How to adapt materials for (online) lessons – webinar for IH Cairo

On Monday 8th November 2021, I gave a webinar for IH Cairo with the following abstract:

Are you a language teacher looking for practical tips on adapting materials?
Would you like to know more about the principles behind adapting materials?
Do you teach online and need to know how to adapt materials for your online classroom?
How can you get your students to interact with your materials?
Looking for ways to get your students more in control of their own learning?

In this session, Sandy will look at some of the principles behind adapting materials, and consider how they can be applied in the online classroom. Among other things, she’ll consider ways of presenting materials that go beyond PowerPoint, ways that students can interact with them, and how to hand over control to the students as much as possible.

My webinar was part of a series, all of which will be/are (depending on when you read this!) available on social media:

The webinar itself wasn’t just about adapting materials for online lessons, but more about principles for adapting materials for any kind of lesson, with mentions of how some of these tweaks could be made online. I generally believe that a lot of ways of adapting materials are equally valid in the online and face-to-face classroom.

Here are the slides:

I’ll add a recording when it’s available.

We started by looking at where the attendees fall on these continuums:

  • I use materials exactly as they are. < ——————— > I adapt everything – nothing is used as is.
  • My lessons are similar – I use a small range of activities. < ——————— > Every lesson is different – always use new activities.

I emphasised that there is no right place to be on the continuum – different points have different advantages and disadvantages, and it’s important to consider our students’ and our own needs when we think about adapting materials. For example, if we adapt everything, it can create a lot of work and reduce our free time, whereas using (good) materials as they are can be useful if we’re not confident about how to stage a lesson. If we use a small range of activities, students become familiar with these and they can be set up quickly and efficiently, whereas if we always use new activities, students might feel uncomfortable about the lack of routine.

When reading the rest of the post, think about an upcoming lesson you’re going to teach. How might these ideas influence your lesson planning?

Before you plan

Consider your course objectives – how does this lesson fit in to them?

Find out your learners’ needs and wants, perhaps through conversations, questionnaires, getting to know you activities, diagnostic testing…

Based on these two sets of knowledge, decide your lesson objectives: what would it most benefit your learners to focus on next? If you have to use a coursebook, aim to pick and choose, rather than simply doing the next page. If you have to work through a coursebook page by page, make sure that your objectives are focussed on what the learners ‘can do’ (will be able to do) at the end of the lesson that they couldn’t do (as well) at the start, rather than having objectives which focus purely on completing the exercises on the page.

Consider ‘backwards planning‘ – start with what you want learners to achieve, and identify all the stages needed to reach this point. It’s probably best to identify these stages before you spend too long looking at the materials if you can, as otherwise you’re likely to get distracted by the materials themselves – it’s easy to lose site of the objectives of the lesson as a whole.

Why adapt materials?

Cunningsworth (1995:136) says:

Every learning/teaching situation is unique and depends on factors such as these:

– classroom dynamics

– personalities involved

– syllabus constraints

– availability of resources

– learner expectations

– learner motivation

Material can nearly always be improved by being adapted to suit the particular situation where it is being used.

Think about how these factors might influence the lesson you’ve got in mind e.g.

  • syllabus = double-page per lesson to get through in a year
  • personalities = quiet, prefer individual work, dominate the group
  • dynamics = only just met – don’t really know each other yet, don’t take risks, don’t want to switch cameras on – voices only
  • resources = do students have access to copies of the book? notebooks? cameras they can hold things up to?
  • expectations = do they expect you to cover every exercise in the book? did they ask for lots of speaking activities and no writing?
  • motivation = Friday after lunch?

Four evaluative processes

McGrath (2016: 64-65) lists these four processes as a starting point for deciding what you might need to adapt in your materials:

  • Selection
    Material that will be used unchanged.
  • Deletion
    Complete – omitting a whole activity, or even lesson
    Partial – cutting one or more stages within an activity
  • Addition
    Adaptation = Extension or exploitation of existing material
    Supplementation = Introducing new materials
  • Change
    Modifications to procedure
    Replacement = Changes to context/content

Be careful not to make extra work for yourself or make activities too challenging for your students, for example by deleting a key preparation stage before a speaking activity.

Areas to think about

When going through the four evaluative processes above, there are a large number of areas you could consider. This list might seem overwhelming at first glance – you’ll probably find you think about at least some of these areas already when lesson-planning, but maybe there are some you haven’t considered before. It’s not exhaustive – the six areas could include many other ideas, not just those listed here.

  • Methods
    interaction patterns
    feedback techniques
  • Language content
  • Subject matter
  • Balance of skills
    reception v. production
    written v. spoken
    training v. testing
  • Progression and grading
    order of items
    memorization time/prep time
  • Design
    cultural content

The list includes ideas from Cunningsworth (1995: 136).

An example

This double-page spread has been taken from p56-57 of English File Pre-Intermediate 3rd edition by Christina Latham-Koenig, Clive Oxenden, and Paul Seligson.

