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Concerning coursebooks

July 23, 2015

Earlier this year there was a bit of a hoo-hah in the ELT blogging world on the topic of coursebooks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Geoff Jordan who started it, claiming that coursebooks, with their atomistic and linear approach to language, fail to take into account the non-linear and disorganised way in which languages are actually learned.

Geoff’s posts inspired other bloggers to get involved in the discussion; Rose Bard and Sandy Millin both came down on the anti-coursebook side, though Sandy still seems a bit unsure about any workable alternative. There was also an entertaining exchange of views on Twitter, in which Hugh Dellar defended the coursebook by arguing that Geoff was oversimplifying the issue, tarring all coursebooks with a big dirty brush and failing to see that some coursebooks are better than others. Further baiting from Geoff led Hugh to write his own post, and then put a presentation up on YouTube which describes how his own series of coursebooks is better than others because it is less PPP-focused and contains items of lexis that you might not find in other coursebooks.

I’ve written about coursebooks on this blog before, with some posts directly criticising them (like this one and this one) and others implicating them in a wider malaise that exists across our profession (like this one and this one), so it’s pretty easy to see what side of this debate I’m on. Don’t get me wrong, Hugh Dellar is a nice bloke and he knows his stuff. He genuinely believes that his books buck the trend and offer something different. I’ve used Outcomes myself, and I can see that, compared with other coursebooks, the choice of lexis is a bit more natural, the topics are a bit less restricted, the language is presented a bit less atomistically. It’s absolutely true that some coursebooks are better than others, and his is probably one of the better ones. But at the end of the day, it’s still a COURSEbook, and this is the biggest problem as far as I’m concerned.

By definition, we are expected to use these books as our course – sure, we may adapt the materials, miss some bits out, or supplement with some other stuff, but fundamentally, a coursebook is designed to be used as the organising principle for our syllabus. The order of information (grammar, vocabulary, topics, pronunciation features, whatever) presented in the coursebook is the order in which we are expected to deliver to the students.

There’s an assumption that a single syllabus, with a predetermined order of language input, can be applied to any teaching and learning environment with equal effect. There’s also, of course, the idea that someone with no knowledge of my teaching context, my students’ needs or other factors influencing the outcomes of the courses I work on, knows better than me about what to teach my students and when. This is an idea that I personally find quite offensive.

So why am I writing this post? I’ve already said what I think about coursebooks many times before, and people like Geoff, Rose and, years earlier, Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings, have argued against coursebooks far more effectively than me. And in any case, this most recent online debate blew over ages ago. Well, the reason the whole coursebook thing is on my mind again is that, from next month, all the full-time ESOL courses in my college will use a coursebook. This is not the place to go into detail about the reasons for this decision, but I feel I need to say that I am to a large extent responsible for it happening. This could mean that I am a terrible hypocrite, but it could also mean that I listen to the needs and preferences of my staff and students. I like to think it’s that.

But it does put me in a rather uncomfortable position. I need to be able to support my staff in the use of coursebooks to achieve outcomes that the books don’t directly lead the students towards. They can help to facilitate the achievement of some outcomes, of course, but it’s finding an appropriate role for the books within the context of the curriculum that is going to be the challenge.

I saw @ashowski tweeting about “coursebook literacy” the other night – maybe I need to develop some of that. Any ideas?

  1. Thanks for the mention Steve, although I’m not sure if I’m anti-coursebook. Instead, I’m really torn. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, and the coursebook literacy Anthony mentioned is something I’d really like to develop in the teachers I’ll be working with next year, so I’ll be following the thread of this discussion with great interest.

    • Thanks, Sandy – and sorry if I put words in your mouth regarding your views on coursebooks. I’m keen to learn more about this course book literacy thing as well.

  2. ‘Coursebook literacy’ – hmm, it has a nice ring to it, but I wonder if it isn’t of the same order as ‘instruction manual literacy’ or ‘inflight magazine literacy’ – that is to say, mutton dressed as lamb. And would a ‘coursebook illiterate’ teacher necessarily be a bad one? Was Plato coursebook literate? Was John Dewey?

    • Hi Scott, and thanks for the comment. My initial concern about coursebook literacy is that it’s based on an assumption that you have to be able to work with a coursebook in the first place. Presumably you agree, with your rhetorical questions about whether coursebook illiteracy is a problem. Having said that, I’m now in a situation where I DO have to be able to work with a coursebook, and this is a situation that many teachers find themselves in. I’m certainly not comfortable with this, but it may be possible for the coursebook to play some kind of effective role and this is what I need to try and do. Hopefully I’ll get some ideas from comments here 🙂
      Best wishes,

    • Hi guys,

      Thanks for the reference to my Tweet on coursebook literacy. It came about because the teachers I have been working with vary in their ability to ‘read’ coursebooks. Some of them take a look at a double page spread, think that they haven’t got a clue what it’s supposed to achieve, and they throw the baby out with the bathwater, resorting to making their own materials. Others take a look at the same double-page spread and know exactly what is happening: they recognise the framework the author is following and understand the purpose of each activity.

      Scott, you’ll be pleased to know that in both cases above all of the teachers were good teachers – very good in fact. Yet, their ability to understand the coursebook i.e. their coursebook literacy, varied significantly from teacher to teacher.

