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Tim Dalby 145

m Dal
Jeonju University

In language teaching situations all over the world, course books are
the mainstay of many teachers lessons. Whether new or experienced
as a teacher it soon becomes apparent that assigned course books have
advantages and disadvantages for a class at any given time. This paper
attempts to review current thinking on the use of course books for
language teaching and then provide a series of adaptation methods
to help teachers ensure a better fit between the course book materials
and their learners needs.
Keywords: course books, curriculum, syllabus, materials, Korea, professional development.

Take a random selection of teachers and ask them what they think
of their current course book and you will probably get an overwhelming
sigh and some sporadic grumbling. Ask these same teachers to then
think about the advantages and disadvantages of course books and
you will hopefully get a more circumspect discussion ending with a
fairly evenly balanced list. I have tried this activity during several
course book workshops with over one hundred English language teachers
in Korea from a variety of teaching backgrounds and contexts. The
lists I get are generally similar and the main points are discussed in
more detail below.

146 Adapting Your Course Book: Becoming Skilled

1.1 Advantages
Course books provide guidance
As is the case in many parts of the world, many teachers in academies
and the public school system in Korea have no formal English-language
teaching qualifications or experience (Maley, 1992; Shin, 2004, p.68).
For these teachers, course books can provide a welcome level of guidance
on how to teach particular language structures or skills (Ur, 1991, p.184).
They can also provide professional development opportunities
(Cunningsworth, 1995; Cunningsworth & Kusel, 1991; Littlejohn, 1992;
Richards, 1993) in addition to those provided by their employers (if
any) or organizations such as Korea TESOL.
Course books save time.
For the busy teacher, a course book means a reduction in the amount
of planning that is required to teach a class (Graves, 2000, p.174).
Materials are (usually) neatly presented along with a series of activities
which takes the leg work out of lesson planning.
Course books provide a starting point for further activities.
The topics that are covered in course books provide teachers with
a jumping off point from which they can delve into deeper areas with
their learners. This could include getting into aspects of culture, looking
at different viewpoints in an argument and doing research. This view
is supported by Harmer (2001, p.8) who talks about course books as
...proposals for action, not instructions for use. It refutes the idea
that teachers slavishly follow a course book. Take the example of communicative language teaching in Vietnam where materials are used in
the classroom in a wholly different way than intended by the materials
developers (Kramsch & Sullivan, 1996, p.202).
Course books provide structure.
In any communicative language classroom there is a level of uncertainty and change that can be both threatening and uncomfortable
for learners. The course book provides a structure so that the level
of unpredictability is reduced for learners and the learning event becomes
more tolerable (Crawford, 2002, p.83). Likewise, the course of study

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is predictable for the teacher who is able to see how a particular lesson
fits into the course of study.
Learners expect a course book
Although a teacher in Korea may believe this to be a particularly
Korean issue, it is more widespread than that. Learners like to have
a course book because it gives them some control over their learning
(Crawford, 2002, p.83). There is also the view of course books providing
both authority and expertise (de Castell, Luke, & Luke 1989), where
teachers handouts do not (Harwood, 2005, p.151).

1.2 Disadvantages
Course books are a straitjacket.
For more experienced teachers, a course book can limit the amount
of creativity and freedom allowed for a class. This is especially true
in large programs where the learners are given tests which are based
on the course book. This is a form of negative washback which affects
the teachers and learners alike (Taylor 2005, p.154).
Course books are poorly designed.
Of course this depends on the course book, but it is fair to say
that production standards vary from publisher to publisher in terms
of the quality of the paper used, the layout, and the number of typographical
errors encountered in any given publication. One workshop participant
described a teachers book she was assigned as being unusable as it
was written entirely in Korean.
Course book topics are boring and/or irrelevant.
Most teachers would agree that at some stage they have come across
a topic that bears no relevance to themselves or their learners. It could
be that the materials are out of date or feature a celebrity that has
no following in a particular country. Either way, the materials lose
validity for the learners and teachers alike.
Course books are culturally removed.
As many course books hail from British or American roots, it is

