Complicating the anti-coursebook debate: Part 1

As some of you may be aware, there’s been a fair bit of coursebook bashing going on in the blogosphere over recent weeks, much of it carried out by Geoff Jordan. Given this, I’ve decided to lay down a few thoughts about the whole debate over here instead.

The first point to make is something I’ve long said with regard to the Dogme discourse as well, and it’s that attempts to talk about coursebook use as one unified thing that we all understand and recognise are incredibly myopic. Coursebooks differ greatly in terms of the way they frame the world and in terms of the questions and positions they expect or allow students to take towards these representations. And different editions of the same book show shifting orientations over time. To give just a few examples: in the 1990s, when I first started teaching, the most dominant coursebooks such as Headway offered up what might be termed a tourist board approach to British culture. Britain – and, let’s be honest, a very southern, white, middle-class vision of Britain at that – was positively portrayed and even celebrated.

Such portrayals are far harder to find these days. Content has become more global, the take on the UK perhaps slightly more nuanced and the interlinking of language to British culture less pronounced. That notwithstanding, certain books still do very clearly have certain slants. For instance, it’s widely acknowledged within publishing circles that part of the success of Inside Out was down to its light, fluffy celebration of celebrity culture, whilst one of the reasons its successor Global was a relative flop was its stubborn refusal to play this game and to take a darker, more intellectual, literary tack.

I could go on, but hopefully the point has been made. Whether as a result of conscious thought on the part of the writers or simply as an unconscious reflection of beliefs and attitudes, coursebooks present differing political visions of the world and this can be seen and assessed in a whole range of ways: the topics selected for exploration; the take  on those topics that comes through the texts; the questions students are asked to discuss in response to these texts, and so on.

In addition to all of this, the vision of language contained with coursebooks differs quite considerably too. What might be dubbed the English File school tends very much towards a presentation of language as discrete structural grammar and predominantly single words, which generally need only to be matched to basic definitions.

Now, that does still seem to be the dominant model, despite the fact corpora-based research has for years shown that the reality of usage is far more complex than this, that grammar and vocabulary are far more interdependent, that chunks and fixed blocks are more common and that structural grammar is more limited. However, attempts have been made to present different visions of language and to use the coursebook as a vehicle for potentially subverting more traditional concepts about language usage. In addition to the work we’ve done with both Innovations and Outcomes, there have been other efforts such as the ill-fated but interesting Natural English, for example, and even the most mainstream of courses have over recent years made more of an effort to incorporate fixed expressions, aspects of spoken grammar, collocations and so on

So hopefully it’s clear that far from being one homogenous unified mass of media, coursebooks are wildly heterogeneous in both their world views and their presentations of language.

Ultimately, failure to recognize or to be able to discuss these issues both stems from and feeds back into a materials illiteracy. And this, in turn, limits teachers’ understanding of key principles of materials design, which makes the design and utilization of their own material that much harder. As the tag line in an advert I saw the other day for a Swiss watch said: “If you want to break the rules, first you have to master them.”

The second obvious thing completely written out of many discussions about the evil of coursebook use is the fact that no two lessons delivered using pages from a coursebook – whichever book it may be – will ever be the same. Teachers using the same book repeatedly over time will modify the way they use spreads: they may supplement, they may reject certain parts, they may plan in different ways as they develop. Even once they’ve reached a relatively fixed way of tackling a spread as, say, I suspect I now have and even when the basic way they handle the material in class may be similar across classes, there will inevitably be all manner of small but significant differences that impact on learning opportunities, classroom dynamics and so on. Students will ask different questions, they’ll volunteer different answers to teacher questions, different stories will come up within the spaces students get to speak and these will require different responses

Now, some approaches may well be more valid or effective than others, and discussions about both the general way you go about planning a coursebook-based lesson – as well as retrospective analysis of the minutiae of how you actually tackle and exploit the material in class – can be profoundly developmental and thought-provoking.

If, of course, you’re ever encouraged to have them! At present, with such broad brushstrokes being used to paint a negative picture of coursebooks and their users, these myriad areas of discussion and debate are simply being exculpated from the field. This seems a very sorry state of affairs to me.

And to think: I haven’t even started to discuss what else teachers might be doing when they’re not using coursebooks!

That, perhaps, is a post for another day.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

16 Responses

  1. Thomas Ewens says:

    I’m not sure that coursebooks are wildly heterogeneous in their world views, Hugh. Where is the coursebook that openly acknowledges the LGB community, or portrays people living under Sharia law, for example?