      • Hi Anthony, and thanks for giving us more clarification about the course book literacy thing. I can see what you mean and how it’s important in many contexts, and I think the biggest problem I have with it is whether it SHOULD be important i.e. if we didn’t have to use coursebooks then we wouldn’t have to develop this level of literacy. But it is important, simply because coursebooks are so ubiquitous.
        When I look at a page of a coursebook I think I can understand what the writers intend to achieve, but a lot of the time I end up deciding that I can do a lot better myself. Then I find myself preparing a “parallel” lesson that bears some resemblance to what was in the book but is placed in a context more appropriate for my students. Is this throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or is it replacing a not-very-good baby with a better baby?
        I do sometimes find things in books that happen to tie in with both the language and the topic that I want to focus on, but it doesn’t happen very often. If I find a unit in a book that matches the topic I want to focus on, it often also contains a heavy focus on an area of grammar that isn’t really relevant. Or there may be a different area of grammar that I know my students need more work on, but if I take the bit of the book that focuses on that then I need to digress from the topic. This is why I quite like working in a context where I can draw on a wide range of published resources and in-house materials, rather than rely on a single book for the majority of my material.
        Lots for me to think about here – thanks very much.

  3. demandhighelt permalink

    I would always rather have a good coursebook than not. It’s a brilliant exploitable all-bound-up-in-one-package resource.

    But I want to be able to mine it in my own way at my own pace (the learners’ pace) and to be able to put it to one side for days or weeks whenever I (we) feel like it.

    I don’t want a manager telling me I have to do so many units in so many days. Or requiring us to pass an achievement test that assumes two units are “covered” by all.

    The problem is not coursebooks. It’s the current widespread view of management (which we have generally done far too little to challenge) that book = course.

    We need to teach teachers how to swim in coursebooks not marathon through them.

    And the problem is with academic managers and their setting of goals and their skewed expectations, not with the often excellent resources such books provide.

    • Hi dhelt (is it you, Jim?),
      I would definitely agree with you that any manager who insists on getting through certain amounts of book in a certain amount of time is not doing it right. And there’s also validity in the argument that other externally-imposed outcomes may also be inappropriate for the students concerned.
      But with the first point, if coursebooks aren’t supposed to be used as a book that is the course, why are they called coursebooks? They are kind of presented as a course-in-a-book. Maybe if they were called textbooks, or resource books, or something, people might treat them differently.
      With the point about goal-setting, I know what you mean but at the same time it’s important for courses to have outcomes, isn’t it? These could be outcomes in the form of achieved objectives or in the form of attained qualifications, and our courses do both of these. The institution (school, college, whatever) should have a very clear idea of what outcomes will be most useful for their learners, and if it does then these outcomes should override any outcomes that can be achieved by using a book. Of course, if the institution doesn’t have a clear idea then that’s a different story.
      Thanks very much for your comments,

  4. demandhighelt permalink

    An interesting task I sometimes do with new or newish teachers is precisely on coursebook literacy.
    Courses tend to jump in with “How would you exploit this coursebook page?” But that sidesteps/ avoids a much more basic question: “Can you read this page?”
    Older hands can unpack what’s going on on a coursebook page with ease, but new teachers often struggle to do this. Asking questions such as ” What’s this column working on?” “Where does the work change from one focus to another?” “Does the text link at all to the grammar work on the opposite page?” can be really baffling.
    So I think there IS such a thing as coursebook literacy and it may be hard acquired if teachers are not offered some introduction to it.

    • I think you may be right, that this is something that less experienced teachers would really benefit from, on the understanding that they are likely to have to use a coursebook. In my case, I’m lucky to have a very experienced group of staff who are able to read a coursebook at this level. My concern is less about how the coursebook may be used on a lesson-by-lesson basis, it’s more about how it can best fit into a rather complex curriculum that works towards the achievement of a range of diverse, and yet very specific, outcomes. In addition to “just” teaching language, we prepare our students for a range of nationally-accredited qualifications, or units. Somehow we have to fit these units into the syllabus as well. Do we follow the sequence of the coursebook and then shoe-horn the units in at what seems like appropriate points? Do we take each unit one by one and identify parts of the coursebook that fit most closely with each one? Do we teach the book on some days and the units on other days and run them as parallel syllabuses?
      I’m struggling to work out the best way.

      • The questions you pose here sound like they boil down to this: should the coursebook dictate my course?

        I have observed a number of lessons where I have had to say to the teacher “don’t let the materials drive your lesson – let your aims do that and get the materials to support you in achieving your aims.” I think the same could be said here about your coursebook/syllabus concern. You know what the learners to need achieve by the end of your course – find in the coursebook what helps to achieve those aims and use it, and for anything that cannot be achieved using the coursebook, then look elsewhere for appropriate material.

    • very nicely put!

      • Hi Anthony,
        Yes, I think that probably is the key question – should the course book dictate the course?
        My initial answer is to say that it can’t, as it doesn’t adequately prepare students for the various outcomes they need to achieve. But maybe these outcomes can still be achieved by using the book as a kind of thread that is woven into the syllabus (one of my colleagues used this term) and then building on it with our own materials that focus more specifically on the units that need to be achieved.
        I think this is the kind of thing that Marc is suggesting below – is that right Marc?

