Evaluating Classroom Teaching Materials
© 2004, Dianne F. Dow
With thousands of textbooks on the market,
and dozens of publishers vying for your business, the selection
of appropriate classroom materials is far from a simple process.
To help you make well-informed decisions, we first address some
widely held myths about EFL/ESL textbooks and then discuss three
key steps to guide your evaluation of materials and selection
of the most appropriate textbooks for your instructional needs.
Myths About EFL/ESL Textbooks
Those new to the field of ESL/EFL teaching often subscribe to
at least one of the three common myths about classroom textbooks.
We offer a counterpoint to each one.
Myth # 1: The textbook is the course
Although many excellent textbooks are available, there is no
perfect textbook that can meet all the teaching-learning needs
that will arise in your particular situation. The most appropriate
course content is often developed by using an eclectic approach
which pulls the most useful ideas and activities from a variety
of resources, including one or more ESL/EFL textbooks. The textbook,
then, is only one of several sources you draw on to encourage
your students to learn.
Myth # 2: The textbook should be taught
in its entirety with nothing added or deleted
It is seldom the wisest decision to teach the entire textbook
without making additions or deletions. The time frame of a course
may not allow sufficient teaching hours to deal adequately with
each lesson in the text, or the content of individual lessons
may be unsuitable for your students needs or proficiency
level. Only you, as the classroom teacher, can determine which
parts of a text are appropriate and useful for your learners.
Good advice to new teachers comes in the form of an adage: The
best textbook is not the one you adopt but the one you adapt.
Myth # 3: If the title of the book contains
the word communicative, you can trust that it is
The word communicative, unfortunately, has become an overused
buzzword in the EFL/ESL community, and many of the textbooks claiming
this orientation do not live up to their billing. Keep in mind
that a truly communicative text fosters the use of English for
real-life tasks. Through activities such as pair work and small
group work, it provides students with opportunities to use their
new language in a controlled setting (e.g., classroom) before
using it out of class. It also focuses on overall fluency (i.e.,
smoothness or "flow") as well as the accuracy of grammatical
forms. Finally, a communicative textbook encourages the use of
authentic everyday language instead of "textbook" language
that may be stilted and unrealistic.
Textbook Evaluation and Selection
To make an informed decision about textbook selection, you should
know some information about your students
To make an informed decision about textbook selection, you should
know some information about your students needs, your instructional
objectives, and your personal teaching preferences. We list a
number of questions to guide you through this assessment process.
Although you may not be able to find a satisfactory answer for
each question, the answers you do findas well as the additional
information you gather in the processwill be of considerable
benefit in evaluating and selecting materials appropriate for
your teaching situation.
1. Know your students needs
An invaluable first step in the selection of materials is to
gather information about your students language learning
needs and preferences. Although you may want to collect a much
wider range of information, we suggest that you begin with these
four categories: (1) language background, (2) proficiency level,
(3) goals, and (4) preferred approaches to learning.
Language background: previous experiences
with their native language and with English
What are your students native languages?
Can they read and write in their native language?
In what settings have they studied English (e.g., classroom,
Proficiency level in English
Are they beginners, or do they already know some English?
Are all students at the same level?
Are they stronger in some skills (e.g., reading and writing)
and weaker in others (e.g., listening and speaking)?
Do they need English for reading and writing purposes,
or will they use the language mostly for listening and speaking?
If they require oral communication skills, with whom will
they speak English? For example, will they use the language
with other non-native English speakers, or will they use
it with business executives whose native language is English?
What tasks do they want to accomplish in English? For example,
will they need the language to sell products to speakers
of English, or will they need it in order to understand
lectures in English?
Preferred approaches to learning
How do they learn most easily? What is their primary orientationvisual,
auditory, kinesthetic, etc.? Do they favor analytical or
Are they accustomed to a more traditional, teacher-centered
classroom in which most interaction is between teacher and
student (not student to student), or are they more comfortable
in a learner-centered classroom in which students interact
with one another in pairs and small groups?
