Coursebooks: the Thick and the Thin End of the Wedge

I have used some rubbish books in my time as a teacher. I have not used many great ones but I have used some half decent ones, the caveat being that those books were targeted at specific business skills or selected skills that learners needed (based on a pre-course needs analysis).

Anyhow, I have found myself dragged into coursebook debates a few times on Twitter and I am going to refrain from entering any more of them for one year after this post unless they end up being useful for my Master’s degree studies.

There are some excellent critiques of coursebooks: Geoffrey Jordan (1, 1.5, 2) and Rosemere Bard give well-reasoned takedowns (1, 2). The only defences I’ve seen for textbooks that seem to hold any weight are from Twitter people Anne Hendler and Tim Hampson, that teachers are worked too hard to plan several different lessons and select materials so having something to take in to class is a godsend, although the defences were nuanced and acknowledged that the materials were not perfect. The defences I’ve seen from materials writers are less rigid.

Mike S. Boyle posted a defence that focussed on the general sales pitch of coursebooks.

I’m going to look at these six points now.

1. You are a busy, overworked teacher and you don’t have time to prepare.

Possibly this could pass muster. However, the amount of time taken to mine a textbook text for useful language could be done with the newspaper or another authentic text on the way to work or within a few minutes. And by text I mean audio or video as an option there, too. You could also put the onus on students to bring in something they’d like to look at or set them homework to find out about a topic that interests them and report their findings (and/or further questions) to you. It’s going to generate some discussion at least, and if it is coming from the learners it is going to generate language about a topic or situation they want to talk about.

2. You are new to teaching, your school has given you little or no training, and you need obvious structure and guidance.

You had no training? Not even a ‘Teach Yourself TEFL’ book from the library before you boarded a flight? Well, perhaps the coursebook will appeal to you for the first couple of weeks until you bore yourself senseless with the same topics raising their head over and over again. And you’ll be repeating those lessons until your students get to the next level, which will lead you to supplementary materials and realia so you don’t have to look at the book again. If you are lucky enough to have a good book at a crap school that doesn’t care about its teachers then excellent, use it. However, if your school cares little about your training, they’re unlikely to care about your materials, are they?

3. Your class is huge and your students are either required to be there or do not seem to have clear goals for studying English.

If your class is huge, a book is of no consequence. The resources you have are the resources you have. Are you really guiding a class of fifty, sixty or seventy in lockstep through the present perfect? Or do you have several groups of four or thirty-odd pairs having a meaningful conversation about a topic that is likely to interest them and then talking to others in the class?

4. Your students are traumatized from junior high and high school English and are terrified of speaking and making mistakes.

This is unrelated to the book. You can help shy students prepare with offline planning of tasks by writing down what they want to say, asking partners for help and then have them negotiate meaning in a conversation. Yes, Language Classroom Anxiety is a real phenomenon, but having a grammar syllabus on the table is going to help nobody shake the anxiety, no matter how friendly and zappy the illustrations may be.

5. Your students have had a lot of prior exposure to English (though it may not have stuck) so you know you may need to jump in and out of the book a lot, skip over some things, and supplement other areas with extra stuff which you will need to find in a resource pack because you have no time.

If you need to skip over some things, students will start to wonder why they have had to pay between US$20 to $50 for a book that they haven’t covered everything from. Do you skip novel chapters? No, you do not, and a coursebook is a different thing but students want value for money and if they have bought a book they will want to cover it completely, whether it benefits their language development or not. This appears to be setting up some teachers for a fall.

6. At some point in the nearish future, your students are going to have to pass a life-altering high-stakes exam that covers a very specific set of skills, question types, language items, etc.

Yes, they may. Are they being tested on grammar? Then a grammar book is useful. Vocabulary? A vocabulary book. Everything? Then you need to focus on developing their use of language, which a structural syllabus fails to address due to it not taking into account what is learnable by the learners according to their interlanguage state. If they have the chance to learn language through communication and negotiated meaning, allowing them to test internal hypotheses, they are going to internalise the language much more easily than attempting to learn rote the example grammar in the language focus.