  5. steveoakes99 permalink

    Hi Steve,

    You end your post with a very specific question, and I hope that your overview of the debate, with the various links and mentions, doesn’t lead to a re-opening of the debate overshadowing an answer to your question.

    When faced with something or someone that I (for professional or other reasons) have to deal with or accept, I’ve always used this sort of trick of convincing myself I feel deeply positive about the thing/person, and of course finding the reasons why (though I initiate this dynamic in an emotional rather than rational mode). This doesn’t work with a lot of things (racism for example) but it’s helped me get the best out of my working relationships with materials, processes, and people. It doesn’t mean you set out to change what you actually believe, but if one ends up with a better-developed ability to see things from ’the other side’, that’s not so bad in terms of professional development.


    • Thank you, Steve, for these very wise words. I like to think that accepting this as a course of action is an example of me seeing things from the other side, but my difficulty in embracing it suggests otherwise. I’ll keep working on that though – thanks.

  6. Hi Steve

    I don’t think it makes you a hyporite. We find ourselves in the situations in which we find ourselves and that much can’t be helped. The discussion, I think, though, would be greatly helped if you could describe how you arrived, at your college, at the ‘pro-coursebook’ position you describe. You listened to the ‘needs and preferences’ of your ‘staff and students.’ What were those needs and preferences, and how were they expressed? Crucially, which were needs and which were preferences? The distinction is surely an important one. You’ve argued forcefully in the past against folowing a predetermined syllabus and for responding, instead, more reactively to indications of learners’ individual interlanguage development. Do you still subscribe to these arguments. Do some of the students and staff at your college reject them? What, if so, are their counter arguments? Perhaps some of them are quite good. Personally, for instance, I remain concerned that the kind of responsive intervention recommended in task-based and Dogme approaches is something that can only reasonably be expected of very experienced teachers.

    • Hi Patrick,
      I’d really rather not give you all the ins and outs of it if you don’t mind, as I might end up misrepresenting other people and their views. Some of my colleagues may want to get involved in the discussion here, but I don’t want to say what I think they think. What I will say though is that if I was to insist on us not following a single coursebook next year it would look like I was being unnecessarily stubborn – making my colleagues’ lives more difficult just to prove a point.
      If I took the coursebook out of all syllabuses completely, those of my colleagues who like using a coursebook would deserve to have something to replace it – some kind of detailed syllabus framework and a bank of materials, as well as sufficient support to develop a level of “non-coursebook literacy” if you like. While this is probably a situation that I would prefer, I don’t feel I have a sufficiently detailed alternative in place yet – not one that gives adequate support and keeps preparation time down.
      What I will say though is that all the staff in my department are very experienced; almost all are DELTA/DipTESOL qualified and most have 15+ years’ experience. Many of them are already very comfortable with task-based and project-based approaches to teaching. I think some might argue that these approaches can effectively be adopted while using a coursebook, but I’ll let them argue that case if they want to.

      • Do we need a syllabus at all? Isn’t the main objection to coursebooks that they fail to respect learners’ ‘internal syllabuses’ by imposing on them an external syllabus? Task based syllabuses avoid this by making tasks, rather than features of linguistic competence, their design principle. What tasks are appropriate depends surely on the needs of the learners and so is best arrived at through discussion with them. Can’t classes, communities of learning, create their own syllabuses? This is what would ‘replace’ coursebook driven syllabuses. I completely understand your desire not to risk misrepresenting your colleagues’ views, but can you not give us an indication of some of the arguments that were put forward?

  7. James Pengelley permalink

    God – I can think of nothing worse than a staff room who has just been told that they’re no longer allowed to use the coursebook.

    Can you imagine the s&@$!storm?

    Perhaps the question is really about teaching teachers to adapt – at the stage level of lessons – the material they use.

    • Hi James,
      I suppose it depends just how reliant the staff are on the coursebook in the first place, but yes, there would probably have been some kind of storm.
      As I mentioned, I’m pretty confident that the teaching staff in my department know how to adapt materials on a lesson-by-lesson level. My concern is that when the starting point is a coursebook, the amount of adapting required for the lessons to be relevant is perhaps so great that it’s not worth having the book as a starting point in the first place. But maybe I’m not seeing all the value in the book…

  8. Hi Steve,

    I think that the curriculum model you are trying to describe sounds like the one Brumfit put forward (it’s described in that massive Tricia Hedge book) where a linguistic product syllabus is wrapped in a double helix with a notional/situational syllabus.

    For my tuppence worth, I think it would be best to get your staff together, find the overlap between your books and units that you need to teach then exploit the gaps by providing the access to language not covered by the syllabus but which is probably necessary. Else you could use the gaps for work on reviewing, formative assessments, or even work on gaps in skills/knowledge.

    The book can still be used in a free-ish style but maybe the students need briefing on it to understand it’s not going to be cover-to-cover study.

    • Hi Marc,
      Yes, I know that diagram, and I’m familiar with this approach to syllabus design. Of course, the problem I have with it is that it makes grammar the organising principle, with language presented in a linear fashion in order of linguistic complexity. This isn’t how languages are learned, and burying the structural syllabus under a pile of notional/situational spiral helixes doesn’t change that.
      Your idea about getting together and identifying commonalities between course outcomes and coursebook content is a very good one. I think I’ll organise some kind of session at the start of the academic year that does exactly that.
      Thanks very much!

