Curse books?

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.

Photo by Patrick Correia

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.


22 thoughts on “Curse books?

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  2. Am absolutely with you on this, Rick. As you say, it’s not the tool that matters so much as how you use it.

    Teaching from coursebooks isn’t for me, but I’ve have observed other teachers using them really effectively in their lessons.

    I also think that for inexperienced teachers they can provide a useful framework to develop their teaching skills. I think the key to using coursebooks well is not to follow them slavishly, but rather to see them as a springboard to generate ideas.


    • Hi Sue,

      I finally have some time to reply to the comments after a busy week preparing for VRT10. 🙂

      Yes, as you said, coursebooks can’t be followed slavishly, and I don’t think any coursebok author has got that in mind when they write the coursebook. I liked the term “springboard to generate ideas”. However, I believe that even experienced teachers might benefit from coursebooks. Someone quoted at ELTChat the other day “Coursebooks are great servants, but poor masters.” It’s up to the teacher to teach, not to the coursebook.

      Cheers! 🙂

  3. Coursebooks are tools, but also look at it this way. Imagine you picked up one of those coursebooks as a learner and tried to learn English only from it. Could you do it? Absolutely not. There’s no L1 to get bearings, few pictures, no reference support, extremely limited audio for pronunciation work, etc. They are designed only to be a complement to the classroom.

    Herein lies the biggest mistake. Too many assume that the course book embodies everything the course needs, which is just silly. For being designed only to complement a course, they are given far to much prominence by many schools and teachers.

    • Hi Nick,

      Oh, I do believe it’d be extremely difficult for anyone to learn any foreign language from the coursebook alone. Taking advantage of the Dogme challenge put forth by Karenne, I’ve got to say I do agree (with you, if I remember your post correctly) that language is dialogic. We learn a foreign language because we want to use this foreign language in communication, and communication may take place in many different spheres.

      However, would you say that depending on the level of the learner, it is possible for him or her to improve language skills simply using a coursebook? For instance, can a student who’s preparing for a CPE exam prepare to the exam without a teacher? I guess there’s still the problem of not having anyone to correct your writing and your speaking, but after a certain proficiency level, it’s not that hard for people to go alone. Yet, I still agree with you – a coursebook alone will never provide enough information in a way that it alone will suffice.

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  4. Well argued and well written Henrick. All in all I would have to declare myself in Nick Jaworski’s camp: the problem with most coursebooks is that they become the omni-present “learning bible” in the classroom, and so perhaps the real issue is teacher training – or teacher re-training – to get on track with all the new opportunities and possibilities to teach differently, and for teachers to really use the coursebook as an almost invisible “back-up tool” rather than front-and-center. Maybe, in the same way that most teachers are now conscious that they need to reduce Teacher Talk Time to no more than 20% of class time, we also need to create a parallel standard of “Eyes On Book” time to be no more than, say, 10% or 15% of class time. Maybe they should have an app for that!

    • I agree Paul a lot of coursebook addiction comes from teacher training, generally speaking. One key issue here is that most teachers don’t undertake further training after learning the basics, which is mostly about lesson aims and that sort of falacy, instead of more organic approaches like Dogme.

      So, I wouldn’t say re-training as you put it, instead I’d like to see more un-training.

      • Hi Willy,

        Always a pleasure to see your comments! 🙂

        As I said in my reply to Paul and to Luke, I’m fully onboard with you. The problems is not with the coursebook, but with teachers and teacher training. I also agree with you that most teachers don’t feel like walking the extra mile and are just content with the basics. Trining, re-training, un-training, whatever we choose to call it, I guess we all agree that this is the core of the problem.

        Cheers! 🙂

    • Hi Paul,

      First of all, sorry I missed you on VRT. Teaching at times gets in the way of what we’d like to do. I’ll probably have time to catch up with the recordings. 🙂

      A coursebook is not the bible is pretty much what I usually say to the teachers who work with me. And I guess you hit the nail on the head when you said that the problem lies in teacher training, re-training, or un-training. If teachers don’t keep an open mind to all possibilities around them, it’ll be pretty hard for their lessons to move forward.