148 Adapting Your Course Book: Becoming Skilled

likely that learners in an EFL situation (i.e. where English is not a

common language), will not be able to relate to the materials presented.
Likewise, books used in Korea that were developed in Japan carry
images and content that is specific to a Japanese context something
unlikely to be appreciated by many Koreans. Richards similarly suggests
that in course books an idealized white middle-class view of the world
is portrayed as the norm (2001, p.255). It is possibly because of this
that the Korean Ministry of Education has tried to instill Korean values
in public sector course books (Yim, 2007, p.45).
Course book language is not authentic.
Although this is beginning to change, course book dialogues are
generally written within a limited list of headwords or to incorporate
and practice specific language points and are therefore not authentic
or realistic (Richards, 2001, p.255). While this can lead to issues of
credibility for some teachers, others see simplified English as a stepping
stone towards being able to cope with authentic English (for more
on the cult of authenticity, see Day & Bamford, 1998).

1.3 Balance
There are of course many other arguments that can be leveled both
for and against the use of course books (see for example, Crawford,
2002; Graves, 2000; Harwood, 2005; Richards, 2001; Ur, 1991 for
more in-depth analysis). In the end, we need to accept the fact that
course books are not going away anytime soon. Most of us, at some
time, need to use them, so we should try to find the best way to
incorporate them into our program of learning.

ng Cour
Before this can be done, there is a need to understand a course
book in a particular context. Course books are necessarily a compromise
between what the authors want to produce using the very latest and
best teaching methodologies, and what publishers know will sell (for
an in-depth analysis of how a course book is produced from conception

Tim Dalby 149

through to publication see Bell & Gower, 1998). Course books are
designed for everyone and for no one (Graves, 2000, p.174), but without
doubt there is a need for the teacher to understand the course book
that is being used. There are several lists of criteria for evaluating
course books currently available (see for example, Breen & Candlin,
1987; Cunningsworth, 1995; Dougill 1987; Hedge, 2000; Hutchinson,
1987; Richards, 2001; Sheldon, 1988; Ur, 1991) and an interesting
research question could be formulated to discover how widely, if at
all, they are used. In the event that formally developed evaluation criteria
are not used, what then is the basis for institutions to choose the course
books they choose? Leaving these questions aside, I would like to
introduce a simple set of course book evaluation criteria that were
used successfully in my workshops by experienced and inexperienced
teachers alike. The criteria were developed by Tanner & Green (1998,
p.121) and are presented in more detail below.

2.1 The MATERIALS Test

Hutchinson describes course book selection as the single most important decision that the language teacher has to make (1987, p.37).
However, the majority of teachers are unlikely to find themselves able
to make this decision. More likely a course book has already been
chosen for them, whether by committee or by the course manager.
Regardless of this, the ability to evaluate a course book is important
because it provides a baseline from which to make judgments about
what to adapt and change. Without understanding a particular context
and how the course book is set up, we cannot effectively make changes
that will benefit our learners. The quick evaluation provided by Tanner
and Green (1998) is comprehensive, in that it covers many of the most
important aspects in the more detailed checklists described above, and
it is efficient, in that it focuses on what teachers are likely to find
important in the here and now. In addition, by using the mnemonic
device of MATERIALS, it is easy to remember the steps.
This applies to the teaching method used by the course book. Much

150 Adapting Your Course Book: Becoming Skilled

of our teaching style is wrapped up in our personality (Hunt & Joyce,

1967) and so it is important that the style of the book and the activities
within match up with our own method of teaching. Does the book
focus on grammar, or does it have lots of fluency activities, group
work and mingling? Are the questions open-ended, or of the yes/no
As discussed in the section above, the appearance of a book can
greatly affect how it is perceived and accepted by teachers and learners
alike. If a book looks very busy, it can be overwhelming for learners.
If there are a lot of mistakes, the teacher is likely to question the
level of expertise of the course book writer. Clearly laid out activities,
bright colors and adequate amount of white space can go a long way
towards making a book acceptable.
This applies to how easy or difficult it is for the teacher to use.
If the book has teaching ideas, it may actually form part of a teachers
professional development (Cunningsworth, 1995; Cunningsworth &
Kusel, 1991; Littlejohn, 1992; Richards, 1993). The book should save
the teacher time, and so information should be easy to find. An index
or table of contents with the skills and/or grammar focus of each unit
should be included along with an answer key to exercises.
Some books come with a wealth of extras which might include
downloadable listening activities, a DVD, an adaptable workbook, a
student CD, a website, a teachers book and supplemental materials.
Other course books come with little more than just the student book.
How many or how few extras a course book comes with will determine
how much lesson planning work a teacher has to do along with how
much searching a teacher will need to do to find materials that are
suitable for her class. Of course, extras need to be easy to use too.

