Coursebook Palaver Rechurned

I was going to stay out of it but I think I’m going to have to jump into it. The coursebook thing has reared its head again. Thanks to Liam T, Steve Brown, Brad Smith and Hana Ticha for drawing me back in helping me to think about this.

I think I need to set out my thoughts first.

Global coursebooks are, with few exceptions, rubbish because they try to teach everyone but few actually learn what’s in the book in a meaningful way, mainly but not only because of a focus on grammar and lexical sets.

They are also rubbish because they are bland. There are the odd few with the odd reading passage I’d read for interest. Generally it’s just in there because it’s a carrier topic and in global books those topics have to be inoffensive, thus bland.

Coursebooks are rubbish because everybody speaks the same way. Completely unrealistic speech patterns, too slow and with a script that focuses heavily on presenting grammar points. Business coursebooks are usually more natural than general English coursebooks but that’s sort of like comparing death by hanging and firing squad; the result is the same: students find natural speech difficult to decode and it is difficult for them to anticipate problems with natural speech.

Not all coursebooks are terrible. Mainly business or ESP books are good. Unfortunately, people studying for specific purposes have plenty of motivation which would aid their learning. General English is often English as a School Subject and learners often learn through obligation with no clear idea about why they are studying other than because they need to.

Business coursebooks usually have more explicit discourse-level communication present than general English ones. Both are usually sorely lacking in pronunciation or phonology (even help for teachers to mine texts or audio for this in the teacher’s books is woefully absent).

What’s better than coursebooks is a good set of resources, ideally the kind of stuff with no copyright or with a Creative Commons license, or at least permission to photocopy so you can be sure there are no legal issues. These don’t usually focus on isolated grammar points but when they do they are not in a suggested sequence based on the hunches of someone completely unfamiliar with your learners. You might say that a load of these downloaded onto a USB drive or uploaded to cloud storage is a 21st century resource book.

I still haven’t found a book of resources I truly love because there are too many word searches and crosswords in some but I continue to live in hope. The execrable coursebook I have to use as a syllabus for the university I teach at for an agency does have a workbook with some great activities.

Objections to what I’m saying

  • Coverage/pacing of material is necessary because my boss says so.
  • I pay sufficient lip service to the book to say the syllabus has been taught. Usually it’s one reading done quickly with some vocabulary checks or retellings, else I do the listening as a listening skills mini-lesson,  but the rest is a task that might result in the language in the book being used. If not, that’s fine. Correct the language, reflect and probably trying the same task or a similar one again.

  • Students like books.
  • Fine. Are you a teacher or a bookseller? Is it necessary for them to use the book in a lesson or could it be used at home?

  • Teachers like books.
  • Great. If teachers find coursebooks useful then that’s awesome. I do find it difficult to believe that the same book can work across contexts to provide a sufficient footing for language acquisition to take place.

    Thinking about how to use a book is not the same as being on auto-pilot, plotting a course from page 4 to page 117 over 20 weeks. I think it’s fine to present the grammar for exposure. However, don’t expect it to be ‘mastered’ and beat yourself up or question student motivation or work rate if they can’t use it just because it’s been taught.

  • My students want me to teach the book.
  • They might want you to use it but have you asked them why? Who is the language teaching professional? You might ask how long they have used this method of study and whether it appears to be working. Sometimes you might use the book in ways that are different but as long as they are learning, I expect most students would be satisfied.

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