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ESL Coursebooks: Blessing or Curse?

December 15, 2005

I always enjoy wading into the textbook debate.

Hi readers,

I know I’m on dangerous ground but here goes anyway. I have severe doubts about the textbook industry. One or two series of coursebooks have come to dominate ELT. I name no titles but I’m sure you know which ones I mean. Now I know that the structured approach, the varied activities, varied pace, attention to all language skills are excellent features of such coursebooks. But one fact remains true: a one-size-fits-all approach to ELT just doesn’t work. Take, for example, the Euro-centric culture that predominates in these courses. Why should that appeal to students in Korea or Japan?

I take a somewhat old-fashioned view that teachers should be in charge of lesson-planning for their classes. Okay, many less experienced teachers will need support from the DOS, but, ultimately, only the class teacher can discover and cater for the needs of a specific class. However, carefully produced the published coursebook may be, it was never written for a specific class with its unique mix of individuals.

I also believe in learning rather than teaching. By that I mean that teachers are not there to pour information into empty vessels but to help students discover their own learning styles and help them plan their own path to success. The coursebook has a predetermined path for everyone to follow.

Naturally the publishing industry makes a fortune out of these textbooks so the sales pressure is enormous. But I find that my heart sinks when I go into a school to be told, we have x number of levels and for each level we use such and such a book. For me teaching is a highly creative activity, involving a unique interaction between the teacher and the learners. Of course, the teacher needs resources, but I prefer versatile and varied resources that reflect real life rather then the ersatz world of the ELT coursebook. What do you think?

Bye for now.


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  1. Sonja Says:

    Patricia, you are absolutely correct. After teaching for years with assigned textbooks, I have found that the more I deviate from the books and do my own creative activities, the more I re-discover that passion for teaching. I also believe that the more excited you are about your own materials, the more interested your students will be. I had a class where I was able to create my own materials every day (granted, it was a lot of work until I got into the pattern), and it was a complete success. How do I define success? The only class that was sold out every term?

    Having grown up with home schooling, I have faith in learner autonomy. Of course, there is always a tricky balance there (I could see it as a potential situation for some teachers to put very little effort into preparation). But I do not believe in the more traditional "teacher" position. How have we learnt in life? Usually through experience, trial and error. Have we really "learnt" from one person? It only becomes a learning process when you are able to take what someone else tells you and apply it to your own life. Every student needs guidance, yes, but they need to personalise the information they have recieved.

    As a teacher in Korea, I have been continually frustrated with books that focus on a classroom setting in either England or America. There seems to be few books designed for monolingual classes in their native country. And if they developed one, certain things may not appeal to the Asian mindset. I often find disparity between what an American teacher wants to "teach" his or her Asian students, and what an Asian student really wants to learn. And then there's differences in each student's learning styles--some may be exceptional at writing, others at speaking. I had a special student who never did his homework (because he couldn't understand it) but when I placed him in front of an interactive vocabulary website, he excelled and, at his own pace, aced every question.

    Our idea of education needs to shift, and it is, although rather slowly. Ironically, I think that ESL teaching is more progressive than more "mainstream" education. It is still expected in many humanities and science university classes for professors to simply stand there as a fountainhead of knowledge. Walk into an ESL classroom, however, and instead of seeing students passively absorbing information, you will often see them speaking with each other, sharing their knowledge. We are making major strides in changing the way education is treated. However, we still have a long way to go, and de-emphasising set textbooks will be one major step towards a new and liberating form of pedagogy.

  1. PittsburghPete Says:

    So Patti would you say your teaching style then is student-centered or teacher-centered with all this dislike for course books and all? Do you like groupwork then instead? I still don't know what's better with my students always griping about that groupwork stuff everytime I assign it and saying that they are paying good money for me to teach them something and not have them all teach each other with their group activities. They say they want a teacher not a soccer coach.Go figure, I sure hate to lecture but what can I do?

  1. PDean Says:

    Pete, this is a complex issue. If your students come from a culture of passive learning in which teachers deliver information that students are supposed to absorb then it will require many shifts in perception before you can adopt a more learner-centered approach. You will need to undertake some learner training to help students discover their personal learning styles and gain confidence in working in new ways.

    For groupwork to succeed students have to understand its function and the teacher needs to be a constant source of support. Maybe try pairwork first. Help them to understand that language learning is esentially interactive: after all the goal is to be able to communicate with others.

    Help them set personal targets and move gradually towards more learner-centered approaches.

