Tuesday, 3 July 2012

In Praise of Workbooks

4 reasons to take another look at your workbook

It seems to me in the modern age workbooks have become a little old fashioned and unpopular amongst teachers. Seen as ‘only controlled practice or homework books’ they are not seen to be communicative enough and are often forgotten about or underused. But actually the workbook is a useful tool for the teacher and student and now that we have online workbooks they can be a key part of the language learning process helping to create a blended learning package for our students.
In this short blog, I will suggest four reasons why workbooks are useful tools and look at how the electronic versions enhances this further.

The first reason that workbooks are useful is that students tend to like them. It is true that many of the exercises in the workbook are controlled practice but a good controlled practice helps students to feel more comfortable with the language.  Controlled practice helps students to remember the language and have more confidence when using it freely. Controlled practice allows students to analyse and manipulate the language they are studying.  Success in controlled practice can be measured and gives students a sense of achievement that freer practice activities don’t always provide and this might be why a study done by Peters, Weinberg, and Sarma (2009) suggested that students preferred doing mechanical workbook type activities online than more creative tasks like making wikis etc.

The second reason is that a good workbook can act as a substitute teacher. The grammar reference, study tips, functions banks etc can answer the students questions and help them become independent learners. With a little bit of learner training the students can take responsibility for their own learning. The online workbook helps this even more. The smart key helps students to see why they have got answers wrong, the dictionary look up helps them to deal with unknown vocabulary, the chance to do activities again helps them to measure their own progress. This instant feedback allows for immediacy. If students do homework and wait three days for their next English lesson then the impact is lost but with the online workbook they can see their success straight away.

Thirdly workbooks provide variety. I said in the previous section that workbook exercise are mostly controlled practice but a good workbook would have a range of activities to focus on different language points and in different ways for example gap fills, readings, matching, crosswords, word searches etc. Online workbooks can include listening and speaking activities too. With a paper workbook I often allowed my students a choice of homework; I allowed them to do any two activities from the page. This meant that the students could choose their homework depending on their own taste and learning styles. This was of course difficult in terms of marking but the online version has instant marking for teachers. This means I can see who has done what and how they have done. This of course is very helpful with mixed ability classes too. It means I can set different tasks for different groups. The stronger ones will not be demotivated by it being too easy while the weaker ones will not be demotivated because it is too difficult.

Finally a workbook provides consolidation of what is done in class. Students need to realise that coming to English lessons two or three times a week is not enough. They need extra practice and exposure to English outside the classroom. Because the workbook is closely linked to the student’s book, students don’t have to look far to get useful and relevant practice using similar topics and vocabulary. With online workbooks you as a teacher can design a blended course, covering what you feel is important in class and leaving the rest for students to do online. And what’s more students don’t even have to carry around their books; all they need is their login details and a Wi-Fi signal and they can practice on the go.

So pick up your workbook and have another look at it. Ask yourself how it can help your students improve their English and then consider how an online version could bring real possibilities to your teaching.


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