Dissapointment on coursebooks

Which coursebook to use (if any)?

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which coursebook to use, or you have been using a coursebook for some time and you want to change it because it is out-of-date or you are just bored, what issues should you consider to make the best choice?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.coursebook evaluation

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”.

Coursebook evaluation

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): How to evaluate coursebooks

  • 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:How to evaluate coursebooks

  • 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: How to evaluate coursebooks

  • 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.

Material analysis

What aspect should you consider to evaluate the coursebook itself? Littlejohn summarizes them with the following image

Analysis of ELT materials Littlejohn 2011Aspects 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.




LITTLEJOHN, A. 2011. The analysis of language teaching materials: Inside the Trojan Horse. In Materials Development in Language Teaching (2nd Edition). Cambridge University Press.
MCDONOUGH, J., SHAW, C., AND MASUHARA, H. 2013. Materials and Methods in ELT. A Teacher’s Guide (3rd edition). Wiley-Blackwell, UK.

To use or not to use coursebooks?

Reasons to/not to use coursebooksReasons to use or not to use coursebooks

It is difficult to imagine a classroom around the world without any kind of ELT material. The most traditional and wide-spread examples of these materials are coursebooks. As Hall (2013, online) states “Textbooks are the main source of teaching ideas and materials for many teachers around the world; indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine ELT without textbooks”. There are good reasons why many teachers use published coursebooks, amongst them:

  • They provide language input for learners.
  • Well-designed coursebooks can be motivating and provide a logical organization of content.
  • They offer a written record of what has been studied and allow students to review it later.
  • They reduce the amount of time needed for preparation.
  • In some L2 teaching contexts, the use of a given coursebook is compulsory.
  • Coursebooks are usually organized around an identifiable principle and follow clear patterns.
  • They are easily stored.

However, coursebooks have also received criticisms on the part of researchers and teachers. Sheldon (1988:237) cites Greenall’s concept of coursebook credibility gap referring to the “(…) potential conflicts of interest in their creation, commercial exploitation, public assessment, selection, and ultimate classroom use”. In short, there are contradictions between educational aims and financial viability.

Dissapointment on coursebooks

Following Sheldon (op. cit.), we can distinguish two levels of disappointment on coursebooks: on the level of design and on the level of theoretical premises. On the level of design, sometimes textbooks do not adequately describe the language level of the target learners (with terms like ‘beginner’, ‘starter’, ‘intermediate’); they have an inadequate handwriting to economize space in each page; there are omissions of course rationale; there are teacher’s books whose only value is their answer keys; the terminological looseness which makes it impossible to compare textbooks (op. cit.: 239); the presence of stereotyped images of English language users (focus on native speakers’ lives and language varieties) and the absence of images about poverty, disability, etc. In addition, as Hall (2013) adds, they may create a dependency culture in which the teacher just does what the textbook says. On the theoretical level, there may be a lack of cultural appropriacy; failure to recognize restrictions in many teaching situations; and, inconsistency with the pedagogical implications of current research on linguistic and language learning (Sheldon, 1988; Williams, 1983).

The criticisms mentioned above have important implications for those responsible for managing the learning processes, the teachers. Teachers have responded to these challenges in two main ways according to their training, experience and the teaching situation where they work: adapting materials or designing their own materials.

Materials adaptation

Littlejohn (2011) suggests that the following aspects of the target situation should be taken into account when adapting ELT materials:

  • the cultural context,
  • the educational institution,
  • the course aims, content, methodology and means of evaluation,
  • the teachers,
  • the learners.

Only after integrating this information with the material evaluation will teachers be in a position to decide if the material should be rejected, adopted, adapted or supplemented.

On the other hand, McDonough, Shaw & Masuhara (2013: 69) argue that the following principles should guide materials adaptation:

  • Personalizing,(…) increasing the relevance of content in relation to learners’ interests and their academic, educational or professional needs”.
  • Individualizing, addressing “(…) the learning styles both of individuals and of the members of a class working closely together”.
  • Localizing, taking “(…) into account the international geography of English language teaching”.
  • Modernizing, “(…) not all materials show familiarity with aspects of current English usage, sometimes to the point of being not only out of date or misleading but even incorrect”.

The authors distinguish the following techniques for adaptation: adding, including expanding and extending; deleting, including subtracting and abridging; modifying, including rewriting and restructuring; simplifying; and reordering (op. cit.: 70).

Materials writing

Materials writing should be guided by principles rooted in SLA research and successful teaching and learning practices. Richards (2005: 9-10) for example explains that the main underlying principles of contemporary versions of CLT to consider are:

  • L2 learning is facilitated when learners are engaged in meaningful interaction.
  • Students need to be given the opportunity to negotiate meaning and notice how language is used.
  • Content must be relevant, purposeful and interesting.
  • Communication is a holistic process involving the use of several skills.
  • L2 learning is facilitated by both inductive and deductive methods.
  • Language learning involves creative use of language and trial and error.
  • Learners progress at different rates and through different routes.
  • Learning involves the use of learning strategies and communication strategies.
  • The role of the teacher is that of a facilitator.
  • The classroom is a community where learners learn through collaboration.

Therefore, he notes that “The challenge for material writers is to turn these principles into lesson plans and teaching materials”

Teaching materials

(op. cit.: 10) and adds that principles derived from research might not be adequate to all educational contexts, in such cases a situation analysis is necessary based on teachers’ expertise and their knowledge of students.

