Some weeks ago I shared a post about the decision of using a coursebook (or not). If you haven’t read it yet, here is the link To use or not to use coursebooks? Suppose you have decided (or are compelled) to use a coursebook and you are free to decide which coursebook to use, or you have been using a coursebook for some time and you want to change it because it is out-of-date or you are just bored, what issues should you consider to make the best choice? There are thousands of coursebooks in the ELT market, which one will be the best fit for your students and your own teaching approach? Well, this post intends to help you in that choice.
If you have been teaching for some time, you probably know some of the coursebooks, especially those published by the most famous ELT editorials. Maybe some of your colleagues have recommended the ones they are most comfortable with (or the ones you should never consider!). Maybe, there are some limitations in the availability of some of the coursebooks and there are only certain books you and your students can access. Taking these considerations into account, choose two or three coursebooks to evaluate (of course you can evaluate as many coursebooks as you want, but the decision will be harder if you have to evaluate many options).
Remember that after choosing a coursebook and telling your students (and sometimes their parents) which one/ones they will need to buy, it will be troublesome to convince them later that they will have to buy another book (coursebooks are not cheap for some educational contexts) because the first one was a bad choice (your bad choice!). So, take time to evaluate your options so that you end up with the best coursebook.
Evaluation of ELT coursebooks
Tomlinson and Masuhara’s (2004:1) definition of materials evaluation is: “Materials evaluation involves measuring the value (or potential value) of a set of learning materials by making judgements about the effect of materials on people using it”.
Teachers interested in the evaluation of ELT materials can find many frameworks and criteria developed by researchers and coursebook authors (Byrd, 2004; Cunningsworth, 1995; Harmer, 2007; McGrath, 2002; Sheldon, 1988; Tomlinson & Masuhara, 2004; Williams, 1983). However, as McDonough, Shaw & Masuhara (2013: 52) state “(…) there does not seem as yet an agreed set of criteria or procedures for evaluation”.
In this post I will discuss two frameworks: McDonough, Shaw & Masuhara’s (2013) which attempts to provide a comprehensive framework which might be applied in the majority of ELT situations worldwide; and, Littlejohn’s (2011) framework which aims to evaluate the materials ‘as they are’, not the ‘materials-in-action’ (i.e. as the teacher thinks the material should be used).
1 Coursebook evaluation in two stages
McDonough, Shaw & Masuhara (2013) examine materials in two stages: an external evaluation (cover, introduction, table of contents) and a more detailed internal evaluation.
The external evaluation “(…) aims at examining the organization of the material as stated explicitly by the author/publisher by looking at: the ‘blurb’, or the claims made on the cover of the d/students’ book, and the introduction and table of contents” (op. cit.: 54). To achieve this the following information should be gathered (op. cit.: 55-58):
- target audience
- the proficiency level
- the context in which the material will be used
- how the language is organized into units, modules, etc.
- the authors’ views on language, methodology and the relationship between the language, the language process and the learner
- whether the material will be used as the ‘core’ course
- whether it is locally available
- visuals, layout and presentation
- presence of vocabulary lists or appendixes
- cultural bias, representation of minority groups
- the inclusion of digital materials (CDs, DVDs, downloadable materials), and the inclusion of a teacher’s book and tests
According to these authors, after this stage and having in mind the profile of the learners, we will have enough information to identify if the material is potentially appropriate and is worth a deeper inspection.
The internal evaluation seeks to find information about:
- the presentation of the skills (coverage, proportion, integration)
- grading and sequencing (the type of progression, principle underlying progression, levels)
- whether discourse skills are included
- the ‘authenticity’ of the listening materials
- the nature of interaction in oral dialogues (natural or artificial dialogues?)
- the relationship of tests and activities to learners’ needs and the content of the book
- suitability for different learning styles and access to self-study
- the possibility of engagement for learners and teachers in terms of needs, goals, skills and beliefs.
Then, an overall evaluation can be made considering:
- the usability factor (possibility of integration to the syllabus)
- the generalizability factor (whether the whole coursebook can be used or only a part of it)
- based on the previous factor, the adaptability factor
- the flexibility factor (how rigid is the sequencing and grading?).
However, these authors as well as Tomlinson (2004), state that the success or failure of a material can only be fully determined after a while and post-use evaluation.
2 Coursebook evaluation based on methodology and linguistic aspects
Littlejohn (2011) does not take into account the ‘superficial aspect’ of materials or their content, his framework focuses on the methodology and the linguistic nature of the coursebook.
The author identifies three levels of analysis: objective description, subjective description and subjective inference.
In level 1 ‘objective description’, we will find the information about:
- publication date
- intended audience
- type of material (general, specific, main course, etc.)
- the amount of classroom time required and type of use (self-study, order, etc.)
- published form, number of pages, use of colour
- components (teacher’s book, student’s book, CDs, etc.)
- the division into sections, access (indexes, detailed content, hyperlinks, etc.)
- how the sections are distributed between teachers and students, length of sections and any pattern in them.
In the ‘subjective analysis’ in level 2, we analyse what teachers and learners will have to do in each task to test the claims made by the material (a task is defined by this author as any proposal made to students whose aim is bringing about the learning of the L2). For each task we need to identify:
- the process, including turn-take (the learners’ role in classroom discourse),
- focus: on meaning? form? or both?
- mental operations: the mental processes required, like repetition, deducing, hypothesizing
- type of classroom participation: alone? pair work? in groups?
- and the content of the input and of the learners’ output (written or oral? individual sentences or discourse?), source (from the material? the teacher? or the students?) and nature (grammar explanation? fiction? or personal information?).
Based on the previous levels of analysis we can determine the aims of the material and the basis for the selection and sequencing, the following step is to identify the teacher’s and the learners’ roles implied in it. Finally, a conclusion about the material as a whole can be done (subjective inference).
Littlejohn proposes a further step which is to analyse the teachers/students/institutions situation and their expectations from the material to decide its rejection, adoption, adaptation or supplementation.
What aspect should you consider to evaluate the coursebook itself? Littlejohn summarizes them with the following image
Aspects of an analysis of language teaching materials. (Taken from Littlejohn – 2011 p. 18).
With the analysis of the material and the analysis of your teaching context in mind, you might have enough information to reject, adopt, adapt, supplement or use the material with its pros and cons and discuss them with your students (it would be a great source of discussion at least).
Are you ready to evaluate a book? You can download the free PDF workbook How to evaluate coursebooks with both frameworks to apply right away and choose the one you feel most comfortable with.