An A-Z of Dysfunctional ELT: C is for…

#3: C is for Coursebooks

Sadly, there are coursebooks whose job seems to be to perpetuate or reinforce stereotypes, like the one below. Happily, that’s not the case in mainstream publishing. Instead we have generic pap – UHT coursebooks aimed at everyone and landing nowhere. via Ken Wilson on Facebook

ELT publisher seem to be a bit like political parties – all fighting for the same centre ground, coming up with policies (or products, in this case) which are designed to be inoffensive and look good. They end up appealing to no-one in particular and become the same as musak in supermarkets – something that has to suffered in order to get past the checkout.

Inside we have the same recycling of themes and and ideas. Students and teachers are pretty tired of the ENVIRONMENT, as they have grammared it and lexicalised it for years and years across multiple coursebooks and multiple publishers. Does this worthiness make the planet a better place? I suggest the opposite, we end up hating the bloody Amazon or whatever bit of the planet the book focusses on. And how many times does a teenager need to see Edinburgh castle or Stonehenge? And why insist on the exact same structure for every unit? That’s just makes it seem even more predictable and boring than it already is.

And what’s with those inane soap operas in those coursebooks aimed at mostly teens? You know the ones, the homogeneous group of friends who are trying to save the youth centre, or get a talent show organized, often with a bit of love interest or jealousy thrown in. With terrible acting. Starting every unit. EVERY unit!? Are we supposed to take them seriously? Are the students supposed to take them seriously? They can be a good source of poking fun at the writing and acting, but I’m not sure that’s their purpose. Where are the teens stuck in the middle of a messy divorce, those struggling with their sexuality, those fighting cancer, the bullying, or those who suffer the shame of having an outdated phone? There’s real drama in real life that real teenagers might recognise.

Talking of recordings, I’ve just been using a coursebook where the publisher was a bit lazy when it came to finding variety in voice talent, using the same voices in many disparate recording. One lovely distinct voice used again and again meant we ended the semester with a vision of a chicken-rearing, laughter therapist who was also an active amateur scientist.

Almost finally, please can we have more space, please, please, please? What’s the point of gapped sentences if there’s not enough space to write in? Why not have blank pages alternating with content for the students to write on?

There’s a lot more I could drivel on about, most of it no doubt wrong-headed and bad-tempered, but let’s end with two things: the prices we pay.

The average price of a mainstream coursebook in Brazil is between 130-180, and that’s not including the workbook or other additional items. That’s up to 25% of the minimum salary. Think about that for a minute.

The other price we pay is even heavier. The COURSEBOOK is an AUTHORITY. If we let it, it can take control away from us and leave us as mere automatons A teacher’s job is to bring the material to life, to make it relevant, to make it interesting, to personalise it,to lift it from the pages and into the dynamic of the classroom. It is, isn’t it? We do that for our students, and we owe it to ourselves to take the coursebook as a challenge – bend it, warp it, adapt it, and improve it.

Dennis Warren

I'm a teacher/trainer but I have a background in computational linguistics, and am interested in virtually everything. I hold a bachelor's degree in Linguistics and a master's degree in Cognitive Science.

1 Comment
  • Eduardo Trindade
    Posted at 11:49h, 02 junho Responder

    Hi Dennis,
    I’m sorry, but I must say you are only partially right in your post. Yes, some publishers tend to still rely on stereotypes, some still bring you clichés and stuff your students are tired of seeing, but I’m afraid that’s a “trade mark” of the most traditional publishers, those who are reluctant of making a move such as we at Richmond had with English ID, for example.
    Have you had a chance to at least look at it? Judging by how you see all coursebooks as evil things, I really think you should take a close look at English ID, so here’s the link to a video where Paul explain some of the concepts of the series
    We chose to come up with a different coursebook for a specific market (Latin America), instead of doing as the most traditional ones who try to sell (and actually manage to do so for a long time) the same material for ASIA and Latin America for example, just because these two continents prefer American English. Here’s the link ( to its catalogue page also, so you can analyze it a bit further and maybe change the speech to: WE HAVE TO ANALYZE AND SELECT OUR COURSEBOOKS BETTER, AS THERE ARE GOOD THINGS OUT THERE!
    As for the prices, I’m sorry, but there are books for every segment. For example, a book that’s intended for a primary school student, in a regular school won’t cost more than 80-90 reais (around 35-40 dollars), but if you’re talking about a Private Language School book, where students pay 300-400 reais A MONTH, for studying, why do you consider it expensive to pay 130 reais for a book that will last the whole term?? Is it so they can pay more to the school?? I’m sorry, but I really didn’t get this one. It costs millions of reais (at least around three if you’re an economic project manager) to produce a good international-standard coursebook, with vídeos, lots of different voices as you pointed out. So, maybe, you selected the wrong coursebook, as it seems to me you’re paying top price for a book that hasn’t got, to say little, a good variety of voices in the recordings. In English ID, for instance, we had more than 30 diferente actors, from more than 10 different countries in ALL LEVELS!
    Quality has got a price in every segment of our lives. Even in Language Schools, for example.
    Finally I’d like to reinforce, that just as you have good and bad Language Schools, you have good and bad publishing houses. But some publishers work hard on reasearch to bring schools, teachers and students the best materials for their own realities. And as a Marketing Manager who has already worked for other publishers, I can assure you without a doubt: That’s where Richmond stands, I’m pretty sure.
    Eduardo Trindade

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