Here are notes of some ways in which you might choose to adapt the materials to use them differently within your lesson. They are not intended to map out a single lesson, but rather to inspire you to look at your materials from a range of different perspectives and decide what is best for your learners and for you as a teacher. The headings refer to the ‘areas to think about’ above. There is often cross-over between the ideas under each category. They cover both the online and the face-to-face classroom. Feel free to ask for clarification of any of the ideas in the comments, as they’re written as quick notes below 🙂



Face-to-face: mingle for 3a, work with different partner 1d/5b,

Online: running dictation – 1d – teacher dictates 1a sentence, students run from other side of room to put letter in chat

Both: copy words onto paper in 4a and organize; 3d – stand up = T, sit down = f or right hand/left hand


Display questions on screen rather than in books, speak to partners = heads up, writing = heads down

Interaction patterns

Pairwork, groupwork (e.g. 3a, 5b – can prompt more discussion)

Hand over control – let students choose speed they progress through (parts of) the page, and you’re there to help?

Offer choices to students – do they want to do the reading or the listening? write about the school (1d) or their own ideas, use 5b questions or their own ideas / choose 2-3 of the questions from 5b, add 1 own idea to 4b


Cascade in the chat for 1a (write but don’t send, then all press enter at the same time)

Annotate for 4a, 4b = why are they comparing – how similar are you?

Have a specific task for 5b = talk to a partner + choose one language learning tip from your experiences to share with the group

Make a student the teacher (e.g. give one student all the answers + switch your camera off/stand at the back of the room)

Put them in pairs whenever you can

Language content


Focus only on modals / modifiers? Could be too much especially in online classes when things take longer!


Might need to give the rules rather than elicit, might focus on this after they’ve tried an activity e.g. 1d / 4b before they do the rules


Highlighting of the form on the screen/board

Remember the words and write the spellings (esp. mustn’t, quite…)


Point to signs and get them to remember the sentences/cline and remember words

Show first letters for sentences for students to remember

Practise saying minimal pairs sentences in 2b

Subject matter


This spread is probably pretty motivating, but you could start at a different point on the page to get them into the topic – 3a to get them involved (post question in chat, not from book), or tell them the situation (3b) and the title for them to predict content before they read, or start with 5b


Seems fairly authentic. I wouldn’t change anything


Very! I wouldn’t change anything

Balance of skills

Reception v. Production

Pretty good balance, unless you decide to take something out – keep an eye on it

Written v. Spoken

No writing really (Ex 6 is probably a separate lesson), apart from a little in 1d – maybe replace 5 with creating an article/blogpost with your own tips if learners need practice

Think about how much you use the chat v. get students to say things in open class (and how many SS *really* participate in open class speaking)

Training v. Testing

All testing, so you probably need to add training

Focus on sentences from the listening, reflect on techniques used (metacognition)

Underline answers in the reading

Spend more time on either reading/listening and skip the other one (just summarise the important info if needed for the rest of the lesson)

Progression and grading

Order of items

PPP structure now, maybe make it more TBL – put 1d/5b first

Choose what to focus in on – maybe the skills are more important than the language or vice versa – may need to just think about the grammar for example, if that’s what your learners need (make sure they really do need that and that the grammar work is clearly contextualised if you make that decision though!)


3b/3d = do first one together?

2b = help them with number of words, do one at a time, working in pairs

5a/5b – add prep time before speaking

Memorization time/Prep time

Memorization of modifiers – look, cover, write, check

Memorization of form/structures – look at signs and write sentences

Memorization of interesting language from reading/listening text

Other memorisation activities

Remember some of the have you ever…questions in 5b for a future speaking

Prep time = 5a/5b – thinking time before speaking/writing (depending on how you set this up

Give time to choose 3 questions to ask in 5b, rather than covering them all



Highlight them in some way – pull them off the page (on a slide? blown up copy? – only spend time doing this if you’re going to spend more than that amount of time exploiting them in the lesson though!)

Exploit them more = what’s the conversation between the two men? How might it change between two women?

Use images for prediction (along with the headline?)

Assign a symbol to each modifier for students to use as a prompt for memorisation or creating their own activities


Very busy pages – lots going on – focus in on particular parts

Mask other parts with paper if in book

Make them bigger on screen

Use circles/arrows to draw attention


Text could challenge students with reading issues as very closely spaced – masking (as above)

Retype and space more (if necessary – don’t spend precious time on this if it won’t make a noticable difference for a learner!) Note: English File texts are available as downloadable/editable Word documents from the Oxford Teacher’s Club (requires login)

Colours probably fine – yellow background with black text for reading. Worth asking learners what they find easiest/most challenging to read though

Cultural content = going to a bar? Might be problematic in some contexts. Better in a café? > Change the picture

A planning checklist

Once you’ve planned/As you plan your lessons, it can be useful to have a short checklist of different dynamics you find it important to include in your lessons. For example, you could ask what balance of the following areas you have in your lesson:

  • Moving around / Sitting down
  • Teaching / Testing
  • Head up / Heads down
  • Teacher in control / Students in control
  • Individual work / Pair work / Group work / Whole class work
  • etc.

As with the clines at the start of the post, there is no single correct way to run a lesson – it depends on many different factors. But it can be useful to ask yourself these questions, and to consider whether the balance you’ve created is beneficial/suitable for your learners/your teaching style.

What tips would you give teachers to think about when choosing how to adapt materials, especially for online lessons?

If you’d like more ideas for exploiting activities, try these:


Cunningsworth, Alan (1995) Choosing your Coursebook, Heinemann [Amazon affiliate link]

McGrath, Ian (2016) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching, 2nd edition, Edinburgh Textbooks in Applied Linguistics: Edinburgh University Press [Amazon affiliate link]

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