Sometimes, this question seems to be dogmatic. Like: If you don’t use your own material, you’re not a real teacher.

So let’s have a look at both possibilities, textbooks or own material.

Working with your own material

In most cases, “own material” is not as original as the expression suggests. When preparing their own material, teachers use texts from the internet, videos, pictures, excerpts and exercises from grammar books etc.

Authentic material taken from websites or newspapers for native speakers often has to be adapted, especially when working with students below the C levels.

However, even when working with C-level students, you cannot just convert a text into a PDF file and present it as your own material. That may sound obvious but I’ve had teachers who did exactly that.

So here are some ideas which you can apply to make sure your student does not only read a text but dives into the topic and also learns new words and expressions.

How to create material based on a text:

  • Highlight (idiomatic) expressions  which may be new for your students
  • Shorten sentences or simplify the sentence structure when working with B level students
  • Prepare questions to check if the student really understood the text
  • Let your students summarise the text in their own words.
  • Prepare follow-up questions which prompt your students to express their own opinion
  • Add a video which covers the same topic from a different perspective or which focuses on one detail mentioned in the text (If you want to check your students listening comprehension, use edpuzzle for videos).

Take into consideration that your students have different personalities

I use my own material for a conversation course and the general idea is that one topic can be covered in 60 minutes. However, students are very different.

Some students just go through the text and the exercises, answer everything but it’s obvious that they’re not too keen to share their opinion.

Personally, I’m totally the opposite as a student. If you give me a topic I’m interested in and which is hopefully a bit controversial, I’m likely to skip all exercises and just keep on talking. So I’m sometimes a nightmare for a teacher who provided a carefully prepared PDF file and has to cope with a student who chooses to ignore most of the content.

I’m always a bit irritated when I work with students who speak the language well but are very reluctant to speak and hardly ever leave their comfort zone. Using a conversational approach with such students is often tough and sometimes, I suggest to work with a textbook. Sure, the textbooks for the B2+ levels also have quite a few conversational topics but there are also exercises. Students who are a bit shy or simply don’t feel good sharing personal opinions with a teacher are often relieved when they’re given the opportunity to do some exercises and focus on language aspects only.

Working with textbooks

Textbooks have the reputation to be boring and far from reality. Probably we all had to use textbooks when we learnt a language at school. But textbooks were carefully compiled by people who know much more about didactics than the average teacher, so I’ve never understood why so many people (teachers as well as students) are reluctant to work with textbooks.

When I work with A1 – B1 students, I always use textbooks. I supplement them with some other material but they are the foundation of my classes.

The reason is very simple: When working with a book, you can be sure that all relevant grammar is covered and that the students amplify their vocabulary gradually which is important for the beginning levels.

All successful language learners I know start with a textbook when tackling a new language. In the case of experienced polyglots it’s often self-learning material like Teach Yourself, Colloquial or Assimil but the principle is the same:  You need to figure out how the language works and understand certain rules, otherwise you will never be able to speak correctly.

That doesn’t mean that textbooks are perfect, of course. Some of their main disadvantages include:

  1. They’re aimed at groups, so you will need to change or adapt quite a few exercises to make them suitable for 1:1 tuition.
  2. Some topics are not relevant for the student as far as content is concerned but may be important because of the grammar.
  3. Completing a lot of grammar exercises won’t enable the student to apply the language in the real world.

On the other hand, avoiding those disadvantages isn’t too difficult, either and when working 1:1 with a student, you have endless possibilities to vary exercises and adapt the book’s content to the student’s needs.

My students have all the solutions and transcripts of the books I’m working with. That way, they can do grammar exercises on their own if they want to and check their results. I’m working with grown-up people who should be able to assume some responsibility for their language learning.

Once again, the student’s personality makes a difference. There will be courageous beginner students who try to talk as much as they can right from the start and there will be those who stick to the exercises and the texts.

Texts are great to make shy students speak, by the way. I often swap roles with students and prompt them to ask me questions about the text. They often come up with totally different questions than I would have thought of and that’s often fun.

What about textbooks for advanced level students?