    I am not familiar with every coursebook in the world, but all the ones I’ve ever used (and that’s quite a few) all do have a similar world view, not in what they include but in what they leave out, (e.g. parsnips).

    • Lexicallab says:

      Point taken on the obvious omissions Thomas, though even that’s not as clear cut as it may seem. Ben Goldstein recently did a talk about gay representation in ELT at the Queering ESOL conference and is, along with ourselves, at least an author who’s tried to get hints of gay life into mainstream material. In many instances, it’s a case of leaving a door of possibility open, of simply hinting at something and then leaving it to teachers and / or students to push further if they want to. Of course, the world would be a better place if some couples on ELT materials were gay and no issue were made of it; they weren’t there as an issue or even a token gesture, but simply as COUPLES or elsewhere as PEOPLE who just happened to be gay. or bi, Or whatever.

      At the same time, of course, I don’t think it takes much of a leap of imagination to understand why there’s little or no sexuality or religion in courses, does it?

      When you see the incredibly innocuous material that some teachers who pilot some material report on finding too personal to use with their students, it’s no wonder nothing more risque makes it out.

      Having said all of that, and with the added proviso that some books do still at least attempt to get smidgens of these issues in there somewhere, I also think tat sometimes we make to much of the PARSNIPS debate and use the fact that censorship exists to continue to tar all material with the same strokes.

      Whilst you are broadly right that the majority of books do have similar world views in terms of what they leave out, that doesn’t negate the fact that what they include – and the way they present and treat what’s included – still does actually differ wildly.

      PARSNIPS represents a relatively small niche area of discussion, debate and everyday life. There’s a wealth of other subjects out there that are also interesting and important and that get presented in varying ways.

      • Veganmashuu says:

        For anyone else who, like me, was unaware of PARSNIPS debate.

        I find myself agreeing with Hugh’s comment above; when I think about the simple things which have caused uproar in past classes, I agree that textbooks understandably avoid controversy by excluding PARSNIPS. Shortly after beginning my career as an ELT I discovered “Taboos and Issues” a photocopiable discussion book for higher levels and found it a relevaltion, the book is entirely based on PARSNIPS, and as a result has to be exploited with extreme care.

        Though I do make a lot of use of course books I agree with the article included in my comment about the difficulties of picking and choosing from coursebooks which are so integrated. For this reason I love resource books which allow me to put together lessons in a more flexible way. I’m a big fan of “700 ideas for the classroom”, for example, and believe that more flexible course books and resource books allow much more freedom.

        In the course books vs dogme argument I fall on the side of coursebooks despite their limitations and safe topic matter. I feel robotically following a coursebook is obviously a bad idea, but it’s opposite is no less disturbing as in some realisations of the dogme approach I’ve witnessed.

        • Lexicallab says:

          Hello there –
          Thanks for resurrecting this slightly dormant post.

          I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s found the binary division of coursebooks versus non-coursebooks unhelpful and misguided, though I have to say I’m not sure I know what ‘robotically’ following a coursebook actually involves. I mean, I’ve seen countless lessons based on coursebooks over the years, and they were all different, the teachers picked up on different things, different things happened as a result of what the teachers did – or didn’t do – based on what was there in the books, etc.

          I’d suggest that every single teacher doing the same page from a coursebook will do something different – and it’s only if we can appreciate that and discuss what difference these changes make that we can really start to have a proper discussion about what may or may not make effective teaching.

          In terms of both PARSNIPs and flexibility, I think the secret is to exploit the possibilities offered by vocabulary that’s actually present. To give one small example: I wouldn’t dream of going into a class and discussing abortion as a topic or asking about feelings / experiences of the topic. However, if the word PREGNANT appeared somewhere, I WOULD ask something like “What questions might you ask someone if they tell you they’re pregnant?” or “if you’re very young and you get pregnant, what choices might you have?”

          The thing with questions like this is you never quite know where they’ll go even if you have a decent idea. One group might come up with “Do you know who the father is?” while another may offer up “Are you going to keep it?” There then may – or may not – follow questions about whether or not abortion is legal in the UK and when it was legalised. I may then use this as a chance to teach some new language around the subject and maybe explain a bit of local background. There then may follow a quick discussion about the legal status of it in their countries. Or not. It all depends on the students.

