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.