C is for Coursebook (by Lindsay Clandfield)

16 05 2010

Shelf-life

After six months’  blogging (28 posts, 870 comments) I thought it might be timely to hand over the reins  to someone else for a change. And who better than  my blogging ‘mentor’, the irrepressible Lindsay Clandfield! (You must know Lindsay’s Six Things blog by now – if not, give it a visit). Lindsay’s new course, Global (Macmillan ELT), has just been launched – so I thought it might be appropriate to ask him to blog on the subject of coursebooks.

Lindsay writes:

A cynic’s definition of a language coursebook might say something like the following: One of the most popular yet unnecessary tools for learning a language. This is true. But classrooms, schools and teachers are also unnecessary for learning a language. What is it, then, about coursebooks that provokes such negative feelings in our field?

After all, coursebooks are very useful tools in that they:

1 Provide a structure for teachers and students to follow. This can give a course a sense of security, of purpose and achievement as the class advances through the book.

2 Provide attractive, motivational, colourful and diverse content, which is increasingly multimedia (text, audio and video).

3 Provide graded content suitable for the learners’ level and a full syllabus that covers language skills and language systems.

4 Above all serve as a great timesaver for teachers, who are increasingly under the burden of administrative work already. Coursebooks represent great savings in terms of lesson and test planning time.

5 Provide a source of ideas and methodology. Modern teacher’s books come packed with extra ideas, tips and language explanations. This kind of material can help the teacher improve her teaching and knowledge of language lesson by lesson.

Arguments against coursebooks tend to fall into the following categories:

1 They all look the same. This perhaps isn’t so galling for students who do not, in general, spend as much time with a coursebook as a teacher does. Faced with teaching the same or similar material week in week out for years is not very motivating.

2 They all follow the same syllabus. Perhaps one of the contributing factors to a sense of similarity is that the majority of modern coursebooks follow a very similar grammar syllabus which forms, if not the backbone, then a very important strand of the course.

3 The grammar is wrong or misleading. Some arguments around coursebooks zero in on how certain grammar points are treated, and claim that these are either outdated, unclear or just plain wrong.

4 Texts serve merely as a pretext to teach discrete language items. Used in this way, the material stifles any real communication in the classroom.

5 Texts and topics are Anglo- or Eurocentric and/or promote a western consumerist ideology. This is the hidden curriculum, implicit or explicit, in the cultural makeup of a coursebook. The high number of good-looking, rich and famous people in coursebooks has also been criticized recently.

6 Texts and topics are safe, bland and vapid. Because they have to appeal to a wide audience, it is argued, coursebooks will tend to avoid more controversial topics. When the audience is very wide (e.g. international coursebooks), some argue that they are not suitable for certain national contexts.

7 Coursebooks are too big. One common complaint is that there is too much material to cover in an academic year. This complaint becomes more and more vocal with the additional material that accompanies most modern coursebooks.

The combination of these have led to calls to abandon coursebooks altogether, a posture well-known to readers of this blog. Most teacher training courses and key texts on teaching advise teachers to adapt the material that they use in class. Indeed, part of a language teacher’s professional development would seem to be developing a more critical view and use of published teaching material.

Coursebooks are intended to provide motivating material, ideas, a structure and cohesive syllabus to a language course. Some do this more successfully than others. The role of the teacher cannot be underestimated either. As the old adage goes, only a bad worker blames his or her tools. A good teacher can make even the most dire coursebook a motivational experience for learners and teacher alike.

From my point of view as a materials writer, having had to teach with and research lots of different kinds of coursebooks I would say that they have changed considerably over the years. Some of the arguments above are made citing examples from old and outdated books, a slightly unfair position to take. Any argument that begins with “all coursebooks are/do/have…” is in danger of being a reductionist overgeneralisation.

Many coursebooks are based on months, if not years, of research and feedback from teachers. Of the points above, #2 (the grammar syllabus) and #6 (too much material) may be valid but this is often in direct response to what users say they want. Attempts to do otherwise have often resulted in commercial failures.

Many of their “flaws” are not necessarily inherent to coursebooks. Some of the people who most read and follow the anti-coursebook arguments are coursebook authors themselves, or teachers who are working on an idea for a coursebook.  The best answer to these arguments, it would seem to me, is not: “drop the coursebook” but rather “try to make a better coursebook”.