My Coursebook and Me

Guatemala City

My first ELT home – Guatemala City by aboutguatemala

Having been thrown back into using a coursebook recently, I’ve found myself doing a fair bit of thinking about my own relationship with English teaching tomes recently. If you’ll forgive a little self-indulgence, it requires sharing a little of my “ELT Story”. There is a point here though, I think…

I (like many people reading this, I suspect) did not enter the English teaching profession with a career in mind. Finding myself out of a job in the Autumn of 2008, with the economy apparently collapsing around my ears, I decided that I might exercise my grey cells a little more by learning a second language than by not buying advertising for investment banks. A friend mentioned another friend with a language school in Guatemala City, and a few emails later I had a job for the new year.

In the time before I left England I took a woefully inadequate 40 hour online TEFL course, but realising (correctly) that it might be wise to actually see the inside of a classroom before starting my job, I called a friend at Oxford’s wonderful Kheiron School of English (that’s £10 please Poppy) who kindly agreed to let me do some work experience there. It was actually a great success too. I was given a book and a classroom of students and dived in. We started talking about the topic in the book, and then diverted into talking about each other. This discussion lasted the rest of the class and featured a lot of recasting, correcting and new language generated. In fact, it looked an awful lot like a do-, ahem, unplugged lesson. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, and while I’m not sure how much the students learnt, they certainly had a lot of exposure to natural language.

On arrival in Guatemala, I found myself similarly thrust blinking into a classroom clutching a textbook (Headway, and an old one at that). Having more time to actually read it over the course of a few weeks, I found that no matter what the content of the chapter, the really important thing was the grammar (and usually the verb tense), and this became over time, all pervasive. This reached its zenith/nadir when having to drastically reduce the amount of content to fit the rest of the book into the time remaining, I went through and struck out everything except the grammar exercises!

The question I wanted to ask when I had the idea for this post was whether the coursebook is a symptom of the presence of completely untrained people within ELT, not aimed at readers of this blog of course. I know they are there though, because I was one, and I see many of them in Korea. Are coursebooks designed to support people with little to no experience, rather than teachers with more training and experience? Coursebooks these days seem to require very little from the teacher – in something like Face2Face the lesson is more or less done for you. I’d suggest that some teacher suspicion of modern coursebooks is that they just make it so boring for you as a teacher if you follow them.

I did however realize that it was perhaps my lack of training or experience that allowed me to approach my work experience in the way that I did. More questions arise – does the coursebook strangle a natural way to teach? For that matter, does ELT pre- and in-service training (I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have taught like that had I done a CELTA in advance) strangle teachers from their natural inclination? Was (am) I just a raving weirdo with no idea what he was (is) doing?

Before I get too into coursebook bashing, I feel like I should offer an alternative view as well. It’s easy to forget that coursebook authors are still ELT professionals, with reams of qualifications and aeons of classroom experience, and they are out to facilitate learning and help us teachers. This semester I’ve been treading a path fairly far away from the book, only lifting themes and grammar functions (sigh) from it, and trying to work them into a natural conversational framework. On Monday it all went wrong – we started by doing a lot of discussion, followed by a live listening, followed by my desperately trying to wrench the language back around to what we were supposed to be learning. Basically we wound up with so much language that the students and I were completely swamped, and I don’t think anyone really took much away from it.

Sitting down to do some reflection in the evening, I realized I’d gone about it entirely the wrong way around, and it would have been much more sensible to introduce the discrete items in context first, work on them a little before extending out into a more open discussion where they could be used. Having had this thought, I glanced at the book, which was laid out in exactly that way. Sometimes, only sometimes, I don’t know best 🙂



9 responses to “My Coursebook and Me

  1. Hi Alex, just stumbled upon your blog thanks to @JosetteLB and glad I did. I would definitely agree that while I prefer not to use a coursebook, it can help inexperienced teachers looking for a crutch (although not all new teachers need one of course!).

    As you mentioned, something like face2face in particular really does have completely self-contained lessons. The problem with this I find is that it makes it harder to adapt or only use part of the coursebook lesson as everything is guided discovery and the context is completely intertwined with the language focus and practice. I’ve observed a lot of teachers then either just sticking to the book or having disjointed lessons when they try to mix and match. If there was an ideal solution we wouldn’t be blogging I suppose…

    • Hi Ben,

      Thanks very much for looking, commenting and following.

