“I don’t understand why I have to follow this textbook”

I don't understand

Teaching from a textbook can be frustrating.  It provides safety and structure but limits creativity and,as we have seen, can’t always be trusted to provide authentic data-driven input.  The above picture is part of a section I am required to teach called the “communication spotlight”.

In the beginning, I really liked this section because it provides so little material that you would be crazy not to produce your own.  If you simply followed the book, you’d just be doing repetition drills.  The teacher’s book sometimes has suggestions, but not always.  When I first began teaching here, I would take these grammar points and just create my own lessons.

Those lessons, of course, were not guaranteed to be worth-while.  I was (am) a new teacher.  And at one point, early on, my co-teacher asked that I “stick to the textbook” a little more closely.

Since then, I’ve had a real struggle trying to teach the “communication spotlight” beyond doing simple repetition.  (Though, I think my co-teacher would be perfectly happy if that’s all I did.. /shrug).

But now that I’ve swung from both sides of the issue, I do a little better at both honoring the book (read: my co-teacher) and actually doing something worthwhile.  That solution usually has three parts  (if I have enough classes).

1. Repetition.  Teacher-directed drills.  This is a fluency activity.  I start slow, start with small chunks, break up the phrases into their syntactic parts, emphasize certain phonological features (like what is known as “linking” words.  Those familiar with phonology know it as resyllabification and the *no coda constraint) and finally work on speeding up fluency.

2. Comprehension. Analyze the words, provide more examples (doing twitter searches is great here.  I had a friend ask if “kickass” meant “cool”; so instead of sending her to a dictionary to see “cool” next to “kickass” somewhere else on the internet, I sent her to twitter).  And find visuals.  Guide students through identifying meaning to making guesses and responding.  I like to do a speaking drill here, like concentric circles.

3. Conversation.  Using the language authentically, within a community of equals, safely and freely.  The textbook usually doesn’t make an appearance in this part.  (Note: at this point, there should probably be a re-visit to “fluency”.  I haven’t quite gotten that part worked in).

If I don’t have time, what gets cut is the repetition/fluency.  Though, in my opinion that is a bigger problem than it sounds.

The textbook also has a reading section, which I don’t teach; that, in part, tries to reinforce the listening/speaking material in the chapter.  At best, it provides manufactured examples of the language structure in an unnoticeable way.  At worst, the texts read like the most false, hammed-up drivel possible.

don't understand

This is the reading from the relevant chapter.  I put this somewhere inbetween pointless and ok.  The title is “I don’t want to fall behind” and is written in dialogue format between a boy and his Mother.  The weird way the mother talks about “falling behind” is ok, because I don’t have to deal with it.

For the language that I do have to be worried about, I think the examples are pretty good.  They are almost invisible. And of all the manufactured examples given in the textbook, this is the most relateable to the students.  (fighting with your parents).  It also provides plenty of context, something the “communication spotlight” does not do.

I might put one of my recent attempts at a pronunciation lesson up here (I kind of liked it, but I am not sure the students were on board).  But for now, I want to share a communication lesson.  Those are the most fun anyway.

In the circle of teachers in my area, a series of photos recently went around of one of our more experienced teachers lessons whose title was, “If you could tell the world one thing, in one sentence, what would it be?”.  I’m not entirely sure what the lesson covered exactly, but the teacher posted a bunch of pictures of their students with their sentences written on pieces of paper.  Sort of like this:


It seemed like a fantastic lesson, in which some of the students were funny, some were superficial and some were extremely poignant.  The students addressed everything from the meaning of life to their favorite k-pop group.  They touched on the Korean education system, the situation with the North and love.

So I, like all good teachers, borrowed the idea and morphed it to my situation.  The grammar structure, “I don’t understand ____.”  easily adapts to this type of thinking discussion.  Here’s how it went:

I don’t understand


Visual preparation in some form.  Collect some pictures that visualize things that you don’t understand (death, computers, foreign languages, cultural phenomenons).  You will also need blank sheets of paper for the students.  Along with any artsy materials you want (makers, paints, pictures).

