What do I think about coursebooks?

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?!

Image taken by Sue Annan, from the ELTpics collection and shared under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence

“[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.”

14 thoughts on “What do I think about coursebooks?

  1. Hi Sandy,

    Like you, I consider coursebooks a unifying factor rather than a set of prescriptions you strictly have to follow. Also, if you teach a continuous course, in my case it’s sometimes 5 years of teaching the same group, you desperately need some kind of unifying factor not to get lost along the way.

    As you say, it’s not easy to create a detailed syllabus. I personally prefer a preset framework within which I can experiment and within which my students feel safe. This is where the coursebook comes in handy.

    It’s probably different if you teach 121 because it’s easier to negotiate the syllabus with one motivated learner who usually knows exactly where she or he is headed. But in the state sector, where it’s high stakes and you teach groups of 12-25 students (often not so highly motivated), negotiating would only make things complicated.

    To conclude, I think it highly depends on the teaching context. Based on my experience, coursebooks can trigger wonderful conversations and they can be very inspiring. But it’s the teacher and the students who turn them into wonderful resources. I’d say that most modern coursebooks have this potential.


    1. Hi Hana,
      Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed reply to my post, and sorry it’s taken a while to get back to you. I keep thinking about coursebooks and my opinions of them. I’m sure it’s something I’ll write a more measured post about at some point in the future when I know more about the theories behind them.
      I think the framework and the feeling of safety are definitely things that I respond to in coursebooks as well. I’ve tried to push students outside the coursebook-shaped box before, and it’s only ever seemed to work in really small groups or for one-off lessons. As I move towards doing more materials design, it’s definitely something I want to find out more about.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a conversation I have had many times over the past 20 years and in essence, I agree. Context is all. If you are *studying* a language (ie following a high school programme, preparing for a specific exam- although in this case I would argue that you can find everything on the web without plodding through a never ending series of utterly predictable units which become dated within 24 months…) then you are probably going to be following a coursebook. They are crutches for teachers who have lots of classes, year in year out, and little time to pore over the web finding up to date interesting stuff for their students.
    Coursebooks have their place, but spare me oh lord from the teacher who follows them page after page, year after year. Because that’s when we get young adults who have “studied” English for 10+ years and yet cannot maintain a basic conversation.
    The fundamental thing for me is that coursebooks have a very short shelf life. Many many of our students are teenagers, and what is hip and happening now, will be laughed at in 6 months time. So, coursebook writers laudable attempts to get with it, and use stuff which is appealing to an age group, invariably crashes and burns. Note to writers: 1D are already Not Cool…..


    1. LOL …..so true! Reminds me of a book I was required to use a couple of years ago; there was a text about Tom Cruise and his wife………. Nicole Kidman!!!! I used it to practise ‘used to’ format rather than the present tenses it was aimed at……….
      Celebs seem to change on a weekly basis; very dangerous to include them in a coursebook! As for I.T….how many textbooks still have pictures of bricklike mobile phones & huge desktop computers……………..? We just have to pick & choose the most relevant items & use the Internet for more up-to-date material to supplement.


      1. “Spare me oh lord from the teacher who follows them page after page, year after year” – oh yes! I try to encourage my CELTA trainees to take what they have in their coursebooks and make it more relevant to the students in front of them, rather than using it blindly. I also want them to use it critically, ditching things that are irrelevant/too easy/won’t work, and exploiting things that will really help their students. Exactly as Kim explained!


  3. Hi Sandy!
    I loved this post. I am not sure if I can tell you what you think though! 🙂

    The start of your post reminded me of a quote I have Tom Farrell say a lot.
    “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” (EM Forster)
    I think it somehow makes a lot of sense.

    I liked how your post balanced your thoughts and experiences as a teacher and as a learned. Great stuff.

    Regarding syllabus design, I really like this book: http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Language-Courses-Guide-Teachers/dp/083847909X and I have a feeling you might as well.

    Again, thanks for the interesting post.
    I was sort of wondering how/if these thoughts might impact your work as a trainer and school management type person.