- Do they like language learning activities in which they
have an opportunity to communicate freely even though they
may make mistakes, or do they prefer the study of grammar
and an emphasis on accuracy of speech and writing?
The answers to these questions will provide one type of information
essential for choosing materials that are suitable for your
particular students. For example, if you are a new teacher in
a country where much of your students previous instruction
involved rote memorization of facts, you may not want to begin
your teaching with a textbook that is strongly communicative
or one that has little emphasis on grammar and accuracy. Frequently,
a more communicative textbook will be better received after
you have gained your students trust, and after you have
employed activities such as pair work and role play gradually
2. Know your instructional objectives
Taking the time to clearly define your objectivesor to
understand the list of objectives provided by the institution
in which you teachwill greatly limit the scope of your
search for the right textbooks. To do this, you should ask questions
such as this:
- Given my students language background, proficiency
level, learning goals, and preferred approaches to learning,
what can I realistically expect them to be able to do as a
result of my English instruction?
Then move from their needs to teaching objectives:
- Make a list of general objectives (e.g., speak outside of
class with native-English speakers) and for each, try to list
two or three specific objectives (e.g., discuss everyday topics
such as foods and clothing).
With a list of objectives in hand, you can narrow your textbook
selection considerably. You do this by matching your objectives
with the proficiency level, content focus, and activity types
of a number of potential choices. You may find, for example,
that your preferred text should have a heavy emphasis on grammar.
Or, you may discover that it should focus entirely on oral communication
skills, including pronunciation, but have little or no emphasis
3. Know your personal teaching preferences
The third step in the selection process is the assessment of
your own teaching style and teaching preferences. To help you
to think about the teaching-learning environment that is most
ideal for you, as well as your expectations of a textbook, you
can begin with questions such as these:
Classroom environment: roles of teacher
What teacher role(s) suit your personality and teaching style?
Do you prefer the role of director (one who carefully guides
students in their learning exercises and activities, usually
having them interact more with you than with each other), the
role of facilitator (one who organizes and monitors pair work
and small group work), or some combination of these roles?
The "fit" between teaching
style and textbook choice
How dependent are you on the textbook content for planning
your lessons? For example, do you prefer to stick to the
textbook, using it as your basic syllabus? Or, do you like
to vary your approach based on the content of the lesson?
- Are you good at adapting materials and/or creating supplemental
As you examine a range of textbooks, you should look for those
that accentuate your strengths while also encouraging you to
develop skills in new areas. For example, if you have not taught
ESL/EFL before, you may prefer to begin with a text that is
more teacher-centered, allowing you to be more in control of
instructional activities. Then, as you get to know your students
and feel more comfortable in the classroom, you may want to
adapt some of the books activities for small group work,
thus creating a more learner-centered environment.
Summary: Three Key Questions
By carefully evaluating a number of textbooks in light of what
you know about your students needs, your instructional
objectives, and yourself as a teacher, you will be better equipped
to choose the best materials for your teaching-learning situation.
For each of these three areas, we have given you a set of questions
to guide your selection process. However, each set can be summarized
by a single key question to ask about the textbook(s) you are
- How appropriate is the book for my students language
- To what extent does the book focus on my instructional objectives?
- What skills do I need in order to use the book most effectively?
Challenges in an EFL Context
Teachers looking for materials appropriate for EFL learners
are likely to encounter two challenges not shared by their ESL
colleagues: the availability of textbooks and the suitability
of content. First, many of the materials readily available in
the United States and the United Kingdom are difficult to obtain
in other parts of the world. Second, some of the available textbooks
may be unsuitable in an EFL context because they focus only
on the language and situations of learners living in an area
where English is widely spoken (e.g., vocabulary and phrases
used for shopping in an American supermarket). ESL materials
such as these may be inappropriate for overseas learners who
have little interest in the topics presented and no opportunity
to use similar language outside the classroom.
Go to the Annotated
Bibliography of Selected Textbooks.