15 more ways of using a book that is too low level for your class

1. Prepare for an exam at the same time
For example, spend some time on the language and task types of FCE, TOEFL or IELTS. Even if students aren’t going to take the exam, you can justify this by telling them that it will help them really test their level and know their strengths and weaknesses, as well as being more challenging material that will help push up their general English level.

2. Do some Business English or ESP
Even if your students are studying General English, they would probably benefit sooner or later from more work on telephoning and emailing than are generally given in non-business textbooks. For classes that don’t need to use the language at work yet, a good approach is to choose topics that people come across as consumers too, e.g. advertising on TV, or complaining about bad service. If they are already studying Business English, you could try doing some materials that are more specifically connected to their job or area of business, e.g. Technical English or Financial English.

3. More difficult tasks for the same texts
For example, timed skimming and scanning tasks, looking at nuances of meaning and how the writer feels about the subject, writing summaries, information transfer tasks where the language has to be written in very different forms from the language in the text, or finding words in the text that match the definitions you give.

4. The same tasks one more time with more difficult texts
This works particularly well with exam classes or other classes that know they need reading or listening skills. When you have practiced, for example, multiple choice tasks in the textbook, explain some tactics for how to do those kinds of tasks well and then try the same kind of task with a more difficult text such as one about a more difficult topic, one from the revision section, one from a higher level textbook, or an authentic text written for native English speakers.

5. Brainstorm
In this kind of class, this most typically means brainstorming more difficult language in the same topic area, e.g. “turquoise” when doing colours or “receding hairline” when doing personal appearances. When doing so, make sure you have decided at least a few items of vocab that you can add to whatever the students come up with. It is also possible to brainstorm to extend grammar presentations, for example eliciting sentences using “I have been” and then explaining all the different meanings that come up rather than just the single meaning (e.g. “ever”) in the book.

6. Use the texts as a prompt for writing
This can make the speed at which they get through the text seem like a good thing, as that is quite typical for something that is mainly a lead in to something else. You can link the text in the book and their finished writing by genre (newspaper article, letter etc), type of publication it would appear in, paragraph organisation, topic, level of formality, or, if they set tasks for other students to try, type of task. Other challenging writing tasks include summary writing, responding to the points in the text (especially if it is something people would typically respond to such as a blog entry or an email), or rewriting the text in a different style.

7. Use the texts as a prompt for speaking
If the reading and listening texts don’t provide enough challenge in those skills to make them worthwhile, you can instead treat them as a prompt for or the raw material for a speaking activity. You can put speaking directly into the reading or listening stage with activities like running dictations or jigsaw readings and listenings. Speaking you can add after quickly reading or listening includes orally testing each other on the content, roleplays, debates using the information in the text, or taking on the view expressed in the text (or its opposite).

8. Correct mistakes they didn’t make
As they will be less likely to make mistakes with the language being covered in the book if it is easy for them, to have a useful error correction stage you will either need to make sure there is plenty of freeish communication so that they make more mistakes or bring in some possible or (preferably) typical errors. These can be based around the main grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation or functional language points of the unit, or could be other things that could come up during the communicative tasks.

9. Throw them in the deep end
To show the value of going through language they think they already know one more time, start the lesson with the most difficult thing in the book such as the speaking task at the end of the unit or the progress or final test, then use the book to explain and practice any language and skills they have problems with. You can then go back and do the same or a similar thing to the original task to show them how much the book (and any supplementary materials you have used) has helped them improve.

10. Choose a book that is actually higher level
– meaning that even though it says the same level on the cover, it is actually more challenging for most students who use it. It can be hard to judge such things before using a textbook, but clues include having more pages, longer texts, grammar points that are usually dealt with in the next level up, more involved speaking tasks (e.g. those that take up more page space), dealing with more complex aspects of the language (such as formality), including authentic texts, or being part of a range of books that are usually quite challenging. You could also ask teachers in your school or on TEFL online forums for recommendations for a “high level Elementary” etc textbook.

11. Use authentic texts on the same subject
This can be after the text in the book to stretch their language or bring the topic up to date and make it topical before moving onto the final discussion stage, or it could also be done before the text to stimulate their interest in the topic and show that it is something people talk about in the real world (and so make up for the fact that they won’t get much language out of the textbook text). Alternatively, you could just replace the textbook text with the authentic text, perhaps still using the pictures in the textbook to prompt discussion.

12. Presentations and projects on the topics in the books
This allows students to stretch themselves as much as they like while making the textbook content look as relevant as possible and giving them the opportunity to actually use language that you would usually only teach for comprehension.

13. Alternate difficult and easy
You can organise this by alternating things from the book and things from elsewhere, difficult and easy language points, difficult and easy units from the book, or skills or types of language that they usually find difficult or easy.

14. Get them to challenge each other/ set each other tasks
There are many ways of doing this, and almost all of them are fun and are also more likely to be accepted by students who don’t like being stretched than being asked to do something difficult by the teacher. Some examples include asking each other additional comprehension questions about a text (e.g. with the people answering having their books closed to add to the challenge), making gap fill tasks for each other to try, or writing comprehension questions about any text in the whole book for other teams to rush to find the right text and then the answers for.

15. Rewrite
This is perhaps the most time consuming tip here, but the teacher can rewrite exercises, texts, comprehension questions, roleplay cards or instructions of games to make them more challenging, for example by using the same sentences as in the textbook gap fill exercise but taking out different words or rewriting it as an error correction rather than a gapfill. Being able to show the students the original exercise in their books after finishing your more difficult version helps show the relevance of your exercise (something some students have difficulty accepting if it isn’t in the book) and how the textbook is nearly what they need (in case they were wondering why they paid so much money for it if it is too easy).

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net September 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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