    1. Thanks for the reply Mike, and for understanding what I was trying to do. I know I don’t have the answers and that I haven’t really responded to any of the points in the debate (something which i don’t feel particularly qualified to do, not having a huge amount of the background through SLA research etc or the benefit of 30+ years experience, as some people do) but I wanted to explore my own experiences of using a coursebook and use that to help me work out why I have the feelings I do about them. It turns out those feelings are conflicted because I have quite different experiences as a teacher and a learner. Maybe that’s what I think?
      And in answer to your final question, that’s something I’ve been grappling with a lot. I want to write another post about that, but I’m not entirely sure when I’ll get around to it. I think it’s important I know what my own thoughts/principles/opinions are related to coursebooks if I’m going to be foisting them (the thoughts, not the coursebooks) onto unsuspecting victims. I’ve been walking around with that question in my head for a couple of weeks now, and it turns out it probably came from your comment originally!
      Thanks for sharing the link – I’ve added it to my wishlist.


  4. Hi. I’m going to repeat Not Treading Grapes and say that the problem with coursebooks is that they are designed as a course, thus putting the expectation of consecutive systematic coverage into the learners’ heads.

    I do appreciate that you have mentioned that teachers do also need to teach the ‘gaps’ in coursebook coverage. However, I’d imagine that CPD regarding discourse-level teaching and phonology is almost nonexistent (please correct me if I’m wrong :)).

    Some thought experiments:

    Just because a syllabus is written, much like a lesson plan, does it need to be covered in its entirety. Does it need to cover the entire time of the course or could there be blanks left to be filled with remedial work?

    Would a photocopiable resource book that can be dipped into as and when required be a better support than a coursebook?

    The book by Tricia Hedge (title escapes me) has a good, accessible chapter on syllabus design and summarizes a few key viewpoints.




    1. Hi Marc,
      I think the Tricia Hedge book you’re referring to is probably Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. I’ll have to go back to the syllabus design chapter – I read it during my Delta, and I don’t think I was in any fit state to absorb new information by that stage in the course!
      As far as I know, CPD on phonology is improving (at least it is where I work), but I’m not so sure about discourse. I think that’s what you meant in your comment?
      With regard to your thought experiments:
      – I guess it depends on who the syllabus is written for, how closely they’re comparing it to what actually gets taught, and how accountable they expect the syllabus designer to be. The idea of it having blanks is certainly a good one, but some learners/HR managers etc might require a clear framework for that. I sometimes get around it by including ‘revision’ which is a good catch-all.
      – For two years I worked in a language school where we could choose whatever materials we wanted to. Everyone had their favourite resources books and coursebooks which they went back to again and again, sometimes in a very systematic beginning to end kind of way. A bigger emphasis on materials selection and design focussed on responding to learners’ needs during initial training and further CPD may help to counter this somewhat, but many of us are creatures of habit and would need pushing.
      Thanks for the comment,


  5. Thanks for the post, Sandy. I think it depends so much on the situation. I use coursebooks for specialised courses and my students are very happy with them. I am now learning Hebrew and we use two different course books but the lessons are 1:1 and my teacher picks out the bits she feels are helpful. I don’t know how we would do this without a course book to be honest, as it is necessary to see the printed letters and learn to write them (which are different than the printed ones). The book also introduces the letters bit by bit as it would be overwhelming to learn them all at one time. I would be curious in knowing how you did this with Russian – letters in stages or all at one time?


    1. Hi Marjorie,
      The point you make about seeing printed letters is very important to many learners, particularly if they have a different alphabet, although that could be provided by teacher-created materials too, particularly if they were made in advance. With Russian I learnt the alphabet using memrise over a couple of weeks of 5-10 minutes a day, then built on it by the exposure I got once I arrived in Sevastopol. I did something similar with Thai, but never got the hang of all of the letters, even after two months of a few minutes of memrise every day!
      For ESP it’s a whole other issue – here ready-made resources are key for non-specialists as they provide a lot of support for teachers who are new/inexperienced in the area they’re teaching. I taught Aviation English with a selection of materials given to me by my 121 students, but I had the back-up of coursebooks when we wanted variety which was very reassuring for me as I had no idea where to find supplementary materials at that time.
      Thanks for the comment.


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