Teaching Language without Textbook

Teaching language, Image source: Words Worth English Language Club
Teaching language, Image source: Words Worth English Language Club
Masum Billah
Written by Masum Billah

Language teaching needs five important components such as students, teachers, materials, teaching methods and evaluation. Using materials mostly indicating textbooks gets third importance in language teaching. Can we teach English without a textbook? One thing has made me surprised to see the students of Sierra Leone do not have a textbook with them. This is not because of their culture but because of poverty. Students cannot afford to buy textbooks. As teachers say, only five per cent of students may have text. But the students of junior secondary (grade seven to nine) speak English fluently. They do not have ample opportunity to speak English even in their families. How is it possible? I have been searching for answers for the last severe weeks and have tried to know the theories of language experts.

Allwright (1990) argues that students should have materials that mean textbooks for ideas and activities for instruction. From Allwright’s point of view, textbooks are too inflexible to be used directly as instructional material. O’Neill (1990), in contrast, argues that materials may be suitable for students’ needs, even if they are not designed specifically for them, that textbooks make it possible for students to review and prepare their lessons that textbooks are efficient in terms of time and money, and that textbooks can and should allow for adaptation and improvisation. Allwright emphasizes that materials control learning and teaching.

It is true that in many cases teachers and students rely heavily on textbooks, and textbooks determine the components and methods of learning, that is, they control the content, methods, and procedures of learning. Students learn what is presented in the textbook, and the way the textbook presents material is the way students learn it. It is also true that experienced and highly motivated teachers can teach English without textbooks as they develop various sorts of teaching materials to cater to the needs of the students according to their grades and age. However, many teachers cannot afford to do that and many teachers actually do not have time to make supplementary materials, so they just follow the textbooks. Textbooks, therefore, play a very important role in language classes. This is why textbooks are the most common and popular teaching materials in any country.

Since the end of the 1970s, there has been a movement to make learners rather than teachers the centre of language learning. According to this approach to teaching, learners are more important than teachers, materials, curriculum, methods, or evaluation. Still, I have questions. Do the students of this country get that sort of importance? I have visited several schools in two districts of Sierra Leone which tells me that students do not get due importance as necessary. As a matter of fact, curriculum, materials, teaching language methods, and evaluation should all be designed for learners and their needs. Here textbooks are very good for language and grammar teaching but students do not have these materials with them. A very strange situation indeed! It is the teacher’s responsibility to check to see whether all of the elements of the learning process are working well for learners and to adapt them if they are not. Materials include textbooks, video and audiotapes, computer software, and visual aids but the rural students of Sierra Leone don’t have access to any of these materials.

Though students should be the centre of instruction, in many cases, teachers and students rely on materials, and the materials become the centre of instruction. Since many teachers are busy and do not have the time or inclination to prepare extra materials, textbooks and other commercially produced materials are very important in language instruction. But, commercially produced teaching materials are also not available here like in Bangladesh. Therefore, it is important for teachers to know how to choose the best material for instruction, how to make supplementary materials for the class, and how to adapt materials. Littlejohn and Windeatt (1989) argue that materials have a hidden curriculum that includes attitudes toward knowledge, attitudes toward teaching and learning, attitudes toward the role and relationship of the teacher and student, and values and attitudes related to gender, society, etc. Materials have an underlying instructional philosophy, approach, method, and content, including both linguistic and cultural information.

English textbooks should have correct, natural, recent, and Standard English. Since students’ vocabulary is limited, the vocabulary in textbooks should be controlled or the textbooks should provide information to help students understand the vocabulary that they may not be familiar with. For lower-level students, grammar should also be controlled. Many textbooks use narratives and essays. It would be useful to have a variety of literary forms so that students can learn to deal with different forms. The cultural information included in English textbooks should be correct and recent. It should not be biased and should reflect the background cultures of English. It should include visual aids to help students understand cultural information.

English textbooks should be useful, meaningful and interesting for students. Materials should be slightly higher in their level of difficulty than the students’ current level of English proficiency. Materials at a slightly higher level of difficulty than the students’ current level of English proficiency allow them to learn new grammatical structures and vocabulary. English textbooks should have clear instructional procedure and methods, that is, the teacher and students should be able to understand what is expected in each lesson and for each activity.

Nowadays quite a good number of secondary level English teachers have the scope to go to English-speaking countries. They can provide a variety of materials to their students as they were exposed to many experienced language teachers and their way of teaching. Therefore, I want to focus on the point that the teachers of Bangladesh can contribute a lot to developing the speaking skills of our students which is of paramount importance today. When the students of Sierra Leone can speak good English without using textbooks and other materials, why can’t we?


Allwright, R. L. (1990). What do we want teaching materials for? In R. Rossner and R. Bolitho, (Eds.), Currents in language teaching. Oxford University Press.

Littlejohn, A., & Windeatt, S. (1989). Beyond language learning: Perspective on materials design. In R. K. Johnson (Ed.), The second language curriculum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Neill, R. (1990). Why use textbooks? In R. Rossner and R. Bolitho, (Eds.), Currents in language teaching. Oxford University Press.

About the author

Masum Billah

Masum Billah

Masum Billah works as an Education Expert in the BRAC Education Program, BRAC, and President of the English Teachers' Association of Bangladesh (ETAB), Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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