      I very much agree with your comments, and I think it’s perhaps something that schools have to bear in mind when selecting coursebooks – will the teacher be bored out of their mind teaching it?

  2. Chris wilson

    hey Alex,
    it’s funny I remember in my first year really looking down on coursebooks for introducing phrasal verbs out of contexts etc and then as I was doing more professional development realised that it was based on a different methodology.
    suddenly I realised I’d adapted some material pretty badly 😦
    All part of learning I guess.

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the comment.

      Yeah, I definitely wanted to show that coursebooks aren’t all bad. As with all things, it’s just a case of keeping things more or less balanced.


  3. I recently did a little research by looking at blurbs on the back of coursebooks and concluded that more recent coursebooks do seem to be more aimed at making things as easy as possible for the teacher, rather than espousing a particular methodology.
    In a piece of shameless self promotion, anyone interested could see my brainshark presentation on this
    I hadn’t really thought fully though about the implications of this making it easier for teachers wanting to adapt, select etc, but I can see how having very integrated materials would actually make it harder. Thoughtprovoking, thank you.

    • Hi Rachael,

      Thanks for your comments again. It’s always enlightening to hear your opinion.

      As a coursebook writer, do you have a certain kind of teacher in mind when writing, and if so, who is that teacher?

      I don’t really see the logic in trying to do everything for the teacher. If this happens, what’s the point in teacher training, professional development etc? All you need is someone to watch over the students while they do everything.

      I think most experienced (and inexperienced) teachers have to adapt the textbook at some point, either from a desire to make the material suit the class better, or from external pressures such as time. You’re very right to say that a fully integrated approach makes this very different.

      Thanks again for dropping by. This is turning into a far more interesting discussion than I imagined when I wrote this.


  4. Hi Alex,

    I don’t think that coursebook writers necessarily set out to make the material ‘foolproof’, but I have noticed that this seems to be seen as a selling point these days (authors don’t usually write the blurbs). THis interests me, because it seems to be a move away from trying to sell the methodology of the coursebook.
    Speaking personally, I like to write more integrated materials, because I am a big believer in language coming out of a context, so I would typically pull language out of a text (or get ss to do it) and then provide hopefully quite personalised practice in a similar context. Methodologically this sits well with me, so I guess my ideal teacher is someone who likes to work in a similar sort of way.
    I don’t think this necessarily means that you can’t mix it all up- thinking about Thornbury and Slade’s triangle, for example, there are always different possibilities. As a teacher, I would be quite happy to sometimes start with practice, then evaluate/look at a model etc. However, it is true that if all the examples come from a text, you can’t then easily do the practice without having done the reading or listening first as the examples won’t make much sense.
    In this way the more ‘old-fashioned’ books were probably more flexible- if you were willing and able to come up with your own contexts.
    As you suggest, I think it’s a question of balance. A decent coursebook can provide a good framework within which you can change the recipe to suit, whereas (I think) never using a coursebook may just be making life unnecessarily hard for yourself.
    But I definitely agree that all teachers (experienced and less experienced) should be able to do more than follow a recipe, otherwise it’s more like pinging something in the microwave than actually cooking.. (are we coming back to Grammar McNuggets here?!)

  5. Again, thanks for your input Rachael. I agree with most of what you said. As a teacher I’m definitely a fan of integration – I think most of the best lessons I have are where everything is integrated and we slowly build through a lesson, so I understand completely where you come from in your writing process. Also your point about the old fashioned textbooks rings true – as much as I didn’t like Headway, I did find that I could use it to my own ends much better (even if that was only making my poor students slave over endless grammar exercises).

    I’m not really anti-coursebook either – in fact I very much value having some kind of framework to work within. To extend your cooking analogy a little further, it’s always nice to be able to tweak a dish to your own tastes though (Not sure this is possible with McNuggets of any kind).

  6. Pingback: #KELTChat Summary – 15th April 2012: Integrating Personal and Institutional Teaching Beliefs | #KELTChat

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