Complicating the coursebook debate part 3: coursebook use

Today’s post follows on from another recent post that looked at some of the so-called false assumptions that supposedly lie at the heart of coursebooks. The assumptions, as stated in a recent piece by Geoff Jordan, are that all coursebooks and coursebook-using teachers “lead students through each unit and do the succession of activities in the order that they’re set out. And all of them wrongly assume that if learners are exposed to selected bits of the L2 in this way, one bit at a time in a pre-determined sequence, then, after enough practice, the new bits, one by one, in the same sequence, will become part of the learners’ growing L2 competence.”

As you may remember, my argument in response to this claim was that these assumptions may be made by the coursebook writers (along with the teachers who use them) or they may not. Not only do coursebooks vary in more ways than may initially be apparent, but there will also be incredible variety in the way that they are used. One of the aims of our recent book, Teaching Lexically, is to encourage teachers to use their coursebooks in a different way and Matt Byrski’s comment on our last post is also an example of a teacher making use of a coursebook in a way which does not make the above assumptions and which seems to take account of students’ wants and needs. As Matt pointed out, some of those wants may be conservative and may involve requesting a coursebook!

A straw man? Or just stretching an argument too far?

It is true that all coursebooks do include a pre-set syllabus and I think we can assume that all writers and teachers of coursebooks see a value in instruction and believe in the possibility of learning rather than feeling that languages can’t be learned, but can only be acquired. However, I actually find it difficult to believe many teachers or coursebook writers would believe that everything they present and encourage practice of will be learned, let alone learned in the same pre-determined sequence as its presented in, but I guess that’s for other writers and teachers to say. In this post, I can only say how I conceive of my coursebook material, how I use it . . . and how I have none of these assumptions!

Questions for the non-coursebook user

From the point of view of ‘Natural Approaches’ such as Task-Based Learning or Dogme, in their strongest forms there seems to be a denial that teaching or the study of language has any benefit at all. I would argue that is because these theories were born out of a concern about the development of grammar and grammatical accuracy, with vocabulary only getting a look in at a later stage in these theories’ development.

There is, though, a clear benefit to be derived from studying vocabulary. Non-coursebook users also need to consider how many tasks can be covered in one lesson, how quickly the complexity of these tasks can develop and how often similar tasks can be repeated within a lesson and across lessons. For the weaker forms of TBL which may both present models of tasks and use of materials banks to focus on form, we need to ask how those models and materials are different to those that may be found in a coursebook. I will consider these issues in more detail in the next post in this series, but for the moment you might like to consider what would TBL or Dogme teachers might replace the tasks and exercises mentioned in this post with if they wanted to reach a similar goal.

A list of tasks or a succession of activities?

Here is a list of ‘activities’ from one spread in the book (Outcomes Intermediate second edition: unit 2). The main titles are the headings in the book, but within these there are other activities.


Vocabulary (feelings)

– speaking


– speaking

Grammar (linking verbs)

– speaking

– vocab

Developing conversations (response expressions)


– speaking

Conversation practice

Looked at in this way, you might already note that the various speaking tasks do not necessarily suggest that new bits will be learned one by one in the same sequence as they are presented in. Of course, the exercises are written in a sequence, because any lesson happens in a sequence ….. unless we somehow move beyond the space-time continuum! This particular sequence is the one that I, as a writer/teacher, would normally follow, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It is actually a bit different to the first edition of the book, and as we’ll see, there is no reason why you couldn’t do the tasks in a completely different order. More importantly, just referring to each activity as dead, un-interactive units of ‘teaching’, ignores everything that happens in and around each section when used in the classroom. Many activities could be seen as individual tasks which may potentially result  in ‘acquiring through doing’ – as may (or may not) happen in a more explicitly task-based lesson.

Natural goals and alternative sequences

In this case, our sequence of activities derives from the goal of wanting students to have a realistic conversation about giving good and bad news and to express their own feelings about how others are feeling. So firstly, while we pick out some vocabulary and grammar to focus on in the exercise sequences, we would expect this to be a relatively minor part of the conversation that students practice. A teacher may find numerous opportunities to look at other forms during the lesson – and that’s exactly what I do when I use the material. With many of the tasks that we suggest students do in our books, there is a similar kind of relationship between input and skills. If students and teachers don’t take advantage of these opportunities or take a narrower view of the material, hey, what’cha gonna do?

Secondly, I have in the past started with the conversation practice. I may then emphasise or note aspects of language in response to student efforts here, and some of that language will be different to the forms that are ‘practised’ in the material. I may drop some tasks as a result or adapt the exercises we’ve provide – or I may not . . . . .

Thirdly, I might ask students to look at some vocabulary from the unit before we start. That’s because I believe students can learn basic meanings (if not full usage) of vocabulary through study and there’s plenty of evidence to support this. I believe it speeds up the full learning of these words, but I also understand that knowing the meaning is only a small part of being able to use the words and that usage is only going to be acquired over time by:

  • attempting (and sometimes failing) to use items;
  • exposure to natural examples.

I do try to ensure students use the words in meaningful ways and try to teach good examples through this and through following lessons based on the coursebook, but even then, I know the job is not complete at the end of a unit. In the next post, I’ll go on to consider in more detail exactly what I would do when using this material.

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Find out more about our most recent series of coursebooks, Outcomes.

  • Letícia Sales

    Lovely post, Hugh! As I’ve already told you, there are upsides to using course books, specially if you are A) a novice teacher or B) a teacher who’s already got a lot on their plate. I’ve always been instructed to take course books with a pinch of salt, so even if I do choose to use a ready-made lesson instead of preparating one for scratch, I make sure go take a thorough look at it (maybe a 30′ look) to see if any adjustments need to be made. It freaks my coursebook-bound learners out when I change the order of the tasks and/or choose not to use a specific text, though!

    I also think it’s worth mentioning that there are schools where teachers have to follow a specific coursebook. Here in Brazil, most language schools come up with their own materials, and they aren’t usually cheap (sometimes these books are more expensive than the lessons themselves!!). So there’s a lot of pressure on the teacher to use these materials, pressure that comes not only from the school, but also the learners who’ve paid so much on them. So I think it’s useful to raise awareness on this issue, and show teachers how they can make the best out of using course books. Thanks for your post!

    • Lexicallab

      HI Leticia –
      Thanks for the comment. I should start by saying this one was actually written by Andrew, although we’re obviously singing from the same hymn sheet on this!

      I hear you on the need many teachers have for coursebooks, and I’ve always found it profoundly arrogant when I’ve seen senior figures in ELT make very dismissive comments about such teachers, especially when you know THEY don’t have to go teach 25+ hours a week after making their comments.

      I think the idea of taking material with a pinch of salt isn’t a dad starting point, but that there still needs to be a lot more discussion about both what different coursebooks / units / pages offer and how (and why) they differ, in order to ensure better materials literacy. I think there also needs to be discussion of what taking it with a pinch of salt actually means; what are the implications of that; how does that play out in class. What options does the material present you with, what decisions might you make about how to use it in different ways and why might some of those ways be better than others.

      We’re both very aware of the fact that many teachers don’t always get to choose their coursebooks, as we’ve both been in that situation before ourselves. As you say, in those contexts, discussion of what you’re doing when you’re going through particular exercises, how you handle the classroom material and why you do things that way become really central to teacher development.

      We’ll be writing more about what we’d generally do when using particular bits of material in future posts in this series, so keep an eye out for them.

      Thanks again.

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