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With the advent and increasing use of corpuses and concordances,

the ability for course books to use authentic language has increased
dramatically over the last few years. Some course books, such as the
Touchstone series, now state that they are using corpus data in their
books (McCarthy, McCarten, & Sandiford, 2005). Of course, being
authentic is one thing, being up to date is another. A course book
filled with out of date slang is unlikely to ring true with learners and
teachers alike. Deciding what is authentic and balancing it with words
that will have lasting appeal is a difficult task. Take the example of
bovvered which was Oxford English Dictionarys word of 2006 and
now is rarely heard, if at all, especially outside the British Isles. Check
the OEDs website if you are not sure what this word means.
By looking at the topics in a course book, a teacher can decide
if they are relevant and interesting to his or her learners. It is also
important to ensure that the topics are relevant and interesting to the
teacher as she has to use the topics as a vehicle for teaching. As well
as the obvious advantages in terms of schema activation that interesting
topics afford, interested learners tend to be more focused in class and
less likely to engage in disruptive behavior (Hidi, 1990).
Although this may be outside the realm of either the teacher or
the learner, the cost of a course book should have some level of bearing
on the value a learner places on the book. If the book is too cheap,
it may not be valued by the learner as authoritative. If it is too expensive,
the learner may have unrealistic expectations about how much they
will achieve by using the book. Also, in countries like Korea where
there is a strong expectation to finish any given course book (Carless,
2003, p.492), an expensive book may limit the teachers ability to
skip activities or units as learners may feel they didnt get the full
value out of the book they purchased.
The course book should be aimed at the level of the learners being

152 Adapting Your Course Book: Becoming Skilled

taught. While there is an onus on institutions to provide leveled classes

where learners in any given class have similar levels of language ability,
it is not always practical or achievable to do this. Whether classes
are leveled or not, the course book should provide for either situation:
flexibility in the multi-level class, and congruence in the leveled class.
The final section is about what kind of class is being taught. If
it is a multi-skills class, does the course book adequately cover the
skills that are required? If it is a conversation class, does the course
book teach conversation skills, or is it merely a speaking course? Does
a writing book have a process or product approach to writing? Does
a reading book look to develop reading skills into reading strategies,
or does it merely have a reading section followed by comprehension
questions? Whatever the situation, the course book needs to fit the
class syllabus, whether it is imposed or negotiated.

Whatever ratings a course book may receive after being given a
thorough evaluation, at some point it needs to be used in the classroom.
The level of fit between the needs of the learners and the resources
available in a course book will vary from course to course and class
to class and so, to be effective, the teacher will need to manipulate
the materials in some way. Graves explains that course book adaptation
can happen at three different levels the activity level, the unit level
and the syllabus level (2000, p.188). Syllabus level adaptation is taking
a course book and reordering the units and/or adding supplementary
materials to the units to better fit the learners needs over a course
of study. At the unit level, the steps in the order of activities in a
unit are changed. In an example of this, Graves gave twelve activities
from a course book unit to groups of teachers and asked them to produce
a unit plan for their students. At the end of the activity, each group
had reordered the units in a totally unique way, and none matched
the original course book order (2000, p.197). For simplicity at this

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level, I will again turn to Tanner & Greens categories which I have
adapted into the easy-to-remember acronym DEAR (1998, p.122).