With regards to the authenticity of classroom materials, the author recognizes some issues that make real-world sources inadequate for some educational contexts:

  • When the students´ level of English is not advanced.
  • In the real world, most people already know how to read and write in their L1 but L2 learners are just starting to learn the new language.
  • Authentic oral exchanges are full of unclarity and non-specificity and they usually have little relevance to anyone else.
  • Dialogues amongst native speakers may differ considerably for those that ESOL learners will have in the future (most possibly with other L2 learners).
  • The wrong expectation that L2 learners must achieve native-like proficiency.

Richards concludes that what is important in writing materials is that they provide the means of successful communication both within and outside the classroom.

From a linguistic-oriented perspective, Cook (1998: 12) suggests that SLA research has the following implications for materials design:

  • “L2 users are speakers in their own right, not imitations native speakers”. Cook agrees with Richards that L2 users use the target language for their own specific purposes and in their own way; the important fact is that they can use the L2 effectively with other speakers and the most probable interlocutors will be other L2 users.
  • L2 learners have two or more language systems in their minds, consequently, their minds are different from that of monolinguals. “The L1 is always present in the students’ mind at some level” (Cook, 1998: 13); therefore, the coursebook should not pretend that the learners will not use their knowledge of their L1.
  • “Learners tackle some aspects of L2 learning in different ways” (op. cit.: 14). Learners vary according to demographic features and personality traits; to cater for as variability as possible, a coursebook should present alternative paths for the students.
  • “The aspect of syntax that needs to be acquired mostly concern vocabulary” (op. cit.: 15). According to Cook (based on Chomsky, 1992), all the language-specific aspects are in the lexicon so syntax does not need to be taught because it is already imposed on the language by the learner’s mind; the implication for coursebooks is that the core aspects of grammar should not be taught, they will be built up in an autonomous way by the students.
  • “The important early aspects of syntax to be acquired concern word order, not inflections” (op. cit.: 16). in earlier stages the basic word order (Subject-Verb-Object) should be taught to acquire other word orders later, at this stage questions needed for classroom interaction and management can be introduced as formulas. However, this principle applies only to the level of production, at the level of reception students must be exposed to rich input to progress to the next stages.
  • “Vocabulary items need to be linked to structural contexts and concepts” (op. cit.: 18). The selection of vocabulary should be based on their structural possibilities not on their frequency or teachability. Therefore, concepts that are universal (e.g.: pizza) and universal relationships (e.g.: this, the same, all, say, know, feel, etc.) should be taught first and presented in structural contexts.
  • “Pronunciation is needed for internal purposes in the learners’ minds” (op. cit.: 19). Information is quickly lost in the short-term memory so it needs to be recycled many times either aloud or silently. Working memory depends on the phonological information that is being processed in the mind, therefore pronunciation activities should be provided not only as part of communication but also to help students to handle sounds internally.
  • “L2 users need to learn about the properties of the L2 writing system” (op. cit.: 20). Coursebooks should take into account that different languages have different writing systems and these differences should be taught. Also, they should include activities to develop low-level writing skills (e.g.: spelling) or even writing direction if necessary (e.g.: for Chinese students).

Some of Cook’s assertions may seem debatable, but it reminds us that materials design must be grounded in SLA theories. In addition, there are two points of views which are crucial to design good teaching materials: teachers’ knowledge of the learning context where the material will be applied and students’ voices about successful L2 learning practices. Unfortunately, these points of view are seldom taken into account by coursebooks authors and those responsible for materials choices in educational institutions.

What is the right answer to the question of using/not using coursebooks?

There is not a correct answer, unluckily (as in most issues in ELT). Following Littlejohn (op. cit.) above, a positive or negative answer will depend on the educational context, including the educational institution, the aims, methodology and evaluation of the course, your teaching approach and beliefs about L2 learning, and your learners’ needs and expectations. The following infographic may help you to reflect on the appropriacy of using a coursebook in your teaching practice. You need to answer yes/no to each question and follow the suggestion in each case.

Help to decide if using a coursebook is good for you

help to decide if a coursebook is a good option

*Teachers Pay Teachers (This link is part of a referral program)

I hope the infographic helps you to reflect about the usefulness of a coursebook in your specific teaching situation, however, it is not intended to be a ‘recipe’ to decide whether or not to use a coursebook, instead, it is a help guide to think about the issues you should consider when making a choice. If you have more ideas on the topic please share them in the Comments section below.


COOK, V. 1998. “Relating SLA Research to Language Teaching Materials” [online], Available at https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/CJAL/article/view/19807 [Retrieved: 12th January 2016]

HALL, G. 2013. “This house believes that published course materials don’t reflect the lives or needs of learners” [online], Available at http://oupeltglobalblog.com/2013/04/05/this-house-believes-that-published-course-materials-dont-reflect-the-lives-or-needs-of-learners/#comments [Retrieved: 26th October 2015]

LITTLEJOHN, A. 2011. The analysis of language teaching materials: Inside the Trojan Horse. In Materials Development in Language Teaching (2nd Edition). Cambridge University Press.

MCDONOUGH, J., SHAW, C., AND MASUHARA, H. 2013. Materials and Methods in ELT. A Teacher’s Guide (3rd edition). Wiley-Blackwell, UK.

RICHARDS, J. 2005. “Materials Development and Research – Making the connection” TESOL Convention [online] Available at http://www.professorjackrichards.com/wp-content/uploads/materials-development-making-connection.pdf [Retrieved: 24th November 2015]

SHELDON, L. 1988. Evaluating ELT textbooks and materials. ELT Journal Vol. 42(4) pp. 237-246. OUP.