Reasons to/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.
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.
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 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”
(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.
*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.