Turning the Ready-made into Custom-made: 5 ways to modify a textbook exercise

A controlled exercise in a textbook might target what you want but not exactly in the way your students need. Sometimes an exercise seems too short or too long. Here are some quick fixes which beginning teachers might have yet to learn and which more experienced teachers have yet to try out.

  • Too few items in the exercise.

It’s a great exercise, but there are only half a dozen items in it. You know it won’t offer more than 5 minutes of practice, and you predict that won’t be enough.

Do students need more practice?

1. Lengthen the exercise by creating new items yourself.

2. Lengthen the exercise by having students create new items for their classmates. Completing the ready-made items prepare them for the challenge of composing their own. This three-step process translates into controlled practice (students do the items in the textbook exercise) > free practice (students create their own items) > controlled practice (students do the items created by their classmates).

Do you need more opportunity to observe students’ performance?

3. Mix up the format. Don’t do the entire exercise as a whole class. If an exercise has only 5 items and there are 12 students in your class, having volunteers complete the 5 items won’t help you evaluate the other 7 students’ understanding. You can create additional items so everyone has a turn giving an answer, or you can make this short exercise a solo or paired activity. As students work independently, you’ll have enough time to make your rounds and judge who may be having difficulty. You can mix it up even more by having students first work solo, then compare work with a partner, and then correct all items as a class.

  • Too many items in the exercise.

It’s a well-constructed exercise, but 25 items seems too much.

Is half enough?

4. If students demonstrate accuracy and confidence halfway through the controlled exercise, it’s not necessary to finish it in class. Assign the remaining items for homework. Move on to the challenge of free practice.

Is it too monotonous?

5. Students may benefit from doing all the items in a lengthy exercise, but you may need to break it up to help them stay on task until the last item is completed. What can you do?

(a) Vary the format, as in #3 above. If an exercise has 25 items, do the first few as a class on the board. Do a second, longer set in pairs. Correct their work as a class. Finally, ask them to work solo and tackle the remaining items. If some students finish that last set more quickly than others, have them start putting their answers on the board as preparation for the final correction.

(b) Get creative. Intersperse the controlled items with free practice.  For example, in Azar’s Understanding and Using English Grammar (3rd edition), there’s useful exercise on gerunds vs. infinitives. (Ch. 14, Exercise 19, pp.316-7) 22 items might test students’ concentration if the exercise is done straight through as a whole class. You can pause after every 7-8 items and pose questions for students to answer (call on students who didn’t just provide answers to the exercise or write the questions on the board for students to discuss with a partner). Your questions need to focus on the language targeted by the set of items you just covered.

Model (as written in the book):

  1. Keep (talk) ____. I’m listening to you.
  2. The children promised (play) ____ more quietly. They promised (make, not) ___ so much noise.
  3. Linda offered (look after) ___ my cat while I was out of town.
  4. You shouldn’t put off (pay) ___ your bills.
  5. Alex’s dog love (chase) ___ sticks.
  6. Mark mentioned (go) to the market later today. I wonder if he’s still planning (go) ___.
  7. Igor suggested (go) ___ (ski) ___ in the mountains this weekend. How does that sound to you?

 PAUSE. POSE QUESTIONS (created by you):

  • What do you do when someone interrupts you? Do you keep talking?
  • Do you always do what you promise to do?
  • Do you ever offer to help your neighbors?
  • Do you put off doing things you don’t like, such as housework?
  • What do you love to do in your free time?



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