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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Investigating English Teachers' Materials Adaptation

Chunmei Yan, China

Chunmei Yan is an associate professor in the School of Foreign Languages at the Central China Normal University in China. Her research interests include English teaching methodology and English language teacher education. E-mail:


Research Background and Data Collection
Data Analysis and Interpretation
Appendix: Questionnaire for teacher trainees


As Rea-Dickins and Germaine (1992: 29) point out, there has been a tendency for over-reliance on classroom teaching materials with non-realistic expectations made of them in English language teaching. Littlejohn (1998: 205) observes that for many teachers and learners, materials appear as faits accomplis, over which they have little control. Some teachers regard textbooks as immutable and almost mythical objects. They tend to teach the textbook itself, rather than use it as a resource for creativity and inspiration, a learning tool for their learners and a means to an end in their teaching (Cunningsworth, 1995: 139).

Various problems with materials have been addressed by a number of researchers. O'Neill (1982: 153) suggests that the textbook can only provide props and framework for classroom teaching; and no textbook can expect to appeal to all teachers or learners at a particular level. McDonough and Shaw (1993: 83) also propose that textbooks, internally coherent although they may be, they may not be totally applicable. Swales (1980) contends that any given coursebook will be incapable of catering for the diversity of needs which exists in most language classrooms. Allwright (1981: 9) also maintains that given the complexity of the whole business of the management of language learning, even with the best intentions no single textbook can possibly work in all situations. Sheldon (1988: 239) addresses lack of cultural appropriacy of some textbooks, i.e. the thinking underlying the textbook writing may be different from or in conflict with the assumptions held by the teachers.
The problems mentioned here are by no means exhaustive, but the key point remains: teachers, with direct personal knowledge of their classroom teaching, should see textbooks as their servants instead of masters; as a resource or an 'ideas bank' which can stimulate teachers' own creative potential (Cunnningsworth, 1984: 65). Adapting their materials allows them to achieve more compatibility and fitness between the textbook and the teaching environment, and maximize the value of the book for the benefit of their particular learners and for the most effective teaching outcomes to achieve. It would consequently lead to the improvement of the textbook in the sense of being able to suit the particular situation and empowering and reskilling the teachers (Apple and Jungck, 1990; Shannon, 1987). Richards (1998: 135) argues that teachers should approach textbooks with the expectation that deletion, adaptation, and extension will be normally needed for the materials to work effectively with their class.

Within this background, this study investigates what teachers actually do in materials adaptation, including why they make the changes and to what effect their adaptation influences their teaching. It intends to fulfill two aims. Firstly, from a conceptual perspective it seeks to shed light on salient issues concerned with teachers' materials adaptation and thereby fill up some of this vacuum in the literature. Secondly, from a practical perspective the research aims to draw implications for teachers' use of materials.

Research Background and Data Collection

Research background

The focus of this study was a Sino-British teacher training programme based in Central China, where the author worked as a teacher trainer. The one-year full-time course offered three components: English language skills, ELT (English language teaching) methodology and ESP (English for specific purposes) course design to realize three parallel goals: to improve teachers' English proficiency, to upgrade their expertise in general ELT methodology, and to develop their capacity in the area of ESP. Teaching practice was arranged in the methodology module for two weeks towards the end of the course. It was intended to provide the trainees with an opportunity to apply the theories they had learned from the course.

The teaching practice was undertaken in the Faculty of Foreign Studies in a middle-ranking university, where the project was based. There was a cohort of 30 teacher trainees. They were assigned to teach three-year-diploma classes, who were academically inferior to four-year undergraduates. They all used Book 4 of English written by Xu (1992), but taught different units because of different paces of the normal teachers' teaching.

The couresbook, a set of intensive reading coursebooks consisted of 8 volumes for use over four years, the first 4 volumes for the foundation-stage learners, the last 4 for advanced learners. It used a format consisting of a text for reading (500 to 1000 words) followed by a list of new words with parts of speech and their Chinese equivalents, and sometimes an explanation of meaning and use in English. Also included in this list of words were phrases and idiomatic expressions. In the first four books, there were also sections on phonetics with exercises and short dialogues. All volumes included various exercises - questions on the text, grammar exercises and translation exercises.