3.1 Four Basic Methods of Manipulation at the Unit Level

In this scenario the materials or activity are simply not covered.
In some situations, whether it is due to a lack of time, the level of
difficulty or the relevance of the materials to an upcoming test, the
teacher can decide to move on to the next section.
By editing we basically take the activity that we have been given
and change it to make it more relevant, interesting, up to date, or
practical. A nice device that I have seen is in the Smart Choice series
where the resource book pages are provided on a CD as editable documents
allowing me to change the names of characters to the names of students
in my class (Wilson, 2007). I can also change the photos to use well-known
Korean celebrities or the students themselves.
In some course books, teachers notice a gap between two adjacent
activities. For instance, a listening activity may contain key vocabulary
that has not previously been covered on the course. In this case, the
teacher could add an activity to introduce this vocabulary to the students.
Similar examples could include a prediction activity before reading,
or a research project before a debate.
The final option is a combination of the first three where an activity
is provided in the course book, deemed unsuitable by the teacher, and
so replaced with something that will work with a given set of learners.
Teachers familiar with resource books such as Speaking Extra
(Gammidge, 2004), Vocabulary Games and Activities 1 (Watcyn-Jones,
2001), or Grammar Games and Activities 1 (Watcyn-Jones &
Howard-Williams, 2001), for example, have materials to hand which
will neatly replace a course book unit with something more engaging.

154 Adapting Your Course Book: Becoming Skilled

Replacement of activities also encourages teachers to build up their

own set of resources which can be used at a moments notice or to
liven up their classes at the end of the week. This is what Maley
refers to as the wet Friday afternoon effect (1998, p. 281).

3.2 Practical Techniques at the Activity Level

At the activity level, there are several resources for the teacher
to refer to including Maley, who provides a comprehensive list of the
ways in which a course book can be manipulated (1998, pp.281-283)
and Ur (1991) who looks at how activities can be adapted to match
the skills taught. The suggestions given below are ideas based largely
on a handout I was given by Paul Michel while working at the Caledonian
School in Prague, Czech Republic along with ideas that I have collected
over the past nine years. They may not all work with all levels of
learners, in all cultures all the time, but are provided as examples of
what can be done with various materials that are generally available
in course books. As Bruton argues, there is a certain sameness about
course books (1997, p.276) which should mean that the activities offered
below can be used with most course books most of the time.

3.3 If You Have a Written Text

Course books generally contain texts of varying lengths, whether
they are an integral part of the course book or thrown in as additional
activities in the teachers guide. In most cases, course book texts follow
the basic process which has learners reading the text and then answering
comprehension questions. The following adaptations can be used with
texts of all shapes and sizes.
Role play or mime characters from the text or act out the story.
In a text which involves characters, has a story, or is an event,
ask learners to choose a character and mime or act out the characters
role in the story. They can use a dialogue that is already in the text,
or, more creatively, create a dialogue that fits the story in the text.
This could be done in class or assigned as a video project.

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Create a prequel to the story.

If you have a story, get the learners to write or act out a prequel.
Ask them what they think could have happened before the story got
started, what were the characters doing etc.
Continue the story.
As above except this time the learners figure out what happened
next. Again, they could do this using drama, posted as a video project
on the class website or a group writing assignment.
Discuss or debate the issue. Ask provocative questions.
Discussions and debates are excellent ways of practicing speaking,
and for a text that involves a somewhat controversial topic, learners
can discuss or debate the issues around it. For an added level of difficulty,
have learners that are for an issue speak for the against team as
this can enhance their skills of persuasion. It also helps learners to
understand that there are two (or more) sides to every issue. To help
learners get started, the teacher can ask provocative questions to invite
reaction. Over time, learners can be encouraged to do the same.
Reply to the author (Touchstone Level 2, p. 41)

156 Adapting Your Course Book: Becoming Skilled

Interview or reply to the author.

As well as helping learners understand that a piece of writing is
a form of communication between the writer and the reader, by interview ing or responding to an author we ensure that a deeper connection
is made to the text. The activity below is from Touchstone Level 2,
and involves students having to fill in the gap in the invitations
(McCarthy, McCarten, & Sandiford, 2005). Once this is done, students
could respond to the invitation either by accepting or declining them.
Making predictions, skimming, scanning, semantic mapping and
For any reading text of length, the following procedure can be
used in full or by skipping sections that are unnecessary.
1. Using the headline or a photograph, have learners make a prediction
about the contents of the text, the characters, what happens etc.
2. Have learners in groups write down the vocabulary that they
would expect to find in a text with the predicted topic. This
can be developed further into a semantic map like a mind
map of connections between words.
3. Learners scan the text quickly to find any words from their lists.
The time limit here should be short.
4. Give learners one or two questions based on the overall idea
of the text. Allow only a short time for learners to skim the
text and answer the question(s). Stress that students dont need
to understand every word, just the main idea(s).
5. Once the course book activities associated with the text have
been covered, learners could write a summary of the text. This
could be done in class or as a group assignment to be posted
on the class website.
Research assignment (in the L1).
If you have a monolingual class (which is generally the case in
Korea, though changing), you could ask learners to prepare for a reading
text by doing a research assignment in their first language. The research
is for learners to have a better understanding of the topic of the reading

Tim Dalby 157

as research consistently shows that readers with background knowledge

of a topic read more effectively (Alderson, 2000, p.44).