      • Yes, Steve, it is a pain, the arbitrary grammar sequence. Could a functional syllabus with a grammar-based book work out?

  9. Hi Marc,
    In a post from a couple of years ago I quoted Nunan, who said that the original functional-notional syllabuses devised by the likes of Brumfit and Wilkins were, to a large extent, grammatical syllabuses in disguise anyway (you can read that post here: ).
    So it’s certainly possible to describe your syllabus as functional when, at its heart, the organising principle is really one of structures. That doesn’t make it any good though…


    • We don’t have to look far to find examples of semantic (as opposed to structural) syllabuses: most ESP courses worth their salt will be organized around the kinds of meanings or tasks that the learners will need to participate in. Why is it the case that general English courses ignore this fact and so obstinately perpetuate the grammatical fallacy, i.e. that language proficiency results from the incremental accumulation of grammar mcnuggets and low frequency vocabulary (orange sweater, wardrobe, grated cheese, etc)? Is it really so hard to predict the general English user’s communicative needs?

      Teaching from a coursebook is like driving from London to Birmingham using a child’s illustrated atlas of Great Britain, published circa 1975. If it works it is more by accident than design.

      • Yes Scott, I am also frustrated by the fact that publishers are continuing to produce coursebooks that follow a structural syllabus. I agree that you might be a bit more likely to get a less structural syllabus when the focus is ESP or EAP, but even a lot of those books still prioritise linguistic complexity when it comes to language selection and sequencing.
        I think Patrick is right to ask the question why do we need a (pre-determined) syllabus at all, but obviously some contexts don’t allow this. For example, the ESOL programmes that I work on have pre-determined outcomes, which means that we can’t let the students dictate the entire content. However, I suppose they can have quite a lot of say in deciding what goes on in the class to allow them to work towards achieving those outcomes. The teacher needs to play a big role in this too though, and I suppose the role of any kind of syllabus is to support the teacher. But that doesn’t mean that there’s a need to follow a single book. So if there is a single book that we are expected to get most of the content from, we need to prioritise the course outcomes when selecting coursebook content. Rather than teaching something because it’s in the book we need to teach something because it has some value in achieving something. That way we’re making the map as useful as it can be.
        Is this course book literacy?

      • If it’s syllabuses that teachers want, these can be fabricated out of existing coursebook syllabuses and printed on a sheet of A4. No violation of copyright is involved since all coursebook syllabuses are clones of one another anyway (and will be even more so once the English Profile checklist is mandated). And if it’s a semantic or functional or task-based syllabus they want, they will have to design it themselves anyway (but the exercise could do wonders for in-service development and staff morale).

        If it’s texts that teachers want, they need only do what coursebooks writers do anyway: trawl the internet. At least the texts that they plunder themselves are likely to be more up-to-date than those in even a recently-published coursebook, and can be selected to match their learners’ needs and interests.

        If it’s activities the teachers want, there are any number of excellent resource books available, and a school’s materials budget might be better spent on the complete Cambridge Handbooks series (I declare an interest) than on a truckload of Headway.

        Syllabus. Texts. Activities. Is there anything else a coursebook offers? Comfort. Complacency. Conformity. Professional atrophy. Institutional malaise. Student boredom. Slow death by mcnuggets.

    • I remember reading that one a few weeks ago (serial lurker). You could just mine the texts for whatever you need for the units and ‘overlook’ the grammar unless it seems like the learners need it right then.

      • Ha yes Marc – I was just reaching that conclusion as I was writing my comment above! So it’s about being selective with the book, and keeping the course outcomes and students’ needs as the priority – right?

      • Aye. Needs and outcomes are everything and can be fickle beasts, too.

  10. Steve,

    “Well, the reason the whole coursebook thing is on my mind again is that, from next month, all the full-time ESOL courses in my college will use a coursebook. This is not the place to go into detail about the reasons for this decision, but I feel I need to say that I am to a large extent responsible for it happening. This could mean that I am a terrible hypocrite, but it could also mean that I listen to the needs and preferences of my staff and students. I like to think it’s that.”

    I appreciate you bringing back the discussion but the REASON why all courses will have to use CBs from now on where you are does have a lot to say in this discussion. If not for us, at least for yourself.

    For instance, I do have to work with coursebooks too. Reason for that:
    1) parents/school adms expect that, but lucky me not with all my students.
    As consequence of this outside pressure, teachers capacity to make decisions about what and how to teach is undermined. If there is no coursebook that can attend all our students needs/interests, and never will be because everyone in my a general English class comes with different perspectives and beliefs. This is a fact. But the industry of coursebook/textbook created this whole idea that they have the teaching solution just like, let’s be honest that is what the technology industry is doing right now. The more open we become about listening to our students, more we will struggle to deliver one-size-fits all. And with the democratization of information in the internet, less possible it is to convince active language learners that we know better than they do about what to learn and how.

    Now, let’s say that in your context, all teachers have at least a B.A in teaching or even better also M.As. Surely they are qualified to make decisions about what coursebook to use, how to adapt, etc, etc. Would you say that all these qualified teachers subscribe to the same language learning/teaching theories? Could in this context, the use of CBs be to actually bring uniformity to the course from the outside? Because let’s face, two teachers do not teach the same way a CB not even in the same school. So how will you manage to convince everyone to subscribe to the author’s view of teaching/learning? Is that even possible? All the teachers, no way. But some, if that matches their own views of teaching/learning… yes.

