How can we get away from the “tyranny of the textbook”? It’s
not easy. Most of them are carefully thought out and tightly
knit. So busy teachers are mainly limited to adapting them a
bit, taking the activity out of the book, for example by dictating
the discussion questions or having students brainstorm vocabulary.
In addition, teachers can supplement them using songs, DVDs,
games, articles, or maybe a favourite activity from another
textbook. Actually this is so commonplace that many textbooks
now come with their own supplementary activities book. Thoughtful
authors are making our jobs easier, but more difficult if we
wish to escape the “tyranny of the textbook” and inject more
life into the classroom and respond more directly to our students’
One good way to stop this over-domination of the textbook is
to increase Teacher Talking Time (TTT). I’m not talking about
rambling on in front of your class or lecturing at them, but
about choosing your language carefully to give the students
the input they most need at that moment. In the Lexical Approach
this is known as Carefully Controlled Teacher Talking Time (CCTTT).
No matter how good a textbook is, we can’t forget that it’s
just printed words on a page: it can never be as immediate and
responsive as a good teacher. We’re going to be looking at four
modes of CCTTT: 1) the teacher’s anecdote, 2) modelling, 3)
the language expert and 4) on-going revision.
The teacher’s anecdote
This basically is telling a story to your class. I suppose
it could be The Three Little Pigs but it’s normally better if
it’s a true story about yourself or perhaps someone you know,
and you should use “natural” language. I never write the story
down and read it to my students because you lose all spontaneity
that way. In fact, I like it when they interrupt and ask questions
because it shows involvement and that they’re actively listening
While I don’t recommend writing it all out, you should have
a pretty good idea of what you’re going to say beforehand because
later you’re going to encourage your students to notice the
target language you’ve used. I like to write out beforehand
the lexis or phrases which I intend to highlight.
For example, let’s imagine you have an upper-intermediate class
and today there’s a listening where people discuss past experiences
where they’ve had to get used to something, this is followed
by a language focus on “used to” and “to be used to”. Undoubtedly
the students would much rather hear about your past experiences
and what you’ve had to get used to; though if the listening
is good you can always come back to it later and revise the
language point while you’re at it. So here’s an example of an
“Have I ever told you about my first impressions of Spain?
I really loved it. I guess that’s why I’m still here. I really
love the food, though I have to admit mealtimes were strange
for me. Lunch at 2:00 wasn’t really a problem, I got used to
that right away, but dinner at 10:00 or even 11:00 was frankly
strange. To be honest, I’ve never got used to having dinner
that late. The problem is that if you have dinner late then
you go to bed late, which Spaniards normally do. Actually that’s
not a problem for me: I used to go to bed really late when I
was in the university, but a friend of mine has never got used
to that. She goes to bed at 10.00 or 11:00. At least she’s rested
in the morning.”
After your anecdote and some questions and discussion (Be careful!
It’s easy to turn this into a long conversation), I often have
them retell my anecdote is pairs. Then I try to elicit target
language and get it up on the white board. I say “try” because
students notice (ask about) different things, and you should
be receptive to spending time on other language points they
may have noticed.
If the students are lexically aware, they may have noticed
lexical chunks such as “first impression”, “mealtimes”, “to
be honest”, “it was frankly strange”, “a friend of mine” or
even “I guess that’s why…”. If your students are noticing lexis
like this, I’d say it’s time to set off the fireworks. But get
your target language on the board too: if eliciting doesn’t
work just give it to them. You should give them the entire sentence
(the underlined parts of the anecdote) so you don’t lose any
more context than necessary.
Once you have the sentences or phrases on the board, I usually
put my students in pairs or groups of three and ask them what
they know about the language point (“used to”, “be used to”
in this case). Then class feedback which usually involves some
teacher explanation or clarification.
And now, only now, do they open their textbook. We’ve put it
off for quite a while, haven’t we? Now I get them to read the
grammar reference and compare their ideas with the author’s.
