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The ‘Painless’ Course Creation Cycle: Tips and Tricks from an EFL Veteran

Tory S. Thorkelson, M.Ed.

Imagine being called into your Department Chair’s office three weeks before a new term begins. With all the real (and imaginary) reasons for this meeting going through your head, you sit down and are told that – due to the abrupt departure of the instructor for a particular course – you need to come up with a 32 week curriculum for a class you have never taught and in a subject you know little or nothing about by Friday.

What would you do? Visit the local bookstore? Comb through numerous webpages that may or may not be helpful?

Pray that Wikipedia, Wikibooks, Google books can provide background reading? Or search Dave’s ESL Café, Teflpedia and the Internet TESL Journal hoping that you stumble across what you need? Well, depending on what you need to prepare and research for and about your new class, you might do all of these things and a few more but – in the interest of saving you some sweat, tears and a possible panic attack – let me walk you through my tips and tricks for going through this course creation process.

Step 1: Read about and research the subject.

If you know absolutely nothing about the subject, which is unlikely but possible, then do a Google search. I usually start with “ESL + the subject” and then add college/university, high school or even middle school to narrow the results if necessary. If it is a common ESL/EFL topic, like one of the 4 skills, then a website like Teflpedia ( or The Internet TESL Journal ( is probably a good place to start. If it is not a TESL/TEFL subject per se, then a search of Google, Google Scholar or Wikipedia/Wikibooks might be a good idea. I always create a file on my desktop or in Dropbox so I can save any materials that look promising for later reading.

Step 2: Search for some subject-focused syllabi online.

I put this step second, but many people would do this first in the hope that someone else has done the sometimes thankless task of researching and teaching the subject. Even if you do luck out here, it is highly unlikely you will teach the class/subject in the same way as another teacher or instructor but the suggested textbook, supplementary readings and breakdown of grading criteria or weekly schedule will give you hints about what to teach in what order, how to grade this type of class, and so on. Often they will have an online resource page as well which is full of great materials that you can review or possibly use yourself assuming you give them credit or get their permission.

Step 3: Decide whether to use a textbook or not.

If you don’t use a text book, expect to tweak as you go (or create lessons week by week). Even if you use a textbook as the backbone of your course, you will likely still need to add your own ideas to supplement the textbook materials or replace activities/exercises that do not quite fit your students’ needs. Use a website like to make more difficult subject-related readings accessible for your students and couple it with a set of questions from or for an instant lesson on almost any topic you choose.

Step 4: Keep your syllabus and content generic or TBA.

This will ensure that you have the freedom to find, adapt or create material week by week as you go. One important piece of advice is to test what you teach and teach what you test. A presentation class should be mostly graded on presentations and an essay class should involve the various stages of writing an essay – all of which you grade as you go.

I have learned never to make any course component worth more than 20% if I can help it.

That way, there are plenty of opportunities for students to show what they have learned without losing motivation by failing an exam or similar assignment worth 40-50% of their grade and for you to give feedback where appropriate along the way. In a seminar style course, as another example, you have the flexibility to ask students to research and present on class-specific topics and – with their permission – you may be able to use some of their material for future classes.

Step 5: Get input from the students as you go.

One course I teach is based entirely on what students want to study and discuss. I provide a generic structure for the class including discussions and presentation, but they negotiate amongst themselves about the topics they are most interested in and I select from what they give me for 90% of the lessons. The other 10% is based on lessons that I know work with that class/level based on using them with numerous previous classes. Further, I do my own midterm and final feedback where they can give me anonymous feedback on what they like, do not like and would add or change. This allows for changes along the way and allows you to make the course better the next time around.

Step 6: Remember, you do not have to be an expert.

You just have to be more expert than your students most of the time. You will have to read the textbook chapter and teacher’s guide for your lesson each week if you are using a textbook. If you are not using a textbook, doing some background reading about the current topic is a good idea. A quick review of the Wikipedia entry – paying special attention to the references and external links – is a good idea or even a search for a related YouTube video (especially from a channel like will help you impress your students with your knowledge.

Step 7: Original versus adapted material.

Assuming you do not go with a commercial textbook and all the bells and whistles that a publisher can offer, a reasonable balance is 80% of the course material adapted/adopted from others and 20% original material in the first term/year but if you teach the same course for 2 or 3 years these will often flip by the end of that period. Otherwise, it gets boring for both you and the students.

Keep all of these tips and tricks in mind, and I predict that your next new course will be much easier to create.

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