    Now, let’s say that some of the teachers have just a CELTA or something equivalent and had never gotten past some training courses (workshops, maybe been to confs, and read books). And other teachers might have B.As, M.As or Delta. How would this mix of teaching education and experiences look like?

    What would coursebook literacy be like in these two different contexts?

    I assume that your context must be the first one, the ideal one.
    In the post below I give the contexts and implications of defending CBs. Teaching with CBs looks good for a number of reasons (save prep time, gives an idea of what the course is like to adms/teachers/etc, help teachers to teach, give clients an idea of what they are buying, save the life of novice teachers, and the list can go on), but doesn’t seem to take really into account what is really going on in the classrooms and it might well mask the real problems.

    • Hi Rose,
      Thanks very much for your comment and the link to your post, which I really like. If I understand correctly, your main point is that going along with coursebooks perpetuates a number of bad things that are happening in ELT. It allows new or inexperienced teachers to get shoved into a classroom without any support, because they have the book to use. It discourages any close analysis or critical reflection (or preflection) of what the teacher is actually doing and why. It stops bad teachers from being terrible teachers but does nothing to develop good teachers. It gives a false impression that learning English involves some kind of linear progression that can be broken into incremental stages, rather than developing a more holistic approach to learning among students (and teachers!)
      Coursebooks do do these things.
      As you and Patrick are both highlighting the importance of understanding what arguments there are in favour of using coursebooks in my workplace, here are some of them. I hope I’m not misrepresenting my colleagues here (they’re on holiday at the moment so they’re unlikely to be reading this):
      -Some staff genuinely like the book and feel it plays a very important role in their students’ learning.
      -A lot of our students have a good level of fluency as they are living in Scotland, but lack linguistic accuracy and language awareness. A course that prioritises structures is therefore appropriate for such students.
      -There isn’t an alternative in place that all the staff are comfortable following.
      -There is funding available to buy course materials for students. If we don’t spend it, we lose it.
      There are probably other reasons and other arguments in favour of using a coursebook on our programmes, but I think these are probably the main ones. I know the last one is particularly cynical but it’s true. I await your reaction.

      • I thought you haven’t read the post. That’s why I shared it here, Steve.
        You wrote:
        “If I understand correctly, your main point is that going along with coursebooks perpetuates a number of bad things that are happening in ELT.”
        Defending the use of it, yes. Going along with the coursebook without actually reflecting on the issues that everywork place might face, yes. In both cases is perpetuating the number of bad things. Nonetheless, if there all these issues are taken into consideration and thought for on how to deal with them by implementing an ongoing PD. I see no issue with using CBs. After all the problem is not that they are all bad, but defending blindless and contributing to the dissemination of its use without realizing how detrimental that can be to professionals and learners.
        I hope with my further explanation above the other points you made right after the above line can self-explain themselves.
        You wrote:
        “It gives a false impression that learning English involves some kind of linear progression that can be broken into incremental stages, rather than developing a more holistic approach to learning among students (and teachers!)”
        YES, a big YES to this one.
        You wrote:
        “Coursebooks do do these things.”
        People do these things. People behind business want to keep the money flowing. It’s the business of education, it’s not education. Maybe I’m the naive one here. Language teachers are service provider but we should seek a system that is based on sustainability and fairness.

        In my school right now, we are sitting together, all teachers regardless of their education background or experience. We are in 10. Our last meeting was filled with disagreement and couple of people left without hope to find a consensus. Some of us are aware that we will have to meet each other half away. I work in the morning with projects and in the afternoon and evening, I have to use CBs. Most of the teens hate CBs in our school and thank goodness my boss has already realised that they do so because in the morning they are much freer to use the language and experiment than in the afternoon. No matter how nice I think the series is, and the topics are interesting. They hate the grammar that screams out of it.. It’s too much hassle having to adapt it and do some of the activities just to show that we are using it. As equals we are analysing our context, the problems we are facing with the changes in technology, motivation and how to promote more learning. We are analysing CBs now like we had never done before. Are we still going to bear with the series we have right now for another semester? Yes, for sure. Do some of us wish to ditch them all? Yes. Is it possible? Nope. We are seeking alternatives and we are doing this together. We just found a CB series that might fit our needs. We are going to pilot it with a group of teens.

        The problem isn’t so much materials as it is the culture that comes with it from the industry: we have to have materials, we have to be trained to use them, exams to prove that you can keep the ball rolling. I know this looks harsh and even mean to those who are part of this. But if we don’t look at reality critically, we are not educators, we are zombies or worse, puppets in the hand of the system. That is what I’m totally against of.

        Regarding your context, Steve. Will you feel comfortable using the CB which some of your colleagues feel would be good for your school? Do you see the CB attending your students’ needs? Have you guys actually analysed lots and lots of CBs? Do you have to work only with one publisher? Did you guys actually listed all the things this material need to have to fit into your context? Is there plenty of room for personalization, corrective feedback and fluency activities to promote accuracy? As a user of English as second language, accuracy in grammar is a pain. And you can’t really develop it if it isn’t from activities that favor procedural knowledge. If the material talks too much about language and has a lot of those drilliing kind of exercises that focus on form and not really on meaning, little use it will be to develop accuracy in speech. I’d especially consider plenty of time to supplement the material with Learners own productions. I hope you guys can find a middle ground to work on and have this room where learners have also their voices added to the process.