  1. Carol Says:

    As a teacher in Asia, I too, like Patti, find that few textbooks really cater to the needs of Chinese students. It can be frustrating to try to teach topics about 'driving', 'siblings' and other topics that few Chinese students have any experience with.

    At the same time, I do think that the key to using coursebooks is SAD (selecting, adapting, and deleting). Select what you think will be useful for your students. Adapt the exercises, stories, and discussion questions so that it will make sense for your students. Delete the sections of the coursebook that you find no value in.

    Most coursebooks are written by linguistic and/or educational experts who have had years of experience in the classroom. Furthermore, a good coursebook is usually tried and tested in classrooms before printing. If nothing else, an organized index in the beginning of the book is a good place to start planning a syllabus.

    I do not believe that anyone- even teachers in Europe or North America who have mixed classrooms- should use a textbook from the start to finish without adding any of their own materials.

    Coursebooks should be used as a guide. They might be SAD, but they can be useful.

  1. Carol Says:

    On another note, I would also like to see more textbooks made with the Asian student in mind.

    As an educational manager at two different private schools in Beijing, I've worked on a variety of projects in which I tried to adapt the original eurocentric textbooks and materials.

    Some changes were small, such as city names, people's names, and food names. Others were larger- and demanded more time, such as passages on driving experiences, siblings, etc.

    As we started to change the material, we did come across one debate. That is, isn't learning about English-speaking countries useful for students in Asia?

    What I've found so far is that students who are planning on living abroad can be motivated by the typical textbooks that are made with the European students in mind. However, students who simply want to learn English in order to get a better job as a tour guide, waitress in a western restaurant, or secretary in a foreign company in their own country, would rather learn about the English that will be useful for them.

    I'm curious about two things:

    1. What do you think about the debate?
    2. What specific changes to textbooks do you think would be useful for Asian students? (eg. driving, siblings)

  1. PDean Says:

    Carol, this topic has certainly sparked some interesting ideas. It would be gratifying to think that publisheers might take heed!

    I think regionally oriented textbooks would need to first contain sections with learner training to help students understand different approaches to teaching and learning so that they could explore their own preferred learning styles. I think the language bias should reflect specific aspects of usage, vocabulary and pronunciation that relate to such aspects as mother tongue interference and other issues that need special focus for certain groups. As for topics, they should be those that the students can relate to and would engage their interest. Of course, the topics need not be narrow but but it is always more effective to use material that students find relevant to their own situation.

  1. Justin Says:

    ESL Folks:
    After teaching languages for 8 years, both Spanish in the US and English in Spain, I have noticed distinctly different teacher types with different approaches to books, and to structure in general. In the end the important thing is that your students enjoy your class and that they learn the material they need to learn. Period. There are different teachers with different personalities and styles. Some teachers are by-the-book types who prefer instructions and drills and prepared activities. Some prefer to be more creative. Both teachers can be effective. I would dare to issue one big warning here, however, to teachers who plan on sticking around in the profession. I have noticed again and again noticed that many "creative" teachers tend to get a bit arrogant about their beloved creativity, and to look down their noses at those teachers who prefer a more conventional, methodical style. Be careful: don't get a reputation for being a "creativity snob" or youre going to step on a lot of toes out there.

  1. Sonja Says:

    Carol...just a note about Asian-centric coursebooks. I work in Korea, and have been looking for years for something...there are a FEW...and the market is really growing for Asians, because publishers are waking up and seeing that they need to do something about this huge potential.

    A couple to get you started...

    1. My favourite: "Synergy" series (1-4). Brand new and EXCELLENT for Asian young adults. Seems to appeal to Asians in general (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thai, Vietnamese, etc.) and I noticed it has a heavy emphasis on conversation, which I loved (Asians want to learn conversation more than any other skill). It appeals well to young Asians, with its fresh, relevant style...I could go on and on about this...it's a real breakthrough and I think that it will soon become a big hit in Asian universities and high schools. It's already a small hit at my university in Seoul, and it's only been out for about a year.

    "Identity" (written by 3? authors, one of them being a Japanese writer; the cover is of a Japanese girl, and many of the photos include Japanese people. However, because of its unique bias towards Japan, it seems to forget the "identity" of other Asians. I know that ESL is a big market in Japan, but it's just as big in China, Korea and Taiwan.

    Hope that helps!

    Incidentally, thanks for the tips on SAD...good commment.