As I mentioned above, up to the B1 level, I find textbooks essential. “Big” languages like German, English, French or Spanish also offer textbooks for the C levels. For German, I work with Mittelpunkt neu  C1 and Erkundungen C2. The latter one is actually the only C2 textbook for German I know and goes very much into detail as far as certain grammatical peculiarities are concerned.

So does it make sense to use such advanced level textbooks? I’ve worked with C1 Spanish textbooks and although I got sometimes bored, I also learned a lot and was able to have a look at the language at a different way again. So, I do recommend that you offer your advanced students the possibility to work with a textbook. When someone already speaks a language at a B2 level, he or she should be able to decide if he or she wants to work with a textbook or use rather a conversational approach.

So how do you do you work? Do you prefer to work with textbooks or do you rather use your own material? Or a mixture? Please don’t hesitate to write in the comments. 


Author: Daniela

Hi! I'm Daniela - a native German who's living as a digital nomad in Latin America. Besides making a living teaching German, I'm constantly trying to improve my Spanish and Portuguese. On my blog, I write articles for (aspiring) language teachers to help them get started and for people who want to travel the world and make some extra cash teaching offering quality language lesson.

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2 thoughts on “Textbooks or own material?

  1. Great article, Daniela!
    It’s beenn refreshing to read it and see it also more as a permission for myself to use more often textbooks 🙂 I’ve been chronically avoiding them since my teacher’s training, where we’ve been exsplicitly trained to treat any type of teaching materials with high criticism and skepsis.

    I like the way you put the pros and cons.
    I agree with you that it takes a lot of effort and expertise to put textbooks together. When I worked as a textbook presenter for Cornelsen, I had the chance also to speak with some of the authors and get insights about the textbook writing/creating process. So yes , it is immense. The problem is their general/commercial approach aiming for a very general audience.

    Yes, as you said, we have billions of options to individualize our lessons. And generally speaking, I think up to A2,-B1, you can always use a textbook. Once the student has built some basic knowledge, depending on the learning goals, textbooks might be too general and I’ve seen very often students losing motivation because what they learn in class is not super relevant for them.

    Everything depends on the student’s learning goals!

    In my experience, taking the time to develop student-centered materials has a HUGE impact on their motivation and learning results.

    That’s one of the reasons I guess why so many teachers are reluctant to use them. On the other hand, being aware of how much work it is to create good teaching materials, many teachers are just convient and choose to trust established didactic experts. Nothing wrong with that. However, I think it is also very time consuming to pick and choose from existing materials, especially when you are not entirely happy with the textbook you’ve been using.

    I love to use textbooks for ideas and inspiration, but for me it is easier and not quick but often quicker to create my own materials with the student’s needs in mind instead of trying to adapt other things and then trying to convince myself and him that this is what we need to learn.

    Maybe partially because of my teaching degree – there we were excplicitely taught to never rely on textbooks or grammar books, to critically eveluate them and use them only for the reason they’ve been purposefully created for – big heterogen groups.

    When it comes to preparation for standardized tests, I also like to use practice tests and the teaching materials going with them.

    For private lessons, I just love the freedom to quickly adapt to my student’s needs and motivating them by discussing highly relevant topics. Following a textbook is often too constraining and boring for me.

    It is interesting to realize what a “personal topic” that is 🙂 Typically for teachers, we all have our preferences. Thanks for the food for thought.

    Another interesting topic that I am curious to pick up your brain on is: homework assignments – yes/no, in what form and why 🙂

    Posted on 16. March 2017 at 4:05
  2. Hi Daniela, I always work with textbooks plus additional materials with my students up to and including B1, and I just adapt exercises or substitute them, depending on the student’s needs or interests. I also provide them with the transcripts and solutions to do grammar exercises and listening exercises at home. They are structured according to language learning research, and doing this on your own requires not only a lot of work but also in-depth knowledge of how language is introduced practiced, and scaffolded.
    For B2-C2, I also mostly work with books, because I get almost exclusively exam-prep requests at that level, whether for German or for English. That requires structured work in the exam format, so here I just add reading texts for analysis and discussion and writing topics, as needed. However, I have also never been asked for just conversation lessons. Sometimes people started out that way, but pretty soon they changed to exam prep. But then I also still teach 1 on1 in person.

    Posted on 2. July 2017 at 22:52