      I see your point with the percentages, and it’s a nice number indeed. However, just like anything else, the amount of TTT or CB usage in the classroom has got to be something that the teacher should be able to judge based on each individual group. I read once, and if I’m not mistaken it was Nick Jaworski who wrote it, that students shouldn’t do in class anything that they can do alone at home. They can definitely open their CBs at home and answer exercises 1, 2, and 3. Nevertheless, there are times when it might be important for them to do exercises 1, 2, and 3 in class, which brings us back to your point – teacher training, development, and/or education is paramount.

      Thanks for the comments! 🙂

  5. Great post, Rick. And very interesting comment – it occurs to me that what we’re talking about here is not just the role but also the ‘status’ of the coursebook. From the post and comment, a coursebook is ‘another tool’ (Rick), a ‘springboard’ (Sue), a ‘complement’ to the course (Nick), a ‘back-up tool’ (Paul). These all seem sensible ways to consider the coursebook, though I’m not sure we’re going to see them featuring too prominently in the publishers’ blurb!

    So just as we need to question what a coursebook is ‘selling’, both in pedagogical terms (the grammar McNuggets) and in cultural terms (lifestyles and cultural assumptions), we need to question the way it’s sold. As more and more teachers use the lens of dogme, and the tools of tech, to expand the ways in which language is generated and accessed in the classroom, the role and status of the coursebook will alter radically. But this is very much a teacher’s eye view – it will take a far greater paradigm shift if state education policy, for example, is to reach the same conclusions. Two quite different views will thus converge (or diverge) on the same classroom tool. Something will have to give!

    I also like Paul’s idea of a rule of thumb for ‘coursebook time’ and think 10-15% isn’t a bad place to start. Even in a dogme class, I think keeping the coursebook as part of the classroom conversation can be handy. For one thing, it recycles and refreshes the meta-language we need to work effectively on emergent language. On the other hand, I think there must be other reference tools that come with less baggage…. I’m not sure what these are, though, beyond learner dictionaries. Grammar books? Online corpora?

    • Hi Luke,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment! Unfortunately, it wasn’t up till today that I had time to reply properly to the comments due to (yet another) busy week.

      I wonder how much any coursebook would sell if they had such words in the blurb. Perhaps, these days, some teachers would see that as being the truth and would be more interested in the content within than the publishers’ words. Nonetheless, I still believe that there are lots and lots of businesspeople running English schools as if they were a supermarket or anything else but education that need the words in the blurb – even if it’s to advertise the course based on the (highly-acclaimed) coursebook. One of my MA assignments was exactly about CBs, and I must say if I had simply written down the blurbs on a word document without any mention of the CB it was taken from, I’d have a hard time finding out which book this or that came from. It’s always “authentic”, “engaging”, and “complete”.

      As you said, if teachers look at teaching from a different angle, they’re likely to be a lot more critical of whatever they choose to use in the classroom, and this might even be a problem if you work at a language institute that aims not only to making learning for all learners exactly the same, but most importantly, making teaching exactly the same. One of the benefits of learners always having a different teacher every semester is that they’re bound to be exposed to different learning experiences, and whatever I choose not to focus on, for instance, might be exactly what you may choose to focus on. This is bound to be beneficial for learners, as I see it.

      And regarding the reference tools, some teachers at the school usually tell learners that if they heard us and learned how to use a dictionary such as LDOCE properly, they’d end up seeing teachers as distractors. 🙂 I guess dictionaries these days, especially the new resources that always come with the DVDs, have pretty much all it takes to be THE language reference in the classroom. But then again, it takes a good teacher to exploit a dictionary to its fullest, and I guess it all falls back to teacher development again. The 10-15% rule will only work as a starting point, but teachers will have to understand why they’re doing such thing and provide learners with learning activities for the other 85% of the lesson without using the coursebook. Unfortunately, I still don’t see most training courses, or university degrees in teaching, preparing teachers to do that. Would that be the first thing we would need to tackle?