        Thanks for sharing your concerns and context with us. We are always learning and being reminded that reality is complex, just as learning/teaching. 🙂

        Here is one of my favorite quotes from Freire:
        “Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.”

        Change the word Leader for TEACHERS.

  11. paulwalsh permalink

    The whole concept of ‘coursebook literacy’ seems to have grown legs and started running pretty quickly, but nobody seems able to be able to say why the concept is valid. Anthony – you’ve mentioned that in your experience teachers vary in their use and understanding of CBs, but to then give this behaviour a conceptual form seems to be stretching things a little: ” their ability to understand the coursebook i.e. their coursebook literacy, varied significantly from teacher to teacher.”

    To give this concept some weight, you’d need to provide more detail on what this process of ‘using’ or ‘reading’ the coursebook actually means; it would also have to be differentiated from normal processes of decoding text -otherwise what differentiates coursebook literacy from ‘cigarette packet literacy’ (as Scott mentioned before).

    Secondly, aren’t you essentialising the relationship between publishers/ CB providers and teachers? That publishers send – and teachers receive; with the problem being with the receivers who are unable to ‘read’ the provided materials. Couldn’t one also say that the CB publishers are ‘pedagogy illiterate’ for being unable to incorporate SLA research into their products? Your concept leaves obvious issues of power unaddressed and unexamined.

    Thirdly, as Gerring states in ‘What Makes a Concept Good’ (1999), coming from the social sciences, “Concepts are the hand-maidens of theories, and consequently may be judged only so good as the theories they serve.” The theories that you might be able to generate from the concept of coursebook literacy seem to be fraught with danger. For example, how would you determine the necessary conditions for coursebook literacy to exist?

    Finally, one test of a concept is to examine its negative pole. What is the negative pole of ‘coursebook literacy’? It’s ‘coursebook illiteracy’, with all the negative baggage the word ‘illiteracy’ contains. So, in effect, you might be implying that some teachers, in contexts where coursebooks are rarely or never used, are ‘coursebook illiterate’ – which is madness!

    In effect, this means that some of the best teachers in the world today, and certainly some of the best teachers I’ve known, would be branded as ‘coursebook illiterates’.

    I’m not sure this is helpful.

    • Hi Paul,
      You’ve deconstructed the whole concept of course book literacy really nicely here, pointing out the potential problems in a very clear way – thanks for this. I’m particularly uncertain about the fact that it implies a need to be “course book literate” in the first place, which is good news for publishing companies above everyone else.
      I’ll be interested to see if Anthony (or anyone else) comes back with more clarification to support the concept of course book literacy…

      • Can I recommend, Steve, that you avoid the use of the word ‘deconstruct’ or, at least, if you use it, make clear whether or not you mean by it what Derrida meant by it. The word became almost ubiquitous in the humanities in the nineteen nineties because of the fashionableness of Derrida. This is why, if you do not mean by it what Derrida meant by it you should make it clear that you do not. Otherwise, people will assume that you do.

        Just what Derrida did mean by it he is notoriously reluctant to explicitly state. There are good reasons for this. He coined the word ‘deconstruction’ because he needed a word, in French, that would do the work for which, in German, Heidegger used the word ‘destruktion.’ About this Derrida is very explicit. He does not mean by ‘deconstruction,’ simply ‘analysis’ or ‘critique’ or ‘unpacking.’ He wants a word which will do what the word ‘destruktion’ did for Heidegger, though one which does not commit him to Heidegger’s project, from which Derrida, while he finds it immensely fruitful, ultimately wishes to distance himself.

        For Heidegger, ‘destruktion’ is nothing less than the rediscovery of being. Just what is meant by this is hard, perhaps impossible, to explain or even to grasp, but, roughly, Heidegger’s concern is that while we may know what all sorts of other words mean, we do not know what ‘to be’ means, even though we use it all the time (if you doubt this, try giving a non-circular definition of the verb ‘to be’, or of the noun ‘being’.) To give an example, we feel sure that we know what we mean by a sentence such as ‘the lemon is yellow’ because we feel sure that we know what we mean by ‘lemon’ and ‘yellow’. Heidegger would want to point out that that is insufficient for a full understanding of the sentence. Are we so sure, he would wish to ask, that we know what we mean by ‘is’ in that sentence, and, if not, can we really be so confident that we know what we mean by ‘lemon’ and ‘yellow’?

        Anyway, Heidegger spent a whole book, Being and Time, trying to work this out, so I’m certainly not going to be able to do it here. Suffice to say that Derrida stated clearly that he had Heidegger very much in mind when he coined the term ‘deconstruction.’ The word ‘deconstruction’, admittedly, invites being taken to mean simply the opposite of ‘construction,’ and so, therefore, something like, simply, ‘taking apart.’ Nonetheless, the immense fashionability of Derrida and his use of the term means that if we do not mean it in its Derridan sense then I think we really need to say so.

      • Och, you’re right. I was being picky.