In most books the next step is controlled written practice followed
by a freer speaking activity. We’ve skipped the book’s lead-in
and text with its language input, which is a shame if it was
a good text. But we’ve given them a much more dynamic, interactive
class providing our own language input. Anyway, a reading text
from the book can always be assigned as homework.
So the benefits of the teacher’s anecdote are:
You get away from the “tyranny of the textbook”
You get the students’ heads out of the book
The students see you more as a human being
The class is more personalized
The class is more interesting and interactive: students participate
and ask questions
You pick up the pace and get through material more quickly
(if you need to do that)
Another valuable mode of CCTTT is modelling speaking activities
for the students. This gives them a better idea of what you
expect from them and is a way to input language they may find
useful. For example, let’s imagine an intermediate group of
students have discussion questions about the cinema along the
What kinds of films do you like / dislike?
What’s the best film you’ve seen recently?
You’ve already exposed them to film vocabulary. So now you answer
the discussion questions yourself to the class.
"Well, let’s see, it’s hard to say. I mean I like all kinds
of films, it depends on what kind of mood I’m in. Sometimes
I like light films like Love Actually. It’s funny and has a
happy ending and it’s not too serious. But having said that,
I also like Quentin Tarantino films, which tend to be violent.
I especially like Pulp Fiction because it has great dialogue.
That’s one of my favourites. John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson
are superb in their roles as gangsters. I also loved Saving
Private Ryan. It’s an amazing portrayal of the horrors of war."
The underlined words could be emphasized to encourage students
to notice them, or some could be put up on the white board,
for example, by asking the students if they tend to prefer light
films or violent ones. Then have the students discuss the questions
in small groups.
The benefits of modelling for students are:
As with the teacher’s anecdote, you’re out of the book, the
students are getting to know you better, it’s interactive, interesting
They have a better idea of what you expect from them.
It helps them remember useful lexis for the discussion
The language expert
One of the main roles of the teacher is to give students feedback
and correction on their language. For example, imagine you’ve
been monitoring the above conversation about the cinema and
you’ve heard a student say, “It was a strong film”. You write
this down and when they finish you write the sentence on the
board and ask them what’s wrong with it. You elicit that “strong”
doesn’t collocate with “film”. Then you ask what does.
They should come up with some guesses which is a good way for
them to test what they know. In the end you’ll probably come
up with something like, “a powerful / well-hard / heavy film”.
You can also look at other adjectives such as “superb, brilliant,
After pointing out that “strong” doesn’t collocate with “film”,
they may want to know what it does collocate with. This is an
excellent moment to have a good dictionary on hand. If you have
enough for the students, have them look it up and tell you.
You’ll probably come up with things such as “strong relationship
/ economy / wind / language”. Students should definitely write
all this down and put it in their lexical notebook for easy
The benefits of this are:
Students learn practical lexis which is immediately relevant
to their needsIt’s a personalized focus on their lexical needs
They increase their communicative power which increases fluency
Central to the Lexical Approach is the importance of exposure
to language. Linguists say that students need to come in contact
with a lexical item about seven times before it’s internalised
(acquired or learnt). This means exposure to English implies
revision when something comes up they’ve seen before. The teacher
is obviously in an ideal position to facilitate this. For example,
imagine a week or two ago you exposed the students to “used
to” and “be used to” and in today’s class you’re talking about
what you do at the weekend. So you say, “Actually I teach on
Saturdays. Times have really changed. When I first came to Spain
nobody used to have English class on Saturdays. Now I’m used
to it. It seems normal now.” This is just a passing comment
you’ve made, but it’s served to reactivate and reinforce this
There are many good textbooks out there these days, so it’s
easy to fall into the trap of over-relying on them. While adapting
them or supplementing them is a good idea, we can escape their
“tyranny” more effectively by making careful use of our speaking
time. We can express ourselves and our ideas, respond more directly
to our students’ needs, encourage noticing, and all the while
make our classes more dynamic and interesting.