Hi Rachel,
    Thank you for this post. I couldn’t agree more that in an EFL or ESOL context course books need to be adapted for the class. In my ESOL classes I teach students from mixed educational backgrounds, so finding activities to meet all needs is a huge challenge. I teach 23 hours a week and simply would not have time to make all my own resources. Luckily there are a variety of course books offering many interesting, relevant topics and a variety of adaptable activities – I use these in addition to news articles and video clips on any current topic that is interesting.
    As you suggested, course book recordings can be good for decoding (in class or in self-study sessions). For example, I used an English For Life grammar activity as an easier version of a dictogloss. Instead of reading the sentences and choosing was or were in each sentence, then listening to check, I played the whole text, then I played each sentence once while they wrote as much as they could, some students together to construct the sentences. They then listened a second time to check.Worked really well! To adapt a reading task with comprehension questions I sometimes ask them to come up with questions to ask the person in the photo and show them a video clip with the sound off if it’s about somebody famous (such as the French Spiderman climbing a building). They can then read to see if their questions are answered, retell the main points to their partner and write a summary at the end or as a review in the next lesson.
    These are the main course books I use, basing my schemes of work around a combination of topics that the class are interested in: English For Life, Total English, Cutting Edge, and Global English.

    • Hi Francesca,

      Yes, I think ESOL classes tend to be much less homogeneous (in a variety of ways) than the average EFL class (if there is such a thing), so meeting different needs is a major challenge, and preparing materials even more so.
      I particularly love your idea for making the gap-fill a dictogloss- much more communicative, and less ‘grammar for the sake of it’, while still leaving room to focus on the grammar as part of the whole.

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