This study intended to investigate how the teacher trainees had used the textbook, i.e. what changed they had made to the textbook to optimize its potential and the effect of their teaching. This study would hopefully yield important implications for the practice of and research in ELT and teacher training.

Data Collection

Questionnaires were utilized as the main data collection instruments, and trainees' lesson plans were utilized as a supplementary source of information about how the adaptations had been done. Questionnaires (see Appendix 1) were administered to the 30 trainees' addressing five questions: what, how, why, the effect and constraints.

Data Analysis and Interpretation

The section concerns 4 aspects that arose from the data: trainees' evaluation and adaptation of the textbook, rationales and underling principles, effect of the trainees' adaptation and constraints they had encountered in their adaptation process.

Trainees' evaluation and adaptation of textbook

It was found from the questionnaire that all trainees underwent two stages of materials adaptation. They carried out evaluation prior to adapting the textbook. They analyzed advantages and disadvantages of the textbook first to identify possible areas for adaptation. Notably there were some discrepancies of opinions about the features of the textbook.

The trainees identified a number of advantages of the textbook.

  • The textbook provides a variety of interesting texts on different topics.
  • The textbook supplies self-study materials for learners.
  • The textbook can prepare learners for exams.
  • The textbook provides authentic materials.
  • The textbook provides sound grading and sequencing of the material.
  • The textbook provides teachers with necessary guidance, especially in terms of background information and language points.
  • The textbook can help improve reading and writing.

Apparently, more than half of the trainees were impressed with the variety of topics. Nearly half of them appreciated the self-study materials it provided with students. Nearly one third of trainees felt the textbook to be suitable for exam purposes. All in all, the main perceived advantages of the textbook were its focus on the language system and its potential of expanding students' knowledge base with rich authentic reading materials, encouraging self-study, developing students' language competence and preparing them well for exams.
The trainees also identified some disadvantages of the textbook.

  • The textbook focuses on reading and writing, while ignores speaking and listening.
  • The textbook is out-of-date.
  • The textbook does not suit the students' needs.
  • The textbook provides little variety of activities.
  • The textbook is language-focused.

The main disadvantage of the textbook, as most trainees observed, was its lack of balance on the four language skills. It attached much importance to reading and writing, but overlooked speaking and listening. Another major drawback was its out-of-dateness. Some further problems were the limited varieties of activities, its focus on the language, and low level of relevancy to students.

The major adaptation techniques the trainees applied were adding, deleting and modifying. All of them used 'adding', eight used 'deleting' and six used 'modifying'. The techniques were utilized either at a particular stage of the lesson, or all the way through the lesson.

It was found that the trainees added background information, warm-up activities, language practice exercises, group work and reading comprehension questions. They deleted some translation and grammar exercises and detailed explanations of words. Some trainees adapted the text into a play for students to perform, some modified it into a table, some changed dialogues into a roleplay.

Trainees' underlying rationales and principles

It was found that the trainees based their adaptation on 4 principles: 1) to integrate traditional and communicative methods, 2) to cater for students' needs, 3) to integrate as multiple language skills as possible in a reading lesson, and 4) to meet their own preferences and needs.

1. To integrate traditional and communicative methods

The first main principle guiding the trainees' adaptations was their belief in a possible integration between traditional and communicative methods. On the one hand, the trainees recognized the positive effect of grammar-translation method, which the textbook adhered to. All trainees but one regarded the textbook's language-focusedness as an advantage. They felt the need for learning grammar, vocabulary, idioms and expressions. More than one-third added some exercises to consolidate the language.

On the other hand, plenty of evidence emerged that the trainees were highly receptive to communicative methods and tried to apply them. They accorded value to language forms, but at the same time attempted to lecture moderately. Some trainees reduced grammatical explanations, sentence translations and word study exercises. Some trainees created more student interactions in various forms in dealing with the exercises, which were normally conducted in a traditional presentation-practice-production model (Harmer, 2001: 80). Group discussions (2 trainees), warm-up activities (2 trainees), and drama/roleplay (4 trainees) were organized to get the students actively involved. Audio-visual aids, realia (pictures, the globe, and a calendar) were utilized to help students' understanding. Possible resources available, e.g. OHP, handouts were employed to aid their teaching.