Hugh Dellar does acknowledge that a basis of structural grammar is of limited use and that cultural imperialism through the back door is an issue but he does not make a solid argument for the presence of the book in the classroom. I’ve read some well-argued stuff from Hugh regarding the Lexical Approach (which seems like it is an approach desperate to be tacked on to a methodology but this is not the time for that) but his argument doesn’t say anything this time apart from that he is trying something new (yes, he is).

So, now on to my own views.

Books are foisted onto teachers and learners. Generally. Not always, but generally. They are then assumed to be the syllabus for the class.

They strongly favour a PPP approach, and the presentation of grammar in a sequence, often with the presence of review units, frequently a collection of multiple-choice questions.

The listening and reading ‘tasks’ are often multiple-choice insults to intelligence at worst or shooting fish in a barrel at best. If there is an open question it is OK, but this helps to give lie to the status of the teacher or coursebook author dictating the questions that ought to be asked about a text. There are also tons and tons of display questions, which are rarely used in life other than as passive-aggressive rhetoric.

The listening is too often too stupid in that it is ludicrously slow, and completely unlike authentic listening.

There’s little discourse awareness given to learners, with fillers being thrown in occasionally but normally nothing about adjacency pairs or conversation management, the absence of the latter helping to nullify Boyle’s arguments for the book as a crutch for inexperienced or untrained teachers.

Lexically, in many of the structural syllabus coursebooks, there are sets and they are frequently unchallenging due to them being so familiar in students’ lexical landscapes an/or loanwords, so what is the point unless you are looking to separate the front and back cover to justify the price.

Phonemic awareness is given short shrift and even then, learners are given no guidance about what they need to do with their mouths to achieve these sounds (again, what does the fabled inexperienced teacher do here other than talk rubbish about it or hope for the best with magic and accident?). There are no sagittal diagrams or even explanations that diphthongs glide from one position to another so the mouth needs to move when you make this sound.

I think I have covered most of my gripes but if I have missed anything, do let me know by the 7th. Good night.

17 thoughts on “Coursebooks: the Thick and the Thin End of the Wedge

  1. I’ll make a simple defense of course books here with my own anecdotal evidence. I am an ELT professional who happens to travel extensively in my work. Whenever I meet someone in a non-English speaking country who speaks good English, I’ll often ask them how they learned. The answers range and to some extent depend on the country I’m in but, the most common answer I get is ‘I learned at school’. My follow up question is often ‘so how did you learn at school?’. The coursebook bashing teachers who might read this will perhaps be disappointed to hear that the textbook is mentioned and remembered by these successful learners much more often than the teacher. They might not remember the title or the publisher (‘we used a red book at High School’), but the simple fact is there are a lot of people in this world who have successfully learned English who give a good slice of the credit for that to their course book.

    I offer you about as much quantitative or scientific evidence for this as you do for the gripes you’ve listed (many of which I agree with), but instead of making these gripes wouldn’t it be interesting (and fair) to simply ask the students what they want to learn with? A textbook or no textbook? Or ask successful learners how they did it? With a textbook or without?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that there are plenty of successful learners who have used textbooks when learning English and other foreign languages. However, there is the other side, that what works for some won’t work for everyone.

      You have also hit the nail on the head, about dialogue with students. It is my belief that a needs analysis is essential at the start of the course and throughout otherwise how do we decide on materials (or absence) thereof unless we as teachers know what our students need/want to achieve?


  2. Great response Marc!

    Point 3: If teachers are unsure how it can be done, this free course is really great!
    There are wonderful teachers all around the world running great classes. I’m in awe at projects like the ones I’ve portrayed recently in my blog. Music clubs, reading clubs, fan-fiction writing projects, etc. A group of kids around 8 (+than 15 in a group… I noticed). The teacher creates her own materials and use videos with the kids.

    What needs to change is people’s mind. This obsession with coursebook and defending it based on how easy it makes teachers life is just BS. The projects featured in the documentary shows that it is possible to inspire people to become bilingual or trilingual if we show them how to learn not what to learn.

    I have a problem with the obsession not with materials. I’ve said that with adults, CBs stick well for a number of reasons. In our school we use New American Inside out. I find it easy enough to modify or expand the activities in the first two levels because the material is kind of light and interesting enough for adult learners. Whenever possible, I work with learners with learning to learn and I encourage them to use material that they find interesting outside the class, some groups create whatsapp groups to keep in touch during the week, and I share my own journey as a language learner. In fact, I’ve started (more than once) learning Germany because of that. I want to connect with my learners in another level. It has been great to exchange learning experiences with them and putting to test ideas that sometimes we take for grant.