    • Hello,

      Well, Paul, I’ve got to agree with Steve: you’ve well and truly pulled that apart. I’m afraid I can’t offer any answers to your questions: I’m neither a social scientist whose interested in the validity of concepts nor a person who is pushing for the approval of the concept “coursebook literacy” – it was a turn of phrase used to get my point across. As Scott said “it has a nice ring to it” and as you’ve shown, it will have flaws in it. 🙂 But beyond that, I can’t help much. I just hope what I wanted to say got across.

      Based on something Steve wrote in a comment above, I was just thinking to myself here that the turn of phrase “resource literacy” might be more appropriate. But I’ll have to give it some thought.

      Sorry again for not being able to help more on the social science side of the concept.


      • In response to Patrick’s comment above:
        Patrick, I would rather not get into a debate with you about the semantics of postmodern terminology, if that’s OK with you. In which case I’m happy to replace “deconstruct” with “unpack”.
        Having said that, if Derrida himself was unable/refused to define exactly what he meant in his use of the word “deconstruction”, it seems a bit unfair to prevent other people from using the word with the meaning they want it to have. My understanding of the philosophy behind deconstructionism and other aspects of postmodernism is that there are multiple meanings, truths and definitions, and that it is wrong to impose any objective definition or label on anything. In “The Ecological Thought”, Timothy Morton wrote:
        “The assumption that Derrida always knows what he is talking about is not Derridean.”
        I think Derrida and Foucault and all those guys would probably agree that my use of the word “deconstruction” is just as valid as Derrida’s.
        Oh dear, I think I might have just said enough to provoke a debate with you about the semantics of postmodern terminology…

      • Sorry. Reply above should have come here, I think.

      • Appropriately enough for an encyclopaedia entry intended for the general reader, Wikipedia does not fully explore the philosophical issues involved in what’s meant by ‘deconstrcution’ but it does give quite a good flavour of what is at stake.

      • I’ve just read it again and can thoroughly recommend it. I shouldn’t have damned it with faint praise. It really is remarkably good.

  12. Can I just thank everyone so far for their comments. It’s been really useful for me to share my concerns and get some genuinely useful advice back from you. You’ve helped me to crystallise in my head the need to prioritise the aims and outcomes of the course, and to exploit the coursebook as much as possible in the achievement of these outcomes. This will require a lot of analysis, discussion, sharing and consensus-reaching at the start of the academic year, but I’m actually looking forward to that now.
    When you’re in a situation where you have to use a coursebook it’s important not to get complacent or to just follow it blindly, and many of you have stressed the importance of this. Of course, the question of whether we should use coursebooks at all is still a valid one, and I want to thank Scott for making sure we don’t forget this. The final comment of your last paragraph above was particularly powerful for me, Scott:
    “Syllabus. Texts. Activities. Is there anything else a coursebook offers? Comfort. Complacency. Conformity. Professional atrophy. Institutional malaise. Student boredom. Slow death by mcnuggets.”
    So, I feel a lot more confident about using coursebooks as a result of everyone’s comments, but I will continue to question their usefulness even while I’m using them. I may post again in the future with an update of how I’m getting on. Meanwhile, please continue with your comments here – there’s still a lot to consider and discuss.
    Thanks again,

    • Keep up the great work Steve. Thanks for sharing and the space for discussion.

      • Thank you, Rose. I always find your comments and posts both interesting and insightful.

  13. Hi Steve

    As I mentioned on twitter, I haven’t used a course book for a while now, but there’s an activity that I’ve heard Ken Wilson talk about that I really like the sound of and would try out if I’m ever in the position again of having a course book that I could (or had to) use.

    I said that I would look at my notes and comment but, having looked, I find that I didn’t take many notes! What I have written is “Find out what your students know”. Ask ‘What do you know about [insert book topic]?’. That’s it. But from memory, at the beginning of the course, students write things they know about, or connections they have with, the various topics on a post-it note and then stick these at the beginning of the relevant units. Then, when you get to that topic, there should be lots of more interesting information available for discussion or expansion. You might never need to use the book! 😉


    • Hi Carol,
      Thanks very much for this. I agree that involving the students in deciding what parts of the coursebook are used, and how, is a very good idea. Getting them to bring what they already have to the topic would hopefully reduce any teaching of what is already known and also make it easier to identify where the biggest gap[s are.
      It’s funny though how the most engaging and constructive approaches to coursebook use often lead towards the coursebook not being used as much as a less engaging or constructive approach. What I mean is, as soon as you start engaging more critically with the materials (applying whatever level of coursebook literacy you have) you’re more likely to start adapting, replacing or rejecting parts of it, or re-ordering the whole thing.
      Which kind of raises questions once again about the point of having them in the first place.
      Wouldn’t you say so?

      • ESL is riddled with acronyms and terminology that means very little. Even the best of them have been known to create fanciful notions. Much of it is best ignored. It doesn’t help your teaching in any way.

        Coursebooks and materials are rarely the problem,. Not having very clear ideas what to do with them is a far bigger issue. A coursebook offers support for both teacher and student and a sense of progress of sorts. What you want to achieve on a course is always the starting point and everything gets built around that.

        I personally don’t see wasting energy railing against coursebooks as anyway useful. Sure they frustrate enormously and some of them are not up to what we want them to do. Even so our aim must always be to make whatever we have to hand works towards what we hope to achieve. The only real influence we may have at times is making sure that we have into what materials are chosen.