2. To cater for students' various needs

The second main principle informing the trainees' adaptation appeared to be a desire to satisfy the students' needs. Most trainees suggested that they wanted to motivate the students to make their learning easier. It was found that adaptations were carried out at different stages of their teaching. Some trainees added warm-up activities at the beginning of the lesson, e.g. introducing background knowledge, aims and objectives to stimulate the students' interest. Some trainees tried adaptations in the middle of their teaching. The majority of trainees added extra exercises or activities to maintain the students' interest. A number of trainees adapted the level of difficulty of some exercises to suit students' linguistic and intellectual needs. A few trainees deleted unnecessary language exercises and detailed explanations of grammar. Some trainees added language exercises to help the students master the language forms. Several trainees rewarded the game winners a small prize. All this evidence reveals the trainees' aspirations to satisfy the students' different types of needs.

3. To integrate as multiple language skills as possible in a reading lesson

The third principle underpinning the trainees' adaptations was a desire to integrate as many language skills as possible in a reading lesson. The majority of trainees felt that listening and speaking had been ignored in this textbook. Quite a few trainees suggested that although reading skills should be the focus of the textbook, it was also necessary to create opportunities for the students to speak and listen. Some trainees modified the text into a play to practise four skills on the one hand; and to add more variety to classroom teaching on the other.

4. To meet their own preferences and needs

It was found that the teachers' own needs were also considered in their adaptations. Despite much similarity between the trainees' perceptions of the textbook and adaptation techniques, there emerged some divergence. This divergence was derived from their individual needs and wants, their individual experiences, personalities and preferences. For example, although they all deleted some language exercises, the deleted parts differed. Most of them added some language exercises, but they highlighted different foci. Many of them added warm-up activities at the beginning of the lesson, but their foci were varied - some focused on the vocabulary; and some on the topics. Several trainees modified the texts to some extent, but the forms were diversified, either a table, a drama, or a roleplay.

Trainees' views about the effects of materials adaptation

There emerged a consensus among the trainees that they had achieved the desired effects. They had stimulated their students' interests, created a light and lively atmosphere and generated more student involvement.

Most trainees felt rewarded and encouraged by the high level of interest their students displayed. They acknowledged that the boosted student interests had been conducive to the cultivation of a vivid and relaxing atmosphere where 'they shared ideas with each other', and a rapport between the teacher and the students. Several trainees found that their teaching efficiency was obviously improved because 'providing background information aroused their interest and helped the students understand the text; and because 'the students showed great interest in practising the provided exercises'. One trainee reported that his students 'performed very well in the play because they were very well prepared'. The following comments revealed the trainees' positive views on their adaptations.

It really did work! When the students discussed the topic, most of them could say something related to their own study. When they presented their ideas, every group reported voluntarily. (Trainee 3)

Firstly, I felt satisfied with the effects of my adaptations because I could appropriately use what I learned in my teaching practice. Secondly, most of my students felt interested and a lot of fun. They felt they could learn a lot by 'playing' in this way. (Trainee 10)

Perhaps my adaptations made the students feel fresh and interesting, and this was good for classroom management. (Trainee 11) The students seemed to like this kind of activity. They were all involved. They liked to share ideas with each other. (Trainee 2) All the adaptations were quite successful, for the learners' needs were met. (Trainee 4) Providing background information helped the students understand the text and made them interested. The students showed great interest in practising the provided exercises in class and obviously it increased my teaching efficiency. (Trainee 1)

It was also found that there was a change of attitude in some students towards the teacher trainee's methods. Some students were apathetic at first. Their interest and enthusiasm grew gradually.

At first some students didn't listen to me and didn't speak, but later most of them could speak and follow me. …They began to like my teaching. They gained some confidence in English learning. (Trainee 7)

Constraints in trainees' materials adaptation

As shown previously, the trainees' adaptations brought about positive effects. It was also notable that the trainees had encountered obstacles in their effort, as the majority of trainees reported. The emerging constraints were threefold: mismatches with traditional beliefs and practices, inadequacy of teachers' expertise and physical constraints.

