This article provides some helpful hints and suggestions to ESL instructors who wish to use modern techniques in teaching even though the class texts are of a more traditional nature. The learners need to move from language form (i.e. "perfect verbs") to language function (i.e. "asking directions" or "a visit to Chicago") as soon as possible.

Texts and materials using a grammar-based sequencing of lessons focused more on structure than on communication or realistic situations make this situation difficult. An interactive and topical approach can be applied to material sequenced by structure with a little rearranging and creative input on the part of the teacher.

This passage is from a traditional ESL grammar book:

Exercise 11. Watch the teacher and listen to his statement. Make a statement in the simple present tense with the phrase "every day."

I'm walking now. The teacher walks every day.

I'm writing now. The teacher writes every day.

1. I'm using the eraser. _____________________

2. I'm talking. _____________________

3. I'm speaking English. _____________________

A proficiency-based approach is called for if the students are going to really acquire the language. The major question here is what the instructor can do with this traditional grammar-based material in order to create an effective learning environment.

A traditional text may be the only one available for a given class, and rather than writing all new material, the instructor may choose to modify what is already available since the material is still valid for its original purpose — teaching structure or writing skills. The creative teacher must rework the textbook lessons into a format that stimulates language acquisition and provides excitement in the classroom.

Language goes beyond formulas and drills. The following suggestions and guidelines are offered to those teaching with traditional grammar-based texts who wish to teach toward proficiency.

One way the instructor can help encourage a more realistic situation would be to rework the given material into a set of natural dialogues that teach conversational skills and require input from the learners. Students should do more than just listen and repeat; they must be actively involved in a situation that is as realistic as possible.

The students use the language to transmit messages and ideas as they work out solutions to problems posed by instructor or in a reading text. Problems can include lost luggage, hotel reservations or any of a number of situations likely to be faced by the second language learner. In this way, language skills improve.

The following traditional lesson is designed to teach past form verbs. The examples might be given in a bilingual format in some texts followed by a grammatical discussion and translation exercises.

  • Fred went to New York.
  • He stopped at The Sun Hotel.
  • Then he went into the city.
  • He visited a park.
  • He relaxed in the park.

The text is artificial since it is controlled by grammatical considerations. Now, the innovative instructor (and maybe some advanced students as well) can rewrite this text into something more realistic. A conversational exchange can be used to enliven discussion:

Activity (Talk about a real event)

  • "Where did you go? New York?”
  • "Did Salim go with you?"
  • "Yes, we had the same flight."
  • "Where did you stay? The Hilton?”
  • "No, we couldn't stay at the Hilton, so we stayed at Sun Hotel."

This conversational exchange shows verbal sentences, "wh-" questions and pronouns and includes some high-frequency material not in the formal book lesson. The expression, “We couldn't stay" may not be a part of the lesson. In fact, it might even involve structures that will not be taught until Book 2, but students should be able to learn such expressions as chunks of meaningful language to be used in everyday real situations. Prompts can be used to get students started:


  • "Where did __________________________?”
  • "We went to __________________________."
  • "Where _____________________________ ?"
  • "At the Cordova Hotel.
  • "Is it downtown?
  • "No, ________________________________."
  • "How long did you stay?"
  • "For ________________________________."
  • "What did you do there?"
  • "___________________________________."

When faced with traditional materials, a creative instructor can develop them into more authentic activities since the underlying principle for ESL is learning English by using English either in meaningful classroom activities or content area instruction.

In the past two decades, SLA has shown growing interest in the task-based approach, an approach that advocates language learning and teaching by means of meaning-oriented tasks that allow L2 learners to use the target language in authentic situations while, at the same time, task performance provides them with opportunities to focus their attention on the language form. (Michel, spring, 2013)


Completion (based on a short reading and personalized questions):

  • Jose met Miss Peters.
  • Miss Peters is ____________________.
  • She works at _____________________.
  • ________________________________. (Student's own response here)
  • I take history with. _________________.
  • I will write a long paper for ___________.
  • Last year, I visited _________________.
  • Yesterday, I finished _______________.

Creative exercises should be encouraged where students use language for expressing personal interests and for real activities. Even with a traditional text as a base, the introduction of the old and the new will enliven the classroom and motivate the students to go beyond mere rote learning and preparing for the next exam.

Textbooks can be adapted since incoming students may be placed at the appropriate grade level in a public school, but they won't be able to work with the assigned materials because they do not know enough English. In the following case, the instructor would need to modify material in use in the classroom to fit the level of ESL students.