In defence of coursebooks

Good morning. My name’s Damian and I like coursebooks. I’ve liked them for about 20 years now.

Coursebooks are a funny beast in our profession. They seem to take a lot of flack from various sectors of the industry, yet they are – and continue to be – all pervasive. Whatever your connection with ELT, every one of us has at least used a major coursebook in the past, and I would venture as far as to say that all of us owe at least one good teaching idea to a coursebook.

So why, then, do they create such negative feeling? There are, of course, some valid reasons why people try not to rely on them too much in class, but that doesn’t mean they should be outlawed as a ‘necessary’ evil. In this post I’d like to set out my defence against some of the most common charges against them.

1 The syllabus continues to be structural.

Grammar is a common organising principle for almost all coursebooks, yes. But it’s not the only one. If you open the contents pages of any coursebook you will see a number of columns indicating the inclusion of different aspects of language in each unit, both skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking) and systems (grammar, lexis, pronunciation). To say that coursebooks follow a structural syllabus simply isn’t true. A topic-based, multi-faceted syllabus is a much more accurate picture.  Having said this, there are some coursebooks which tend towards a certain methodology such as TBL or favour certain aspects of language such as lexis (I’m not mentioning any names here). But you’d be hard pressed to find a modern coursebook which focuses solely on grammar as its organising principle these days.

2 Texts are inauthentic and don’t sound natural.

At low levels, it’s easy to see these. Texts are written in order to introduce a specific, simple language point in context, and as a result don’t sound very natural. But what’s the alternative? Play an authentic radio interview to an elementary group, and ask them to pick out examples of polite requests? I could see many learners becoming completely overwhelmed at such a task.

It’s worth also remembering that a lot of the criticisms of coursebooks are often directed (not necessarily intentionally) at old, outdated books. Developments in coursebooks over the last 5-10 years have been phenomenal. Higher level audio scripts are now often recorded as ‘semi-authentic’. This means that the actors are put in a studio and given subjects to discuss, but given the freedom to do so naturally. The result is a useful balance between the need to be comprehensible and authenticity.




Mariquita Farms Jan Delivery by Everett Harper  | CC BY-SA 2.0

PARSNIP is an acronym which stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms and Pork. Basically, a list of topics which should be avoided in coursebooks so as not to cause offence. The charge against them therefore is that the topics covered are seen as too safe and unwilling to court controversy, which makes for bland, uninteresting texts. Coursebooks are huge enterprises, and take years of planning, research, writing, editing, design, proofing and trialling. It’s an expensive venture which needs to reach a wide enough market in order to recuperate the costs, remunerate those who contribute towards them and make a profit in order to be viable. But the argument doesn’t stop there.

What is the benefit, indeed the purpose of all this time and energy invested into coursebooks?


The modern coursebook and its repertoire of accompanying materials (resource books, videos, apps, etc.) constitutes high quality material that you can literally (and I’m not necessarily saying you should) lift up and take into a classroom in order to successfully teach an interesting lesson based on sound methodological principles. I would have to say that some of ‘my’ best teaching ideas have come from or been inspired by coursebooks.

4 The topics aren’t personalised.

Given the need to reach a wide market outlined above, it’s unlikely that each text or listening script will be designed with each specific learner in mind. However, they are written so as to have as wide an appeal as possible. The job of the teacher then is to supplement these topics and texts in order to build a bridge towards the individual learners, and provide a human ‘face’ to learning. A truly noble profession.

Another point worth making here is that there is a growing trend now towards publishing coursebooks aimed at national markets, more often aimed at state school syllabuses than the EFL market. This started as big titles being repackaged and repurposed towards domestic markets, but there are now a growing number of courses which are designed from start to finish with a specific market in mind. This allows for some of the best of both worlds: the resources and backing of a major publisher, as well as tailoring materials toward the specific needs of a particular culture.

5 The grammar isn’t accurate

A lot has been made of the inaccurate grammar rules often presented in coursebooks, especially at lower levels. Scott Thornbury even uses the term ‘Grammar McNuggets‘ to describe the convenient rules described to learners (e.g. some for positive statements, and any for negatives and questions), but which inevitably turnout to be inaccurate. However, I strongly believe there is a place for these ‘nuggets’ at lower levels, They’re like stabilisers on your first bike which help you to become accustomed to the language and find your way in it.


Full Face by KarlOnSea | CC BY 2.0

Perhaps ‘baby food’ is a better term for these ‘rules’ which exist at lower levels. You wouldn’t give a baby prime steak – they just can’t digest it. Instead you give them easily digestible food in liquid form, build their strength and allow them to grow until they are able to fully appreciate the steak (or nutloaf, sorry vegetarians). Ironically though, despite perhaps being more accurate, ‘baby food’ doesn’t have the catchy ring to it that ‘Grammar McNuggets’ does, allowing it to be easily packaged and offered as a convenient label.

There is so much more I could say in defence of coursebooks (perhaps another post?), but I’ve reached the limits of what is possible to say in one post here. If there are any other arguments, either for or against coursebooks, which you’d like to share, please let me know in the comments below.

Further reading

Lindsay Clandfield’s guest post on Scott Thornbury’s comprehensive A-Z of ELT blog neatly summarises the main arguments for and against coursebooks.

Lewis Lansford’s post on the Cambridge English blog paints another well-balance picture, based on discussions with teachers.

Stephen Greene
Previous Post
Learning a Language is a lot Like Running a Marathon
Next Post
ADHD students learning English – part 2
Damian Willians

I'm an ELT author/writer and have written several books and digital material for various publishers (Amazon author page - I'm also a member of the committee for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group (MaWSIG). After living and working in Brazil for ten years, I'm now based in London.

15 49.0138 8.38624 1 0 4000 1 300 0