1. Mismatches with traditional beliefs and practices

It was found that tensions between traditional and new perceptions hindered the trainees' actions. A few trainees acknowledge the traditional teacher-centred teaching approach and exam-orientated education system as disincentives in their adaptations. They noted that the grammar-translation method was still dominant in the majority of language classrooms. Teachers were still regarded as omniscient and omnipotent knowledge imparters in many teaching contexts, while students as recipients of knowledge. Detailed explanations of texts and key to the exercises were still most endorsed by teachers and welcomed by students, which was shown previously by students' initial resistance to the trainee's methods. Additionally some students saw brief explanations of grammar knowledge as a disadvantage and did not seem to welcome teacher-made materials as much as the textbook. Some students saw roleplays as games for fun. The trainees had to compromise sometimes to maintain a high teacher profile throughout their teaching.

2. Inadequacy of trainees' professional expertise

It emerged from the data that most trainees had not fully achieved their anticipated effect. A variety of reasons were identified related to their professional competence. Some trainees felt it difficult to manage group work and time with the large classes. It at times happened that not all students were involved, or limited specific outcomes were achieved of the group work. Some trainees were dissatisfied with their language proficiency, which had impaired their confidence in steering the class. The yet-to-develop expertise in teaching and adapting materials was a further hindrance to realizing their plans. It was highly labour-intensive to make the outdated contents interesting and communicative.

3. Constrained resources

It was found that the limitations of resources available had made teachers' ideas less feasible than they had originally assumed. A number of trainees complained about the practical problems concerning resources and physical constraints. Some trainees suggested that unmovable furniture made it difficult to organize group discussions. They said that there were limited materials to select from. One trainee mentioned that the large classes were problematic because it was hard for one teacher to monitor all groups. There were very limited references and materials in the Faculty for the trainees to refer to. Photocopying was almost impossible due to unavailability of facilities, thus increased the difficulty of producing supplementary materials. All these constraints had led to the difficulty of carrying out pre-designed activities.


This study looked at a group of teacher trainees' materials adaptation in their teaching practice. It was found that all trainees made changes to the textbook to varying degrees and their adaptations were generally satisfying.

The trainees' adaptation, first of all, involved evaluation of the textbook. Textbook evaluation was a preliminary to make the most of the good points and compensate for or neutralize the bad points (Ur, 1996: 187). The textbook the trainees used valued patterned drilling to lead to grammatical and/or lexical mastery of the structures being focused on (Harmer, 2001: 80). Its main problem was that students might be still incapable of using the language at the end of their conscientious studies: they may 'know' its grammar - the system - but they can't communicate in it (Grant, 1987: 13). After identifying areas for changes, the trainees used 'adding', 'deleting' and 'modifying' to make the textbook more suited to their students.

As the findings indicate, the trainees' adaptations made their teaching more engaging and communicative, and therefore beneficial to the students, the teacher trainees and the textbook. The obvious effect on the students was the increase of the students' active involvement in the classroom activities in a more relaxing and supportive environment. The students were freed from the boring process of going through the exercises item by item, and engaged in spontaneous and creative interactions (O'Neill, 1981: 156) and meaningful tasks.

The trainees' adaptations were beneficial to teachers in the way of 'reskilling them'. It enabled them to go beyond the textbook and the classroom routines. They became more confident because of the students' subsequent recognition of their adaptations. In a word, through the process of adaptation the trainees might have become more critical about textbooks they used, and developed an awareness of the need to use them more creatively.

The trainees' adaptations were found to be conducive to the improvement of the textbook. It allowed them to identify the strengths and weaknesses and how well the textbook matched their requirements, which was a preliminary step in their maximizing the potential of the textbook. The textbook the trainees used was rather dated, but it still contained some sound ideas for teaching which were hidden beneath dull presentation or out-of-date topics (Cunningsworth, 1995: 147). The trainees retained its good elements and deleted inappropriate parts to make it more relevant and interesting.