  6. Coursebooks are fine as ONE classroom tool, the problem is that they are being used as the only tool in many classrooms. That is a disservice to students. The problem with coursebooks is that they give the impression that learning is finite, that the “important” information and details are contained within that one book. This isn’t the case. Coursebooks have to boil down so much information into one book that the beauty of learning gets lost.

    • Hi Kelly,

      I loved the way you put it into words, “The problem with coursebooks is that they give the impression that learning is finite”. Apparently, and fortunately, it seems to be everyone’s opinion that teachers have to go beyond the coursebook if they expect their learners to thrive. It is how to get this done by most teachers that is the problem. Oh, and obviously, would most teachers buy into this idea and willingly go out of their comfort zone?

      Many thanks for the comment! 🙂

  7. Great piece Rick and very balanced & I love your title! As Sue says it’s the way you use tools, whether these be books or technology, that counts. I think there are possibly too many to choose from, but on the other hand it is good to pick out bits and mix and match. I agree very much with your comment on pronunciation which I think should be integrated into our teaching from the beginning.
    A course book is a springboard, a resource or even a handy prop at times but should never be the be all and end all!

    • Hi Berni,

      So sorry I couldn’t reply to the comments sooner, but I’ve been going through quite a lot these days. Thankfully there’s a holiday in Brazil tomorrow, and today I had a recess at school! 🙂

      I really think pronunciation should be a major concern for beginners. Grammar and vocabulary are still pretty simple, so why would we only start focussing on pronunciation once grammar is also slightly more complicated, and I think this is particularly true if we follow a grammar-structure syllabus.

      As you said, coursebooks are yet another resource in the language classroom. The one that’s got to be resourceful is the teacher, not the coursebook.

      Many thanks for the comment! 🙂

  8. Hey Henrick! Very nice post!
    Besides the ETC problem, there is also the BIOS problem, have you ever heard of it? It’s a little more offensive, but it is also funny =P

    Now, talking about what’s really important in you post. The coursebooks. I may not be a professional teacher, but I think I have already told you that sometimes I give my friends some Chemistry,Physics and Math classes haven’t I? Well, during all this years I realised something. When I’m studying just to prepare for the tests I barely use the books. Most of the time I just pay attention to the teacher, copy the board, make some notes and, in case I want some other information I look for it in the internet. On the other hand, everytime I was going to teach my friends, first thing I would do was to look the book, check the subject, make some notes, and look for the most important information.
    The point I’m trying to reach here is that, in my opinion, books are more important to the teachers than to the students. Why? Because I think the teacher is the student’s guide, and the teacher’s guide is the book. This means that the book is something to show the teacher which subject he should cover during each class, how not to overload the learner with excessive information, and thinks like that…

    Well, I hope you enjoyed reading my take on that even though I’m not an expert =P

    See ya!

    • Hi Shimabuko,

      It’s always nice to read comments from those who are living the situation we’re talking about. What made your comment even more relevant is the fact that you’re not only a student, but you also don the teacher’s hat when helping your classmates – not always an easy hat to wear, huh?!

      A teacher has got to have many different guides besides the coursebook, but, depending on the teaching context, that will always be the starting point. However, if the teacher really has his learners’ best interests at heart, it’s a lot more important that the teacher reflects about his or her practices at the end of every class in order to understand what went right and what went wrong. Our main difficulty to let go of coursebooks is that our current educational system can’t conceive of teachers as being responsible for students’ learning. If we think about it, it says a lot about how much we trust our current system, huh?!