  1. Carol Says:

    Thanks, Sonja, for the textbook recommendations. Are they available in Korea or did you purchase them back home?

    And just out of curiosity, where were they published?

    I'll try to find a copy. Thanks again!

    And Justin,

    I hear what you are saying about becoming a 'creative snob' and think you are right in putting out a word of caution. However, I would also say, that after working the in ESL field for 7 years as a teacher, teacher trainer, and a curriculum developer, I would encourage teachers to try some new things out once in a while. I've found that there are many teachers who get too comfortable with their routine, and that though their obvious knowledge and experience shines through in their classes, their ability to arouse interest in the students doesn't. I think that what every teacher can improve in some way, and that what we should all strive for is a good balance in our classrooms.

    There's nothing wrong with methodical and conventional teaching styles, just as long as convention doesn't result in yawns. After all, interest plays a big factor in learning.

  1. Smyth Says:

    Let's go back to the beginning -- or at least to the beginning of this blog: The ESL Coursebook: Blessing or Curse? Patricia, the author, has raised worty coursebook issues, but before we light our tourches and start the book burning (which believe me, with some of the textbooks out there, there's nothing more I'd rather do!), let's ask a different question...

    Instead of asking to use or not to use? let's focus on when to use and when not to use?, because as we all know, this debate could never be reduced into simple terms of good or evil. As we hunt and peck for those precious few materials appropriate to our varied ESL classrooms, I think we all come back to one basic truth: no single coursebook, no single personally created course plan and no single combination of the two could come close to functioning as the Holy Bible of any complete ESL curriculum.

    Therefore, when are coursebooks appropriate and when are they simply a glaring sign of the lack of resources, personnel, creativity or all three combined? And the answer is one that only each teacher can decide for each course he/she conducts.

    In short, there IS a time and place for (good) ESL textbooks. For one, they give students (not to mention teachers) a basic structure upon which they can build. Above Carol says it perfectly with SAD (selecting, adapting, deleting). If an ESL resource material (coursebook or otherwise) is of any substantial quality, then it will be one that can be rearranged and tailored to almost any teaching scenario, as opposed to one that preaches the one-size-fits-all motto that Patricia warns against. So next time we come to that all-too-familiar coursebook crossroads, view the ESL textbook (and the textbook industry, too!) as a tool -- a tool with which we can cut-and-paste until we've created appropriate and rewarding materials for all our unique ESL environments.

    On a more personal note, I have found that here in Sweden the "Market Leader" series (for ordering info in Sweden: www.englishbookcentre.se) is one such ESL coursebook that functions well as a compliment to my own and other in-house/external materials. The series provides for a basic classroom structure, but simultaneously possesses that oh-so-necessary cut-and-paste adaptability. Good luck with your own on-going ESL coursebook hunt!

    Cutting-and-pasting in Sweden,

  1. Jon Yeomans Says:

    I would have to agree with both Carol and Smyth in their comments. Carol got it spot on with her remark about S.A.D. - I've never heard that term before but it accurately describes my own approach to textbooks. Personally I find inventing materials one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job. Sure, it costs time and effort and plenty of teachers might not be able to do it all the time, but it's infinitely more satisfying when you invent your own materials and they work well. Plus, it goes towards teacher development. As my EFL instructor once put it, a teacher who does new things each year for three years is going to be more accomplished than a teacher who has repeated the same thing for 10 years.

    Nonetheless, there is a time and place for textbooks and they vary for every class and every teacher. I found in Japan a lot of students didn't think they were learning until they were reading from a textbook. This to me produces flat, robotic teaching, and in this case some "learner training" is necessary in trying to coax them into changing their habits (which are usually drilled into them from childhood).

    Having learnt a foreign language myself, I know it's definitely true that language learning is interactive and pair/group work is vital, however reluctant the students may be. I'm quite happy to argue with a student and insist that this way will benefit them more than routine textbook reading. If they don't trust me as a teacher then they're probably best off being in someone else's class, where they can plough through a textbook as much as they want.

    However it often seems to me that it is not always the students who are fixated with using textbooks - it's often the academy owners, who like to keep a control on their teachers by insisting that everything is done by the book. This may produce results after years and years, but it sure isn't much fun to study or teach.

    Finally, I can second Smyth's recommendation of the Market Leader books, which despite being more business-oriented (as I recall), managed to balance exercise and discussion topics very well.