It was found that the trainees' adaptations were underpinned by four major principles. They wanted to develop a solid language knowledge base and communicative competence, to meet students' needs, to achieve a balanced development of language skills, and to satisfy their own preferences and needs. They carried out adaptations to realize these four purposes. Three constraints emerged as salient features that merit attention. First, the trainees' thinking underlying their adaptations might be in conflict with the traditional and conventional beliefs and teaching paradigms. As some trainees suggested, the educational environment was predominantly exam-orientated, which acted as a baton for administrators, teachers and students. The principle criterion for good teachers was the amount and the range of knowledge they possessed. Detailed explanation of texts and key to exercises was most welcomed by the students. Teachers' materials adaptation would inevitably cause anxiety in some students, especially those poor students who were concerned about exams, which mainly tested contents of the textbooks. Some trainees expressed their worry about the appropriateness of their adaptations, e.g. use of groupwork might be regarded as being irresponsible. They tended to 'swim with the tide' under the pressure or make some compromise to satisfy all parties concerned.

Second, teachers' professional expertise affected their adaptations, which echoes the observations of a number of researchers. Masuhara (1998) claims that teachers' confidence and professional expertise influence their perception of what they need from textbooks. O'Neill (1981: 154) also recognizes that it is very likely that teachers are unable to make adaptation and improvisation because the lesson might develop in a number of ways which could not be predicted exactly beforehand. The effect of teachers' design and teaching would be seriously impaired unless their language proficiency and professional expertise reached a certain high level. It was found that various kinds of difficulties the trainees had encountered e.g. the level of language proficiency, the in-cooperativeness of some students, large classes, etc. had undermined the effect of the their adaptations. These findings support the claim made by Nunan (1988: 115) that in addition to experience, teachers need the time, opportunity and support to reflect on that experience through a variety of professional development activities which should include professional development programmes, collegiate consultations and action research projects. Third, under-resourced teaching contexts affected fulfillment of teachers' thinking. It was found that the limitations of available resources had made teachers' ideas less feasible than they originally anticipated. Lack of resource materials and facilities considerably restrained the trainees' potential.


This research investigated the effects a group of teacher trainees' materials adaptation in their teaching practice in a cross-cultural in-service teacher training project in China. It has produced a detailed picture of why the trainees used those techniques and the effect of their attempts. It has thus hopefully contributed in its small way to the enrichment of the literature and teachers' professional development particularly in terms of active use of their textbooks.

The study carries important practical implications in a number of dimensions. From a research perspective, it highlights the necessity of doing further research on teachers' materials adaptation to shed light on various practical issues involved in teachers' use of materials. The teachers in this study used a traditional textbook, which needed modernizing to maintain students' interest and enhance their learning. The research findings would be useful insights to teachers who are still using outdated textbooks in some places in the world.

From the perspective of training methodology, it suggests that materials development is an effective way of helping teachers to understand and apply theories of language learning - and to achieve personal and professional development (Tomlinson, 2001: 67), and teacher education programmes need to provide monitored experience of the process of developing materials. They should provide participants with skills in evaluating and adapting textbooks and other commercial materials and prepare teachers for appropriate ways of using textbooks (Richards, 1998: 136). It also suggests training should address teachers' concerns and constraints in their materials adaptation. It is essential to give teachers the knowledge and skills needed to evaluate and adapt textbooks - prepare them to use textbooks as sources for creative adaptation (Richards, 1998: 140).

The study suggests a need to reform the exam-orientated education system and exam foci, which were in conflict with the trainees' newly acquired perceptions and practices. A transformation, maybe through a gradual process needs to be realized from the emphasis on the language system per se to the development of abilities to tackle real-life tasks. This change would entail recognition and effort of all relevant parties ranging from educational authorities to teachers.

The study implies a need of institutional support to teachers in materials development. An awareness needs to be developed among administrators of the necessity to keep updating textbooks, and encourage and empower teachers to choose the most appropriate textbooks available for their classes (Hedge, 2000) and to use their textbooks actively. Provision of resources and facilities would be necessary. Furthermore, more in-service training opportunities need to be created for teachers to keep updating their perceptions and upgrading their expertise.