    Point 4: Grammar syllabus focus on accuracy and the idea that you can learn grammar by following the step by step in the book. Such a syllabus does not help learners at all. It does quite the opposite. I have an young adult who is an engineering student. The other day he was beating himself up because he thinks he is not good enough but he has harder time getting things right and he feels his classmates are better than him on that. You should have seen his face today when I showed him his listening, reading and writing tests! He did just as good as the other students. 🙂 Mistakes, sure! They all made it. Different mistakes too.

    Point 5: Precisely. But this is not the only problem. Each lesson is designed (and I have to agree with the authors) to achieve a certain objective. You change it, you mess things up. But again, the objective is accuracy and the objective is getting language right. But once you let students free to use language, they will not use it accurately (fact). Even if we do it the way it is supposed to and we had perfect students (u know those who are very attentive and engaged), still they will not get grammar right at the end because you follow the get the grammar right at the beginner (Lightbown & Spada, How languages are learned). It’s a fact. You can’t change that. But you can help learners see that it’s a matter of time, immerse in the language and engaging with the language though language use with guidance (to notice/raise their awareness) and at some point grammar will sink in. But the point is, at the same time that authors say that messing things up with a well-designed lesson is a problem, they say we have to adapt to context. How can we do it? What is exactly adapting to context? Are they talking about personalisation? Personalisation is great and a good CB brings that, so what is adapting here? Supplementing? And what about the well-designed lessons take most of the time of the class and leave no room to put the CB aside? Teens know very well that if they want to learn the language they will.

    Points 1 and 2! Covered beautifully!

    Point 6: nailed it!

    Thanks for writing a response to Mike Boyles argument. I saw it, did not have the time to read or even the energy to say anything else to it. You rock!

    I’m in love with your teacherself by the way. Are we teacher-mates? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rose, I wish I could afford to fly you to Tokyo, give all my agency colleagues a day off and have you give an INSET training!

      You are much more creative than me; I think I am much more reactive as a teacher.

      I love your blog and I have some things to think over before I send you a longer message in the near future.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m just a curious person and the more I read about learning, less I know about teaching. Or let’s say, what I thought I knew about teaching. It drives me crazy at times. It makes me feel like throwing the towel and just choose a different profession. But again, there is something that pulls me back and makes me believe there is something good I can do for the people that comes to me to learn English and it makes me stay. over and over again. I’m not a teacher by choice, and not by choice I seem to stay. I have just watched this talk and thought about your post. But especially Steve King’s comment above. 🙂 I’m fascinated by his talk and wondering if people we’ve seem so far defending CB did actually sat in front of this guy and listened to him for almost an hour were in fact really listening to what he was saying.

        Have you watched it?


      2. Added it to my to read but read the abstract. It doesn’t surprise me. It seems that Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings are well respected but when they talk about Dogme/Teaching Unplugged everybody pretends that they can’t hear. We also have charlatans who make a living from CELTA set texts telling us how fantastic CBs are, which doesn’t help matters.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. So true. I’ve been following Scott’s work (although none of my colleagues here know him) and that is what it seems to me too. Talking about pretending, there is a book a colleague of mine refer me to when I started my B.A in education that says something along the lines of pretending.
        Você finge que ensina, e eu finjo que aprendo.
        You pretend to teach and I pretend to learn.
        But in this case, “finge, finjo” is not really pretend, more towards deceiving one another by pretend to teach and learn.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Marc –
    I enjoyed reading this and after trying to engage with Geoff and in the end simply giving up as he seems to basically only want posts that agree with him on his blog, I’m hoping this may be more of a space to have something resembling a civil discussion on the subject.

    That said, I’m not really sure where to begin, to be honest.

