Sometimes in Brazil, when we want to poke fun at someone who’s struggling to get a computer to do something he or she wants we say that the problem lies in a piece that’s between the keyboard and the chair. Sometimes it takes a while for this to hit the listener, but it’s a good laugh once it does. It’s just a tongue-in-cheek remark to lighten up the situation, and we move on to help the friend in need. Could we apply the same saying to different situations? Well, I guess so. We can also say that there’s a problem with the thing between the steering wheel and the driver’s seat, for instance.
When I think about coursebooks, and whether they’re good or bad, I sometimes find myself at a loss for words. On the one hand, I have always studied in an educational setting that has in coursebooks the determiners of the syllabus and the curriculum. I can’t remember any of my classes, in any kind of class, where the teacher abolished a coursebook. The same is true for grades, but I won’t go there on this post. Ergo, thinking of a classroom with no coursebooks has always been hard for me. It’s definitely not something I’d never conceive of, far from being unfathomable, but, if I may say so, it always felt like something was missing.
On the other hand, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned throughout these years as a teacher, it is that learning is what counts in the classroom. And it’s a lot easier for learning to take place when you’re engaged in what’s going on in the classroom. And it’s a lot easier for you to be engaged if what’s going on is relevant to you, if it’s something you can relate to. In a nutshell, relevancy and personalisation might lubricate learning. And it is a lot easier for teachers to make learning meaningful, relevant, and personal if they come to the classroom without a set agenda of what’s going to be covered during the whole semesters, with the examples already chosen and ignoring any kind of contribution that may be uttered during the lesson. It does make a lot of sense for us to truly listen to our learners, and it’s paramount that we learn how to react accordingly.
Now some may argue brilliantly against coursebooks. Even though I agree with pretty much everything Karenne says in this series of hers, I still believe the main problem actually lies between the students and the chalk, white, or interactive board. Until very recently, I still had some of the coursebooks I studied with more than 15 years ago, which means I had the chance to compare them with today’s coursebooks. Yes, almost all coursebooks are still structurally organised, and have imprinted examples of grammar McNuggets in them. They’ve come a long way, though, to place more importance on vocabulary and lexical chunks. I’m also happy to see some coursebooks going beyond segmental features when it comes to teaching pronunciation. I still believe pronunciation, careful and consistent teaching of pronunciation, is ignored by many teachers for myriad reasons. It’s nice, then, to see that some authors made sure to include such features in their coursebooks and had in mind that teachers needed time to teach it.
I don’t believe in extreme views, and I definitely don’t think that coursebook authors only bear profit in mind when writing a book. Competition is stiff, and if a book hasn’t got sound principles behind it, it’s bound to be a failure. I like to think that publishers have already noticed that too. I obviously am not so naïve as to think that book writers have got freedom upon what to include in their texts, as publishers do have to make a profit. It’s business, and that’s what businesses do – they profit. Anyhow, there’s got to be some give and take – perhaps even a lot more give on the part of the writer – in the process of creating a coursebook. But I digress…
The view that coursebooks as a one-size-fits-all format isn’t what I have in mind when I work with one. What I have in mind is that it’s been written to help a large number of learners in their process of uncovering the language. However, no coursebook alone will suffice. It’s up to the teacher to make good use of the tools he or she has at hand. And this is what I’ve come to see coursebooks as. They’re yet another tool that can’t be overused nor misused by the teacher and the learners. I usually say that the coursebook is not the bible. It’s not supposed to be followed as if it’d been written on stone. It’s a guide. It’s there to help, and sometimes it will get in the way of what your learners really need. However, I don’t think it’s fair to believe that’s always the case. Many learners enjoy using a coursebook and can’t possibly imagine how they’d study if they didn’t have a coursebook. Heck, many teachers out there would have major problems if they were to devise a syllabus and implement a curriculum without using a coursebook.
Jason Renshaw asked on one of his blog posts about our approach to language teaching. I myself like the term Dogme to describe mine. However, this doesn’t mean against materials and technology. Dogmeists aren’t the Amish of ELT, as I see it. I just like thinking first and foremost of my learners and how to best help them. This means focusing on emergent language, it means using conversation to drive language, and it means only using the tools that are really necessary at any given moment. If a coursebook is needed, I’ll definitely use it. Once again, it’s not what you use in class, it’s HOW you use it that counts.