  1. Paul Bartlett Says:

    Smyth raises an interesting point with regard to when to use and when not to use coursebooks. I am also an adherent of the ‘cut-and-paste’ method. If we try and plan everything from scratch then there is an element of reinventing the wheel - coursebooks do contain some material that is of use but, as Carol says, we need to keep in mind the principles of SAD.

    When I started out in teaching I thought that I would be able to build up a bank of materials which I would be able to use over and over again, but I soon discovered that no two classes are ever the same. This is why I agree with Patricia when she states that teaching is essentially a creative process. For me it is a process of finding and adapting materials for use with individual classes. I also understand the teacher who needs the reassurance of the coursebook. However, I would try and get away from the mechanical use of coursebooks. The coursebook can provide a framework on which to base a series of lessons, but it will not be a panacea. With the rapid growth of online resources it has never been easier to supplement coursebooks and tailor material to the needs of the individual class. I would encourage teachers to become more selective and to try and create the conditions for their students to learn.

    Some of the major players in ESL are beginning to realize the limitations of the global coursebook and are investing in local coursebook development projects, such as Macmillan with their ‘English Matters’ series in Uzbekistan. The content of these books has more of a local flavor but they still can’t escape what Gray (2002) sees as the narrow, sanitized, affluent world of the global coursebook. The content remains ‘aspirational’ and is tilted towards a Western lifestyle that students in many parts of the world find alien and often do not aspire to. (For more on the debate surrounding the global coursebook see Gray, J. (2002). The global coursebook in English Language Teaching in Block, D. and Cameron, D. (eds.). (2002). Globalization and Language Teaching. London: Routledge, pp. 151-167.)

    I think that the challenge facing teachers is to move away from over-reliance on one set coursebook and to move towards a wide-ranging use of material that better suits the needs and background of the class.

  1. jim hollerin Says:

    Textbooks are great as long as you know how to use them.

    Students in most cases are not all of the same level of intelligence...some quick learners, some slow and some extremely slow.

    Think of it this way:

    You may have to show the school management that you are using the textbook. By all means do so.

    But use it as you would 2 slices of bread! The bread is something you need to make a sandwich. But what you put inside that sandwich is up to you.

    The ingredients of a great lesson are an all important asset to teaching, and with a little dash of creativity, some appropriate dressing and a great serving of fun in between textbook leaves, you will instill in your students an appetite to learn English...and learn it well.

  1. AMB Says:

    Hip hip hooray!
    You made my day.
    More posts like that
    and I'll come back.
    Short, to the point
    and spoken with truth,
    enough of the blathering
    let's get to the root:
    throw out the coursebooks,
    they're a pain in the butt
    give me a grammar
    I'll teach the stuff!
    Every learner has her own path
    it's the teacher's job
    to give her a bath
    in words and diction
    phrases and rhythm
    ....da da da da da
    Someone finish it....PLEASE!


  1. Risan Says:

    Textbook is needed by the students, but for teachers, it is not good enough to depend on a certain textbook.HE needs another source book or the teaching won't be improved. so, textbook, might only be a homework for the students or homework when the teacher is lazy enough to give the student specific assignement out of th etextbook. another fortune in having a certain textbook is that the students will know the direction that they'll reach.... So textbook is good but not enough.

  1. Evangelina C. Says:

    I'm really quite glad to have found this textbook debate on the internet. I'm actually working on my thesis on "textbook selection, use and adaptation". I couldn't agree more with what all of you have said. Here in Argentina, and mainly in public schools, it's almost impossible for teachers to develop their own teaching materials due to lack of time Most teachers work in three or four schools at the same time and have no time left to design teaching materials. Nevertheless, it's almost inevitable not to adapt materials since they do not apply to our teaching-learning situations...we have the most varied and "special" class environments and classes even at the same school. I also believe that the idea of adapting textbooks gives your teaching that uniqueness that no author, no textbook, no material can give to your class. I know, and I've proved that my students take a great pleasure in having a coursebook, this makes them feel more secure about their learning; but, at the same time, they feel great when I make them close their books and create an activity that is very related to their own experiences (their own cities, their families, the Argentinian situation, etc.)they know and enjoy this because they percieve that this attitude cannot, by any means, appear in the coursebook, because it doesn't know them, the author doesn't know what their likes, dislikes and lives are like. that's what I'm trying to do with my thesis, I'm trying to give some pieces of advice to my collegues in my working environment about the selection, use and of course, inevitable adaptation of textbooks.

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