    Perhaps ironically (or entirely predictably, depending how you look at it, I suppose) I’m also very conscious of the fact that taking time off to write this is a distraction technique I’m indulging in when really I should be getting on with a coursebook I’m supposed to be writing. 🙂

    I guess in a sense I find the idea that somehow there needs to be a ‘defence’ written of coursebooks vaguely surreal. Coursebooks – like language schools, MA courses, online courses, ed-tech sites and apps, etc. – are a commercial product and the fact they exist and are sold is, on one level, a defence in itself. You may or may not like sushi or many TV shows or Vauxhall Astra cars, say, but no-one (as far as I know) demands either their designers, producers or consumers to defend their decisions. They just get left alone to exist and consumers opt in or out.

    In addition, it may surprise you to hear me say that I think there IS obviously all kinds of excellent teaching going on that doesn’t necessarily involve using coursebooks. If teachers have specific issues – such as you do (and, I hasten to add, I share a fair few of your feelings about many mainstream coursebooks) and are making their own material, they’ll hopefully learn a lot about the craft involved in it, develop as writers and feel rewarded in their endeavors. This is how I myself started out on the road towards becoming a writer. Almost from Day One, I was making my own material and experimenting; not necessarily because I disliked the idea of coursebooks per se, but because I thought the material I was having to use was flawed, and also – I guess – because I wanted to experiment and learn and develop, and this was one way of doing it. If you’re doing that and other teachers are too, then great.

    What I realised in the end, though, was a few things: inevitably, much of my earlier material was weak and flawed itself and that writing certain kinds of material was much harder than I’d imagined; that in the end, you basically end up replacing one kind of more fixed commercial product with another, more homemade one – which is fine, but it does still leave you with the task of justifying (If only to yourself) why you believe your material is better than what’s out there already.

    It may be you can answer that – and if you can, it may be that you end up becoming a coursebook writer yourself. And then you get to see how a wider audience responds to that material!

    At the same time, of course, it may just be that you end up as one of those fairly rare teachers who makes huge amounts of their own material, material which is pretty good, and gets better at the craft, and simply does it for the satisfaction of the task and the pleasure of teaching stuff you’ve made yourself.

    In the end, and particularly in you’re teaching General English, as opposed to some more niche ESP kind of area, it’s fairly easy to define what your students will need to get better. It’s pretty much the following:
    – repeated exposure to as many of the most frequent words in the language, the two- and three-star words in Learner Dictionaries, as can be managed in the time you have with them.
    – greater understanding of how these words work with other words, and how they work with grammar.
    – advice on how best to shoulder the huge burden of having to learn this much language
    – putting this advice into practice and to take some responsibility for this learning at home, whether it be by reading graded readers, making revision cards, doing vocabulary self-study books or whatever
    – reading and listening to appropriately graded texts across a wide range of social, academic and work-related topics
    – having space to discuss their own responses to these texts – and to tell stories / anecdotes using the lexis studied – in class . . . AND then to have the teacher help them say these things better
    – becoming more aware (via repeated work on this) of how language sounds when spoken: the linking, the elision, the assimilation, the weak forms, and so on . . . and to get the chance to hear a broad range of accents, both native and non-native.
    – sometimes being corrected when they do make mistakes with language (including grammar) previously taught and to be made aware of why what they said / wrote was wrong
    – spending some time either consolidating or extending what they know about how structural grammar works, but less time than they spend on lexis, as lexis is far more at the root of communicative competence than structural grammar is
    – having a teacher confident enough to explain these needs to them, to explain why what they think they need may not actually be what’s best for them, and to guide them towards ways of more fruitfully using the little time they have available for the study of English in more fruitful ways

    As a writer myself, I try to be guided by these principles and to ensure I tackle them as best I can in my work. As a teacher, I know there’s plenty I do in class – and outside of it – that builds on and develops things a book may contain traces of. Books can do many of the things above, but they can’t do everything. There are some things teachers can do in class when utilising material – of any kind – that go further towards ensuring some of the things outlined above occur – or occur more.

    To me, this suggests teachers need to make informed and justifiable choices about what material they’re using – and also that we need to have ongoing discussions about all manner of actual classroom procedures, techniques, questions, etc. in order to work towards matter exploitation of what we have to work with.

    I’ve rambled on a fair bit above. There’s tons more I could also say, but it’s Sunday evening, I’m tired and the lure of TV and a Pale Ale is overwhelming.