          For me, being alert to the possibilities of such events offers far more interesting – and interactive – options than accruing more recipes or activities. In a sense, the longer I teach, the less I see variety and interest as being to do with methodology and the more I see it as being connected to the language that’s there and what we do with it.

          Hope that makes some kind of sense.

          • Veganmashuu says:

            Hi Hugh,

            It’s a phrase I’ve heard others use to describe using a coursebook without much independent thought or flair. In practice I guess it means not exploiting the material fully.

            Yeah, I see your point about interest being connected with the actual language that comes up. I still like recipes and activities though, as I’m a bit of a hoarder.

          • Lexicallab says:

            I still think it’s a lazy phrase myself as it implies standardisation and similarity and whatever else occurs in most classes, it’s certainly not that!

            The far more interesting discussion is what teachers think exploiting the material actually means, what they choose to exploit, how – and why.

            Oh, and as for the hoarding tendencies . . . I’d start de-cluttering now before you end up like this guy:


  2. […] All CBs not matter how well designed they are (they are good in their own right of course), they won’t reach learners especially in an age where apps and internet tools are at the hand of our learners. Geoff wasn’t discussing teachers and learners’ beliefs but gave an overview well painted of what the industry is. Hugh Dellar gives even a more complete picture  of the industry in his post. […]

  3. Graciela Alchini says:

    Some teachers I know don’t fancy the idea of using
    textbooks, and claim they don’t want to follow “someone else’s ideas”. I
    believe there are lot of things to add
    when using a textbook lesson that will give it a personal touch. You can
    keep your right to be creative, and what’s more, you can eventually decide if
    you will omit a certain activity or item. What I don’t think is really wise (and
    honest) is to try and create your own lessons or course activity if you are not qualified or trained to do this,
    or if you are just filling class time with aimless activities that will just keep
    the students busy and “happy” without much effort.

    • Lexicallab says:

      Hi Graciela –
      Thanks for taking the time to respond. I guess I have mixed feelings about your comments here, in part because I only ended up becoming a writer myself by feeling frustrated with the materials I was being told to teach from, by thinking about their limitations and then by trying to write better things myself. I was never qualified or trained to write my own lessons and in a sense, I’m not sure you ever really can be (though the experience of working with developmental editors over the years has been invaluable!).

      Having written a plea form a more nuanced discussion about coursebooks and coursebook use, I don’t want to suggest that all non-coursebook use is by definition bad or anything. I know there are plenty of excellent teachers out there who deliver excellent self-made lessons or who make use of a range of other materials that are available.

      At the same time, though, it’s only right to admit that doing this means a lot more work for individual teachers outside of the class and in the end, the bottom line of almost any class is the same: what is it that you hope your students will be better at doing after their time with you today? Why do you think that’s a sensible goal? What language are you going to try to teach in order to help them get to where you want them to be – and how?

      And then there are questions of continuity: how does this class relate to the previous class? is there any revision? Is it explicit or more covert?

      If teachers have good answers to these questions and have made their own material, then fine. To be able to do so, though, obviously requires more than simply collecting together a strong of activities that may be fun!

      • Graciela Alchini says:

        Thanks for your reply, Hugh. I’ve been thinking about our
        exchange all day yesterday, and have reflected on some issues I would like to share here. I would say I agree with what you replied , because I also have mixed
        feelings about textbooks and textbook use. I guess I just expressed one side of my arguments, led by my disagreement( and irritation) caused by some teachers ( where I work) who reject and criticise textbooks just because they prefer to do any activity that could be fun and also light preparation work for them , without actually thinking how useful it could be. The purpose of a “fun”
        activity is , in these cases, to make students happy in class, and have a good evaluation in the end-of-the- course survey. Unluckily many students in my school are so lazy that they take this easy work into account favourably. And at the same time, student surveys
        are taken into account by the school . Sometimes it seems to me the aim is just to have “happy” students, regardless of their actual learning.

        However, I’m aware of the fact that there are lots of ( and fortunately many more ) teachers who would choose to prepare their own materials based on clear goals, careful
        planning, thoughtful ellaboration and reflection. Of course, this takes more time and effort, but we are talking of “real” teachers, those who do have a passion.

        On another note, it’s interesting to know the reason why you became a textbook writer, and from what you say, I think you did not have oficial qualifications or training, but you did have the experience of a good teacher , the drive , the dedication , and the intention to do things better, and I believe that is what is necessary (what I would call materials literacy ,whether acquired formally or informally), plus the support of editors, so probably you will agree with me that there is strong background behind a book like yours.