3.4 If You Have a Listening Activity

Like reading, listening is generally considered a receptive skill,
but, also like reading, is far more interactional than that (Grabe, 1991;
Richards, 1983). Like reading, many course books follow a pattern
of listen and then answer questions with the questions often being
answered during the listening activity. Unlike reading, learners cannot
control the speed of the input, so other adaptations are offered below
which are more specific to various listening texts.
Predict the answers. Bet on the answers.
Sometimes comprehension questions are written in such a way that
the answers can be fairly easily predicted. Even if not, by having learners
predict the answers to questions, they have more reason to listen. This
can be further enhanced by having learners in groups betting on the
answers in a whole-class team game.
Make the questions easier.
It is not always well understood that pretty much any piece of
listening can be used in a class. What makes an activity easy or difficult
is what you expect learners to do. If you find you have questions
that your learners are finding too difficult, make them easier. You
can do this by giving answer choices or simply making questions closed
rather than open.
Topic prediction, semantic mapping, gist listening and summaries.
As in the reading activity above, by giving learners a title or a
picture that is associated with the listening text, learners can try to
predict the topic and/or the vocabulary that they are likely to hear
in the recording. Then, by asking one or two global questions, learners
can confirm their predictions and listen for gist without worrying
about understanding all the details. Once done, learners can move on
to the course book comprehension questions and then write a summary

158 Adapting Your Course Book: Becoming Skilled

of what they heard.

Vocabulary grab.
This is an incredibly enjoyable activity that students of all ages
enjoy. Choose a listening script which has some vocabulary that you
want to target. Put learners into groups and give each group some
slips of paper the same number of slips as target words. Have each
group write down one target word on one slip of paper until they
have all the target words written down. Groups put all the slips face
up in front of them. As the learners listen to the recording, they have
to grab the correct piece of paper with the word that they hear as
they hear it. The learner with the most pieces of paper in the group
wins. This is, roughly speaking, a scanning activity for listening and
can be used just as effectively when watching a video. In this case,
the words can be things that learners see, rather than hear.

3.5 If You Have a Picture

One of the best and most adaptable resources in a course book
is the pictures which accompany topics, units and skills activities. Images
are often specially commissioned by publishers to fit with whatever
is on the course book page. The activities offered below are quite
extensive and are for various types of image. Of course, not every
suggestion will be for every type of picture.
Describe the people, places, actions and things in the picture.
There are several things that a learner can talk about including
what they know or think about the place, city, or country in the picture.
They can be encouraged to think about the people, the food, the music,
the architecture, forms of dress, the climate, the religion, traditions,
customs, what daily life is like, the leaders, the type of politics, the
history, or the sports that the country enjoys or is well known for.
In the example below from Breakthrough, Level 1, learners could be
encouraged to discuss what they know about each culture (Craven,

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What do you know about each culture?
(Breakthrough Level 1, p. 66)

Compare and contrast.

Learners faced with a picture of a place or a
or contrast them with a place or person they know
If there are two or more pictures on a similar
compared or contrasted. Learners could speculate

