Developing curriculum without a textbook

Some teachers prefer to ditch the textbook for more ‘creative’ endeavors.  I am personally a fan of textbooks (with appropriate supplements here and there) because they provide an overarching picture of what a student learns.  But what’s a teacher – creative or not – to do when there is no textbook?  In such situations, some teachers may jump from random topic to random topic, frustrating even themselves for lack of clarity and direction.

So where do you start if you’re in the boat without a book?[1]

Student Knowledge

  1. What do your students know? Determine an approximate level (beginner, intermediate, advanced).
  2. What do your students need to know? Pay particular attention to the kind of language skills the have – reading, writing, speaking, listening – over the specific knowledge they possess.
  3. Why are your students learning English? What kind of English do they need? Teaching English for university preparation will look very different than teaching conversational English to children.
  4. How are students accustomed to learning? Trying to impose a great deal of group work on children more used to rote drills will be challenging.  Make an effort to work within some of the context of the culture you’re teaching in so that the method doesn’t distract the students from the content.


  1. How much time do you have to teach and plan?
  2. How many other materials (including copiers, chalkboards, etc.) are available?
  3. What kind of training do the teachers around you have?

So now that you know where you are, what do you actually do?

  1. Determine the ‘big topics’ of what you will teach of the entire course. Students learn better when topics are loosely associated with each other (for example:  teach transportation modes together, teach food/restaurant vocab at the same time, etc.).  Topics will be influenced heavily by your answers to the questions above regarding student knowledge.  Some of these books may be helpful in the process.
  2. Break down the big topics into smaller chunks and determine what type of grammar might pair well with the topics.
  3. Focus first on practical language! Teaching obscure vocabulary and minute grammar points (unless it’s appropriate for the type of class you’re teaching) will only serve to frustrate everyone.  Make an effort to teach language skills – reading, writing, teaching, listening – evenly throughout the class.  Read Examples of language focused learning for some suggestions of activities that help do this.
  4. Don’t forget to assess what the students are learning.

7 thoughts on “Developing curriculum without a textbook

  1. This post took me back to my days as a Spanish major in college. I must say that there is no substitute for great environment when learning a second language. Small groups work best, with native speakers as the guide. But I think the setting has a lot to do with how students learn. I was teaching English to classrooms of 35 students in Ecuador and I wanted to pull my hair out. There was a textbook, and with that many there needed to be, but the size was overwhelming.
    As far as textbooks, I think if the Internet is available Youtube can be a great resource. Do you know of any great online resources students can use?

  2. What would you suggest for classroom settings with no textbook, access to the internet or technology? It’s just me and the blackboard and my 100+ students…

    I think my lessons are all over the place and I’m trying to harmonize them for next year but it’s hard when group work/typical EFL activities cannot be done.
    Thank you!

  3. I teach at a teacher training college in Cameroon (West Africa) with the Peace Corps. I’d say I have from low beginner (can’t say “hi my name is____”) to advanced (writing final thesis in English) in the same class for all my classes. They don’t group them by level but by graduation group.

    1. I’d say your best bet is to do a mix of breaking them into groups by levels and giving work based on this. I’d also come up with an overall plan on what each level of students needs to learn – this will make it a lot easy to look for materials and will help you feel less ‘all over the place’. As far as group work together, you could do teach songs or poems – this will give you something to work on as an entire class. You could also have ‘talking themes’ on current events for students to discuss by level (BBC Learning English has some great resources here). You can also use many of these activities in a large group setting without many resources. If you have regular internet access, there’s a LOT you can find online if you have a plan for what you’re looking for. Are there colleagues you feel you can talk to about what’s been done in the past? Don’t feel bad letting go of ‘best case scenario’ and working with what you have. In this kind of situation, you really just need to do the best you can given the constraints of the environment.

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