The study also suggests the need for teachers' steady and persistent efforts to localize, personalize and individualize textbooks (McDonough and Shaw, 1993: 96). Teachers need to build awareness of what teaching resources provide and of the care that needs to be taken in selecting and exploiting them (Hedge, 2000). In the adaptation process, they should take account of course objectives and students' needs. Their effort, small or substantial, would help enhance their professional competence. To make their effort more effective, a possible solution may be to encourage collaborative materials adaptation. Joint team efforts may provide teachers with opportunities to share experience and expertise, to exchange various skills, talents and points of view, to pool their perceptions and experience and to build teachers' resources, thus reducing the amount of individual work. With a supportive team culture established, the institutional understanding and support is more likely to occur. Moreover, as Breen (1989) suggested, students' views on the textbook are worth canvassing.

It should be acknowledged that there are some limitations of this research. This research was focused on a group of teachers' materials adaptation on a teacher training course, not teachers in normal situations, where the situation might be different. For example, 'adding', which was most commonly used by the trainees, may be more difficult to carry out in a poorly resourced teaching situation, where time is much more at a premium. Teachers in normal situations may therefore not make so elaborate efforts to adapt their textbooks, and they may not be as conscious of the adaptations as the trainees were. As far as the effects of the materials adaptation are concerned, there is an element of novelty value, i.e. anything new is always interesting in the short term although it may not be so effective as it appears in the longer term. Also the interview with the students reveals students' reactions to one trainee's teaching, which may not have wholly and directly resulted from the trainee's materials adaptation. The relationship between the students' views and the trainee's adaptation needs to be further explored.

There may be some problems with the use of the questionnaires although they were not used as the only source of information. The credibility of the information generated from the questionnaires is questionable, as it relies, like all instruments of this kind, on the truthfulness and proper understanding of the respondents. Student perceptions of effect of the teacher trainees' materials adaptation generated from the interview with a small number of students might not be appropriately representative.

However, in spite of the above limitations, the research has dealt with a number of practical issues concerned with teachers' materials adaptation. It provides a basis for investigating further which aspects teachers feel most difficult and need help. A more detailed and deep research is made possible with this research as a useful starting point.


Allwright, R. (1981) What do we want teaching materials for? ELTJ, 36(1), pp. 5-18.

Apple, M. & Jungck, S. (1990) You don't have to be a teacher to teach this unit. Teaching, technology, and gender in the classroom. American Educational Research Journal, 27 (2), pp. 227-51.

Breen, M. (1989) The evaluation cycle for language learning tasks. In R. K. Johnson (Ed.) The Second Language Curriculum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cunningsworth, A. (1984) Evaluating and Selecting EFL Teaching Materials. London: Heinemann.

Cunningsworth, A. (1995) Choosing Your Coursebook. London: Heinemann.

Grant, N. (1987) Making the Most of Your Textbook. Essex: Longman.

Harmer, J. (2001) The Practice of English Language Teaching. Essex: Longman (3rd edn).

Hedge, T. (2000) Teaching and Learning in Language Classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Littlejohn, A. P. (1998) The analysis of language teaching materials: inside the Trojan Horse. In B. Tomlinson (Ed.) Materials Development in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Masuhara, H. (1998) What do teachers really want from coursebooks? In B. Tomlinson (ed). Materials Development in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McDonough, J. & Shaw, C. (1993) Materials and Methods in ELT. Oxford: Blackwell.

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Richards, J. C. (1998) Beyond Training. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shannon, P. (1987) Commercial reading materials, a technological ideology, and the deskilling of teachers. The Elementary School Journal, 87 (3), pp. 307-29.

Sheldon, L. (1988) Evaluating ELT textbooks and materials. ELTJ, 42(4), pp. 237-46.

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Tomlinson, B. (2001) Materials development. In R. Carter and D. Nunan (eds). The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Appendix: Questionnaire for teacher trainees

1. What book and which specific unit(s) did you teach in the teaching practice?

2. What do you think are the main advantages and disadvantages of the textbook? Advantages


3. For one of the units you taught, did you make any adaptations? If yes, could you tell what and how? Please be as specific as possible. It would be great if you can attach a copy of the material and /or your teaching plan.

4. Could you tell your reasons for the adaptations you made?

5. What do you think of the effects of your adaptations?

6. Were there any constraints in the process of your adaptation? In other words, are there any factors which prevent you from adapting the way you planned?

Thanks very much for answering the questions!


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