person can compare

(such as the teacher).
theme, they can be
on where they woul

160 Adapting Your Course Book: Becoming Skilled

like to live and why or which person they would like to be and why.
Images of celebrations, traditional ceremonies and festivals could be
compared and contrasted with similar events in Korea. For a more
creative angle, groups of learners could create a ceremony, holiday
or tradition similar to the picture. The picture could encourage learners
to write a story or a newspaper article with the learners as reporters,
again with a comparison or a contrast to what occurs in Korea.
Speculate about the picture.
Getting learners to think outside the box, or picture in this case,
helps to get the creative juices flowing. Ask learners to decide whats
happening outside the picture and why. They could discuss or write
about why the people are there, who they are, what they are doing,
their relationship, when they arrived, how long they have been there,
when they will leave, how they are feeling and why.
Thinking more about a person, learners could speculate about the
persons job, age, education, family, lifestyle, nationality, their hobbies,
personal relationships, political opinions and musical tastes. They could
think about the persons favorites in terms of the food they like, the
types of restaurants they go to, the vacations they take, and sports
they enjoy. Learners could think about what the person or people did
yesterday, what they have done in their lives, what they are doing
later today, what they are going to do next year, a secret they have,
or a crime they have committed.
If the picture shows a group of people, learners could rank the
people in terms of who earns the most money, who is the most educated,
who has the most interesting job, who has the most friends or enemies,
or who is most likely to commit a serious crime. Once done, learners
could compare their rankings and discuss any differences. Learners
could decide who they would most or least like to have dinner with
and why. They could discuss which of these people they would be
and why.
If the picture shows a problem, learners could talk about the problem
being shown, why the problem developed, and possible solutions to
the problem. In a cityscape, learners could discuss everyday life in
the city, the possible advantages and disadvantages of living in the

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city and compare this with living in the country, the sounds, noises
and smells of the city. Thinking more about vocabulary, learners could
figure out how new vocabulary in the course book can be related to
the picture. Ask learners to think about whether they would like to
live in the city and why. They could also think about whether they
would like to visit this place and, if so, who and what they would
take with them and why.
For more focused production activities, take a picture and have
learners talk non-stop for one minute about the picture without hesitation
or repetition. Have learners look at two pictures then, in pairs or threes,
see how many sentences they can make about the first picture in one
minute. Then do the same for the second picture, but learners have
to try to beat their first score. Learners could be asked to look at
a picture for one minute, close their books and then tell a partner
everything they remember about the picture, as in the example below
from Top Notch Level 1 (Saslow & Ascher, 2006).
Remember as much as you can.
(Top Notch Level 1, p. 76)

162 Adapting Your Course Book: Becoming Skilled

Learners could also ask each other their opinions about the picture.
Learners could be encouraged to use the target grammar, vocabulary
or exponents to interview a person, object or animal in the picture.
If it is an event, the learners could interview an eyewitness. If it is
a city, interview someone who lives there.
Have learners brainstorm anything that comes to mind about the
picture. They could give a personal reaction to what they see as
in the example below from Top Notch Level 1 (Saslow & Ascher,
2006). They could talk about how they feel about a particular person,
event or place shown in the picture. They could talk about which parts
of the picture are most or least important to them and why.
Write a personal reaction to the story
(Top Notch Level 1, p. 72)

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Throughout the world, teachers of English language are thrust into
a classroom, course book in hand and told, Teach that! It is neither
ideal, nor pedagogically sound, but it is the reality of an ever-expanding
and diverse industry. No matter how controlled the working environment
is, there is always room for adaptation at the activity level. As a teacher
becomes more proficient, the activities suggested above will become
second nature and lesson planning will become easier with more focus
on what the learners require. A teacher may even start to enjoy using
a course book for the challenge of adapting it to his or her learners!
In a less controlled environment, teachers will have the ability to
adapt course books on the unit level. At this point, course books become
less of a crutch and more of a tool. Teachers have more freedom and,
as they experiment and learn about what works and what does not
work, they will begin to gain an insight into syllabus and curriculum
As a teachers experience grows, and as they move into more senior
teaching positions, educators will have both the confidence and experience to adapt course books at the syllabus level. It is worth remembering
though that the teachers who have to work with a syllabus are probably
busy adapting the materials that have been so carefully prepared. My
hope is that senior teachers in course management positions will see
this as a positive step in their staff and so reward and encourage them
for their efforts. After all, if our learners needs are being satisfied,
what more do we need to do?
The author would like to thank Paul Michel of the Caledonian School
in Prague for many of the adaptation ideas presented in this paper,
as well as the two anonymous reviewers for their suggestions for

164 Adapting Your Course Book: Becoming Skilled

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Tim Dalby
Jeonju University

Received: 2009.09.11
Peer reviewed: 2009.10.28.
Accepted: 2009.11.06.