Performance Objectives:

The students will be able to: use the canned phrase “I don’t understand ___” to express befuddlement, exasperation, genuine curiosity and/or frustration.  This will be done by guiding the students through multiple examples and practice sentences.  Students will organize their thoughts via branching diagrams.

Students will be able to apply the correct “wh-question” word to complete the phrase, “I don’t understand [how/why/what/when/where] _________”.  Using the teacher’s examples as a guide and completing practice examples from the teacher and their own creation.

Students will express their own ignorance/confusion/what-have-you by creating one single sentence that expresses what they “don’t understand” about the world.


The teacher will introduce the topic for the days lesson by presenting a question for the students.  “what is one thing you don’t understand about the world?”  The teacher will check for comprehension, clarifying any words for the students. — My students checked to make sure “world” meant the same thing as “earth” and since I had highlighted “one thing” they asked what “thing” meant.  We spent a few minutes describing all the “things” in the classroom. (which, as you can imagine, was a lot of things.  I emphasized that thoughts and actions can be things too. (i.e. anger, north korea, war).


Before taking their answers, present several things that you don’t understand.  Highlight important words. (wh-words, verbs, etc.)  “I don’t understand how to speak Korean”

“I don’t understand how computers work”

“I don’t understand why bad things happen to good people.”

“I don’t understand why Psy is soooo popular.”

Provide visual explanations and make sure students understand all the words.


Allow the students to produce examples on their own freely, and eventually direct the students to draw a circle on their paper and ask them to give more examples of things they do not understand.  –In my class, most of the examples were related to North Korea, school and, for some reason, drugs– Ask them to produce sentences of the examples they provide.

Give the students 5 minutes to continue thinking of things and working on their brainstorming.  Allow them to work individually, in pairs and groups if you have the time.


Have the students flip over their paper and write one sentence to the world about something they don’t understand.  Provide an example. –Mine was, “I don’t understand why Psy is so popular”–  Some students defended Psy, some agreed with me and others wanted me to defend myself.  At this point, I made it clear that this wasn’t about “making an argument”, but just expressing yourself.– (though, if you’ve got the time, you could go into a discussion mode where students ask each other questions about their statements).

Circulate around the students, answering questions, give advice, ask questions.   Ask questions, ask questions!

Finally, for those that finished more quickly than others, I began photographing them with their paper.  I didn’t manage to get to all of them, and not all of them wanted to be photographed (a real shame, since they did some great work).


The students really liked this lesson.  It didn’t give them as much opportunity to really produce output, and I think there is room for improvement there, but (almost) everyone participated fully in the lesson and they did produce something. So, I’m counting that as a win.

Most impressive about this lesson though, is they seemed to truly grasp the idea that this language structure gets at.  Which is, they saw beyond the idea that “I don’t understand” only means, “please explain”.  But that it goes deeper than that.  Any given student produced work that showed examples of un-answerable questions, criticism of their school culture, frustrations and general pondering.

Which is all more than they might have understood from the book, which makes it sound like the only proper (and expected) response is something like, “oh i’m sorry!”.  When in fact, no response is just as valid to this type of construction.


2 thoughts on ““I don’t understand why I have to follow this textbook”

  1. Wonderful post! I’m glad I found this blog! As another teacher here in Korea, there are a lot things I can relate to. Textbooks aren’t perfect, especially when written by Koreans who’ve never studied English outside of Korea. Also, I’m not sure who is on the editing team for some textbook series, but I’ve seen lots of mistakes! It’s no wonder Koreans can’t speak English well, or at all! Korea spends more on English education than other Asian countries, and yet nobody speaks it here. From what I’ve seen in the four years I’ve taught here, most Koreans study just enough English to pass their college entrance exams or for their job (if they need it), and that’s it. Few can speak it conversationally, and those who can are usually the ones who’ve studied abroad in the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, etc.


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