      • This is the thing with course books: they aren’t designed to be redesigned in class. The whole point is that the author has exploited the material with appropriate exercises that you can deliver the material as it is. Yet, teachers insist on changing what’s on the page: why is that?

  14. Which of us has not found that we learned far more of a foreign language from our attempts to understand users of that language, and be understood by users of that language, than ever we have from a coursebook? Language occurs in real, concrete, social situations. It is also most effectively learned in such situations. The role of the language teacher should surely be to support this learning, not to set themselves up as a font of knowledge. The advantage that a language teacher enjoys over a coursebook writer, the reason we are not all redundant, is that a live language teacher can have a genuine interaction with a learner, and can listen and respond to learners’ accounts of their interactions with others. The live language teacher, that is to say, is in a position to pay attention to the ‘internal syllabus’ of the learner, a position which the coursebook writer and the syllabus designer do not enjoy.

  15. Anthony, am I right in assuming your question above is rhetorical? If not, then you’re suggesting we should always just teach from the book exactly as it is, and I don’t think you believe that to be the case.
    You’re right though that the coursebooks ARE designed to be taught as they are – there’s usually even a teacher’s book to make sure you do it exactly how they want you to. But, paradoxically, coursebook writers and publishers will often argue that the best thing about a coursebook is that it can (and should) be adapted to suit specific contexts. Rachael Roberts, who is a coursebook writer, has even written about how to use a coursebook and deal with emergent language:
    I do find it strange that coursebooks are so rigid in the way they are presented, and yet when we criticise this rigidity we are told that we should be flexible in the way we use them. Why are they not designed in such a way that they can be used more flexibly? Or are they, and I just don’t see it?

  16. juergenkurtz permalink

    For a brief summary of the many metaphorical expressions used to describe the textbook and its use in the classroom from the past (beginning with Wilga Rivers 1968) to the present, see: ff. These range from the textbook as a ‘dictator’, a ‘tyrant’, a ‘necessary evil’, a ‘straitjacket’, a ‘dungeon’, a ‘corral’, a ‘stone quarry’, etc.) and clearly indicate that much more tconceptual and classroom-based research on this is needed worldwide. Ultimately, we need to focus on three major aspects, I think: a) textbook critique, b) actual textbook use, and c) textbook development.

  17. geoffjordan permalink

    Whovever it is speaking for Demand High in this thread asserts that the coursebook is “a brilliant exploitable all-bound-up-in-one-package resource”, and that it’s managers who mess things up. No attempt is made to address objections to the underlying assumptions of coursebooks (they contradict everything we know about SLA), or objections to the material itself (simplistic, faulty grammar explanations, impoverished language, sanitised, out-of-date, culturally-skewed, ideologically-objectionable texts; etc., etc.).

    Rather than being adventurous, or imaginative, or innovative, or anything weird like that, the Demand High gang prefer to stay faithful to their medieval inclinations, give further voice to their condescending arrogance, and turn the pigs’ ear into a silk purse. How? Why, by instructing teachers in the mystic ways of reading the pages of a coursebook!

    Roll up! Roll up! Enrol now in a Demand High “How to Read the Pages of a Coursebook” training course, coming soon to an ELT institute near you. These very special, very superior training courses are given by highly-gifted members of the Demand High illuminati. In just three days, these extraordinary gurus will use their long experience and accumulated wisdom to help you unlock the rich treasures which lie on every page of your favorite coursebook. Learn how to use coursebooks to improve your posture and your students’ sex lives. Learn how to read without moving your lips. Learn how to ask questions such as “Who wrote this crap?”; “Does the text link at all to anything in the known world?”; and “Can we go home yet?” And for a further €200 you can get 30 minutes of additional expert advice on how to load the CD-ROM and log in to the Headway Facebook Page. Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!

    • demandhighelt permalink

      Oh for goodness sake! I don’t know what I’ve done to elicit such ongoing playground bullying from you, but it feels wrong and deliberately unkind. Your representations of Demand-High and what (little) we have done with it are simply ridiculous and your often repeated pernicious assertion (here and everywhere) that we are somehow mining this idea in order to accumulate vast wealth is just so daft.


      (Steve: Sorry that my posts come up as from generic DH. I enter my name but it insists on posting as the WP site)

  18. geoffjordan permalink

    Jim (if I may),

    My previous criticisms of Demand High were written in all seriousness; the above is meant to be satirical fun.

    What you’ve done to elicit my criticism is to suggest that you know what’s best for teachers without stating clearly how you assume people learn a second language or the principles which should guide language teaching. Demand High strikes me as a dud product, a view I’ve explained on my blog. Here, you simply assert that the coursebook is a “brilliant” resource, and suggest that the only problem is that teachers don’t know how to use them. Rather than moan about being the victim of playground bullying, why don’t you respond to the criticisms?

  19. Charles Cornelius permalink

    Reblogged this on The Online English Teacher and commented:
    Here’s a fascinating discussion (read the comments below the article) about the pros and (mainly!) cons of using a coursebook when teaching students English.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Coursebooks, textbooks or resource books? | How I see it now
  2. Scott Thornbury’s Definitive (200-Word) Dismissal of Coursebooks | aplinglink
  3. Are we on the brink of a paradigm shift in ELT? | aplinglink
  4. A Critique of the works of Scott Thornbury: Part 1 | What do you think you're doing?

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