Is There a Need for Coursebooks in ELT?

Coursebooks are the standard in ESL and EFL classrooms across the world. As a teacher, do they light your fire, or do you think they should they be used to start one?

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The use of course books for teaching English is a rather divisive issue. Some school insist upon their use while other educational organisations insist that teachers utilise only their wits and the students in front of them as the means to teach. Dogme language teaching famously advocated for ‘teaching without published textbooks and focusing instead on conversational communication among learners and teacher‘. And yet, for someone who is new to ELT, or simply for a school or teacher who want to work from a tried-and-tested text book, they can offer guidance, inspiration, and a ready-made solution to the problem of what and how to teach. 

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It is worth thinking about what the purpose of learning materials is in the classroom, or to the independent learner. It is important to consider that learning materials need to be used, interpreted, and delivered. Anything we read or use to teach or learn exists and works only in the way we use it and interact with it. A creative and imaginative teacher can make the best of bad resources, just as easily as a lesser teacher can make good resources dull or impenetrable.

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Coursebooks sell by the millions per year and are informed by the aggregated knowledge and experience of the whole history of teaching language and the professionals who work in the field. They provide the structure and cohesion that many students and teachers crave. Nowadays, they employ a multimedia approach, are colourful, and the content is more relevant than it was. Coursebooks can be relied on to provide a level-appropriate syllabus which delineate a clear route from one level to another.

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Except, levels only exist in the abstract. All our learners are individuals with different skills, strengths, learning preferences, histories, and personalities. The most severe, and arguably the most valid criticism we can cast on a complete reliance on a text book for teaching is that they assume all English learners in the world are the same. There are currently over 1,000,000,000 people learning English. As soon as we think of these 1 billion individuals, from every corner of the Earth as one homogeneous group with one goal and one approach we have clearly made a wrong turn.

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The truth is that coursebooks need to be as generic as possible so that they can sell as many units as possible. In other words, it is in the interest of a publisher to consider these learners as all the same, and this often makes for bland content that is difficult to relate to. If English-language teaching and education has learnt one thing over the last few decades it is that to be successful we need to start from the learner and build out, not imposing prescriptive content. We have learnt that learner-produced content increases engagement and therefore increases learning. Added to this, all too often, schools, teachers, and students mistake completing exercises in a book with learning a language. Undoubtedly doing exercises helps some learners learn, but we have come to accept that learning is best consdiered as and judged by doing.

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Perhaps it is wise, however, not to be too dismissive of coursebooks. They have aided countless people to reach their learning objectives and have served a necessary function for a long time. It is easy to see, though, that their time might be up. As more and more people have access to often free online resources and are more comfortable and confident about treading an independent learning route, there is seemingly less call for prescriptive learning resources. Perhaps their challenge is, as it is ours as language teachersto adapt to the realm of free content and ease of connection between learners and the learner and teacher that we find ourselves in today.  

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The best coursebooks stimulate authentic interaction and provide a clear syllabus as well as fulfilling an emotional need for structure and cohesion. Like the gods of yesteryear — they still have a place in today’s world if we trust and believe in them but as Lindsay Clandfield said, if we need to use coursebooks and if we are going to keep making them, ‘make better ones’.


Read about The Future of English-language Teaching and Learning



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