        I understand how frustrated you may have felt with some
        textbooks. I have been there before too! Hopefully, there will be more writers with different approaches like you, so that we teachers can have a wider choice of materials that suit our students’ needs and our teaching beliefs. And if we cannot choose our textbook because it ‘s someone else’s decision , I consider we can still choose our own style or technique to deal with that material, that space of freedom that lets us express our views on language teaching and our own personality.

        Have I written too much? Haha, and I could continue….

        Thanks Hugh!

        • Lexicallab says:

          Hi again –
          Thanks for this. Interesting stuff.

          It took me quite a few years to realise that just because my students were having fun and seemed to like me, it didn’t necessarily mean I was a good teacher! I think that while it’s impossible to be teaching well if your students AREN’T having fun and enjoying your classes, it’s also important to state that just because they are having fun and enjoying themselves, it doesn’t mean they’re learning anything.

          I can understand how frustrating it must be to see teachers intent on mostly having fun being rewarded for it – in the short-term at least. I ended up feeling like that when I was working in Indonesia and colleagues of mine with no qualifications – outside of the fact they were good looking, young and native speakers – would simply play cards or Monopoly with students and get great feedback. That was part of what drive me back to the UK and to doing a DELTA, to be honest.

          But yes, it’s also important to acknowledge there are plenty of other more serious and dedicated teachers out there working on their own material, which may well be good – and could be even better with help with colleagues, other material writers, etc. I think the important thing is, of course, to have a strong classroom grounding and also a strong theoretical perspective.

          • Graciela Alchini says:

            Thanks for your feedback, Hugh!

          • Genevieve White says:

            Thanks for this, Hugh. It seems to me that the pro and anti -course
            book camps may never see eye to eye on things – perhaps we need to look at ways
            of working around some of the course book’s perceived failings! 🙂

            I think your point about how no two course book lessons will be the same is spot on – many teachers intuitively skip tasks which have little benefit or appeal to their learners and spend time
            expanding upon those which do.

            International course books are written to appeal to global markets, and so, as you suggest, need to be aimed at some kind of middle ground.Perhaps it is the teacher’s job to perceive ways of personalising some of the course book topics, and to find links with issues in the learners’ local context?

            As for PARSNIPS, surely teachers can, if appropriate, incorporate some of these issues within course book topics? It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see how we could use a topic on jobs to discuss discrimination in the workplace or use a speaking activity focusing on the language of expressing opinions to introduce some more controversial discussion
            topics than the ones on offer in their book.

            Anyway, thanks again for an interesting post.

          • Lexicallab says:

            Hi Genevieve –
            Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comments.

            I fear you may be right about the fact that there’s a schism that has developed between coursebook users at least some on the anti-coursebook side of things that may be too wide to bridge.

            This saddens me, though, as it tends to make it much harder to have sensible discussions about, for example, what teachers think material in its broadest sense should offer and why.

            Re. the PARSNIPS issue, I tend to think you’re right: there’s often space that emerges simply from exploring bits of language or questions that come up in coursebooks that allow for little sidetracks into such terrain.

            To give just one example, with my class in Moscow last week, the word PITCH came up, as in to give / deliver a pitch and there was some discussion about how Russian doesn’t have a specific word for this . . . followed by some grim laughter about the fact that this was because most contracts weren’t awarded following itches, but rather following business dinners with contacts! This came out of simply looking at one seemingly innocuous word!

            I often feel that critics of materials forget to factor teachers in, as you imply above, and aren’t aware of the myriad ways good teachers connect language being looked at to students’ lives – and then encourage students to do the same!

            Finally, thanks for reminding me that I really must try and write a second part to this. My point about no two coursebook lessons ever being the same was not really about the way teachers chop and change material, or supplement / reject (though of ciurse all of that does happen). Rather, it was about the way different teachers will approach and handle something like a vocab exercise, say, in very different ways, set it up differently, go through answers differently, give examples in different ways, ask extra questions about the vocab in different ways, etc. and that simply dismissing coursebooks out of hand tends to limit the degree to which such things end up getting discussed. That’s the kind of angle I want to explore in more depth if and when I get round to writing a second post on this theme!

            Cheers for now

  4. […] Complicating the anti-coursebook debate: Part 1. […]

  5. […] Dellar does acknowledge that a basis of structural grammar is of limited use and that cultural imperialism through the back […]

Leave a Reply