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.
After a long while without posting due to some new things that came up, I can finally resume my blogging activity. There are lots of things to write about, but I’ll continue the series of my ELT library and books I consider very important for any English teacher to have.
Books on vocabulary and teaching vocabulary
1. “How to teach vocabulary“, by Scott Thornbury. this is a book that’ll provide you with lots of information both on what’s important for you to know about vocabulary and on different ways to ensure vocabulary is taught appropriately. As most “How to…” series, this is an invaluable asset in any teacher’s collection.
2. “The Lexical Approach“, by Michael Lewis. As teachers and lecturers shift from Grammar to Vocabulary more and more these days, this book contains the background information you need to have in order to change the focus of your lessons from grammar to lexis. “Language is made of grammaticalised lexis, and not lexicalised grammar,” Lewis would say.
3. “Implementing the Lexical Approach“, by Michael Lewis. The logical progression after having read “the Lexical Approach”. To be honest, if you’re looking for something way more practical, you can go straight to this and the next one. However, I’d still strongly advise you take the time to read the first book.
4. “Teaching Collocation“, edited by Michael Lewis. This book contains a wealth of examples and practical ideas on using the Lexical Approach in the classroom. The author also (re-)visits the theory behind the approach. Definitely worth reading.
5. “Words in the mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon“, by Jean Aitchson. If you’d like to learn more about the ‘mental lexicon’, look no further. The book is a great source of information on how we learn words and organise them in our minds.
6. Norbert Schmitt’s “Vocabulary in Language Teaching” is also a good source of both theory and practice when it comes to vocabulary teaching.
7. Last, I’d advise you also check Stephen Pinker’s “The language instinct: how the mind creates language“. Even though it’s not as practical as the other books I mentioned on this list, it’s some serious food for thought. This book is definitely thought-provoking and it’ll (probably) make you reflect a bit on your own beliefs.
As I said before, this is not a thorough list, and I sure you can think of many other books to add to the list. Why not do that in the comments area?
Part 1 was about methodology books. Now I’ll focus on some other books for each specific area. As I said before, it’s not my intention to come up with a comprehensive list, nor do I mean that these are the only good books there are in the market. It doesn’t mean, either, that these are the books I abide by and shun anything else. Much on the contrary, I’d love to hear some suggestions on books I have not mentioned so I can add to my own library. Besides, we all know there are tons of grammar books in the field of ELT, which would make it impossible to suggest all of them in one single blog post, right?
Books on Grammar and teaching grammar
1. “Practical English Usage“, by Michael Swan. This is one of the most practical books I’ve seen for teachers who need to find an answer when preparing a lesson. It’s very straightforward and easy to follow. It contains lots of examples to help the teacher better visualise the explanations.
2. Scott Thornbury’s “How to teach Grammar“. The book addresses the issues of teaching Grammar and, just like the other books from the “How to…” series, can be used in training sessions with teachers. Quite insightful.
3. Diane Larsen-Freeman’s “Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring” has been a great asset in my training sessions. Larsen-Freeman writes about the 3 dimensions of grammar and explains the importance of addressing grammar from such a perspective. The book is filled with investigation questions, teachers’ anecdotes and questions, which also render it impossible not to read.
4. “The Grammar Book: an ESL/EFL teacher’s course” was written by Marianne Celce-Murcia and Diane Larsen-Freeman. It’s a course for EFL/ESL teachers and it is quite thorough. It brings all sorts of tree diagrams, which might be an inconvenient for some, but, in my humble opinion, is something English teachers should at least be acquainted with. Each chapter end with suggestions for classroom activities which focus on form, meaning, and use of the grammar point of the lesson.
5. If you’re looking for a complete reference book to have at home, I’m actually going to suggest three. I have them at home and they will definitely sort out your questions regarding Grammar. The winners are: “Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English“, a corpus-based grammar packed with graphs with corpus findings; “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language“, by Huddleston and Pullum; and Quirk’s “A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language“, which was written together with Greenbaum, Leech, and Svartvik.
6. If you’re looking for a more light-hearted way of explaining grammar and its intricacies, but at the same time you don’t want to go as deep as you would with the items mentioned in 5, you should try “Woe is I: the grammarphobe’s guide to better English in plain English“, by Patricia T. O’Conner. It’s a fun read.
7. Finally, if you’re looking for books to give you some practical ideas to use in the classroom, I’ll recommend two: “Teaching Grammar Creatively“, by Gerngross, Puchta and Thornbury – packed with full lesson plans ready to use in the classroom or to be adapted; and Penny Ur’s “Grammar Practice Activities“, which will also give you some ideas when you’ve got your “teachers’ block” and can’t come up with an activity or a different way to engage your learners.
What other books on Grammar or on teaching grammar would you recommend?
I’d thought about publishing a list of ELT books I usually recommend to teachers I work with, but I’d never really got to doing it. There are lots of ELT lists of books for teachers on Amazon and other sites that I thought it wouldn’t be exactly helpful. However, after a very brief exchange of tweets with @thieddu and some talks with teachers I know and who have participated in training sessions, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to mention some of the books. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, and I do believe some readers can actually contribute a book or two.
I’ll start this series with some methodology books.
1. If you’ve been looking for a place to start, and have got little experience or reading, I’d suggest “How to Teach English“, by Jeremy Harmer. The book will cover the basics of teaching and learning, including suggestions for teaching the different skills. It’s also a nice book for teacher trainers depending on the level of your trainees. The Task files a the end of the book give you some food for thought during your training sessions.
2. If you’d like to learn a bit more about the different approaches and methods throughout the history of ELT, I recommend you check “Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching“, by Jack C. Richards and Theodore S. Rodgers. I highly recommend the first few chapters where the authors discuss some key concepts any language teacher should think about – theory of language, theory of language learning, approach, method, design, and procedure.
3. No methodology library would be complete without H. Douglas Brown’s “Teaching by Principles“. The book contains a wealth of information on many different issues in the field of ELT, and it also leads you to a way forward. In addition, the questions for discussions at the end of each chapter are insightful.
4. Another useful book for teacher trainers and teachers interested in learning more about their profession and grow as teachers is Penny Ur’s “A course in Language Teaching“. It also has good questions that will lead to discovery instead of merely showing the way.
5. If you’ve read the first book of this list, or maybe if you’re more experienced and read, Jeremy Harmer’s “The Practice of English Language Teaching” is a good choice. Harmer expands on the topics introduced in his “How to Teach English”, which make the book much more thorough. The videos of recorded classes in the new edition are a great addition to the book.
6. The last book in this post is David Nunan’s “Second Language Teaching & Learning“. Not only does Nunan provide his readers with practical examples, but there are also questions and tasks to be discussed in training courses. One thing that called my attention was the concept maps present at the end of each chapter.
Which books would you add to or remove from the list? I know there are two other books I’d add to the list, but one of them I haven’t read in its entirety yet (yes, shame on me – it’s Jim Scrivener’s “Learning Teaching“) and the other one I still couldn’t get hold of a copy in Brazil (Luke Medding’s and Scott Thornbury’s “Teaching Unplugged“). Nevertheless, these books would “close” the list.
I hope you find this first list useful. Feel free to criticise it. I’ll be continuing this series with books on other areas of ELT soon.