      Oh, and I don’t subscribe to the expert / non-expert thing. Everyone’s contribution is valid, and each one of them are likely to make us look at things from a fresh perspective. I guess I’ve said to you once in class that we should never get stuck with only one source of information. Yes, teachers are expected to know what they’re saying, but teachers might be wrong. An expert’s view is only as good as his or her own views, but that doesn’t make it an absolute truth. If it were so, we’d probably still believe that the Earth is flat, and we’d probably have an answer whether coffee is good or bad for you. We’ve got to give experts due credit for their research and studies, but we also have to always keep an open mind and listen to different opinions. I guess what I’m trying to say is that your comments are more than welcome here! 🙂


    • Hi Alex,

      I see eye to eye with you on that! Teachers (why not say people in general) don’t naturally go out of their comfort zone. That’s the main benefit of coursebooks adding bits on pronunciation, listening tasks, and other useful information.

      I loved your post, and I recommend it twice here. Just as an appetizer for readers, I’ll quote two passages here:

      In my own early days, the only way I had of getting students motivated and involved was by getting out my all time favourite communication games, readings, revision games, warmers etc. as a break from the book. As time went on, I managed to link those things in with the book by adapting them and having enough of them to be able to choose something close to the topic on hand. Concurrent with that, I managed to adapt the way students used the book so that the readings became more interesting, the listening teaching rather than testing, the grammar based on the problems they really had and a basis for real communication etc, and so no longer felt the need to stretch out the “fun” supplementary stuff to keep the amount of bookwork down.

      The more experienced I get, the more I believe that less is more. If we try to use tons of extra activities, handouts and so on, we end up flooding our learners with meaningless exercises and leave very little time for learning to take place.

      Another bit I loved reading was:

      Leaving out most of the boring and unrealistic “tasks” from Cutting Edge (although I often make a worksheet based on the same general idea that I can use the same listening or functional language for)

      I also use Cutting Edge, and this is exactly how I feel most of the times.

      Many thanks for the comment and for sharing your post! 🙂

  9. Not believing in extreme ideas is, in itself, an extreme idea! Surely ALL ideas should be judged on their merits. Being extreme, whatever that might mean, may not always be a very reliable criterion to an idea’s worth.

  10. The thing about tools, in sociocultural terms, is that they are shaped by their users (eg teachers adapting coursebooks) but they also shape their users (eg teaching becomes defined by coursebook publishers).

    I remember being puzzled by teachers labelling a particular item of grammar as “pre-intermediate” or as “upper intermediate”. Of course, they werent talking about the finer details of the internal syllabus; their understanding of what constituted language appropriate for one level or another had been shaped by what appeared in coursebooks at that level.

    So, it is a truism to say that coursebooks are a tool and their effectiveness depends on the skill of the users. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves, “ok, coursebooks are tools, but at what cost are they used?”

    Hopefully this is coherent, but as I am typing it out from my mobile phone, I ask for leniency if this is not the case!

    • Hi Diarmuid,

      Really nice of you to write such an insightful comment. I’ll start by replying to the first one:

      I guess the only extreme idea I believe in, then, is not believing in extreme ideas. 🙂 All jokes aside, I got your point and what you suggested is exactly what I think that should be done. I can’t even start writing too much about it. As we’re having our presidential election in Brazil, I’m running the risk to drift to politics…

      As for the second comment, I think I got your point! If it wasn’t coherent, than I’m not being coherent myself! 🙂 The problem with coursebooks being used by teachers as the syllabus is that teachers end up not having a clue of what to expect from learners at any certain stage apart from what’s in the book. As most coursebooks are grammar/structural, we end up classifying learners based on their grammar knowledge. “Oh, you can use the future perfect! You’re probably an advanced student,” and so on. It might be a truism to say that it all depends on how the coursebook is used, but I don’t think it’s said enough – honestly. Many were the times I saw teachers blindly following the coursebook as if it were the bible, and such behaviour had been encouraged during their training.

      Your question is definitely key in the role of coursebooks in class, but I’m afraid it might be trying our luck a bit to far in certain contexts. Many teachers don’t even know what their beliefs are in terms of language learning and teaching, many even have had a chance to really study SLA or methodology, and are simply reproducing what others say. In other words, and even though I agree with your point, I think this matter should be dealt with slowly. Otherwise, we might end up replacing one repeat-what-I-say approach with another equally as bad.

      I hope my reply to your comment also makes some sense! 🙂

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