The short answer is: I have no idea, particularly since reading all the things written on various blogs over the last month or so, triggered by Geoff Jordan’s talk at the Innovate ELT conference.
I started writing a very rambling comment on his post about materials banks, and decided that I’d share it as a post instead as I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say with it, it’s late, and I don’t want to add such a rambling contribution with no clear point to such an in-depth discussion. Instead I’m posting it here, since I’m allowed to ramble on my own blog! Can anyone enlighten me on what I think?!
“[In one of the comments] Patrick said: “I’ve discussed this a lot with learners and they seem generally to agree that working with language that has emerged in their daily lives is more useful and more engaging than studying something simply because that’s what’s next in the coursebook.”
This is exactly how I was studying Russian. I told my teacher what experiences I’d had with Russian in the time since my previous lesson, and she gave me words and phrases I could use next time round. However, I was living in the country so had plenty of opportunities to experiment with the language, I’m very motivated, I’m an experienced language learner and teacher and like to think I know a fair amount about how I learn (in terms of what works for me), it was mostly mediated through English, the class was 121, and my teacher was good at coming up with things on the spot. When I didn’t have anything I wanted to cover, I’d tell her which bit of grammar I wanted her to show me so that I could start to notice it if I came across it. I was at A2-ish level by the end of a year, having already had Czech to build on. I’d learnt Czech by following a coursebook at my own speed, then having classes from my second year, mostly based on continuing the same coursebook, with some ad hoc lessons based on my immediate needs. It wasn’t as fast, but it did help me to know what I could study next, especially for a language with not many materials out there. If any of the conditions for my Russian classes hadn’t been fulfilled, I doubt it would have been anywhere near as useful for me, but I have to say I learnt it 3 times as fast as I did Czech as I got to the same level in a third of the time (I did a lot more self-study too though!)
I wish I could have lessons like that with all of my students, but when I was teaching last year my students had almost no exposure to English in their daily lives unless they actively sought out things on the Internet – it was hard to get ‘real’ books, films, etc in English where I was living. When they came to class with something different, we always looked at that rather than coursebook, and we often went off on tangents. They’d bought coursebooks though and in some of the bigger groups it was a unifying factor, with me adapting, extending and rejecting bits as I thought necessary.
I also showed them ways of extending their learning outside the classroom through the use of tools like Quizlet, offering them pre-vetted sets of vocabulary (vetted for accuracy, level of challenge, appropriacy etc.) which they could choose from, and shared my experience of learning languages to attempt to encourage them to try different methods out. Despite repeatedly demonstrating and encouraging them to use these techniques, they pretty much all defaulted back to lists of translations, with the occasional outlier of a student who actually tried to e.g. record vocabulary with a picture/English definition/collocations etc. When I tried to find out what they were interested in or what they wanted to study, I had the same experience as one of the commenters above, with them telling me I was the teacher and should decide. I’m not attempting to argue that the coursebook was the best answer in this situation, just describing my experience.
I’m still not really sure I could put together a personalised syllabus that would be very detailed at the beginning of a course if I didn’t already know a lot about a group of learners – this is the main area where I struggle, since if I’m not using a course book, I tend to work on a lesson-by-lesson basis. That’s fine if it’s low stakes, but as soon as you factor in exams or anything else high stakes, it puts a lot of added pressure on the teacher. I did once try to teach an intensive FCE course without a book by selecting materials from a range of places, but the students complained about the randomness of it and we ended up using an exam prep book instead. I think putting together a syllabus is a challenging skill, and not something I’ve ever found/had effective training in. I’ve never really found a readable, accessible guide to putting one together either (the ones I’ve seen have been pretty dry and I’ve never found them very helpful).
I guess I’m saying that although I know that coursebooks aren’t necessarily the best way, I’ve found them a useful support structure as a teacher, and I have learnt from them as a student, even though I know that it’s not been the fastest way for me to learn.”