    Hope you find this of at least some kind of interest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alright, Hugh. Cheers for the comment.

      I think you have provided a more rigorous defense here than in your own blog post. There is quite a bit that I agree with, perhaps surprisingly.

      One point you made is that nobody has to defend Astra cars. This is true but my driving instructor never insisted that I buy the same kind of car that he used. He didn’t 3D print one for me either (the closest analogy I can find for copying coursebooks, which is widespread).

      I think that I am learning a lot about text design as I write. I usually use authentic material where possible to reflect authentic language use outside the classroom. It works well to get students to mine the text before an output task.

      Mike Boyle said on Twitter ‘Sounds like you might be able to write a better coursebook’, as a bit of a jibe. I may but it would be a cottage industry because of the following equation:

      Books printed = students on course with needs met by that book.

      Basically, everything comes down to needs analysis, so I would not be writing ‘a book’ but ‘collating materials that meet class needs. Class needs that neither you nor any other writer know.

      Anyway, breakfast and the working day call. Thanks for the comment. I am closing comments now as I imposed a moratorium on myself after the 7th and it’s the 7th in Japan now.


      1. Hi again Marc –
        Not sure if this will get through your filters, and obviously don’t want to distract you too much from your MA work.

        Just a few quick things for you to ponder – and maybe at some eventual future point respond to . . .

        (1) I’m far more sceptical than you about the feasibility of needs analysis. Here’s an old blog post I did on that very subject:

        (2) As for Dogme, the first thing to say is that it’s essentially like the Silent Way or Suggestopedia in that it’s far more discussed and debated than actually used. The reality of the world is that the vast bulk of teachers still use coursebooks and you can choose the degree to which you want to engage with them. Of course, you could preach revolution and urge Dogme onto them, or you could start by seeing where their at and think about small steps forward from there. I personally feel the latter approach bears more fruit. I did a whole slew of posts dissecting the problems at the heart of Dogme as I saw them here:

        That’s plenty enough to be going on with.
        Good luck with your studies and thanks for the reasoned discussion.


      2. I’m not really that massively into capital- D Dogme as I am Task-Based teaching. I’m keen on exploiting whatever is going to work for my learners, even Lexical Approached lessons based on what I7ve learned from you and Leo Selivan. Sometimes that might be coursebook pages. Sometimes it might be realia/authentic texts (it usually is). Sometimes I might be obliged to pay lip service to the book to get onto what the students need.

        The needs: I don’t think it’s possible to dismiss NA out of hand, but I don’t think a one-off interview with an admin (sales person) is a good enough fit. Wants are important too, and I see them as needs for the sake of an NA. It’s an ongoing thing, and needs to be looked at on a class and individual level and may involve role setting or other strategies to facilitate differentiation.

        I had read those posts before: the Suzuki manual reminded me for the NA post and I think I’ve read half of the internet about Dogme.



      3. Have you read any of the Anthony Bruton work on TBL, Marc?
        Gives a sobering and critical overview, shall we say.

        For me, the main issues with TBL are:
        (a) the tasks – are they sensible / useful / realistic / relevant, etc? and:
        (b) the notion that input cannot occur before the students try the task.

        In fact, as I’m sure you’re aware, a lot of language that would be useful for students doing a particular task CAN be predicted in advance and can thus be pre-taught. This doesn’t stop the teacher then doing extra work on errors, gaps, etc. after students have tried the task, but it reduce the load on their shoulders in the heat of the moment. That’s basically how we’ve ended up writing the opening spreads of OUTCOMES, where we know the place we want students to end up at and work backwards from there, thinking about what language / models students need to help them to get them there. It’s an idea we developed a lot from an American book I stumbled upon a few years back: UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. It’s been developed in a recent tome: OUTSTANDING TEACHING: TEACHING BACKWARDS by Andy Griffith & Mark Burns.


      4. Yeah, I saw a Bruton video online somewhere and it didn’t convince me. I know you and Leo disagree on TBL but I do find that Long, Doughty, Ortega, et al, as well as the Willises make a more persuasive argument than he does. It’s like TBL gives more leeway to input (an input-based task/pre-task) than *pure* Dogme.

        I also do like Design Thinking, and was always taught to plan backwards.



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